The Power of the Buddha
A Reflection Essay on Understanding Vietnam
May 19th 2008
Traveling through the country of Vietnam for the past four weeks has been a life altering experience. The county is comprised of two dominant cities, Hanoi in the North and Saigon in the South. Infinite rice fields, vertical mountain ranges, and the greenish-blue sea represent most of what lies in between. The landscape is simply breathtaking and so is the population’s hard-work. Not only is the citizen’s commitment to their work impressive, but so is their dedication to their religion. Although Vietnam lacks a national religion, Buddhism is heavily practiced throughout the country. Its presence in everyday life is noted through multiple temples, but also in homes, shops and restaurants. In fact, the government even recognized the importance of Buddhism this year by hosting the UN’s Vesak day (May 18th), which combines the Buddha’s birthday, the enlightenment day and the Parinirvana Day. In America, which prides itself on the separation of church and state, it is uncommon to see prayer altars or statues of Mary in shops or restaurants. Yet in Vietnam, shop owners proudly display their dedication to Buddhism. Over the past month, the consistent presence of Buddhism has been noticed throughout the country in many ways.
Throughout our travels we visited multiple Buddhist temples in both country and city settings. The bright colors and unique architecture of the many temples was aesthetically pleasing. The style and structure of the buildings, low ceilings, high entrance step, multiple windows to enter through, is quite uncommon in America. Also, the site of offerings was interesting because of their variety. From temple to temple the offerings would come in an overflowing wide range from flowers to fruits to dong to booze. The rules of proper attire and respect of not wearing shoes was impressive even though aggravating at times. To think that no matter what the temperature is, Vietnamese women will dress appropriately by covering pretty much all of their exposed skin demonstrates their dedication to their religious practices.
Although all of the temples toured were intriguing, Tran Quoc in Hanoi, Huong Son in Ha Tay province (two hours by car from Hanoi), and Thien Mu in Hue, were the three temples that stood out from the rest. All three are practicing temples, while the later two are working monasteries. Tran Quoc Temple in Hanoi is set on Hoan Kiem Lake. Even amongst the busy city streets, its orange, seven-level stupa immediately catches the eye. Another eye grabber was the Bodhi tree, a gift of Nehru, the first prime minister from India, planned at the central part of the temple’s front court garden. Inside the dimly lit temple, the altar was heavily decorated with offerings and burning incense, and also hundreds of framed pictures. These photographs are of the recently deceased. The temple serves as a memorial site for family and friends of lost loved ones. This aspect of the temple makes it a prayer site, a place to worship and a place to remember. Overall, the Tran Quoc Temple demonstrates an example of the dedication Vietnamese citizens have for their religion, because at anytime they can come and pray.
The Huong Son Mountain site is a Buddhist pilgrimage located about two hours outside of Hanoi. Constructed of many religious locations throughout the complex, the main temple can be reached by boat and a hike is required to visit and observe the cave altar. A monastery, exclusive from tourists (except us), is found at the base of the mountain. Before we hiked to the top, we were fortunate enough to meet the Abbott and received pendants that would protect us throughout the rest of our journey. The steep two-mile path to the cave altar was packed with aggressive vendors looking to make a buck. It was impressive to see that the selling never ceased. These people hike everyday to station themselves along this path which is part of a Buddhist pilgrimage. While we struggled to reach the top at a speedy pace, groups of elder men and women passed us smiling on their journey down. Fully clothed and bare footed, the site of the elderly women that leisurely made their way encouraged me to pick up my pace. It was exciting to think that some people hike everyday to pay their respects to their compassionate deity, or Phat Ba Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Inside the cave was a smaller prayer altar than usual, but it was still covered in flowers, fruits, Vietnamese dong, and burning incense. The site was filled by an even mix of tourists and worshippers. We were fortunate enough to observe an actual prayer session: the ringing of a bell combined with a chanted prayer while moving from the kneeling to standing position, all the while hands remand pressed together. Once again, the importance of religion was expressed at Huong Son Mountain because Buddhist followers hiked to then descend into a cave in order to chant and pray to their most popular deity.
Another significant feature of Buddhism that was observed throughout the trip is Quan The Am or the Boddhisattva of Compassion. This Boddhisattva named Avalokitesvara has the role of protecting travelers and bestowing children to childless mothers. The cave altar at Huong Son Mountain complex is dedicated to her. Groups of elderly women hike the mountain in order to thank and pray for Quan The Am. Huong Son Mountain site was the first place I learned about Avalokitesvara, from then on I noticed her everywhere. For example, our bus has a flashing framed picture of her on the dashboard. Avalokitesvara reminds me of Saint Anthony in Catholicism who guards you when you are lost during travel and protects you along the road. In some respects, like here, Catholicism and Buddhism overlap, yet the dedication Buddhists have for their religion is quite remarkable.
The third interesting temple is known for its ancient Vietnamese legend. Thien Mu Temple in Hue was constructed by Nguyen Hoang, the first lord of the Nguyen ruling family, who was met by a “Celestial Lady” in his dreams. The dream-lady, who was a manifestation of Quan The Am, ordered him to build a temple in her honor in hopes of a prosperous future for his newly acclaimed lands. Thien Mu Temple’s large, orange stupa located at the top of a steep staircase, also immediately catches the eye upon exit off the boat. In addition to the stupa, an important bell and drum sit outside the main entrance which is protected by twelve ferocious deities. Thien Mu Temple is a practicing monastery that is open to the public for prayer and visits. However, this temple differs from past toured temples because its altar is extremely neat. The main prayer altar is presented in an organized fashion. Offerings are limited to two bouquets of yellow and white flowers on each side set in a symmetrical manner. This altar contained three statues of Buddha each depicting past, present, and future. The prayer altar’s well-kept state, showed how highly important it is for the worshippers and students of the monastery.
Clearly temples are a strong representation of Vietnamese commitment to religion. However, the importance of Buddhism is expressed all across the country in other manners as well. For example, Cha Ca fish restaurant in Hanoi displayed their religion by turning their mantle into an altar decorated with a statue of Buddha, offerings and incense. In addition to restaurants, shops of all types express their following of Buddhism with prayer altars or framed pictures of a smiling Buddha. In fact displays of Buddha were observed in several stores from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An to Saigon. Commitment to Buddhism is not hidden in Vietnam it is actually proudly and overtly displayed. This open dedication to one’s religious affiliation is an uncommon aspect in comparison to American habits.
Another place of worship in addition to temples, shops and restaurants is the home. Although we only had a couple of opportunities to visit private homes, I would assume that most Buddhist practicing families pray in their homes as well as their temples. In fact, thay Trian’s brother’s house in Hue both displayed their practice of Buddhism through altars dedicated to deceased family members. At the rustic house of his half-brother’s outside of Hue, there was burning incense along with two framed certificates noting the brother’s enrollment in the northern army. A framed picture of Ho Chi Minh also hung proudly on the altar as if he was part of the family. Clearly the family members pray for their lost father, in addition to Uncle Ho. Propaganda posters and billboards commemorating Ho Chi Minh, the great northern leader who brought victory for the Vietnamese from the Americans, is another issue of commitment and dedication as well.
The house of Thay Trian’s younger brother in Hue, in which we had the honor of being served a delicious vegetarian meal, also displayed the family’s practice of Buddhism through ancestor worship. His mother is remembered through nicknames and stories, as well as pictures. However upstairs in the loft she is prayed for and worshipped. Required to take off one’s shoes, the clean white tiled floor possesses a prayer altar with a statue of Buddha, burning incense, a framed photograph of his mother and some articles of her clothing. Thay Trian’s family’s dedication to Buddhist ancestor worship was something I had never witnessed before and found it to be quite remarkable.
At home I remember my grandfather through stories, pictures, and personal experiences. As a practicing Catholic I pray for the deceased in church and occasionally before bed. However, to no extent is it a daily public activity in which it seems to be here. We visit his grave in a similar manner, but Thay Trian’s family tomb site we visited brought the importance of remembering and worshipping the dead to a whole new level. From the little knowledge I have on Buddhism, I really appreciated learning about the significance of worship for those who have passed.
Over the entire course, Buddhism in Vietnam was the most remarkable even up to the last couple of days because some form of it was witnessed on a daily basis. For example, our hike up the Sam Mountain in the Chau Doc province was decorated by temples and altars for Mountain deities and Avalokitesvara the entire way. Whether driving along the highway, walking through shops, or hiking up mountains, tomb sites, temples and prayer altars could be spotted anywhere. Yet, the country is also made up of other religious practices such as Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism, but Buddhism clearly dominates across the nation. Centuries ago it served as the national religion. However it was suppressed by Confucianism in the 16th century during the Late Le dynasty and then during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by Ngo Dinh Diem who demanded the practice of Catholicism as the president of the south. Through years of struggle and persecution during Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime, the Vietnamese people continued to dedicate and devote their time and energy to the beliefs of Buddhism. After observing the significant presence of Buddhism throughout our trip, I find the followers to be remarkable in their commitment to their powerful religion.