Buddhism in Vietnam


Historically, most Vietnamese have identified themselves with Buddhism, which originated in what is now southern Nepal around 530 B.C. as an offshoot of Hinduism. Its founder was Gautama, a prince who bridled at the formalism of Hinduism as it was being interpreted by the priestly caste of Brahmans. Gautama spent years meditating and wandering as an ascetic until he discovered the path of enlightenment to nirvana, the world of endless serenity in which one is freed from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. According to Buddhist thought, human salvation lies in discovering the “four noble truths”–that man is born to suffer in successive lives, that the cause of this suffering is man’s craving for earthly pleasures and possessions, that the suffering ceases upon his deliverance from this craving, and that he achieves this deliverance by following “the noble eightfold path.” The foundation of the Buddhist concept of morality and right behavior, the eightfold path, consists of right views, or sincerity in leading a religious life; right intention, or honesty in judgment; right speech, or sincerity in speech; right conduct, or sincerity in work; right livelihood, or sincerity in making a living; right effort, or sincerity in aspiration; right mindfulness, or sincerity in memory; and right concentration, or sincerity in meditation.

Buddhism spread first from China to Vietnam’s Red River Delta region in approximately the second century A.D., and then from India to the southern Mekong Delta area at some time between the third and the sixth centuries. The Chinese version, Mahayana Buddhism, became the faith of most Vietnamese, whereas the Indian version, Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism, was confined mostly to the southern delta region. The doctrinal distinction between the two consists of their differing views of Gautama Buddha: the Mahayana school teaches that Gautama was only one of many “enlightened ones” manifesting the fundamental divine power of the universe; the Theravada school teaches that Gautama was the one-and-only enlightened one and the great teacher, but that he was not divine. The Mahayana sect holds further that laypersons can attain nirvana, whereas the Theravada school believes that only ordained monks and nuns can do so.

Few Vietnamese outside the clergy, however, are acquainted with Buddhism’s elaborate cosmology. What appealed to them at the time it was introduced was Mahayana ritual and imagery. Mahayana ceremony easily conformed to indigenous Vietnamese beliefs, which combined folklore with Confucian and Taoist teachings, and Mahayana’s “enlightened ones” were often venerated alongside various animist spirits.

Before the country was unified under communism, Buddhism enjoyed autonomy from the state that was increasingly threatened once the communists gained power. For pragmatic reasons, however, the regime initially avoided overt hostility toward Buddhism or any other organized religion. Instead, it sought to separate real and potential collaborators from opponents by co-optation and control. For example, within months after winning the South, the communist regime set up a front called the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee. The committee’s purpose was to promote the idea that all patriotic Buddhists had a duty to participate in building a new society liberated for the first time from the shackles of feudal and neo-colonialist influences. The committee also tried to show that most Buddhists, leaders and followers alike, were indeed rallying behind the new regime and the liaison committee. This strategy attempted to thwart the power of the influential, independent groups of Buddhist clergy, particularly the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which had been a major pre-1975 critic of the Saigon government and of the roughly twenty Buddhist sects in Vietnam the most vocal in opposing the war.

Communists also pressured monks and nuns to lead a secular life, encouraging them to take part in productive agricultural labor or to become actively involved in the work of the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee. For their refusal to collaborate, some prominent clerical leaders in the South were placed under house arrest or imprisoned, their pagodas were converted to public use, and their holdings were confiscated. Such activity closely paralleled communist actions against Buddhists in the North in the 1950s. In addition, the party prevented Buddhist organizations from training monks and nuns in schools that previously had been autonomous. In April 1980, a national committee of Buddhist groups throughout the country was formed by the government. The government-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church was established in November 1981, and it emerged as the only officially sanctioned organization authorized to represent all Buddhist groups both at home and abroad.

As a result of communist policy, the observance of Buddhist ritual and practice was drastically reduced. A 1979 study of a Red River Delta commune, reported to be “overwhelmingly Catholic,” disclosed that the commune’s two pagodas were “maintained and frequented regularly by the faithful (the majority of whom were old women), especially on the Buddhist feast days.” No monks or nuns had been observed, however, and the study went on to note that pagodas had been eliminated entirely in nearby Hanoi. In 1987 occasional reports suggested that the observance of Buddhist ritual continued in some remote areas.

The communist government’s attitude toward Buddhism and other faiths being practiced remained one of tolerance as long as the clergy and faithful adhered strictly to official guidelines. These guidelines inhibited the growth of religious institutions, however, by restricting the number of institutions approved to train clergy and by preempting the time of potential candidates among the youth whose daily routine might require study, work, and participation in the activities of communist youth organizations. In an apparent effort to train a new generation of monks and nuns, the Vietnam Buddhist Church reportedly set up one Buddhist academy in Hanoi in November 1981 and another in Ho Chi Minh City in December 1984 . These academies, however, served as an arm of the state.




Brief History of Buddhism (Pacific University) http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/vb/history.htm

The origin of the Buddhist tradition can be traced back to the year 563 BCE, the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. He was the son of a wealthy land owner and destined to be a respected leader of his land. Siddhartha’s birth was a mysterious one, he was placed inside of the womb of his mother as a white elephant and born out of her side ten months later.

When Siddhartha was an infant, a wise scholar immediately noticed the 32 auspicious signs of an enlightened one. Siddhartha’s father, fearful that he would lead the life of an ascetic, rather than a king, endeavored to protect his son from the painful realities of life. He kept Siddhartha confined to the grounds of his estate, far away from pain, old age, death and tragedy.

On three occasions, though, Siddhartha managed to leave the confines of the estate and witnessed several scenes that changed the meaning of his existence. He saw an old man, a sick woman, and a corpse being burned during a Ghat ceremony. He was troubled by these images, but did not understand his calling until he saw a Jain ascetic begging for alms in the city square. It was then that he realized that there was meaning beyond physical existence. He gave up all of his worldly goods and left his family in search of enlightenment.

Siddhartha studied under many religious teachers and ascetics, never finding the answers that he needed. He tried fasting, severe hardship, and marathon meditation but none were able to bring him any solace. Finally, he realized that enduring harsh conditions would end his life before he could find the answers he so eagerly sought. He then discovered the middle path, the way of moderation. It was through this method that he attained Buddhahood, or perfect enlightenment.

Buddha then endeavored to share his wisdom with all those around him. He traveled all through what is present day India and Nepal preaching and educating others about the middle path. He created a theology based on moderation and the necessity of separation between physical and spiritual existence. He taught that the body and the physical trappings of life were merely distractions from true enlightenment. This world, or Samsara, was an illusion designed by Mara an evil spirit that tries to keep souls away from wisdom and the Dharma.

In general, Buddhism is a practice of finding peace within oneself. It is a religion formulated to win happiness during the present life as well as in the next. Through the influence of Karma, the mechanism that determines how a person’s acts will impact their next incarnation, Buddhists practice finding the good within everything. Their desire is to live happily, not harming others, working towards their ultimate goal of enlightenment. Buddhism acts as a philosophy that regulates a persons place in the world, and the universe.

SUMMARY OF VIETNAMESE BUDDHISM  http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/vb/summary.htm

The classical period of Buddhism in South East Asia was from the 11th to the 15th century. In this period, there were several elements which made it classical. Buddhism, in the classical time period, had homogeneity of form and institutional orthodoxy, as well as helped to formulate kingship.

Buddhism, in this time period, tended to follow the Theravada tradition. Since the 19th century, Buddhism has continued to act as a structure for East Asian societies. Despite the challenges that western science has had on Buddhism, it has provided cultural and ideological support for modern, nationalist movements.

Buddhism has also offered solutions to political, economic, and social change. Vietnam, however, is different from the “norm” of the traditional South East Asian period of Classical Buddhism, since it was strongly impacted by the Chinese. With communist revolutions, Buddhism was displaced to as a fundamental mediator of cultural values.

Historically, Buddhism played a significant role in the definition of the classical South East Asian states. With Buddhism, when a country was dominated by a colonial power, nationalist movements grew out of and identified with a religious context. An example of this is the 1960 Buddhist protests, in which the Buddhist monks immolated themselves in fire. After the removal of Deim and his brother Nhu, the United Buddhist Association, which was under the leadership of Thich Tri Quang and Thich Thien Minh, remained politically active. “Vietnamese are Confucians in peacetime, Buddhists in times of trouble.” (Fire in the Lake, 176)

Confucianism is Vietnam’s governing religion. It consists of a hierarchy of relationships which governs day to day life. Husband to Wife, Father to son, Elder brother to younger brother, Emperor to subject, and the relationship amongst friends. Therefore when Buddhism was introduced to Vietnam, it was introduced to a society which was used to a hierarchical governance. The Buddhist missionaries accepted Confucianism as a political system and social structure. According to a scholar of Asian studies, Paul Mus, “Confucianism was a social order defined by culture and history; Buddhism was a faith relevant to all times and to all men, no matter what their circumstances.” (Fire in the Lake, 177)

Buddhism was a way to transcend the limitations of society and the self to a higher level. Buddhists were all equal whereas Confucians existed primarily in the five relationships. Buddhism offered the people a Way out of Confucianism’s confining restrictions. “In peacetime it offered the Vietnamese an internal life–a soul, a personal identity–outside the conventions of society. In times of tyranny and ‘splitting apart,’ it indicated a morality that lay beyond loyalty to existing authorities.” (Fire in the Lake, 177) Buddhism offered a form of brotherhood, where people become equals, rather than a world ruled by a few. Buddhism offered “means of reconciliation and showed the Way back into Confucian society.” (Fire in the Lake, 178)

Along with this integration with Confucianism, Taoism also played a necessary part in the development of Vietnamese Buddhism. The natural tendency of Taoist philosophy towards meditation and contemplation was a compliment to many of the Buddhist techniques. As a result, many Taoist symbols and meditation tools became mainstreamed into Vietnamese Buddhist thought.

Buddhist entered Vietnam in two significant waves. The first was a missionary wave of scholars from India during the early millennia. These were primarily Mahayana scholars who introduced not only the scholarly elite to Buddhist doctrine, but the peasant class as well. The second wave of Buddhist thought occurred about two hundred years after the common era. This was a style of Buddhism filtered first through China, the Theravada school. Both of these schools of Buddhist thought co-existed throughout Vietnam.

The most significant defining features of Buddhist thought in Vietnam is first the integration of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian traditions. In this respect Vietnam represents almost a unique case. The rituals, beliefs and notions of religion reflect each tradition equally. The second defining feature is the two step development of Mahayana and Theravada schools throughout the country. These two schools not only reflect differences in doctrine and basic theology, but also two different cultural influences: India and China.



Excerpted from The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam, by Nguyen Van Huyen, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1995 304 pages, 5 ½” x 8” $15.00

If Taoism has found I this country a very primitive popular base, Buddhism, is a specifically foreign religion.  It was introduced into Vietnam, according to the works of Mr. Tran Van Giap, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, on the one had by the Chinese refugees in Tonkin after the death of Emperor Ling of the Han in 189, i.e. at the beginning of the struggle of the three kingdoms; and on the other hand by Indian Buddhist pilgrims.  Later religious Chinese who made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land continues to pass through Tonkin, which was the only convenient way from Canton to the coasts of India.  There is reason to believe that these travelers, religious or secular, diffused their teaching and left notions of Buddhism that they had brought from foreign lands to the inhabitants of Tonkin.

In any case, according to the famous pilgrim Yi-Tsing of the 7th century, many Buddhist monks have stayed for a certain time in Tonkin in the course of their travel to the west; some monks who went to India in this epoch, such a Van Ky, Moc Soa De Ba and Khuuy Sung were natives to Kiao Tcheau.  Since then, Buddhism has continued to develop in Vietnam.  As early as the end of  Chinese domination, under Dinh Tien Hoang, communities were founded and temples built.  They Ly and the Tran dynasties favored the religion of Buddha; many sovereigns even received initiation; some took refuge in pagodas after their abdication.  Ly Thai Ton had many pagodas constructed and sent monks to seek out the sacred texts in China.  Under the Tran in 1924, Anh Ton ordered the publication of the Buddhist texts brought back from China by an ambassador.

As of the 15th century, with the tremendous development of the Confucian culture imported by the Ming, Buddhism received considerably less royal favor.  The scholars even felt a certain ever-increasing severity and under Vietnamese law, the creation of new pagodas or new convents was forbidden on the pain of flogging.

However, several sects have been constituted and developed in this country.  Vinataruci, a Brahman native of South India, founded the first.  When still very young, this monk traveled throughout western India to study Buddhism.  He came to Vietnam after following patriarch Seng Ts’an. He lived in the Phap Van pagoda in Bac Ninh province.  He founded a school, gathered disciples and diffused Buddhist studies. This sect has prospered in Vietnam since the 7th Vo Ngon Thong, a native of Koung Tcheou who came and lvied in the vallage of Phu Dong in Kien So pagoda and died there in 828, founded the second Buddhist school.  A Chinese named Thao Duong created the third sect in the middle of the 11 th century.  It developed even at the Court of Ly Thanh Ton who was considered one of the first successors of the founder.

In the 13th century, the sect Truc Lam was founded at Mount Yen Tu (Quang Yen province) by the three patriarchs of the Tran; Emperor Nhan Ton, Phap Loa and Huyen Quang.  Today, the greater portion of the monks of Vinh Nghiem pagoda (Ha Dong province) etc., belong to this sect.

Around the end of the 16th century,  the Chinese monk Thuy Ngutet imported the Chinese sect of Tao Dong to Tonkin and transmitted it to his Vietnamese disciple Ton Dien who died in 1709.  The present monks and pagodas of Hoa Giai, Ham Long, Tran Quoc, etc. are the adepts of this school.

In the 17th century, a new sect was founded under the name of Lotus, Lien Ton, by a prince of the noble family Trinh.  It had its headquarters at the present pagoda of Len Phai in Hanoi.

According to the research of Mr. Tran Van Giap, all of the Vietnamese sects are related to Bohidharma, founder of the school of Dhyana in China.  In the form it takes in Vietnam, the doctrine of this school differs from orthodox Buddhism with the cult of ancestors and the cult of the feature is that it rejects the search for the truth in the sacred texts:  “Man immediately recognizes in his own heart the true heart of Buddha,”  the absolute substance of all ideas of all beings.  For those who, thus change within themselves, become conscious of their unity with Buddha, for those who manage to understand that the nature of man is originally pure, free of the confusion of the world, and provided with the perfect wisdom of Buddha, all distinctions between good and bad will disappear.  Through the complete absorption of the thought, the dhyanist enjoys absolute spiritual tranquility.  In brief, it is a school whose doctrine is based on a succession of states of mind; the first stage constitutes the state of attention;  the mind is concentrated on a thought; the second stage is the state of joy: one is raised to a guiding intuition; the third stage is happiness; one attains a perfect calm after joy; and the fourth stage is indifference.  It is the gradual progress toward absolute beatitude.

In addition to the Dhyana (which has changed and deformed especially since the 17th century), there are other sects in popular Buddhism where the cult of images prevails such as those of Amitabha and Avalokitesvara. Popular Buddhism attaches little attention to the doctrine.  “It admits the transmigration of the souls,”  Mr. Paul Mus wrote, “without being excessively preoccupied with it, it conceives Buddhas as transcendent being living above this world, which they watch and where their magic action is intermittently deployed.  The essential feature is that the genies, however mighty they may be, become suddenly paralyzed and their wicked schemes smashed at a simple sign of the Buddhas’ hands or eyebrows.  This belief is a reflection of the immense mythological constructions of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism which has developed around the ancient Buddha who performs salvation by teaching only, an assembly of translucent Buddhas served by a horde of fantastic and terrible beings that trample, smash and crush the enemies of the Congregation.”

In any case, Buddhism exerts a very profound influence in Vietnam.  Very few Vietnamese say that they are not Buddhists.  Even the most outstanding scholars do not fail to have recourse to a monk to purify and to bring one of their dead parents to the grave.  The Buddhist pagodas are extremely numerous.  Many of them are the objects of great devotion by the faithful.  Hyong Tich, in particular, is the most famous place of Buddhist pilgrimage,; each year in the second and third months, hundreds of thousand of pilgrims visit there unceasingly repeating the name of Amitabha.

The Buddhist pagoda, chua, is mainly composed of a sanctuary in the shape of the letter “H” or as Vietnamese architects say, the Chinese character (con) surrounded on three sides by the enclosure of a gallery.  The transversal part of the façade has several bays for the faithful to stand and contains, on the right and left, the altars of the guardians of that pagoda with frightening faces, Ho Phap and the Kim Cuong, and sometimes along the lateral wall, panoramic compositions representing the ten hells, as Phat Ba Quan Am had seen them during one of her visits to the world of darkness; iron hooks on which the culprits are hung to have their tongue and teeth pulled out with tongs by devils.  Other culprits are condemned to being thrown into the pong of big monsters or into pots of boiling oil or pounded in mortars or burnt with the fire of heated copper column, etc.

In the vertical part, there are tables for incense burners; behind them are masonry steps where the statues of the Buddhist pantheon are displayed.  The transversal posterior part shelters the altars of the first monks and is flanked with reception rooms  and those for the superiors of the pagoda.  The lateral galleries serve as lodgings for the monks, servants and sometimes or pilgrims.  Large pagodas also have building for teaching, work relating to rice, the kitchen, etc. In popular pagodas, often there is an edifice reserved for the Taoist cult of the Chu Vi, Ngoc Hoang, Thanh Mau, etc.

Other pagodas have a more simplified plan:  the sanctuary has the shape of an upside down “T” or as it is said in Vietnamese , of the Chinese character dinh.  The faitful stand in the part of the edifice represented by the transversal bar; the tables for the incense burners are placed in the central part behind which are the statues, displayed on tiered steps.

In pagodas shaped as an “H” or those in the form of a “T”, the steps at the center are at the right angle with the bays containg the altars of the La Han (Arhata).  In important pagodas, the latter are on the tiered steps of the lateral galleries on eith side of the back yard.

In the central bay, on the top step, there are three big Buddhas, Tam Ton (Three Venerable); in the middle is the Buddha of the present, Hien Tai, the historical Buddha Tich Ca Mau Ni on his left is the Buddha of the past, Qua khu, the transcendent Buddha A di a; on his right is the Buddha of the future, Vi lai, the compassionate Buddha Ri lac.  Under this trinity is displayed an allegorical ensemble of the birth of Buddha, the Buddha of charity and mercy, that of Pho hien, At nam and Muc lien, etc.

Quan Am is represented with numerous arms that portray his activity; he is commonly called the Buddha with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes.  Sometimes Quan Am holds in each of his numerous hands such symbols as the lotus, the sword, a piece of silk, the wheel of law, the book etc., each of which are endowed with particular virtues.  Ri lac, represented with a big belly and a large smile, is a Chinese form of the Buddha of the future who waits for his hour in a paradise peopled with divine children, the souls of his future disciples.  He is very popular in Vietnam.  Van thu is represented sitting on a blue lion, Pho hien mounted on a white elephant and hold a mirror in his hand.  Thery are the transcendent audience of Buddha;  they have played a significant role in the diffusion of the doctrine.  At non, the most knowledgeable of the disciples of the master, is represented standing with joined hands or sitting on a throne, covered in a dress of a Buddhist priest and a monk cap on his head.  Muc lien, who went down to hell to snatch his mother from the infernal tortures, is the symbol of Buddhist filial piety.  He is represented in a religious costume, presiding over the funeral ceremonies with Dia tang.

The Buddhist clergy has a minutely organized hierarchy with grades acceded to by examinations after long years of study and praying.  Distinction is made of the tieu, beginner students; the su chu, would-be monks, the sub ac, monks, the su ong, superior monks and su cu, venerable monks.  In daily life monks uniformly wear clothes of a dark brown color, nau, their dress is long with a low collar and closed on the right side with buttons.  Their trousers are sample and they cover their heads with a square of cloth tied at the upper part of the nape of the neck.  The officiates are those who have obtained a high enough grad; at the religious service, they put on a dress closed on the right with strings.  Half of the dress is yellow; the other half red or it is made of an assembly of differently colored squares.  They wear a high polygonal crown, the faces of which are decorated with the images of Buddhas or of Sanskrit letters.

The cult is simple, consisting of offering incense, light and flowers.  Monks recite prayers from the Chinese translation of Tripitaka that they often no longer understand, in early morning and evening.  The faithful, mostly women, present the same offerings but add areca nuts, votive papers representing gold and silver.  They kneel down behind the officiates and recite Sanskrit formulas after the latter.  When they come to present incense to the Buddhas separately, they express in a low voice their wishes along with some formulas of invocation.  The monks often disturbed happiness-giving amulets to them in imitation of the Taoists.

The largest popular Buddhist festival takes place on the 15th day of the seventh month.  It is a kind of Fest of the Dead in the course of which in Hell, with the mercy of Buddhas, a large amnesty is observed; jails are opened and many damned souls are scattered in the world.  Families go to pagodas and make offerings and prayers for the liberation of their relative.  This festival today has become a great day for charity; each family distributes, during a ceremony at nightfall at the dorr, food (soup, rice, salt, eggs, tec.) and offerings of all kinds made of paper to the wandering souls, to the poor and to beggars.  Rich people show their generosity on the day.  In big pagodas, a big scaffold is erected in the court with offerings and votive papers.  The chief monk sits with crossed legs on the top;  he represents Buddha and proceeds to the opening of Hell.  After releasing the soul, he tells the faithful the teachings of Buddha to exhort them to do good deeds and to prepare to enter the Nirvana, the celestial paradise in the eyes of the common people.

In addition to this festival, there are solemn religious services on the 1st and 15th of each month.  Many believers come on those days to pagodas.  Rich families often invite monks to funeral ceremonies and have them lead the procession and to show the soul of the deceased the way to the grave.  They organize special services in pagodas to facilitate the definitive entry of the soul to the other world on the 50th or the 100th day after the death of their parents.


Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990s

Cross Currents; 3/22/2000; TOPMILLER, ROBERT

Engaged Buddhism is a source of liberation for Vietnam.

Since July 1996, I have made three research trips to Vietnam to examine the 1960s Buddhist movement. In the process, I have discovered the great diversity, vitality and strength of Vietnamese Buddhism, despite the oppression it has suffered from the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the severe internal divisions that retard efforts to present a unified message on the role of Buddhism in Vietnam at the end of the twentieth century. To my great surprise, many Vietnamese seemed dedicated to discussing Buddhism and its task in trying to bring reconstruction to a country that still suffers severely from the war. [1]

As a general rule, as long as the discussion avoided any mention of politics, I had no difficulty carrying out interviews. In fact, I found many Buddhists eager to talk about the 1960s and their opposition to the war particularly in bringing down the hated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. Some Buddhist leaders praised Communist efforts to unite Buddhism under one national organization and end the extreme factional struggles that arose during the war, while others expressed outrage and fervent opposition to the VCP.

I also discovered many young people in Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples. In fact, the number of Buddhist youth entering the clergy seemed surprising in a country where the VCP tightly controls religion. In some cases, I encountered children as young as five or six living in temples as Buddhist acolytes.

Buddhism came to Vietnam in the early part of the Christian era by way of China and India. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by China, absorbed elements of Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship along with the veneration of local deities. The emphasis in northern and central Vietnam came mainly from the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which dominated in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism, which developed several centuries after the death of the Buddha, places great emphasis on achieving social justice and assisting others to reach enlightenment, and worships a multiplicity of deities. Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia, came into the southern part of present day Vietnam before the beginning of the Christian era. It is more fundamentalist and conservative, places greater emphasis on monasticism and focuses on the Buddha alone. Despite the doctrinal differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, both streams place the concept of compassion and nonviolence at the center of their ideology.

Buddhists, in general, subscribe to a number of beliefs drawn from Hinduism. One of the most important is the concept of karma, wherein Buddhists trust that an individual’s role in life is determined by actions in a previous existence. Good actions confer higher status while immorality can cause one to return as an insect or snake or some other unfortunate creature. Most Vietnamese lay people adhere to Pure Land Buddhism and hope that their actions today can influence their fate tomorrow. Thus, they have faith in the importance of performing meritorious acts to ensure that their future will be easier. Vietnamese, unlike many people in the West, have little sense of a personal god although they believe in a world inhabited by spirits that can wreak great havoc on those who do not appease them. Most monks and nuns, on the other hand, subscribe to Thien (better known as Zen), a discipline that teaches that liberation can be attained through meditation on a seemingly incongruous statement or question (most familiar in the West as a koan).

Despite their belief in nonviolence, some Buddhists leaders sense no contradiction in upholding the rights of the people against an oppressive government or foreign invaders. Thus, Buddhist clergy have at times constituted a highly educated, disciplined, sometimes radical religious intelligentsia in Vietnam who have remained very shrewd in understanding their relationship with their fellow Vietnamese. Buddhist prelates seldom work outside of the pagoda and therefore depend on the people to provide for their daily necessities, while the laity looks to the clergy for leadership and moral guidance. Out of this symbiotic relationship grew the interdependence that represents the essence of Vietnamese Buddhism. [2]

The multiplicity of sects in the country, including significant numbers of both major streams of Buddhism, and the historic autonomy of the pagoda, however, has often worked against the creation of an effective national Buddhist organization. Hence, the decentralized nature of Vietnamese Buddhism militates against a nationwide establishment while the liberal doctrinal basis of Buddhism has invited the kind of factionalism that continues to plague their organizational efforts.

Part of the factionalism that has beset Vietnamese Buddhism results from a struggle over the proper role of Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhists have argued with increasing ferocity throughout the twentieth century about the suitable character of Buddhism in a society permeated with violence and injustice. The disagreement has raged between those who see work for social justice and peace in the political arena as proper for Buddhist clergy and those who have emphasized religious values and removal from the world. These conflicts have often operated on different levels influenced by age, education, region, family background, rank in the religious hierarchy, and attitudes toward authority. Buddhism, therefore, has never spoken with one voice in Vietnam, particularly given the myriad of attitudes within its organizations. [3]

In 1964, as the Vietnam War and the American commitment to confront Vietnamese Communism accelerated, Buddhists attempted to fashion an adequate association to carry out political and religious activities. Recognizing the need to project a united voice in opposing the war, they created the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which combined elements of eleven different sects and the Theravada and Mahayana streams of Buddhism. Nevertheless, seven major groupings of Buddhism still exist in Vietnam: the UBC; Chinese Buddhists; Vietnamese Theravada Buddhists; Khmer Theravada Buddhists; Hinayana Buddhists; Hoa Hao; and non-UBC Buddhists. [4]

The Communist takeover in 1975 exacerbated the problem of factionalism. Fearing the broad appeal of the UBC as the only long-term domestic opposition movement during the war, the VCP gradually attacked them, and other religious organizations, with the same vigor it had utilized against the GVN and the U.S. In time, security forces raided pagodas, closed down orphanages, disbanded religious organizations and placed prominent Buddhist leaders like Thich Tri Quang under house arrest or imprisonment in remote locations. [5] Worst of all from the UBC standpoint, the new regime established a government-sponsored and -controlled Buddhist church, which became the only recognized Buddhist religious association in the country, leading to a serious rift in the Buddhist hierarchy at a time when the country desperately needs their leadership to address the considerable social ills left over from the war. A few have chosen outright defiance, some have engaged in silent protest while others have acquiesced in government dominance of religion by tacitly accepting state control. [6]

The UBC has taken a leading role in opposing the Communists. In January 1992, Thich Quang Do, a prominent leader of the UBC, published an open letter to Vo Van Kiet, Prime Minister of Vietnam. This poignant statement detailed the long history of religious and political repression in Vietnam from the ascension of the VCP in 1945 to the time of the letter and ended with a courageous call for religious freedom in a country that had seldom witnessed it throughout its modern history. Thich Quang Do subsequently received a five-year prison term for his actions. During the same period, other members of the UBC came forward with complaints about religious persecution and likewise received prison terms. [7]

Vietnamese authorities released Thich Quang Do from prison in August 1999, as part of a general amnesty of political prisoners to commemorate the anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). During my interview with him in March 1999, he detailed his considerable problems with the Communists. The week before, for example, when he had tried to speak to his fellow UBC leader, Thich Huyen Quang, the police had detained him for five days in Central Vietnam. He also described the difficulties the UBC has had with the Communists since 1975, pointing out that the Communists began to oppress the UBC almost immediately after taking power, preventing the organization from carrying out its functions, seizing its property and imprisoning its leadership.

He claims it remains impossible to say how many members of the UBC still exist because continued intimidation by the VCP prevents many supporters from publicly identifying themselves. To him, the creation of a puppet church after liberation represents one of the most pernicious acts of the VCP. Thus, monks and nuns who support the government have taken over its official functions and property while the UBC continues to suffer persecution. As he argued, the existence of an official church means, “monks oppress other monks.” To him, the greatest service that can be performed for him and the people of Vietnam is to remind the world of the situation there. [8] At a time when the idea of defending human rights has waned in the West, Thich Quang Do stands as one of the great practitioners of moral commitment, unflinching courage and uncompromising integrity of the twentieth century.

Yet he has not stood alone in opposing the Communists. In 1965, Thich Quang Lien launched an indigenous peace movement in South Vietnam that led to his temporary ouster from the country. During a 1996 interview, he openly criticized the VCP despite the danger to himself for speaking out. He discussed his peace movement, education at Yale University and other scholarly achievements while complaining that the VCP generally suppresses religious freedom and changes its attitude toward religion every day. To him, Buddhists and the VCP should focus on rebuilding Vietnam. [9]

Others have chosen to cooperate with the state, or at least decline to defy it, to better serve the people. Numerous Buddhists emphasized the social role of Buddhism in ameliorating human suffering while steering clear of any discussion of the political situation in the country. In 1996, Professor Minh Chi, an expert on Vietnamese Buddhism, discussed the historic role of Buddhism as the guardian of the people and the social and political role of Buddhism in Vietnamese history. Yet, when I mentioned Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, he leapt back in his chair and said, “You know about them? I know them very well; they are fine scholars and good men.” Abruptly, he stopped and said, “This is very difficult to talk about.” During a 1999 interview, he explained that the VCP’s fear of the instability that could result from free political or religious activity has terrifying implications for the future of the party. Thus, UBC defiance of the regime seems to threaten its very existence. [10]

Thich Tri Quang (not the same person who gained fame in the 1960s) described his work with the government in Ho Chi Minh City in assisting the many underprivileged people in the city and sponsoring scholarships for poor children. When I later expressed frustration to his disciple Thich Tam Thien that I could not get his master to talk about politics or history, he replied, “That is why he is the most influential monk in Vietnam today.” He explained that since he avoids political involvement, his master’s prestige as a religious figure is enhanced and the people and the government respond to his leadership on social justice issues. [11]

At the Vanh Hanh Institute, Thich Minh Chau, a supporter of the VCP, argued that education and the retention of culture remain the most important goals for Vietnamese Buddhism. He pointed out that Vietnam suffered too much during the war and now is the time to reconstruct the country. He expressed pride in the educational accomplishments of the institute, which has 45 resident monks and nuns and 250 students. Many of the young people who come to the institute today, he maintains, join because of their concern for social justice and a desire to help their country. [12]

Thich Thanh Kiem, the abbot of the Vinh Nghiem pagoda, claimed that his pagoda has over six hundred students and offers two classes in Buddhism: a four-year course of study in the Buddhist classics and a three-year program of study in the higher classics. In addition, the pagoda houses over a hundred visiting monks. Like Thich Tri Quang, Thich Thanh Kiem argued that the political activism of the 1960s hurt Buddhism and that, since 1975, the efforts of the VCP to form one Buddhist organization has ended much of the factionalism that plagued it before “liberation.” While it remained hard to judge the sincerity of his statement, it appeared very similar to one made by Thich Tri Quang and indicated that it was said more as an act of self-preservation than a closely held belief.

Despite the difficulties encountered by Buddhists, one of the things that impressed me during my trips was the large number of young people I observed living and studying in pagodas. Everywhere I went I encountered young Buddhists willing to share their religious experiences with me. Many, in fact, wanted to make it clear to me that Buddhism holds the key to what ails the West also. Many young people still embrace Buddhist tenets to a degree that Buddhism will continue to flourish in Vietnam long after the VCP has exited the scene. At the Tu Dam pagoda in Hue, for instance, a young monk named Thich Phuoc Nhon provided me with a cogent account of his early life, the rigors of his training, the affection he feels for his master, the quality of his education, instruction in Thien, and his deep concern for the future of Vietnam. In his opinion, “Buddhism has to show the way” to the people of Vietnam to lead them to better lives. [13]

It is obvious that it remains impossible to characterize Vietnamese Buddhism in simple terms. Certainly, freedom of religion, as we understand it in the West, does not exist in Vietnam. Buddhist clerics, moreover, should have a voice in deciding how resources are distributed and programs designed to improve the livelihood and welfare of the people. The VCP, however, by terrifying much of the religious leadership of the country into silence while at the same time repressing the UBC, has sent a stern message to all monks and nuns to avoid the briefest mention of politics or human rights. Yet, Buddhism remains alive because of the young people who keep bringing renewal to it. The social commitment they bring to Buddhism and their concern for the people will eventually awaken their political consciousness and remind them of the centuries-old relationship between the people and Buddhism. Someday, they will liberate Vietnam.

ROBERT TOPMILLER received the Ph.D. in History from the University of Kentucky, where he now teaches history. His dissertation was on the Buddhist Movement in Vietnam in the 1960s. This article was written while he was teaching at the University of Maryland-University College-Asian Division in Seoul, Korea.


(1.) See Robert Topmiller, “Tu Do Ton Giao Tai Viet Nam?” (Religious Freedom in Vietnam?) Que Me (Homeland) (Winter 1997).

(2.) For an excellent explanation of the importance that Buddhist monks attach to their relationship to the people, see Minh Chi, Ha Van Tan and Nguyen Tai Thu, Buddhism in Vietnam (Hanoi, 1993) and Minh Chi, “A Survey of Vietnamese Buddhism: Past and Present,” Buddhist Institute of High Studies (Undated). I discussed this during an interview with Professor Minh Chi in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in August 1996.

(3.) Nguyen Tai Thu, ed., History of Buddhism in Vietnam (Hanoi, 1992), 369-70.

(4.) While in Ho Chi Minh City during March 1997, I sought out Vietnamese religious figures who belonged to sects that did not align to the UBC. Thich Thien Minh, a Vietnamese Theravada monk, claimed that while two Vietnamese Theravada monks, Thich Ho Giac and Thich Phap Tri, held leadership positions in the UBC, most of the monks in this sect stayed out of the struggle with the Government of Vietnam (GVN) but still agreed with Buddhist efforts to end the war. Some monks formed a different organization but within a year joined the UBC. During the same trip, I visited a Khmer Theravada pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City where two monks and a layperson told me that while most members of their sect avoided joining the UBC, they also supported the Buddhist mission of ending the war. They argued that most Khmer monks opposed U.S. intervention in South Vietnam because of the high rate of civilian casualties from American operations. In addition, they claimed that most Vietnamese did not accept the presence of foreign sold iers in their country and many monks responded to this feeling by opposing the war. Thich Thien Minh, Eka Suvanna, Phala Suvanna, and Nguyen Huu Nghiep interviews, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 1997.

(5.) All Buddhist monks in Vietnam adopt Thich as a surname upon ordination. It comes from the Vietnamese translation of the Buddha’s name, Thich-Ca or Shakyamuni. Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (New York, 1974), 1.

(6.) Steven Denny, “Human Rights In Vietnam,” The Mindfulness Bell (Summer 1994): 30-31. Thich Quang Lien, an important Buddhist leader in his own right, told me he often thought Thich Tn Quang was a Communist until he was placed under house arrest by the Communists in 1975. He remains under house arrest at the An Quang pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. I made four attempts to visit him during the summer of 1996 and another in March 1997, but he refuses to talk to foreigners. Thich Quang Lien interview, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, July 1996. The An Quang pagoda is still the center of Buddhist radicalism in Vietnam. When I visited there in 1996 and 1997, I was struck by its immaculate appearance, sense of order and discipline in comparison to other pagodas in the country that had a run-down, decrepit appearance. Even the repression of the Communists has failed to blunt the spirit of the An Quang. The first time I visited the pagoda, I walked upstairs to the worship area while a number of monks and nuns chanted in front of the altar. As I sat there in a lotus position, a young woman approach ed me and handed me a hymnal so I could follow along. Suddenly, I observed an older monk walk into the room and sit next to another elderly monk. Because I was sitting on the floor, I could see the first monk slip a piece of paper from beneath his robes to the other monk. Just then, I looked up and could see one of the ubiquitous informers the government uses to spy on religious sites leaning over a rail and straining to see what the monk had passed to the other. Unfortunately, I did not see the end of the story. I decided to leave rather than get caught up in a police raid since I was conducting research on a tourist visa, a criminal offense in Communist Vietnam.

(7.) I consider Thich Quang Do’s open letter to Vo Van Kiet to be one of the great human rights documents of the twentieth century. For more on this, see “Vietnam: The Suppression of the Unified Buddhist Church,” Human Rights Watch Asia 7, March 1995): 1-16.

(8.) While in Ho Chi Minh City in March 1999, I decided to visit Thich Quang Do. Meeting him was an inspiring experience. One would assume that a man who had endured years of imprisonment and isolation would be a serious, sober and traumatized individual. Instead, he is a warm, friendly, articulate person who exuded kindness and commitment to his principles. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and seemed genuinely happy to meet me. He told me that he became a monk because he loves Buddhism and wanted to help his people and, since Buddhism teaches love, it makes him very happy. Thus, his defiance of the regime can be seen as expression of his hope to bring social justice to his society. His opposition has come at a heavy cost, however. Since 1975, he has spent extended periods of time confined in prisons and despite his recent liberation from jail, he has suffered harassment from security forces since his release: his phone is tapped and the police constantly monitor his movements. I expected the police to c rash through the door at any time, and my regard for his incredible courage and steadfastness in the face of fierce persecution grew as we spoke. Yet, when I called him a great man, he tried to deflect my praise with protests of humility. He seemed unfazed by the obvious danger he courts by speaking so freely. Finally, I decided to take my leave from this extraordinary human being. As I was walking down the stairs, he grabbed my arm and asked me if I remembered my promise to him. “Would I keep it? Would I tell the world about the plight of Buddhism in Vietnam?” What else could I say but yes? Thich Quang Do interview, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 25, 1999.

(9.) Thich Quang Lien interview.

(10.) Minh Chi interviews, Ho Chi Minh City, July 1996 and March 1999.

(11.) Thich Tri Quang interviews, Ho Chi Minh City, July 1996 and March 1997.

(12.) Thich Minh Chau interview, Ho Chi Minh City, July 1996.

(13.) Thich Phuoc Nhon interview, Hue Vietnam, August 1996.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life