The Vietnamese philosophy of life
by Huynh Dinh Te

Life and death

The philosophy of life of the Vietnamese bears the deep imprint of the various religions in the country. The Buddhist influence can be discerned in the view of life on earth as something transient and unstable. "Life is but an empty dream," and all worldly riches, honors, and positions are temporary Fully conscious of the tragic elements in man's destiny, the Vietnamese, nevertheless, bear an attitude of acceptance towards life which amounts almost to stoicism. He seems to be content with his fate, no matter how humble it may be. This attitude of self-contentment reflects the Taoist view of life.

In the view of the Vietnamese common man, life on earth is but a temporary stop on his journey to death and other reincarnations. Since death is viewed as inexorable and inherent in the human condition, the Vietnamese accepts it with composure. It was a common custom in Vietnam, especially in rural areas, for people to have a coffin ready in their houses as a preparation for death that may come ten or twenty years in the future. Well-to-do people used to build their own tombs long before they felt they were approaching death. This composure should not be construed as absence of sadness and regret. The Vietnamese believe that, in spite of its seamy side, life is still better than death which is shrouded in mystery. Death, for Vietnamese, does not mean total disappearance. Only the corporeal frame is disintegrated, and the spirit survives and perpetuates itself in a series of reincarnations. The belief of the survival of the soul forms the spiritual basis for ancestor worship while the feeling of gratitude ant affection for one's ancestors forms its moral foundation.

Lighting incense in front of the altar

The institution of ancestor worship, which bears witness to the influence of Confucianism on Vietnamese culture, reflects the profound desire of the Vietnamese to survive in the heart and memory of loved ones after he has gone to the world beyond. Ancestor worship is shared by Vietnamese people of all faiths; except perhaps the converts to Christianity. Most families have an ancestral altar placed in a prominent place in the main room of the house. The ancestral altar is set with incense burners and candlesticks together with the ancestral tablets and pictures. The head of the family is responsible for the proper veneration of he dead ancestors. On the anniversary of the death of each ancestor, special rites are performed. These rites consist of making sacrifice offerings, burning incense, bowing and praying before the altar. This is an occasion for members of the family, relatives, and even close friends to gather together and have good food and wine. Besides the individual anniversaries of death, sacrifices are offered to the ancestors on holidays such as New Year's Day, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the All Soul's Day, and so on. Whenever there is an occasion of family joy or sorrow, weddings, births, promotion, or funerals, rites are performed to honor the ancestors and inform them of the special event.

Concept of God

The Vietnamese common man believes in one Supreme Being whose sovereignty extends over the entire Universe. This being, the creator of all things and beings but created by no one, has no earthly origin or connection.

Monks on the street

This Supreme Being, called Troi (Heaven), governs the universe and directs all his affairs with absolute wisdom. Although nobody can see him, he sees everything and knows everything. Nobody can deceive him or conceal anything from him. He sees both the visible and the invisible; he knows the past as well as the future.

As the creator of man and nature, he is full of mercy for mankind and all beings created by him. He provides for each one his share of food and happiness. As the judge of the universe, he rewards virtues and punishes sins according to his laws of justice. He stretches forth his hands and assists the good in moments of difficulty or danger. He punishes the wicked with misery and misfortune. One may sometimes escape the punishment of the law or the condemnation of public opinion but one can never escape the fair judgment of Heaven. Heaven is a moral God standing on the side of truth and justice.

The belief in Heaven as an omniscient, omnipotent, and just God does not preclude the importance of man's freedom and responsibility. In the last analysis, man remains the actual author of his own happiness and misfortune. Heaven is only a judge who rewards or punishes man according to his deeds. Therefore, the right way by which one can achieve happiness and peace in this life is to follow Heaven's voice and teaching.

Notion of fate

The Vietnamese seem to believe that there is an element of fate in man's life which may help or hinder an individual's effort. Marriage, wealth, and position are predestined. However, the Vietnamese does not view fate as a blind force striking mankind indiscriminately, but as the expression of the will of Heaven (Troi), the omniscient, merciful, and just God. Our fate in this life is but a consequence of our deeds and our forebears' deeds in a previous existence. The Vietnamese concept of fate is a happy blending of the Confucian concept of Heaven's decree and the Buddhist theory of Karma.

In the Vietnamese mind, fate does not preclude man's efforts and will. Misfortune and happiness are not eternal. The man who has an unfavorable fate can, by his endeavor, perseverance, and good deeds bring about change and obtain reward from Heaven. On the other hand, the man with a favorable fate will cause his own downfall by living an unworthy life. Heaven's justice is epitomized in the principle of cause and effect. Happiness or suffering results from one's own deeds, will, and endeavor.

Superstitions

The Vietnamese common man often believes in omens, ghosts, and supernatural influences. Whatever their professed religion, most Vietnamese are influenced at one time or another in their lives by magic, fortune-telling, and horoscopes. It is commonly believed that a man's destiny is determined by the positioning of a particular star in the heavens on his birth date. By consulting his horoscope, a man can avoid disaster during inauspicious periods and make the most of auspicious periods. It is typical for Vietnamese people to consult an astrologer when they had to choose a date for wedding or funeral ceremonies or for opening a business. On special days of the month one must avoid doing certain things lest one should meet with failure or accidents.