On occasion of this year’s Vu Lan Festival, known as Buddhist Parents’ Day, Most Venerable Thích Gia Quang, Vice President of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS)’s Central Executive Council cum Chairman of the VBS Information – Communication Committee had following exchanges on the custom of burning joss paper in Vietnam.
The custom of joss paper burning was originated from China where it became popular practice during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Influenced by Chinese culture during 1,000 years under Chinese domination, the custom burning votive paper offerings at worshipping places, such as shrines, temples, pagodas and at home during ancestral worshipping in Vietnam was established.
The practice of burning joss paper is a folk belief and not included in Buddhist teachings at all. Buddhist scriptures mention no votive paper burning and the Theravada Buddhist sects in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka have no custom of joss paper burning entirely.
Most Venerable Thích Gia Quang Vice President of the VBS Central Executive Council cum Chairman of the VBS Information – Communication Committee
So, the custom of burning votive paper is not a fine tradition of the Vietnamese culture and not in line with Buddhist teachings.
The practice of votive paper burning has both positive as well negative aspects, and is no longer suiting the modern life. Joss paper burning is a symbolic expression of gratitude to relatives who passed away. But abusing or using too much votive paper is such a waste and harmful to the natural environment.
As the custom of burning joss paper had been widespread with added practices in recent years, creating such a great economic waste while many people in the society remaining poor and even not having enough to eat and clothe, this custom should be reduced or even given up in the long run.
For correcting deviant practices within the Buddhist community, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha sent dispatches calling for civilized and economical worshipping practices at Buddhist worshipping places and during Buddhist festivals. In particular, the dispatch no 31/CV-HĐTS of the VBS central Executive Council in 2018 asked for removal of the custom of burning joss paper out of Buddhist worshipping places.
Implementing the VBS guidance, Buddhist monks and nuns at pagodas using sign boards and leaflets have asked people not to bring in votive paper, as well as given explanations and encouraged people to make merit by using money for charities instead.
In training courses, Buddhist dignitaries have encouraged lay people not to use joss paper during ancestral worshipping at their home.
There are many Buddhist places, such as the seminaries under Truc Lam Zen School, that never allow the burning of votive paper in these worshipping places.
For the last few years, it seems a decrease of burning joss paper has been taking place in the living style of the Vietnamese. According to the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha’s assessment, the burning of votive paper offerings was greatly reduced in this year’s Vu Lan Festival. This is a positive and encouraging change.
As perceptions and habits take time for changes, the Buddhist sangha will step up the communication and advocacy work, together with the state administration on culture and authorities at all levels, for gradually removing the joss paper burning at worshipping places, festivals and the social life.