Vietnam has been a nation only too aware of the catastrophic effects of death through warfare and, even though it is a country more at peace now than in its recent past, memories of the horrors of war remain with the persistent appearance of War Ghosts.
These are spirits that suffered violent deaths and who continue to wander the earth all over the country.
The way in which Vietnamese society approaches their ghosts and discarnate souls is completely different from our treatment of them here in the West.
While we tend to try and get rid of any ghostly intrusion like they constituted any other forms of vermin, the Buddhist tradition of the Vietnamese is somewhat more respectful.
Even though they are, for the most part, uninvited visitors in their homes, they still treat them with the utmost respect and some villagers are even known to build shrines for the War Ghosts as well as to honor them with incense sticks and votuve offerings.
Writer and researcher Judith Mann has studied the Vietnamese and their essentially Buddhist culture close up for many years. After her many trips to Vietnam and a great deal of time spent traveling throughout the country, she has compiled her research in a collection of publications that reveal the hidden essence, richness and diversity of Vietnamese culture.
Her book, Spirit Realms of Vietnam Volume I The Context, was written by her with a duel-purpose. Firstly, it is and a detailed examination of the spiritual and paranormal beliefs of the Vietnamese people and secondly it acts as a companion guide to the author’s follow-up publication on Vietnamese standing stones (Spirit Realms of Vietnam – Volume II: The Diaries).
The book opens with her initial thoughts on Vietnamese culture and describes the wealth of spiritual themes that underpin this predominately Buddhist country.
The author continues with further insights into the close relationship that Vietnamese society maintains with all of its deceased relatives and discarnate loved ones. Altars for ancestors are a common feature throughout the country with their decoration and upkeep forming Important elements to everyday life.
As the author herself states:
A Vietnamese person is never ‘alone’ as his or her ‘family’ is always present.
Judith then spends a little time examining Vietnamese funeral rituals and rites before explaining the role and function of the Thay Cung, a lay master or intermediary monk, who connects the individual to the Buddha. Sometimes, they are also employed as fortune-tellers or to create magical amulets.
In her continued investigation into Buddhist intermediaries, she looks at the Thay Dong Ho who are the traditional practitioners of the Mother Goddess cult of Thanh Mau which is divided into Four Palaces that each represents a realm . Their cult has an extensive and complex pantheon of related deities.
Other intermediaries that the author looks at includes the Thay Boi, who is consulted for his divinational powers; Thay Phap, also known as Master of Magical Verses; Thay Lang, a doctor of traditional Eastern medicine and Thay Dong Y who, amongst other skills, is practised in skills such as acupuncture and the preparation of herbal medicines.
Judith Man then takes a step back and writes about the influence of the Cham and the extensive Champa kingdoms that once occupied a large area of central Vietnam.
She explains how the first formal religion of the Champa was a form of Shaivite Hinduism—a belief structure which appears to have been accepted by the native peoples; however, in a subsequent chapter, the author also reveals the early influence of Islam from 1471 and onwards.
Judith continues with her exploration into what she identifies as the complex story of The Goddess—a vitally important role that she says became evident to her as she travelled across the country.
The author continues with a series of insights into the Cham cultural practices with a look at their funeral ceremonies and their impressive-looking temple towers located throughout the region.
In chapter twelve, the author focusses upon a subject that features heavily in her second book: standing stones as spiritual edifices, along with the associated practice of stone veneration.
These are expressed as Than thach, which is the description used to indicate a stone endowed with a supernatural power and which also refers to the spirit that resides within a stone.
Other stones considered by the author are talismanic stones, lightening stones, which are stones that are believed to hold great power to heal and protect.
The book closes with a short bio of Leopold Cadiere, whose research is featured in book two, a bibliography, glossary, and index.
Judith has an extensive gallery of photographs that were taken on her travels at academia.edu.
It is a book that contains a simple but important message that respects the essence of the human spirit—both living and discarnate, friendly and disturbing.
Spirit Realms of Vietnam Vol 1 and II are two books that work well individually but this first volume does set the tone and atmosphere for the second work. It effectively establishes a working base or context from which her subsequent research into the country’s standing stones is a natural extension.
In both books, Judith Mann reveals that she has the Vietnamese traditions and mores running through her veins. For those, such as myself, who are less educated in the ways of the Vietnamese, they are both delivered with that same passion and articulateness that characterizes all of her work.
Volume 1 is illustrated with photographs of the sacred places that she visited and with the glossary of terms at the rear the reader is given the opportunity to understand a little more deeply some of the core concepts introduced into the main work.
As a result, this is a book that is easy to read for it avoids becoming too bogged down in jargon but, at the same time, it is infused with some interesting cultural and historical information.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Spirit Realms of Vietnam and, while reading it, I felt myself being transported into a land that holds mystery and intrigue but which is still mature and grounded enough to open up and reveal its wonderfully rich spiritual and historical tradition to the world aching for that same sense of authentic heritage.
Judith Mann presides over a deep sense of peace and tranquility in a land of wonder and fascination.