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Viet Nam, a cultural crossroads

Update: December, 15/2012 - 10:22

HA NOI (VNS) — After emerging from two long and crippling wars that lasted for more than 20 years, Viet Nam has developed rapidly and people's lives have been improved both materially – and spiritually.

To mark Viet Nam's decision to stand for election to the UN Human Rights Council, the Vietnam News Agency introduces some articles on beliefs and religions of the Vietnamese. These will hopefully provide an overview of the freedom to practice one's own beliefs in a land with thousands of years of continuous civilisation.

Our ancestors hunted for animals, including rhinoc-erous, tigers and elephants, on the vast plains of what archaelogists refer to as Sundaland, which largely disappeared under water at the decline of the ice age five to six thousand years ago. This plain, now covered by what Vietnamese refer to as the East Sea, once stretched as far as Indonesia and explains why many of the peoples of Viet Nam, and their customs, are related to those living in those now distant islands.

These early inhabitants – some of small stature with dark skin and curly hair, others taller and related to the Austro-Polynesians, or fairer and related to the Sino-Tibetans – were armed with spears and stone axes and lived in caves like their counterparts in other parts of Asia and Europe.

But, regardless of appearances, these first peoples developed primitive beliefs to explain life, death and their relationship with nature, particularly animals, mountains, rivers, the elements and the eternal, over-riding powers of the sun and the moon.

This gradually became codified and, by 1,000 BC, was being recorded in the representations of animals such as frogs and boats on pottery – and the bronze drums of the Dong Son culture. The frogs are believed to represent the first water symbol of the Vietnamese people, much older than the dragon. The boats were for carrying trade goods to distant ports throughout Asia, all of them parts of old Sundaland.

There are also depictions of religious rituals on the drums – and warriors with spears. This bronze-work was produced by the so called lost-wax bronze-casting process that existed in Southeast Asia before the first millennium BCE. The artwork depicted on them also had profound meaning for surrounding cultures, hence its popularity. Many of the ancient drums still survive in villages in Laos, Cambodia and insular and peninsula South-east Asia.

From these simple early connections with trade, nature and the spirit world, Viet Nam now has a total of 32 religious organisations licensed by the State. Officially they have a total of about 15.5 million followers, but, as those who live here know, almost all Vietnamese follow some form of religious belief.

The most popular religion in Viet Nam is Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana form that arrived from India along the Silk Road and through China. Then there is Theravada, or yellow-robed form of Buddhism, which arrived from India, presumably via the ancient Khmer and Cham cultures – which were predominantly Mahayanist and Hindu. It is worth noting that the Khmer Empire was once so powerful that it stretched from the mouth of the Mekong, covering modern day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and half of the Malay peninsula.

There is a written record of a monk from India arriving in southern Viet Nam as long ago as the first century AD and staying at a dinh (Vietnamese community hall). The first Mahayana pagoda was built in Bac Ninh province about the same time.

In Viet Nam, as in many parts of East Asia, most people follow a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism reflects the beautiful and profound teachings of Lao Tsu, a Chinese sage who lived at the same time as the Buddha and Confucius. The teaching of Confucius, who was also a contemporary of the other two philosophers, largely support the role of families and their relations with the state.

This syncretic religion is tied to ancestor worship, the honouring of one's ancestors at an altar in the family home. This worship includes the use of betel leaf and the areca palm nut, a practice found in the oldest communities from Nepal and Thailand to Myanmar, Laos and most other parts of Southeast Asia.

Officially, Buddhists claim only 6.8 million followers, but, by understanding realising its connection to Taoism and Confucianism, it can be seen that it touches most of the 82 million inhabitants of Viet Nam.

Catholicism, which arrived with colonialists from Europe in the 19th Century, has 5.7 million followers, the Hoa Hao sect has 1.4 million and the Cao Dai sect, 808,000. Then there are Protestants (734,000), Muslims (73,000) and Balamon (56,000).

There are also a wide range of folk beliefs, often involving the naga, or sacred serpent - a possible precursor to the dragon. These religions have deep local characteristics and are often found mixed with other beliefs, especially among the tribal people in the hills.

Living in a land that has been at the juncture of many big civilisations, the Vietnamese have been open to different kinds of belief and adopt many of them into their own spiritual activities. Cultural researcher Phan Ngoc describes this as a refraction of new elements based on Viet Nam 's "cultural constant". He says that beliefs and religions in Viet Nam not only have a wide diversity in terms of origin, history of development, and ritual forms but also have a high adaptability.

This is why that ensuring the right to freedom of belief and harmony among religions is an important task for the Vietnamese State. During the first meeting of the provisional Government on September 3, 1945, one day after the declaration of national independence, President Ho Chi Minh proposed the principle of "freedom of beliefs and solidarity between believers and non-believers".

He said that the founders of great religions shared a common purpose of upholding the good and directing people towards an equal and free life in the world community. This, said President Ho, was the supreme goal of the Vietnamese revolution.

This point of view has become the guideline for the Vietnamese Communist Party and State's religious policies during the past seven decades – and has been emphasised at all Party Congresses and in all four Constitutions.

Together with socio-economic achievements in the name of national reform, people's cultural life, including religious activities, continue to be enriched by traditional rituals and festivals and international events.

The decision to stand for election to the UN Human Rights Council reflects Viet Nam 's commitment to ensuring the basic rights of people, including religious freedom, contributing to efforts to build a world of equality and happiness. — VNS

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