In the last five years, the popularity of Buddhism has surged in Vietnam, especially among young people. Monasteries are offering various Buddhist courses where young people can learn about Buddha’s teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh, the prominent Vietnamese Zen master, dominates the religion section at bookstores. Facebook is flooded with stories about Buddhist teachings, shared by new, young followers, from non-Buddhist backgrounds. And spiritual trips to Myanmar, Nepal or Bhutan are on the rise.
This new wave of religious engagement might be a reflection of an emerging frustration among Vietnamese at their risk-laden society—environmental devastation, raging violence and rampant corruption. In a social survey commissioned by the state, conducted last year, more than 80 percent of participants cited dishonesty as the No. 1 social problem. As the media likes to put it, Vietnam is entering a “trust crisis”.
This state of affairs is not unique to Vietnam. Its neighbour, China, has been going through similar shifts, only at a more pronounced scale. In recent years, sensational media reports have shown extreme 'immoral' incidents in China, such as injured people being left alone on the road while onlookers watched from afar and cases of good Samaritans exploited by the very people they are trying to help. Incidents like these have led many, including scholars, to conclude that China is in a moral crisis.
While it is questionable whether Vietnam and China are in moral crisis, it probably is true to say that both societies, with all their contemporary fractures and conflicts, are in transition. As social and economic changes disrupt value systems, many traditional reflexes seem to have lost relevance. The absence of a coherent moral framework can be felt, leaving a sense of disorientation. The Vietnamese call this loan.
Religion often emerges as a way to cope with change and anchor oneself amid chaos. Christianity is flourishing in China among middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs. Some say that in former communist countries, and by name only communist countries like China and Vietnam, the attraction of Christianity is that it fills a vacuum left by the demise of communist value systems; where communism once taught the virtues of progress and individual responsibility, Christianity now provides a complete moral system.
To many Vietnamese today, Buddhism is a form of self-help. It’s tapped into for quick fixes even if its overall doctrines are not necessarily subscribed to wholesale. Buddhist summer camps in monasteries, where children and young adults gather for a few weeks to get spiritually detoxed from the distractions of the modern world, are thriving. Religion, in this case, is taking on the role of parents and schools in teaching young people values.
Religion also starts to redefine what is traditional. Last year saw an increase in the number of couples, including non-Buddhists, embracing hang thuan, the Buddhist wedding ceremony in a monastery. Hang means eternity and thuan is unity. In a hang thuan ceremony, bride and groom sincerely say their vows before the Three Precious Ones (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), promising to stay faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. Young people who adopt hang thuan tend to refer to the ceremony as traditional even though it is not the typical wedding ritual of the Vietnamese.
Perhaps this is because the simple ceremony brings focus back to the meaning of marriage; and because for many young Vietnamese it’s a refreshing antidote to the common banquet-focused wedding ceremony. In an age of sexual revolution, where love hotels are available everywhere for $4 an hour, the solemn ceremony gives a fleeting moment of reassurance that the marriage will last.
These social shifts have not gone unnoticed by governments. Both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments have started to promote values that they believe are suitable to modern societies. In China, the government has been advocating Confucian values, emphasising "harmonious development" and encouraging a revival of Confucianism in school and popular culture.
In Vietnam, the recent Resolution of the Communist Party has proposed a “set of qualities” for the modern Vietnamese—patriotism, kindness, solidarity, honesty, diligence and creativity (it’s not currently clear how the government proposes to promote these values). Just as Vietnam’s 'Civilised family' campaign had little impact in civilising Vietnamese families in modern society, what is clear is that propaganda alone won’t work. And some say that governments will struggle to address moral voids until they fill in their own.
Linh Le is project director with Flamingo Singapore