Len Dong: the role of traditional rituals in modern Vietnamese communities Gia Phuong Phan The Skeptic

“If I didn’t take him to Master Huong [for the len dong ceremony][…], he would have lived slightly longer with his wife and children,” Mr Dang recalled how his superstition led to the death of his brother.

Growing up Buddhist in Vietnam, I cannot remember the number of memorial services and ceremonies that my family organised to commemorate our deceased family members and ancestors. While most of these occasions are similar in nature, there was one that particularly stood out from the rest. Although I did not directly witness the incident, the story that my family told me was so peculiar that I still remember the details vividly today.

It was a memorial service that my family hosted for my grandmother, whose new grave had just been built (she had been buried at another location previously). Everything went as usual until my Aunt Dieu suddenly cried, seemingly mourning for someone. “She’s been possessed,” someone shouted in Vietnamese. Everyone else in the room started to pay closer attention, noting resemblances between her behavior and my long-deceased great-grandmother’s.

Later that day, Aunt Dieu had no memory of the event. However, everyone felt almost certain my great-grandmother “visited” them. They were sure Aunt Dieu could have not faked it, as she was born after my great-grandmother’s death, and they never met each other. “It was too realistic,” my father emphasised.

As a young teenager, I accepted the narrative as it was and did not bother questioning its legitimacy. It is perhaps the earliest memory that I have of “len dong” (also referred to as “hau dong”) – a shamanistic ritual in Vietnam.

Len dong originated in the Mother Goddess worship (“Dao Mau”) of Vietnamese folk religion. During these ceremonies, people are said to be possessed by divine entities. The mediums could either be the priests/priestesses or the devotees attending the rituals.

To better understand this practice and why some people might believe in it, I spoke with my cousin Jen (not her real name), who came into contact with len dong a few years ago. In explaining how it all began, she said,

I was diagnosed with a hereditary disease. The doctors said it would significantly shorten my lifespan, and it cannot be treated effectively.[…] The news shocked my entire family. […] For quite some time, we were lost and didn’t know what to do.

After the initial diagnosis, her parents took her to the best hospitals, but modern medicine did not offer them any hope. “We tried everything we could, but nothing worked. The doctors said the development of my condition is unpredictable. […] They simply can’t tell us when things would go south. I was repeatedly told to be ready for major surgeries, potentially fatal, at any moment. It could be next year, but also next month, or even next week,” Jen told me.

Out of desperation, her family turned to faith. “My siblings and I are raised by our devoted Buddhist parents, but since then [the diagnosis of her disease], they have been more devoted than ever. We have visited pagodas more often, and my parents have donated more to temples,” Jen said.

One day, an acquaintance introduced her parents to a len dong master in the city, who reportedly had cured the illnesses of many of her followers. Jen recalled, “My parents wanted to take me there. I didn’t really believe in len dong and its healing power, but I agreed to go because I love my parents.”

However, it did not go well for Jen. “It felt like I was in a haunted house. I instantly felt my goosebumps the moment I stepped inside the door. The surroundings and people who worked there made me nervous,” she shared. She felt uneasy seeing those people, who wore elaborate costumes and had scary facial expressions, dancing around her in such a way that “people would think that they have gone insane”. As she expected, the ceremony did not have any effect on her health.

However, her parents persisted. They took her to the house of worship a few more times to pay respect and offer some gifts to the deities. However, Jen always insisted on waiting outside. “They eventually gave up because we didn’t witness any improvement,” said Jen.

I was curious about why Jen’s parents – an engineer and a doctor – chose to momentarily believe in such a superstition as len dong. Fortunately, they agreed to speak with me. “Modern medicine has failed us. So as long as there is something else that we could try, we will because the hope is there. We have nothing to lose and much to gain if it [len dong] works,” her father said.

While Jen’s experience with len dong was somewhat similar to a Halloween horror event, some people have it even worse. For instance, a report for Tien Phong Newspaper about his visit to a famous len dong master in the region, a man called Tam said, “I came hoping to be cured from gout. However, after she forcefully stepped on my legs [during the ritual], I became crippled and have not been able to walk again.”

In another incident that I found online, Mrs Nguyen Thi H. and her husband, who was diagnosed with leukemia, visited Master Huong, a len dong practitioner. They had heard rumors about her healing powers through len dong and hoped that the husband’s condition could be alleviated with her help. “I still remember that day vividly when Ms Huong [the len dong master] was possessed, dancing, […] and constantly punching my husband until he was unconscious,” Mrs Nguyen Thi H. told Tien Phong Newspaper. Her husband was immediately taken to the hospital, but he passed away a few hours later.

A similar accident happened when Master Huong performed the ritual on the brother of Mr Dang. Mr Dang suggested his brother try his luck with len dong when he was in the last stage of lung cancer. Unfortunately, after being struck in the head by Master Huong during her len dong rituals for days, his brother passed away. Since then, Mr Dang has always felt guilty about the early death of his brother.

A local len dong ceremony (Source)

Besides causing physical harm to people as illustrated, len dong could also abuse people financially. In Jen’s case, her parents donated VND 3,000,000 (approximately £100) on average to the house of worship for each visit. Although this is a small amount to Jen’s family, it could mean a great deal to many others. In many cases, people have to take out loans in order to pay for these ceremonies.

In a research paper by Swarthmore College, Master Tri, who led a local organisation aiming to preserve Mother Goddess worship, explained, “Some people charge too much money. They take advantage of the people who really seriously believe in len dong.” Although there is no official data, researcher Bui Thi Thoa estimates that a len dong ceremony could cost followers anywhere between VND 15 – 100 million (approximately £500 – £3500). To put it into perspective, the average monthly wage in Vietnam is only around £115. Therefore, this could amount to the life savings of an average Vietnamese person.

As people’s faith could easily be exploited, the Vietnamese government has banned for-profit len dong practice. Offenders could receive a fine of up to £3500, and 3 years in jail. However, they would only actively enforce the law “[if the practitioners] do something crazy—if it hurts people instead of helps people; or, if the ceremony is too expensive… The government thinks it’s a waste of money if a ceremony is too expensive. The money could be used for more practical things,” said De, whose parents work for a len dong master.

While len dong is largely considered superstitious and taboo for its negative aspects, and clearly an outright danger to the health of those undergoing the ceremony, there are those who argue it does have some positive contributions to Vietnamese society.

According to the Vietnam Centre for Research and Preservation of Religious Cultures, len dong has been effective in treating people with mild mental disorders. Regarding this matter, scholar Bui Thi Thoa provides a possible explanation: the mystical music, lively dance, and vibrant colour during len dong ceremonies helps people release unwanted tensions.

Len dong rituals may also serve a role in cultural healing, too. Throughout the 20th century, Vietnam was constantly in between wars – against France, Japan, and the United States. Families were separated, and people lost touch with one another during this period of turmoil. Once peace was restored, many rushed to find their families and friends; some were alive, some dead. As Vietnamese culture places an immense significance on the proper burial of the dead, retrieving bodies and remains of lost relatives has been at the top of many people’s personal agendas. However, wartime has made this challenging.

In len dong rituals, priests and priestesses claim to summon the dead and communicate with them, facilitating the search for their bodies and burial sites. “Today, Vietnamese government supports the use of mediums for finding Vietnamese lost to the war time,” Master Tri, who was introduced above as the President of an organisation that advocates Mother Goddess worship, shared.

These words remind me of how my father always loved his mother for the sacrifices she made for the family and for her children to go to school despite their financial difficulties. One day, he told me, “Despite her [my grandmother’s] sacrifices, we never managed to give her a proper place to rest. She was hastily buried in our hometown during the French invasion. Once the wars were over, we came looking for her [grave]. […] We asked everyone we knew, but nothing came out of our effort.” It was a hopeless search that bothered my father for years.

Eventually, as a last resort, my father’s family sought help from a len dong master, who directed the family to an unknown grave, which he claimed belonged to my grandmother. My family was skeptical at first because they were unable to verify anything – it was impossible to say whether the grave was my grandmothers or just that of a stranger. But then my Aunt Dieu had her experience at the memorial service for my grandmother. “Your great-grandmother told us that we finally found your grandmother”, my father tells me. “She told us, through your Aunt Dieu, that she finally can rest in peace knowing her daughter will soon reach eternity safely”.

Was the grave truly that of my grandmother? We have no way of knowing, but what we do know for certain is that my father’s hopeless search is over, and he can let go of a concern that has troubled him for so long.

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Despite being linked to a string of injuries, accidents and even deaths, many Vietnamese people continue to put their faith in Len Dong shamanism
The post Len Dong: the role of traditional rituals in modern Vietnamese communities appeared first on The Skeptic.