The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division , at sacred-texts.com
Man's religious beliefs shape and control his cultural patterns and his educational, political, and economic institutions in both their theory and practice. From the earliest times for which there is reasonable historical insight, there is cumulative evidence that man's reasoning ability has consistently directed him to recognize the presence of a power, or powers, greater than himself. As man's mental capacities have increased, his awareness and understanding of the power have grown and been refined. Man has ordered his notions about this power into schemes of belief and life. Basically, religion is that ordering of man's life by a complex of notions about life which are so deeply held that all he does is governed by them.
A society of peoples cannot adequately be understood, appreciated or influenced without awareness of just how these various religious beliefs and practices are involved in daily life. This is true whether it be of Americans or Vietnamese. Since the two peoples are of differing geographic locations and cultures, it is imperative that we Americans seek to understand our allies as unitedly we struggle against a common foe. As an American and a Vietnamese understand each other's value systems, taboos, and the other factors affecting daily life, there can develop a rapport or "cultural empathy" on a number of levels which can help promote better relationships between them.
The ethnic Vietnamese by long tradition have philosophies and religious beliefs which declare man to be a part of nature. Man is subject to, and therefore subordinate to, nature so that harmony can be achieved only as man conforms to the natural world about him. By wrong thought or deed, man can disrupt nature, while by right deeds and thoughts he may create prosperity. An awareness of how these and similar concepts affect behavior and thought allows the American serviceman to be more understanding and more effective in his tour of duty in Vietnam.
The two historic civilizations, India and China, separated by Vietnam as a land bridge, gave their religions to the ethnic Vietnamese. While the Indians gave Hinduism and Buddhism, the Chinese reinterpreted and adapted Buddhism as they passed it along to Vietnam. Taoism and Confucianism were also planted in Vietnam earlier as a part of the Chinese conquest about a hundred years before Christ. These religions were added to the basic Animism originally there. Today, Animism remains a major influence particularly in the religions of the tribes-people of the mountains of Vietnam. Additionally, such faiths as Islam, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the indigenous Vietnamese religions strongly affect the daily life of the individual adherent. This religiously-influenced culture molds and shapes the life of the Vietnamese much more obviously on the surface than Americans are affected by the concepts of the Judeo-Christian heritage. If Americans are to achieve the goals of understanding and friendship with the Vietnamese, they must have some comprehension of their religions and be acutely aware of the ways in which these religions affect the values and goals of the peoples.
A specific illustration will emphasize the practical consequences of religious beliefs. Among the Vietnamese peasantry there seems to be little sense of urgency with regard to time. What may appear to the Americans as indolence, inertia, or laziness, may be due in large measure to an inbred passivity due to concepts of Karma, as well as to insufficient diet or disease. For while we place a premium on activity and "progress", the Vietnamese have the tradition of admiring the "passionless sage" which grants the older person a status superior to the scientist, the statesman or the warrior.
The purpose of the following chapters is to provide similar insights into the operation of religious forces within Vietnam. This background information is to be shared with service personnel as essential knowledge, not only for survival, but for military and personal effectiveness. No attempt has been made to make this material academically complete.
Every religion can be approached from two points of view. One is the view of recognized professionals or authoritative exponents of the faith. The other is the religion of the masses who profess adherence to that faith. Both will go by the same name, but there is often a vast
difference between the two. There is always something lost in the transmission of the faith from its chief spokesmen to a larger membership. A Buddhist, for example, may be quite a good Buddhist in the popular sense of the term. He may attend the temple quite regularly, making his offerings, giving rice daily to the passing clergy, uttering prayers, and performing various rites and incantations. At the same time he may have little or no knowledge of the philosophical framework of Buddhist belief.
In other words, he is more a Buddhist by habit and outward practice than by conviction. In many religious systems there is almost no attempt to explain to the people the meaning of what they do or see. Therefore a non-adherent cannot assume that observable practices provide an adequate understanding of the daily consequences of religious concepts. He must know something of the actual, rather than the theoretical, complex of attitudes and beliefs which lie behind the rites and rituals if they are to be evaluated realistically. What follows then is a simplified, capsule view of the religiously influenced practices of the people--not a systematic presentation of the many religions of Vietnam.
The goal is to have each serviceman know the Vietnamese people. To know a people is to understand, insofar as is possible, the whats, hows and whys of their behavior. The man who knows what makes the people of the host country behave as they do is in the best position to control and direct his own behavior correctly and constructively.