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Buddhism in Vietnam

Along with Taosim and Confucianism, Buddhism is the third of the great religions which have contributed to the molding of Vietnamese culture and character over the centuries. Buddha was a contemporary of Confucius, and the religion he founded entered Vietnam from both India, Buddha's home, and China. Today it is perhaps the most visible of Vietnamese religious beliefs. Buddhism was introduced into Vietnam in the second century A.D., and was spread for the next four centuries by Chinese and Indian monks. This was the first of three stages in the spread of Buddhism in Vietnam.

Buddhism reached its greatest heights in Vietnam in the second stage which ran roughly from the seventh to the 14th centuries. With expulsion of the Chinese in 939, Confucian scholars with their Chinese education were exiled temporarily from political life and Buddhism received official support. A second reason for its growth was that pagodas also served as repositories of culture. Between 1010 and 1214, the Ly dynasty made Buddhism a state religion. Monks were used as advisers in all spheres of public life, a Buddhist hierarchy established, and many temples and pagodas built. This was the high-water mark for official support of Buddhism. By the close of the eleventh century, Buddhism has planted its roots so deeply in Vietnamese culture that it was no longer considered an imported religion. It had been the court religion; now it had filtered down to the villages and hamlets. Here mixed with Confucianism and Taoism it has become an indigenous part of the popular beliefs of the people.

The decline of Buddhism began with this adulteration of the pure religion and progressed with the lessening of official support. In the 15th century the rulers again favored Confucianism which continued as the more influential religion in public life until the present century.

The admixture of the three religions, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, continued and formed the religion of many Vietnamese. Rites and practices of animism also influenced popular beliefs. A revival of the purer forms of Buddhism and the establishment of an Association of Buddhist Studies in Saigon in 1931 were halted by Word War II. Centers of Buddhist revival were opened also in Hanoi and Hue, where the movement became strongest. Since 1948, although with temporary setbacks, Vietnamese Buddhist groups have strengthened their organizations, developed lay and youth activities, worked toward unifying the various branches and sects, and joined the World Buddhist Organization.

Buddhism retained a deep influence on the mass of the people and its effects go far beyond religion, touching on behavior, the arts, and craft forms. Buddhism presented to Vietnam a new look at the universe, the individual and life. It had a particularly strong effect on morals and behavior. All the arts show the Buddhist influence. The creation of Buddha's image affected the arts of the entire Far East, for giving human characteristics to Buddha's image and to those of the Bodhisattvas opened up a whole new field in the arts.

Episodes from the life and teachings of Buddha as well as the effects of good and evil deeds have been the subjects for paintings, engravings and murals. Sculpture, painting and architecture often have been inspired by two key virtues of Buddhism; purity and compassion. Buddhism also served as a vehicle for bringing Indian and Chinese art to Vietnam, and influenced designs in lacquer work, weaving, embroidery, jewelry and metal work. Most of the prose and poetry of the first independent national dynasty was written by Buddhist monks who exchanged their verse with the great poets of China. The spiritual warmth and brilliance which drew thousands of followers to Buddha during his life and has drawn millions since, is illustrated in the literature based on his teachings and parables. One of the best known has become a folk tale all over the world: "What Is An Elephant?"

Nguyen Du's famous poem, "Kim Van Kieu," based on the teachings of Buddha, has been popular for more than a century. Vietnamese children memorize long passages from its 3,254 verses. One of the main factors that made it popular is its treatment of Karma. The effect of Buddhism on Vietnamese life was summed up in Buddhism in Vietnam by Chanh-Tri and Mai Tho-Truyen: "In Vietnam, Buddhist influence is not limited to the realm of art, letters and philosophy. It inspires the theater, serves as a guide for certain good customs, inspires stories and legends, provides suggestions for popular songs and proverbs."

In Vietnam the fourth day of the 15th lunar month, which normally comes in April or May, is observed as Buddha's birthday. It is a national holiday. The same day is commonly observed as the date of his death and of his enlightenment, although the eighth day of the 12th month is officially observed as the date of his enlightenment. The first and 15th days of each lunar month are Buddhist holy days.

Buddhist Practices

The Three Jewels/Three Gems form the object of devotion in which every follower of Buddha puts his whole hope. They are Buddha, the Darma or teachings of Buddha, and the Sangha or order of Buddhist monks.

The Sangha is composed of the bonzes or monks and nuns and is basically supported by the laity, mainly through gifts which earn merit for the giver. Their shaven heads and yellow, gray or brown robes mark the renunciation of worldly pleasures. While Mahayana monks may wear saffron robes, Theravada monks always do. Though normally vegetarians, monks may eat meat on occasion. They live a life of utmost simplicity, own almost no personal property. Personal items allowed may vary, but in general consist of one undergarment, two robes, a belt, an alms bowl, a small knife or razor, a needle and a water strainer. They are proved food by the laity.

The monks perform many services and functions for the faithful. They participate in and lead religious observances and festivals. They may be invited to weddings although they do not officiate. At funerals they lead the rites in the home and at cremation or burial, and again at intervals after burial and on the first anniversary of death. Some have been commissioned as chaplains in the Vietnamese Armed Forces. The monks care for temples and pagodas, teach religion. Some assist in charitable work and other health and welfare projects. The former preach in the pagodas on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month. Particularly in rural areas, the monk may be the best educated person in the community and serve and an adviser in community affairs and as a teachers. More important to Buddhists, the bonzes are examples of the Middle Way of Life in the travel to Nirvana.

Nuns have been part of the Sangha since the Buddha established the role of nuns in his lifetime. Nuns observe similar but stricter rules than bonzes, are usually affiliated with pagodas though living in separate establishments.

There are distinctions in purpose and use between Pagodas, shrines, temples, but the untrained observer will not normally be able to distinguish among them. However, all are sacred. Unless permission is granted to leave shoes on, they should be removed before entering. The pagoda (chua) is usually the largest, best constructed and most ornate building in Vietnamese villages. Even in cities, its appearance sets it apart. The pagodas of Vietnam are normally constructed in the highly decorated Chinese style. The dragon, the phoenix and other legendary figures are interwoven with Buddhist symbols such as the Wheel of Life and the Chu Van (swastika). Pagodas are used for services but even more for private devotions. At the front of the main room before a statue of Buddha is an altar usually containing flowers, offerings of fruits, candle sticks, and incense. The pagoda area may include rooms for instruction and quarters for the monks.

The Wheel of Life, earliest of Buddhist symbols, is a circle with eight or 12 divisions (spokes). The circle denotes the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of existence. Eight spokes signify the Noble Eightfold Path and 12 spokes denote either the 12 principles of Buddhism or the 12-year calendar within an endless cycle of time. The symbol of Buddhist chaplains in the Vietnamese Armed Forces is the 12-spoke Wheel of Life held by the Hand of Mercy.

The Chu Van (swastika to most Westerners) is the symbol of Enlightenment, the achievement of Nirvana. It is often found on medals, decorating pagodas, or on the chests of Buddha statues as Buddhists believe it will appear on the chests of the Enlightened.

Buddha statues are normally the central figure in the pagoda and wherever found are held in sacred esteem. Gongs or drums are used in pagodas and homes for three basic purposes: to announce the time of a service or meeting, to mark the different parts of a ceremony, and to set the tempo for chanting as an aid to one's meditation. The drum of the pagoda is usually located on the porch and is used to alert the community that a service is beginning or ending.

Flowers are widely used for devotions in Vietnam on family alters, graves, in the pagoda, or for presentations when calling on bonzes or older relatives. In the temple, flowers symbolize the shortness of life and the constant change inherent in existence. Incense is symbolic of self-purification and self-dedication and is offered in memory of Buddha and as a form of meditation. When joss sticks are burned, there are usually three to symbolize the Three Gems.

Lights, candles or lamps, symbolize Buddha's teachings which give light to the mind and drive away ignorance, replacing it with Enlightenment. Food and water are placed before the altars of Buddha and symbolize that the best is first shared with him. As only the essence of food is essential for worship, the items are later retrieved and used.

The lotus blossom is a much-used Buddhist decoration. Buddha often used the lotus as an example, pointing out that though it grew in the water and mire, the beautiful flower stood above the impurities untouched. The bud is a popular offering to monks and pagodas. The seed may be eaten either green or dry. Roots are also eaten in salads, soup, or candied as dessert.

Buddhist beads consist of a string of 108 beads, each symbolizing one of the desires or cravings which must be overcome. The beads are used in meditation.

The Buddhist flag is composed of six vertical stripes of equal width. The first five, from left to right, are blue, yellow, red, white and pink or light orange. The sixth stripe is composed of five horizontal stripes of equal width in the same colors and order from bottom to top. Each color signifies a different Buddhist virtue, but there is no consensus on which color represents which virtue. (The flag was designed in Ceylon in the 1880s by an American ex-Army officer, a Civil War veteran.)

Lustral water, or holy water, is water which as been poured over a Buddha statue under the proper conditions to gain some of the efficaciousness of the Buddha's virtues. It may be poured over the hands of a corpse at funerals or the hands of a bridal couple or sprinkled about a newly-built house. It should be treated in the same manner as the holy water of Catholic practice.

Merit bowls, often incorrectly called "begging bowls" by Westerners, are the means by which the monks receive their daily food. The receiving of food symbolizes the monk's vow of poverty and the giving is a means of gaining merit for the giver.

Hoa Hao

The Hoa Hao (pronounced wah how) is generally accepted as a Buddhist religion. Founded in Vietnam is 1939, it is a reform development of Theravada Buddhism which stresses simplifying doctrine and practice. Found mainly in the Delta where it began, the Hoa Hao has a history of political and military as well as religious activity.

The Hoa Hao was founded by Huyen Phu So, who was born in 1919 at Hoa Hao Village, Chau Doc Province. At 20, after a life of weakness and infirmity, he was miraculously healed and began to proclaim his doctrines of Buddhist reform, giving them the name of his native village. So's apparent power of healing, of prophecy (he foretold defeat of French in World War II, coming of Japanese and later of Americans), and his zeal and eloquence quickly gained him a large following. In time So was being called Phat Song, the Living Buddha. Considering his teaching anti-French, the French exiled him to My Tho and Cai Be where he gained more converts. The French then placed him in a mental institution in Cholon, where So converted the psychiatrist in charge.

Declared sane and released, So was next exiled to Bac Lieu Province and then in desperation sent to Laos. After the Japanese came, they insisted on his return in late 1942. With the Japanese defeat, So led the Hoa Hao into the National United Front, a group of nationalist organizations seeking Vietnamese independence. However, So would not accept Viet Minh leadership and the break led to open conflict between the Hoa Hao and the communists.

In April 1947 the Viet Minh ambushed and executed So in Long Xuyen, a fact still not discussed or accepted by all Hoa Hao followers, some of whom believe So is still alive. All believe that he will return. Ever since, the Hoa Hao have been joined in implacable opposition to the Viet Cong. However, on other issues the sect divided has not had cohesive leadership. Most of the Hoa Hao also opposed the Diem government, maintaining their own military forces (used against the Japanese, French and Viet Minh) up until reconciliation with the government in 1963.

In January 2010 more than 70,000 Hoa Hao followers marked the birthday of the faith's founder, Huynh Phu So, by gathering near his ancestral home in An Hoa Tu, An Giang Province.

Many Buddhists practice an amalgam of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that is sometimes called the "triple religion." The government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) cites an estimate of 10 million (11 percent of the population) practicing Mahayana Buddhists, most of whom are members of the ethnic Kinh community (the country's majority group, also referred to as Viet). There are proportionally fewer Buddhists in the highland areas, although migration of Kinh to these areas is changing the distribution. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are more than 1,000 active Buddhist pagodas. A Khmer ethnic minority in the south practices Theravada Buddhism and has more than 570 pagodas. Numbering more than one million, they live almost exclusively in the Mekong Delta.

In 1981 the officially sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) was established incorporating all Mahayana, Theravada, and Bhikshu Buddhism under its umbrella. All Buddhist groups within the VBS are proportionally represented throughout the leadership structure and organization. In practice Theravada monks meet separately to determine issues such as doctrine, education, and other community needs to raise within the VBS.

The government requires all Buddhist monks, including Khmer Krom monks who practice the Theravada tradition, to be approved by and work under the government-sponsored VBS. In theory the CRA regulates the number of Buddhist student monks, although the number of Buddhist academies at the local and provincial levels, in addition to four university-equivalent academies, has greatly increased in recent years. Since the government's merger of all Buddhist organizations into the VBS, the government does not recognize the legitimacy of the UBCV. There are several recently recognized religious organizations that have Buddhist influences, although they are separate and distinct from the VBS. Of these the Pure-Land Buddhist Home Practice faith has the largest membership with more than 1.3 million followers

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