was born in Nepal, five centuries before Christ. His
teaching was based on Brahmanism but without a deity
or ritual. After his death, Buddhism acquired the
trappings of a religion and split into two schools.
In the south of India,
Theravada Buddhism remained close to the Buddha’s
teaching and aimed at acquiring ‘Nirvana’
– complete detachment from worldly concerns.
In the north, Mahayana Buddhism incorporated a deity
and various ‘intermediaries’ known as
Bodhisattvas, people who strive to attain perfection
during their lifetime. Nirvana was replaced by Sukhavati,
the heaven of sensuous pleasures, and elements of
Hindu and Taoist superstitions, such as devotion to
statues and relics and the use of magic to ward off
evil spirits were included.
Theravada Buddhism spread into southern Vietnam, then
part of the K’hmer kingdom, in the first century
A.D. Mahayana Buddhism arrived in northern Vietnam
via China about a hundred years later.
Most of Vietnam’s Buddhists
now follow one of two sects of Mahayana Buddhism.
The main Buddhist
sects in Vietnam
The birthplace of the Thien (Zen) meditation sect
is the sacred mountain of Yen Tu, not far from the
Hanoi to Ha Long Bay road at Uoung Bi. It is a large
complex of pagodas, statues steles and other interesting
relicts set in a forested mountain area. The steep
climb has now been eased by the recent installation
of a cable car system.
The Dao Trang (Pure
Land) sect exists mainly in the south of Vietnam and
venerates A Di Da, the Buddha of the past, above all
Other Buddhist sects
The few remaining devotees of Theravada Buddhism are
mostly clustered in the K’hmer minority areas
of the Mekong Delta.
Another Buddhist sect,
a militant breakaway group, was founded by a faith
healer in the Mekong village of Hoa Hao during the
1930s. Hoa Hao Buddhism was simple, with little ritual
and no clergy: gambling, alcohol and drugs were banned,
and Confucian piety was promoted strongly. The cult
grew swiftly, and built a private army to fight the
French. Later, they sided with the invading Japanese
during WWII and became anti-communist, resulting in
the Vietminh assassinating its leader. During the
US war, most of the Hoa Hao fought with the Americans.
After the victory,
the new communist government arrested most of its
leaders and disbanded the priesthood. Nevertheless,
Hoa Hao Buddhism continues to flourish in the Mekong.
The sect is tolerated by the authorities, but closely
supervised because some of its followers apparently
continue to engage in anti-government activities.
Vietnamese Mahayana pagodas often have several common
features. A statue of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy,
is a familiar sight in front of a pagoda, occasionally
in a multi-armed K’hmer version. The Vietnamese
believe that a male Hindu Bodhisattva (usually portrayed
as a multi-armed effigy) gave up his chance to reach
nirvana in favour of returning to Earth as the female
Quan Am, and that the metamorphosis took place in
the grotto shrine of the Perfume Pagoda, near Hanoi.
She acts as the guardian spirit of mother and child
– her supposed power to bestow male offspring
on true believers makes her a popular deity.
In addition to the effigies
of the highest trinity of the past, present and future
Buddhas, the lower ranks of Buddha, and statues depicting
Buddhist ‘saints’, most Mahayana pagodas
also contain elements of Taoist images, practices
Buddhist beliefs are very complicated, and vary considerably
between sects. The Thien sect, for example, disregards
beliefs and rituals altogether, concentrating instead
upon achieving insight through ‘right’
eating, drinking, breathing, concentration and meditation
to detach the physical reality of the body from the
consciousness. In an extreme form, some monks have
purged their bodies completely in a prolonged process
of self-mummification involving punishing physical
exercise and ingesting certain barks in preparation
for a prolonged fast, total immobility and meditation,
leading ultimately to physical death and the preservation
of the corpse. Two such mummies can be seen in the
Dao pagoda, not far from Hanoi.
the intospective followers of Thien Buddhism, the
Hoa Hao sect eshews ritual and contemplarion in favour
of strict Confucian ethics and direct political action.
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