by Trung Hieu
When you go to the market, remember to buy some votive paper money for the upcoming Lunar New Year, Nguyen Thi Minh told her daughter.
I overheard this command in my neighbourhood this week but similar sentiments can be heard everywhere because many Vietnamese practice the custom of burning votive objects for a variety of occasions.
A votive offering is an object deposited in a sacred place for religious purposes. People burn votive offerings at home after finishing ancestral commemorations, at pagodas and temples after completing rituals, and they throw votive paper money during funerals.
Many people burn votive paper money and other objects each month after they complete the rituals for their ancestors on the first day and 15th day of each lunar month.
But many people oppose these practices as a waste of money that they say raises the risk of fires and explosions and must be banned while others say it is a spiritual custom that must be preserved.
Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, former head of the Viet Nam Folklore Research Institute says burning votive paper is a fine tradition.
"The practice originated from the idea that ‘Death does not mean the end' and ‘Everything is the same in the living world and the dead world'."
Burning votive offerings is meant to send items to the dead for use in the afterlife. During the ritual, people also commemorate their ancestors and express their gratitude," Thinh says.
"Ancient people practised sacrificial rituals, such as killing young girls, to worship the gods. That was so inhuman. Then people turned to burning paper humans to take the place of a living specimen, so this custom is a cultural ritual filled with deep humanity," the professor says.
But today, many people burn votive paper as a way of demonstrating their wealth. They burn giant paper houses, cars, motorbikes, TV sets, and even paper servants and concubines which cost millions of dong each.
Researcher Nguyen Xuan Dien from the Han Nom [scripts and culture] Research Institute says that in a custom influenced by the Chinese culture, people used to burn a small amount of paper money and clothes for their ancestral spirits each Vu Lan (Wandering Souls Day), the 15th day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, when Vietnamese people commemorate the dead.
Today, the custom has changed, causing waste and risk of fire and environmental pollution.
"These days, families spends an average VND200,000-300,000 on votive offerings during each Vu Lan ceremony, with rich people spending up to tens of millions of dong.
"Statistics from the cultural ministry show that 40,000 tonnes of votive objects are burned each year. Ha Noi alone spends more than VND400 billion (US$20 million) a year on these items just to burn them," he says.
Dien argues that people should not burn hundreds of billions of dong like this.
"Instead of this waste, people should take on practical activities, such as taking better care of their parents and elders, and helping lonely and poor people."
This custom is popular among non-Christians, but Buddhism does not teach people to burn votive offering.
Buddhist Nguyen Anh Luong says he has studied many Buddhist prayer books and has never come across anything about burning votive offerings.
"I'm scared to come across funerals as I ride my motorbike on the highway because people throw votive paper that flies around everywhere. Once, a piece of votive paper hit me in the face, almost causing an accident.
"I think burning and throwing votive paper is wasteful and results in litter which creates hard work for street cleaners, especially when it rains and the paper becomes muddy and difficult to clean."
Burning and throwing votive paper is contrary to Buddhism's views and people should put that money to better use by giving it to charitable activities, he says.
Monk Thich Thanh Due, deputy head of the Ritual Board of Viet Nam Buddhist Sangha's Central Committee, says Buddhism's tenets never talk about burning votive offerings to worship the dead as a must.
"Buddhism absolutely rejects this superstitious practice," he says.
In pagodas where people once burned a lot of votive objects monks have asked them to stop the practice to avoid waste and fire danger.
With this request on the minds of Buddhist followers, only a few people burned paper offerings during the last Vu Lan ceremony in HCM City.
A votive paper seller near Vinh Nghiem, the largest pagoda in the city, says she has had to focus on selling incense, candles and flowers to Buddhist followers as fewer people show an inclination to buy votive paper.
"Last year I bought a variety of votive objects like an SH scooter, a TV set, clothes and mobile phones for dead people in my family, but now I think this is just a superstition," says Nguyen Minh Ha from District 7.
Many young people in Ha Noi agree with this new thinking. Vu Bao Chung in Ha Noi's Cau Giay District says many families in his Dich Vong Hau Ward, particularly the shop owners, burn votive paper on the first day and 15th day of each lunar calendar month.
"Smoke and ashes fly around the air, and my brother's shirt was burned by flying debris.
"I think we should wipe out this custom because it isn't suited with modern life and it causes waste and pollution. People should use the money they would spend on votive paper to do charity work and help the poor."
I think customs are formed out of habit and can be divided into two kinds: fine customs and unsound customs.
Each action or custom comes from an individual idea. To change an action or custom, the idea must be changed first. This requires time.
There are three solutions to reduce this burning: First, we should educate the men and women involved in witchcraft, as they have hundreds of followers who believe in them deeply.
Second, before the 1st and 15th days of every lunar month, local authorities should educate residents and help them recognise the danger of fire, explosions and environmental pollution.
Third, each family should take responsibility for raising their own awareness. When everyone understands that burning votive paper doesn't require a huge amount of money, just a sincere heart for the dead, and that burning causes environmental pollution, these wasteful activities will be reduced while the fine angle of tradition will remain. — VNS