Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Christianity are all practised in Vietnam, and many Vietnamese practise elements of more than one religion. Buddism, the dominant religion, is based on the life of the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, who lived in India between 563 and 483 B.C. and developed a code of beliefs and actions for right living. Buddhists believe that life involves suffering, which comes from desire. Adherents work to end desire by following the Eight-fold Path, in which one cultivates love, compassion, meditation and freedom from material greed. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, and Buddhist techniques aim to achieve nirvana: escape from the cycle of death and rebirth.
In its early days, the communist regime in Vietnam discouraged religion, but this stance has been easing. Vietnamese Buddhism has been very important in nationalist movements.
Introduced by the Chinese, Confucianism has had a profound affect on Vietnamese values. Confucianism is based on the philosophy of K'ung-Fu-Tzu, who was born in China in 551 B.C. His teachings emphasize the importance of loyalty, respect for authority and peacefulness. Respect for social hierarchies is basic to Vietnamese families and society.
There is a strong aspect of ancestor worship in many Vietnamese families. In a typical Vietnamese house, the best place is dedicated to the ancestors' altar. Families burn incense and food at the altar and try to act in ways that will please their ancestors.
Taoism, based on the philosophy of Lao Tse, teaches that human beings should strive to be in harmony with nature and favours a state of "alert quietness." Vietnamese Taoism also guides the selection of specific dates or the consultation of horoscopes in making marriage arrangements, and helps promote the common belief in spirits.
Cao Dai, a religion that attempts to merge elements of all world religions, arose in the south in the 1920s. Adherents renounce material possessions, focusing on meditation, vegetarianism and prayers to aid spiritual growth. Followers also use seances and spiritual mediums for guidance.