This post is the fourth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.
On 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?
What does it mean to pray? When we answer that question, we probably answer using some combination of knowledge and experience of our own religious or spiritual tradition, or that of the society that surrounds us. “When I pray, I kneel down, bow my head and put my hands together.” “When I pray, I prostrate myself and face the direction of Mecca.” “When I pray, I sit in the lotus position.” “When I pray, I ask God to send blessings upon my family and my loved ones, and to keep us safe and secure.” “When I pray, I tell God about all the things that are worrying me, and that way I can unload my heart.” “When I pray, I ask God to help me serve Him better, and to help me accept His will for my life.”
As a Baha’i, Quynh told me, she generally offers some form of Baha’i prayer whenever she offers incense. What people do as they offer incense, she said, might differ based on their upbringing. A Buddhist might praise the Buddha and ask Him for assistance. A Christian might do the same for Jesus. Even someone who eschews organized religion, as many in Vietnam do, might simply converse with the spirits of the departed, and ask them for their protection and support. Quynh’s father would recite entire Baha’i prayers when offering incense. It was often noticeable, as he would take more time to offer incense than others who did the same. I remember seeing him do this at Quynh’s and my engagement ceremony, and wondered what was going on, why he was taking so long with the incense—until Quynh explained that he was actually reciting a prayer from memory. I thought this made a lot of sense, so I ended up doing the same and still do.
‘Abdu’l-Baha said that prayer is a conversation with God. “We should speak in the language of heaven, in the language of the spirit,” he said, “for there is a language of the spirit and heart. It is as different from our language as our own language is different from that of the animals, who express themselves only by cries and sounds. It is the language of the spirit which speaks to God.” That makes sense, doesn’t it? Prayer is universal to the human experience because the language of prayer is higher than the syllables and sounds we hear in our day-to-day lives; it comes from the level of the individual’s soul, and creates a connection between that soul and God. So, while I might wonder about the different forms of prayer as expressed in different cultures, I also know that each of these forms is simply a different way of approaching the same thing: the individual’s relationship with the Sacred, the Divine. Whether one prays to God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, or to the spirits of ancestors, it’s simply one way or another to express that ineffable, mystical relationship.
When I gather my thoughts in front of the shrine I keep in my den, I often sound out my feelings, my worries and cares, to see if I want to ask anything of God, or, at the very least, where I should focus my prayers. Perhaps I’m worried about someone or something. Perhaps I’m happy with the way something went and I want to give thanks. Sometimes I ask God for the strength to deal with a challenging situation at work or in my personal life. Sometimes I pray for the safety of the world as humanity sinks deeper and deeper into its world-encompassing, adolescent identity crisis. And sometimes, I just want to say hello to Ba (“Dad” in Vietnamese), and thank him for all that he’s done to raise his daughter to be a strong, steadfast Baha’i, and to be my loving, caring wife.
Why have I continued to offer incense all this time, even though I’m in Canada, not in Vietnam? Certainly, no one in Canada expects me, a big white guy, to offer incense to anybody. For sure, it lights up the smiles on my wife’s face, and on those of her family. But honestly, I do it because I realized that when I was taking care of the shrine in Da Nang, not only was I taking care of the family, I was also taking care of me. I need to converse with God and make part of my day sacred. I need time to collect my thoughts and offer up my worries to a Higher Power. I need to shed my ego, step outside of my selfish little box and offer praise to the One who keeps me moving and breathing and living. Not only will it help make me a better person, I believe, but a better husband, a better father, a better brother, a better son. I wouldn’t stop that—as they say—for the world.
Next post: grief and the value of community.