Buddhism in Vietnam | History


1. Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism in Vietnam (Dao Phat or Phat Giao in Vietnamese), as practised by the ethnic Vietnamese, is mainly of the Mahāyāna tradition.

Buddhism may have first come to Vietnam as early as the 3-2nd century BCE from the Indian subcontinent or from China in the 1-2nd century CE.

Vietnamese Buddhism has had a syncretic relationship with certain elements of Daoism, Chinese spirituality, and Vietnamese folk religion.

2. Dynastic period

There are conflicting theories regarding whether Buddhism first reached Vietnam during the 3rd or 2nd century BCE via delegations from India, or during the 1st or 2nd century from China.

In either case, by the end of the 2nd century CE, Vietnam had developed into a major regional Mahāyāna Buddhist centre centring on Luy Lau in modern Bac Ninh Province, northeast of the present day capital city of Hanoi.

Luy Lau was the capital of the Han region of Jiaozhi and was a popular place visited by many Indian Buddhist missionary monks en route to China. The monks followed the maritime trade route from the Indian sub-continent to China used by Indian traders.

A number of Mahāyāna Sūtras and the Āgamas were translated into Classical Chinese there, including the Sūtras of 42 Chapters and the Ānāpānasati.

Jiaozhi was the birthplace of Buddhist missionary Kang Senghui (died 280) who was of Sogdian origin.

Over the next 18 centuries, Vietnam and China shared many common features of cultural, philosophical and religious heritage. This was due to geographical proximity to one another and Vietnam being annexed twice by China.

Vietnamese Buddhism is thus related to Chinese Buddhism in general, and to some extent reflects the formation of Chinese Buddhism after the Song dynasty.

Theravāda Buddhism, on the other hand, would become incorporated through the southern annexation of Khmer people and territories.

Buddha statue, Vietnam

During the Dinh dynasty (968–980), Buddhism was recognized by the state as an official faith (~971), reflecting the high esteem of Buddhist faith held by the Vietnamese monarchs.

The Early Le dynasty (980–1009) also afforded the same recognition to the Buddhist faith.

The growth of Buddhism during this time is attributed to the recruitment of erudite monks to the court as the newly independent state needed an ideological basis on which to build a country. Subsequently, this role was ceded to Confucianism.

Vietnamese Buddhism reached its zenith during the Ly dynasty (1009–1225) beginning with the founder Ly Thai To (974 - 1028), who was raised in a pagoda. All of the kings during the Ly dynasty professed and sanctioned Buddhism as the state religion.

This endured with the Tran dynasty (1225–1400) but Buddhism had to share the stage with the emerging growth of Confucianism.

By the 15th century, Buddhism fell out of favour with the court during the Later Le dynasty, although still popular with the masses. Officials like Le Quat attacked it as heretical and wasteful.

It was not until the 19th century that Buddhism regained some stature under the Nguyen dynasty who accorded royal support.

A Buddhist revival movement emerged in the 1920s in an effort to reform and strengthen institutional Buddhism, which had lost grounds to the spread of Christianity and the growth of other faiths under French rule. The movement continued into the 1950s.

3. Republican period

Buddhism Pagoda, Vietnam

From 1954-1975, Vietnam was split into North and South Vietnam.

In a country where surveys of the religious composition estimated the Buddhist majority to be approximately 50-70%, President Ngo Dinh Diem's policies generated claims of religious bias:

As a member of the Catholic Vietnamese minority, he pursued pro-Catholic policies that antagonized many Buddhists.

In May 1963, in the central city of Hue, where Diem's elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the archbishop, Buddhists were prohibited from displaying Buddhist flags during Vesak celebrations

- yet few days earlier, Catholics were allowed to fly religious flags at a celebration in honour of the newly seated archbishop.

This led to widespread protest against the government; troops were sent in and 9 civilians were killed in the confrontations. This led to mass rallies against Diem's government, termed as the Buddhist Crisis.

The conflicts culminated in Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation.

President Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu favoured strong-armed tactics and Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces engaged in the Xa Loi Pagoda raids, killing estimated hundreds.

Dismayed by the public outrage, the US government withdrew support for the regime. President Diem was deposed and killed in the 1963 coup.

Political strength of the Buddhists grew in the 1960s as the different schools and orders convene to form the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Leaders of the Church like Thich Tri Quang (1923- 2019) had considerable sway in national politics, at times challenging the government.

With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the whole nation came under Communist rule; many religious practices including Buddhism were discouraged.

In the North the government had created the United Buddhist Saṅgha of Vietnam, co-opting the clergy to function under government auspices

but in the South, the Unified Buddhist Saṅgha of Vietnam still held sway and openly challenged the communist government. The Saṅgha leadership was thus arrested and imprisoned; Saṅgha properties were seized and the Saṅgha itself was outlawed.

In its place was the newly created Buddhist Saṅgha of Vietnam, designed as the final union of all Buddhist organizations, now under full state control.

4. Modern period

Buddha statue, Vietnam

The treatment of Buddhists started to ease since Doi Moi in 1986.

Since Doi Moi (Renovation, 1986) many reforms have allowed Buddhism to be practiced relatively unhindered by the individuals. However no organized Saṅgha is allowed to function independent of the state.

It was not until 2007 that Pure Land Buddhism, the most widespread type of Buddhism practiced in Vietnam, was officially recognized as a religion by the government.

Thich Quang Do (1928-2020) the Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Saṅgha, once imprisoned, lived under regular surveillance and restricted in his travels.

Today, Buddhists are found throughout Vietnam, from North to South:

Buddhism is the single largest organized religion in Vietnam, with somewhere between 12.2%-16.4% of the population identifying themselves as Buddhist.

Some argued the number to be higher than reported, as many declared themselves as atheists, but still participated in Buddhist activities.

On one hand, though the Communist Party of Vietnam officially promotes atheism, it has usually leaned in favour of Buddhism, as Buddhism is associated with the long and deep history of Vietnam, and also, there have rarely been disputes between Buddhists and the Government; the Communist Government also sees Buddhism as a symbol of Vietnamese patriotism.

Buddhist festivals are officially promoted by the Government and restrictions are few, in contrast to its Christian, Muslim and other religious counterparts.

Recently, the Communist regime in Vietnam allowed major Buddhist figures to enter the country:

Thich Nhat Hanh, a major Buddhist figure revered both in Vietnam and worldwide, is among these.

In order to distance itself from the fellow communist neighbour China, the Government of Vietnam allows the publishing of books and stories of 14th Dalai Lama,

who has a personal friendship with Thich Nhat Hanh and were commonly critical of the Chinese regime after the 2008 Tibetan unrest,

- which was seen as an attempt to antagonize the Chinese Government and China as a whole as Beijing considers the Dalai Lama to be a terrorist.

5. Overseas

After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, the first major Buddhist community appeared in North America:

Since that time, the North American Vietnamese Buddhist community has grown to some 160 temples and centres. Proselytizing is not a priority.

The most famous practitioner of synchronized Vietnamese Thien (Zen) in the West is Thich Nhat Hanh who has authored dozens of books and founded the Plum Village Monastery in France together with his colleague, Bhikṣunī and Zen Master Chan Khong.

According to some critics, Thich Nhat Hanh's fame in the Western world as a proponent of Engaged Buddhism and a new Thien style has no affinity with or any foundation in traditional Vietnamese Buddhist practices and his style of Zen Buddhism is not reflective of actual Vietnamese Buddhism:

Thich Nhat Hanh often recounts about his early Thien practices in Vietnam in his Dharma talks saying that he continued and developed this practice in the West which has a distinctive Vietnamese Thien flavour.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist teachings have started to return to a Vietnam where the Buddhist landscape is now being shaped by the combined Vietnamese and Westernized Buddhism that is focused more on the meditative practices.

6. Practice

Followers in Vietnam practice differing traditions without any problem or sense of contradiction.

Few Vietnamese Buddhists would identify themselves as a particular kind of Buddhism, as a Christian might identify him or herself by a denomination, for example.

Although Vietnamese Buddhism does not have a strong centralized structure, the practice is similar throughout the country at almost any temple.

Gaining merit is the most common and essential practice in Vietnamese Buddhism with a belief that liberation takes place with the help of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Buddhist monks commonly chant Sūtras, recite Buddhas’ names (particularly Amitābha), doing repentance and praying for rebirth in the Pure Land.

The Lotus Sūtras and the Amitābha Sūtras are the most commonly used Sūtras.

Most Sūtras and texts are in Classical Chinese and are merely recited with Sino-Xenic pronunciations, making them incomprehensible to most practitioners.

3 services are practiced regularly at dawn, noon, and dusk. They include Sūtras reading with Niem Phat (Nianfo, Nembutsu) and Dhāraṇī recitation and kinh hanh (walking meditation).

Laypeople at times join the services at the temple and some devout Buddhist practice the services at home.

Special services such as Sam Nguyen/Sam Hoi (confession/repentance) takes place on the Full Moon and New Moon each month.

Niem Phat practice is one way of repenting and purifying bad karma.

Buddhist temples also serve a significant role in death rituals and funerals among overseas Vietnamese.


7. Mahāyāna traditions

The overall doctrinal position of Vietnamese Buddhism is the inclusive system of Tiantai, with the higher metaphysics informed by the Huayan school; however, the orientation of Vietnamese Buddhism is syncretic without making such distinctions.

Therefore, modern practice of Vietnamese Buddhism can be very eclectic, including elements from Thien (Chan Buddhism), Thien Thai (Tiantai), Tinh Do Pure Land Buddhism, and popular practices from Vajrayāna.

The methods of Pure Land Buddhism are perhaps the most widespread within Vietnam.

It is common for practitioners to recite Sūtras, chants and Dhāraṇīs looking to gain protection through Bodhisattvas or Dharmapālas.

It is a devotional practice where those practicing put their faith in Amitābha (Vietnamese: A-di-Da). Followers believe they will gain rebirth in his Pure Land by chanting Amitābha's name.

A Pure Land is a Buddha-realm where one can more easily attain Enlightenment since suffering does not exist there.

Many religious organizations have not been recognized by the government; however, in 2007, with 1.5 million followers, the Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Association (Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi Viet Nam) received official recognition as an independent and legal religious organization.

Thien is the Sino-Xenic pronunciation of Chan (Japanese Zen) and is derived ultimately from Sanskrit "dhyāna":

The traditional account is that in 580, an Indian monk named Vinītaruci (Vietnamese: Ti-ni-Da-luu-chi) travelled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the 3rd patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

This would be the first appearance of Thien. The sect that Vinītaruci and his lone Vietnamese disciple founded would become known as the oldest branch of Thien.

After a period of obscurity, the Vinītaruci School became one of the most influential Buddhist groups in Vietnam by the 10th century; particularly under the patriarch Van-Hanh (died 1018).

Other early Vietnamese Zen schools included the Vo Ngon Thong (Wu Yantong, 759-826 C.E.), which was associated with the teaching of Mazu Daoyi (709–788), and the Thao Duong, which incorporated Nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.

A new Thien school was founded by King Tran Nhan Tong (1258–1308); called the Truc Lam "Bamboo Grove" school, it evinced a deep influence from Confucian and Daoist philosophy.

Nevertheless, Truc Lam's prestige waned over the following centuries as Confucianism became dominant in the royal court.

In the 17th century, a group of Chinese monks led by Nguyen Thieu introduced the Linji School (Lam Te).

A more native offshoot of Lam Te, the Lieu Quan School, was founded in the 18th century and has since been the predominant branch of Vietnamese Zen.

Some scholars argue that the importance and prevalence of Thien in Vietnam has been greatly overstated and that it has played more of an elite rhetorical role than a role of practice.

The Thien uyen tap anh ("Collection of Outstanding Figures of the Zen Garden", a Chinese-language Vietnamese Buddhist biographical text dating to 1337) has been the dominant text used to legitimize Thien lineages and history within Vietnam.

Modern Buddhist practices are not reflective of a Thien past; in Vietnam, common practices are more focused on ritual and devotion than the Thien focus on meditation.

Nonetheless, Vietnam is seeing a steady growth in Zen today:

2 figures who have been responsible for this increased interest in Thien are Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thich Thanh Tu, who lives in Da Lat.

8. Theravāda

The central and southern parts of present-day Vietnam were originally inhabited by the Chams and the Khmer people, respectively, who followed both a syncretic Śaiva-Mahāyāna and Theravāda Buddhism.

Dai Viet annexed the land occupied by the Cham during conquests in the 15th century and by the 18th century had also annexed the Southern portion of the Khmer Empire, resulting in the current borders of Vietnam.

From that time onward, the dominant Dai Viet (Vietnamese) followed the Mahāyāna tradition while the Khmer continued to practice Theravāda.

In the 1920s and 1930s, there were a number of movements in Vietnam for the revival and modernization of Buddhist activities:

Together with the re-organization of Mahāyāna establishments, there developed a growing interest in Theravādin meditation as well as the Pāli Canon. These were then available in French.

Among the pioneers who brought Theravāda Buddhism to the ethnic Dai Viet was a young veterinary doctor named Le Van Giang:

He was born in the South, received higher education in Hanoi, and after graduation, was sent to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to work for the French government.

During that time he became especially interested in Theravāda Buddhist practice. Subsequently, he decided to ordain and took the Dhamma name of Ho-Tong (Vansarakkhita, 1893-1981).

In 1940, upon an invitation from a group of lay Buddhists led by Nguyen Van Hieu, he went back to Vietnam in order to help establish the 1st Theravāda temple for Vietnamese Buddhists at Go Dua, Thu Duc (now a district of Ho Chi Minh City).

The temple was named Buu Quang (Ratana Ramsyarama). The temple was destroyed by French troops in 1947, and was later rebuilt in 1951.

At Buu Quang temple, together with a group of Vietnamese Bhikkhus who had received training in Cambodia, Ho Tong began teaching Buddhism in their native Vietnamese.

He also translated many Buddhist materials from the Pāli Canon, and Theravāda became part of Vietnamese Buddhist activity in the country.

In 1949–1950, Ho Tong together with Nguyen Van Hieu and supporters built a new temple in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), named Ky Vien Tu (Jetavana Vihāra).

This temple became the centre of Theravāda activities in Vietnam, which continued to attract increasing interest among the Vietnamese Buddhists.

In 1957, the Vietnamese Theravāda Buddhist Saṅgha Congregation was formally established and recognised by the government, and the Theravāda Saṅgha elected Venerable Ho Tong as its first President, or Saṅgharaja.

From Saigon, the Theravāda movement spread to other provinces, and soon, a number of Theravāda temples for ethnic Viet Buddhists were established in many areas in the South and Central parts of Vietnam.

There are 529 Theravāda temples throughout the country, of which 19 were located in Ho Chi Minh City and its vicinity.