Vietnamese Supernaturalism [Koc^in-C^ina]






ca^`u, kha^’n, va^’i

supplicating, vowing, pleading









communal house



power of supernatural beings to affect the world of the living



to correct, to improve



to repair



to rescue



























good fortune




p. 12 Pha.m Nhan

"Nguye^~n Ba’ Linh (Nguye^~n the noble Linh), otherwise known as Pha.m Nhan, ... was caught sneaking into the forbidden palace, ... in illegitimate pursuit of female company. ... Not long after, two fishermen repeatedly caught his skull in their nets ... . So they prayed to Pha.m’s spirit to help them ..., in return for enshrining him. He ... made them successful in seducing village women as well."

p. 36 types of exorcisms

"There were two types of to^’ng gio’ (sending the wind away) exorcism.

One specifically against the pestilent spirits of epidemic (o^n, was performed in the hot season ... . ...

The other type, designed to expel harmful ghosts by offering to the homeless spirits food on the raft called the ‘three-life boat’ ... included o^n binh (‘soldier spirits’) and co^ ho^`n (‘homeless ghosts’) ... . The raft is made of ... lengths of banana trunks tied together. It carried boiled duck’s egg, a cooked prawn and a morsel of meat for the ghosts. In sending it off down the river, villagers believed the ghost could be lured away."

pp. 37-38 nameless spirits

p. 37

tutelary spirits’ certificates : "a large number of di`nh in the Mekong delta received certificates ... the massive issue of tutelary certificates ... . ... One consequence of this great number of certificates was that many bear only titles, and no name ... . Nonetheless, these nameless certificates are valued by villagers as indispensable credentials".

p. 38

"communication from the spirits happened in dream or trance states."

pp. 41-42 various deities

p. 41

Gio’n "became the Soaring-to-Heaven Spirit King (Xung Thie^n Tha^`n Vu>o>ng) which is the Heavenly King (Thie^n Vu>o>ng) or Indra (De^’ Thi’ch)."

p. 42

"in a dream" by Kao P>ien late in the 9th century Chr.E., "Cao Lo^~ said An Du>o>ng was a rooster spirit who favoured Count La.c, a gibbon spirit, and they conspired against him, a mountain rock."

pp. 76-78 spirit-writing (automatic writing by a spirit-medium)

p. 76

[a passage in the Ca Tru` Tha.p ca.nh Ha` Tie^n (‘Odes on Ha` Tie^n’s Ten Famous Sceneries’) :] An assembly is "sit in the platform, and start reading those texts to invite the Immortals. Two young mediums on the other hand sit in the middle holding with the co> or the pen. The co> will move spontaneously and trace out words. ["The word co> means ‘heart’, after the fashion of ouija boards ... . In this method of communication with spirits, a wooden piece in the shape of a heart – called coeur – is used as implement." (p. 246, n. 2:40) {So, is the French-and-German oui-ja planchette of Vietnamese origin? Praesumably, this Vietnamese device is itself of antient Chinese derivation.} ...

At the first tremors of the co>, if the platform director has something {answer to a quaery} he wishes for, he must prepare a [written] petition, put it in an envelope without anyone knowing {the petition’s content}, then take it to the centre of the platform to pray and burn away. By the answer to the petitioned request that the Immortal ... who comes through makes, he can find out ... the ... genuine" answer.

p. 77

"The wiring instrument was usually held by two male mediums (do^`ng tu>>) sitting on both sides of the co> basket, each with both hands on its rim. This co> basket is in the form of a simplified phu` loan used by the Cao Da`i sect. It is an alternative to the peach branch mentioned by De Groot as found in Amoy ..., and by Da`o Duy Anh as found in northern Vietnam. It consists of a straight stick with a short ‘beak’ {which is a "Pen" (Fig. 2.2)} at the end of its overhanging length, attached to a round, shallow basket made of woven rattan". {With this wickerwork of rattan, cf. the Old English name /wicca/ for ‘witchcraft’.}

p. 78

"The actual ‘writing’ was reportedly done on the floor of the temple’s main hall, where the ambient space had been ritually purified with perfumed wood smoke ... . ... The scribe (die^>n ky’) was to copy the words traced rapidly by the moving pen at the end of the basket. The mediums were to hold the co> basket in such a way as to keep it balanced but not to resist its movement. If the message or any word was not correctly copied, the spirit would advise on correction until finally the right version was obtained."

pp. 79-81 talismans

p. 79

The spirit-writing provided "the dispensation, on request, of talismans (bu`a) against harm".

p. 80

The spirit of the "supreme master (to^n su>) showed ... how ... to ‘blow on the talisman’ (tho^>i bu`a)". ["Tho^>i bu`a : blowing on the talisman -- ... after having traced it out, in the direction of the patient or object where the desired effect is to be, by blowing the air from his mouth as if to shoot the talismanic sign to its ‘target’." (p. 247, n. 2:54) {This shooting would be intended to simulate a blowpipe (blowgun) dart’s being shot forth.}]

p. 81

"As some illnesses were the work of malevolent spirits, they were treated with talismans designed to banish perverted spirits (ta`) and to exterminate demonic ones (qui>). ... as healer, ... he resorted to talismanic exorcism to help cure skin diseases, swellings and pains that did not have physiological causes, or did not respond to western medicine. Therapy consisted in tracing the form of demon-chasing talismans in the air a short distance in front of the patient with the rip of a burning incense stick, pointing it towards the affected area. This action is called khoa’n bu`a (‘intercepting or preventing by talisman’)."

pp. 82-83 mudra (‘gesture’) by a possessing-spirit


"One of the more prominent contributor-spirits is Tu`> Da.o Ha.nh, eleventh-century Tantric Buddhist monk and court official ... . ... at least one mudra (‘hand-sign for invocation’) for the ritual of inviting the soul of the dead is given exclusively by this master ... . The alleged spirit of Tu`> Da.o Ha.nh, in the title of Pha.^t Da.i Nam, also instructed ... through spirit writing to use only the Mahakaruna Sutra for the same ceremony. ... Tu`> Da.o Ha.nh is considered to belong

p. 83

to the Vinitaruci school ... .

... some of the mudras were said to have been transmitted ... by ... the Bu>u So>n Ky` Hu>o>ng group".

pp. 83-84 funerary rites

p. 83

"As for funerary rites, ... the idea is to guide the soul of the deceased ... by means of a hooked ‘soul-banner staff’ (ca^y phan) from which hangs a paper strip bearing the deceased’s name and particulars. This staff is the last of a fourteen-member procession. The first thirteen

p. 84

pennants bear the names of thirteen Bodhisattvas, starting with Amitabha and ending with Ksitigarbha. Leading the soul of the deceased to salvation in Potala Mountain (Pho^> Da` So>n) is symbolised by circumambulation in the main chapel ... . ... The rituals have a Daoist origin {as, indeed, do all aspects of Tantrik "Buddhism"}, indicated by the funerary practice ... in ... Amoy. The phan staff ... is more ornate with a carved dragon head".

pp. 93-94 how a woman became a spirit-medium

p. 93

She "started to smash things around her room with extraordinary force. ... then she became deranged". In order to cure her, her husband "went to a shrine in the village to request a ritual of initiation for her, and from that moment, [she] gradually returned to her normal self. ... Year later, .. [she was able to] perform as a medium at the shrine of Lady Lie^~u Ha.nh, a Vietnamese goddess ... worshipped throughout Vietnam. ...

p. 94

Throughout her illness, her hair became so tenaciously tangled up that it could not be combed. Once she had been to the shrine and initiated, her hair her hair returned easily to its former manageability." ["This phenomenon is remarkable for its similarity to the matted-hair experience of female trance mediums in Sri Lanka" (p. 251, n. 3:18).]

pp. 95-96 spirit-medium as shadow & as skeleton

p. 95

"the cult is designated by the expression

le^n do^`ng ha^`u bo’ng (to mount the medium and serve the shadow) ...

and cha^`u bo’ng (waiting on the shadow),

le^n do^`ng (mount/possess the medium)".

p. 96

"two types of medium according to the gender of their spirits" :

the 1st group, of male spirits, conducted "cheek piercing and fire walking.

The second group includes those called do^`ng co^t (skeleton mediums) who worship chu> vi. (assembly of spirits) headed by female divinities."

pp. 106-107 worship of trees

p. 106

"consecrated trees ... masculine trees, which are usually found in the middle of rice fields, and feminine ones." (The so-called "masculine trees" are those worshipped by men; whereas the so-called "feminine trees" are those worshipped by women.) The "masculine trees" were consecrated by male "mediums who pierced themselves with metal skewers during the ceremonies."

"Feminine trees, on the other hand, are recognised by the votive objects, many of which are found suspended on the branches : paper shoes, cardboard conical hats. Placed at the foot of the tree were flowers, fruits and incense sticks that there brought there by women. Any flower whose scent had been smelled by a man would no longer be offered, as it was said to have lost its soul".


"Ancient and leafy trees, usually in the ficus family, ... are also the haunts of a type of ... ghost called con tinh.

This word, ... in central Vietnam, denotes a spirit of a young woman, who appeared ... to young unmarried men as an attractive white-dressed female with long flowing hair tied with a thin ribbon to the front, and whose feet did not touch the ground.

In the south, the usual apparition was a white female shape with long unbound black hair sitting on the lower branch of the haunted tree, most frequently a weeping willow."

p. 107

"a sick young man ... had ... deliria where con tinh came to speak through his mouth".


"On his way to ... Champa {so would this suggest that worship of con tinh is of C^am, viz. Javanese, provenience?} in 1069, King Ly’ Tha’nh To^ng dreamed of a female deity, a tinh from a tree of Thu>y Va^n village. The spirit appeared in a white dress and green trousers, and promised to ... greet the king on his ... return. On the advice of his minister, he conferred on her the sinicised title of Lady Ha.^u Tho^> (Hou Tu). Once venerated, she was believed to calm the ocean for Vietnamese boats to sail".

pp. 108-109 worship of rocks

p. 108

"Rock spirits of lesser nature are also regarded as protectors of young children who are sickly ... . ... Whenever a child in the family is found puny, sickly and the parents fear they could lose him/her, they dedicate the child to the rock. Offerings ... are deposited at the altar of the rock, with a piece of paper on which the child’s and family’s names, his/her age, hour and date of birth, together with mention that the child is sold to the rock spirit until the age of twelve, are written."


There are instances of "Cham statutes installed in Vietnamese mie^’u shrines".

p. 109

"Fishermen of Kha’nh Ho`a province also worship rock formations on coastal islands, believed to represent goddesses who could help them with good catches; thus, Ba` Chu’a Da>o Ho`n Do> (Queen of the Do> Island), and Ba` Luo>o`>ng (Lady Proclivity) or Lo^~ (Hole). The designation Luo>o`>ng stands for a rock proclivity {read : "declivity"?} three metres wide, one metre high and one metre deep. ... The fishing village ritual for requesting good catches was to poke a wooden cudgel carved in the phallic shape about 50 centimetres long into a hole three times."

p. 115-116 fire-walking & austerities

p. 115

"a man ... was ... so possessed by Kwan Kung to the extent that ..., during every ... hot rainy season, he was well consulted and renumerated {read : "remunerated"} for carrying out fire walking."

p. 116

"One [medium] lay on a bed of spikes, another pierced his cheeks with skewers, another sat on two sword blades put across the seat on an armchair. Those mediums wore red uniforms ... . ... After dispensation of talismans, the mediums stopped at the ... temple ... to pass the two tests, ‘walking on burning coals and bathing in boiling peanut oil’, to prove to the people that ‘the deity really rode them’."

pp. 119, 128 names of various deities

p. 119

"the creation myth of Tha^`n Tru. Tro`>i (sky-propping spirit) ... depicts this cosmogonic spirit propping up the sky with a pile of rocks and dug-up earth".


"Phu’c Tha^` (Good Fortune spirit) and

Tho^> Tha^`n (Ground spirit) from China";

" Ha.c (White Crane) river spirit, ... or

Man Nu>o>ng (Barbarian Woman) in ancient northern Vietnam."

p. 128

"Ta^y Vu>o>ng Ma^~u (Western Heaven Queen, Hsi Wang Mu) ... rules the celestial court, as the name of her court suggests : Cu>>u Tru`ng Tha’nh Ma^~u Thie^n Di`nh (Holy Mother’s Nine-Level Celestial Court). ... The Cao Da`i group honour Hsi Wang Mu in her other Chinese title Die^u Tri` Kim Ma^~u (Golden Mother of the Jasper Pond)."

pp. 143-145 dreams of the supernatural, from the autobiography (published in 1933) of the abbot of Vo^ Vi Lon Va^n Tu.> (‘Non-Doing Dragon Cloud Temple’) in Gia Di.nh

p. 143

"I dreamt I saw a gigantic frog (E^’ch Ba` -- Grandmother Frog) sitting in the middle of my house, its body filling up the whole room, its huge red mouth agape, and loudly praying ‘Nammo Amida Buddha’. I felt compelled to pray along with it, waking up the whole house and they came to rouse me from my sleep."

p. 144

"I saw in my sleep His Royal Highness Kwan Ti [Kwan Kung] descending to my home fully clad in his awesome armour. Sitting down on the ... chair, he called for me and instructed thus : ‘You must recite D. B. [Da.i Bi chu’ – Mahakaruna mantra] often, to expel evil spirits, rescue the dead from infernal realms, ... and heal sicknesses. ...’"


"I dreamed that I crossed the South [China] Sea, to Potala Mountain, tall and lush green with vegetation. In the middle of the immense ocean, appeared the Lady Buddha [Guan Yin] who stood dressed in white, her halo shining

p. 145

bright, and told me to take a bath in the sea. After I bathed, she pointed to a small boat rowed from afar by a young Chinese woman towards me. Looking in, I saw the boat had no bottom. Then a rainbow appeared bridging across the ocean, narrow like a railway track. The Buddha pointed it out to me and said : ‘This bridge was crossed by Tripitaka on his way to fetch the Sutras and the Great Sage [Monkey] crossed and recrossed a few times.’ Then she brought me home."

p. 147 visions of the supernatural by other persons (from the same 1933 autobiography)

A woman "was meditating one day with an incense stick, above which appeared the golden body of Amida buddha, then a lotus seat also appeared."

Around another woman, "sometimes during her daily prayers, a halo appears, and when she goes to sleep, there is light at the spot in the bed where she lies".

A man "had a meditation room built on a high loft, a glass cubicle made, into which he went and sat to train himself (luye.^n). After three days, he saw Kwan Yin and Kwan Kung descend in their clear golden bodies at the hour of the Rat [between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.] when he was still awake meditating."

p. 154 internal transmutation according to Cao Da`i

"harmonize the three elemental components (tinh-khi’-tha^`n, lit. seminal fluid, breth/prana, aura/spirit) of a spiritualized mystic body (xa’c huye^`n die.^u thie^ng lie^ng) called the ‘Peri-spiritual Body’. The aim was to detach this body, which is lighter than air, from the corporal one in order to unite with the Anterior Heaven atmosphere (khi’ Tie^n Thie^n) steeped in ‘illuminating electricity’ (die^>n quang)."

p. 189 praeternatural tamings of wild animals

"Tigers were believed to be tamed, or induced to take up self-cultivation (co.p tu) in the vicinity of an enlightened self-cultivator. One of Doa`n Minh Huye^n’s chief disciples, ... Nguye^~n Va>n Xuye^’n, used to ride on tigers and panthers while moving about on the mountain, while Bu`i Va>n Ta^y was known to have control over a dangerous crocodile."

pp. 191, 273 features in the description of the destruction of the world

p. 191 general features

p. 273, n. 5:99 specifics : "comes ‘the fateful day’,


"a great thunderclap"

there will be three thunder claps,


"a huge flood and fire"

the Mekong will turn into a sea,


"the appearance of monstrous beasts"



"a gigantic boat to rescue the virtuous"

and there will be a huge boat called Lady/Grandmother Boat (Ta`u Ba`) with its bow in Phnom Penh and its stern in Vi~nh Long."

p. 196 modern minaret style

"the form of towers of the Bu~>u So>n Ky` Hu>o>ng temple ... has been observed to resemble Islamic minarets seen in either southern Cham or Malay temples.

More recent ‘reading towers’ (to`a do.^c gia>ng) of the Ho`a Ha>o are thought to take after a minaret form, although not standing as tall."

p. 196 nomenclature for White-Waterlily regional lodges
















Thien Do : Vietnamese Supernaturalism : Views from the southern region. RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2003.