restricted access Chapter 2. Space and the Ranking of Buddhisms
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Space and the Ranking of Buddhisms At the foot of the steps of Quán Sứ Pagoda, where I first started research in 1997, there was a notice board that warned, “Do not commit the offense of bringing spirit money into the pagoda to worship.” As I stood in front of this notice board, I found it difficult to reconcile the dictate, given that this practice is an important part of the way Buddhism is practiced by most people in northern Vietnam. However, Quán Sứ Pagoda is politically the most important pagoda in northern Vietnam, as headquarters of the state-controlled Buddhist organization, and therefore stands as representative of state and Buddhist orthodoxies. By contrast, my other main field site, Phúc Lộc Pagoda, holds an annual ritual for the non-Buddhist saint whose statue sits in the entrance area of the pagoda. I attended this ritual on the third day of the third (lunar) month of 2010. The ritual was performed by the volunteer ritual group of the pagoda along with a non-Buddhist ritual master called a thầy cúng. In contrast to the prohibition of Quán Sứ Pagoda, an important element of the ritual was burning spirit money. The resident nun at Phúc Lộc Pagoda, Thầy Tâm, had made arrangements for the service, but did not take part in it. That evening, I went with Thầy Tâm to the pagoda of Thầy Linh to watch him take on his role as a spirit medium and allow himself to be possessed by the spirits of the Four Palaces. Spirit money was an important element in this ritual, also. Neither of these views on popular practices—one discouraging and the other encouraging—can be dismissed. Both are part of Buddhist practice in Vietnam , though they hold very different positions in the elite hierarchies of religion. On the one side stands the politically legitimized form of Buddhism that has the full weight of authority of the only legally recognized and state-backed Buddhist organization in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association. It controls the education of members of the sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) and has on its side the most notable and visible monks at a national level. Theirs is the national voice of Buddhism, presented at a national level in publications related to Buddhism , including all the magazines available to Buddhists. Its position on popular practices such as burning spirit money is reinforced by the Buddhist magazines published in Vietnam. For example, the weekly Buddhist magazine published by 2 38  • Space and the Ranking of Buddhisms the Buddhist Association of Ho Chi Minh City included an article in its December 9 issue titled “Superstition and Waste in the Vu Lan Season.” This article explicitly condemned the burning of spirit money as an “outdated custom” and of no use for aiding fathers and mothers in the afterlife—as commendable and understandable as the sentiment might be.1 The article suggested that people save the money wasted from activities such as burning spirit money and releasing birds, and instead give it to charity (Diệu 2010, 28–29). Nonetheless, and while the importance of the institutional form of Buddhism is undeniable, Buddhism is practiced and understood quite differently by most Buddhists at the local level from the institutional view. Most local pagodas are involved with the spirit world as well as with the buddhas, and see practices such as burning spirit money as an essential element of reciprocity for maintaining relationships with the supernatural (including the buddhas). Salvation is nominally a goal, but it is overshadowed by the more immediate goals of personal and familial happiness. Notoriety, at least at a local level, is gained by some monks (such as Thầy Linh) by reputation of how well they perform various rituals , including funerary rites that involve burning spirit money and spirit goods, rather than through official rank or publications. The Buddhist revival and creation of two buddhisms Buddhism in Vietnam underwent a revival that began in the 1920s and accelerated in the 1930s, as one of a number of competing ideologies that sought to address the issue of Vietnam’s colonial situation (McHale 2004, chap. 5). Although Woodside has written that the Buddhist Revival had limited impact at the time (1976, 194), its long-term effects have continued to reverberate through the development of Buddhism in Vietnam today (DeVido 2007, 281–284). The momentum of this Revival movement in...


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