In popular Buddhist practice in rural northern Vietnam, moral personhood does not merely belong to the self but is embedded in the intersubjective relationship among individuals, the gods, and the community. The inner moral person, characterized as heart/mind (tâm), is constituted in the very process of becoming visible in the social world through virtuous action (đức) subject to the intentional acts of being witnessed for (chứng cho) by the gods and one's peers. Drawing upon popular Buddhist practice of the female followers of a ritual specialist in Bathing Buffalo Village, this article argues that the act of being witnessed for bridges the gap between the invisible and deeply felt experience of moral selfhood and the visible manifestation of that self in the social realm through acts of altruism and filial piety and reveals the inherently social nature of moral personhood.
Every ten days on the occasion of Kỵ Mậu (commemoration on the day of the fifth Heavenly Stem), a group of women gather in the small house-shrine of a ritual specialist, whom I shall call Ms. D.1 Ms. D's house-shrine is a modest, rectangular, one-room building in her nephew's (younger brother's son) courtyard, located in Bathing Buffalo Village in rural northern Vietnam.2 During rituals, clients crowd into this room, sitting on a mat behind Ms. D, who faces the main altar. Ms. D's main altar is built into the short wall on the left side of her house-shrine. There are two main spirits on the upper altar. At the top presides the Universal Mother Buddha (Phật Hoàng Địa Mẫu), the most important spirit in Ms. D's pantheon. Below her is an image of the bodhisattva Quan Âm (Phật bà Quan Âm bồ tát), and resting on the altar is a statue of Quan Âm in a glass case. The rest of the altar is crowded with vases, incense urns, and plates of offerings. The lower altar has an image of the Tiger spirit (Ngũ hổ). On the longer back wall of the room, opposite the door, is a wide cabinet, on top of which sits Ms. D's ancestral altar and portraits of Hồ Chí Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp, also spirits in her pantheon.
Upon arrival, participants place offerings of incense, fruit, and money on the altar to be blessed. At noon, Ms. D rings her bell several times to indicate the beginning of the ritual and begins a supplication to the gods, beginning with the Universal Mother Buddha, who, Ms. D explains, created the whole world and all its inhabitants including all other gods, followed by supplications to other gods in her pantheon. The participants soon join Ms. D and in unison chant the sutra to the Universal Mother Buddha (Địa Mẫu Chơn Kinh) followed by excerpts from a sutra (Kinh Chùa Tuyết) to the bodhisattva Quan Âm (Phật bà Quan Âm bồ tát, or Kwan Yin in Chinese). Their voices punctuated periodically by the ringing of Ms. D's bell, participants read along in well-worn, yellowed sutras and crisper photocopies or recite from memory. At certain points in the sutras, Ms. D reads transitional prayers from her handwritten notebooks, which rest in a pile on the low table in front of her. At the end of some rituals, Ms. D incarnates the bodhisattva Quan Âm, whom she and her clients also refer to as “Mother” (Mẹ).3 When she arrives, using Ms. D's body as her “seat” (ghế), Mother turns toward and “instructs” (dạy) the assembled clients first as a group and then individually, delivering her messages in sung verse. Sometimes wiping away tears as they listen to the words of the Mother, clients sit with hands pressed together in supplication, heads bowed, quietly muttering “Amitabha Buddha, your child repents and prostrates herself before you” (A Di Đà Phật, con sám hối con lạy mẹ).
When a client is personally addressed by the bodhisattva in this way, they say she has been “witnessed for” (chứng cho). Being witnessed for at the ritual is a visible sign to those present that one possesses heart/mind (tâm), which is central to moral personhood for these women. A central question for this paper is how, through ritual practice, the women in this community bridge the gap between the invisible and deeply felt experience of moral selfhood (what one implicitly knows about oneself) and the recognizable manifestation of that self in the social realm (what others see). In other words, how do they come to recognize self and others as moral persons in the ritual context?
Like the Foucauldian ethical subject, each woman who follows Ms. D engages in techniques of “self formation” which require her “to act upon [her]self, to monitor, test, improve, and transform [her]self” (Foucault 1985, 28). These are ways in which the individual supports what Foucault calls “modes of subjectivation” or “the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice” (27). For Foucault, morality concerns how the individual subjects herself to and is subject to the institutions of society in order to form herself into an ethical subject. However, while the women in this study do indeed deploy techniques of the self, as we shall see, what the Foucauldian model fails to capture is how the self constitutes morality vis-à-vis other individuals with whom she must live and the deeply social cultural contexts that she shares with others.
People draw upon a variety of available resources in constructing moral selves. Social and individual moral selves are shaped in complex ways through shared life experiences (Brison 2001), local languages of emotion (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990), indigenous psychologies (Eberhardt 2014; Parish 1991), the disruptive forces of political uncertainty (Kleinman 2006), and even the intersection of national politics and medical technologies (Gammeltoft 2014). In her study of selective reproduction in contemporary Hanoi, Tine Gammeltoft (2014) draws upon the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to demonstrate how subjectivity, in the Vietnamese cultural context, is imbricated with others to whom one is always already obliged. In particular, she argues that through “being sensible, vulnerable, exposed to wounding, pain and caress, we come into being through the other's intervention” (20). For Gammeltoft, Levinas's work is particularly useful in examining how Vietnamese understand, articulate, and embody a sense of belonging. The Vietnamese sense of responsibility to others that comes from face-to-face contact is central to her discussion of how women navigate the devastating decision born of a diagnosis of fetal anomaly, a frightful specter that that is ever-present since the growth of sonography. This decision is not the pregnant woman's alone but a shared responsibility with family, lineage, doctors, and the state's population goals. Likewise, in the ritual context I examine here, one cannot begin with the individual, but instead one must begin with the fact that people are always already responsible to each other. In a religious context, this is complicated further by the presence, in particular the embodied presence, of the gods.
Following Levinas, I propose that the moral subjects who gather at Ms. D's are not constituted as moral subjects because of their actions per se—though this is important to their recognition as such—but that this process begins more fundamentally through their knowing recognition of themselves and others as moral persons. Such reflexive recognition is in part emergent in exposure of their inner moral selves, their tâm, to each other in ritual. I use the word “knowing” here in Levinas's sense that one becomes aware of, understands, one's being and the being of the other through being addressed as such, or “invoked.” This invocation is not preceded by understanding; it comes hand-in-hand with it (Levinas 1998, 7). Indeed, the very condition of recognizing and being recognized by the other creates that relation to the other. As Levinas states, “what is named is at the same time what is called” (7). This calling upon the other is the precondition of responsibility towards others and, ultimately, morality (Levinas 1972, 33). Along these lines, I argue that the intrapersonal knowledge of self (as embodied by heart/mind or tâm) and the interpersonal experience of morality in the social realm are bridged by the act of witnessing, which can be seen as a form of Levinasian invocation involving the interplay of visibility and invisibility in the socioreligious context. The added presence of the body of the goddess—who is incarnated in the medium and in dialog with the clients—“invokes” that which is already known and felt (tâm) and through divine authority makes it present to others in the room.
As others have shown, in certain religious contexts, selves are constituted with reference to an external presence of the divine. Parish (1991, 316), for example, demonstrates how, for the Hindu Newar of Nepal, “the efforts of individuals to monitor their inner life often draws on a sense of the presence of a divine agency” rooted in the local theory of mind. Espírito Santo (2015, 268) describes how, for Cuban Creole spirit mediums, the material presence of the spirits is a necessary precondition for the emergence of the person, as “Self is constituted outside the boundaries of the body, before or as it becomes an internalized aspect of the everyday psyche.” As these studies show, the moral imperative of co-presence that characterizes the connection between the interpersonal and the intrapersonal (Desjarlais 2014) is in the religious context inclusive of a divine presence. In this paper, I document how people become attuned to each other as part of a moral community through being “witnessed for” in ritual. Witnessing is a powerful statement about how the conditions and responsibilities of belonging are established and invoked, but also always embedded in the broader political conditions of society.
Witnessing is thus also a way into understanding what Ann Anagnost (1994) terms “the politics of ritual displacement,” which occurs when the state—in this case the socialist state—comes into conflict with local ritual practices. In discussing the antisuperstition campaigns of the Chinese socialist state in 1980s, which repurposed many ritual sites as secular spaces, Anagnost shows how the state and local ritual communities “compete with each other to inscribe these sites with their own meanings, at times in a relationship of mutual exclusivity, at other times in a relationship of uneasy accommodation” (223). In Vietnam, the economic reforms initiated in the mid-1980s and the attendant loosening of ideological restrictions have led to a dramatic resurgence of religious practices previously deemed superstitious by the government. However, as Ms. D and her practitioners demonstrate, while languages of “displacement” are not always rejected out of hand, they are rearticulated in local ritual practice in ways the state may not intend. Heroes of the secular socialist state such as Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp are incorporated into Ms. D's pantheon alongside the bodhisattvas and other spirits. At the same time, Ms. D's followers frequently state that “Mother” watches over and helps everyone everywhere: Vietnam, America, Australia, Africa, everywhere. Thus, the authority of the state is necessarily limited because, ultimately, it is the gods who create and compassionately watch over those in “this world.” In local-level religious practice, the political is rearticulated as humanism.
In the sections that follow, after some background information on Vietnamese religion and Bathing Buffalo Village, I will explain the concept of tâm and what it means to be “witnessed for.” Following this, I will discuss two visible manifestations of tâm in the social realm: altruism and filial piety. Finally, I will discuss the broader implications of witnessing as a metaphor for understanding moral personhood.
Methodology and Background
This analysis is situated in over thirteen years of research in northern Vietnam, and a period spanning five years in Bathing Buffalo Village. The analysis is drawn from data collected in June–July 2012, July 2013, and March–April 2016 using participant observation and ethnographic interviews. I attended a total of seven Kỵ Mậu rituals in Ms. D's house-shrine; went on a pilgrimage to the Phủ Đây Temple complex with Ms. D and a busload of clients;4 conducted formal interviews with a total of eight women and one man, several of them multiple times; and conducted numerous informal interviews with ritual participants. All but one of the women and her husband (the only male interviewee) regularly attended rituals with Ms. D. I also filmed rituals and, in 2016, screened some of this footage for a group of participants and Ms. D for their feedback and commentary.
Bathing Buffalo Village is an agricultural village situated in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. The village has 1,487 residents (as of March 2010), all of whom belong to one of its five patrilineages by blood, marriage, or formal affiliation. There is much intermarriage among the lineages, which are heavily integrated into the administrative and social life of the village, creating a complex web of kinship and social relations. Villagers primarily follow the East Asian patrilocal postmarital residency pattern. Bathing Buffalo Village is experiencing similar issues as other farming communities in Vietnam and Asia, including an aging population as local youth seek jobs elsewhere through regional, national, and international connections with relatives working outside the village (Carruthers and Dang 2012; Kelly 2011; Small 2016). The village was also hard-hit during the First Indochina War (1946–54) and the Second Indochina War (1964–75), with all families experiencing major losses. This manifests today, in part, in a strong attachment to the ideals of the revolution and loyalty to Hồ Chí Minh.
Bathing Buffalo villagers primarily practice Mahayana Buddhism, although there is a sizeable Catholic population in the broader commune to which it belongs. The village is home to a number of male and female mediums, including Ms. D. In Vietnamese Buddhist practice, while understanding of doctrinal matters is often attributed more to men than women (Soucy 2012), informants claim that women are more concerned with religious matters than men and, thus, pray and attend rituals most often. The women who follow Ms. D contend that what they do is not “women's” practice and that, in fact, men do participate as well. However, when pressed, many clients will admit that women are the primary participants, a reality that is backed up by my observations. At the rituals I observed, only three boys and two young men attended, one of whom brought an offering on his mother's behalf and the other of whom accompanied his girlfriend. I never saw an elderly man at the Kỵ Mậu rituals.5 Men are active in village ritual life, but primarily in lineage rituals and village rituals for the tutelary god, contexts in which they are already socially dominant. There are interesting parallels here with Steven Sangren's work on female deity cults in Taiwan. He argues that female deities such as Guan Yin, Ma Tsu, and the Eternal Mother can, unlike the bureaucratic (male) deities, be approached “as an individual.” This is in marked contrast to the hierarchical interactions required when one approaches the ancestors or territorial-cult deities whom one may only approach “as a representative of a patriline or household” (Sangren 1983, 20). As suggested by Sangren's work on Taiwan and Kendall's (1985) work on Korea, women's rituals are not peripheral and subordinate to male activities, but rather complementary. In her discussion of Korean Shamanism, Kendall argues against scholarship that relegates Korean women's ritual activities to the margins of society, reflecting their social status, and contrasts them to male religious activities, said to uphold the primary moral codes of society. Instead, she finds that women's ritual and the attendant gods and ghosts “are integral components of Korean family and village religion” (25). Likewise, through ritual, Ms. D and her followers both confirm a locally acceptable version of moral personhood and perform valued work in support of their families and community. Indeed, in Vietnamese religious practice, blessings from the gods (lộc) are believed to be transferrable to others. Thus, a woman can attend a ritual and bring back blessings for the whole family (see Endres 2011, 2015; Soucy 2012).
As elsewhere in Vietnam, Bathing Buffalo Village has seen a revival of ritual and religious practice since the 1986 reforms known as Đổi Mới (Luong 1993; Nguyen 2006; Taylor 2007). These reforms began a process of economic liberalization and controlled privatization that have had a significant impact on the social and cultural life of Vietnam. While the practice of official religions, such as Buddhism, and of ancestor worship were allowable under Vietnamese law prior to reform, many popular practices (such as spirit mediumship, soul calling, and burning votives) were condemned as backward and banned by the state in the period following the 1945 socialist revolution (see Malarney 1996, 2002). Today, despite loosened regulations, tensions between state ideology and religious practice still resonate in some localities and individuals. Some practices described in this paper fall under the state's definition of superstition (mê tín), which some of the women with whom I spoke openly acknowledge. Informants’ explanations of why men did not attend Ms. D's rituals often referred to the fact that men are more concerned not to appear “superstitious.”
The explanation that women are more inclined to pray than men, though not explicitly stated as such, is also connected to women's role in maintaining the health and happiness of their families. In the words of one informant: “Women like me understand. Those who go to the rituals, kowtow, pray, and request [favors from the gods] are mostly women with families. Men also go but it is rare.” Many of the women whom I observed at Ms. D's rituals made requests regarding the health, safe travels, successful education, and so on for other family members. In his discussion of urban Buddhist practice in Hanoi, Alexander Soucy reports that rather than doctrinally motivated goals of Buddhist practice such as “becoming enlightened, achieving nirvana, becoming a bodhisattva, or even achieving the Pure Land,” people are more likely to “describe the central aim of Buddhism in moral terms, saying that Buddhism was meant to teach us how to act correctly.” For some, this meant compassion but Soucy found that “the most dominant theme in explanations of the purpose of Buddhist practice was that of bringing good luck and wealth to the practitioners and their families” (Soucy 2012, 90). These are comparable to motivations expressed by the rural practitioners with whom I worked, although in Bathing Buffalo Village, my informants particularly emphasized compassion for the poor and filial piety as Buddhist virtues.
Vietnamese morality has been symbolically invested in women's virtue in various ways throughout Vietnamese history (Leshkowich 2014; Marr 1981; Pettus 2003; Rydstrøm 2003). One recent manifestation of this is that women, while structurally marginal in some domains of society (e.g., lineage structure), are today expected to play a central role in the maintenance of “healthy and happy families,” a responsibility that was enshrined in state policy in the reform period and that draws upon essentializing narratives of women's “natural” roles and characteristics (Phinney 2008; Werner and Bélanger 2002). Pettus (2003, 9) documents how, with the reform period's increasing focus on the family as the seat of modern progress, a “double burden” was placed on women “to defend the ever-shifting terms of Vietnamese tradition through their roles as mothers, wives and daughters; they also had to stand for modernizing progress.” For the women in this study, attendance at Ms. D's rituals and requests to the gods are ways of fulfilling the expectation and obligation to maintain harmony within their families. Yet, to fulfill a state goal to create “healthy and happy families,” the women of this study may deploy religious strategies otherwise stigmatized by the state or devalued vis-à-vis male ritual activities in village life. Thus, while we are dealing with the morality of an individual as expressed in a small ritual setting, that morality is measured and confirmed across a variety of social and political domains.
Scholars of Vietnam have demonstrated how Vietnamese sociomoral order is first learned in the family and is an important element in socialization practices (Rydstrøm 2003; Shohet 2013). Jellema (2005) posits that Vietnamese ideas about morality must be understood as a discursive process that occurs over time. In her work on the reinvention of the master of high sacrifice position in a village in northern Vietnam, she shows how collective memories accumulated over time are layered into the term “merit” in order to reconcile moral and socioeconomic transformation in the new market economy. Likewise, Endres (2015, 241), in her study of traders at the Vietnam-China border in Lao Cai, shows how the relationship between moral behavior in trade, good fortune bestowed by heaven, and fate have adapted to the market-oriented economy and how they “are mutually reinforcing elements of success in the marketplace.” As a body, these works demonstrate clearly that moral personhood, while deeply felt by individual selves, is inseparable from the familial, religious, and political contexts in which it is practiced. A central question for this paper is how is this external moral self related to these women's internal, subjective experiences of being moral?
The Mother as Witness
In order for the women in this community to “become present” to others as moral persons (Parish 2014), their tâm (heart/mind) must be “witnessed for” (chứng cho) by others, including the gods. Witnessing for, as understood locally and used theoretically in this paper, centers around an experience of recognition emergent in the interplay of the visible, moral person who is seen by the community of practitioners and an invisible, knowing self who is witnessed for by the gods. To be witnessed for in ritual is to be addressed and instructed (dạy) by a deity, incarnated in the medium, who delivers a personal message about one's health, family, employment, prospects, or any number of other issues pressing on the devotee. This commentary is also peppered with references to one's moral standing in the eyes of the gods. Among Ms. D's clients, being witnessed for is both to be moral and also to be recognized as moral by others. The former is that which is invisibly embodied and known as tâm. The latter manifests in the social realm in virtuous actions (đức) such as filial piety and altruism, which I will discuss in the next section. In this section, I will first discuss the concept of tâm as the intrasubjective place in which one understands and knows oneself as moral. I will then discuss the intersubjective meaning and ritual process of “witnessing for.”
The term tâm (xin in Chinese) has roots in Buddhism and while it is at times translated into English as “heart” (though there is a different word for the cardiac organ in Vietnamese), it also refers to mind, meaning that one must be mindful of one's feelings towards “those above” (bề trên, the gods and ancestors) and mindful in one's behavior towards others in “this world.” When explaining tâm, informants point both to the chest and to the head. According to informants, tâm is something that is given to one by the Buddha and is something that one knows one has or does not have—people do not speak of having a “bad” tâm. It is on the inside and not visible, but it is central.6 One informant explains tâm as certainty of belief, using the word “nhất tâm,” which means to have “unity of tâm”:
It is like this, … to follow a god then one must have belief (lòng tin). But to have absolute certainty of belief, then one must have receptivity within oneself. When a person decides to follow [religion], that is, he is already oriented towards god, we say that he has affinity with Buddha, meaning that Buddha gave him the unity of tâm (nhất tâm) to be a follower [to believe].
Absolute certainty of belief is a sign to self that one has tâm but that certainty is of external origin, Buddha. “Unity” is both self-understanding and unity with the Buddha. Another informant explained that to have tâm means “at all times I believe in Buddha so at all times I truly have Buddha in my tâm.”7Tâm is thus a form of self-knowledge but it also includes an understanding of one's moral relationship to others, both human and divine. One venue in which that moral relationship becomes visible to others in Bathing Buffalo Village is the Kỵ Mậu ceremony.
Ms. D begins the Kỵ Mậu ceremonies precisely at noon every ten days, which is when the Universal Mother Buddha is available to listen to people's supplications. At other times, she is elsewhere helping or “saving the peoples of the world” (cứu dân độ thế). In the ceremony, Mother, in various aspects, is exhorted to witness (chứng minh) the sincere hearts of the congregants:
[Our] sincere hearts pray to the Merciful Mother (Đức Mẫu Từ)
On the wisps of this incense we beseech the Royal Mother (Mẫu Ngự)
To respond [to experiencing the incense] and witness our sincere hearts (Cảm ứng chứng minh tấc lòng thành).
After the approximately two-hour read-through of the sutras at the Kỵ Mậu rituals, Ms. D, on some occasions, incarnates the bodhisattva Quan Âm. When this happens, there is a palpable break and change of mood in the room: Ms. D pauses, sits up straight, sweeps her right hand up and to the right, and sings out, “My children, Mother has returned.” She turns to face the participants, who quickly shift back, arrange themselves into a semi-circle facing Mother, and put their hands together in prayer. Mother begins with a general “lesson” directed at all present, which weaves together stories of the gods and goddesses of Ms. D's pantheon, local histories (such as her reasons for choosing Ms. D as her seat), and even political commentary (such as the benefits of the presence of the researcher to Vietnamese-American relations). The general lesson is followed by messages and advice for specific individuals, whom Mother “witnesses for.” This part of the ritual is a visibly emotional scene; the women instructed by the goddess are fully attentive, occasionally tearful, grateful, reverent, and even sometimes “terribly frightened” (sợ quá), as one woman repeatedly asserted as she was addressed at a 2013 ritual. When all present have been witnessed for, Mother abruptly leaves and the women sit down together to enjoy “lộc,” fruit and cakes from the altar, now blessed by the gods.8
Ms. D and her clients emphasize that one must have tâm in order to receive the teachings of the goddess. If one lacks tâm, Mother makes it known through ritual, as explained in the following exchange:
Author: Do people without tâm or virtue (đức) come [to the rituals]?
Informant: Yes, Ms. D points right to the face of the person without virtue. If that person is insolent with his or her parents, he or she is without virtue.
Author: And [the bodhisattva Quan Âm] will criticize them?
Informant: Yes. In our village a number of people have been criticized by Mother. She sees it right away in their faces.
Author: After that do they come back [to the shrine]?
Informant: They don't come back anymore. If you come here with anything [to hide], Mother will reveal everything.
To be witnessed for is to be exposed and vulnerable. The gods know and recognize one's true intentions. For Ms. D, virtuous behavior is an essential sign of tâm. She is particularly critical of women whom she feels are without virtue (đức), especially those who act outside the parameters of traditionally modest behavior (see Rydstrøm 2003). For example, on a visit with Ms. D in April 2016, she related in animated tones a story that had happened the previous day about a woman who came in for a private ritual. This woman had been widowed two years earlier but, according to Ms. D, was “sleeping around” with a lot of different men. During the ritual, the Mother, through her “seat” Ms. D, yelled at this woman and told her to “get out.” The woman quickly left. Thus, through her strong censure of female behavior not conforming to normative standards, the Mother refused to witness for this woman.
The word “chứng” means both to “know” and to “witness” (by a deity). The exact expression people use to describe the action of the gods is to “witness for” (chứng cho) as in the following statement: “If you don't have virtue, then Mother does not witness for you, she won't give it (không chứng cho, không cho).” “Witness” is followed by cho, a preposition meaning “for,” indicating an action given by the gods, but which can also be an imperative (as in chứng cho con or “witness for me”). This is further emphasized in the second half of the quote above, “she won't give it.” When used as a verb, cho means “to give.” The gods witness for a person and “give witness.” Being witnessed for is to receive a gift of recognition from the goddess, but this can only happen if one has tâm and is thus receptive to the gift.9 Moral personhood is in part an (invisible) gift from the gods and in part a (visible and audible) invocation in the presence of others of the responsibility to act virtuously in practice.
There is often a transactional dimension to popular religious practice in Vietnam, particularly in exchanges with what Soucy (2012) terms the “spirit side” (bên thánh), those spirits that are not a part of the Buddhist pantheon. Philip Taylor, in his book Goddess on the Rise (2004) about the non-Buddhist deity Lady of the Realm, describes how these sorts of exchanges are “a form of social engagement” with the gods and that “[p]erceptions of magical efficacy and spiritual responsiveness derive from notions of indebtedness and reciprocity that underpin contemporary social relations of exchange and negotiation” (225). While a departure from doctrinally motivated Buddhist practice, ideas about the responsiveness of the buddhas resulting in exchange relations are found in aspects of popular Buddhist practice. I use “buddhas” here in an all-encompassing way to refer to one of two types of gods in Vietnam, buddhas (phật), who are distinct from spirits (thánh) (see Soucy 2012). The “buddhas” include what informants variously referred to as the Buddha (Phật), the bodhisattva Quan Âm (Phật Bà Quan Âm bồ tát), “those above” (bề trên), and the Universal Mother Buddha (Phật Mẫu, or Mẹ Phật Hoàng Địa Mẫu).10
There is, indeed, exchange between people and the buddhas in Ms. D's pantheon, particularly when asking for health, wealth, and happiness for the family. However, what is at work is more than a transaction that reflects practitioners’ needs in the social world. The buddhas give a person tâm and in exchange place a burden on those who have tâm to act virtuously in the social realm. What makes these exchanges less transactional and more moral is mercy, which is intertwined with a Buddhist intention (rooted in one's tâm) towards self-improvement. Thus, moral intention towards others and a conscious working-on-the-self (Foucault 1985) are essential to the full realization of tâm. This responsibility also resonates with what Malarney (2002, 129) calls the “spirit of the village” that calls upon villagers to assist each other out of both obligation and compassion. One's social responsibility to others, stemming from the presence of tâm, is visibly manifested through virtuous behavior (đức), especially altruistic actions towards those in need and filial actions towards one's parents, relatives, and ancestors, topics I address in the next section.
Moral Personhood Made Visible
At the beginning of her rituals, when Ms. D invokes each of the gods in her pantheon, the bodhisattva Quan Âm is appealed to in her merciful aspect as follows:
The bodhisattva Quan Âm is also known as the Goddess of Mercy and the “Hearer of the World's Cries” (Taylor 2004, 98), which refers to her merciful stance towards those who suffer. As Soucy (2012, 26) notes, she “is frequently represented as having a thousand eyes and a thousand hands, symbolizing her ability to see our suffering and offer her aid to us.” She is also said to be “more responsive and compassionate than male incarnations of the Buddha,” and people liken her responsiveness to that of a mother (Taylor 2004, 98).11
The feeling of recognition that comes from being witnessed for by the bodhisattva speaks to the power of the compassionate and knowing gaze that is turned publicly, in ritual, towards that which one feels inside. As Ms. D explains, “Mother speaks the truth … about the private tâm of a person. She knows the situation of each person. When she speaks, then they feel self-pity.” She explains that women at her rituals often react with strong emotion because Mother understands their difficulties. According to another informant, “we cry because we feel [her words are] very accurate; first, if there is something that affects us inside, that moves/touches us so much, we cry.” She hears the goddess tell her her problems and realizes she is understood and known. But this happens in the social space of the ritual, which means that the woman's peers are also witness to this moment and can recognize her as a moral person in possession of tâm.
Ms. D delivers the words of the gods in verse. Yet, she and her clients emphasize frequently that she does not have “culture” (văn hóa), a reference both to her education level and a claim that the poetry she utters comes from “Mother.” This is a claim about efficacy (if Ms. D is not “cultured,” how could she deliver a highly cultured message) and also serves to emphasize Ms. D's humble origins. While Ms. D openly acknowledges that she was called to be the “seat” (ghế) of the gods because they recognized that she has “benevolence and virtue” (có nhân có đức), she stresses that she is only the mouthpiece of “those above” (bề trên), denying credit for the advice given or the aesthetics of her delivery of the Mother's messages.12 While all ritual specialists must accurately deliver the messages of the gods to maintain followers, Ms. D's clients attach special significance to her socioeconomic position.
Ms. D's choice to work with the poor and her being chosen as the mouthpiece of the goddess are evidence of her moral personhood to those who follow her. While Ms. D humbly explains that “it is the gods who are merciful and accept any amount as an offering” and stresses that Mother “cherishes the poor,” this is something she clearly emulates in her own work. In the words of one client:
This is tâm: … for example, someone might give twenty thousand [VND] or ten thousand [approx. .50 USD] then be told it isn't enough for an offering. But with five thousand or three thousand from a household in distress, [Ms. D] will still take care of people. That is tâm and virtue. If you have a lot of money, you can give one or two hundred thousand [in offerings], but if I don't have any money and only bring a few thousand, [Ms. D] will still give some fruit offerings for me. That is “do good works for others and blessings and good fortune will come to you” (phúc chủ lộc thầy).13
For these practitioners, the idea of profiting off of others is morally suspect. Another woman, when asked why she follows Ms. D, explained that “Ms. D conducts rituals only for the poor, for people with little money. She only performs rituals to save the people (cứu dân độ thế).” The woman above went on to claim, “if someone has tâm and virtue, that person would not think of profiting [from ritual]. That person would be like Ms. D.”14
All informants emphasized that helping the poor and those in difficulty is an expression of virtue and evidence of tâm.15 As one informant explained: “I may be hungry or in difficulty, but there is always someone worse off. I can help save that person.” This woman's use of the word “save” (cứu) is noteworthy, and a word also used in the extended quote above. “Save” is the same word that is used in the sutras to explain the caring and compassionate actions of the buddhas towards all living things. Informants stress that the buddhas are especially attentive to the poor and hungry. The bodhisattvas, in particular, have deferred Nirvana following enlightenment in order to return to earth to save others. Thus, the woman above aspires to act in a way that reflects the compassion of the buddhas.
In doctrinal Buddhism, poverty is seen as negative because it causes suffering (dukkha) and it can be seen as “a function of our delusions, including our delusive ways of thinking about poverty and wealth” (Loy 2010, 45). While doctrinal Buddhism does not condemn wealth, it does caution that wealth can become an impediment to following the path should one become preoccupied with money (46, 54). For Ms. D's followers, however, poverty takes on a moral dimension when used discursively to situate themselves vis-à-vis others in the community. It is important to note that these practitioners are not merely speaking about helping the poor; most of them situate themselves among the poor.
There may also be a political dimension here, with resonances of socialist morality's emphasis on communalism and resistance to the accumulation of personal wealth in the period following the 1945 socialist revolution in the north (see Malarney 2002). Indeed, one of the gods in Ms. D's pantheon is Hồ Chí Minh, revered for his simple lifestyle and love for the people even when he was president. Following reform, as state subsidies and social programs are dismantled, such ideas take on new meanings in small rural communities such as Bathing Buffalo Village, which have less access to the rapid economic growth that was prompted by the economic reforms. As a rural farming community, they are very much aware of their limited means and limited access to the national and global economy.
Statements about financial altruism, offered up unprompted by almost everyone with whom I spoke, reveal the presence of a local language of morality. The act of describing altruistic behavior as giving despite one's limited means is to take the stance that poverty provides one foundation, or position from which to claim moral personhood.16 A stance of poverty positions the practitioners as moral persons by placing them amongst those—including the gods—who respond to poverty in others by helping them. It is to position themselves both in relation to the buddhas (we do what they do, which is to save people) and to negotiate a position for themselves in the socioeconomic realm of the postreform period, characterized by increasing economic stratification. Here, a stance of poverty draws upon the socialist value of communalism in order to carve out a moral space in the new profit-oriented postreform world. Taking a stance of poverty also highlights struggle—one gives despite the difficulty and one's own limited means. The notion of overcoming obstacles in order to reach a place of self-improvement is very much a Buddhist concept. Thus, moral personhood is not just about self as individual; it is also about engagement with and support for one's community.
The value placed upon Ms. D's altruism also draws upon the Vietnamese notion of sacrifice (hy sinh). While the stance of poverty taken by Ms. D and her followers in the ritual context serves to equalize members of the community, sacrifice in the social context involves emphasis on social hierarchy. Shohet (2013, 204) argues that sacrifice is directly linked to one's moral position in a community, as it is “a relationship that entails differing, yet mandatory, obligations and debts between participants, where the differing scopes of these obligations are contingent on the relations of social hierarchy among participants.” In daily life, sacrifice “involves little acts of suffering and forbearance from oneself for the sake of others … extending also to such acts as forgoing romantic love, food, health or education for someone else's benefit” (205). Ms. D's life is shaped by sacrifice, small and large. She sacrifices her comfort daily for her clients, an action that denotes service to others. As she proclaimed once, while hurriedly sipping from a milk box before a Kỵ Mậu ritual, she often goes a whole day without eating when busy with rituals. Further, Ms. D does not fit the normative Vietnamese family structure, as she is unmarried and childless. Her situation in life in part results from sacrificing her own happiness to take on the burden of caring for her parents. For women, especially, this is an action that is justified within the parameters of normative behavior as filial piety (Rydstrøm 2003; Shohet 2013). Ms. D's moral personhood is thus shaped in essential ways through her work as a ritual specialist for poor clients, as well as her life history of filial sacrifice.
Filial piety (hiếu) is an important visible manifestation of moral personhood for the women in this community. To explain how to recognize tâm in others, informants frequently referenced deference to and veneration of one's parents and ancestors. Filial piety, and its role in shaping kinship relations and morality, is often spoken of as a Confucian value in Vietnam and East Asia (see Ikels 2004; Kelley 2006; Marr 1981). Yet, filial piety takes shape in practice and is, consequently, layered and flexible (Kelley 2006; McHale 2004). Scholars have shown how mixing Buddhist and Confucian concepts is characteristic of Vietnamese popular religion. As historian Liam Kelley (2006, 322) explains, as Buddhism was indigenized in Vietnam, it “adopted many ideas, particularly those concerning morality, from the Confucian repertoire.” Yet, Confucian influence in Vietnam varied widely throughout history and, to complicate matters, was interpreted variously by Vietnamese intellectuals at different times in history (Kelley 2006; McHale 2004; Taylor 2004).
Consider the following statement of one of Ms. D's clients, in which she begins by explaining tâm as always and truly “having Buddha” and certainty of belief. When prompted to confirm, “if one doesn't have Buddha, then one doesn't have tâm?” she replied:
Yes, I always proclaim that Buddha is in my tâm. For example, if my parents are in my household, and I act very respectfully towards my parents, I value my parents and don't go against their wishes. I always must say that my parents are correct and dignified. My parents gave birth to me so I must try to reciprocate the debt to my parents with filial piety (hiếu).… If I believe my parents are good people, then this is my tâm. If I were to fight with my father, argue with my mother, or hit my father or mother, hit my siblings, that is not to have tâm. Buddha teaches that tâm is to respect one's parents, grandparents, and ancestors.
In her detailed and carefully constructed explanation, she links filial piety directly to belief in Buddha and to tâm, even going so far as to claim that Buddha “teaches” one to practice filial piety. Thus, the value of filial piety is specifically referred to as Buddhist. Later, this woman made one of the few direct references to Confucianism I heard, stating that, “the character ‘tâm’ and the character ‘đức’ are most essential for the Vietnamese people. The books of the Confucian sages teach this.” As with filial piety, “virtue” (đức) is a term derived from classical Chinese (de) that has Confucian resonances, though informants rarely made this distinction. This woman references Confucianism in order to explain a Buddhist concept or belief and in doing so, reveals the locally permeable boundaries between “doctrines” such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucianism is used not to reference a coherent system of belief but, rather, is part of the work of referencing a shared understanding of moral personhood. Rather than being the basis of adherence to a “way” of thinking or resulting from East Asian cultural influences, on the contrary, these terms and ideas are deployed as explanations of moral personhood and right action in local practice.
Ms. D's followers say that “if one has tâm one has đức, and if one has đức one has tâm.” To have tâm means one cannot not engage in virtuous acts. Whereas tâm is a form of receptivity to Buddha and self-understanding occurring invisibly, virtue is a visible manifestation of one's tâm in the social world, made tangible in acts of filial piety and altruism. The presence of the moral self (tâm) and its manifestation in the world (đức) are not only closely related, but are mutually constitutive, suggesting a complicated relationship between the preconscious state of being moral and its reflexive expression in the world as ethics (Zigon 2008). I will address this in the next section.
Not all who enter Ms. D's shrine are moral. When they do, Mother reveals their moral status. I referred above to the example of the sexually active widow sent away in shame by the goddess. In another ritual in 2013, a young couple came to Ms. D's shrine just after the end of a Kỵ Mậu ritual seeking advice about whether the young man should look for work in the south. The divining coins thrown by Ms. D said no. Ms. D then chanted and incarnated Cô Ba Thoải (Mother Goddess of Water), who berated the couple for not having married yet and having had an abortion. After the goddess left, the young woman wept as Ms. D explained that Cô was angry with them and “didn't give them her blessing” (không cho lộc). In ritual, the goddess utters a warning to the young couple to act rightly, meaning that they are still seen, and thus count as moral persons because the gods are merciful. Yet, we can see the tears of this young woman reprimanded harshly by Cô Ba Thoải as a reflection of her fear of a denial of moral personhood. Fear then becomes a motivating force (Parish 2014) through which this young couple can choose to address the threat to their moral personhood resulting from their failure to conform to the normative family structure. Here the invocation to responsibility—or failure to uphold it—is laid bare.
Jared Zigon (2008, 17; 2007) proposes that “moral breakdowns” are reflexive moments in which people question their embodied moral habitus, which he describes as “an unreflective and unreflexive disposition of everyday social life.” He distinguishes morality from ethics; the latter arises when the everyday prereflexive state, the moral habitus, is interrupted or challenged and people are forced “to consciously reflect upon an appropriate ethical response” (Zigon 2008, 18). As such, the “possibilities for ethical self-transformation” arise when one is startled out of one's everyday being-in-the-world (Throop 2012, 158; see also Throop 2010). One might argue that in the case of the young couple above, a moral breakdown forces them out of their everyday prereflexive state and forces recognition of moral peril, thus prompting reflection and action. Exposure of the self in ritual would, in that case, be the mechanism through which ethical reflection and transformation could occur. And yet, certainly this couple understood the implications of pregnancy out of wedlock in their cultural context before consulting Ms. D.
A model of moral breakdown assumes an everyday being-in-the-world that is nonreflexive. How, then, can we account for the women secure in their tâm who regularly attend Ms. D's rituals and regularly receive the goddess's blessings? These women must embody an ever-present moral reflexivity as a precondition for being “witnessed for.” While moments of ritual address are indeed times of heightened tension and anticipation, when a woman is addressed by the goddess, she receives confirmation in front of others of that which she already holds present in her tâm. Women's popular Buddhist practice is thus already an explicit form of moral practice, in which the gift of tâm requires a consciously cultivated responsibility to self and others. In this sense, tâm is both a driving moral force and that which is taken for granted about one's being-in-the-world. Tâm is precisely that which one must always keep present—not just in ritual—in order to be a moral person. This conscious, reflexive state of knowing one is in possession of tâm that is made visible in ritual ideally does not disappear back into preconsciousness after the ritual. Part of the responsibility of being in possession of tâm is to live by and with its moral demands at all times. Zigon's distinction between morality and ethics is thus difficult to maintain here because the implicit understanding of one's morality (tâm) is both the precondition for virtuous action in the world (đức) and its manifestation. Thus, moral breakdown can only be a reconfirmation of ethical understanding, not its precondition.
The goddess's address to ritual participants is a challenge that calls for a vigilant and constant exposure of their moral habitus. Being witnessed for enjoins people to be responsible both to others and to self. It is not breakdown that leads to everyday ethics, though breakdowns do happen, as in the case above. Everyday ethics arise through being called upon (Levinas 1998) to act in morally appropriate ways and calling upon others to do so in turn. They are inherently social. In other words, it is born not of the shock of the accident, but of the everyday work of self-cultivation. Ethics is thus a recognition that morality is bigger than oneself and that placing oneself in the room with others (in ritual) and being open to accepting the guidance of the goddess are constitutive of a “collective morality” (Gammeltoft 2014). The obligations inherent in being witnessed for indicate that these women perceive a fundamental unity between the inner moral self and the visible virtuous actor. As discussed above, the concept of “nhất tâm” (unity of tâm) indicates both self-understanding, which is related to belief, and unity with Buddha. Here is a strong demonstration that the self is not unitary, it is unity. Unity is the self's sociality with the gods, with the local community, and with humanity.
This unity is ritually expressed through being witnessed for, which I would argue is a ritual invocation to become “present” (Parish 2014) to others. Stephen Parish posits that “[w]hile cultural practices often provide essential support for regard for other, the basis for moral experience grows out of efforts to come to terms with the existence of (cultured) others and their impact on self” (34). He calls the interplay between cultural context and experience the “space between persons,” which is an “existential nexus of subjectivity and objectivity,” in which people become “present” to one another (32–33). These women are not mere passive recipients of the goddess's gift of recognition; they embrace the responsibility inherent in having tâm and act upon it with intention. In doing so, they lay themselves open, in intimate vulnerability, to others—the goddess knows all and will reveal all when she descends and instructs those present at the rituals. It is precisely this knowing give-and-take of being witnessed for, feeling oneself recognized, and witnessing others being witnessed for that constitutes the moral person who is embedded in a community. Yet, it is important to remember that such a community is not a bounded entity; rather, it serves as a nexus through which these women connect their moral being to other overlapping relationships such as those of family, the village, the nation, and humanity as a whole.
The culturally informed intersubjective “space between persons” for Ms. D's clients is comprised of various relations that, when enacted, make up the layers of the moral person. There is the person as possessor of tâm who is the recipient of the gods’ gift of witness; there is the person as the filial daughter; there is the person as a citizen of the state that calls for “healthy and happy families”; there is the poor person drawing upon socialist ideals of equality in the neoliberal economy; there is the person that prays for skeptics, whom she can bring under the merciful protection of the bodhisattva Quan Âm despite their lack of belief; there is the person as woman, more likely to succumb to “superstition” than men. And still, describing the “moral person” in this way is only partial. There is no one moral person here, nor is there a fixed moral self in any given individual. Rather, the moral person is a coming to terms with these often-conflicting roles and responsibilities through the act of laying open that multiple self as one who has been witnessed for.
Because this is a small community embedded within a small village, I cannot claim that the ideas presented here are representative of all popular Buddhist practice in northern Vietnam. Even within Bathing Buffalo Village, others of different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds may emphasize different paths to moral personhood. Yet, a phenomenological approach to the concept of witnessing provides a productive approach to understanding the humanism of moral personhood.
While being “witnessed for” in rural Vietnam is a culturally specific act rooted in the local belief system, it can, as a metaphor, illuminate the “space between persons” in moral communities more generally. Witnessing demonstrates that it is, as Levinas (1972) claims, the act of being addressed as Other that brings us into being and calls forth our responsibility to others, whether we choose to act upon that responsibility or not. The moral person is by design an active agent who is already fully social and who helps shape events as they unfold. Witnessing provides a view of the self as always already intersubjective and it roots the moral in sociality. “Witnessing for” is an expression of what I would argue, along with Levinas, is a necessary condition for community belonging anywhere, laying oneself open in all one's exposed vulnerability to others.
Such a model of vulnerability and openness to others, as a basis of moral selfhood, opens up productive and more broadly applicable ways of analyzing the complex layers of influence and constraint rooted in the institutions of contemporary life that shape social connectedness in any place. Moving beyond the Foucauldian moral subject in which personhood is found in the interplay between being subject to and subjecting oneself to the institutions of society as an individual (Foucault 1985), the witnessed subject must come to terms with institutional pressures with and in the presence of others. Thus, witnessing helps us to understand how people on the ground navigate and articulate the moral impact of state policies—such as those resulting in rapid economic development that upend older, in this case socialist, ideals of communalism in favor of market capitalism, or those restricting religious freedom that results in contested sites of “ritual displacement” (Anagnost 1994). Witnessing as invocation exposes the intimate experiential level at which broader societal-level pressures and changes are collectively processed, embodied, and ultimately reconciled to local-level moral landscapes.
The ten Heavenly Stems is a cycle of ten named days. Mậu is the fifth Heavenly Stem, meaning the fifth day of the cycle. Kỵ Mậu means a death anniversary commemorated every ten days on the day of the fifth Heavenly Stem. Ms. D describes this as a commemoration for Mẫu (mother), by whom she means the Universal Mother Buddha (Địa Mẫu), the main god in her pantheon. Informants often say Kỵ Mẫu, meaning the commemoration for the Mother. I will refer to the ritual as Kỵ Mậu, because this is how Ms. D originally introduced it to me and it keeps the cyclical implications of Mậu.
I have used pseudonyms for all participants and the village to protect the privacy of my informants. Villagers explain that the Sino-Vietnamese meaning of the village's name refers to the main line of the village, which resembles the curved back of a bathing buffalo.
Ms. D and her clients refer to both the Universal Mother (Địa Mẫu) and to the bodhisattva Quan Âm (Phật bà Quan Âm bồ tát) as “Mother” (Mẹ). Ms. D incarnates deities (primarily the bodhisattva Quan Âm, but on occasion others such as Cô Ba Thoải, the Mother Goddess of Water) from her pantheon in service of her clients. However, she is emphatic that she is not a “performer” like spirit mediums practicing Lên Đồng spirit mediumship in the Mother Goddess or Three Palaces religion, which has seen a significant revival in the past two decades (see Endres 2011; Fjelstad and Nguyen 2006; Norton 2009). Ms. D, for instance, does not incarnate a succession of gods in a ritual, does not don costumes pertaining to the spirits, nor is there musical accompaniment or dancing in the ceremonies. While there is overlap in aspects of Ms. D's broader practice with the Mother Goddess religion, and while she used to practice spirit mediumship in the past, the spirits that she deals with in the Kỵ Mậu ritual are on what they call the “Buddha side” (bên Phật).
The Phủ Dầy temple complex is dedicated to the Three Palaces or Mother Goddess religion. It is a major pilgrimage site, especially in April during the yearly temple festival, which is when I accompanied Ms. D.
Private rituals often seemed to be more balanced between women and men than the Kỵ Mẫu rituals. As these were private, I was only able to attend a couple of ceremonies for acquaintances who were comfortable with my presence. Also, on a pilgrimage to the Phủ Dẩy Mother Goddess temple complex in 2016, which consisted of both men and women, the women tended to stay with Ms. D as she prayed at each temple, whereas the men were more likely to wander off after lighting incense.
Kirsten Endres (2011, 105) describes tâm for Len Dong spirit mediumship as a state of concentration or “directedness of heart.” Her definition presents similarities to extended explanations of tâm given by my informants.
When speaking of feelings, informants commonly use the word “lòng,” which also means “gut.” “Lòng tin” (lit: to believe in one's gut) is also occasionally used for “believe” (see quote above).
For a discussion of blessed goods (lộc) in urban Buddhist practice in Hanoi, see Soucy (2012), and in the Mother Goddess religion, see Endres (2011) and Nguyen Thi Hien (2006).
The ancestors also witness for their descendants. As explained by one informant, “If today were the death anniversary of my father but I couldn't afford to return home, then I could worship from here and father would witness for (chứng cho) me. Thus, Buddha would announce that this person has tâm, has filial piety with her parents.”
For example, in Ms. D's pantheon, Quan Âm belongs to the “Buddha side” and Hồ Chí Minh belongs to the “spirit side” (see also Soucy 2012). Bề trên (those above) is a cross-over category that is also used to refer to the spirits of the ancestors.
The bodhisattva Quan Âm (Kwan Yin in Chinese) was originally a male bodhisattva, Avalokitésvara, who was transformed into the female aspect over time in China (see Yü 2001).
In her forties, Ms. D had an episode of madness that she later realized was the Mother calling her to serve.
At the time of this research, 20,000 VND was equal to about 1 USD. The saying “phúc chủ lộc thầy” is hard to boil down to an English equivalent. The first part (phúc chủ) means that those who hold privileged positions in the hierarchy (such as parents) and who do good work will be seen by the gods and be blessed with good fortune. The second part (lộc thầy) means that the gods give gifts or boon to the fortuneteller in order to help others. Thanks to Nguyen Kim Chi for this explanation.
Ms. D's clients’ linking of poverty and morality is clearly a relative position. Those who are wealthy may well have different ideas, though I do not address this in this paper.
While the rhetoric about helping the poor was pervasive among these clients, I did not personally witness this in action. Therefore, these explanations should be taken as statements reflecting values, rather than evidence of what people actually do.
In linguistic anthropology, to take a stance is to take “up a position with respect to the form or the content of one's utterance,” and by doing so to associate oneself with a particular subject position (Jaffe 2009, 3–4).
This paper is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1534536. Thanks also to Phan Phuong Anh, Laurel Kendall, Erik Harms, Ben Junge, and my anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.