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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at


1. Time Concepts

a. Western: To Americans, time has a beginning, a span with fixed events, and an end. This time is divided into B.C. and A.D. measurement. This is linear time measurement, The linear concept of time motivates change, improvement, progress. Americans look for ways in which they can explore, dominate, and utilize the universe. Because of a sense of personal, individual dignity and value, they don't

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hesitate to tamper with the world; to grasp and exploit its elusive secrets and make them man's servants.

b. Vietnamese: The Vietnamese understanding of time and history is different. To them-except when influenced by Western thought-time is circular. As the twelve-year repeating calendar repeats itself, so historical events repeat themselves. There is little sense of progress. History possesses little value and few goals. Hence, the Vietnamese is not impressed by a need to "rush". He has lots of time, but little money. His life span is already too short; so why rush it away? There is usually an abundance of labor and many mouths to feed; make do with what you have. Develop sufficient patience, and perhaps in the next existence your Karma will permit improvement. After all, the only way to make any real progress is by improving one's merits and the practice of the Eight-Fold Path to Nirvana with the removal of the 108 desires.

This concept of time combined with poor diet and disease often results in less than the fullest possible effort. When climatic conditions are added to these three elements, along with the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism, it is to their credit that the Vietnamese have achieved as much as they have. So remember:

(1) Time is not as valuable to the Vietnamese as time-conscious Americans feel it is to them. For the Vietnamese, the ability to live each day and have sufficient food, etc., is more important than anything else.

(2) American exuberance tends to overwhelm and "smother" the Vietnamese.

Family Concepts: These are affected in Vietnam by Hinduism and Buddhism, and by the older concept of Ancestor Veneration encouraged by Confucianism. The latter ties people to the past and to the future so that they might be adjusted to the present. Each individual is taught his exact position in society. There is little confusion about place, and few decisions to be made. A part of the family, the individual is neither superior nor inferior, but is an integral part of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His life is bound by the family/clan/community--by those who lived before him, by those who live with him, and by those who will live after him. The individual feels secure because of his accepted role. This role does not require efficiency and productivity as much as loyalty and conformity to prescribed roles. Old age is respected by virtue of being a father, grandfather, or great grandfather in the community rather than because of acquired wisdom, skill, or wealth.

Thus even grown people must consult grandmothers, parents, elder brothers, departed ancestors, etc., before making decisions. Business transactions take time because the whole community--living and dead--is involved. Embarrassment or shame is due more to violations of the socially accepted code than to a sense of moral wrongness. All proposed actions must be preceded by consideration of what consequences they will have on the total family. This is why even deceased ancestors are consulted.

The belief in ancestor veneration encourages early marriage and many children. It would be wrong to deprive ancestors of worship and lessen their estate in the spirit-world due to lack of descendents. The more respect shown for the spirits of the dead, the greater opportunity for them to be "good spirits", who will help the living members of the family.

Because one's estate in the spirit world is dependent upon worship given to the deceased, planned marriages by the family help promote and protect this veneration. Spirits not venerated may become "wandering spirits", and can do harm. These are feared by one and all.

2. Concept of Spirits and Spirit-Controlled  Environment

Belief in good and evil spirits, both animate and inanimate, is basic throughout Vietnam regardless of other religions professed. Some Americans are superstitious; but usually in spite of their religious beliefs. Many Vietnamese are superstitious because of their beliefs. Some Vietnamese are very serious in seeking to appease evil or harm-causing spirits and the spirits of deceased ancestors. Not to appease would be to create problems.

Thus the Spirit House, the Spirit Pole in the rice paddies, the mirror by the door of the home, the "ishi" lions at the Temples or homes, the Ancestor Altars or Shelves, etc., are attempts to be in harmony with the spirits, and to have the spirits to do the will of the appeaser. Moreover, pleased spirits can do much to counteract evil ones. It is widely believed by most classes throughout Vietnam that spirits have the power to do evil by causing sickness, death, and other troubles. It is because of such beliefs that:

a. Mirrors by the door frighten spirits and prevent them from entering the home.

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b. Red paper representing the "Door God" does the same thing.

c. Buddhists desire that an even number of people be in a picture lest death be caused to one of the group.

d. Since the "life-stuff" of man lives in the head, patting the head is believed by some to be an attempt to steal away the spirit and cause death. NEVER PAT ANYONE ON THE HEAD. Better yet, simply keep your hands to yourself. Because the head is the residence of the soul, the feet are considered of lowest value. So do not sit with feet crossed, pointing the soul of the foot to anyone. This is considered gross insult by many Vietnamese.

e. Since spirits cause sickness and death, never joke about these lest the spirits be angered and take action.

f. Many of the rituals created by Animism, wherever found in Vietnam, are designed to ward off illness, death, etc., by requesting protection or by propitiating an errant or evil spirit. Many women have small shrines to Quang An for protection during childbirth and while children are small. The small children may also wear numerous amulets as charms against harm or ailments caused by errant or wandering spirits.

Many Vietnamese families have a service within the first twelve years of a child's life which is suppose to cleanse the child from the evils of its birth and allow intelligence while promoting a healthy adulthood. This service may consist of a small altar dedicated to the goddess of birth--usually Quang An--on which are placed twelve bowls of sweet soybean and sugar soup. Twelve pieces of paper with pictures of the calendrical cycle is then burned. Because childhood is the time when the evil spirits are most zealous, the little ones must be carefully guarded. It is now that little boys especially must be protected and brass bracelets may be placed on the small child as the spirits do not like the feel of metal, or an earring may be worn by the male-baby to fool the spirits into thinking it is a girl. Likewise, the small children are sometimes cautioned not to play under the trees where the spirits "rest" for fear they may anger the spirits.

Pregnant women often observe many taboos in order that the strains of pregnancy be eased and that birth may bring forth well-formed children without deformity. They must not eat "unclean" foods such as the snake, rat, mouse, dog, or beef lest the child be retarded; this does not preclude the use of tobacco or betel-nut. Because her presence might create "bad luck" for a bridal couple, a pregnant woman is not supposed to attend weddings, nor is she to take part in funerals as this may cause her child to be a "crybaby". She is to also shun places of worship including the pagoda and shrines to avoid angering the resident spirits of these places: since the spirits often promenade at twelve and five o'clock, she must not be outside her house so the evil spirits will not see her and create harm for her or the baby. Within the house, she must always take care to avoid stepping over a sleeping place or the unborn child may be infected with lethargy so that it will take seven days after birth for its eyes to open. Moreover, stepping over her sleeping husband can afflict him with sleeping sickness even as drinking from a cup which he is using may create many problems for him.

3. Concept of Individuality

In contrast to the Confucian teaching that the individual is merely a link between past and future generations, Buddhism stressed individuality. Among the Twelve Principles of Buddhism, the place and responsibility of the self is emphasized when it is declared that "self-salvation is for any man the immediate task". Man is not his brother's keeper; but must find his own way to Nirvana by escaping the Wheel of Existence through the use of the Eight-Fold Path and the elimination of the 108 Desires or Cravings. Because each individual has his own Karma which must be worked out for eventual salvation, it is necessary that merit be gained through good works in order to climb the ladder to Nirvana. For the Buddhist Bonze, this may be done through giving sermons, through meditating, etc. For the laity it will include meditation before Buddha's statue, and giving gifts to the pagoda and the bonze. In some cases there may be merit granted for helping other people; but, normally, the greatest merit is gained through help to the pagoda and to the monks. The denial of the 108 Desires or Cravings means submission to fate and resignation to life as it is. This denial prevents involvement in the quest for a better life and the acquisition of material things, as these are thought to be illusory. The real virtues, by contrast, are patience and humility.

The preceding concepts create the following ideas and behavior patterns:

a. Avoid showing anger to anyone who offends. The more annoyed or perturbed the Vietnamese becomes, the more polite he will be, he will speak in a softer voice, and he will smile more. Therefore, loud speech, vulgarity,

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and anger by Americans are acts which may create concealed or repressed anger and hostility.

b. Humility is revealed in attempts to make you feel completely at ease. You will be seated higher than your hosts. Dignitaries and officials walk in front of others. Places of honor are offered to guests. Humility prevents the Vietnamese from contradicting you, even if you are wrong. And verbal agreement may be given to your plan, even when there is no intention to follow it up with action.

c. Teachings of individuality and eternal Nirvana tend to hinder industrial growth, capital investments, and general economic progress. Such material developments run contrary to the idea that man can find ultimate success only in the denial of the very drives which facilitate them.

Men in all cultures-including the Vietnamese-respond to problems of life in one of four ways or modifications thereof: (1) Fight or resist; (2) Submit, accept, or surrender; (3) Take flight or flee; and (4) Ignore the problem: the "head in the sand" attitude. With the foregoing in mind, and in view of what you will observe and experience in Vietnam, it may be beneficial to mention some Guidelines for American Vietnamese Rapport:

Be prepared for differences in thought, behavior, customs, etc.

Be patient, persistent, consistent, acceptable, and accepting.

Be interested in people as individuals.

Be alert to areas of agreement rather than disagreement.

Be aware of possible long-range consequences of gifts, actions, and reactions.

Be adaptable when moral principles are not involved.

Be prepared to treat Vietnamese as you would desire to be treated.

Be aware of your attitudes. Your actions will produce good or bad for you, your buddies, and those who follow you.

Be understanding, compassionate, and concerned.

Determine to be the best American example possible.

Next: A Religiously Influenced Culture