Not Exactly Buddhist
“Not Exactly Buddhist” by Harper Kaufman
One of our lecturers, Le Dinh Bich, wrote: “the table of culture stands on four legs: material, social, mental, and spiritual.” As we dive into southern Vietnam hoping to absorb as much cultural understanding as possible, I find we do quite well with our material, social, and intellectual interactions. As a Religious Studies major, I an interested in developing the fourth, spiritual leg. To construct it, I intended to write on Buddhism in Vietnam, but I quickly discovered that Vietnamese spiritual beliefs are not as easily categorized or identified as I had hoped.
Historically, Vietnam has been a Buddhist country since the first or second century. With Chinese, Khmer, and Indian influences, manifestations of Buddhism in Vietnam are as multifaceted as the country’s history. The southern tradition, Theravada Buddhism and the northern sect, Mahayana Buddhism, can both be found fusing with Taoist and Confucianist influences. To complicate the picture further, 8% of the population subscribes to Catholicism since the missionaries introduced the faith in the 16th century. Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism each have small followings as well. Perhaps as a response to the multitude of traditions living under one roof, Vietnam created its own fascinating syncretic tradition. The result was Cao Daism: a fusion of Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, Vietnamese spirituality, Confucianism, and even a dash of secular enlightenment to top it off.
I have observed that most religious practices in Vietnam have merged to some extent with other traditions. For example there is no one national prototype of pagoda (Buddhist temple). Instead you can see architectural and decorative styles that are as widely diverse as the religious influences on the country. I have been lucky enough to visit five separate pagodas, each as unique as the next. As a group we visited a Khmer temple and a monastery compound. At both, we were able to talk to monks in training who answered all of our questions until they had to excuse themselves to eat.
My host sister, Phuong Uyen, took Hailey and me to her family’s pagoda in Can Tho. The Chinese influence was immediately apparent. Chinese characters decorated the pillars, colorful Bonsai trees were painted on the windows, and I later read the whole building was designed to resemble the Chinese character for Nation. The central structure of the temple was a red faced, black bearded deity dressed in Blue imperial robes. I later learned this was Kuan-Kung Deity who symbolizes benevolence, civility, intellect and trustworthiness. When I asked Phuong Uyen about her family’s religious rituals, she responded that they “are not exactly Buddhist,” yet they visit this pagoda every full and new moon for traditional ceremonies as well as on Tet holiday (Vietnamese New Year).
Her hesitation to identify as Buddhist was an allusion to her family’s deeper belief in Vietnamese ancestral worship, which dates back to a time before Buddhism or Confucianism. The women in Uyen’s family pray and offer incense daily to the ancestral altar standing in their home. One of our TAs, Dua, told me altars (either dedicated to ancestors, the gods, or occasionally both) are typical of most Southern Vietnamese homes.
As I had hoped, there are many ways the religious traditions of Vietnam can lend themselves to the country’s necessary response to climate change effects. In every pagoda one is asked to take shoes off before entering. It is this type of respect and cleanliness that people must apply to our earth. When Dua performed a ritual, which disclosed her fortune for the year, she told me it was not good, but she will just need to be careful. With the gloomy predictions climate scientist have for Vietnam, it is this attitude of hopeful caution with which the country must preceed. As we were kindly explained the story of the Buddha’s life at the Bat Pagoda in Soc Trang, I was reminded enlightenment came as Buddha discovered the middle path. Just as Buddha balanced the lifestyles of asceticism and indulgence, Vietnam must learn how to combine growth and prosperity with sustainability and environmental protection. And finally, just as Vietnam has learned to harmonize spiritual beliefs from around the globe into its own unique blend, I hope Vietnam finds a way to embrace adaptation techniques and mitigation efforts without sacrificing its rich and beautiful culture.