24 November 2008

Học Một Sàng Khôn?

There is a saying in Vietnamese that goes "Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn". The almost literal translation is "Spend a day on the road and you learn an amount of smart knowledge," or a better translation would be "By traveling one learns about the world". I surely learned a thing or two on my recent weekend getaway to Toronto to attend an uncle's funeral.

I have attended a few funerals, for people my in-laws know, for people I know, and of course my own late father's. At all those funerals, people would donate money to help cover the cost of the funeral. Nothing, yet, can bring a dead person back to life, and a funeral costs money, lots of money, so it is practical to donate money to help with the funeral. I am not rich and most people I know are not rich either so I have yet to attend any funerals where money was not accepted. On this recent trip, I learned that some people would not take the money, even if they can very well use it, purely because doing so would bring debt to the dead person. Supposedly his soul would then be burdened by this debt and won't go where souls are supposed to go.

Interestingly, many Vietnamese believe that when people die they will reincarnate into some other lives. Supposedly, it would be better to be reborn into wealthy family. Conversely, it would be bad to be reborn as an animal, as animals are either made to perform manual labors or are eaten for their meat. I am no Buddhist scholar, but I know that it is not true that it is good to have a better life in your second life. The goal is to have no life at all! Really. Living inside a body of flesh and blood is simply awful, regardless whether you are the pampered prince of a wealthy family or you are the hard-working farmer who wakes up at 3 A.M. with the water buffalo. The goal is to leave your flesh and become free, kinda like Obi-Wan Kenobi melding with the Force.

Another thing I learned was that if a person died before the parents, it is considered a sin, something disrespectful to the parents. In Vietnamese funeral, the grieving parties wear white bands around the head. In the case of a disrespectful child, at the wake, the dead child, lying in the coffin, would have to have a white band placed near his head, supposedly to symbolize the dead person wearing for his parents. Superstition defies logic, as wouldn't some elderly people object to that as a signal to hasten their demise, trù ẻo or bad wishes? Whatever, tradition also dictates that the parents should whip the coffins three times to punish the child for "going" ahead of them.

The Vietnamese word khôn in the title means smart or intelligent. I would not say the two things I learned above make me smarter or more intelligent. I'm a computer geek and am aware that knowledge is power, although their usefulness can be doubtful. In case I come across similar scenarios, I can act accordingly and avoid being treated like an ignoramus. As an atheist who believes "chết là hết", or "Death is the end of all", none of this means much to me.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:53 PM

    I have always been fascinated by death. Not in a creepy way, but in a way that I realize how precious our life and every moment in it is. I plan on a no frills cremation or what ever is the cheapest. Maybe just put me in a pine box in a forest o even no box at all, dig a hole, and cover me with dirt so I can fertilize a tree.

    I am not an atheist, i was raised as a Baptist and while I no longer attend church, mostly because i hate American religious culture, I think you are short changing yourself by denying a religious part of yourself. Religion has always been there with humans, and I think it helps us in good times and bad. More in bad.

    I was agnostic for many years as a youth and found it to be boring, as atheism is as well. We have no Idea what is on the other side of life let alone the other side of the galaxy. We don't even know what we don't know about the universe. What if we discovered there were different planes of existence in 200 years? If we last that long..

    If someone told you 200 years ago we would be on the moon and micowaving hot pockets for lunch that you purchased in a vending machine he would have thought you were nuts. He would not even be able to comprehend aspects of our life. So what's down the road for us 200 years from now? If we don't kill ourselves off I believe many interesting things. Maybe we will discover God? Maybe hes been there all along and we are not ready to discover him. Remember 2001 a space oddesy? Maybe God is an alien that brought intelligence to earth and we are an experiment.

    I'm drifting into crazy territory here, but you get my point. Don't be so short sighted. If all we did was eat,sleep and have sex like animals, then I would say prob no God. But the fact that we can actually think these thoughts and have these feelings makes me think there is a spark of truth at the center of it all.

    Plus religious people tend to live longer and succeed more in life, since they have something else driving them the atheist's do not have. Think about the crusades. Would the church have been able to kill and torture so many with such zeal if they were atheist's? They probably would have gotten bored after a few executions. But their belief in God drove this for almost 500 years!


    - Lone Gunman