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Buddhism in Vietnam (Vietnamese: 'Phật giáo') as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese is mainly of the Mahāyāna tradition. Buddhism may have first come to Vietnam as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BC from South Asia, or from China in the 1st or 2nd century AD. Vietnamese Buddhism has had a symbiotic relationship with Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the indigenous Vietnamese religion.
There are conflicting theories regarding whether Buddhism first reached Vietnam during the 3rd or 2nd century BC via delegations from India, or during the 1st or 2nd century AD from China. By the end of the 2nd century, Vietnam developed a major Buddhist center (probably Mahayana) in the region, commonly known as the Luy Lẩu center, now in Bắc Ninh Province, north of the present day capital city of Hanoi. 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 center, 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. This was due to geographical proximity to one another and Vietnam being annexed twice by the Chinese. Vietnamese Buddhism is closely related to Chinese Buddhism in general, and to some extent reflects the formation of Chinese Buddhism after the Song Dynasty. Theravada Buddhism would become incorporated through the annexation of the Khmer land and Khmer people.
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. 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.
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). 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, for example Lê Quát, but 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.
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 86.5 percent, President Ngo Dinh Diem'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 Huế, where Diem's elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the archbishop, Buddhists were prohibited from displaying Buddhist flags during Vesak celebrations. A few days earlier, Catholics were allowed to fly religious flags at a celebration in honour of Thuc. This led to a protest against the government, which was suppressed by Diem's forces, killing nine civilians. This led to a mass campaign against Diem's government during the Buddhist crisis. Notably, Thich Quang Duc self-immolated and later Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered the special forces to raid pagodas across the country, killing an estimated hundreds. After this, the US government withdrew support and Diem and his family were deposed and killed.
Under Communist rule, many religious practices in Vietnam including 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 most widespread type of Buddhism practiced in Vietnam, was officially recognized as a religion by the government.
Today, Buddhists are located almost everywhere in Vietnam, from North to South. Buddhism is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with between 9% to 16% of the population identifying themselves as Buddhist.
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. Proselytizing is not a priority.
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, Thích Nhất Hạnh'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”  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.)
Thích Nhất Hạnh'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.
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 him or herself 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 (Amitabha most notably, doing repentance and praying for rebirth in the Pure Land).
The Lotus Sutra and Amitabha Sutra are the most commonly used sutras. 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.
The overall doctrinal position of Vietnamese Buddhism is the inclusive system of Tiantai, with the higher metaphysics informed by the Huayan tradition; 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 Zen, Pure Land, Tiantai, and popular practices from Esoteric Buddhism. 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 dharanis looking to gain protection through bodhisattvas or Dharma-Protectors. 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.
Thiền is the Vietnamese name for the school of Zen Buddhism. Thiền Tông, or the "Zen school", is derived from the Chinese Chan-zong, in which Chan derivatives of the Sanskrit "Dhyāna". The traditional account is that in 580 CE, 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 Mǎzŭ, and the Thảo Đường, which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.
A new Thiền 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.
Some scholars argue that the importance and prevalence of Zen (Thiền) in Vietnam has been greatly overstated and that Zen has played more of an elite rhetorical role than a role of practice. 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. Nonetheless, we are seeing an increased population in Zen today. Two figures who have been responsible for this increased interest in Thien is Thích Nhất Hạnh, currently residing in France, and Thích Thanh Từ, who lives in Da Lat.
The central and southern part of present day Vietnam were originally inhabited by the Cham people and the Khmer people respectively who followed both a syncretic Saiva-Mahayana (see History of Buddhism in Cambodia) Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. The Đại Việt (Vietnamese) 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 (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 Pāli 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 vicinity. 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.
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