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Buddhism in Vietnam

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Buddhism came to Vietnam as early as the second century CE through the North from central Asia and via Southern routes from India. [1] Buddhism in Vietnam as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese is mainly of the Mahayana school, although some ethnic minorities (such as the Khmer Krom) adhere to the Theravada school. [2] Buddhism in Vietnam has had a symbiotic relationship with Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the indigenous Vietnamese religion. [3] The majority of Buddhist practitioners focus on devotional rituals rather than meditation.

Buddhism is not practiced the same as in other Asian countries and does not contain the institutional structures, hierarchy, or sanghas that exist in other traditional Buddhist settings. Due to this observation the estimate that 80% of the Vietnamese population is Buddhist is questionable, but does however show that many Vietnamese define their spiritual needs using a Buddhist worldview. [3]

Foundation of Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism came to Vietnam in the first or second century CE through the North from central Asia [4] and via the South from India trade routes. [5] By the end of the second century, Vietnam developed a major Buddhist centre (probably Mahayana) in the region, commonly known as the Luy Lâu centre, now in the Bắc Ninh province, north of the present day Hanoi city. Luy Lâu was the capital of Giao Chỉ, (the former name of Vietnam), and was a popular place visited by many Indian Buddhist missionary monks to China. The monks followed the sea route from the Indian sub-continent to China used by Indian traders. A number of Mahayana sutras and the Agamas were translated into Chinese script at that centre, including the Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters and the Anapanasati.

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 the Chinese. Vietnamese Buddhism has been greatly influenced by the development of Mahayana Buddhism in China, with the dominant traditions of Pure Land and Ch'an/Zen. Theravada Buddhism would become incorporated through the annexation of the Khmer land and khmer people.

Development of Buddhism in Vietnam

During the Đinh Dynasty (968-980) Buddhism was recognized by the state as an official religion (~971) suggesting that the current kings at the time held Buddhism in high regard. [6] The Early Lê Dynasty (980-1009) would follow a similar path. Reasons for growth of Buddhism during this time is contributed to an influx of educated monks, a newly independent state needing an ideological basis on which to build a country and the development of Confucianism. [7]

Buddhism became more prominent during the Lý Dynasty (1009-1225) beginning with the founder Lý Thái Tổ who was raised in a pagoda (Buddhist temple). [8] All of the kings during the Ly Dynasty supported Buddhism as a state religion and this continued into the Trần Dynasty (1225-1400) where Buddhism later developed in combination with Confucianism. Buddhism fell out of favor during the Later Lê Dynasty and would grow under the Nguyễn Dynasty.

A Buddhist revival (Chan Hung Phat Giao) started in 1920 in an effort to reform and develop institutional Buddhism, which continues today. [9] Under Communist rule many religious practices in Vietnam Buddhism were suppressed. However a government sanctioned and approved United Buddhist Church was created in the North. In the South, The Unified Buddhist Church was created and opposed the communist government.

Since Đổi Mới (1986) many reforms have allowed Buddhism to be practiced further. It was not until 2007 that Pure Land Buddhism, the largest type of Buddhism practiced in Vietnam, was officially recognized as a religion by the government. [10]


Although some people believe that the differing schools of Buddhism are incompatible and cannot practice together, within Vietnam followers practice differing traditions without any problem or without contradiction. [11] 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 (Amitabha most notably, doing repentance and praying for rebirth in the Pure Land). [12] Meditation is not always a common daily practice.

The Lotus Sutra and Amitabha Sutra are the most commonly used sutras. [13] Most sutras and texts have come from China and have been translated into Sino-Vietnamese (Han –Viet) rather than the vernacular making them largely incomprehensible to most practitioners.

Three services are practiced regularly at dawn, noon, and dusk. They include sutras (mainly devotional), reciting dharanis and Buddha’s name, and circumambulation (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. Chanting the name of Buddha is one way of repenting and purifying bad karma. [14]

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism is the most widespread form of Buddhism within Vietnam. It is common for practitioners to recite sutras, chants and dharanis looking to gain protection from bodhisattvas or Dharma-Protectors. [15] It is a devotional practice where those practicing put their faith into Amitabha Buddha (V. A Di Đà Phật). Followers believe they will gain rebirth in the Pure Land by chanting Amitabha’s name. The Pure Land is where one can more easily gain enlightenment since suffering does not exist. Many religious organizations have not been recognized by the government however in 2007, with 1.5 million followers, The Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Association (Tịnh Độ Cư Sĩ Phật Hội Việt Nam ) received official recognition as an independent and legal religious organization. [10]

Zen in Vietnam

Thiền Buddhism (Thiền Tông) is the Vietnamese name for the school of Zen Buddhism. Thien is ultimately derived from Chan Zong, itself a derivative of the Sanskrit "Dhyāna".

The traditional account is that in 580, when an Indian monk named Vinitaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-đa-lưu-chi) traveled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Jianzhi Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chinese Zen. This would be the first appearance of Vietnamese Zen, or Thien (thiền) Buddhism. The sect that Vinitaruci and his lone Vietnamese disciple founded would become known as the oldest branch of Thien. 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 Vạn-Hạnh (died 1018). Other early Vietnamese Zen schools included the Vo Ngon Thong (Vô Ngôn Thông), which was associated with the teaching of Mazu, and the Thao Duong (Thảo Đường), which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.

A new school was founded by King Trần Nhân Tông (1258–1308); called Trúc Lâm (Bamboo Grove) school, which 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 Thiều introduced the Ling school ( Lâm Tế). A more domesticated offshoot of Lâm Tế, the Liễu Quán school, was founded in the 18th century and has since been the predominant branch of Vietnamese Zen.

Controversy over Zen

Some scholars argue that Zen (Thiền) in Vietnam is an invented tradition and that the Zen schools have played more of an elite rhetorical role than a role of practice [16]

The Thiền Uyển Tập Anh (Outstanding Figures in the Vietnamese Zen Community) has been the dominant text used to legitimize the Zen Buddhist lineage 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 that is “fraught with discontinuity”. Current day Buddhist practices are not reflective of a Zen past is that in modern day Vietnam the common practices are more focused on ritual and devotion than the Zen focus on meditation. [17] Nonetheless, we are seeing an increased population in Zen today. [18]


The southern part of present day Vietnam was originally occupied by the Cham people and the Khmer people who followed both a syncretic Saiva-Mahayan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. The Đại Việt 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 Đại Việt, 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 Pali Canon. These were then available in French. Among the pioneers who brought Theravada Buddhism to the ethnic Đại Việt was a young veterinary doctor named Lê Văn Giảng. 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 Hộ-Tông (Vansarakkhita). In 1940, upon an invitation from a group of lay Buddhists led by Mr. Nguyễn Văn Hiểu, he went back to Vietnam in order to help establish the first Theravada temple for Vietnamese Buddhists, at Gò Dưa, Thủ Đức (now a district of Hồ Chí Minh City). The temple was named Bửu Quang (Ratana Ramsyarama). The temple was destroyed by French troops in 1947, and was later rebuilt in 1951. At Bửu Quang temple, together with a group of Vietnamese bhikkhus (monks), who had received training in Cambodia, such as Venerables Thiện Luật, Bửu Chơn, Kim Quang and Giới Nghiêm, Venerable Hộ Tông began teaching the Dhamma 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, Venerable Hộ Tông together with Mr Nguyễn Văn Hiểu and supporters built a new temple in Saigon (now Hồ Chí Minh City), named Kỳ Viên Tự (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 Hội Tăng Già Nguyên Thủy Việt Nam) was formally established and recognised by the government, and the Theravada Sangha elected Venerable Hộ 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. As of 1997, there were 64 Theravada temples throughout the country, of which 19 were located in Hồ Chí Minh City and its viccinity. Besides Bửu Quang and Kỳ Viên temples, other well known temples are Bửu Long, Giác Quang, Tam Bảo (Đà Nẵng), Thiền Lâm and Huyền Không (Huế), and the large Sakyamuni Buddha Monument (Thích Ca Phật Đài) in Vũng Tàu.

Buddhism in Vietnam Today

Vietnamese Buddhism 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 this time the North American Vietnamese Buddhist community has grown to 160 temples and centers, however Vietnamese Buddhism is one of the least popular forms of Buddhism among Buddhists of European descent. Two reasons for this are a lack of meditation within the practice (which is generally favored by Western Buddhists), not much proselytizing being carried out by the Vietnamese Buddhists and the fact that Vietnamese monks do not tend to use English to reach out to Buddhists who are not of Vietnamese descent.[19]

The most famous practitioner of synchronized Thiền Buddhism in the West is Thích Nhất Hạnh who has authored dozens of books and founded Dharma center Plum Village in France together with his colleague, Bhiksuni and Zen Master Chân Không. According to Nguyen and Barber, Thich Nhat Hanh’s fame in the Western world as a proponent of engaged Buddhism and a new zen style has “no affinity with or any foundation in traditional Vietnamese Buddhist practices” [20] and according to Alexander Soucy (2007) his style of Zen Buddhism is not reflective of actual Vietnamese Buddhism. (Yet Thích Nhất Hạnh often recounts about his early Zen practices in Vietnam in his Dharma talks saying that he continued and developed this practice in the West which has a distinctive Vietnamese Thien flavor.)

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 & Westernized Buddhism that is focused more on the meditative practices. [18]


  1. Cuong Tu Nguyen. Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study of the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997, pg 9.
  2. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber. “Vietnamese Buddhism in North America: Tradition and Acculturation”. in Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (eds). The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pg 130.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, pg 132.
  4. Cuong Tu Nguyen 1997 pg. 9
  5. Nguyen Tai Thu. The History of Buddhism in Vietnam. 2008.
  6. Nguyen Tai Thu 2008, pg 77.
  7. Nguyen Tai Thu 2008, pg 75.
  8. Nguyen Tai Tu Nguyen 2008, pg 89.
  9. Elise Anne DeVido. "Buddhism for This World: The Buddhist Revival in Vietnam, 1920 to 1951, and Its Legacy." in Philip Taylor (ed), Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, 2007, p. 251.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Pure Land Buddhism recognised by Gov’t." Viet Nam News. December 27, 2007. ( Accessed: April 7, 2009.
  11. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, pg 135.
  12. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, pg 134.
  13. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, pg 134 .
  14. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, pg 135.
  15. Cuong Tu Nguyen 1997, p. 94.
  16. Alexander Soucy. "Nationalism, Globalism and the Re-establishment of the Truc Lam Thien Sect in Northern Vietnam." in Philip Taylor (ed), Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post Revolutionary Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, 2007; Cuong Tu Nguyen 1997, pg 99.
  17. Alexander Soucy 2007; Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Alexander Soucy 2007.
  19. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998.
  20. Cuong Tu Nguyen & A.W. Barber 1998, p. 131.


  • Nguyen, Cuong Tu & A.W. Barber. “Vietnamese Buddhism in North America: Tradition and Acculturation”. in Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (eds) .The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Nguyen, Cuong Tu. Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study of the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
  • Nguyen Tai Thu. The History of Buddhism in Vietnam. 2008.
  • Soucy, Alexander. "Nationalism, Globalism and the Re-establishment of the Truc Lam Thien Sect in Northern Vietnam." Philip Taylor (ed). Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, 2007.

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Buddhism in Vietnam. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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