One seemingly paradoxical highlight of the Vietnamese religious landscape is its great tolerance, particularly in the Southern part of the country. Differing beliefs, faiths, totems, gods and rituals are accepted with an open heart and fused into the indigenous spiritual life. This creates a uniquely syncretic system, in which disparate religions coexist peacefully and are practiced without any sense of inherent contradiction.
Such curious syncretism is evidenced by the very existence of Jade Emperor Pagoda, the last destination of Ginkgo Voyage’s Ho Chi Minh city day tour. Three distinct religions are worshipped in harmonious symbiosis here.
Entering from the main entrance, worshippers approach the ineffable Jade Emperor, or “Ngoc Hoang”. The figure of the supreme Ruler of the three realms, Heaven, Earth and Underworld, presides over the main sanctuary, draped in a thin veil formed by the pungent smoke of incense. He was not the limitless and eternal creator, however was granted the ultimate power to rule the three realms. Prior to the annexation by ancient China that lasted a thousand years, Vietnam’ early form of religion was characterised by the worship of the Mother Goddesses and female spirits. The local spiritual scene then started to adopt and incorporate elements from the Chinese religious heritage, including the worship of the male divinities, a particular example of which being the Taoist’s ultimate Jade Emperor. The figure was introduced into the indigenous religious system as the Father of all Mother Goddesses, assuming matchless power.
Located further inside is the chamber of the Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Buddhism is held in high esteem in Vietnam and Buddha holds a position of higher religious significance than the Jade Emperor. Buddhist practitioners believe that the Jade Emperor also has to engage in the practice of dharma in order to achieve Enlightenment, attaining liberation from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, suffering and death, and reach Nirvana. This, to some extent, reflects the stature of Buddhism in the local society.
Before the Ho Chi Minh city day tour draws to an end, you will have the chance to pay respect to the twelve “ba mu”, the Midwife Goddesses under the reign of the Jade Emperor responsible for shaping, giving birth to and taking care of babies. Many married couples come here to pray for children and safe delivery.
Worshippers converge to Jade Emperor pagoda regardless of the distinction of being Buddhists, Taoists or having no formal religious affiliation. Each seeks a sanctuary of the mind and of hope amid the turbulence of life. Obscured by the thin veil of incense smoke, the faces of visitors are free of ordinary worries and visibly blessed with a state of spiritual calmness. Inside the pagoda, all sufferings are momentarily forgotten and newborn strength ignites as incense sticks are lit up and prayers are uttered. For Vietnamese followers, religion provides a sacred land that nurtures inner peace and vitality.
Despite being born in distinct historical contexts as well as embracing dissimilar values and practices, three disparate religions intertwined and reconciled in unity. This formed a unique institutional religious structure that serves the complex spiritual demand of a nation characterised by rich history and culture.