Monday, May 14, 2012

Bribing the Buddha

Another interesting thing about Vietnamese culture is the amount of superstition, and the belief in luck.  Although similar, religion and superstition are slightly different.  Superstition in my definition, is more like little ‘practical’ bits of religion, i.e. religious thinking (belief in ghosts, spirits, etc) that concerns itself with day to day living, rather than ethics or afterlife.  In almost every Vietnamese house and business, you will see a little altar in the corner with a Buddha in a little house, and at the foot of the Buddha, a lot of little offerings, often beer, fruit, and incense.  When I got here, this interested me, and I tried to get the Viets to tell me what all that meant.  What was the spiritual significance of all that?

No Viet I met could actually tell me, was the weird thing.  The typical response is “It’s for the Buddha.”  Yeah, ok, I can see the little fat guy, but what does it mean?  Blank look response.  The thing is, religion in Vietnamese culture doesn’t have a focus on the afterlife, karma, or even morals as we would define them.  Instead, religion is about dealing with powerful unseen forces, which can ruin you or make you successful.  It’s a religion focused on the pragmatic side of this life.

 Vietnamese are by label, Buddhist largely.  However, the actual belief is a mishmash of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and a little bit of old fashioned shamanism.  For as much emphasis as the West has put on religion, the Vietnamese just kind of take it all with a shrug.  Sure, spirits exist, but that’s about as specific as they get.  You have the spirits of your ancestors who watch over your family, and demand offerings in order to protect you from bad luck/spirits.  Then there’s the gods, vague sort of pre-Buddhist ideas of powerful supernatural beings, then there’s the Buddha, who is like the head honcho spirit rather than an ethical ideal, and then there’s the concept of reincarnation tossed in there. 

I asked them, if you believe in reincarnation, then how can your ancestor’s spirits be floating around?  Shouldn’t they be reincarnated?  My Viet student looked surprised, like he had actually never considered that.  He just kind of smiled and shrugged, and said “Yeah, that’s a good point.  I don’t know.”  Fair enough.  But this interaction sums up Vietnamese religion pretty well.  It’s just one of those things that everyone believes because it’s what people believe, but nobody pays much attention to.  Kind of like spiritual background noise.

Religion here is for practical purposes, in order to have success in this life.  You make an offering to Buddha at the pagoda or altar in order to receive good luck.  There’s no spiritual aspect as we would define it.  The afterlife is vague and undefined, and their ethics derive largely from Confucian philosophy, rather than Buddhist thought.

Which brings us to the concept of luck.  In Vietnamese culture, there’s an unspoken view that humans have little actual control of their life.  If you are successful, it is about 20% your work, and about 80% good luck.  The forces of the world are so enormous that each individual is essentially powerless against things like the gods, the spirits, the bosses,  the government, the weather, etc.  In this culture, you can work all your life very hard, but not get anywhere.  If you’re born a peasant, you’ll die as one too.  Social mobility isn’t an Asian thing.  Your best bet is to rely upon luck, fortune, and the goodwill of the ancestors. 

In this culture, and even so in ours, this makes sense.  In the West, we have more ability to change our situation in life, not much more, but still, there is some social mobility.  Theoretically, if you want to be rich, you can pursue certain paths in life.  This is the big selling point of capitalism; upward mobility.  As the rich continue to become the Super Rich 1%, and the rest of slide into lower middle class, this American Dream is becoming less and less a reality, thanks to tax breaks for the rich and the corporations, “free” trade treaties, outsourcing, and the rising cost of education.

So, in Vietnam, they hope to persuade the things that control luck and fortune through offerings.  If you were to ask almost any Viet why they go to pagodas or make offerings to the Buddha, it is exclusively to receive good fortune (luck) in this life, rather than any spiritual reason.  In the Vietnamese mind, spirits are not part of religion, they are a force of nature to be reckoned with.  And they take it seriously.  People will pay HUGE sums of money ($1000’s) to have ‘lucky’ phone numbers, and a wedding day is always decided by consulting a fortune teller to find the most lucky day and time for the couple to get married on.  Some weddings take place on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., possibly the least romantic time. 

As an atheist, I can actually appreciate this type of thinking.  In life, there is so much that truly is out of our control, and while some people resort to the belief that there is some divine order in the universe (‘God has a plan’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’), I can appreciate and in fact, agree more with the Asian idea that chaos and chance are the foundations of the universe.  Evolutionary science and science in general tend to agree on this.   You can be ready to think on your feet in order to react well, or take advantage of opportunities as they arise, but as a wise man once said, “Shit happens.” 

In Vietnamese spiritual thinking, they are just trying to hedge their bets with a little supernatural graft to the spirits, a friendly “gift” that might get the Powers That Be to do you a favor.   Us Westerners call it ‘corruption’ but here, it’s just a way of life and afterlife.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I found the concept of Buddhism differs everywhere I've lived (note that I didn't call it a religion, because despite it's spiritual aspects, it doesn't actually worship a god). Much of what you describe in VN is also practiced in Malaysia and (quietly) in China.

    You also talk about what I like to think of as "spiritual lobbying." For many Americans, it's going to Church on Sundays and dropping $$ in the collection basket. In Indonesia, the Hindus leave burnt offerings on a shelf and on the ground, thus satisfying both good and evil spirits. Kind of like how lobbyists on Capitol Hill make contributions to both candidates. I can respect that pragmatic thinking.

    Interesting tie-in to capitalism. When you think about things like the stock market and "trickle down economics," capitalism is just as much a faith-based system as any religion out there. Average Joes and Janes go through life with the belief that if they only work hard enough (e.g. pay tribute) they, or at least their children, will experience The American Dream (Heaven). And just like with prayer, sometimes their hopes are realized. Many times not. When things don't work out, and they feel cheated, proponents of The System explain that it works in mysterious ways, and maybe next time they should work harder/smarter.