Scholars argue whether this is a sect of Buddhism or one which simply developed from its beliefs. Huynh Phu So lived in the Mekong delta and founded the movement in 1939 after being cured of illness. He was known as the “mad monk” by the French but is believed to have about 1.5 million followers. His teachings espouse a simple form of worship that eliminates the need for intermediaries. The group was active politically and militarily, which resulted in its leader being put to death and the sect being banned.
There are few pure Taoists living in the country but the ideas have permeated into the superstitions and beliefs of the people. Taoism originated in China and extols virtue, non-violence, compassion and humility. It has blended with old animistic beliefs to explain the mystical connections between heaven and earthly objects, and how these may influence a person through magic.
Rather than being a full-fledged religion, this is more a code for daily living. Confucius (Khong Tu), a Chinese born in 55 B.C., drew up a code of ethics to guide people in the areas of family, society and state. A person’s class is decided by nature (or heaven) but once he is born, his actions determine his destiny. Confucianism places strong emphasis on duty, courtesy and virtue. It reinforces the respect given to teachers and elders and acts to strengthen family ties, heavily influencing daily social interactions.
Because a person’s actions determine his future, much emphasis is placed on education. Schooling is widely available and learning is prized not only as a path to virtue, but also because it will increase a person’s social status and power. Vietnam’s high literacy rates are partly due to Confucianist traditions. Poetry is enjoyed by many, with friends composing short pieces for each other.
This is very important in the lives of the Vietnamese, no matter which religion they purport to follow. Its origins stem from before any of the great religions arrived in the country, and elements are now blended with Buddhism and Confucianism. The Vietnamese have very strong famjly bonds that include the extended family and even the deceased. After a person dies, it is believed that his soul lives on to watch over and protect his descendants. The soul of the dead requires love and attention, say those who practise ancestral worship. Only then will the deceased be able to live on with the family, bless the members and even warn of impending disasters through dreams. If the soul is neglected, however, it becomes lost and lonely and has to wander around in the Kingdom of the Dead.
On the anniversary of a person’s death, ceremonies are held in his memory. He is also remembered during the numerous lunar festivals and his soul is consulted during any important occurrence in the family—such as a birth, wedding or sickness—as if he were still alive. This can be done through the family altar. To maintain their connec-tion with their ancestors, people often have a plot of family land which houses the ancestral burial grounds.
The land gives a sense of security and stability. The people live off the land and it provides a sacred bond between the present and past. The income from the ancestral land is used to support the ancestors and a male descendant is given the responsibility of ensuring that proper care is taken of it. So many families that have moved from the rural areas to the city have left a brother or son behind to care for the ancestors. Children are essential as they must care for the ancestors but the birth of a son is of additional importance as it is required that a male descendant look after the dead and oversee the worship of his ancestors. According to custom, a daughter or female descendant cannot do this. Evidence of such ancestral worship can also be seen in most pagodas, where there may be rows of old photographs of deceased people.
Because of the mass movements that occurred as Catholics moved south after North Vietnam came under communist rule in 1954, many of these ancestral links were destroyed. More recently, the push towards urbanisation has meant that a senior male family member must be left behind to look after the ancestral land and ensure that it stays in the family, while the others migrate to the city to seek their fortune. The observance of ancestral worship is so strong that most Catholics have a shrine for the dead in their house and even pray to it in what is called the Communion of Saints.
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