Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990s

By Topmiller, Robert | Cross Currents, Spring-Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990s


Topmiller, Robert, Cross Currents


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 co mpassion 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 famil iar 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. …

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