MONEY TO BURN Aug 28, 2004 12:57:04 GMT -5
Post by Admin on Aug 28, 2004 12:57:04 GMT -5
Money to Burn
The 32 year-old Vietnamese lady across the restaurant table has a problem. She’s attractive, charming, well-educated, financially and emotionally independent - but she’s still single. In a society where most girls are married by the age of 26, Phuong Anh bears the social stigma of being e chong - left on the shelf - or so it would seem. Naturally, her mother is distraught but knows the explanation for her daughter’s plight – a lonesome male spirit is in love with her and is preventing her from finding an Earthly soul-mate. Her mother believes the only remedy is for Phuong Anh to go through the Cat Giai Tien Duyen ceremony (Cutting the Love Connection) at the local pagoda. During this ritual, the presiding monk burns nine paper girls as an offering to the lonely male spirit. In bygone days, a paper horse or two were added to expedite the paper maidens’ flight to the spirit world. However, today, paper motorcycles have replaced the paper horses – the motorcycle being the most common form of transport in modern-day Vietnam.
For sure, belief in the spirit world is very much part and parcel of Vietnamese life where Ancestor worship, mixed with elements of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, constitutes the main fabric of this strong family-based society. For example, every household has a Nha Tho or family altar where photographs of deceased loved ones are reverently displayed. On auspicious days, such as lunar festivals and death anniversaries, incense sticks are burnt and array of food, drink and cigarettes offered to the in-house spirits who are considered an integral part of family life.
Phuong Anh has a further dilemma. She is a fledging believer in Christ and knows that Ancestor worship and related rituals are strongly counter to her new-found faith. At the same time, she loves and respects her Buddhist mother and does not want to disobey or hurt her. Such dilemmas are common for believers in Vietnam where the Christian faith generally cuts across the grain of the national culture. In the west, something we take for granted is that our culture and family life are essentially Christian-based. For example consider our family customs during the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. How easy it is for us to be a Christian during these times.
As I ride home through the dimly lit streets of Hanoi, numerous small fires illuminate the pavements outside homes and businesses. Here is a further demonstration of the sway that the spirit world has on Vietnamese society. On the first and fifteenth of the lunar month, additional sacrificial burnt offerings are made to appease the surrounding spirits in the hope of invoking health, wealth and prosperity. It is common to see paper clothes, shoes and even houses being transformed into palls of smoke and black soot, although the most preferred mode of offering is money. In past times, gold-coloured pieces of paper were sacrificed in the fire but since the late 1980s the most common form of money offering is none other than thick wads of US dollars – photocopies of course.
At this point I’m tempted to digress a little and talk about life in Vietnam since the Vietnam War, or American War as it’s understandably known here. Suffice to say at this stage, that that War has already been confined to history by most Vietnamese. For starters, over 50% of the current population are under 26 years old and have no first hand recollection of the War. Like most Asian youngsters, their main preoccupation is learning English, or saving up to buy designer clothes, a state-of-the-art cell phone or the latest model in Honda motorcycles. Older Vietnamese people may well remember the harsh post-War years as much as the War years themselves.
Okay, back to the ritualistic burning of greenbacks. Inwardly we may sneer at the apparent futility of burning fake US cash to spirits, especially as it would seem that the offerings are made more out of a sense duty or fear as opposed to love. But wait a minute. Let’s examine ourselves. How prone we are to behave in a like manner and lapse into legalistic giving. For example when we tithe our 10 per cent or so where is our focus? Is it on what will happen to our source of wealth if we don’t give? Is it on all the goodies we are going to buy with the 80% or 90% we keep for ourselves? Or is it on how we can use the money to advance God’s kingdom here on Earth, alleviating pain and suffering in the process? Therefore, in closing, it is easy for us to be less than gracious when considering the belief systems of other cultures. However, if we care to take a closer look oftentimes we will see a reflection of ourselves.
contributed by rockman