presence of the dead, the behaviour of the living,
and an influence on the future - the many generations
of the Vietnamese family
worship was introduced into Vietnam by the Chinese
during their long occupation of the country that began
200 years before the birth of Christ. Since then,
it has been fully absorbed into the Vietnamese consciousness
and, with Confucianism, underpins the country’s
religion and social fabric.
Ancestor worship is
not only the adhesive that binds the Vietnamese together,
but also one of the most difficult concepts for people
from Anglo-Saxon or European origins to understand.
It has been said that the Vietnamese believe in the
dead, while the Occidentals believe only in death.
people worship their ancestors
The practice of ancestor worship is relatively straightforward.
Nearly every house, office, and business in Vietnam
has a small altar which is used to commune with ancestors.
Incense sticks are burned frequently. Offerings are
made – fruit, sweets, and gifts. The latter
items are paper replicas of dollar notes (‘ghost
money’), motorbikes, cars, houses and so on.
After worship, the paper gifts are burnt so that the
spirits of the gifts can ascend to heaven for the
ancestors to use. In the past, the income from a plot
of land was used to maintain the altar and arrange
the rituals, but this tradition has now faded away.
However, the custom that the eldest son will arrange
the ceremonial and inherit the family house upon the
death of his parents is still generally observed.
element is the placing of wooden tablets on the altar
for each of the ancestors over recent generations.
This is less rigorously observed today, and tablets
are often replaced by photographs. Some pagodas house
commemorative tablets for ancestors on behalf of regular
Worshipping takes place
regularly on particular days, such as festivals, new
and full moon days, the death day of the ancestor,
and so on. On important occasions, such as moving
house, starting a new business or the birth of a child,
and whenever a member of the family needs guidance
or a favour, the ancestors are consulted.
A proliferation of
small fires of burning in the streets of towns and
cities means that it is a festival or moon day. One
paper fire is likely to be an event affecting a single
people worship their ancestors
For the Vietnamese, ancestor worship is not related
to ghosts, spiritualism or even the supernatural in
the Western sense. It is not even a ‘belief’
in the sense that it is open to question by the ‘believers’.
The Vietnamese accept as a fact that their ancestors
continue to live in another realm, and that it is
the duty of the living to meet their needs. In return,
the ancestors give advice and bring good fortune.
Devotees of Buddhism
believe in previous existences, and seek to correct
previous bad deeds to reach enlightenment. Ancestor
worship is fundamentally different. For the Vietnamese,
death, and the ritual and practice of ancestor worship,
constitutes the transfer of power from the tangible
life to the intangible. Existence is a continuum stretching
through birth, a life spent in tangible form on Earth,
followed by death and a spirit existence in another
realm for a further two or three generations.
By virtue of their worthy deeds, heroic ancestors,
such as Tran Hung Dao and the Trung sisters, continue
to exist and be worshipped in temples for many generations
beyond the two or three of ordinary folk. Their rectitude
is a model to guide the behaviour of the living.
The sins of the parents
All ancestors are worthy of respect and reverence,
regardless of their behaviour as living beings. However,
the misdeeds of a wicked family ancestor will be visited
upon his or her children and grandchildren in the
form of bad luck. This is a powerful influence upon
the behaviour of the living, influencing them to behave
well and do good deeds in the present, thereby endowing
their living and unborn children with good luck in
worship affects life in Vietnam
The effect of ancestor worship upon Vietnamese society
is profound. The concept of life as a small part of
an infinitely greater whole embracing the entire race,
the notion that the past and present exist simultaneously
and that each individual’s behaviour in life
has a direct impact upon the quality of the lives
of his or her children and grandchildren, extend the
concept of the family far beyond the sense in which
the term is used in the West. A Vietnamese person
is never ‘alone’ – his or her ‘family’
is always present.
of ancestor worship
Whether ancestor worship will continue to be strong
as the influence of scientific rationalism and social
change accelerates, is an open question. In the past,
the majority of individual family members lived within
close geographical proximity. The turmoil in the years
before and after the defeat of the US forces led to
an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people.
More recently, economic migration and travel to far
countries to study or work have created a growing
diaspora. Only time will determine whether the strength
of the beliefs that have sustained the Vietnamese
family unit over many centuries, thus creating a unique
national community, will withstand the pressures of
globalisation and expanding modern technology.
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