Buddhas, Gods and Spirits: Dialogic Interplay and Moral Dimensions in Vietnamese Religion
The complexity of religion in Vietnam makes strict categorization impossible. Images of ethnic heroes, spirits and gods have blended with the native religious forms of the Việt people. These divinities derived from such pluralised religious lanscape share common temple and pagoda sites, taking form of the Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and even Hindu repertoire. The core of the Vietnamese religion is the veneration of ancestors. Animistic elements also play crucial role in Vietnamese religious practices. The more institutional religions such as Buddhism, can be characterised as a syncretic mixture rather than a pure doctrinal religion.
The religious practices and beliefs of the Vietnamese people tend not to be focused upon afterlife or “salvation” in the sense of religions as Buddhism or Christianity. In case of violating religious norms, supernatural sanctions tend to be imposing immediately on a person rather than put off until the after-life. Nowadays, it is observed that the Vietnamese people spend a great deal of their time, energy and resources making offerings in shrines, performing rituals, attending popular festivals and participating in pilgrimages. At the same time, the worship of certain spirits for the benefit of personal instead of family or community interest has increased. These spirits work on “a contract basis”, which means that not paying them on time entails a punishment. This materialistic relationship to these spirits stands in stark contrast with compassionate character of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are considered by people much more moral.
Due to the fact that in the late 1980s, Vietnam gradually opened to the international community and started a programme of economic reforms called Đổi Mới, new individualised and utilitarian aspects of religious practice have come to the fore. This research conducted in a small Vietnamese community in Central Vietnam seeks to highlight how religious practices and beliefs provide a balance in an increasingly material world. To explore this issue my project will look at the activities of various religious professionals and their interaction with the believers. I will investigate both practitioners and followers and investigate their notions of spiritual resources, what they do with them to ensure their well-being and create a sense of stability in a volatile environment that is dominated by material values.
For this project will be important to examine carefully which of various gods, spirits and deities are engaged by religious professionals and believers and how they are exploited by them to secure their spiritual and material well-being. I will address the question why they are worth worshipping by a local community and I intend to identify personal motivation for participation in their cult. The next step will be to analyze how various social actors negotiate and contest multiple religious realms, and build individual and collective moral identities, as they interact in the new economic environment. It is expected that through the examination of spirits and gods at the micro-social level a local concept of morality will be identified. As a result, it can provide better insight into Vietnamese society as a whole and it help to find what kind of uncertainties are articulated in social life.