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.
I 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.
Soon after I arrived in early September, there was a memorial gathering commemorating the 14th day since Quynh’s father’s passing, which many family members and friends attended. The shrine was decorated with fresh flowers and fruit, candles were lit. Each in turn, the friends came to pay their respects: taking one or three sticks of lit incense, holding them with both hands before their faces, perhaps quietly uttering a prayer, bowing three times to the portrait in the centre, planting the incense upright in the sand- and ash-filled pot. Each repeated this set gesture. Before the shrine, a large table was prepared with all kinds of food, but all made without meat. We were not to sit at the table to eat until it was “offered” to the spirits of those who have passed—including Quynh’s father, but also relatives and ancestors. Around this table we stood, close family members wearing white robes and headbands, and, as Hai and his immediate family are Baha’i, recited Baha’i prayers for the deceased. Behind the shrine was raised a large banner, written in Vietnamese, but which I was able to roughly translate as “Baha’i Community of Vietnam / Baha’i Community of Da Nang / [Sends its] endless loving regrets for co-religionist Ho Thanh Hai / Implores God in His justice to allow his soul to return to the Abha Kingdom”.
A word about food. Every day, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the family would offer a little of our food—usually rice at lunch and dinner, although it could be noodles, porridge, or whatever else we were eating—place it on the shrine, and again offer incense. One of us, usually one of the children (this is good son-in-law duty), would return to the shrine to fetch the offering about fifteen minutes later, and the family would finish it off as part of their meal. The same happened at the memorial gathering on the 14th day; as I mentioned above, the food was first “offered” to the spirits of relatives and ancestors, after which those assembled would sit down to “finish” it. This aspect of devotional life, and indeed anything related to spirit traditions, initially left me baffled. How could I, as a Baha’i, reconcile the teachings of the Baha’i Faith—some of the most progressive religious teachings available to mankind in this era—with the complex system of check-and-balance rituals prescribed by Vietnamese tradition?
As a Baha’i raised in a place where such traditions of ancestor worship are largely nonexistent, I didn’t really know how to feel about it. I knew Quynh’s father used to recite Baha’i prayers quietly whenever he offered incense, so I started out simply emulating his example—quietly offering short prayers such as the Remover of Difficulties whenever it was my turn in front of the shrine, or if speed was of the essence, an ad hoc prayer asking for God’s blessings, prosperity of the family, the growth and development of the Faith in Vietnam, and so on. I would tend to have little conversations with Quynh’s father each time, offering expressions of love and remembrance, or praying for the progress of his soul towards God, or asking for intercession on someone’s behalf (asking him to watch over his family, for example). Sometimes I felt a little unsure of how to pray, but I figured things would work themselves out in God’s boundless mercy and grace. One thing I noted is that offering incense several times each day helped me stay more conscious of the sacred nature of life. Perhaps that’s all I needed to take away from it; isn’t one of the overarching effects of religious practice to help the believer stay aware of what is sacred?
Quynh and I talked a fair bit about integrating Baha’i beliefs into the vast network of traditional spirit beliefs prevalent in Vietnam. We both found that, given the right frame of mind, it was easy to reconcile the practice of “paying one’s respects” to the deceased—particularly ancestors and family members—with Baha’i principles. Offering incense and taking care of the shrine is a way of honouring the bonds of unity and fellowship that exist between family and close friends, of making them more sacred. Throughout history, God has always taught that children should honour their parents; the particular form this honour takes before and after death is simply a detail. So in essence, taking care of the shrine is taking care of the family—and who can argue with the need to take care of one’s family?
Observing the differences between Western, Asian and Baha’i cultures—because being a Baha’i brings with it the expression of an entirely new, emergent culture—certainly brings up a lot of questions. That’s a good thing, because I could always stand to ask myself more questions in life. I don’t do it nearly enough.
Next post: the life of a vietnamese son-in-law.