Filial piety, strongly advocated in both Confucian and Buddhist traditions that have strong roots in Vietnam, extends beyond the grave.
Among numerous rituals and events that mark the performance of filial duties in the country, including daily prayers at the family altar, the month-long Vu Lan-Bao Hieu festival is perhaps the most prominent.
The festival peaks on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which falls this year on August 24. A feature of this month is that a large number of people shift to vegetarian food, and what better place to get a good meal than at the pagodas themselves!
For some time now, on the fifteenth day of the first, fourth and tenth lunar months, most pagodas have been treating all visitors to a free vegetarian meal.
Monk Thich Tri Thong of the Vien Giac Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh District said the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month provides the opportunity for society as a whole, not just Buddhists, to visit pagodas and pray for their parents, and enjoy vegetarian food.
The pagodas are very crowded on this day, he noted.
Thong stressed that the meals at pagodas are very popular not because people are poor or hungry, but because they believe eating the food on offer brings them good luck and good health.
The festival and attendant ceremonies are rooted in the Ullambana Sutra, which tells the story of how Maudgalyayana (Muc Kien Lien in Vietnamese) saved the soul of his departed mother.
Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha's 10 disciples, saw with his divine eye that his mother had been reborn as a hungry spirit due to karmic effect of actions in her previous life.
The Buddha told him that only the combined effort of all Buddhist monks could release his mother's spirit from suffering. He directed Maudgalyayana to organize an assembly of monks to make offerings and pray for his dead mother on the full moon day of the seventh month three months after they usually gather to focus on self-improvement.
During the festival, monks read from the Ullambana Sutra and the Bao hieu phu mau an (Fulfilling filial duty for parents) Sutra every evening.
The Bao hieu phu mau an Sutra, contains the Buddha's thoughts on a child's obligations to his parents and the fate suffered in the afterlife by those who treat their parents badly.
The prayer for Maudgalyayana's mother's soul and the food offered to appease her hunger has become a tradition followed to this day by Buddhist pagodas in Vietnam and other countries.
While the Vien Giac Pagoda will offer food for visitors from 9.a.m. to 4.p.m., others offer meals depending on their financial capacity and other considerations like space to serve the food, Thong said.
The meal's menu and arrangements also differ from pagoda to pagoda depending on the number of visitors expected and logistical arrangements possible, with some serving it as a buffet, and others serve it a la carte to tables.
At the Phung Son Pagoda in District 11, the devotees are seated 10 to a table and served by volunteers, fostering friendship and goodwill between friends, relatives and strangers. The pagoda, built in 1802 and recognized as a national architectural heritage, has a large area with many trees that make the diners more comfortable and relaxed.
Pagodas in the countryside offer a fresher, friendlier atmosphere and larger spaces, and the locals invariably impress visitors with their friendly, hospitable nature.
With the growing popularity of vegetarian food, it is not surprising that some pagodas have actually earned some fame for their culinary expertise.
The Phat Nhut Pagoda, located near the Tien Thuy Market in Chau Thanh District in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, restored and rebuilt in 2009, is famous for serving very delicious vegetarian food.
Dieu Bao, a frequent volunteer chef, said this year the pagoda plans to serve more than 300 people on the auspicious day.
The two dishes people like the most are sour soup (cooked with mint, tomato, tofu and other vegetables) and kiểm soup (made with sweet potato, peanut, breadfruit, coconut milk and other ingredients), Bao said.
After enjoying food at the Phat Nhut Pagoda, a visit to fruit gardens in neighboring communes can cap off a delightful day, he said.
Roses are red... or white
In addition to the free meal, pagodas also organize a rose-pinning ceremony initiated by world renowned Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s.
Usually held on the evening of the 14th day of the seventh month, devotees whose parents are alive will have red roses pinned on their dresses, while those whose parents have passed away get white roses.
Monk Thich Le Duc, head of the Phat Nhut Pagoda, said they plan to prepare 700 red and white roses for the ceremony that will be held on evening of the fourteenth day (August 23) and the morning of the following day.
He said the ceremony encourages children to remember with gratitude the sacrifices made by parents in bringing them up, be happy if they are alive, and pray for the departed souls if they have passed away.