Places of Interest in Vietnam
Travel Guide

Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism has been an integral part of the culture of Vietnam since its earliest recorded history. During that time, it has become intermingled with both Confucianism and Taoism to become a theology unique to Vietnam.

There are two distinct periods of Buddhist influence which have resulted in dramatic variations of belief and culture. The first influences were Mahayana style practices brought to Vietnam by Monks from India. The text estimates the date of this prostletizing at about a century before the common era.

The second influence came two hundred years later during the height of Chinese colonization. This style of Buddhism, known as the classical period of Buddhism in South East Asia (11th to the 15th century) is refered to as the Theravada school.

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.

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.

Thu, Nguyen Tai, "History of Buddhism in Vietnam"; Social Sciences Publishing House; Hanoi, 1992


The predominant form of Buddhism in Vietnam is a combination of Pure Land and Zen. Zen practice, with its emphasis on meditation is mostly pursued among the monks and nuns, while Pure Land philosophy and practice is preferred by the lay-people.

Truc Lam's Zen Monastery, in South Vietnam's Da Lat City is about 300 km from Ho Chi Minh city. It is located on the Highland which has been famous for its temperate climate and scenery since the time Vietnam was a French Colony.

This is one of the largest Zen meditation study centres in Vietnam, with equally large numbers of nuns and monks. The centre has many English speaking members. The centre is not only popular locally but also among Vietnamese abroad for meditation studies. The centre is under the teaching of the Venerable Thich Thanh Tu, a renowned teacher in meditation over many decades. The Venerable's teachings and lectures are embraced, practiced and circulated in many different forms of media around the world by Vietnamese BuddhistVenerable Minh Dang Quangs.

In the south there is a sizeable minority of Theravadin Buddhist, mainly among the ethic Khmer people (Khmer Krom), but also among the Vietnamese. Theravadin monks study alongside Mahayana monks at Saigon's Van Hanh Buddhist University.

There is also a unique Vietnamese form of Buddhism which evolved in the southern provinces, and is a successful combination of Theravada and Mahayana. While much of the philosophy is Mahayana, the Sangha (monks and nuns) follow the Vinaya rules (code of ethics) quite strictly, and go on the traditional alms round every day. As for example, the Venerable Minh Dang Quang (see picture) who was the founder of the Vietamese indigenous Buddhist order .

During colonial times, many hybrid Buddhist sects evolved, and most are still active today, especially among overseas Vietnamese communities. These include Hoa Hoa, a lay-based, militant, form of Buddhist Protestantism, and Cao Dai, a Vietnamese attempt to combine the worlds great religions, which emphasises prophecy and ritual, and is organised along the lines of the Catholic church, with a Holy See, Popes, and Cardinals, etc.

Theravada Buddhism in Vietnam

Vietnamese Nuns MeditatingVietnam was and still is a profoundly Buddhist country. The Sangha are very involved in the community,and temples often run schools, orphanages, medical clinics, and homes for the disabled. Lay people play an important role in religious life. Because of historical circumstances, Vietnamese Buddhists have faced much persecution in the last fifty years.

Most monks and nuns enter at a young age, and within the temples, education is greatly valued and encouraged. Most Vietnamese Sangha go to university, and now some hold jobs as teachers, doctors, lawyers and journalists. Many are also proficient in foreign languages, especially Chinese and English.

The main Buddhist festivals are Vesak (Buddha's Birthday) and Vulan (Ullambana). Vietnamese traditionally visit the temple on the fifteenth day of the Lunar month (Ram), and also in the various festival days of the Mahayana Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Committed lay people go through a formal ceremony of "taking refuge", where they are given a Buddhist name. They wear a traditional grey costume over their normal clothes when they go to the temple, to signify their status as serious Buddhists. There is a large and well organised lay youth movement called "Gia Dinh Phat Tu" (Lit: Family of Buddha's children) which is similar to the scouts. The official American name of the organization is "Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association". This organization has an official website in Vietnamese at:

There is great equality between monks and nuns, as there is between men and women throughout Vietnamese society. Monks are addressed as "Thay" (Teacher), Nuns as "Su Co" (Sister). All Sangha take the name "Thich", to signify that they have left their worldly family, and have joined the family of the Buddha. Buddhists greet each other by placing their palms together at chest level and saying, "Mo Phat" (Praise Buddha). An alternative form of greeting is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha.

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