The Cult of the Ancestors
By Pham Quynh

Humanity is made up more of the dead than the living," August Comte has said. This remark of the French positivist philosopher is still true in the country of Vietnam than in the West. The cult of the Ancestors, indeed holds an important place in our family and social life. It was set up as a sort of religious dogma and, in a certain sense, as a true national religion. If the religion is, as its etymology indicates, the spiritual bond which unites man to supematural forces, the cult or the religion of the dead is the demonstration of the relations which exist between the world of the living and that of the dead. The relations are numerous and continuing. The dead intervene at every moment in the life of the living; the souls guide them, direct them, protect them, assist them, inspire their thoughts and their conduct, follow them, so to speak, with their eyes, their invisible eyes which cut through the secrets of life and of death and which are perhaps the sole means by which humanity could have some brief vision of its future and its destiny; in short, the souls live in their memory, in their interests, in their dreams of life still more intense than their earthly life.

What is the nature of these relations between the living and the dead that made up one the most vital factors in the Vietnamese religion? On the basis of what belief does this religion of the dead stand? What are its ritual and, so to speak, practical demonstration? What is the moral and philosophical lessons one may derive from them?

Confucius, who is at one and the same time the Socrates, the Solon, and the Lycurgus of the Oriental city, speaks often of the spirits and the souls od the dead. It is true that in his Philosophical Conversations with his disciples, he declines sometimes to give his own views as to their compositions, one knows the response that he made to one of them who queried him on the subject: "You do not know how to serve the living, why should I teach you to serve the dead? You who understand nothings of life, why should I speak to you about death ?" But we know, in another connection, that in this matter, the master remained faithful to the beliefs of ancient China, traces of which are notably kept for us in The Book of Rites. According to these beliefs, man is made up of the living soul and the spiritual soul. After death, the living soul turns to dust with the body. The spiritual soul rises, wanders in space, and leads an independent, ethereal, airy life. This is the life of the spirits, of the souls, of the departed ancestors. These then never die completely; they follow a transcendent, spiritual life. But this life which runs the risk of becoming ineffectual, of evaporating into nothing, is made more real, more effective, so to say, by the memory the living keep of the dead, by the cult that it is their duty to offer. It is thus that the dead may always participate in the lives of the family of their descendents. One calls on them for all solemn occasions, such as births, marriages, and so on.

The cult of the souls of the departed ancestors dates back to early antiquity. Confucius reports in the Luan-ngu that emperor Vu, one of the first semi-fictional, semi-historical rulers of China, so restrained in his personal wants, was extremely liberal when he made the offering to the souls. "In the Spring and in the Autumn," says Confucius, in the Trung Dung, "the ancients decorate the temple of their ancestors. They put on display the utensils which the departed had used, and the clothes which they had worn. They offered them the freshly prepared dishes and fruits in season."

I said earlier that Confucius remained faithful to this ancient religion to these old beliefs of ancient China, all the more since they fit in admirably with his doctrine of social conservatism based on the cult of the past and of tradition. But did he himself believe in the existence of the souls? Did he believe in their real presence in the ceremonies and the invocations? From what emanates from his words, always prudently chosen when he concerns himself with such questions of a metaphysical order, doubt is allowable.

We have seen the answer that he made to one of his disciples on death. He said to another who questioned him on discretion: "To fulfill the duties appertaining to man, to honor the spirits, but to hold one's distance, that could be called discretion."

To honor the spirits, but to hold oneself at a distance, that is the attitude of the sage in regard to divinity.

It is possible that the souls and the spirits exist; it is probable that they do not exist. One thing is certain, that is, we should honor them. Let us do it in all sincerity, without superstition and fanaticism, as we perform a ritual of high moral and social importance. This ritual, in fact, is demanded by filial piety, which in the political-moral system of Confucius, is the basic of all virtues, the foundation of farnily morals, and consequently of society and of the empire. Under these conditions, how is it necessary lo honor the dead, and of all the dead, those which concern us most directly, our ancestors?

The Book of Rites credited Confucius with this saying: "To treat the dead as dead would be inhuman. One must not do it. But to treat them as living would be fooJish. One must not do it." One is not then to treat the dead as dead, that is to say to concem oneself no more with them, to forget them; one is not to treat them as living either, that is to say, to believe that they really live. In fact, they do live in our memory, by the intensity of the sentiment that is called filial piety and which leads to the worship of those to whom one owes one's life and one's conscience to carry on, to perpetuate their memory, to pass on the cult indefinitely to our descendents, giving us the illusion, a salutary illusion, of the continuity, perenniality and immortality, of this phantom existence, in this passing world.

Here is how the intimate thought of the master should be interpreted. Respectful of tradition and of rituals, he did not wish to explain himself fully on this subject. But such should be his thought. The cult of the dead is, in his eyes, the cult of memory, based upon filial piety and the thought of the continuity of the family and of the race. And it is in this spirit that it is still being practiced by the majority of the Oriental world, for whom it is the main religion and takes the place of all preachings revealed or supernatural.




Funeral tablets at a common altar

This cult is so surrounded with the practice of different rituals that it would be idle to enumerate here. One knows, besides, that each Vietnamese family, rich or poor, has an altar for the ancestors which could be a magnificent place of worship, or a simple dais stand on two sawhorses. It is there that funeral tablets of all the deceased ancestors dating back five

generations repose. These are the object of particular ceremonies on the days in memory of the date of their death and of all the ritual fetes of the year. The others, the remote ancestors, are represented on a communal tablet and receive worship on definite ritual days which are also numerous during the year. Two days are officially dedicated to the dead: the ninth day of the third month (Thanh Minh), the day for visiting the tomb; this day of the dead has nothing gloomy about it and takes place at one of the prettiest times of the year when:


The new grass stretching out to the vast horizon.
The pear-tree branch grows white with its tender fleece...

Thus it is said in the well-known poem of Kieu. To this day of the dead, called the weed-digging of the tombs, is added ordinarily a day of the living, for the idea of death, and it is something to note, has nothing gloomy about it in this country.

The second day reserved for the dead is the fifteenth day of the seventh month. This is rather a Buddhist festival, dedicated to the wandering souls, to all those who died without descendents to keep their cult alive. For the greatest misfortune that could happen to a man is to see one day his cult broken, by posterity's default, and to become thus a wandering soul to whom Buddhist charity grants an impersonal and anonymous cult.

Thus the person who died without direct male descendents to continue their cult are authorized by Vietnamese law to choose in their close kinship what one calls a founded cult. One can see by this how much the idea of the cult is long-lived in the hearts of the Vietnamese. The cult of the dead is essentially a cult of ancestor



A funeral ceremony preparation

Confucius said: "To make offerings to the souls who are not of your own family, is rank flattery." Each individual, each farnily ought to make offerings to his own ancestors, not to the others. lf someone makes the offerings to the souls who are not his, it is evidently done to obtain a favor, to which one is not entitled: illegal seizure of good fortune.

Then, in principle, each one has only the cult to offer to his own dead ancestors. But there are those men, who during their lifetimes, have granted many favors to their fellow citizens, who have been the benefactors of thelr village, of their province, of the entire country; there are the rulers and the ministers who have been the architects of national grandeur; the generals who have saved the country from foreign invasion; the great scholars who have honored the nation by their intelligence and their talents; the men and women who died to save honor and virtue; these have the right to let their fellow citizens perpetuate their memory and to worship them. It is thus that the villages respect them as their guardian spirits; that their original province, that the whole country build temples at places their memory has made famous. This is equally a form of the cult of ancestors; not only the common ancestors of a village, of a city, of the nation. It is the cult of the protecting spirits of the country and it is already, in a certain sense, the cult of great men, of the heroes so praised by Carlyle.

Here is the cult of the dead as it is understood and practiced in this land of Vietnam. Being given its main importance in the constitution of the family and of the Vietnamese city, and the detailed and complicated rituals which surround it, it constitutes a true religion, the religion of the family and of the race, a religion of memory and of gratitude. It is, certainly, a national religion, logical, consistent with reason and with sentiment, carrying a minimum of mysticism to satisfy the religious souls and a maximum of reason to content all the positive souls. It is a philosophical religion and the Vietnamese peple are honored to have always practiced it, for bygone centuries.