Spirituality plays an important role in life of the Vietnamese at home or abroad.

To many Vietnamese, faith is a part of their national identity. Some say it brings meaning to their life. Others are skeptical about the purpose behind religions.

In order to further understand Buddhism and its practices, I contacted the Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in the Czech Republic, talked to the monks and some Buddhist followers. I also attended some of their praying masses and a religious festival to earn some insights.

A brief history of Buddhism development in Vietnam

It was not until the first and second century that traders from India introduced Mahayana Buddhism to Van Lang (now Vietnam). In order to appeal to the masses, they modified and adapted Buddhism to the local customs and folk beliefs.

During the 1000 years under the Chinese rule, Buddhism was fused with Confucianism and Taoism and politicized by the state into the “three teachings” which helped shape the Vietnamese culture, ideologies and politics maintained until today.

Despite the common perception that Vietnam is a Buddhist country, less than a fifth of the population identify themselves as Buddhists. Meanwhile, 45% of the population practice folk religions such as the worship of ancestors and supernatural spirits.

Religious syncretism as a part of the Vietnamese cultural identity

On April 22, the Vietnamese minority in Prague celebrated the the Hung Kings Commemoration at SAPA. The commemoration is based on Vietnamese folk beliefs about the 18 Hung Kings that established the Viet kingdom and protected it from foreign invasion.

Despite the fact that this festival celebrates folk religions and not Buddhism, the monks and their followers still attended it. Generally Buddhism does not believe in a personal God or a divine being, it does not have worship, praying to, or praising of a divine being. This festival, on one hand, contradicts Buddhist teachings. On the other, it shows the beauty of religious syncretism in the Vietnamese culture.

To most of the Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic, the Hung kings Commemoration Festival is a social event, not religious. There are contests, music performances, and more that religious or non-religious people can all attend.

Many Vietnamese see religious beliefs as part of their national identity. During the days of Chinese colonization, life in Vietnam was difficult. The Buddhist temples, therefore, acted as a sanctuary for the people. The temple, as a result, has became a fundamental part of the Vietnamese life, serving as a trait of its national identity, preserving the local religions which sets the country apart from its colonizer China. When Nam Viet became a vassal state of China, the Buddhist monks took part in the governance and at one point, the state had a Buddhist emperor.

A monk having lunch, prepared by his followers, in the common home.

Monks as businessmen: When religious teachings are distorted for financial gains

Unfortunately, faith can also be manipulated to serve the interests of a few people at the expense of others. Many Vietnamese stop attending masses when they feel as if they’re taken advantage of.

“The temple is just a business,” said a former follower of the Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in the Czech Republic. “My husband used to be an well-known figure in the community, so the temple expected us to ‘donate’ at least 500 CZK each time we attend a spiritual ceremony. The monks make money off their followers.”

Back in Vietnam, every year, people raced to the temples to offer goods, sometimes cash, to the gods in returns for the divine blessings. In the past, the blessings used to be presented in forms of small presents such as fruits or charms. In 2018, you can buy the blessings. In an article titled “Bestowing the Tran Charms: The Festival to Bribe the Gods”, businessmen and politicians alike, were reported to hustle, quarrel, and fight each other over the purchase of the “blessed charms”.

This brings us to the question: How far are we willing to go to salvage ourselves?

Photo courtesy of Chau Nguyen

Chau was the Editor-in-Chief of Lennon Wall magazine from July 2017 to June 2018. During her term, she gave editorial directions, oversees the operation and set policies. She was also responsible for the final products of the magazine.