Buddhism in Vietnam (o Ph?t or Ph?t Giáo in Vietnamese), as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese, is mainly of the Mahayana tradition and is the main religion. Buddhism may have first come to Vietnam as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BCE from the Indian subcontinent or from China in the 1st or 2nd century CE. Vietnamese Buddhism has had a syncretic relationship with certain elements of Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and Vietnamese folk religion.
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 Mahayana Buddhist hub, centering on Luy Lâu in modern B?c Ninh Province, northeast of the present-day capital city of Hanoi. Luy Lâu was the capital of the Han region of Jiaozhi and was a popular destination visited by many Indian Buddhist missionary monks en route to China. The monks followed the maritime trade route from the Indian subcontinent to China used by Indian traders. A number of Mahayana sutras and the ?gamas were translated into Classical Chinese there, including the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters and the Anapanasati.
Over the next eighteen centuries, Vietnam and China shared many common features of cultural, philosophical and religious heritage as a result of geographical proximity 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. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, would become incorporated through the southern annexation of Khmer people and territories.
During the ?inh dynasty (968-980), Buddhism was recognized by the state as an official religion (~971), reflecting the high esteem of Buddhist faith held by the Vietnamese monarchs. The Early Lê dynasty (980-1009) also afforded the same recognition to the Buddhist church. 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 Lý dynasty (1009-1225), beginning with the founder Lý Thái T?, who was raised in a pagoda. All of the kings during the Lý dynasty professed and sanctioned Buddhism as the state religion. This endured with the Tr?n dynasty (1225-1400), but Buddhism had to share the stage with the emerging growth of Confucianism.
By the 15th century, Buddhism fell out of favor with the court during the Later Lê dynasty, although still popular with the masses. Officials like Lê Quát attacked it as heretical and wasteful. It was not until the 19th century that Buddhism regained some stature under the Nguy?n dynasty, which accorded royal support.
A Buddhist revival movement (Ch?n h?ng Ph?t giáo) 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.
From 1954 to 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 to 70 percent, South Vietnamese President Ngô ?ình Di?m'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 Hu?, where Di?m's elder brother Ngô ?ình Th?c 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 nine civilians were killed in the confrontations. This led to mass rallies against Di?m's government, termed as the Buddhist crisis. The conflicts culminated in Thích Qu?ng c's self-immolation by lighting himself on fire in protest of the persecution of Buddhists. President Di?m's younger brother Ngô ?ình Nhu favored strong-armed tactics, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces engaged in the Xá L?i Pagoda raids, killing estimated hundreds. Dismayed by the public outrage, the U.S. government withdrew support for the regime. President Di?m was deposed and killed in the 1963 coup.
Political strength of the Buddhists grew in the 1960s as different schools and orders convene to form the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam. Leaders of the Sangha like Thích Trí Quang 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 Sangha of Vietnam, co-opting the clergy to function under government auspices, but in the South, the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam still held sway and openly challenged the communist government. The Sangha leadership was thus arrested and imprisoned; Sangha properties were seized and the Sangha itself was outlawed. In its place was the newly created Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, designed as the final union of all Buddhist organizations, now under full state control.
The treatment of Buddhists started to ease since i m?i in 1986.
Since i M?i in 1986, many reforms have allowed Buddhists to practice their religion relatively unhindered. However, no organized sangha 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. Thích Qu?ng , the Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Sangha, once imprisoned, remained under surveillance and restricted in his travels until his death.
Today, Buddhists are found throughout Vietnam, from North to South. Buddhism is the single largest organized religion in Vietnam, with somewhere between 12.2% and 16.4% of the population identifying themselves as Buddhist. Some argued that the number is higher than reported, as many declared themselves as atheists but still participate in Buddhist activities.
Though the Communist Party of Vietnam officially promotes atheism, it has usually leaned in favor of Buddhism, as Buddhism is associated with the long and deep history of Vietnam. 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. Thích Nh?t H?nh, an influential Buddhist figure revered both in Vietnam and worldwide, is among these. In order to distance itself from the fellow communist neighbor China, the Government of Vietnam allows the publishing of books and stories of 14th Dalai Lama, who has a personal friendship with Thích Nh?t H?nh 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 still considers the Dalai Lama to be a terrorist.
After the fall of South Vietnam to the Communist North in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, the first major Buddhist community appeared in North America. Since this time, the North American Vietnamese Buddhist community has grown to some 160 temples and centers. Proselytizing is not a priority.
The most famous practitioner of synchronized Vietnamese Thi?n in the West is Thích Nh?t H?nh, who has authored dozens of books and founded the Plum Village Monastery in France together with his colleague, bhik?u and Zen Master Chân Không. According to Nguyen and Barber, Thích Nh?t H?nh's fame in the Western world as a proponent of engaged Buddhism and a new Thi?n style has "no affinity with or any foundation in traditional Vietnamese Buddhist practices", and according to Alexander Soucy (2007), his style of Zen Buddhism is not reflective of actual Vietnamese Buddhism. These claims are contradicted by Elise Anne DeVido, who examined the life and legacy of Thích Nh?t H?nh and how we can understand his teachings in terms of its Vietnamese origins. Thích Nh?t H?nh also often recounts about his early Thi?n practices in Vietnam in his Dharma talks, saying that he continued and developed this practice in the West, which has a distinctive Vietnamese Thi?n flavor.
Thích Nh?t H?nh's Buddhist teachings have started to return to Vietnam, where the Buddhist landscape is now being shaped by the combined Vietnamese and Westernized Buddhism that is focused more on the meditative practices.
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 themself 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 sutras, recite Buddhas' names (particularly Amit?bha), doing repentance, and praying for rebirth in the Pure Land.
The Lotus Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra are the most commonly used sutras. Most sutras and texts are in Classical Chinese and are merely recited with Sino-Xenic pronunciations, making them incomprehensible to most practitioners.
Three services are practiced regularly at dawn, noon, and dusk. They include sutra reading with ni?m Ph?t and dh?ra, including the Chú i Bi (the N?lakaha Dh?ra), recitation and kinh hành (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. The ni?m Ph?t 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.
At the entrance of many pagodas, especially in tourist places, the Chú i Bi (Vietnamese version of the Chinese Dàb?i zhòu, the N?lakaha Dh?ra or Great Compassion Dharani or Mantra), is made available to visitors, either printed on a single sheet in black and white, or as a color booklet on glossy paper. They are printed on the initiative of Buddhist practitioners who make an offering to the sangha.
The overall doctrinal position of Vietnamese Buddhism is the inclusive system of Tiantai, with the higher metaphysics informed by the Huayan school (Vietnamese: Hoa Nghiêm); 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 Thi?n (Chan Buddhism), Thiên Thai (Tiantai), and T?nh Pure Land Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhist are often separated not by sects but by the style in how they perform and recite texts, which monks of different regions of Vietnam are known for. According to Charles Prebish, many English language sources contain misconceptions regarding the variety of doctrines and practices in traditional Vietnamese Buddhism:
We will not consider here the misconceptions presented in most English-language materials regarding the distinctness of these schools, and the strong inclination for "syncretism" found in Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism. Much has been said about the incompatibility of different schools and their difficulty in successfully communicating with each other and combining their doctrines. None of these theories reflects realities in Vietnam (or China) past or present. The followers have no problem practicing the various teachings at the same time.
The methods of Pure Land Buddhism are perhaps the most widespread within Vietnam. It is common for practitioners to recite sutras, chants and dh?ras looking to gain protection through bodhisattvas. It is a devotional practice where those practicing put their faith in Amit?bha (Vietnamese: A-di-?à). Followers believe they will gain rebirth in his pure land by chanting Amitabha'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 (T?nh C? S? Ph?t H?i Vi?t Nam) received official recognition as an independent and legal religious organization.
Thi?n is the Sino-Xenic pronunciation of Chan (Japanese Zen) and is derived ultimately from Sanskrit "dhy?na". The traditional account is that in 580, an Indian monk named Vinitaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-?a-l?u-chi) traveled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chan Buddhism. This would be the first appearance of Thi?n. The sect that Vinitaruci and his lone Vietnamese disciple founded would become known as the oldest branch of Thi?n. After a period of obscurity, the Vinitaruci School became one of the most influential Buddhist groups in Vietnam by the 10th century, particularly under the patriarch V?n-H?nh (died 1018). Other early Vietnamese Zen schools included the Vô Ngôn Thông, which was associated with the teaching of Mazu Daoyi, and the Th?o ng, which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.
A new Thi?n school was founded by King Tr?n Nhân Tông (1258-1308); called the Trúc Lâm "Bamboo Grove" school, it evinced a deep influence from Confucian and Taoist philosophy. Nevertheless, Trúc Lâm'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 Nguyên Thi?u introduced the Ling school (Lâm T?). A more native offshoot of Lâm T?, the Li?u Quán 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 Thi?n in Vietnam has been greatly overstated and that it has played more of an elite rhetorical role than a role of practice. The Thi?n uy?n t?p anh (Chinese: ?, "Collection of Outstanding Figures of the Zen Garden") has been the dominant text used to legitimize Thi?n lineages and history within Vietnam. However, Cuong Tu Nguyen's Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study and Translation of the Thien Tap Anh (1997) gives a critical review of how the text has been used to create a history of Zen Buddhism that is "fraught with discontinuity". Modern Buddhist practices are not reflective of a Thi?n past; in Vietnam, common practices are more focused on ritual and devotion than the Thi?n focus on meditation. Nonetheless, Vietnam is seeing a steady growth in Zen today. Two figures who have been responsible for this increased interest in Thi?n are Thích Nh?t H?nh, and Thích Thanh T?, who lives in Da Lat.
The central and southern part of present-day Vietnam were originally inhabited by the Chams and the Khmer people, respectively, who followed both a syncretic ?aiva-Mahayana (see History of Buddhism in Cambodia) and Theravada Buddhism. i Vi?t 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 i Vi?t (Vietnamese) followed the Mahayana tradition while the Khmer continued to practice Theravada.
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 Mahayana establishments, there developed a growing interest in Theravadin meditation as well as the P?li Canon. These were then available in French. Among the pioneers who brought Theravada Buddhism to the ethnic i Vi?t was a young veterinary doctor named Lê V?n Gi?ng. 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 Theravada Buddhist practice. Subsequently, he decided to ordain and took the Dhamma name of H?-Tông (Vansarakkhita). In 1940, upon an invitation from a group of lay Buddhists led by Nguy?n V?n Hi?u, he went back to Vietnam in order to help establish the first Theravada temple for Vietnamese Buddhists at Gò D?a, Th? c (now a district of H? Chí Minh City). The temple was named B?u Quang (Ratana Ramsyarama). The temple was destroyed by French troops in 1947, and was later rebuilt in 1951. At B?u Quang temple, together with a group of Vietnamese bhikkhus who had received training in Cambodia such as Thi?n Lu?t, B?u Ch?n, Kim Quang and Gi?i Nghiêm, H? Tông began teaching Buddhism in their native Vietnamese. He also translated many Buddhist materials from the Pali Canon, and Theravada became part of Vietnamese Buddhist activity in the country.
In 1949-1950, H? Tông together with Nguy?n V?n Hi?u and supporters built a new temple in Saigon (now H? Chí Minh City), named K? Viên T? (Jetavana Vihara). This temple became the centre of Theravada activities in Vietnam, which continued to attract increasing interest among the Vietnamese Buddhists. In 1957, the Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist Sangha Congregation (Giáo H?i T?ng Già Nguyên Th?y Vi?t Nam) was formally established and recognised by the government, and the Theravada Sangha elected Venerable H? Tông as its first President, or Sangharaja.
From Saigon, the Theravada movement spread to other provinces, and soon, a number of Theravada temples for ethnic Viet Buddhists were established in many areas in the South and Central parts of Vietnam. There are 529 Theravada temples throughout the country, of which 19 were located in H? Chí Minh City and its vicinity. Besides B?u Quang and K? Viên temples, other well known temples are B?u Long, Giác Quang, Tam B?o (?à N?ng), Thi?n Lâm and Huy?n Không (Hu?), and the large Thích Ca Ph?t ?ài in V?ng Tàu.