Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Culture Moment #2: Ancestor Worship

Try this little exercise in imagination: When you die, where will you be? Do you think you'll be hanging around watching the events of this world unfold? Maybe you'll be hungry and need a little snack. You might need some food -- how about a few oranges and a Coke? Need some water? Any money? Also, can you please help me solve all my problems?

One common theme between Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia was ancestor worship (sometimes mixed with Buddhism or other religions). Almost every place of business had a little altar in front of which were some snack foods and maybe some flowers or money. Frequently, a few sticks of incense would be burning as well.

In museums and temples, I watched parents teaching their children to bow to statues of important men of the past. I listened to our new Cambodian friend talk about the importance of giving meals to his dead relatives so they would not be hungry. I thought, "They are not hungry! They have no physical bodies -- no stomachs, no hands, no wallets. They don't need your help and they cannot help you." Where were the ancestors when tens of thousands of innocents were being slaughtered in that country?

Southeast Asia seems caught in a web of false devotion and endless obligation to the dead. We need a living hope, One who is powerful to save and worthy of our worship.

A small altar by a massage place in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Incense burning at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

Post Edit:  One of my readers wrote that he disagreed with my inference that peoples' "lack of God" allowed the Khmer Rouge atrocities, since genocides have occurred by and against people of many different religions.  This is true.  

My words about "where were the ancestors during the slaughter?" came from thoughts I had while reading the book Survival in the Killing Fields.  There are several poignant scenes where the author desperately prays to his dead father, his dead mother-in-law, and his dead wife for help when he is under unbearable suffering.  It struck me that he was at his darkest hour and with no living hope to call on, and that this was probably true for many Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge years.

In retrospect, I think that section of my post was a little too flippant.  Thanks for the feedback.

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