complex patchwork of belief in Vietnam
In Vietnam, little is what it appears to be on the
surface. The country’s religion is an excellent
example. Ostensibly, Vietnam is a Buddhist country
– around 80% of the population regard themselves
as adherents. Pagodas are everywhere, and the Buddhist
festivals are embedded in the calendar. Also evident
are temples with large effigies of obviously non-Buddhist
deities and historical figures, Christian churches
and signs of other religious sects.
Visitors often correctly
assume that, as in their own country, several religions
are practiced in Vietnam. However, in most countries
people commit themselves to a specific religion, sect
or cult. In Vietnam, people subscribe to several different
canons of beliefs simultaneously.
The bedrock of religious practice in Vietnam is an
amalgam of several components. The major religious
inheritance from China, Confucianism, Taoism and ancestor
worship, have coalesced with ancient Vietnamese animism
to form a single entity – ‘tam giao’
– the ‘triple religion’. Each element
exists in a pure form in Vietnam, and there are sects
and cults that adhere to a single set of beliefs,
but the great majority of people describe themselves
as ‘Buddhist’, a portmanteau term for
the ‘tam giao’.
religions are described separately in this section,
but it must be noted that many of the orthodoxies
referred to have been adapted to ‘fit’
the way of life, rather than the other way round.
For example, although Mahayana Buddhism requires its
followers to abstain from eating meat, Vietnamese
Buddhists (apart from monks and other acolytes) avoid
meat only on two days each month, the full and the
new moon. People arriving with a belief that vegetarianism
will be widespread are dismayed to find that this
is not so.
Of the major religious faiths present in Vietnam,
the Catholics adhere most closely to their creed.
However, many still maintain an altar in their houses
to worship the ancestors, or use a Christian shrine
for the same purpose.
The Catholic Church
has been prominent in Vietnam’s recent history.
Initially, little notice was taken of European missionaries
entering Vietnam from the 16th century onwards. However,
when Christianity began to gain a foothold, the mandarins
and other authorities increasingly saw it as a threat
to Confucianism and banned the religion. The French
invaded and gave Catholicism preferential treatment,
a policy extended to suppression of Buddhism by the
Catholic-led Saigon regime after the country was partitioned.
Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist priest from Hue, publicly
burned himself to death in protest in 1963. A graphic
photograph of the event had a major impact in turning
public opinion against the US presence in Vietnam.
After re-unification, the communist authorities followed
Marx’s dictum that religion was ‘the opiate
of the people’ and introduced controls on religious
expression by placing religion under state control,
confiscating land and property, and sending priests,
monks and other devotees who had been politically
active supporters of the Saigon regime for ‘re-education.
Since ‘doi moi’
opened Vietnam to the rest of the world in 1986, restrictions
have eased, land has been returned and religious freedom
has been enshrined in the nation’s constitution.
Nevertheless, although the vast majority of the people
are now free to worship more or less what and where
they like, the authorities continue to keep a firm
hold on religion and its more fervent followers, mindful
of attempts by Vietnam’s political enemies abroad
to use it to foment dissent.
From time to time,
critical reports are issued by religious and political
organisations in the West, claiming this as suppression
of freedom and abuses of human rights, an accusation
vigorously denied by the Vietnamese and by many senior
Vietnamese clerics. In reality, the Vietnamese government
has recognised the destabilising potential of ‘social
evils’ such as drug abuse and crime, and is
encouraging religion and religious values as a contribution
towards maintaining social cohesion at a time of rapid
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