Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dia Tang Vuong Bo Tat

Dia Tang is the Vietnamese name for an important Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva known more commonly in the West by his Japanese name, Jizo.

Dia Tang is a central figure of worship because he is the protector of the dead, and is the Bodhisattva people appeal to for information about their loved ones who have passed on. In the main hall of most temples, he is the figure to the left of the main shrine, and is distinguished by his crown-like hat and the pilgrim's staff he is usually holding. He is also normally the central object of worship in the Hall of the Dead, that part of the temple where people's ashes are normally kept in porcelain urns.

So while he is an important part of religious life (the memorialising of the dead is one of the central religious duties of all Vietnamese people) I wouldn't suggest he was a "popular" figure. You never encounter busy shrines to him that have been erected by lay-people in the way they are for Kwan Yin, for example. And he is rarely to be found as a statue in people's homes. I think the associations of death that surround him are simply too strong for people to feel comfortable in his presence.

You do encounter him, however, in graveyards (and there is an enormous graveyard on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City), often in large and expensive statues that have been erected on top of graves. I have wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh City cemetery and photograph it for many years, but my Vietnamese friends refuse - they think it is too spooky, and too disrespectful to the dead.

In Japan, of course, the figure of Dia Tang (or Jizo), while still considered the special protector of the dead, is an altogether more popular figure, and is frequently represented as an adorable baby monk. The complicated reasons for this are set out in Jan Chozen Bays' fascinating book Jizo Bodhisattva - an essential read for anyone interested in Buddhism.

This photograph was taken in a monk's cell in Quy Nhon. The pink porcelain Dia Tang in the foreground is new and is an import from China. Obscured behind him is a much older Vietnamese plaster statue of the Bodhisattva in a glass case.

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