A burning issue

By Thanh Phong, Thanh Nien News

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A burning issue
Experts and Buddhist monks say a Chinese custom of burning joss paper to venerate ancestors should be stopped because it is wasteful and superstitious.
Luxury villas, horses, fancy clothes, expensive imported cars and cell phones.
There is nothing too good when it comes to ensuring your loved ones enjoy the utmost comfort in their afterlife.
So, Le Thi Hoa in Bui Xuong Trach Street of Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District ensured she got all these material treasures for her father on his first death anniversary, on the advice of thay (shamans).
And how does she send these luxuries to her father? In smoke.
Hoa, however, had to break with custom here. She bought so many things for her father's spirit that it would take her two days to burn them in her house at the ancestral altar.
That was difficult to manage, Hoa said, adding that she was also concerned about the fire risks.
So she ended up hiring some people to bring the items to a nearby street for burning.
Hoa's collection of paper properties offered to her father was impressive, but it fell far short of what a sand contractor did last year.
On the occasion of Vu Lan (Ullambana) festival, the contractor lit up the banks of the Red River in the capital with 1,000 paper people and horses - 250 life-sized ones, the remaining split into large, medium and small sizes.
People said the contractor had spent over VND400 million (US$21,600) for the offerings, including hiring an artisan to make them over two months.
As Tet, the Lunar Year Year, approaches, Hanoi's Hang Ma Street in its famous Old Quarter, is crowded with residents buying votive offerings - joss papers, also known as ghost money, and paper votive offerings for burning during the holiday as part of the worship of ancestors.
A large variety of items are put on display or hung on strings along the 440-meter street. A paper horse costs VND50,000-200,000 ($2.7-10.8), depending on its size. Several famous brands of cars can also be found, like the Ferrari and Lexus 460. Each of these can cost up to VND2 million ($108).
Depending on their purchasing power, there are those who choose several stacks of money and simple paper clothes, while others pay millions of dong for many objects, so that "the dead can enjoy the same things as the living do."
Not Buddhist
While many people believe the custom of burning joss paper and paper offerings is a Buddhist rite or tradition, many monks across the country told Thanh Nien that the religion has never asked its adherents to do this.
Thich Nu Nhu Hien, head of Hanoi's Linh Son Pagoda, said the custom originated in Chinese folk-religion, not Buddhism.
"I have seen people burn paper offerings costing tens of millions of dong. I think it's an act making both the dead and the living guilty," Hien said.
He said it was wrong for the living to waste money on such offerings. And as they did it for the dead, the latter's spirits would suffer as well
Agreeing with Hien, Thich Thien My, head of the Vien Giac Pagoda in the southern province of Dong Nai, said, "For the dead, it's good enough that their family members commemorate them and pray for them.
"There is no need to burn hell money, paper houses and cars to make them happy."
Superior Monk Thich Thien Tanh of Ho Chi Minh City Buddhist Association said people should understand that the dead can't enjoy offerings burnt into ashes.
Instead, he encouraged people to do charitable things as a way to bring peace to the dead.
Dang Van Khoa, chairman of Ho Chi Minh City Association of Natural and Environmental Protection, said the custom was a waste of precious natural resources.
"Smoke from the burning also pollutes the environment, worsening global warming," he added.
One theory
In an article published last year on the bee.net website, Dr. Nguyen Manh Cuong of the Institute of Religious Studies said the custom may date back to more than 2,000 years ago in China.
Cuong said he learnt from some materials the story of a couple who lived under the Han Dynasty.
A man named Thai Mac and his wife, Tue Nuong, came to the capital city to learn about making paper and returned home to run a business. But Mac's paper was not very good so it did not sell well.
Tue Nuong then came up with a plan. She pretended to die, and on the third day of her funeral, Mac brought a pile of paper to burn next to his wife's coffin.
After all the paper was burnt, Nuong called out to her husband and stepped out of the coffin, singing a song that said, "In this world, money can do anything anywhere. In hell, paper can be used to trade as well. If my husband didn't burn paper for me, who would allow me to come back to this world?"
Nuong then gave the paper to her neighbors to celebrate her resurrection. The story spread far and wide, and people flocked to buy paper from Mac.
"We have yet to decide whether the story is true or not," Cuong said.
Thanks to advanced technology, the joss paper and other items are more and more beautiful and sophisticated, making it even more wasteful, he added.
Cuong also said that the custom has been part of Vietnamese life for so long that it was difficult to ask people to abandon it.
"People should give consideration to the real effects of joss paper burning. Whether it is big or small, much or few, beautiful or not, it doesn't matter."

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