Chapter 1. Views of the Religious Landscape
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Views of the Religious Landscape For most people in Vietnam religion is lived rather than experienced intellectually . People pray to the buddhas, chant sutras, offer incense to gods, goddesses, or ancestors, and have their fortunes read without, for the most part, pondering the cosmological implications of their actions. Buddhism, as most people approach it, cannot be understood through the philosophical content of religious texts: most people who visit pagodas are unaware of the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy. They do not repeat a creed nor “belong” to a religion. This does not mean that in Vietnam there is one amorphous religion, followed uncritically by all. Rather, there are objectively different aspects, shapes, and contours to the religious expressions that are a part of everyday lives. There is something called “Buddhism,” with an institution, corpus of sacred writings, definable rituals, and recognizable religious specialists. At the same time, there are unities and ambiguities that make it artificial to talk about Buddhism divorced from the overall religious landscape. For most practicing Buddhists, what we identify as Buddhism represents only a part of a complex interaction with a supernatural world that is also populated by a variety of other beings that have the power to help or hinder. The intention of this chapter is to provide descriptions of how the Vietnamese that I knew in Hanoi interact with the supernatural, highlighting the competing views about how to be religious. By introducing some of these people, I hope to show the fluid boundaries between different religious expressions. This will lead into a discussion of the popular view of the beings that populate the supernatural , the ranking that they are accorded, and the characteristics that people attribute to them. While the view I will describe is pervasive, it is politically marginalized by an “elite” view of religion, which also figures in the way that some people (principally men) engage in Buddhism. The chapter, accordingly, will end with a description of this opposing view of religion, and how it has played out in recent history. Descriptions of the landscape In Vietnam today there are very few religious practices that are prescribed, with the exception of funerals and ancestor worship. People pick and choose the beliefs 1 Views of the Religious Landscape  • 17 and activities that make sense within the context of their own lives. For some, this lack of prescription results in almost total skepticism and avoidance, but religious activities and ideas play a role in the lives of most. The tremendous variance in beliefs and practices means that the supernatural is approached in a multitude of ways. This is especially the case in urban Hanoi, where village-based practices and imperatives are not as prominent, and where people are left to invent ways that religion will be a part of their lives. I first introduce you to four people that I have known in Hanoi. I have remained in contact with three of them since I first met them in 1997—“Mrs. Tu,” “Nhung,” and “Thầy Linh.” I have reinterviewed two as recently as 2010 regarding their religious practices. The fourth person, “Mrs. Thanh,” I knew for only a year, in 1997. These four individuals adequately illustrate the variety of ways that people are religious in Hanoi. With the exception of Thầy Linh, they all can be characterized as typical. Though the constellation of their beliefs and practices are idiosyncratic, between them they are also representative examples of the many ways that people approach the supernatural. Their lives bring out the fact that the large choice of possible sites and activities available to those who have a religious inclination makes interactions with the supernatural both personal and varied. Mrs. Tu Mrs. Tu, a religiously active woman in her late fifties when I first met her in 1997, has remained devout. She is a housewife, born in the late 1940s, who never received a high level of education, though her family can be described as middle class. She came from Hà Tây Province and grew up acutely affected by the struggle against French colonialism. Her father had a son and two daughters before his first wife died. He remarried and, with his second wife, conceived Mrs. Tu. When she was still a young child, her father was arrested and executed by the French as a suspected resistance fighter. After her husband’s death, and with no support from her husband’s family, Mrs. Tu’s mother left the village with her daughter, leaving her...

Subject Headings

  • Buddhism and state -- Vietnam.
  • Buddhism -- Social aspects -- Vietnam -- Hanoi.
  • Women in Buddhism -- Vietnam -- Hanoi.
  • Buddhism -- Vietnam -- Hanoi -- Customs and practices.
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