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Left Side, Right Heart: Ritual Negotiations on the Buddha’s Birthday Why Ask Why Questions, and the Order of the Universe

Posted on: July 12, 2018

We all piled out of a mini-bus at noon, on a day so hot the sky no longer looked blue. The other volunteers gathered around a river’s edge, pointing something out and chatting excitedly. I had just woken from a nap in the backseat and stumbled out under the sun’s glare, asking “What are we looking at?”

No one understood me. I was tired, mumbling, and sure I had used the wrong word for “looking at.” I tried out a few others, asking, “What do we see? What are we watching? Are we admiring the view, right?” Finally, someone figured out why I was confused. She laughed brightly and said, “You should just ask ‘Why did we stop the bus!’” It was a much clearer question, but it wasn’t a question I had thought of asking.

I wanted to ask a “what” question. They told me to ask a “why” question.

As a student research, and as a human being, I am learning to navigate all sorts of questions I hadn’t thought of asking. I am also learning to ask why I hadn’t thought of asking them. These “why ask why” kinds of questions lay right at the boundary of our perceptions of reality. I came into fieldwork thinking I would be learning things about other people. Most often I am surprised by what I learn about myself.

Because my dad is a protestant pastor, I grew up sensing, feeling, and seeing firsthand how religion provides existential meaning, community cohesion, and a shared framework for understanding the world. I learned to expect certain things as absolute reality – like the length of a natural life span, or the progression of linear time. This shared framework for understanding the world is called a “cosmology.” Through a “cosmology” we inherit ideas about time, power, purpose, and social order. Cosmologies provide us with our vocabularies for asking certain types of questions. Cosmologies influence everything from how we view niceness to how we think about daily activities. Cosmologies contain our “why ask why” kinds of questions.

Many people are influenced by religious cosmologies even without having a religious identity. For example, most people I know in the U.S. do not believe in reincarnation. Even the slang phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), relies on the idea that people are born and die following one long, linear progression of time. The cradle and the grave are like the beginning and end of a sentence, in which we must summarize ourselves under a 100-year word limit.

This idea, that we only have one life, is reinforced by hundreds of years of Christian influence on European and American cultures, teaching that this lifetime is our one opportunity to reconcile with God. In Vietnam, I have met a number of people who would not call themselves Buddhists, but they are still concerned about karma and believe in reincarnation. Here, Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian philosophies and practices have infused local cosmologies.

Through my fieldwork experiences, I am surprised to find all the ways my personal cosmology is shifting. I have not set out to adopt local religious practices into my worldview, but it’s also not possible to be not affected by daily conversations with Buddhists or not-quite Buddhists who still believe strongly in things like karma. To be sure, this does not remotely make me Vietnamese, and the ideas I’m picking up are also limited to my interpretation of ideas as I think I’ve heard them described.

Here’s an example.

Many people I talk with in Ho Chi Minh City believe in a karmic “law of attraction.” Due to the influence of good and bad karma in past lives, certain inexplicable coincidences are credited to this larger web of fate. When I bump into people unexpectedly on the street, we greet each other by exclaiming we must have a “predestined affinity” to meet today. The more uncanny coincidences I encounter, the more likely I am to interpret significantly less surprising coincidences as semi-magical.

This is all to say, that when I set out to study Buddhism in Vietnam, I didn’t realize it would take me to the edges of things I have always taken for granted. The tectonic plates of multiple worldviews are rubbing against each other in my own perception of reality. I am being challenged to think about everything from death to the mundane differently. Every day is a slight shift in thought, feeling, behavior, and language, that rearranges the topography of my world. The “why” behind my “why ask why” questions is changing.

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Sara Swenson