Today is one of the biggest celebrations in Vietnam and it is called Vu Lan. I’m so excited to bring this tradition to you – the first among many more to come. I didn’t mean the celebration is on the 4th September respectively because almost all traditional Vietnamese celebrations take place according to the lunar calendar. Every year, the people celebrate Vu Lan on the lunar 15th July, the day of the Full Moon, and it just happens that this year it falls in September.
Vu Lan celebration originated from Vietnamese Buddhist practice. The Vietnamese Buddhism, although derived directly from the Indian Buddhism, is a whole entity on its own. Buddhism first made itself known in Vietnam around the III and II centuries BC by Indian monks who crossed the sea to deck on the shore of the country. Since then it has grown to become the main religion of Vietnam. From the first day through its long history of influence, the original Buddhism merged with pagan traditions and belief and pervaded all aspects of the population’s life. And that’s why many of our celebrations derived from Buddhist myths and practices, one of them is Vu Lan.
The origin of the story
Vu Lan is an official day to offer respect and gratefulness to our parents.
In Vietnamese there’s an expression to describe the love one has for one’s parents: “hieu thao”. There’s no translation for this term in English, or in French. This moral code finds its origin in Confucian teachings and the Chinese influence. This practice is encouraged and celebrated as a way of life, the right thing to live by and to strive for. By the way, my name is originated from this expression if you haven’t noticed. I should write about Vietnamese names and surnames and their meanings as it’s another interesting cultural tidbit but let’s leave that for another article.
Back to our Vu Lan day, there’s a Buddhist myth leading to this tradition.
A story in a story - the Buddhist aspect of the tradition
The story began with a man named Muc Lien. Our hero, initially practiced another religion, converted to Buddhism and diligently committed himself to its teachings and practices. Like the Yogis training themselves in adverse environment, Muc Lien did the same and achieved magical powers and became one of the best practitioners.
In the mist of this spiritual journey, he found himself thinking about his late mother and how he missed her. Using newly acclaimed magical power (some say it was clairvoyance), he found his dead mother, now a miserable spirit, in hell. Because she did wicked things when she was alive, his late mother was condemned to stay in hell as an evil spirit with nothing to feed, forever hungry. Dismayed by what he saw, Muc Lien stepped down to hell to offer his mother a bowl of rice. But strangely, when his mother tried to eat the rice it suddenly transformed into a blaze of fire.
Grief stricken, Muc Lien came to Buddha and asked how he can save his mother. Buddha replied that Muc Lien couldn’t do it on his own even if he had magical powers or even if his love for his mother moved the heaven. He would need set up an altar on the Full Moon of July and asked for the monks from all corners of the world to pray with him, in doing so he would not just save his mother but would also lift any bad karma caused by seven generations of his family. Muc Lien did as he was told and the truth came to past, his mother was forgiven.
This ceremony, the way to set up the altar, the prayer and also the story itself were called Vu Lan. Since then, Vietnamese Buddhists celebrate every year the Full Moon of July as the day about love and gratefulness toward their parents, the Vu Lan day. People would set up an altar in their home or attend big ceremonies in temples. It doesn’t matter as the ceremony will process in the same way: the altar will be set up with dishes (often vegan dishes), people burn incense and offer prayers. It’s the day to stop one’s busy life and be thankful for one’s parents, either they’re still alive or passed away.
The white rose, the pink rose and the red rose
Well, it has nothing to do with the war of the Roses in England. In this Vu Lan day, it has become tradition for each person to wear a rose on their chest.
This practice is recent in Vietnam, raised by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in the 60s. The rose is a symbol of love and a noble heart so there is no other symbol more appropriate for Vu Lan day. One wears a white rose if one’s parents passed away, a pink rose if one lost one’s mother and a red rose if both parents are still alive and well. The white rose stands for our love and respect for the ones who passed away, missing them and therefore striving to do the right things in life. The pink and red roses are a reminder to appreciate our parents and love them while we still can.
The pagan practice
There’s another practice which is independent from the Vu Lan celebration but people hold both ceremonies together on the Full Moon of July. It’s the pagan day of forgiven homeless spirits.
The pagan Vietnamese belief, just like those of other South East Asian countries, believes that human is made from two distinct elements: the body and the spirit. And unlike the body which will eventually decompose and “return to sand and dust”*, the spirit itself is eternal. The human world is closely linked to the spirit world and the deeds that we did in the human world, either good or bad, will be judged and rewarded (if good) or punished in hell (if bad) in the spirit world.
It is said that on the Full Moon of July, punished spirits in hell were forgiven and were free to roam the earth. The homeless forgiven spirits which have no one to set up altar and pray for them are believed to will be up to mischief. And so on that day, people set up altar facing their house entry with sweets and puddings as an offer for homeless spirits in hope that they will leave peacefully. Incense will also be burned for this ceremony and when it ends, the children in the neighborhood are invited to “sack” all the treats like the devils they are. I’m just half kidding since the image of children running rodshod over the treats is not so unlike that of homeless spirits sampling the offering. We can call this the Vietnamese Halloween day.
Although both ceremonies are performed on the same day, they are unrelated and often people celebrate Vu Lan more than the pagan day of forgiven homeless spirits. It is because the meaning of Vu Lan etches deeply in Vietnamese culture, not as a religious ceremony but as a way of life. More often than not one’s family is a part of one’s identity.
I hope you enjoy this article about Vietnamese traditions and their layers of meaning and origins. Now please excuse me, I have to go buy myself a rose.
* a Vietnamese description of death
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!