Woman’s karma comment puts pagoda practices in the dock

By Staff reporters   March 23, 2019 | 05:00 am PT
Woman’s karma comment puts pagoda practices in the dock
Buddhists listen to teachings in Ba Vang Pagoda of Quang Ninh Province March 21, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Tuan
A northern Vietnam pagoda gets flak for paid exorcisms and propagating ‘superstitions’ after a follower blames murder on victim’s karma.

Outrage erupted after a Buddhist follower of the Ba Vang Pagoda in Quang Ninh Province said in a publicized video that a Vietnamese woman raped and killed recently suffered the fate because of evil deeds done in previous lives.

The statement was made by Pham Thi Yen, head of a Buddhist group formed under the auspices of the pagoda in Uong Bi Town.

She was referring to the rape and murder of 21-year-old Cao Thi My Duyen by a group of men in the northern province of Dien Bien last month.

Her statement invited immediate backlash, with many people saying it was unacceptable, insensitive and irresponsible.

"[The statement] is hurtful and not appropriate at all, especially to the victim’s family," said Nguyen Ngoc, 25, an office worker in Cau Giay District, Hanoi.

"[Yen’s] statement is nonsensical and insulting," said Phuong Nguyen, 43, a journalist in Hanoi.

In the video, Yen had also said that people getting possessed by spirits was common these days and they could only be exorcised by "spending money [on rituals] or doing volunteer work".

Pham Thi Yen in a publicized video. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Pham Thi Yen makes the statement on paid exorcisms. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Soon after, an investigation by the Lao Dong newspaper stated that the pagoda affiliated with Yen makes hundreds of billions of Vietnamese dong (about $5 million) each year by organizing sessions to "commune, exorcise spirits and undo bad karma."

Authorities then stepped in, with Minister of Culture Nguyen Ngoc Thien and the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha asking relevant state agencies Wednesday to verify reports on the pagoda’s activities.

Voluntary payments

In an exchange Thursday with the Uong Bi People’s Committee, Thich Truc Thai Minh, head monk of Ba Vang Pagoda, confirmed that the pagoda did provide exorcism services, but insisted that all payment was voluntary.

Thich Truc Thai Minh, head monk of Ba Vang Pagoda. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Tuan

Thich Truc Thai Minh, head monk of Ba Vang Pagoda. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Tuan

The same day, Minh spoke with 300 followers about the negative media reports about the pagoda’s activities, which was streamed live on the pagoda’s official website and Facebook page.

He blamed it on individuals who were "envious and jealous" of the pagoda and sought to undermine its reputation. He asked followers to stay calm amidst the flurry of media coverage.

He said spirits are real and exorcisms are good for people.

"Vengeful spirits follow people often. They make us and our children sick and incite discord within families. We have exorcisms to drive them out," Minh said.

The pagoda never forced anyone to perform rituals, only encouraged them. These are all done voluntarily, he said, adding that their work took its toll on monks, too. "There are days when we have to work until 3 a.m," Minh said. 

Some Buddhists have supported the monk, saying they have had illnesses cured and conflicts resolved thanks to exorcisms.

"If I wanted to make money [out of performing exorcisms], I would have charged people for sightseeing or parking their vehicles," Minh said. He denied reports about the pagoda making billions of VND per year, adding that all the money given to the pagoda is spent on furnishing, painting statues, crafting bells and "doing good."

However, when reporters asked him to comment on Duyen’s parents saying that it was unacceptable that their dead daughter is mentioned as an example of "bad karma," Minh did not answer.

‘Not Buddhist at all’

Some leading Buddhist officials have said that the services provided by Ba Vang Pagoda are not Buddhist practices.

There are no such thing as communicating with spirits or exorcism in Buddhism, said Thich Gia Quang, Vice President of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha's (VBS) Coordinating Board.

Echoing Quang, Chu Van Tuan, director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Religious Studies, said the notion that spirits trouble people was fabricated.

"Spending money to undo bad karma from past lives is a form of profiteering. Buddhism states that people can do so through doing good, not (spending) money," he said.

Thich Duc Thien, Vice President and General Secretary of VBS, said blaming Duyen’s murder on bad karma "is not true to Buddhist principles and goes against society’s moral values."

"We all feel pain when any person is brutally murdered. To blame this on past lives ... is a fallacy [that condones] brutal acts in society. This is unacceptable," said Thien, adding that there would be fitting punishment from the Sangha once it receives reports from local authorities.

Some officials have said that there will be repercussions if violations are found, and that government institutions overseeing Vietnam’s cultural and religious institutions should be more vigilant for such violations and punish them accordingly.

"Authorities will soon work with Pham Thi Yen, who has made statements about vengeful spirits and bad karma .... If it is found that her behavior is superstitious and has made people suffer... it will be punished," Nguyen Manh Ha, Chairman of the Uong Bi People’s Committee, said Thursday.

The VBS has asked Quang Ninh Province’s Buddhist Sangha to discipline individuals if they are found to have preached superstitions in Ba Vang Pagoda.

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs asked the VBS and Quang Ninh authorities Friday to verify media reports about Ba Vang Pagoda.

It also asked the VBS to affirm that superstitions have no place in Buddhist institutions, that exorcism and communicating with spirits are not part of Buddhist traditions, and that such practices are a violation of the Vietnamese Law on Folk Belief and Religion and would be dealt with accordingly.

Ba Vang Pagoda in Quang Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong

Ba Vang Pagoda in Quang Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong

This is not the first time Ba Vang Pagoda has come under the scanner for propagating superstitious beliefs.

Thich Dao Hien, deputy head of the Coordinating Board of Quang Ninh Province’s Buddhist Sangha, said that they had asked the pagoda to stop preaching about vengeful spirits in 2017, and even asked local authorities to deal with the fact that Yen was highlighting such beliefs. Nevertheless, the services continued.

Ba Vang Pagoda, located on the Thanh Dang Mountain in Quang Trung District, Uong Bi Town, Quang Ninh Province, was first built in 1706. The pagoda was rebuilt in 2011 with money donated by devout Buddhists. Thich Truc Thai Minh became the pagoda’s head monk in 2007.

The pagoda holds three sessions every month for exorcism and lectures on vengeful spirits. The events, often attended by thousands of people, have been held for several years.

Participants are required to leave their phones, recorders and cameras outside before entering any session involving exorcism or communication with spirits.

Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist nation. It is estimated that over 70 percent of the Vietnamese population are either Buddhist or follow Buddhist practices.

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