Density of Practice

One of the things that makes Vietnam unfamiliar, even incomprehensible, to many Westerners, is the sheer density of religious practice here. I suspect that to most visitors, Vietnamese religious practice is mostly invisible, at least in part because it is ubiquitous. The Vietnamese have settled, to varying degrees, on a practical & syncretic combination of three traditions that they designate tam giáo, “triple religion, which combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism & Daoism, though the cement that binds them is the cult of the ancestors, which is fractal, reproducing itself at scales ranging from the family, the neighborhood / village, to whole regions & the nation itself.1


The 11th of November was the 30th of the lunar month, so all the temples were open & busy. Families were burning votive paper on the curbs, sometimes in the small metal incinerators constructed for the purpose, sometimes right on the concrete. The city fills with the smoke at the new & the full moon.

Tinwork votive offering burners
These little incinerators are used to burn votive offerings, usually on the 1st & 15th days of the lunar month.

The Vietnamese make a distinction between a temple & a pagoda that may be lost on Western visitors. A temple is a place where spirits & deities of many different kinds can be addressed & petitioned; a pagoda, on the other hand, is a specifically Buddhist place of worship. The neighborhood temples–many of them founded when people from a particular village moved into the city in the 15th century–were open & people were bringing offerings of food & incense.

Votive Paper Seller
Votive Paper Seller

One of the first things I remarked about Vietnam, twenty years ago now, was that the line between the sacred & the profane was not so sharply drawn as in the secular West. But it is more complicated than that, or perhaps less complicated. The sacred saturates the secular in Vietnam, but at the same time is taken so completely for granted that religious practice can seem casual, even desultory. The casual respect paid to household gods says a great deal about the depth of belief–belief doesn’t really enter into it, in fact, if belief indicates some sustained act of will that must be held in mind and applied like a tool in particular situations.

In Vietnam, people approach the sacred, sometimes, from frankly mercenary directions. I’m not sure whether this contradicts what I just claimed about will. A Vietnamese friend, a scholar of languages & culture, speaks disdainfully of people who go to the local temple to pray for wealth, or children, or health. “They don’t know anything about what they’re doing,” he says. Though people do pray to different Buddhist Bodhisattvas, especially Quan Âm (Avalokitateshvara) or the historical Buddha (Thích), but most such prayers are addressed to Daoist gods & local deities in temples that, while they may include images of Buddha, are not strictly Buddhist. Related to these Daoist & local practices, the veneration of mother goddesses adds another layer of complexity to religious practice here. The roots of this practice are very old, but it has recently moved into new social space. There is a strong thread of divination practice in the goddess cults, though that alone does not set it apart from other religious practices–divination also flickers around the edges of Buddhism, with fortune-tellers taking up residence in some temples & pagodas.

The visible & the invisible, the profane & the sacred, coexist in Vietnam, but the categories overlap in ways not common in the West, if that is not too broad–or too vague–a characterization.


Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.



Karaoke & Travel Impressions

What is it about the Vietnamese & karaoke? I’m seven floors up & I can hear people going at it in the club across from the hotel. Must be a hell of a din downstairs.

Arrived in good order this morning, less wrung out than usual. Hot & muggy, with a rain shower this afternoon while I napped. There is a beautiful new bridge over the Red River & in general Hanoi looks prosperous. The airport, which in the past often had a certain Dantean quality, has been redone & spruced up; neat & efficient, the place was a pleasant surprise, especially in contrast to Hong Kong, where the airport–once a jewel of Asian modernism–has gotten rather tatty. Maybe the decline is related to the mainland’s economic turmoil.

The manager at my hotel remembered me from a couple of years ago & since I was early, settled me with a plate of fresh fruit while my room was gotten ready: passion fruit, dragon fruit & watermelon.


As noted, I slept for a while, then took a short walk & went out to dinner. I always go to the Moca Cafe on my first day in Hanoi–not because it’s the best place, but because of its longevity. The cơm rang gà (chicken fried rice) tastes the same as it did sixteen years ago & it was pleasant to watch the stream of Hanoians & tourists go past the open windows & to hear the raw, unmelodious bell of St. Josephs.


Sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery

Heading tomorrow to ZMM for sesshin. When I get back next week I want to pick up my discussion of Zen from early in the year, regarding Zen’s relationship to the divine & supernatural from some previous posts.

From Zen Chants, by Kazuaki Tanahashi, a teacher with whom I have studied briefly:

In a common Zen invocation, Vairochana Buddha—the pantheistic divinity regarded as existent in each and every particIe—is addressed. Noting the presence of many buddhas and bodhisattvas in Zen, some of us may see it as polytheistic. Others regard Zen as atheistic, since the central figure on the altar is usually Shakyamuni Buddha—a human being, not a deity. Those who have faith in Amitabha Buddha often refuse to worship other divinities, so their practice may appear to fall into the category of monotheism.

Thus, Buddhists—including Zen practitioners—can be seen as running the gamut from having faith in a single deity to many deities to omnipresent deities to no deity at all. The ambiguity and diversity of this situation do not seem to bother people much. Accordingly, I propose a concept of ambigu-theism to characterize the theological orientation of Buddhism (13).


James Wood on Atheism & Atheists

At the end of an interview in Slate, the critic James wood said something that resonated with my own experience:

I’m always amazed anew that there are quite so many atheists in this country, and that they are quite so completely fanatical. That is to say, if you are unwise enough, as I have been, to write a sort of plague on both their houses type of piece, in which you are mildly critical of certain elements of the new atheism as well as being fairly obviously critical of religiosity, you get no quarter from the atheistic camp. That always sort of surprises me. There really is no space for any—I won’t say middle position because it isn’t a middle position. I’m a nonbeliever. But that there is no tolerance for the remotest whisper of rational discourse about the fact of religious practice, about the existence of religious practice, is dismaying to me.