Vietnamese Religion

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VIETNAMESE RELIGION . Like the whole complex of Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese religion has long been presented as a pure copy of the Chinese model. Trained for the most part in the discipline of Chinese studies and associating mostly with the literati class and the townspeople, scholars have been constantly confronted by their interlocutors with the Chinese ideal, notably in the domains of moral and aesthetic norms, and they have gauged the value of a rite or particular behavior according to its degree of conformity with the rules laid down by the Han Chinese texts.

Historically, the Red River Delta, cradle of Vietnamese civilization, was occupied by the Han for more than a thousand years. Moreover, the Middle Kingdom, as highly centralizing as the Roman Empire, had an especially effective organization wherein each parcel of conquered territory was put under absolute control and strict surveillance militarily, administratively, and ideologically. Chinese writing served as a unifying and assimilating instrument of the first order. Nonetheless, Dongsonian civilization, which flourished in this region before its destruction by the Han invasions, must have possessed a certain vigor, for despite the very long coercive occupation that followed it, the Vietnamese preserved their language and a part of their culture, finally succeeding in the tenth century of the common era after numerous revolts in liberating themselves from their deeply implanted Chinese occupants. Paradoxically, the consolidation for independence reinforced the prestige of the Chinese model among the literati. Their influence in this regard even resulted in the promulgation in 1812 by Emperor Gialong, who had recently reunified the country, of a new code that was nothing more than a translation of a Manchu dynasty treaty, despite the fact that for more than three centuries, the Vietnamese had a set of original laws known as the Lê Code.

Yet, in a population that was more than 90 percent rural, ideology directly concerned only a relatively small number of people, those who wielded power and prestige. The ideals and beliefs they held touched but superficially the great masses, who remained bound to a set of rules transmitted orally and put to the test through daily observance. That the Vietnamese spoke a language belonging to a different family (Austroasiatic rather than Sino-Tibetan) was a considerable asset for the preservation of these rules. In addition, the development in the tenth century of the chu nôm, a demotic system of writing based on Chinese graphs, allowed for a closer contact between this popular culture and the literati class. This open attitude toward national beliefs and practices was reinforced with the extension of the quôc ngu, the romanized system of writing introduced in the seventeenth century by Alexandre de Rhodes. This system acquired its full acceptance, however, only in the nineteenth century and did not become universal until the twentieth century.

In the religious sphere, this situation created a coexistence, on the one hand, of a Chinese model followed strictly by the most erudite or those instructed in the faith, and on the other, of popular cults observed by the great mass of people. Between the two there evolved a phenomenon of osmosis leading to a syncretism with multiple nuances.

The expansion southward along the entire length of the Vietnamese territory added further to this diversification of the religion by the absorption, on the small coastal plains, of the Chams, whose religious affiliation was divided between Brahmanism and Islam, and on the Mekong Delta, of the Khmer adherents to Theravāda Buddhism. These three religions, with that of the Proto-Indo-Chinese on which they were grafted, effected a syncretism probably more intimately overlapping than was the Triple Religion (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) of the Vietnamese with these same Proto-Indo-Chinese foundations. Even at its source, at the edge of the Red River Delta, mention must be made, albeit in passing, of the Tai influence on the beliefs and practices not only of the Muong, who speak archaic Vietnamese, but also on those of the Vietnamese, properly speaking, who inhabit the villages of the foothills.

The twenty-year separation between the northern and southern halves of the country introduced further variations in the religions. A great number of Catholics from the North took refuge in the South in 1954, where their political weight allowed them to extend their influence. It should not be forgotten that outside of the Philippines, where the majority of the population is Catholic, Vietnam has the strongest Christian minority in Asia.

Whatever the case may be, this article examines Vietnamese religion before the entry of the country into its Marxist period, focusing not on the Chinese model, already treated elsewhere, but rather on those aspects that touch directly on Vietnamese religion.

On the level of the individual, a fundamental concept is that of souls or vital principles. This concept governs as many aspects of daily conduct as it does basic rituals such as funeral rites or ancestor worship. In this domain, Chinese influence predominates. One encounters the scholarly Han tradition of the three souls and the seven corporeal souls. They too carry Sino-Vietnamese names: hôn (Chin., hun ) and phach (Chin., po ). However, if one follows Leopold Cadière, to whom we owe the most profound study on the subject, notable variations appear between the system of the literati and the vocabulary and conceptions of the common people. For example, with regard to phach, the inferior vital principles, its Vietnamese equivalent, voc, remained confined to the physical aspect of the body (especially the external appearance of the body). Moreover, the most current term used is in fact Vietnamese: via, which is in the same semantic range as phach (from form of the body to animal soul). Qualities of these via vary according to individuals as well as within the same individual. A person endowed with heavy via exercises a harmful influence on others, while light via brings beneficial influence.

Appropriate funeral rites are absolutely essential for the benefit of the departed. There is fear of two categories of malevolent spirits, the ma (Chin., ma ) and the gui (Chin., gui ), souls of the dead without sepulchers. In contrast, one can benefit from the aid of the thân (Chin., shen ), souls of ancestors, understood in a noble sense. These three entities, expressed in Sino-Vietnamese words, testify to the survival of the hon.

From words of the same family comes the Vietnamese hoi, with its Sino-Vietnamese doublet khi (Chin., qi), whose meaning ranges from breath, inhalation, emanations from living or dead bodies, to supernatural influence over a person's life and destiny. This influence can emanate not only from a human but also from an animal, the ground, stones, plants, and so forth. The concept provides the essential basis of popular cults as well.

The Chinese model reposes on the complex called tam giao (Chin., sanjiao, triple teaching or triple religion), that is, Buddhism (Phât giao; Chin., Fojiao), Confucianism (Không giao; Chin., Kongjiao), and Daoism (Lao giao; Chin., Daojiao), or the teachings of the Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi, respectively. Prior to 1975, when asked his religion, an educated Vietnamese generally would have answered that he was a Buddhist. On the civic or family level, however, he followed Confucian precepts; on the affective level or in the face of destiny, he turned to Daoist conceptions. Even if Mahāyāna Buddhism had an effect on his relationship with the otherworld, his personal behavior would have remained impregnated with Daoism. This fact was evident in his concern to conform with cosmic harmony, to pay careful attention to sources and currents of energy traversing the universe, and to parallel equivalents between these and the human body. These concerns were manifested in his desire to withdraw into nature as well as in his recourse to geomancy and diverse divinatory procedures, even to magic. It was primarily Confucianism and Buddhism, however, that affected his moral conduct.

It goes without saying that, as in China, each of the elements composing the Triple Religion in no way presented itself as impervious to the other two. Mutual borrowings throughout the course of centuries increased to the point that it was sometimes difficult to know with certainty which rite or belief to attribute to which element. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, disputes, sometimes very intense, pitted Buddhists against Daoists and caused them to accuse each other of plagiarism on a number of points. Recourse to divination in its multiple forms was not a monopoly of Daoists; Confucians also employed this means of decoding destiny.

This mixture was more deeply rooted among the common people, where features of each of the Three Ways were known only very superficially. Nevertheless, their respective dosages seem to have been in inverse proportion to that predominating among the literati. There was among the common people much less preoccupation with correct rules of government and with mandates from Heaven than with recourse to aid of supernatural beings to resolve the grievous problems of the here and now or to assure for oneself a decent future, both here and in the otherworld. It is true that the observance of ancestor worship attested to the ascendancy of Confucianism, but the different Buddhas and bodhisattva s tended to join the ranks of the multiple divinities and deities of the Daoist pantheon. Daoism itself was immeasurably enriched with popular autochthonous beliefs and practices, to which it lent a certain respectability by a tint of sinicization; furthermore, magic played a proportionally more important role in activities of a religious type.

The geographical situation of Chinese-occupied Vietnam placed it in a privileged position on the route of Indian merchants and missionaries traveling from India to China and of Han and Vietnamese pilgrims taking the reverse route. From the first centuries ce, Indian monks were personally active in spreading Buddhist doctrine throughout the Middle Kingdom, including South China. It is thus that some Vietnamese participated in the first translations of canonical texts. From the sixth century, and especially the seventh century, Theravāda Buddhism in Vietnam gave way to Mahāyāna, which was also prevalent in China. And in the pagodas, the three Buddhas (tam thê phât ; Chin., sanshi fo ) of the present, the past, and the future occupied the principal altar, other altars being invaded by statues of numerous bodhisattva s. Distinctly autochthonous dhyāna (thiên ; Chin., chan ) sects sprang up in the course of the centuries, and Vietnamese, in ever-increasing numbers, went on pilgrimage to India. The assistance given by eminent Buddhist monks to those who liberated the country from the Chinese accorded to Buddhism a considerable hold over the first dynasties. One was even to see kings abdicating to end their days in monasteries.

Confucianism, which regulated the examinations for the recruitment of the literati (in other words, the mandarin cadres), was from the time of the Ly (10091225) the dominant official ideology. Moreover, beginning with the reigns of the Lê, Confucianism provided the state and family moral code and rituals of a once-again independent Vietnam that subsequently was to behave as a southern replica of the Celestial Empire. Before the image of the Son of Heaven, its suzerain, the emperor of Dai-Viet, was responsible for his acts before the all-powerful God. If he did not observe the rules correctly, the mandate to govern that he received from Heaven would be withdrawn from him by different means: war, revolution, lack of a male heir, and so forth.

In matters of cult ministry, the eminent positions occupied by Heaven and earth found expression through the sacrifices offered to them by the sovereign, who officiated in person. These ceremonies, said to belong to the nam giao (Chin., nanjiao, sacrificial mound), appanage of imperial power, had always been vested with exceptional majesty and pomp. The lê tich điên (Chin., jitian, opening ceremony of the rice fields) also belonged to this cult complex. Here, too, the sovereign himself officiatedalthough he soon came to delegate the performance of this ceremony to a high-ranking mandarin. By tracing nine furrows on the royal field, the sovereign or his representative would open the plowing season.

Ancestor worship occupied a central place in the family cult. It represented the ritual expression of a cardinal virtue, filial piety (hiêu; Chin., xiao ), the pivot of interpersonal relationships. The Vietnamese followed with devotion the precept of Mengzi, "duty toward parents is the foundation of all others," that permeated all rules of conduct. The necessity of perfecting oneself morally and intellectually, loyalty to one's friends, respect for one's superiors, fidelity to the sovereignall these were believed to arise from the domain of filial piety.

The extent of the economic impact of ancestor worship on a family depended on the wealth of that family. Reserved exclusively for the maintenance of such worship and for the performance of its ceremonies were revenues from property (rice fields, houses, etc.) that constituted the huong-hoa (Chin., xianghuo ), the portion of the incense and the fire transmitted by inheritance from the father to his eldest son. It should be noted that Confucianism did not succeed in lowering the Vietnamese woman to the inferior rank occupied by her Chinese counterpart. Even in wealthy families the wife had the same status as her husband in family ceremonies, including those pertaining to ancestor worship in its strict sense. As the ideology of the mandarin type of government, Confucianism, by its very nature, became a target of Marxist-Leninist regimes. In Vietnam the offensive has been less virulent and of shorter duration than in the People's Republic of China; it is true that Vietnam has not experienced any extremist phenomenon comparable to that of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Responsive as the literati were to the abstract universal order proposed by Confucianism, the idealized transposition of the bureaucratic hierarchy, they were equally responsive to the concrete universal order conceived by Daoist doctrine, with its correspondences (the human body, the microcosmic replica of the macrocosm) and its complementary contradictions (âm and duong, the Vietnamese equivalents of yin and yang ). The peasant, on the other hand, retained of Daoism principally the imagery presented in the temples (đên ) in various forms. Dominating the whole ensemble was the August Jade Emperor, Ngc-Hoang (Chin., Yuhuang), assisted by his two chief ministers, Nam-Tao (Chin., Nancao, the Southern Constellation) and Bac-Đâu (Chin., Beidou, the Northern Constellation), who were charged respectively with keeping account of the birth and death of human beings and of governing a multitude of deities ranked according to an organization duplicating the imperial bureaucracy. Among these deities a special place must be assigned to Tao-quân (Chin., Zaojun), the hearth deity, who at the end of each year reports on the acts and deeds of humans; the days surrounding this event are a period of transition that provides an occasion for the Vietnamese to celebrate their most spectacular collective feast, the Têt Nguyên Đan (Chin., Yuandan), the celebration of the New Year. In popular Vietnamese consciousness Tao-quân is actually a composite of three personages, a woman and her two husbands, whose unhappy marriages were the subject of legends. The other important category in Vietnamese practice is represented by the immortals, whose Chinese nucleus of eight personalities has been enlarged by the addition of native deities.

The recourse to mediums and ritual decorative features representing the pantheon dominated by the Jade Emperor made possible the assimilation of Daoist elements into a certain number of Vietnamese popular cults. The one that came closest in form to a Daoist cult was that attributed to Trân Hung Đo, a spirit served by a male medium (ông đông ). Trân Hung Đo is a Vietnamese national hero from the thirteenth century, conqueror of the Han armies of the Mongol dynasty. The medium would perform a violent ritual in the course of which he inflicted on himself bloody ordeals and healed the sick by exorcising them of the traitor or vanquished general who possessed them.

The cult of the chu vi, dignitaries served by female mediums (ba đông ), borrowed from Daoism some elements of the decor, and at least in the north, the possession of the mediums by some immortals (whereas in the south it was spirits rather than immortals who descended). Here the medium (a ba đông in this case) is mounted not by one god but successively, in the course of the same séance, by different spirits of both sexes and of different ages.

At the collective level, the cult of the tutelary deity (thanh-hoang ; Chin., shenghuang ), the protector of the commune, held an eminent place in Vietnamese popular religion. Indeed, the most important public building in a village was the đinh, both a communal house and a place of worship; it sheltered the altar of the tutelary deity and served as a meeting place of the notables for the settlement of questions of administration and internal justice. The đinh was the center of collective life on the social as well as the religious level. It constituted the core of the system of peasant relations with the world beyond (through the intervention of the thanh-hoang ) as well as with the state (the tutelary deity was confirmed by an imperial warrant obtained at the request of the notables).

The thanh-hoang could be a celestial deity, a deified legendary or historical personage, or even a disreputable person, such as a thief or a scavenger, whose violent death at a sacred hour endowed him with occult powers. It even would happen, although quite rarely, that an influential mandarin who had rendered an important service to the village became a guardian spirit during his lifetime. A deity who failed to protect the village at a critical moment or whose perfidy was denounced by a mystical revelation would be chased away and replaced by another deity.

A maintenance service for the fire and the incense was celebrated throughout the year, and ceremonies were held at the đinh on the first and fifteenth day of each month and on certain calendar feasts. The most important feast of the year was the Vao Đam, or Vao Hi (to be in festivities), which took place in spring or autumn, or on the anniversary of the birth or death of the tutelary deity. This feast lasted for two weeks, during which time it was forbidden to hold any funeral ceremonies. It was celebrated in great pomp with a series of processions, offerings, and prayers. Many villages undertook the organization of various entertainments: theater, cockfights, bullfights, and chess games with the people themselves acting as the chess pieces. Particular to this feast was a rite called Hem, often held secretly, recalling the salient features of the deity's life. It was celebrated at night when commemorating a dishonorable act: a scene of robbery for a thief deity, an enactment of excrement collection (with the excrement replaced by peeled bananas) for a scavenger deity, and so forth.

Certain trees, rocks, and natural boundaries were objects of cults that could lead to the construction of small altars. This veneration, very often fearful, could have varied origins. The tree, for example, could influence by the simple force of its being. It could also shelter a malevolent spirit, such as a ma, the soul of an unburied dead person, or of a con tinh, the soul of a young girl or woman who died before having experienced the joys of marriage. The man she succeeded in seducing would lose his reason and die unless exorcised in time. Sometimes, however, the tree or stone was not simply the habitat of a spirit but was in itself a deity: a deity-tree or deity-stone, such as one finds among the Proto-Indo-Chinese of the hinterlands.

The dominant features of Vietnamese religion were its openness to all forms of spirituality and its profusive character that resulted from this openness. These features were manifested on the level of the literati, whose most erudite members sought to abide by the texts of the Triple Religion or at least of one of the religions, as well as on the popular level, where the cult of the tutelary deity was observed and that was above all responsive to the different spirits peopling the environment as well as to the counsels of specialists. A village might possess a temple of one or another of the Three Ways, peopled with saints of the other two. There might at the same time be a temple by the seaside dedicated to the whale deity washed up and stranded on the shore. It should be noted that the intransigence of Christianity would eliminate from the territory of a converted village all monuments consecrated to another cult. This did not, however, prevent the majority of Christian peasants from having at least a minimum of respect for the spirits haunting the premises.

This general tendency toward syncretism made possible a strong implantation of Catholicism (but not of Islam) and encouraged Vietnamese, when emigrating in large numbers to foreign countries, to worship local deities until these were assimilated. This tendency has resulted, likewise, in the rise of new forms of syncretisms such as the Hoa-hao or Cao Dai, the first grafted on a Buddhist core, the other on a Daoist one.

See Also

Ancestors, article on Ancestor Worship; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Chinese Religion, overview article and article on Popular Religion; Chinese Religious Year; Confucianism, overview article; Daoism, overview article; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Yinyang Wuxing; Yuhuang.


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Georges Condominas (1987)

Translated from French by Maria Pilar Luna-Magannon
Revised Bibliography

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