say a little prayer

This post is the fourth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

family shrineOn these, the coldest winter mornings when the roads are covered in snow and ice, I roll groggily out of my bed to get ready for work. Shower, brush teeth, shave. Get dressed in long johns, spiffy tailored pants and shirt from Da Nang. Lumber downstairs and feed the cat. Then pull a little piece of black plastic out of my pocket and pin it above my breast pocket, and walk quietly into the den, where the shrine awaits. Gaze with love at the portrait that stands there, and take three sticks of incense, applying a flame until they smoulder. Then holding them before me, I utter a quiet prayer, and bow three times, repeating the Greatest Name of God. Planting the sticks in the handmade ceramic pot in the centre of this small, humble shrine, I bow once more and turn away to start my day.

I used to burn incense, but only because it seemed cool and exotic. It didn’t occur to me that I could ever use it to pray.

Well, not pray. I can’t really use a stick of incense to pray, or can I? Maybe worship is a better word. I’m still not sure where that line is, or if there even is a line. I know how Baha’is pray, and I know the way we were taught to pray in Catholic schools. I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and I’m doing my darndest to memorize the Tablet of Ahmad. I even know what Muslim prayers look and sound like. But I still wonder whenever I see people offering incense at shrines, temples and pagodas: What exactly are you thinking? Not in a “wondering about your sanity” way, of course, but genuinely wondering what goes through the minds of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans and Japanese when they offer incense. How exactly do you pray?
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the life of a vietnamese son-in-law

This post is the third in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

plot maintenanceApart from the family memorial gatherings and the weekly devotional gatherings for Quynh’s father Hai, my time in Vietnam was rather quiet and uneventful. It rained heavily for a good part of my stay, which left me stuck inside most of the time. In my free time I did some tele-work for my employer in Ottawa, using a remote access provider to debug CSS and code up ASP.NET controls from the comfort of my chair in Da Nang. Yes, that was my free time. Whenever we weren’t visiting Hai’s resting place south of Da Nang—replacing flowers, planting rows of incense, refilling oil lamps—I mainly puttered around the house, taking care of chores. As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to be a good son-in-law (in Vietnamese, con rể), hoping to learn the ropes, as it were, of Vietnamese family life. It turned out that my main task was, well, to stay in the house and wait for things to happen.

I eventually got into a routine that involved taking care of a few daily chores: preparing rice for lunch, taking out garbage, and fetching cola and other small items from nearby shops. Another big part of that routine was to take care of the family shrine—meaning, offer rice and keep the incense burning at all times. At every mealtime, we would take some of our rice (or noodles, or whatever) and place it in a little bowl on the shrine. Quynh explained to me that while she and her mother, being Baha’is, didn’t necessarily believe that her father’s spirit would “consume” the food—or that his spirit would even need such sustenance—the act of offering food to the deceased was mainly for the family, to help them grieve. Offering incense, she said, carried the same significance.
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taking care of the shrine

This post is the second in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

The gesture of offering incense is omnipresent throughout Asia, it seems. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India—anyone who’s Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Shinto—even some types of Christian—knows what it means to offer incense. “In North America, not so much,” as I would tell everyone in Da Nang. In the West, most people treat incense as a way to make your house smell good, not as an object of religious practice.

taking care of the shrineI spent my time during my last trip to Vietnam trying to discern how to be a good son-in-law. Eventually, I figured out a few things that seemed to be key: preparing rice at lunch, taking out the garbage, fetching things from nearby shops, and regularly offering incense at the family shrine. If you remember my post about Vietnamese funeral customs, you’ll recall that when someone dies in Vietnam, a shrine is erected as a memorial, and that a central element of that shrine is a pot of sand used to plant sticks of incense as offerings, generally placed in front of a photo of the deceased. This shrine is an active centre of worship for (at least) the 100 days following their passing. “Worship?” I hear you ask. Yes, worship, or at least that’s how they refer to it—the act of paying one’s respects by offering incense. Vietnamese, even Baha’is, tend to draw a line between this act of “worship” and the personal prayers one might say before bed, or in times of trouble, and so on. Paying one’s respects at the family shrine is one of the most fundamental acts of Vietnamese spiritual life, and this applies irrespective of “membership” in one religious community or another; it is a tradition that helps to define what it means to be Vietnamese, and acts as a base for the family and society. Without understanding it, you cannot understand Vietnam.
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travelling between life and death

This post is the first in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

Arriving in Da Nang on September 6th, i was just about two weeks too late to say goodbye to my father-in-law. I had only a vague idea of what had happened, pieced together from brief phone calls as the nightmare unfolded. Upon arriving, the family had me offer incense at his shrine—a traditional gesture that would become very familiar to me in the following six weeks. This gesture is performed at every funeral in Vietnam—and during the six weeks I was there following Ba’s passing, no fewer than three close friends and family members also passed away. You bet I got a lot of practice. (More about offering incense later—lots more, I promise.)

Vietnamese funeral customs are based on a mix of Buddhism and indigenous spirit beliefs that date back several millennia. An extensive set of rites and customs govern every aspect of death, before and after it takes place, even extending years into the future. The process of grieving itself involves not only whole families, but whole communities, with entire neighbourhoods gathering to help mourn a loss.
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death and life in vietnam

dawn reflections in da nangmy recent trip to Vietnam to visit family after my father-in-law’s passing afforded me a lot of time to think. Even while I was still there, I knew I wanted to share with the world reflections on the experience of losing a loved one across cultures, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective. as it turns out, I’ve actually got a lot of notes, so much so that it’d probably take way more effort than I can give at the moment to put it all into one big essay-type format. So I figure I’ll split it into a few posts, covering a few different—but very related—topics. These may change, but I figured people might like to know what I’m planning.

As noted, I expect these posts will come out every 3–4 days, as I have time to work on each of them (that said, the dates noted here are approximate).

Edit: All posts are now up (finally)!

baha’i centre in vanier newspaper

Via @DASLucas on twitter, here’s the text of a nice little article about the Ottawa Baha’i Centre written by Ruby Pratka in a local newspaper, Perspectives Vanier (see the original front-page article in the PDF version of the paper). It begins by mentioning the Centre, which is located at the edge of Ottawa’s east-central Vanier borough, and quickly goes on to give an overview of the Baha’i Faith through the voices of two representatives of the Ottawa community. It even ends off with a mention about junior youth groups and other core activities organized by the Ottawa Baha’i community. Not an in-depth article, but a great front-page teaser that will undoubtedly help to answer a few questions—and raise even more—for curious locals who may have wondered about that building on MacArthur Avenue.

Baha’i Centre of Ottawa in Vanier since 2007
by Ruby Pratka

Heather Harvey and Ayafor Ayafor want to build a better world. And they believe that a better world starts in the front room of a former Mexican restaurant on McArthur Avenue.

Ayafor and Harvey are members of the Baha’i faith, a religious community that they say has about 1000 adherents in Ottawa and about 5 million scattered across the world. The Baha’i presence in Ottawa dates from 1948, says Harvey.

“We’ve gone from nine in 1948 to over 1000 now,” she says. The Baha’i Centre of Ottawa has been in Vanier since 2007.

The Baha’i faith was founded about 150 years ago in Iran, by a spiritual leader who believed he was the next in a series of prophets serving the same God. Baha’is consider Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad to be prophets as well. There is no clergy, only a democratically elected ‘spiritual assembly’ in each area with a Baha’i presence. The faith has since spread worldwide; according to the Centre for Faith in the Media it is the second most geographically widespread faith after Christianity. Baha’is, Harvey explains, respect the texts of all major religions and believe in the “unity of God” across world religions.

“At its basis there is a commonality to what our relationship is with God…and to life after death,” says Harvey.

“One of our fundamental principles is the idea of the oneness of mankind,” says Ayafor, who was born in Cameroon and raised a Christian. “Fundamentally we are like cells of a body; we’re evolving. The writings are there to bring unity in the world, but Baha’is don’t know how that is going to happen.”

Harvey and Ayafor say they believe that it is impossible to separate science and religion, and that world peace is inevitable. They also believe in the importance of community service.

“To work in the service of humanity is highly looked upon,” says Harvey.

To that end, she says, the centre holds youth study groups for teenagers to figure out how to best serve their community. “It’s all about ‘what can I do tomorrow?’,” Harvey says. “The reality of what you can do varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In those study circles things emerge, like a literacy campaign or a health campaign. . Our junior youth groups clean the parks; simple things can be done and something leads into something else. It’s very important for youth–and everyone–to believe they have a purpose.”

In addition to the youth groups, the centre holds devotional meetings where attendees study the texts of all major religions, children’s classes, and summer day camps. And anyone is welcome to come to the centre and have a look around. These programs are open “to all people, whether Baha’is or not,” says Harvey. “We are not an inward-looking community.”