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Buddhism & honoring the ancestors..

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August 25, 2012 7:01:57 PM

An odd situation: My Vietnamese wife is a devout Buddhist, as is her mother who lives with us. I'm pretty much a typical American agnostic, so ordinarly I don't pay a lot of attention to the praying and incense-burning in front of the concrete Buddha I managed to pick up at Ace Hardware 6 or so years ago :p . We have a 3-tier ornamental garden shelf in a "morning room" off the kitchen, with the Buddha & assorted Buddha pictures sitting on the top shelf naturally, each with a glass of fresh water, fruit and an incense holder in front of it. So every evening and on Buddhist holidays (every Tuesday it seems :p ), as well as special occasions (all the other days of the week) there's lots of calendar-consulting and then praying. Apparently these calendars have daily fortunes and other wisdom from the monks printed for each day on them.

Anyway, some years ago my wife found a nice 8 x 10 photo of my Dad in his naval uniform, so she had it framed and now it sits in the formal dining room, again with the fresh water & fruit and incense burner. This I don't mind since I think it's nice, and admittedly if it weren't for my wife, the photo would still be sitting semi-forgotten in a pile of other photos in the basement. My Dad died some 10 years ago, and every anniversary of his death we visit him at the Arlington Nat'l Cemetary due to my wife's insistence primarily.

Anyway, now she wants to do the same for her father, who was a Chinese businessman who went to Vietnam in the '60s, fathered 4 daughters and then abandoned them when he saw that my wife was yet another female (Chinese prefer sons). Apparently he went to Hong Kong and started another family there, never contacting or helping his first family stuck in Vietnam and who, being South Vietnamese, were abused pretty much by the North Vietnamese after the reunification in 1976. So my wife's mom had to depend on her brother and other relatives, living in a wood shack next to their house, selling vegetables at the market every day to earn a subsistence living. The Vietnamese can be pretty cruel to those whose living conditions are beneath theirs. My wife's family was often made to feel 2nd class and unwelcome, even in the provencial farming hamlet that her hometown was.

So IMO this guy was pretty much a bum and I wouldn't honor him to save my life. My wife agrees that what he did was not right too. But now she wants to put an 8 x 10 picture of him next to my Dad in the dining room, and honor his memory the same as my Dad's. While I was not that close to my Dad (he was an aviator in ASW - antisubmarine warfare - and was deployed with his squadron on 6-month tours to remote places such as Argentia while I was growing up). But even so, he never abandoned his family, and I'll never forget that when he got pcs orders and we moved from Brunswick, Maine to Coronado CA, he took 2 months off and the whole family toured Canada and the northern half of the US in a travel trailer, visiting everyplace from Baxter st. park in Maine to Bannf nat'l park in Canada, to Yellowstone and Glacier and many places inbetween. Plus he devoted his career to the Navy, having been a test pilot at NAS Pax River and XO of the Iwo Jima and Rota naval station in Spain, so I'm fairly proud of his accomplishments. Anyway, I'm definitely against my bum father-in-law occupying the same place of honor as my father, but then I also wanna keep peace in the household.

I suspect it is actually my mother-in-law putting my wife up to this, but when I ask my wife she says it is her idea. Anyway, this seems to be a religious issue since ancestor honoring is a fundamental Buddhist belief.

So, whaddya think - follow my standards or keep peace in the household??
August 25, 2012 7:48:37 PM

Hey. I can't say what you should do... but there`s a buddhist term called 'amhista' or something that pretty much means do nothing to harm another ( as much as this is possible). So maybe by extension this can also mean to only do things that help others.
August 25, 2012 11:12:47 PM

Honor your wife.
In no terms does this change what and who your dad was.

My take is, children will always find a way to love their parents, good or bad, much like Tug Mcgraw and Tim Mcgraw, which spawned this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xSGLZd9Vg4

Honor your wife, she will be thankful for it
August 26, 2012 8:02:10 PM

I understand your feelings, but I agree with JDJ.
August 27, 2012 4:41:01 AM

It's not a Buddhism thing, its a Chinese Confucianism thing. Most older generation Chinese who is not too influenced by western ideology will honour their deceased ancestor regardless of their relationship with the rest of the family. It's a part of Confucius teaching of filial piety, the most valued virtue in Chinese culture.

Read this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filial_piety

Hope you will understand better as to why your wife may make that decision.

I actually got quite a few ticks on the check list:

Not be rebellious (Yes, at least not doing anything they don't like in front of them)
Show love (Yes)
Respect and support (Yes)
Display courtesy (Yes)
Ensure male heirs (Don't have wife and kids yet but I will make sure I will have children of my own. But I wouldn't make sure I have a son)
Uphold fraternity among brothers (Don't have a brother but close with siblings)
Wisely advise one's parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness (I don't think my parents need that)
Display sorrow for their sickness and death (It's only natural if your family is close)
Carry out sacrifices after their death (Will do so after my parent pass away)
August 27, 2012 9:59:43 AM

Look I don't believe in honouring dead people who were crap in life ... it just ends up creating myths ...

I'm with fazers on this one.

Tell the truth and deal with it.

She should be honouring her mother ... the woman who raised her and the rest of the kids and that kind of woman deserves respect. She is the real hero of the family ... not some turd who ran off.

Throw the father's picture in the bin.

Buddha would approve.
August 27, 2012 12:51:16 PM

That's a tough one fazers. I will fall back on a lesson my father taught me years ago.

A happy wife usually equals a happy husband. :) 

The opposite is also true.
August 27, 2012 5:08:05 PM

JAYDEEJOHN said:
Honor your wife, she will be thankful for it
jsc said:
I understand your feelings, but I agree with JDJ.
I third this sentiment...Let your wife put up her father's picture, regardless of what happened in the past, he is still her father.

Oldmangamer_73 said:
A happy wife usually equals a happy husband. :) 
No truer words have ever been spoken OMG_73!


August 27, 2012 6:14:18 PM

Heh, well thanks everybody for all the responses, but I hafta say I caved in and spend several hours yesterday scanning & photoshopping the father-in-law's picture to make a 4 x6 photo suitable for framing. I made the mistake of telling my wife yesterday morning that I thought her father was no good since he left after she was born (and that it is the man who determines the baby's sex), but turns out yesterday was the anniversary of his death back in 1992. So my wife let me know in no uncertain terms that yes indeedy it was her idea to honor her father and that he 'was a good man' :) . So I quickly changed the subject. Otherwise it would have been Custer's last stand, or meal maybe, at Little BigMouth. At least I got some delicious Vietnamese dishes out of the deal, since they invited their friends over for dinner, as well as the rest of the family in Saigon via speakerphone :) .

Anyway, I don't think my Dad would mind that much, although neither of us would likely want to associate with the father-in-law in life - or the afterlife for that matter.

This scenario seems all too common amongst our Vietnamese friends and acquaintances - the presumptive father abandons his family when he gets tired of them or finds a girlfriend, then doesn't want to pay child support or have anything to do with the kids afterwards. In fact, one of them left his $60K a year job here in the US to go back to Vietnam so that he didn't have to pay child support. So now the taxpayers get to pick up the tab in the form of social security (the mother does nails and has an income of maybe $15K a year). Of course, generally the mothers are not that unhappy to see them go, seeing as how many of them were hit or beat up by the deadbeat dads when reminded of their duty to their family instead of the current girlfriend. We had to practically drag the above mother to our lawyer in order for her to get court-ordered child support a couple years ago. Little good that did since he skipped the country. But then his income has probably dropped to less than 5% of what he was making here..

But why Vietnamese women (or Asian women in general for that matter) accept, or at least allow, this behavior is beyond me.
August 27, 2012 6:48:32 PM

Pyree said:
It's not a Buddhism thing, its a Chinese Confucianism thing. Most older generation Chinese who is not too influenced by western ideology will honour their deceased ancestor regardless of their relationship with the rest of the family. It's a part of Confucius teaching of filial piety, the most valued virtue in Chinese culture.

Read this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filial_piety

Hope you will understand better as to why your wife may make that decision.

I actually got quite a few ticks on the check list:

Not be rebellious (Yes, at least not doing anything they don't like in front of them)
Show love (Yes)
Respect and support (Yes)
Display courtesy (Yes)
Ensure male heirs (Don't have wife and kids yet but I will make sure I will have children of my own. But I wouldn't make sure I have a son)
Uphold fraternity among brothers (Don't have a brother but close with siblings)
Wisely advise one's parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness (I don't think my parents need that)
Display sorrow for their sickness and death (It's only natural if your family is close)
Carry out sacrifices after their death (Will do so after my parent pass away)


Hmm, I didn't know that - thanks for the link. Vietnam has been subject to a lot of Chinese influence over the last thousand years or so, so I guess there is as much influence in their Buddhist beliefs as everything else.

My mother has developed senile dementia the last few years, so I have to admit getting impatient with her asking the same litany of 10 or so questions every two minutes of conversation with her. Usually I make an excuse to get off the phone after 15 minutes or so, and feel guilty about that, so obviously I could use some filial piety lessons.

As for the rest of the bucket list, I can pretty much check them off, except I'm wondering about those "sacrifices after death" - chickens, goats or sheep? :D  If you count leaving bananas, grapes, and other fruit on plates for the ancestors to munch on, plus canned beer from the fridge and chilled water, as 'sacrifices' then we fit right in! Except my Dad was not a beer drinker - preferred whiskey & soda - but I don't so it's beer or nuttin'. Hopefully it's the thought that counts beverage-wise.

Now we do burn millions of dollars as well as clothing & other stuff for the ancestors each Tet, or Chinese lunar New Year, so maybe that's the 'sacrifice'. Of course it's fake money, like Monopoly money; otherwise I'd have to change my first name to Barack or some such :D . At least we do it outside in the fire pit on the patio nowadays - my mother-in-law set fire to the pile inside the garage the first year she came to live with us, next to the car, half-full gas can and a propane tank. Luckily we did not immediately join said ancestors. The following year she wanted to do it inside the basement, but I followed her downstairs and confiscated her lighter before she could burn the house down. Most houses in Saigon are concrete, so if the furniture burns up generally you can just refurbish the place.

Anyway, my wife & mother-in-law take this ancestor honoring to an extreme IMO, as her father ran off to start a new family in Hong Kong and never returned or wrote after he left Vietnam in 1972. My wife now wants me to try and find his new family, but I think it would cost a small fortune - there must be tens of thousands of "Ly Chang"s and as he died almost pre-Internet (1992), I doubt there would be any online records of him anywhere. All my mother-in-law has are some faded & scratched photos, a couple plastic rings and memories. Sad really.
August 28, 2012 12:56:15 AM

Don't feel bad. It is very difficult to look after someone with dementia. I have been taught Confucianism for all of my life but if you asked me, I have to say honestly that I will be frustrated as well if my parents constantly talk nonsense to me. I think if you can provide quality care, visit them often (especially for festivals and birthdays) or live with them, and don't be negative and frustrated in front of them and never become abusive, so they can have a comfortable life until they pass away, then you are doing a good job.

Yes, the sacrifice is just food and drinks, flower, incense, and burning of paper made items (there's heaps of stuff, like laptop, card, cars, houses, race horse, servants...) and afterlife paper money. Not the sacrifice of animals by killing them for a ritual like other religion or culture. Yes, older people treat these ritual very seriously.

I am pretty sure there is an archive kept by the immigration department in Hong Kong for boat people arriving from Vietnam during the war. Ly chang could be somewhat of a special name in Hong Kong, because the family name Ly is usually spelled Lee or Li in Hong Kong, so it narrows down the search. Although I have to agree with you that the chance can be slim. 1. He may have speak Chinese with the immigration officer during the process instead of filling the form himself so that the name is spelled Lee instead of Ly. 2. Because they are Vietnamese Chinese, they blend in with the rest of the population quickly and seamlessly.
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