Buddhist pagodas in Vietnam have a strong aesthetic. There is a lot of dark wood, gleaming surfaces, smoke, red and gold. While many are tranquil and meditative, in urban areas they are busy places. People come and go. They buy fish at the gate to release into a pond as an act of mercy. They stand in prayer position, shaking their tented fingers in reverence. They leave offerings of fruit, bread, candy and cakes.
In most pagodas there is a multiplicity of meditative images, protective figures, urns of flowers, plates of offerings, candles, oil lanterns, and joss sticks. My personal preference is for all of this to be neatly arranged, forming a pleasing and balanced composition, but that’s not what is there, as a rule. A pagoda is more like a house that is hosting a party. Everyone is bringing hostess gifts. These are being presented, left for a time and then taken away. New flowers replace wilted ones. Platters are filled from bags of fruit. Everyone is writing little notes and leaving them to be read by someone else. All of this activity is making a mess and, as every hostess knows, that mess has to be cleaned up and it can’t wait until everyone is gone.