Buddhism in Vietnam

Submitted by tomo on April 4, 2012 - 5:29am

Curious about Buddhism in Vietnam? So was I. When you look around the country you would just about assume that everyone was Buddhist. Until recently, I was only taking in these "Buddhisms" as just another dish in the realm of Vietnamese culture that makes the country so different from the West. But there are also Christian churches (some 10% of the population) as well as a long tradition of Islam within certain ethnic minorities like the Cham who form Muslim communities in their provincial strongholds as well as in the city. There's also a unique indigenous religion called Cao Đài that basically mixes Buddhism and an Abrahamic God. Still it's clear that Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country in both religion and culture and it has been for most of known recorded history (notably, there was a dark and critically damaging period for Buddhism in Vietnam when Roman Catholics controlled the Southern Vietnamese government, more on the issue of religious intolerance in another future post perhaps).

What kind or sect of Buddhism?

When one thinks of Christians, they are a diverse group that identify much more with being Catholic or Protestant or Mormon or whatever else more than just being a Christian. It seems every major world religion has similarly broken down over the years into sects that started believing all kinds of things that weren't there at the founding of the religion, and who differentiate themselves from other sects through these new and unique beliefs. While people in Vietnam seem to just think they are Buddhist rather than any special kind of Buddhist, Buddhism itself, as I've found, has not been immune from such corruption -- or innovation, depending on how you look at it.

When you think of Buddhism as just an aspect of being Vietnamese, you don't think much about how Vietnamese Buddhism relates to Buddhism in other countries but in fact it does have its own characteristics. If you split Buddhists into the two main branches, Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Theravada, Vietnam falls into Mahayana along with the rest of China's historical sphere of influence (the CJKV countries, ethnic Chinese countries like Singapore and Taiwan, and neighbors like Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia). The Southeast Asian Buddhist countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia) are all Theravadin except for Vietnam. What is relatively unknown is that Vietnam does have Theravada Buddhism among the million or so Khmer (Cambodian) population concentrated in the Mekong Delta as well as with a small number of ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese are mostly ethnically Kinh) who have their own Theravadin temples. There is also a third, newer branch called Vajrayana a.k.a. the Diamond Vehicle (Kim cương thừa or Mật tông in Vietnamese), Esoteric Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism. There are some small centers teaching Vajrayana scattered throughout the country including ones (associated with Diamond Way Centers) run by foreigners. Otherwise, Vajrayana doesn't lie in Vietnamese Buddhist tradition the same way as Mahayana.

But unlike a Catholic or Protestant, a Vietnamese Buddhist might not really identify with any sect of Buddhism. If you ask them, they might not even know. And Theravadin Buddhists and Mahayana Buddhists can actually be Buddhist buddies together in the same places without any conflict. Vietnamese Buddhists are generally some mixture of Pure Land and Tientai for most people (laypeople) which involves mostly chanting, burning stuff, ringing bells, and praying, or Vietnamese Zen (Thiền-Na or more commonly just Thiền), which is mostly for monks and is where meditation is found. The two types of Buddhism live side by side and are mixed into a unified Zen-Pure Land Buddhism and this doesn't seem to bother anyone. Vietnamese might not even identify themselves as Buddhist, although they will still have a mix of Buddhist, Confucian, and ancestor-worship beliefs and practices.

Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật

A common chant or prayer used by Vietnamese Buddhists is "Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật" which is a call (somewhat like seeking refuge) to the A Di Da (Amitābha) Buddha, who was a, but not the, Buddha. By calling out his name it is said you will be born in the Pure Land (tịnh độ) when you die, where you can more easily attain enlightenment. To me, it sounds a lot like Jesus. However, chanting can also be similar to Buddhist meditation practices by instilling a sort of mindfulness. Anyways, that line is just the first part of a longer prayer which is meaningless in Vietnamese but was transcribed (via Chinese) from Sanskrit. You can find it in small booklets found, among other places, in some vegetarian restaurants.

Vietnamese Buddhist laypersons are mostly not vegetarian, but once a month (although preferably six days a month) Buddhists will abstain from animal food products. On these days, which occur at midpoints in the lunar month, many local restaurants especially those near temples will serve vegetarian dishes. Vegetarian restaurants will be packed, but temples will also provide vegetarian meals, sometimes for free.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

The last piece I'll cover in this introduction to Vietnamese Buddhism is the aspect of Vietnamese Buddhism outside of Vietnam. In America, Buddhism came to be known from Asian immigrants and especially from certain Americans going over to Japan after the war and learning about Japanese Zen. [If there are stories of American War Veterans bringing Vietnamese Buddhism back to the States, I'd love to hear about it.] Buddhism in Japan had itself spread from China which had received it from India. Likewise, Tibetan Buddhism has also spread to the Western world after exiled Tibetans fled to India where they came into contact with traveling hippies.

Vietnamese Buddhists have also had their influence around the world although mostly through a single enigmatic figure rather than a school of thought. This person would be Thich Nhat Hanh (random aside: Thích is the "family name" taken by Vietnamese Buddhists when they become monks and it comes from Thích-ca Mâu-ni or Shakyamuni, the Buddha). Thich Nhat Hanh comes from Vietnamese Rinzai lineage, but today he is said to no longer represents any kind of contemporary Vietnamese Buddhism. Sadly, he is also not allowed to freely return to Vietnam despite being one of the world's greatest living Zen masters.

Another Vietnamese monk who came to be known around the world was one Thích Quảng Đức. It was not his teachings that brought him fame but his self-immolation in protest of religious persecution which became a major event in the end of American support for the South Vietnamese government. A large memorial park was recently constructed at the intersection of Cach Mang Thang 8 and Nguyen Dinh Chieu in District 3 where Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire. Today, as Tibetan monks self-immolate in increasing numbers, also in protest of a certain government, they might learn a thing or two about PR from the Vietnamese.

But like other waves of Asian immigration before, the post-Vietnam War flood of Vietnamese into the US eventually led to temples in maturing Vietnamese communities everywhere in the country. I believe these temples mostly serve to memorialize ancestors and as community centers now but some do serve to teach practical Buddhist teachings that can be useful to more than just Vietnamese immigrants. Today they don't hold the cachet that, say, Japanese-style Zen centers have. But I am, with the help of some good friends, gradually discovering the traditions in Vietnam that have been passed down and were able to foster such great masters of whom Thich Nhat Hanh and Thich Quang Duc are only two.

Thien Vien Truc Lam, Da Lat.

m. (not verified)

Hello. I've been doing a lot of research about Buddhism in Vietnam for a research paper and discovered that demographically only about 9 percent of Vietnamese identify with the religion, meanwhile 80 percent identify with non-religious. This was shocking to me. From my observation, it appears that Buddhist ideologies imbue Vietnamese culture and daily life yet few people claim the religion. From your time living in Vietnam, do you find that Vietnamese are predominant non-religious as the official statistics suggest?


No, I don't think that's accurate. I think most Vietnamese people are religious and basically theist and very superstitious. Vietnamese people may not identify with a specific named tradition or church. But Buddhist beliefs are in the core of Vietnamese culture even when they don't realize it. People will say they are Buddhist (đào Phật) but it might not mean they affiliate with the one legally allowed Buddhist Church or that they know the difference between Mayahana and Theravada. But they'll observe holidays like Vu Lan, go to pagodas with friends and pray for stuff, and eat vegetarian occasionally.

Diego Oliveira (not verified)

In the strict sense of the word 'theist' (the metaphysical Absolute being personified as a 'God'), Christianity and Cao Dai are surely theist, but Buddhism is by no means so. The very concept of 'Gods' tends to be understood in a radically different way by people informed by a minimally coherent Buddhist worldview (which excludes all too many Western Abrahamic-God-believing "Buddhists"). Theologian Paul Tillich and indologist Heinrich Zimmer coined the nail-hitting term "transtheism" to describe Buddhism and schools of Hinduism such as Advaita Vedanta, in which every God (Sanskrit "Deva", cf. Latin "Deus", English "deity") is a secondary personification of immanent realities, not of the transcendent Absolute, which is taken to be beyond personification in the respective symbolic-doctrinal systems. By the way, one of the 10 Epithets of the Buddha is "Teacher of Gods and Men".

Anonymous (not verified)

To Whom It May Concern:

The thrust of the Buddha Dhamma is not directed to the creation of new political institutions and establishing political arrangements. Basically, it seeks to approach the problems of society by reforming the individuals constituting that society and by suggesting some general principles through which the society can be guided towards greater humanism, improved welfare of its members, and more equitable sharing of resources.

On the other hand, may be Datuk Yip Kum Fook father of Buddha because he can played dirty politics inside Buddhist Temple (SANMAK SAMBODHI) at No: 19-21 Jalan 38 Taman Desa Jaya, Kepong 52100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. If Buddha alive, Buddha will shout of his father because of is very low knowledge. WHY people at that Buddhist Temples are very stupid to selected leader crooks human.

However, this does not mean that Buddhists cannot or should not get involved in the political process, which is a social reality. The lives of the members of a society are shaped by laws and regulations, economic arrangements allowed within a country, institutional arrangements, which are influenced by the political arrangements of that society. Nevertheless, if a Buddhist wishes to be involved in politics, he (Datuk Yip Kum Fook) should not misuse religion to gain political powers, nor is it advisable for those who have renounced the worldly life to lead a pure, religious life to be actively involved in politics.


Brickfields, KL.

Anonymous (not verified)

有关马來西亜,吉隆坡,甲洞帝沙再也 (暹寺) 三宝寺 Samnak Sambodhi Buddhist Association No.19-21 Jalan 38 Taman Desa Jaya, Kepong 52100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 所发生的纠纷, 经过阅读了,Venerable Phra Piya Thammo 和尚及叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook) 的双方书信之后, 再经实地旁听了觧,做为中间人,我要客观实事的说:

1.当一个和尚、初出道 (小学生),在修行, 若有缺点, 那是难免.他马华公会鹅唛區会主地席叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook),却心眼看不顺,就电招警万到耒佛教之圣地要扣畄和尚耒耻唇出家人, 这是绝对不许可, 除非是殺人放火之大罪悪.

2.他身为马华公会鹅唛區会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),却反其道而行, 在佛寺不依佛法而軽视佛教的精神, 以傲慢的手段,帶领一般黑社会的人耒挑衅和尚打架, 这也是不该有、更不是佛教修行者的行为.

3.佛教的圣地, 其主要的目地, 是让眾生修佛道, 不是政治争執的地方. 他马华公会鹅唛区会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 却利用佛教之圣地当政治活动的场所。如此果敢冒犯佛陀的教誨,更是大大的罪悪。

囯有囯章,彿有佛法,家有家规. 如果出家人有何不对之处, 他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 为何不向主持和尚投?让出家人自依和尚的條规处理、却强权一味要显示他是马华公会鹅唛区会及三宝寺理事会主席, 无法无天的应用霸道手段践踏佛教之圣地.为什么。。。。。为什么.

至今, 他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),不当不歉愧,还要狡辩, 这又证明了他说一套, 做的又是另一套, 囗是心非, 所谓的两舌, 相当阴险. 身为律师, 受高深教育, 却应用如此悪毒, 横蛮无礼的作风污辱和尚, 相等于是耻辱佛教伩仰者。他叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook)不向主持和尚投诉, 却自承英雄,电招外耒者.请问,身为將近20年的三宝寺主持和尚兼顾问,也是第一位 自筹建寺的大功臣,在大马南傳泒中,是闻名遐邇的高僧.其脸要放在那裡?同样的,要是台湾星雲大师的佛寺沙彌犯錯, 理事会没有礼貌自作主张,电招警方要扣畄其沙彌.我敢请问!星雲大师的自尊是怎样的感受?他叶金福律师(Yip Kum Fook)是后耒者,担任理会主席也不久, 竟敢应用如此,目无尊長的方式对待住持,间接的就是告大家,强迫住持和尚必远離,雀巢鸠要佔。这种用心不良, 有老千之谋, 的确令人不敢恭维。

縱观以上几项重点,我不是盲目的護持三宝, 而是要坦白的说;他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook) 身受高深教育, 为律师者,本应通情达理才是,但遗憾的是, 却令人惊觉, 他厡耒就是彿书裡所讲的狡猾且残忍的此颣人。他叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook),利用他的专业知識, 懂得包裝自己的道德守則,以宗教为幌子手,到处募款,商业经营, 政治活动为重, 并没依循佛教宗教守则行事, 也没对人道作出任何貢献, 只不过借宗教之名捞取权和私利而己。

在此, 我奉劝, 他马华公会鹅唛区会主席叶金福律师 (Yip Kum Fook), 好自为之, 免因果報应.

forward by taman desa jaya, kepong kuala lumpur. malaysia

Thomas (not verified)

Yea, there used to be 5 schools of Zen in China but only Rinzai and Soto are common in the world these days it seems. I don't think the differences are that large compared to Zen vs other sects or Mahayana vs other schools.


I have read that Zen came from China to Vietnam before Zen split into different sects and that other lineages did come to Vietnam and purportedly still do exist. I assume that even if Zen came to Vietnam early, that later schools still came from China to Vietnam, including what is known as Rinzai in Japanese. So far, I know Vietnamese Zen does include koan practice and walking meditation.

Thomas (not verified)

I've heard that it is quite common in Mahayana countries (but not Japan) for the "front" of the temple to be Pure Land and the "back" to be Zen. Meaning that one venue will cater to lay people and to monks.

In Japan there seems to be strict separation of sects with governing DaiHonZan. I've read that in Vietnam there is kind of a government sanctioned body that governs all temples.

Has your research thus far uncovered any Zen sects other than Rinzai? And how Rinzai is Rinzai in Vietnam?


About temples being like mullets - business in the front, party in the back - it makes sense. Well, I think most or all temples which cater to monks will also service laypeople.

In Vietnam, government does control religion so any official religious body is either sanctioned by the government or it's illegal. There is a "Unified Buddhist Church" in Vietnam which is authorized by the government. But I don't think most people would identify with that "church" when going to their local temple.

As for differentiating Zen sects further in Vietnam, that's a good avenue for further questioning. I'm only barely aware myself of the differences between Rinzai and Soto in Japan, but in Vietnam they would be called Lâm Tế (tông) and Tào Động (tông). There could also be schools that came to Vietnam and lasted to today and either never went to Japan or died out there.

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