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Are votive offerings worth the pollution?

Update: August, 31/2014 - 17:51

by Hong Thuy

Death and dying are subjects that most of us prefer to avoid. That is understandable since we usually associate death with loss, grief and pain, and many of us fear it.

Like it or not, death is universal and everyone eventually dies. So how we do cope with death in our lives? Usually we cherish the memories that we have of the deceased. We relive the times that we shared with our departed loved ones and try to make sure that they are not forgotten.

What's more, if there exists an afterlife, we all hope and pray for our departed loved ones to live on in heaven, where they can enjoy an internal life of perfect peace and happiness, also known as Nirvana in Buddhism.

Though it is our common wish, many Vietnamese choose to burn hell money, giant paper houses, cars, motorcycles, TV sets and even paper servants and concubines to satisfy the need of their departed loved ones, in the hope that they will live a comfortable life in the otherworld.

This practice is observed annually by a majority of Vietnamese during the Ullambana celebration, the Vietnamese equivalent of Mother's Day in Western culture. But the Venerable Thich Tam Giac at the Phuc Son Pagoda in Ha Noi's Gia Lam District has expressed the belief that their actions are contradictory to Buddhist teachings.

On the one hand, they wish their departed loved ones to go to Nirvana, where desire for anything in and of this world becomes extinguished.

On the other hand, they keep sending votive offerings to their relatives in the otherworld year after year, thereby preventing them from achieving a state of release from the material world, explained Venerable Tam Giac.

According to Tibetan Buddhism, after death, the spirit of the departed goes through a process that lasts for forty-nine days and is divided into three stages called "bardo" or "in-between state". At the conclusion of the bardo, the person either enters Nirvana or returns to earth for rebirth.

So if this set of beliefs is genuine, it likely contradicts the ancient Chinese ritual of burning valuable objects or images of human beings made of votive paper along with the remains of the deceased, in place of real properties or people.

The rituals originate from customs and traditions state that when a member of the royal family dies and is buried, people should buried alive along with them so that he or she would still be waited upon by servants. The personal possessions of the deceased are often included in this ritual.

No doubt, the ancient Chinese have sound reasons to save the living and not waste national treasure as a matter of course.

But the practice seems to have gone too far and lingered on in the form of a baseless belief that the otherworld is there for the dead to live a comfortable material life rather than achieve Nirvana. More importantly, the continuing practice has resulted in much waste of money and environmental pollution.

This belief has become too costly for Khe Tang villagers in Ha Noi's Thanh Oai District. It has been two years since 3,200 residents in more than 1,200 households of that village have stopped burning votive offerings for the deceased.

Besides gaining an insight into the belief that both the dead and the living can achieve Nirvana if they are free of desire for material things of this world, many have become aware that the practice has resulted in a waste of money and pollution of the environment.

The village has saved between VND300 million to 400 million (US$14,000-19,000) each year since its residents gave up the practice.

Thus, no trace of shops where people sell votive objects can be found in the village, no matter how far you travel around it.

Also, no longer are villagers seen sitting around small burning ovens to throw hell paper money and other votive objects as offerings for the dead.

It is not easy to immitate Khe Tang Village though, according to cultural researcher Trinh Dinh Duong. He attributed the success of the village to the single-mindedness of its residents and the determination of the village elderly to end the practice.

There is no doubt that it is difficult to change centuries-old customs, especially those relating to departed loved ones.

But I believe that all customs are made by man, and he may choose to turn his back on them if they prove to be unfit for his life, particularly when it causes harm and confusion over the difference between personal beliefs and superstitious beliefs.

Personal beliefs can become notions, then later become opinions and eventually become prevalent in society. On the other hand, superstitious beliefs are the result of ignorance and a lack of rational thinking.

Though the two concepts vary, the difference between them is thin because these are, after all, beliefs.

So it seems that the decision to abandon the practice of burning votive offerings must be collective, widespread and explicit. This gives each family the confidence that others are also abandoning a centuries-old practice, but this is likely to be groundless. — VNS

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