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Transcendental beings and non-human powers

(No.1, Vol.3, Jan-Feb 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


At the temple of the deity Ba Chua Xu, at Nui Sam, near Chau Doc, in south-western Vietnam, at Tet 2012.

The annual Tết festival in Vietnam is an occasion for many different kinds of activities, often involving religious activities of one kind or another. Many Vietnamese people tend to define ‘religion’ in terms of membership of a conventional faith such as Buddhism or Christianity, and they do not speak of something like making offerings to or worshipping (cúng) their ancestors as ‘religious’. In this article, however, as indicated by the discussion below , I consider the ‘religious’ to be any act of veneration or worship directed at a transcendental being or non-human power. Of these there are many different kinds in Vietnam, and in many cases worship involves the family or is a family concern. Tết is largely a family festival, and naturally involves many activities that can be called religious in terms of this definition.
The explicitly religious aspects of Tết commence on the twenty-third day of the last lunar month (tháng chạp) when the kitchen god, Ông Táo or Táo Quân, is worshipped with gifts and offerings to enable him to travel to heaven to give his annual report on the family to the Jade Emperor, the supreme being (Ngọc Hoàng Thượng Đế). According to the well known legend about the kitchen god, Ông Táo is three persons (or three deities) in one but is normally referred to simply by name or as ‘he’. He is provided with a special meal and votive offerings (hàng mã) obtained from specialist purveyors at the market are burnt. Often these include depictions of the means of travel used by Táo Quân – a votive paper depicting a horse and a stork is common in the south (it is called cò bay ngựa chạy - ‘stork flies, horse runs’). Among northern people or people of northern origin, wherever they may currently reside, three live red carp are part of the offering because in popular folk belief Táo Quân is thought to travel to heaven on a carp, and these are later placed in a nearby lake or river. In the North, too, a set of three paper mandarin’s hats and a three pairs of boots are provided for Táo Quân annually, with a similar but larger set of the same for Ngọc Hoàng. Sending the kitchen god away initiates a series of ritual or religious actions which take place over the next two or three weeks, with the details varying from place to place and family to family.
On the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth day of the last lunar month ancestral graves, if accessible, are visited by families. The graves are tidied and cleaned, often in company with kin from other homes, and the deceased are invoked and worshipped with flowers, food and incense. These items are placed on the graves together with votive offerings of clothes and other accessories, television sets, vehicles, imitation US dollars and other currencies, and so on, all made from paper or cardboard, like the offerings for Ông Táo, which are burnt at the foot of the grave itself or nearby and thereby transferred to and used by the dead in the underworld; the paper currencies burnt are referred to as tiền âm phủ (underworld money). In the invocations to the dead the latter are told why the living have come, what they are doing, and what they wish for in the New Year for themselves and their families. This practice of tảo mộ (tending the graves) highlights the importance of the family, which includes the dead as well as the living, and is part of the ongoing relationship between living and dead on which the happiness and well-being of both depend. It is usually followed by kin meeting with each other, worshipping at ancestral altars in homes, eating a communal meal and exchanging news.


a rare photograph of the deity, permitted only on a well-explained request conveyed to the temple authorities, and supplicants to the deity, who is just visible at the top of the picture. Photos: James Gordon

For many urban families, however, graves are too far away in their original towns or villages, and cremation means that many ancestors do not have grave sites at all. Pagodas and churches offer acceptable substitutes; they have special rooms (nhà để hài cốt) in which ashes of the deceased are kept in jars, and dedicated altars at which congregants may place photos of their dead relatives. In the days leading up to Tết people visit these places in order to worship and make offerings to their ancestors and to participate in prayers for the dead by priests and monks. Theravada pagodas and Catholic churches have special Tết services for the dead, the former before Tết itself, the latter on the second day of the New Year. Monks in Mahayana pagodas say that they do not hold such a service because praying for the dead is a normal part of everyday worship. Nevertheless, Tết is one of the festive periods during which prayer services for the dead are held in these pagodas most frequently, due to popular demand.
Religious activity on the last day of the lunar year also illustrates the importance of family and kinship and of links with dead kin, and includes a late morning or mid-day ritual at which the ancestors are welcomed into the home for Tết and provided with food and votive offerings. This is termed cúng tất niên (worship for finishing the old year); also rước ông bà (welcome the ancestors). Ancestral altars are prepared for this event, laden with fruit and flowers, and with gifts from various sources as well as food. After worship the food is removed and added to the table where the family meal then takes place. The living and the dead, then, eat together in communion.
Worship takes place also at the other altars in the home, of which there are usually several, and culminates with worship at a special Tết altar (bàn thờ thiên —‘altar for the heavens’) near the front door or outside on a balcony at the midnight hour, the sacred moment marking the transition to the New Year. This transition and its associated ritual are known as giao thừa. The object is to secure the blessings of the gods for the New Year and to keep misfortune away. More specifically, the supreme being (Ngoc Hoàng) is said to send one of his 12 mandarins to look after the earth every year, and on this occasion the new mandarin is welcomed and the previous one thanked. It is also a time when homeless spirits, such as people who have died in warfare and not received a proper burial, and who are thought of as wandering the streets and potentially dangerous, are placated (cúng cô hồn). In some families this is immediately preceded by worship in front of the altars inside the house and it is at this time that the kitchen god returns from his journey. Immediately after giao thừa or early the following morning, Buddhist families go to a nearby pagoda to participate in the formal worship that takes place there to mark the New Year, receive lì xì (‘lucky money’) from the celebrant, and perhaps eat some food afterwards.
On the first day of the New Year, pagodas are full of people from morning till night. Many devout Buddhists, often women of the middle or older generation, making an early morning start, undertake a pilgrimage to a number of pagodas, often in small groups of friends and/or kin. They hire a vehicle to take them to worship in different pagodas in succession, believing that this will bring them special blessings and benefits. This practice is known in Sino Vietnamese as thập tự văn cảnh — literally ‘10 pagoda sights’, or hành hương thập tự, ‘10 pagoda pilgrimage’. The number varies; it might be 9, 10, or 13 different pagodas. These excursions or pilgrimages (hành hương) are also often organised by individual pagodas. They offer an opportunity for worship and instruction but also for enjoyment and sociability. 2
Attendance at pagoda services continues on a regular basis during Tết and many people provide the monks with donations and ask them to add the names of their kin in need of prayer to the lists kept there and displayed on pagoda walls. Famous pagodas that have what are believed to be special qualities are very popular during Tết. Some of these are within easy reach of HCMC, such as the pagoda associated with the Jade Emperor, not far from the city centre, or One Pillar pagoda in Thủ Đức (modelled after a pagoda of the same name in Hanoi), or Hoằng Pháp pagoda on the city’s outskirts in Hóc Môn. Other famous pagodas, such as Chùa Bà Đen (the ‘Black Lady’ pagoda) in Tây Ninh Province or Bà Chúa Xứ (‘Lady of the Realm’ pagoda) in Châu Đốc, both near the Cambodian border, require at least a day’s excursion, but nevertheless draw thousands of visitors during Tết, many of them from HCMC. Religious practices in Vietnam cannot be categorised as simply urban or rural, and most of those who patronise famous and popular rural religious sites are from outside the local area. These pagodas are established places but they are not experienced passively by those who patronise them during Tết. Nor are they experienced uniformly: the faithful who go there make Tết meaningful to themselves, expressing their wishes for the New Year and their thanks for past blessings through their prayers, invocations, offerings, purchases and other actions at these sites, which in turn are linked to their individual economic and social circumstances, to their beliefs, and to their expectations and understandings of Tết. Philip Taylor has vividly illustrated the kind of variability in the motivations, actions, and attitudes that exists among worshippers in his study of Bà Chúa Xứ.3
Religious activities also take place at certain sites associated with former national or regional heroes who are worshipped as sources of good fortune and spiritual soothsayers. The temple and mausoleum devoted to the early nineteenth-century southern statesman and military commander Lê Văn Duyệt, known simply as Lăng Ông or Lăng Ông Bà Chiểu (‘His Lordship’s Mausoleum at Bà Chiểu),4 is one such site. The temple associated with thirteenth-century national hero and naval commander Trần Hưng Đạo, is another. At Lăng Ông people worship, burn incense and make offerings to Lê Văn Duyệt, seek to know their future through a variety of divinatory means (including xin keo, xin xăm) and attempt to secure luck for the forthcoming year and for their lives in general by buying and freeing birds, touching items in the temple and smoothing the good fortune onto themselves and so on.
Xin xăm (meaning ‘choose a lot’ or ‘ask the oracle’) at Lăng Ông involves shaking a container full of numbered sticks until one of them eases itself out of the bunch and falls to the ground. The number and colour on the lot thus chosen corresponds with a particular prediction of the future which can then be obtained in printed form from a nearby counter. If more than one falls out and there is uncertainty about which one to count, or if there is an issue that the client wishes to confirm in a yes/no manner, xin keo (a pair of wooden blocks, yin [âm] and yang [dương], one white and one red) is consulted; here Lê Văn Duyệt, referred to as ‘God’ (Thần Linh), provides the answer by causing the blocks to appear in a particular way when they are thrown to the ground, a yin and yang combination being confirmation.
At this time pagodas and temples such as these are surrounded by a variety of people other than worshippers — purveyors of incense and other religious goods, beggars seeking alms, people selling lottery tickets, flower sellers, fortune tellers and so on. They experience Tết somewhat differently from those who go there to pray and divine the future.
During Tết members of the Cao Đài faith make a pilgrimage to their spiritual centre in Tây Ninh Province, while Catholic churches offer a series of services, parallel in some ways to the Tết activities of Buddhists on the first three days of the New Year. These services, too, provide both spiritual and physical connections to the family home. Catholics honour and pray for their dead kin on the second day of Tết, and bring home a paper inscribed with a biblical quote or inspirational saying which they place on the altars in their homes alongside statues of Jesus or Mary and photographs of ancestors. At pagodas and temples people obtain various items which they take away with them and which help them to prepare for the New Year — a small card bearing an inspirational or devotional saying, a leaf or bud picked there (this act is known as hái lộc, to ‘gather luck’) or the leaf of a plant called phát tài (meaning ‘become wealthy’). Pagodas and churches are also retail outlets for items such as religious tracts, incense sticks, statues, portraits of deities, wall hangings and the like, which make their way into homes during Tết.
   1. This article originally appeared as part of a larger article by the author in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 43, Number 1, February 2012. We are grateful to the editors of JSEAS for permission to reprint this extract here. 
   2. A similar practice in the Hanoi area has been described by Alex Soucy, ‘Pilgrims and pleasure seekers’, in Consuming urban culture in contemporary Vietnam, ed. Lisa B.W. Drummond and M. Thomas (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), pp. 125–37. 
   3. Philip Taylor, Goddess on the rise: Pilgrimage and popular religion in Vietnam. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004), p. 50.
   4. Taylor, Goddess on the rise, p. 78.


A cooked suckling pig among table-loads of offerings to the deity, at the temple of the deity Ba Chua Xu.
Photo: James Gordon

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