Ancestor worship

 Ancestorworship has been said that the Vietnamese believe in the dead, while theOccidentals believe only in death.

Ancestorworship was introduced into Vietnam by the Chinese during their long occupationof the country that began 200 years before the birth of Christ. Since then, ithas been fully absorbed into the Vietnamese consciousness and, withConfucianism, underpins the country’s religion and social fabric.

Ancestorworship is not only the adhesive that binds the Vietnamese together, but alsoone of the most difficult concepts for people from Anglo-Saxon or Europeanorigins to understand. It has been said that the Vietnamese believe in the dead,while the Occidentals believe only in death.

The basis ofancestor worship seems to stem from two principle ideas: (1) that “thosewho have gone before” have a continual and beneficent interest in theaffairs of the living; and (2) more widespread, uneasiness, fear of the dead,with practices to placate them. The later ideas more often serve as a form ofdispensing emotions than of worship.

How do Vietnamese people worshiptheir ancestors?

The practiceof ancestor worship is relatively straightforward. Nearly every house, office,and business in Vietnam has a small altar which is used to commune withancestors. Incense sticks are burned frequently. Offerings are made – fruit,sweets, and gifts. The latter items are paper replicas of dollar notes (‘ghostmoney’), motorbikes, cars, houses and so on. After worship, the paper gifts areburnt so that the spirits of the gifts can ascend to heaven for the ancestorsto use.

In the past,the income from a plot of land was used to maintain the altar and arrange therituals, but this tradition has now faded away. However, the custom that theeldest son will arrange the ceremonial and inherit the family house upon thedeath of his parents is still generally observed.

Anothertraditional element is the placing of wooden tablets on the altar for each ofthe ancestors over recent generations. This is less rigorously observed today,and tablets are often replaced by photographs. Some pagodas house commemorativetablets for ancestors on behalf of regular worshipers.

When do Vietnamese people worshiptheir ancestors?

Worshipingtakes place regularly on particular days, such as festivals, new and full moondays, the death day of the ancestor, and so on. On important occasions, such asmoving house, starting a new business or the birth of a child, and whenever amember of the family needs guidance or a favour, the ancestors are consulted.

Aproliferation of small fires of burning paper in the streets of towns andcities means that it is a festival or moon day. One paper fire is likely to bean event affecting a single family.

Why do Vietnamese people worshiptheir ancestors?

For theVietnamese, ancestor worship is not related to ghosts, spiritualism or even thesupernatural in the Western sense. It is not even a ‘belief’ in the sense thatit is open to question by the ‘believers’. The Vietnamese accept as a fact thattheir ancestors continue to live in another realm, and that it is the duty ofthe living to meet their needs. In return, the ancestors give advice and bringgood fortune.

Devotees ofBuddhism believe in previous existences, and seek to correct previous bad deedsto reach enlightenment. Ancestor worship is fundamentally different. For theVietnamese, death, and the ritual and practice of ancestor worship, constitutesthe transfer of power from the tangible life to the intangible. Existence is acontinuum 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 orthree generations

Who are the heroic ancestors

By virtue oftheir worthy deeds, heroic ancestors, such as Tran Hung Dao and the Trung sisters,continue to exist and be worshiped in temples for many generations beyond thetwo or three of ordinary folk. Their rectitude is a model to guide the behaviorof the living.

What about ‘bad’ ancestors?

Allancestors are worthy of respect and reverence, regardless of their behavior asliving beings. However, the misdeeds of a wicked family ancestor will bevisited upon his or her children and grandchildren in the form of bad luck.This is a powerful influence upon the behavior of the living, influencing themto behave well and do good deeds in the present, thereby endowing their livingand unborn children with good luck in the future.

How does ancestor worship affectdaily life in Vietnam?

The effectof ancestor worship upon Vietnamese society is profound. There are three mainconcepts:

– regardinglife as a small part of an infinitely greater whole embracing the entire race

– a beliefthat the past and present exist simultaneously

– acertitude that each individual’s behaviour in life has a direct impact upon thequality of the lives of his or her children and grandchildren

Takentogether, these convictions extend the concept of the family far beyond thesense in which the term is used in the West. A Vietnamese person is never‘alone’ – his or her ‘family’ is always present.

What is the future of ancestorworship in Vietnam?

Whetherancestor worship will continue to be strong as the influence of scientificrationalism and social change accelerates, is an open question. In the past,the majority of individual family members lived within close geographicalproximity. The turmoil in the years before and after the defeat of the USforces led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people.

Morerecently, economic migration and travel to far countries to study or work havecreated a growing Diaspora. Only time will determine whether the strength ofthe beliefs that have sustained the Vietnamese family unit over many centuriesand created a unique national community will withstand the pressures ofglobalisation and expanding modern technology.