By Thu Trang
There is a lot of fire to the votive smoke that rises on every auspicious day in our country, and I guess, other places where this traditional ritual is observed.
The fire has been lit again by the most recent call from senior monks of the Buddhist Sangha, asking people to stop this practice, given the pollution it causes.
But this is not just a habit that dies hard. It is a ritual that has roots in deeply held beliefs going back centuries.
On the first day and 15th day of each lunar month, my mother-in-law carefully arranges offerings, including votive paper money on the ancestral altar, prays and reverently burns the votive paper money.
My mother-in-law, like many other Vietnamese people, believes that when people burn incense, their prayers follow the smoke that rises to the gods and spirits of deceased ancestors. A similar belief is attached to the burning of votive papers and other paper objects. These are offerings made by the living to the buried, for their “consumption” in the afterlife.
“It is a way to communicate with our ancestors. Their spirits can live comfortably there and help us in many aspects in return,” she says.
The origins of this ritual are not clear, but explanations are many. Similar to ancient traditions in other civilisations, it targets a comfortable life for the dead in the afterlife, and make symbolic offerings of what would be needed. Thus the living would buy various necessities and luxuries made of paper, particularly of those things that the deceased were partial to while they were living on the earth. These can include cars, villas, motorbikes and even fancy mobile phone models.
This traditional ritual has faced mounting criticism for many years now. It has been called a backward superstition that has no place in modern Vietnamese society. It has been decried as an ostentatious practice that causes air pollution and is an ostentatious waste of resources.
The Việt Nam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) recently sent an official document to its chapters nationwide, calling for a stop to the burning of votive paper offerings at Buddhist worshipping places.
Most Venerable Thích Thanh Nhiễu, Permanent Deputy Chairman of the VBS’s Executive Council, has asked Sangha chapters in cities and provinces nationwide to direct monks, nuns and Buddhist followers to organise celebrations in a civilised, thrifty and non-ostentatious fashion in accordance with Vietnamese and Buddhist traditions.
“Currently, there are still many poor people who do not have enough food to eat. For people to use a lot of money for votive paper offerings at this time is unreasonable,” said Most Venerable Thích Thanh Nhiễu.
While this proposal is sound, rational and compassionate, there are many who are afraid that discontinuing this practice would affect those who make a living of it.
Trần Thị Bảy, who sells votive paper money and paper offerings at the Quán Sứ Pagoda in Hà Nội, said that her entire family depends on the shop. Selling the votive offerings has supported her family with six members.
“How can we live if the burning votive papers is given up?” she worried. Her worry is shared by many small traders in Hà Nội and other places.
Then there are whole villages that have taken up making votive paper offering, like Duyên Trường and Phúc Am in Hà Nội’s Thường Tín District, and others in the northern province of Bắc Ninh. Hundreds of households are making a living thus, and they will be badly affected if their sole source of income dries up.
And it is not easy for millions of people, from the youth to the elderly who have grown up and lived with this tradition, to just give it up.
Nguyễn Mạnh Duy, a Hanoian, said, “I am not a superstitious person, but I understand and appreciate the meaning of burning votive papers.”
Duy’s father died when he was a junior secondary student, and since then, he has held to the belief that his father is still by his side, listening to him, guiding him.
“Burning votive papers for my father is a spiritual way to confirm that he still exists in my life…”.
“Burning votive papers is certainly a waste (of resources) if we burn so much, but if we see it as a moral, spiritual activity, a customs to honour our ancestors, it is worth maintaining,” he said.
Vietnamese who have visited developed countries and territories in Asia including Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have seen locals burning votive paper money and other objects, especially the middle of the seventh lunar month and during the Lunar New Year celebrations. There goes the argument that it is a practice confined to backward, poor nations.
Artist and cultural researcher Phạm Huy Hùng feels burning votive paper is a fine tradition that is rooted in “the idea that ‘death does not mean the end’ and ‘everything is the same in the living world and the dead world’.
“It is a commemoration of ancestors and expression of gratitude, so it is a meaningful ritual."
Whether or not votive offerings comfort the dead, it certainly provides some solace to the living. This has a value that cannot be dismissed.
There lies our challenge: preserving the value of a cultural tradition while removing its ostentatious and polluting facets. Making such adjustments to a symbolic practice cannot be too difficult, if we think about how it might have come about, in the first place.
Any ideas, anyone? — VNS