March, 06 2014 09:57:00

Are we developing a culture of selfishness?

At the annual festival at the Chua Kho Temple in Bac Ninh Province, tens of thousands of people make offerings to the "lady of the storehouse" – or Ba Chua Kho, in hopes of finding wealth.— Photo dantri

by Thu Van

No society can flourish without culture and there can be no sustainable development without it."

One could say that UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova is stating the obvious.

Culture is the spiritual foundation of any society, its goal and motivation, and the central pillar of development.

In Viet Nam, there seems to be a cultural crisis. At least that is what I feel when I see so many of my national brethren putting their fate in the hands of gods, be it for earning wealth or having better career opportunities.

Let me clarify this a bit: Believers have every right to say "everything is in the hands of God," in a way that denotes humility and devotion, but I think they should not do so in ways that absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions and in ways that almost commercialise their relationship with the divine.

Early last month, tens of thousands of people flocked to the Temple of Tran Kings in Nam Dinh Province to attend a religious festival, an annual ceremony held of the 15th day of the first month of the Lunar New Year.

Though the original meaning of the festival remains a matter of controversy among historians, it is widely believed by many that those who are given replicas of the kings' royal seal will have good luck in their future.

The ceremony turned from being a solemn occasion to a riot as devotees jostled and even fought each other to touch the chair used to carry the deity. They threw crumpled bank notes on the chair, hoping that this would bring them good luck.

At the annual festival at the Chua Kho Temple in Bac Ninh Province, tens of thousands of people make offerings to the "lady of the storehouse" – or Ba Chua Kho, in hopes of finding wealth.

The story is that Ba Chua Kho was a woman in charge of keeping a warehouse under the Tran Dynasty, who was granted powers to keep and give money. So it is believed that she is a goddess who blesses people with wealth. It is estimated that about billions of dong are spent at the festival every year.

Luong Hong Quang of the Viet Nam Institute of Culture and Arts, said that in the old times, worshipping gods had a different meaning. Worshippers considered gods as higher beings whose blessings could not just mitigate hardship, but would take them to higher levels as well; there was no profit motive involved in terms of acquiring material wealth.

Nowadays, as the society is in transition, the present crisis is inevitable he said. Many people now believe that the valuable offerings they make to the gods, the more they will get in return.

Offerings to the gods, in the old times, were prepared with devotion in the heart, Quang said. If your heart is pure, the offerings do not need to be fancy. Then, pilgrims threw coins in the belief that the action would help the souls of those who had died in pain. It was a humanitarian act, people thinking about the well-being of others, not themselves.

Now, it seems as though people are striking economic bargains with the gods.

Making cash donations to temples and pagodas in order to contribute to their upkeep is one thing, but when banknotes are flung about in places of worship in the expectation of greater wealth and better career prospects, something of the genuine religiosity and spirituality is lost, I feel.

The reason for such blind belief and actions could be the fact that in modern society, many people strike it rich in such a short time that they themselves believe there's a magic to it, and they believe gods blessed them. And others hope praying can work this magic for them, too.

But why can't people think about this simple fact: the Buddha, who most Vietnamese worship, gave up all his riches to find the truth about life and the right way to live – among other things, being compassionate to all sentient beings.

Why can't people think about another simple fact: When people prayed for good weather and harvests in the old days, it was a wish for the well-being of everyone, not for them to get ahead in what is rightly described as a rat race, where your growth depends on the other failing to make it.

What you give is not as important as how and why you give it.

Trying to bribe gods cannot be considered a nation's tradition. Distorting the original meaning of festivals will harm to the country's culture.

Both modern motivational speakers and religious traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, stress the fact that only one's action is in one's hands – not the outcome.

Life is the journey, not the destination, wise people have said.

I hope we can remind ourselves and commit ourselves to making this journey beautiful and meaningful by being true to the message of love and compassion that all religious traditions proclaim.

Taking responsibility for our own actions, then, can be a profoundly religious act. — VNS

Robert Fries - scott17110@yahoo.com   Robert Fries
March, 17 2014 10:00:39
Points well taken from the article. The Nobel 8-Fold Path of Buddhism seems reasonable approach to life even if one does not proclaim themselves to be Buddhist. One may be materially successful and be happy at the same time. But if one values material possessions over all else, then one may fall into the trap of worshiping money as a god. For the past 10 years I have noted a culture change in Vietnam that seems to coincide with multinational corporations bringing in big money. Walmart will replace many local shop keepers. Fast food joints already eliminating local pho stores. The plethora of small businesses is what I perceive as the ideal form of capitalism, not the wealth concentration done by predatory capitalists. The income gap in the US is greater than in the days over 100 years ago when a few were becoming obscenely rich and many had fallen into poverty. Laws were enacted to correct this imbalance but over the years these laws have been ignored and flaunted. Will the same thing happen in Vietnam?
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