by Thu Phuong
On the fourth day of lunar new year, Le Ha and her family made their annual pilgrimage to Ba Chua Kho Temple in the northern province of Bac Ninh, about 30km from central Ha Noi. They were preparing to make offerings to deities and ask for a lucky and prosperous 12 months.
But this year, the young State employee and her relatives carried along a much bigger tray of offerings. "My husband believes that our business success last year was due to our offerings at the temple, so he paid a local trader to prepare a more lavish display," said Ha. "I don't know for sure about his reasoning. Well, it might be true. But it definitely costs us more - about VND800,000 (US$38)," she said.
Offerings at Ba Chua Kho Temple, like most others, can range from imitation paper money and clothes to trees bearing fake gold bars of fruit - and leaves made of diamonds. They are made by traders selling offerings at the temple.
Sometimes, the offerings include a feast of a boiled chicken, with its head and feet attached for good luck, and steamed, glutinous rice. To make their trays more appealing, some worshippers also put real notes of high face value in dong or US dollars. Ha admitted that what her family bought was only middle range. The most expensive trays can cost several million dong.
The temple was set up to worship Madame Kho, a woman who was the national treasury keeper during the Ly Dynasty in 1077. She later died in the nation's last battle to maintain independence from the Chinese. King Ly Nhan Tong then elevated her to the status of goddess and the temple was erected on the old site of the treasury.
Ha and her husband, like countless pilgrims in northern Viet Nam, flocked to the temple holding the belief that worshipping the goddess could bring good fortune and financial success. Pilgrims seem to care little about the massive crowds, disorder and even rip-offs and theft at the festivals.
It's common to see them jostle around most temples and pagodas in northern Viet Nam as they push forward to the places deemed most sacred. Ha said some even place their offering trays higher than others. Maybe they expect they will be accepted by the saints first and their prayers answered more quickly.
Viet Nam has about 8,000 festivals each year. Some of the big ones, such as those at the Huong (Perfume) Pagoda in Ha Tay, or Ba Chua Kho Temple, draw millions of pilgrims over several months. And festival goers care little about the money spent on offerings.
According to deputy director of the Institute of Cultural Studies Le Hong Ly, spring festivals have been popular for centuries. "However, modern life has affected the practice. Many, particularly the well-off in today's business society, go to festivals with big and expensive offerings," Ly said. "We respect their belief, but when the belief goes too far, it becomes pure superstition."
It's clear that the pursuit of happiness, money or whatever is the right of each person. No one should interfere. Yet, Venerable Thich Hue Phuoc from the Buddhist Executive Committee of central Thua Thien-Hue Province, home to the highest number of Buddhist followers in Viet Nam, said: "Blessings should be shared among many to receive true peace and true happiness".
Both Ly and the monk believe it would be better if most of the money spent on offerings was donated to charity, where the results are practical, effective and measurable. This would help create a more equitable society, where the rich share some of their blessings.
They also spoke about the incredible jostling crowds of people attending some of the festivals. Before this Spring, officials from the culture ministry assured the local press that this year they would introduce a higher degree of order to the proceedings. And this may have happened in places. Deputy chief of culture, sports and tourism ministry's inspection department Pham Xuan Phuc told Tuoi tre (Youth) newspaper that there were few people breaking the rules. However, he must not have heard of the complaints of many festival goers.
For example, Ha said, she found that a VND500,000-note she placed on her tray of offerings quickly disappeared. Where is the trust that is supposed to surround temples and pagodas?
But, going back to the main point, surely it would be better for well-to-do business people to make smaller offerings each year and donate the rest to help those in less fortunate circumstances.
If they are seeking any guidance, perhaps they should read about the students who use facilities at Thanh Nan Pagoda to prepare bowls of rich soup for poor patients at Ha Noi hospitals. A few million dong donated to these enlightened youngsters would buy instant happiness for dozens of penniless people too poor to afford much food during their stay in hospital. The Buddha, Madame Kho and all the saints would obviously smile at such effective generosity! — VNS