18
Jun
13

Continuity and Change

You know what I love about learning? About being a professor? About travceling to different places? I get to challenge all my preconceived notions and assumptrions, some of which do not disappear when you get off the plane.  Yesterday I made a statement about the continuity of ancestor worship and the persistence of Buddhism in Vietnam.  That was correct, but my assumption was that ancestor worship was a private practice and that the government in the post 1975 period, and perhaps in the north from 1945, viewed religion in the same way the Chinese did after Mao’s revolution, and particularly at the end of the Cultural Revolution; in other words I thought Vietnamese communism was much closer to the Chinese version than it really was.   Thus, I was expecting there to be very limited religious expression and therefore I was rather surprised at the openness of worship at various temples we saw in downtown Hanoi. 

The reality is that my assumption was wrong.  Buddhism was about 80% of the population since the 1800s when the French came and converted about 15% of the population to Catholicism- these numbers have remained remarkably consistent over the years. So what I learned today is just how powerful Buddhist religion is in Vietnam.  Today we went to the temples at Chua Huong, or as it is known in Vietnam, the Purple Pagoda.  There you will find several temples to honor Buddha or Quan Am, the mercy goddess.  In Vietnam, between roughly February, just after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and April, millions of Vietnamese make a pilgrimage up the Yen river and then up a long, winding trail, about three miles (or you can take a ski lift, like I did!!) that leads up a mountain to a cave where the temple is carved out of the mountain and recedes into a cave. People from all over the country come and make offerings so that in the new year they will have ‘good luck,’ health, prosperity, and for some women who make the pilgrimage specifically for the shrine to Quan Am, fertility. Many also make offerings to her because from Quan Am they receive forgiveness and she, as the goddess of mercy can restore relationships and bring emotional and spiritual health to those who have strayed from the path to enlightenment. The site is quite awesome and the numbers of Vietnamese that make the pilgrimage speaks to the veracity of Buddhism in the culture. 

ImageThus, the continuity of Buddhism in the culture is the ability of the Vietnamese to bend and shape the religion to thrive even under various governmental, environmental and political changes.  In other words, my conclusion of the veracity of the village culture, ancestor worship and Buddhism to persist regardless of war, communism or globalization is correct and the assumption that, like China, religion was discouraged and persecuted by the Vietnamese government was incorrect. 

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1 Response to “Continuity and Change”


  1. June 20, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, Vince, for the insightful post! I love how when traveling, we all become “students” again, and this is a role I’m very comfortable in. I am curious about the religious “hybridities” that exist in connection with the powerful political and social forces you describe. I suppose this is part of the bending and shaping you mention.


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