Viet­namese shamans dance to heal

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

PRO­LONGED ill­ness, spir­i­tual pos­ses­sion, stress over fam­ily trou­bles: Len Dong, or Viet­namese shaman dance, posits it­self as a cure for all ails.

The an­cient practice – pre­vi­ously re­stricted by colo­nial France and Viet­namese au­thor­i­ties – is en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance in the com­mu­nist na­tion as of­fi­cials ease con­straints against it.

Prac­tion­ers prom­ise to rid fol­low­ers of evil spir­its by us­ing mu­sic to lure them out, they also pledge to pass on mes­sages from the dead to the liv­ing.

“When I’m in ser­vice it seems that some­body lets me in. Ev­ery­thing, ev­ery word I say, ev­ery move I make, I am not my­self any more,” pro­fes­sional shaman La Thi Tam said.

In one of her hours-long cer­e­monies, draped in heavy silk robes, she dances to mu­sic, bran­dish­ing a sword to at­tack in­vis­i­ble en­e­mies, pe­ri­od­i­cally drink­ing and smok­ing.

The 50-year-old former folk singer said she started prac­tis­ing Len Dong 15 years ago, after see­ing vi­sions of an an­cient ruler’s spirit in her sleep.

Sick for a month and barely able to eat any­thing, she said she was “crawl­ing around the house and ut­ter­ing weird words”.

Des­per­ate for a cure, she de­cided to try Len Dong but kept it from her po­lice­man hus­band.

“Science is out­stand­ing, but my [Len Dong] ide­ol­ogy is su­per. This can nei­ther be ex­plained nor imag­ined,” she said in her small tem­ple packed with fol­low­ers.

The an­cient Viet­namese cus­tom dat­ing back to the 13th cen­tury in­volves “call­ing the spir­its of the dead into the bod­ies of the liv­ing to con­nect past and present”, ac­cord­ing to Len Dong Cer­e­mony: His­tory and Value by Nguyen Ngoc Mai, one of the main re­search books on the topic.

It was of­fi­cially banned by com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties un­til the 1980s, dis­missed as su­per­sti­tious or even fraud­u­lent with some fake prac­ti­tion­ers seek­ing pop­u­lar­ity and riches, but the spirit cer­e­monies per­sisted in se­cret.

In the late 1980s, spir­i­tual and re­li­gious prac­tices were given a bit more breath­ing room as the coun­try grad­u­ally opened up, al­low­ing Len Dong to come out from the shad­ows. To­day, it is qui­etly tol­er­ated by au­thor­i­ties.

“All three of my chil­dren prac­tise Len Dong,” said shaman Dao Thi Huong. She feared her chil­dren in­her­ited so much bad luck from their an­ces­tors that they risked early death.

“I was very scared. If they didn’t par­tic­i­pate in ser­vices, they would have died,” the 46-year-old said.

Len Dong can help peo­ple un­der in­tense stress or suf­fer­ing from mi­nor psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, ac­cord­ing to Mai’s book.

But the practice re­mains shrouded in con­tro­versy, and many doubt it is grounded in science, as fol­low­ers be­lieve.

Sci­en­tific or not, Len Dong fol­low­ers stand by it.

Am­a­teur prac­ti­tioner Nguyen Thanh Tung said, “Those who don’t un­der­stand may say I am nuts.” –

Pho­tos: AFP

Pro­fes­sional shaman La Thi Tam (cen­tre) pre­pares to per­form a Len Dong cer­e­mony at a tem­ple in Hanoi. La Thi Tam per­forms a Len Dong dance.

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