Religions evolve for self-perpetuation

by Huu Ngoc, Vietnam News Agency, Jan 5, 2004

Hanoi, Vietnam -- Similar to the Japanese, Buddhists in Viet Nam practice Mahayana Buddhism, the doctrine of the Greater Vehicle that recommends the liberation of all before oneself. It is different from Hinayama, or the Little Vehicle, that upholds individual liberation. In all Vietnamese pagodas, the Hall of the Patriarchs (nha to) always features a statue of a bearded Indian man, Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect in China. In Japan, Bodhidharma is honoured in a special hall where an oil lamp burns continuously.

Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhists have much in common, as they were both influenced by Chinese Buddhism. In describing these similarities, mention must be made of syncretism and the concept of the Sacred Mountain.

By syncretism, what is meant is the fusion of two different religious elements in which the one introduced second is grafted into the system of local beliefs to create new divinities or new rites.

This phenomena could be observed in Viet Nam in the beginning of the third century during Chinese domination, when Buddhism was first introduced to the region of Luy Lau, now Bac Ninh Province, north of Ha Noi. Legend has it that an Indian monk by the name of Kandynia established himself there to pray and meditate, and was invited to stay with a local devotee. Man Nuong, the daughter of the host, by miracle became pregnant by the monk.

The monk then uttered a magical incantation that caused a large tree to be cleft in two. The infant was placed between the two halves and the tree became whole again. All of a sudden, a storm broke out. The tree was uprooted and carried by the current to Luy Lau. The Chinese Governor Shi Hsieh tried to bring the tree to the shore but he was unable. Man Nuong then gave the tree a light push and it quickly drifted to shore. From that tree, Shi Hsieh had four statues made after the four local divinities of the Fertility Cult ? Cloud, Rain, Thunder and Lightning ? to be worshipped as Buddhist goddesses under the Sino-Vietnamese names of Phap Van, Phap Vu, Phap Loi and Phap Dien. One dry year, the governor made sacrificial offerings to them to invoke rain, and he was rewarded by a heavy downpour.

Buddhist syncretism also occurred in Japan. Take for example the indigenous mountain genii called gongen. One was the Akiha-gongen, the genius of Akihasan, the sacred mountain that protected the surrounding villages from fire. It is said that a Buddhist monk established himself there in the nineteenth century to seek spiritual perfection. After one thousand days, he identified himself with Akiha-gongen. This hybrid divinity has the typical gongen long nose and rides a white fox as gongen are supposed to do. Like a Buddhist monk, he had sword to sever all ties of worldly temptation and a rope to pull the faithful to the path of righteousness. Syncretism also took place in ancient Greece and in Rome, with the mixture of Greek and Roman cults (hence, the Greek word sugkratismos).

In Viet Nam, religious practices from China (Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist) fused with local creeds to become one with the spiritual web of the nation. The Catholic Church, for its part, remained an alien element for a long time because of its inability to fit in with the local religious environment. The Vatican ended up having to accept a certain degree of Vietnamisation; for instance a Virgin Mary with yellow skin, prayers and psalms in the Vietnamese language, tolerance of ancestor worship, etc.

Viet Nam, China and Japan share another common trait ? the existence of temples situated high on mountains that are held as sacred. In fact, mountains are regarded by all cultures as something supernatural, mysterious, sacred and pure, fit for godly presence. Priests of all religions go to the mountains to seek peace and tranquillity far from the impure world.

The most sacred mountain in Viet Nam is Yen Tu, in the coastal province of Quang Ninh. This vast complex of religious edifices is the cradle of the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Thien (Zen) sect created in the thirteenth century by King Tran Nhan Tong. The king eventually retired there to devote himself to Buddhist practice after defeating successive Mongol invaders.

In Japan's Shintoism, it is believed that genii descend from the sky to mountain slopes while the souls of the dead dwell in nearby mountains waiting to transfer to the other world. Hence, the country's soaring peaks often inspire fear. In the seventh and eighth centuries, monks sought spiritual perfection on precarious cliffs and were attributed with great powers. People would call on them to make rain, fight evil spirits, and prevent epidemics, fires and poor crops.

In novelist Gao Xinghan's 2000 Nobel Prize winning book, Soul Mountain, readers are provided with a new interpretation of the classical sacred mountain. He describes it as the unending, impossible quest for beauty and absolute knowledge. "In reality, I don't understand anything, and that's the point," the author concludes.

But it is man's destiny to seek. In the classic myth that has Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down in vain, Camus has given us his own version of Soul Mountain and what it means to quest.