After years of official atheism, religion hasn't merely survived in Vietnamit's
popping up all over
By ANTHONY SPAETH
For a Vietnamese buddhist monk, Dao Dung has found the equivalent of spiritual
paradise. His home is Hung Tich cave, 75 km southwest of Hanoi, known
more evocatively as the Perfume Pagoda. Designated a Buddhist pilgrimage
site in the late 18th century, the Perfume Pagoda is one of northern Vietnam's
most significant religious sites, and Dung is its main caretaker. His
only possessions are a thin mat, a book of Buddhist scriptures, an umbrella
and a fine-looking rooster. He sits in the lotus position studying scriptures
amid gilded Buddhas and clouds of incensethe very image of a contemplative
Until, that is, the devotees arrivein a human flood belying the
rigors of reaching the natural grotto. Most pilgrims journey three hours
by car or bus from Hanoi, followed by an hour in a rowboat down the Yen
River and finally a 3 km climb up the Mountain of Perfumed Traces. The
pilgrimage season runs from mid-February to mid-May and this year, at
its peak, the daily toll of arrivals hit 20,000. "So many people come,"
says Nguyen Van Trung, a 12-year-old guide at the pagoda, "that it can
take all day to reach the cave and back. The path is like a long caterpillar."
Says a weary Dao Dung: "It has been very, very busy, a test."
For Vietnam too, such an outpouring of religious reverence is a test.
The country's Communist leaders consider devotion to sites like the Perfume
Pagoda as mere incense and opium for the superstitious masses. Nonetheless,
in the era of liberalized socialism, the government has relaxed restrictions
on six religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Hoa Hau, Cao Dai, Protestantism
and Islam. This has led to an explosion of religious fervoralong
with a proliferation of cults, charlatans, fortune tellers and other fringe
elements. "The problem," says professor Do Quang Hung, director of the
government-funded Institute of Religious Studies in Hanoi, "is that we
don't know how to properly define belief as either religion or superstition."
To borrow a Buddhist term: is there a Middle Path between accepting genuine
religious sentiment and cracking down on the lunatic fringe? China is
struggling with a similar dilemma: religion is taking off throughout the
country, but Beijing worries that organized religious groups will become
subversive. When members of the Falun Gong sect held an unprecedentedand
unauthorizeddemonstration of 10,000 people in Beijing in April 1999,
the group was proscribed and thousands of its members arrested.
There have been no such displays of defiance in Vietnam, at least not
yet. After the country was united in 1975, its government became notorious
for repression of religion. A more relaxed policy has developed since
the economy opened up in 1986 and religion is on a conspicuous rise. Everywhere,
pagodas, churches and temples have been hauled out of decades of neglect
or misuse. Some had been converted into granaries or even pigsties. Today,
they are attracting devotees by the hordes. According to the United Nations,
more than 15 million Vietnamese are religious devoteesout of a population
of 80 millionincluding 7.5 million Buddhists, 5 million Catholics
and more than 3 million Muslims. There are at least 21,000 places of worship.
The rub is that the authorities are not convinced that those numbers reflect
true religious sentiment. The Institute of Religious Studies' Hung says
the enthusiasm is more likely an outbreak of formerly suppressed superstition.
"Our research shows that only about 40% of people visiting churches, temples
or pagodas maintain what you would call genuine religious conviction,"
he says. Rampant superstition, the government maintains, isn't good for
society and only encourages frauds and cheats. Poor families have been
broken up or bankrupted by fanatical devotion; communities have turned
idle because of faith in local deities; some sects encourage rigid diets
and deny worshippers access to medical treatment, often with tragic results.
"A few years ago," says Hung, "a case of mass suicide claimed the lives
of 40 people. We might be criticized for taking action against this sort
of thing, but it is a very serious problem."
The government's newfound liberalism is clearly built on a foundation
of mistrust. "Our leaders did not recognize until recently that repression
of such a fundamental human need does not equal its elimination," says
Tran Quoc Vuong, a respected historian. "Repression cannot be maintained
forever." One of Vietnam's historical dilemmas, according to Vuong, is
that it never had a national religion to provide continuity. "There has
been Buddhism, Taoism, the ancestor worship of Confucianism and later
Catholicism. All of these have been mixed together with animism and the
worship of many different deities." The current mushrooming of religious
sentiment reflects that mixed past, he says, and the conflict with the
state is hardly unique to Vietnam. "Look at the history of the world.
Spirituality and the struggle between religion and those in power are
a continuous theme of human existence." Vuong sees the process as a natural
one. "It will take time," he says, "but we will reach an equilibrium."
At the Perfume Pagoda, there's a whole lot of action aside from prayer.
To reach the main cave, pilgrims walk past fortune tellers and vendors
selling joss sticks, votive foods and fake paper money to burn as offerings
to ancestors. The pagoda is surrounded by a hundred lesser devotional
sites. But some of the temples are newly constructed and have no history.
A few caves are new, having only recently been blasted from the limestone
to attract paying customers. Says Trung, the 12-year-old guide: "Stick
with me. I know which ones are fake and which ones are real. But don't
tell the new monks. They want to make money and will beat me if I expose
them." Even Dao Dung is newly religious, having become a monk only a year
ago. Previously he was a soldier, but that's a subject he doesn't want
to discuss. "Now I have time to read the scriptures," he says, "and I
realize it is there that I will find the way to true happiness." Like
Dung, Vietnam is on a new spiritual path, which may be every bit as twisty
and arduous as the road to the Perfume Pagoda.
Reported by Huw Watkin/Ha Tay province
Write to TIME at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Sapporo to Surabaya Home | TIME Asia Features Home
TIME Asia home