Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trip to Vietnam: Part 2: "Ritual Components"

The first major cultural experience I had in Vietnam was going out with my mom on a mission to perform a traditional Vietnamese prayer ritual to pray for the health of her brother, who is in the hospital with cancer. Religion in Vietnam is an eclectic mix of Buddhism, animism, and lots of ancestor worship, so it is kind of interesting. The theory behind Vietnamese intercessory prayer is that you have to "save a life to get a life", and the way you "save a life" is by purchasing small animals to release into the water at the pagoda (a kind of temple). There is a street in Hanoi that has a market that happens every five days where you can buy animals for this purpose. We went to the market but couldn't find what we were looking for. My mom forgot to bring her Vietnamese phrase book, so in order to communicate with the locals he had to take out a BlackBerry and use a free translation Web site. At first we asked about where to buy "animals to release for good luck," and we were directed to a street that seemed to just have some pet stores, but no market. We also asked where the "five day market" was but they couldn't understand us. Eventually we found our way to a fish store that had someone who spoke English, and they informed us that the "five day market" actually occurred the previous day. So we just bought three fish there for 5,000 Vietnamese dong (about $0.25) each, what a later passerby informed us was a "rip-off", and it should have ben more like 2,000 dong ($0.10). There were also lots of vendors that sell votive offerings to burn, including packages of replica $100 bills. We went to the pagoda, where we pray in front of a large golden Buddha flanked by columns of packaged food items, then go to an area where we burn the money to have it rise up to our ancestors, and then went to release the fish. Since I was under the impression that Buddhism was all about transcending your material needs, I was surprised to see the commercial imagery such as the money and big golden stuff. It's clear the Vietnamese are really into the whole religion thing, as throughout Vietnam there are a whole bunch of vendors selling ritual components, including paper replicas of motorbikes and clothes to burn. According to Vietnamese tradition, burning paper replicas of things is how you send them up to heaven to provide for your ancestors in the afterlife, and Vietnamese believe that your ancestors need the same things in the afterlife that they needed in our life. For example, if your ancestor was a heroin addict, you should burn paper replicas of heroin needles to send them up there. It makes sense, I guess, because if you're already dead anyway, it can't harm you any more to inject some heroin, right?

No comments: