Despite centuries of French occupation, decades of civil war and an officially atheist Communist government in power since the 1970s, Buddhism has endured in Vietnam and remains the country’s majority religion. Unlike its predominantly Theravada Buddhist neighbors — Cambodia, Laos and Thailand — the Buddhism of Vietnam is mainly rooted in the Chinese Mahayana tradition. It has, however, developed a distinctively Vietnamese flavor.
Along with foundational Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, no-self and the Four Noble Truths, key Mahayana philosophical principles like “Sunyata,” — the notion that all phenomena are continually in flux and thus empty of fixed existences — are generally accepted among Vietnamese Buddhists. While the average practitioner may or may not understand the finer philosophical points, Mahayana teachings on compassion and altruism are embraced by virtually all Vietnamese Buddhists. This “Bodhisattva ideal” is symbolized by Kuan Yin, or Quan Am in Vietnamese, an iconic female figure depicted in statues throughout the country and worshiped like a goddess.
The Pure Land School
By far the most visible form of Buddhism in Vietnam is the Pure Land branch of the Mahayana tradition, known as Tin Do Tong in Vietnamese. Pure Land Buddhists worship Amithaba Buddha, or A Di Da Phat, believed to be a fully enlightened buddha who presides over a heavenly realm known as the Pure Land and is separate but related to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. Adherents believe that by living moral lives and consistently chanting Amithaba’s name with a faithful heart they will be reborn in the Pure Land and reach enlightenment soon thereafter.
Role of Monastics
Male Buddhist monks and female nuns enjoy relative equality in Vietnam. Monastics wear yellow robes during ceremonies and brown, tan or light blue robes as everyday wear. All monastics are required to practice celibacy, but rules governing interaction between the sexes are not as strict as in Theravada Buddhism. Monastics regularly undertake charity work in their communities while pagodas often double as orphanages, schools and centers for the disabled and indigent. Education is important. Monastics often attend Buddhist universities and many practice arts such as poetry, painting and calligraphy. Monastics wake before dawn, eat two or three light vegetarian meals per day and lead regular chanting services for the laity.
Role of the laity
Devout Buddhist lay-practitioners take part in nightly services in which scriptures such as the Lotus Sutra and Amithaba Sutra are rhythmically chanted in a traditional dialect of Han-Vietnamese. On weekends and full moons, lay-practitioners join monastics in extended services which can include repetitive chanting of Amithaba’s name accompanied by seated and walking meditation and prayer beads. Some services incorporate up to 108 continual full body prostrations which are believed to purify negative karma. Upon entering and leaving a pagoda, practitioners perform three prostrations in homage of Amithaba and/or Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as Kuan Yin and Mahasthamaprapta, or The Chi, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Lit incense sticks are placed before images of various buddhas, bodhisattvas and guardian spirits. Devout lay-practitioners are ceremoniously given Buddhist names along with light blue or grey robes to be worn inside pagodas. Lay-practitioners support monastics through regular donations of food, money and supplies. Pagodas serve as community centers and monastics sometimes join the laity for vegetarian banquets.
Other Buddhist Schools in Vietnam
Vietnamese Buddhism is an eclectic tapestry of schools, customs and beliefs. Aspects of the Chinese Tiantai school such as study of the Lotus Sutra and meditative practices aimed at calm and insight are often undertaken alongside Pure Land customs. With roots in China, the Zen, or Thien school, aims to realize enlightenment in the immediacy of the present moment through meditation and awareness during all aspects of life. Internationally known monk, author and activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, belongs to the Thien school of Vietnam. Theravada Buddhism is also practiced by a sizable Vietnamese minority and a so-called “Indigenous Buddhism” combines Mahayana philosophy with Theravada customs such as going on morning alms rounds and adherence to the strict Vinaya code of discipline. Rather than proclaim devotion to a given branch of Buddhism or even a single religion, many Vietnamese dabble in a mix of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and animist customs and beliefs.
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