September, 30 2010 08:12:19

Culture Vulture

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recently enacted Decision 103/2009/ND-CP that prohibits certain aspects of spiritual worship known as hau dong considered harmful or open to fraud.

In the practice of hau dong, a spirit medium communes with deities.

Folk culture researcher Bui Trong Hien talks about the circular.

What exactly is hau dong?

Hau dong, len dong, hau bong or dong bong are different words to describe a form of shamanism unique to Viet Nam. It originated in Viet Nam. It was not imported from other countries as is the case with Taoism, Buddhism or Christianity.

The ritual involves a spirit medium who communes with deities.

A hau dong ceremony involves chanting and the singing of folk songs called hat van.

The practice has been in existence for many generations and is very much part of Vietnamese culture. It helps people balance their life and make sense of existence – despite its apparent lack of logic.

How do you think the new regulation will be received?

Well, this is a fairly sensitive matter. People may ask why imported beliefs and rituals are permitted while aspects of hau dong, which is wholly Vietnamese, are proscribed.

Many folk artists who earn a living from the practice will be unhappy. Fortunately, the circular only applies to formal festivals.

It is claimed the ritual plays upon people's fears and is open to abuse. What is your view on this?

Yes, that's true. But I think we should clearly define what is meant by the notion "commercial belief". When someone wishes for something through the practice of hau dong, he or she is putting his or her trust in something supernatural.

From the earliest time, belief systems helped people make sense of their life and surroundings. It is not simply about satisfying personal desire. When I ask for something from the god I trust, I make an offering.

However, expensive offerings or the burning of excessive quantities of votive money and goods should be avoided.

What is the best way of curbing these unhealthy and wasteful practices?

The challenging task here is to differentiate between belief and superstition – and that is no easy matter.

How can we set out precisely what is an acceptable or unacceptable practice?

I think the media has a part to play in better informing the public about what is a healthy or unhealthy practice.

For example, the media could fairly and justifiably report that the practice of burning votive money and other offerings originated from Taoism and has nothing to do with local belief. People should not burn votive money in the hope of bringing good luck or wealth. Logically, if favour is a reflection of fortune, the gods are corrupt officials who can be bought at a price. They would not deserve any respect.

I believe that when people understand the nature of the matter, they will by themselves curb unhealthy practices.

A civilised society should curb actions that are detrimental to members of the community or the environment, such as violence or disorder. — VNS

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