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Zen in Vietnam: The Making of a Custom


A century in the past, Buddhists in Vietnam—and in a lot of Asia—began rewriting their traditions, and in some instances even their historical past. Alec Soucy explains how what we expect we all know of Vietnamese Buddhism factors to a way more advanced actuality.

Photograph by William J. H. Leonard

On the primary and fifteenth day of every lunar month in Hanoi, Vietnam, temples teem with religious Buddhists. Devotees arrive on the temple with luggage filled with fruit flowers, incense, and spirit cash. Off to the aspect of the shrine, folks organize their choices, piling the fruit and spirit cash (in addition to actual cash) on the supplied plastic trays. Reverently, they enter the temple, place their choices on the altar, the flowers within the vases, after which step again; clasping palms collectively, they determine themselves, reporting their names and addresses to the buddhas, after which make needs for themselves and their households to be wholesome, profitable, and affluent. They then go to the opposite numerous altars for bodhisattvas and spirits, making comparable however smaller choices. When the incense from the primary altar has burned down and the choices have been infused with the blessings of the buddhas, the fruit and cash are retrieved from the altars, and the buddhas are thanked for his or her blessings. The supplicant burns the spirit cash within the furnace exterior, conveying the essence of the cash as much as the buddhas, after which brings the choices and actual cash house to be shared with the household in order that they’ll additionally profit from the buddhas’ blessings by way of the consumptive talismans.

Later within the day, a bunch of extra religious Buddhists gathers in the primary shrine to chant from the Buddhist liturgy referred to as the Sam Nguyen, to atone for his or her transgressions and lighten their karmic burden. The liturgy consists of chanting items from numerous sutras in addition to the names of necessary buddhas and bodhisattvas, then doing the nembutsu, referred to as Niem Phat in Vietnamese. Whereas some see this as an opportunity to replicate and recite the dharma, for most of the practitioners it’s seen as an enhanced option to convey the buddhas’ benevolence to their households to allow them to thrive on this difficult world.

In abroad Vietnamese temples, from Hamburg to Hamilton, California to Canberra, the Buddhist practices should not dissimilar. Largely devotional, they typically contain assembly on Sundays to chant a variation of the penitence liturgy and recite the names of varied buddhas, particularly Amitabha, to atone for transgressions. These practices are typically much less syncretic than in northern Vietnam, with the temples usually being devoted solely to the Buddhist pantheon and never together with altars to spirits. Particular person practices like choices of cash (actual or spirit) should not achieved. Nonetheless, devotees typically make the identical sorts of requests for assist with worldly points, notably looking for the assistance of Quan The Am (Avalokiteshvara). Divination blocks are sometimes positioned in entrance of her altar so folks can get recommendation about necessary selections they should make. Unsurprisingly, there’s a sturdy communal aspect at these abroad temples, so whereas particular person meals choices should not made, the choices positioned on the altars are consumed in a communal meal after the service is over.

Once I first began doing analysis on Vietnamese Buddhism at an area temple in Montreal in 1990, written descriptions of Vietnamese Buddhism had been uncommon. The 2 accessible English accounts that I may discover in my college library had been Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fireplace and Thich Thien An’s Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam, each of which described Zen as being on the core of Vietnamese Buddhism—a really completely different presentation from what I used to be seeing on the temple. There was one extra French account by a priest–anthropologist named Léopold Cadière, who lived and carried out analysis in central Vietnam over a few years in the midst of the 20 th century. Cadière’s brief account in his intensive three-tome work on spiritual apply in Vietnam concluded that there was no clear Vietnamese Buddhism: “there are not any actual Buddhists besides the monks—and never even all of them, as a result of for many it’s a job.” This was equally unhelpful, since absolutely what these religious Buddhists had been training needed to be understood as Buddhism.

Buddhism as a Faith

It has taken me a few years to make sense of the huge hole between the accounts by Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh, and the best way that Buddhism is definitely practiced by most Vietnamese. Step one was to acknowledge the best way that globalization has led to the reconstruction of Buddhism. The Age of Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the event of the thought of “faith” as a social class. European exploration and imperial conquest introduced Europeans in shut contact with different societies, and the scientific methodology that had taken root led them to review and create typologies of all facets of the pure and social world. The label “faith,” which had been used internally inside Christianity to indicate monastics, was adopted to label the class of beliefs and practices that could possibly be discovered in several kinds all through the world, throughout religious traditions (although teachers nonetheless debate precisely what the class of “faith” ought to embody). A defining side of this new class was the centrality of salvation or enlightenment.

Peter Beyer describes in his ebook Religions in World Society how completely different realms of human endeavour got here to be systematized and seen as distinct enterprises: politics, economics, leisure, academia, medication, and so forth, so that every had their very own inner guidelines and processes and had been incommensurate with each other. Faith, additionally, was developed as a definite class separate from secular actions, resulting in the thought of separation of church and state. The class of faith was acknowledged as comprising numerous distinct religions, and the educational discipline of non secular research was carved from theology to set about exploring and defining what these had been. Whereas from at the moment’s perspective it appears self-evident that faith is an identifiable class made up of discrete and definable religions, on the time, this represented a completely new means of trying on the world. This view has since reverberated throughout the globe, altering all traditions in several methods and to various levels.

By way of interactions between Western Orientalist students, Asian Buddhist reformers, and Western converts and sympathizers, Buddhism was restructured to evolve to this contemporary view of faith. It was distinguished from different religions, but additionally from beliefs and practices that had been seen as extraneous, termed as “tradition,” “customized,” or “custom,” or pejoratively as “superstition.” It’s out of those views that Cadière pronounced that there are not any Buddhists in Vietnam.

The colonial discourses of European superiority and Asian inferiority appeared self-evident to many Asian intellectuals, who noticed their traditions as retrograde and premodern, and the trigger for his or her subjugation and humiliation. There was a non secular response as effectively, with spiritual leaders calling for the modernization of their traditions. Largely these got here within the type of calling to a return to a golden age from which their custom had been corrupted over time. These views had been on the forefront of reconfiguring their traditions to assemble core rituals, texts, philosophies, and practices into what we acknowledge as Buddhism at the moment.

These Buddhist reform actions passed off all through Buddhist Asia, with figures resembling Shaku Soen and Dharmapala being necessary figures in Japan and Sri Lanka, respectively. The reform actions had been additionally worldwide in scope, drawing ties between the varied traditions, sects, and nations to attract the contours of the newly constituted faith. The central tasks on this regard had been to determine unifying symbols and foundational facets of the faith. The historic Buddha was refashioned as Buddhism’s founder—an historic account, satirically, first assembled by a British missionary named Spence Hardy, whose goal was to show the inferiority of Buddhism in comparison with Christianity. It was then taken up by the extra sympathetic founding father of the Pali Textual content Society, T. W. Rhys Davids. Bodhgaya was wrestled from Hindu management by Dharmapala to be remade into the geographical middle of Buddhism. A Buddhist flag was adopted. The Buddha’s birthday was made into the primary world Buddhist celebration. (In Vietnam it was not celebrated till the Thirties, and it nonetheless wasn’t an necessary day within the north once I began doing analysis there within the Nineties.)

Whilst these reform actions engaged in transnational dialogue, they had been additionally closely implicated in nationalist discourses. Most tended to be country-based and had been reactions to Western imperialism and Christian missionary pressures. They had been normally elite actions that had been a part of bigger tasks of asserting nationwide and cultural id to push towards European colonial powers. For Buddhists, these tasks mixed efforts to prepare by forming associations and to claim nation-based Buddhisms that had been cleansed of superstitious components and cultural accretions.

Zen and Buddhist Reform in Vietnam

Vietnam began this course of fairly late (within the late Nineteen Twenties) and took its cues principally from Chinese language reformers, particularly Taixu, who referred to as for a humanistic Buddhism. Associations and examine teams had been based in all the main city facilities of southern, central, and northern Vietnam, however the French rulers prevented them from uniting right into a single group. The regional associations established colleges for monastics to place ahead a brand new, worldwide Buddhist orthodoxy. They started publishing Buddhist journals that condemned superstitious practices like burning spirit cash and supplicating the Buddha for worldly advantages. Additionally they advocated for Buddhist monks to be socially energetic. It was at one among these new colleges that Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh studied, and for one among these journals that Thich Nhat Hanh frolicked within the Nineteen Fifties modifying, writing about humanistic Buddhism (which he later referred to as Engaged Buddhism), and calling for the unification of Buddhists in Vietnam.

The Zen narrative match effectively into the nationalist impulses of the Vietnamese reform motion and was adopted as the primary narrative of Vietnamese Buddhism, repeated in almost all subsequent historic accounts of Buddhism in Vietnam.

The nationalist impulses throughout the reform motion referred to as for a brand new narrative of a distinctly Vietnamese Buddhism. This narrative was delivered by the scholar and participant within the reform motion in Hanoi, Tran Van Giap. Shortly earlier than leaving to review on the Sorbonne, he found a fourteenth-century textual content referred to as the Thien Uyen Faucet Anh (“Excellent Figures within the Vietnamese Zen Neighborhood”). It was composed throughout a interval when, having achieved independence from a thousand years of Chinese language occupation, the Vietnamese had been making an attempt to claim themselves as a definite folks and unbiased nation within the face of periodic tried invasions. Located on the doorstep of arguably essentially the most highly effective navy and cultural pressure on the planet at the moment, the Vietnamese had an ambiguous perspective towards China. On the one hand, they resented Chinese language pressures, however on the opposite, Chinese language tradition was considered the top of civilization. The writer(s) of Thien Uyen Faucet Anh, in looking for to legitimize Vietnamese Buddhism, long-established it on the Chan “transmission of the lamp” texts that recorded the biographies of Chan patriarchs as they handed the dharma to their disciples. The Vietnamese American Buddhologist Cuong Tu Nguyen undertook a radical important evaluation of the Thien Uyen Faucet Anh and concluded that a few of the tales had been lifted from Chinese language sources, whereas those that seemed to be indigenous represented an eclectic type of Buddhism that was not notably Zen. As an alternative, he writes in Zen in Medieval Vietnam, “Buddhism in Vietnam was a combination of some Buddhist components from India and China and the beliefs and practices attribute of the indigenous folks’s spiritual sensibilities and fashionable cults. This Buddhism emphasised magic, ritual, and thaumaturgy [miracle-working].” Whereas there have been some Zen adherents who made their option to Vietnam, and Zen literature was popularized in elite circles, it had a better impression in shaping conceptualizations than precise practices. Thus, as Cuong Tu Nguyen notes, all through Vietnamese historical past, there have been “no Zen monasteries, no sizeable Zen communities (we will even say no Zen communities), no recognizable Zen monasticism or practices as within the case of Japan or Korea.”

Tran Van Giap, nevertheless, uncritically used the Thien Uyen Faucet Anh as the idea for an historic account of Vietnamese Buddhism that broke it up into distinct Zen lineages, regardless of the incongruence with the realities of on a regular basis Buddhist apply in Vietnam. His account was printed in 1932 in a two-part article titled “Le bouddhisme en Annam, des origines au XIIIe siècle.” The narrative match effectively into the nationalist impulses of the reform motion and was adopted as the primary narrative of Vietnamese Buddhism, repeated in almost all subsequent historic accounts of Buddhism in Vietnam. Each Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh’s histories of Vietnamese Buddhism repeated Tran Van Giap’s uncritical studying of the Thien Uyen Faucet Anh.

In 1954, Vietnam was partitioned, with the Communists taking management of the north and the US-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem assuming management of the south. Within the north, beneath stress of Marxist suppression of non secular exercise, the reform efforts largely stagnated. Within the south, in the meantime, reformist discourses continued. A number of monks went to review abroad, in Japan (Thich Thien An), the USA (Thich Nhat Hanh), Taiwan, India, and Europe, the place they had been additional uncovered to world modernist discourses of Buddhism that harassed salvation/enlightenment because the foundational aim of faith and emphasised the significance of particular person expertise and religion.

These internationalist impulses resulted in lots of international works being translated into Vietnamese and printed in Buddhist journals, together with the works of Western philosophers and thinkers. D. T. Suzuki’s works had a very necessary impression in reinforcing long-held elite fascinations with Zen and confirming that Zen represented the core of Buddhism. A lot of younger monks who had been associates in Saigon within the Sixties had been drawn to the Zen discourse. Amongst these had been Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh, each from central Vietnam, and Thich Thanh Tu from the Mekong Delta within the south.

Thich Thanh Tu requested the query, “Why was Buddhism transmitted to Japan 5 hundred years after Vietnam, and their understanding has surpassed ours? The Thien [Zen] sect has been right here for such a very long time, however nobody has a need to review from us—even worse, we go to Japan to review. Isn’t it lamentable?” He launched into a self-directed examine of Zen and recreated a fourteenth-century Vietnamese Zen sect referred to as Truc Lam, which has at the moment change into a outstanding group in Vietnam and has unfold abroad (though nearly completely throughout the ethnic Vietnamese group).

After Thich Thien An completed his doctorate in Tokyo in 1960, he requested approval from his superiors to begin a Buddhist college in Saigon however was instructed to return to Japan for additional instruction. He went to a Rinzai Zen temple in Kamakura, Japan (possible Engakuji, the reformist temple the place D. T. Suzuki had studied Zen beneath Shaku Soen). After returning to Vietnam and serving to to determine Van Hanh  together with Thich Nhat Hanh and others, he went to show at UCLA, turning into the primary Vietnamese monastic to take up everlasting residence in the USA. On the request of his college students, he began to show meditation to Westerners after which established the Worldwide Buddhist Meditation Heart, and although he claimed the Vietnamese sectarian label, Lam Te, it’s possible what he taught them was the Rinzai Zen practices that he had discovered in Japan. Notably, he additionally later established one other temple for Vietnamese refugees just a few blocks away, which practices the same old devotional type of Buddhism. Thich Thien An, a foundational determine for Buddhism in the USA, sadly died younger of most cancers, and his impression has light into obscurity over time.

The model of Buddhism launched to the West by Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh is a part of the continuum of improvement in Vietnam, however it additionally stands considerably aside. It isn’t consultant of the best way Vietnamese Buddhists principally apply or consider their apply.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s trajectory was comparable. From 1961 to 1964, he studied and taught in the USA, at Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia College. In his printed journal from that interval, Aromatic Palm Leaves, he concluded that Zen teachings and practices had been extra appropriate for Westerners. Returning to Vietnam in 1964, he additionally contributed to the institution of Van Hanh College, main the College of Youth for Social Service as a option to actualize Buddhism. In Vietnam, he was referred to as a trainer, author, and poet, and finally grew to become extra concerned in peace activism, notably by way of his contacts with American peace activists resembling Alfred Hassler and Daniel Berrigan. In 1966, he was invited to offer a lecture at Cornell College and continued on a lecture tour to current the Vietnamese Buddhist place for peace in Vietnam to the American public. At that time, it grew to become clear that his life can be at risk if he returned to Vietnam, so he went to Paris to attempt to convey public consideration to the Buddhist place throughout the Paris Peace Talks. After the tip of the struggle, a return to Vietnam grew to become much more unattainable, so he reluctantly turned his consideration to establishing a everlasting life overseas. It was round this level that he began to jot down extra about Zen and established himself as a Zen grasp within the West, presenting an interpretation of Buddhism that uniquely integrated most of the discourses of the Buddhist reform motion in Vietnam.

What we will conclude from that is that the model of Buddhism that has been launched to the West by Vietnamese monks like Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh is with out query a part of the continuum of improvement in Vietnam, however it additionally stands considerably aside; it’s not consultant of the best way that Vietnamese Buddhists principally apply or consider their apply. The modernist discourses carefully linked to Zen have positioned an emphasis on realization, awakening, or enlightenment as the final word aim of Buddhism, however for the overwhelming majority of Buddhists on the planet, each in Asia and within the West, the aim extra carefully aligns with what Charles Taylor calls human flourishing. Whereas modernist reform discourses led to an assertion that Zen is on the core of Vietnamese Buddhism, these assertions have to be understood throughout the context of the developments of Buddhism in Vietnam within the trendy interval.

The developments in Vietnamese Buddhism within the final century illustrate how trendy discourses have restructured and reconceptualized Buddhism at a world stage within the trendy interval. This historical past of Buddhism’s reinvention as a world faith, which concerned reacting to exterior forces, crafting a brand new id, after which embracing that new narrative as historical past, holds necessary implications not just for how we perceive what Buddhism is at the moment, but additionally for recognizing the way it arrived to us within the West.

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