by Thu Anh
Free merit for a fee
These are holy days in Viet Nam when people are thronging pagodas to offer prayers and accumulate merit by performing good deeds.
Where there is a demand, there is supply.
So the devout who want to generate some good karma for themselves approach some vendors outside the pagodas around Ho Chi Minh City who are now practising phong sinh (setting caged birds free) ritual.
The vendors do good business on the 1st and the 15th day of this month (the seventh month of the lunar calendar), and they have cages full of birds that devout Buddhists can use to practise phong sinh, which they believe fill give them some peace of mind. So they "buy" the cages and set the birds free from bondage.
However, the birds are usually not fed for many days before they are offered for release. So when they are set free, they can hardly fly. After a while, they flounder, and are picked up easily by the vendors' helpers and returned to their cages. For these birds, the cycle of bondage and freedom is extremely short, and in fact, is non-existent.
"My friends and I caught birds for the pagoda's visitors to do phong sinh. We can earn a little money this way to help our parents," said Phan Van Hoi, a 14-year-old boy manning the main cage available at the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in District 3.
How does making the lives of harmless birds miserable create good karma, for the vendors or for those who pay to set them "free"?
The traditional Buddhist festival, Vu Lan, observed during the seventh lunar month, is among other things an annual tribute to motherly love.
It is a time when people, especially the young, look back and remember their mother's love and sacrifice.
In a moving gesture, several veteran and young cai luong (reformed theatre) actors visit and perform plays for free at the Artists' Pagoda, also known as Nhat Quang Tu (Sunlight Pagoda), in HCM City's Go Vap District.
In one such performance last week, the actors sang about people's gratitude and appreciation of their mothers before an audience of 300 poor adults and children who cannot afford to pay for shows.
The arists also performed traditional songs in praise of their teachers, including the late actress Phung Ha, who spent her savings to build the pagoda in 1958, aiming to run it as a place where poor, veteran cai luong artists could spend their last days and have a final resting place.
The pagoda is the only one of its kind in the region that contains a cemetery devoted to nearly 1,000 cai luong and tuong (classical drama) performers.
"For me, singing during these days allows me to experience how great my mother and teachers are," said Trinh Trinh, a cai luong actress with Tran Huu Trang Troupe.
Every year, Trinh and her friends visit and perform at the pagoda several times after travelling around the region to raise money for helping poor artists and their families.
"I feel the tradition of repayment should be passed on from the older generation to younger ones, fostering love and compassion," she said. — VNS