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Vietnamese people have long-held the belief that death does not mean the end of life and that the spirits of the dead remain on Earth with their living descendants. Poet Nguyen Du (1756-1820) once said “the body dies, though the spirit remains alive.”
“The burning of incense to worship one’s ancestors is a demonstration of the belief in the presence of ancestors, which is morally and spiritually beneficial,” said historian Associate Professor Nguyen Minh Tuong.
According to “The worship customs of Vietnamese families,” published by the Publishing House of National Culture in 1996, this belief that the spirits of the dead can exert an influence on the behavior of the living means that those who are still in this realm try not to upset their ancestors and keep their distance from things that their parents would never have approved of or accepted, if they were still alive.
There are several ways to explain the reasons why an odd number of incense sticks, usually three, are burnt each time. Professor Nguyen Minh Tuong said that this practice originated from the Buddhist concept of Triratna, representing the ‘three treasures’ of Buddhism, namely Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
In the view of Confucianism, the three incense sticks embody Heaven, Earth and mankind. But according to the Book of Changes, number three belongs to Yang, which is the symbol of heaven, sacredness, purity, restfulness and the origin of life, according to Venerables Thich Thanh Hue and Tue Nha’s book, “The customs and rites of thurification”.
On the one hand, ancestor worship is a way of demonstrating the debt of gratitude owed by the living to their forefathers. On the other hand, it enables the living to pray for the support of their ancestors in their daily lives.
Historically, ancestor worship was an act of national importance, Tuong said. In the past, even Vietnamese kings would worship the founders of their dynasties and honour their predecessors.
“In my point of view, this practice can be traced back to the teachings of Tseng Tzu, a Confucian disciple, who said those in power should attach great importance to the commemoration of the ancestors who founded their dynasties, setting an example of loyalty to their subjects, which was crucial to their regimes’ viability,” Tuong explained.
On the second or third days of the Lunar New Year, the Vietnamese people would hold offering rites, or Nam Giao, led by the incumbent king to give thanks to heaven and earth. This practice, according to Professor Tuong, stemmed from the Confucian view that men of honour should be afraid of three things, including the will of Heaven. The practice of Nam Giao has now been restored in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue .
“The practice demonstrates the belief of the Vietnamese people in supernatural forces,” Tuong said.
There are historical accounts of the apparent connection between humans and the spirit world, the professor said. “In years when the country suffered from droughts and a poor harvest, the incumbent king would confess his sins, if any, remain abstinent and conduct rites to pray to Heaven and Earth for rain. History shows that, on many occasions, there was subsequent rainfall,” said Tuong.VietNamNet/VNA"