USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘buddhist’
Foodways
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese Buddhist Wedding Feast

The informant, AA, is a Vietnamese American high school student. She is a second generation immigrant- both of her parents and their families are from Vietnam, and many of them still live here. AA shared with me a Vietnamese food tradition that she participated in herself at a wedding:

 

“So when my aunt and uncle were married, after the ceremony there was this big feast. There were 7 to 10 courses- they’re always the same foods at Buddhist weddings.

First there are cold dishes, like jellyfish salad, and then it goes to hot dishes, like lobster and hot pot. It’s always the same dishes in the same order. They’re always really precise about the order, especially at this wedding since my aunt is very Buddhist, actually.  It’s always very elaborate, and a lot of money is spent on the food. It incorporates many different types of seafood.

The dishes are served in a certain order as a way of wishing good luck onto the couple. For appetizers, we have sliced meats and jellyfish, and nuts shaped like dragons and phoenixes- those are served chilled as well. It’s supposed to symbolize, like, the male and female roles in a marriage. The dragon represents the groom- so powerful and strong. And then the female is like a phoenix because she is “born again” into this new life as a wife.

Later on, there is a roast pig that’s meant to symbolize virginity. I’m not sure why, exactly! I don’t know, I think it’s just a really old, sort of outdated tradition. Because back then the bride was supposed to be a virgin, and since many weddings were arranged marriages it was really valued for the girl to be a virgin.

Another common dish is shark fin soup. But since its Western style now, these kinds of weddings in America usually switch it up to pork soup or porridge. Then you have the lobster, and since it’s red it symbolizes luck and happiness and joy. Colors are really significant in Buddhist and Vietnamese weddings, especially red. Then you have fish, which symbolizes abundance, like, the abundance of money and possibly children. Towards the very end you have noodles, which is longevity.”

Which dish do you find to be the most significant, with a meaning you find particularly special?

“Desert is usually sweet red bean soup, which, stands for 100 years of togetherness because the soup contains a lot of seeds and beans- I think that one is really cute!”

Is this something all or most Buddhists do?

“It’s specifically Vietnamese Buddhist. It’s very unique to our specific background so it’s very important to me.”

 

My thoughts: Every culture has rich traditions pertaining to weddings. The particular wedding food customs AA mentioned are so fascinating because they show the intersection of Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Western traditions- for example, shark fin soup is replaced with other foods to reflect Western criticism/rejection of shark fin soup for ethical reasons. The idea of symbolic foods that ensure happiness and prosperity later in the marriage are common in different cultures, including the Hungarian wedding folklore collected by Géza Róheim, as well as foods that represent virginity or gender roles.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Scattering Ashes at Sea

The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:

“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.

It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”

Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?

“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”

 

My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.

 

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Full Moon Celebration

JT is a 40 year old Vietnamese woman who lives in Arcadia, California. She grew up in her home country and immigrated to the US as a teenager. Here is a Vietnamese tradition she remembers from her childhood:

“The Vietnamese have certain holidays that are, in some ways, like the Jewish tradition of Passover, were we don’t eat certain foods and eat others that are special to that holiday. One of the most important celebrations is the Full Moon. I was very young, but I remember that during the full moon, we would go to the Buddhist temple, where there would be tables and tables of vegetarian food- we didn’t eat meat during this time.

Who was usually cooking that food?

They didn’t always cook it there. You could have vegetarian foods from restaurants- during that time, every restaraunt will have the vegetarian dishes. It’s becoming more common now for restaurants in Vietnam to have vegetarian dishes all the time, too.

Do you know why you celebrated the full moon?

I remember that it wasn’t every full moon- some full moons were more special than the others. We used a lunar calendar, not like the American Calendar- it’s the Chinese version. The full moon of the “month of 7″, for example, was very significant. But the biggest one was the full moon of January- this is called Tet Nguyen Tieu- was the most important because it was the first full moon of the New Year. Everyone would go to temple then and pray for good luck in the New Year.

Is this something you still celebrate?

I usually do, but it’s inconvenient- we do it in our own way, buying more fruits and vegetables instead of eating meats around the full moon. We do it at home. Most Buddhist families we know do this too.

 

My thoughts: This piece is interesting because it shows how a Chinese tradition like the lunar calendar has spread to other parts of Asia as well were the festival changes to reflect that particular culture. This piece also shows that many different cultures have similar beliefs when it comes to the concept of the New Year, such as wishing for good luck in the year to come. This may imply that Vietnam is a future-oriented culture- the informant also told me that Vietnam has been ranked the most optimistic country in the world!

The informant noted that each Buddhist family havstheir “own way” of celebrating the full moon. If it’s inconvenient to go to an official celebration at a temple or to go to a Vietnamese restaurant, the family will alter their eating patterns at home. This shows how each family incorporates their own family folk customs with official religion as well.

 

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Myths
Narrative

Angulimala

Informant (J.H.), my mother, is a 50 year old Buddhist meditation teacher from Los Angeles. J.H. identifies as biracial, with both African and Southern European heritage. I interviewed her after stopping by for dinner one Monday evening. J.H. had a traditional roman Catholic upbringing, and has been studying meditation for 15 years. I asked J.H. for her favorite legends and myths surrounding the Buddha. As a self identified Buddhist agnostic, she takes these stories as metaphors with values them for their important teaching opportunities.

J.H.: “Angulimala was basically a serial killer. He was a bandit, who would kill people in the forests of India, and he would cut off a finger for each person he killed, and put their finger on a necklace that he wore around his neck. So mala means necklace basically, and Anguli is finger. So he had a finger necklace around his neck, and one time he came across the Buddha in the forest and he started chasing him to kill him, but no matter how fast he ran he couldn’t catch him. And so finally, the Buddha just stopped and Angulimala caught up to him, and the Buddha promised him freedom from his pain and suffering if he would just start meditating with him. Angulimala was so impressed… by the Buddha’s fearlessness, that he decided to try it. And the legend has it that he became enlightened, and what’s so beautiful about this story is that the Buddha thought that nobody was irreparable. Because the Angulimala apparently killed thousands of people, as the legend has it, but the Buddhist tradition says that all people have the opportunity for full liberation, no matter what your path has been.”

J.H.’s Buddhist Sangha is especially targeted toward people who have had struggles with society and are seeking alternative guidance or recovery through spirituality. J.H. seems to appreciate the Angulimala myth for its teaching of acceptance of all people. As a teacher, J.H. speaks fluently and openly about the history and philosophies of Buddhism in general as well as her particular Sangha, or group.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Dining Etiquette

Context:

The informant, who is Buddhist, gave a presentation at a recent retreat on spirituality that I had gone on. I asked to meet with him to talk about other Buddhist principles and lore that he had not gone over at the retreat.

Interview Transcript:

Informant: So, again, I was raised Buddhist. So my parents are Taiwanese Buddhist, which is a very specific like type of Buddhism. It’s a kind of pure land Buddhism, where it’s like, borderline spiritual, like religious Buddhism. Like a savior type of Buddhism, as opposed to, like the origin of Buddhism in India, which was more about self cultivation. One of the things that they espouse, or like, one way of practicing that Buddhist practice, is not eating meat. Because, you know, obviously if you eat meat, you are then thereby, you know, perpetuating the suffering of animals, or other living beings. So that makes sense. So there’s no beef, no chicken, no pork, no fish, no eggs… Actually they do eat eggs. Um, but then they go a step further, actually, and there’s a rule where you don’t eat garlic. Or you don’t eat anything that would like, smell bad. Which is so interesting. And like, my dad would always like, “Oh, make it vegetarian, but no onions.” And I was like, “What? Onions aren’t meat.” And he would be like, “But it’s the Buddhist thing to do.” And I’ve heard various, like, folklore as to why that is. Um, one of it is, like, so silly, like “Oh, you know. You don’t want to offend someone with the smell, so you don’t do it.” Because other people would be offended by the smell of onions, apparently. That’s one story. And then I recently heard, recently being like a year ago, where I heard a whole different story that was fascinating to me. Which, now, reflecting on it it doesn’t make any sense. But, the whole premise is, like, those types of foods tend to be like roots, so you would need to, like, harm the Earth by physically digging at it, like opening up the Earth, to get these, like, vegetables. Or like these very pungent, um, foods. So that’s like, ginger, garlic, onions. But then I’m thinking like, doesn’t that include like, carrots?

Me: And potatoes?

Informant: And potatoes! [Laughter] So, um, but that was something somebody told me. And again, it comes from the place of like, mitigating suffering and not causing harm, even to the Earth. And like, I can see how someone would espouse that folklore, and just be like, “Yeah, makes total legitimate sense.” But, for me I was a practicing vegetarian, but I didn’t buy the whole onion thing ’cause I didn’t get it.

Analysis:

This dining custom embodies the Buddhist principle of not causing others unneeded suffering, similar to the practice of vegetarianism. The extra explanation about preventing harm to the Earth also espouses this principle, though the informant pointed out a flaw in that explanation. The informant did not subscribe to this practice himself, though he learned it from his family.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

The Golden Rule

Context:

The informant, who is Buddhist, gave a presentation at a recent retreat on spirituality that I had gone on. I asked to meet with him to talk about other Buddhist principles and lore that he had not gone over at the retreat.

Transcript:

Informant: So I’ve heard this in various forms. It’s the Golden Rule. Uh, which is to, “Do unto others what you would like done to you.” And this is the kind of, uh, general rule of thumb. And that’s something that like I think my parents espoused on me. And I grew up as a Buddhist, so a lot about, you know, the passion, kindness, love, in that form, was always definitely valued. What was interesting is, I’ve heard it in a different form, one time at a Buddhist summer camp. Um, it was flipped around to say, “Do not do unto others what you would not like done to you.” Um, the whole premise being, like, don’t, you know, don’t project your beliefs or values onto another person, um, because the previous iteration of that would have you projecting, like, “Oh, I like this thing. So thereby you must like this thing as well.” But that’s flipped to be the other way, where you don’t assume you know what they would like, but recognize what you would not like, and then respect those boundaries in other people as well. And I think, I think that’s a good way of flipping it. And I think it’s also a very Buddhist way of flipping it, in that like… Oh, you know, to mitigate suffering for other people, recognize where suffering comes from and like, just don’t do it. But definitely the first time I saw it, I think was like a poster in the middle school, a really like, tacky, general quote that people have. Like inspirational things. And then like, I read it and I was like, yeah, that’s a pretty good proverb.

Analysis:

The Golden Rule is a teaching from the Christian Bible that concerns how to treat other people. The informant shared with me the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule. The teachings between the two versions are similar, but the Buddhist version focuses on how to not treat others rather than on how to treat others. The Christian version of the Golden Rule is popularly known and used, and, like the informant mentioned, many people learn it at a young age. Versions of it appear in various places, from Bible verse Matthew 7:12 to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the song “3-Way (The Golden Rule)” by The Lonely Island. Versions of this principle taught by other religions, however, are lesser known.

Legends

Xuanzang and Journey to the West

Item:

“I remember my grandma always talking about some Chinese monk and I never really pieced together until like… until I was much older that the show I watched was exactly that.”

The legend of Xuanzang, a Chinese buddhist monk who traveled from China to India on a pilgrimage, lead to many stories, authored works, and even some anthropomorphic tales that became prominent in popular culture. The informant grew up watching a TV show, Journey to the West, based on the legend. It covered the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who was an anthropomorphized version of Xuanzang who went on a journey similar to that of the monk, but with obvious fictionalization for the purpose of the show.

 

Context:

For the informant, watching the show was a big deal. Being born in America but having only Chinese roots created a bit of a clash between cultures, especially at a young age. Hearing the story of Xuanzang from parents and grandparents, and then watching the show provided for her an entertaining connection to her culture. Beyond that, it was also a opportunity to talk to other 2nd generation kids about something they had in common outside of being just that.

 

Analysis:

It’s perhaps appropriate that the popularization and fictionalization of an authored work based on folklore is what it takes to connect some kids to the actual folklore in the first place. A TV show can captivate kids really easily, and then through curiosity they go about connecting with the actual folklore at the same time. Also, a lot of this comes from the 16th century novelization (also called Journey to the West) which can be found here.

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