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The head and the heart of the traditional village

To understand the soul of traditional Viet Nam, you must go to the countryside. There lies the village, the social cell and the administrative, economic and spiritual unit, that is the depository of its oldest cultural values. 
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Each village has a communal house (dinh) dedicated to its tutelary god, temples (den, mieu, phu) for the worship of spirits or saints (deified heroes), one or two pagodas (chua) to worship Buddha, sometimes a temple miếu) or a mound-altar (van chi) for the worship of Confucius.
In spite of a very strong religious syncretism, one can more or less classify these buildings in two groups according to the endogenous or exogenous origin of the divinities they worship.
The first group concerns the den, mieu, phu worshipping spirits (spirits and ghosts of all kinds) of autochthonous origin, the veritable Vietnamese religion, according to Cadière. The popular animist beliefs of the Viet from the Red River basin, some of which date back to the beginning of recorded history, worship the forces of nature: thunder, lightning, rain, rocks, plants, animals, ancestors, the Mother Goddesses (Mau), the manes of heroes, etc.
The second group of religious buildings comprises those devoted to religions imported from China and India. Confucianism and Buddhism came and were grafted on the autochthnonous stock (worship of spirits), which had been firmly rooted and remains alive today.
In the traditional village, the three elements - the autochthonous animist stock, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism — harmonise and amalgamate among themselves. In particular, Confucianism and Buddhism complement each other in meeting two needs of man: Confucianism is the social element and reason, Buddhism addresses the individual and sentiments.
In brief, the head and the heart.
Confucianism is the head, the Chinese influence. Strictly speaking, it is not a religion, but rather a philosophy of social ethics. Practically speaking, one can say it is a sum of precepts of conduct which govern - by the rites and the virtue of humanity (nhan) - all social relations with a view to realising the universal harmony (hoa).
In a strongly hierachic and patriarchal society, each person must accept his lot and accomplish his duty, from kings, mandarins, scholars, peasants, artisans and workers, to men and women, husband and wife, parents and children.
At the village level and on the cultural plane, how does Confucianism manifest itself? The cult of Confucian worship (van chi) is there to recall the pre-eminence of the Doctrine of the Master and his scholars.
The đình, which serves as office for the temple, mayoralty and local tribunal, represents the rational Confucian order in all its strictness: ritual ceremonies to the tutelary god accredited by royal decrees; meeting with a very strict order of precedence; distribution of land taxes and labour duties; and the enforcement of customary laws sometimes very severe, for instance against unmarried mothers.
Often, the corruption and injustice of arrogant cupid notables are revealed for everyone to see there.
In the village, Buddhism brings solace of the heart and feelings to the rigours of the rational Confucian norm. The pagoda is a haven of peace, which calms suffering and brings comfort to many of the individual sorrows and social injustices.
But the philosophical conceptions of dharma, of existence and non-existence, remain the domain of the educated scholars, in particular the thiền, or zen, sect.
To common villagers, the notions of karma and metempsychosis are reduced to very simple beliefs: one has to do good things in order to be reborn in the human form in the after life and attain Nirvana, which is conceived as a paradise endowed with terrestrial pleasures. Wicked people are led to hell by devils who submit them to atrocious torture.
Often the Buddha Amitabha ( A Di is evoked, ready to come to the help of all who are suffering, followed by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Quan Am), Amitabha’s auxiliary who can execute the most teưestrial wishes of the most disinherited. The word but, a vulgar term to designate Buddha, is synonymous with pity or compassion.
Buddhism and Confucianism - heart and head - have influenced for millennia the Vietnamese psyche, contributing to bringing it a necessary equilibrium.
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Update : 23-03-2018


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