The Buddha Side

The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam

Copyright Date: 2012
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    The Buddha Side
    Book Description:

    The most common description of the supernatural landscape in Vietnam makes a distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist "sides." The "Buddha side"(ben phat)is the focus of this investigation into the intersection of gender, power, and religious praxis. Employing an anthropological approach to Buddhist practice that takes into account modes of action that are not only socially constructed and contextual, but also negotiated by the actors,The Buddha Sideuniquely explores how gender and age affect understandings of what it means to be a Buddhist.In seeking to map out the ways and meanings of Buddhist engagement, Alexander Soucy examines everything from the skeptical statements of young men and devotional performances of young women to the pilgrimages of older women and performances of orthodoxy used by older men to assert their position within the pagoda space.Soucy draws on more than four years' experience conducting ethnographic research in Hanoi to investigate how religious practice is grounded in the constitution and marking of social identity. From this in-depth view, he describes the critical role of religion in shaping social contexts and inserting selves into them. Religion can thus be described as a form of theatre-one in which social identities (youth, old age, masculinity, femininity, authority) are constructed and displayed via religious practice.A compelling look at the performative aspect of Buddhism in contemporary Vietnam,The Buddha Sidewill be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Buddhism as it is practiced on the ground.4 illus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6585-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    George J. Tanabe Jr.
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    It was early morning. Quán Sứ pagoda, the most important pagoda in Hanoi, was crowded.¹ Because it was the fifteenth day of the lunar month, middle-aged and elderly women were everywhere, wearing the brown robes and the Buddhist prayer beads that marked them as lay Buddhists. In the large main hall there were nearly two hundred devotees sitting on grass mats that flowed out the doors and onto the balcony that surrounded the pagoda. They were waiting for the sutra recital to begin; some of them had been waiting for as long as an hour in order to get a...

  6. 1 Views of the Religious Landscape
    (pp. 16-36)

    For most people in Vietnam religion is lived rather than experienced intellectually. People pray to the buddhas, chant sutras, offer incense to gods, goddesses, or ancestors, and have their fortunes read without, for the most part, pondering the cosmological implications of their actions. Buddhism, as most people approach it, cannot be understood through the philosophical content of religious texts: most people who visit pagodas are unaware of the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy. They do not repeat a creed nor “belong” to a religion. This does not mean that in Vietnam there is one amorphous religion, followed uncritically by all. Rather,...

  7. 2 Space and the Ranking of Buddhisms
    (pp. 37-59)

    At the foot of the steps of Quán Sứ Pagoda, where I first started research in 1997, there was a notice board that warned, “Do not commit the offense of bringing spirit money into the pagoda to worship.” As I stood in front of this notice board, I found it difficult to reconcile the dictate, given that this practice is an important part of the way Buddhism is practiced by most people in northern Vietnam. However, Quán Sứ Pagoda is politically the most important pagoda in northern Vietnam, as headquarters of the state-controlled Buddhist organization, and therefore stands as representative...

  8. 3 Masculinities and Performances of Skepticism
    (pp. 60-78)

    Minh was twenty-two years old when I first met him in 1997. He was in charge of the guesthouse where I lived for most of my first year in Vietnam. He was bright, thoughtful, and had a good sense of humor; we quickly became good friends. Minh came from a poor family in a village one hour west of Hanoi, in Hà Tây province. His father died when he was a baby and his mother, brother, and sister had to struggle to survive. He regretted that he was only ever able to attend a couple of grades of elementary school....

  9. 4 Offerings and Blessings
    (pp. 79-96)

    The fifteenth day of the lunar month had arrived, one of the two days each month when offerings are believed to be most efficacious and when most devotees make an effort to visit a pagoda. My wife called up and reminded me that she wanted to go to the pagoda that afternoon. On our way to the pagoda we stopped to buy things from street vendors to offer at the pagoda. By the time we arrived at the front gate of Chân Tiên Pagoda on Bà Triệu Street, her basket held nine oranges, a bunch of bananas, a wad of...

  10. 5 Women, Offerings, and Symbolic Capital
    (pp. 97-117)

    When I met Thảo in 1997, she was a thoroughly modern, urban, twenty-five-year-old woman who came into frequent contact with foreigners because of her job in a joint venture company. She wore fashionable clothing, was well educated and multilingual, and viewed many Vietnamese traditional attitudes towards women as outdated and unreasonable in today’s society. Despite her career and her education, which marked her as one of the emerging middle class, marriage and children remained the central goals in her life.

    At the same time, she defined herself as being religious, even “superstitious,” though that label is usually used in a...

  11. 6 Sutra Recital and Buddhist Identities
    (pp. 118-137)

    Buddhist practice in Vietnam, being nonprescriptive, can take a number of forms. However, the various options for practice are interpreted as leading to different ends and are given very different values, depending on perspectives. There is no systematic or authoritative stipulation regarding which activities are mandatory for a Buddhist, which activities are beneficial but not essential, and which are superfluous or even undesirable from a Buddhist perspective. There is also no authoritative consensus or social pressure regarding what the goals and intended outcomes for particular practices ought to be. Consequently, Vietnamese Buddhists take part to a greater or lesser extent...

  12. 7 Conspicuous Devotion and Devotional Distinctions
    (pp. 138-158)

    I went on a one-day pilgrimage touring temples with a busload of women from a village on the outskirts of Hanoi in January 1998, shortly after Tết Nguyên Ðán (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday). It was similar to the pilgrimage described in Chapter 6, though it was with a group from a different pagoda. The trip was organized by three women: two were retired teachers, and one was the leader of the local pagoda association. The leaders had obtained help from a number of women who had volunteered to phone other Buddhist women to ask them to come on...

  13. 8 Interpretive Distinctions
    (pp. 159-177)

    Mr. Trung was born in the late 1920s, and describes his life as having been difficult. He never really knew his father, who died when Mr. Trung was four years old. He was the youngest of six children, and was moved around quite a bit, living for periods with various members of his mother’s family. At a young age he joined the revolution to fight against the French and spent some time in a notorious prison, the “Maison Centrale,” which is called Hỏa Lò by the Vietnamese and “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs who were later imprisoned there. He proudly...

  14. 9 Language, Orthodoxy, and Performances of Authority
    (pp. 178-198)

    In the bright summer morning, a group of old Vietnamese men and women chatted quietly in the courtyard of Phúc Lộc Pagoda. The air hung with moisture as usual, but the oppressive sun had not yet stolen away the cooler morning air. Outside the pagoda gates the fury of market activity and the signature bustle of Hanoi’s pedestrian traffic and honking motorcycles had been under way for hours. Inside the courtyard, however, was an oasis where birds sang in bamboo cages that hung from the branches of a starfruit tree. The group of elders formed into loose ranks for their...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 199-204)

    The people introduced in these chapters expressed a range of possibilities for what it means to be Buddhist in Hanoi. Thảo, the young woman who considers herself to be a fervent Buddhist, neither meditates, recites sutras at the pagoda, nor reads extensively about Buddhist philosophy. Her primary religious activity is making offerings on the first and fifteenth of every lunar month, reclaiming them aslộc,and distributing them to her family. Mrs. Tu, also, is assiduous in making offerings on these days, but in addition she takes part in sutra recitals at her local pagoda four times every month, goes...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 205-218)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-230)
  18. Index
    (pp. 231-244)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-247)