What religion am I? Call me “None”

By Hoai-Tran Bui, Washington Post

The smells of rice balls and beef stew waft through the house — and if you pay attention, the faint smell of incense.

Hoai-Tran Bui with her father, Viet Bui, in the garden area at the Buddhist Temple on 16th Street NW. There used to be a fountain at the base of the statue, but it was removed. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post.

It’s the gio for my grandfather, the Vietnamese celebration of his death anniversary.

My grandmother is bustling in her kitchen, readying my grandfather’s favorite dishes. We place the food in front of his altar, beside the incense bowl filled with uncooked rice and ashes.

“Have you done lay yet?” my mom asks me.

I hadn’t. Lay is a gesture of worship that we perform to our ancestors at the beginning of gio, so they can have a taste of the food before we do.

I light a piece of incense and wave it a couple of times so the flame will die down. I clasp my hands together in front of my face, close my eyes and attempt to pray.

Usually, I count down the seconds until I finish. When I was a child, I used to have full conversations in my head with my ancestors. “I hope heaven’s treating you nicely,” I would be sure to say, not realizing my error: Buddhists don’t believe in heaven.

As an adult, I really don’t believe my ancestors are listening. Out of habit, though, I quickly tell my grandfather that I hope he’s doing well.

Then I bow twice and put the incense in the bowl next to the other three half-burned sticks.

I should be forgiven if my childhood idea of heaven was a little warped, given that I was raised by a Catholic mom and a Buddhist dad, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the mid- to late 1970s. My parents never taught me exactly how to pray to my ancestors, even though they both practice gio.

“You’re supposed to wish them good luck, good health and a happy life in the afterlife,” my dad told me when I asked while writing this essay. “Then you wish for them to grant you health or wealth.”

Our family’s practice of gio stems from Vietnamese culture more than religious tradition. Most Vietnamese families have an altar in their homes, regardless of religious affiliation — which is usually Buddhism or Catholicism.

Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country, although the incarnation of Buddhism many Vietnamese practice has some elements of Taoism and Confucianism as well. The Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism is the main type practiced in Vietnam, and it has been ingrained in Vietnamese culture for over 900 years.

“In Vietnam it’s a big thing to go to the temple . . . it’s a big event,” my dad told me. “I remember every time we went to the temple there’s a candy store in front of the temple, with special candies that the monks made.”

We barely go to the Buddhist temple here anymore. After my grandmother passed, my dad stopped regularly attending Chùa Giác Hoàng Buddhist Temple in Northwest Washington, so most of my memories of going to the temple are faint childhood recollections.

I always found the temple to be a bit somber, with its cold stone floors and the giant, looming statue of Buddha that adorns the dais at the front of the room.

I prefer the cozy little house that sits next to the temple. When I think of Buddhism, I remember how my sprawling family would try to squeeze into a 10-by-25-foot prayer room. Or I recall the games of tag my cousins and I would play outside by the Buddha statues.

Religion was rarely on my mind at the temple, or at the nearby Catholic church where we attended Easter Mass. These family outings brought no spiritual enlightenment.

I’ve learned I’m among the third of U.S. adults younger than 30 who are religiously unaffiliated, more than in any previous generation, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The percentage of “Nones” among Asian Americans has steadily grown since the 1990s, according to a 2008 ARIS study; compared to the steady decrease in Asian Americans who identify as Christian and the plateauing of those who identify with an Eastern religion.

Read the full article by Hoai-Tran Bui from Washington Post.

Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

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