Buddhism shapes Vietnamese cultural identity
Buddhism has made significant contributions to Vietnam’s culture, with its legacy prominent in the nation’s ethics, philosophy, literary, architecture, sculpture, rituals, and paintings, among others.
According to the Information Communication Committee under the Vietnam Buddhist Shanga (VBS), Vietnam has more than 15,000 buddhist worshipping facilities. Nearly 600 pagodas are recognised as historical relic sites, over 300 as cultural relic sites, 1,300 as historical and cultural relic sites, and more than 130 as architecture and art sites.
According to Dr Duong Van Sau, Dean of the Faculty of Cultural Tourism of the Hanoi University of Culture (HUC), each village or community has at least one pagoda. Pagodas are seen on high mountains, in deep caves, at borders and remote areas, on islands, in rural villages and in cities.
Many pagodas have become tourism destinations and architectural and spiritual symbols of the nation and localities, such as the One-Pillar Pagoda and Huong Pagoda in the Huong Tich Cave, normally known as Nam Thien De Nhat Dong (the nation’s most sacred cave) in Hanoi, Dong Pagoda on Yen Tu mountain, Quang Ninh province, and Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh.
He noted the significance of pagodas to community, saying that old pagodas witness the ups and downs of citizens. Most community-based cultural activities take place in or around local pagodas, including festivals. Vietnam has nearly 8,000 traditional festivals held nationwide yearly, with most originating from Buddhism. Many have become renowned, such as Huong pagoda festival, Yen Tu Festival and Bai Dinh festival, drawing millions of tourists and Buddhist followers. Buddhist Vu Lan Festival has been observed by Buddhists and non-religious people alike, Sau said.
The practice of worshipping both Buddha and ancestors on the first and fifteenth day of each lunar month has become a religious and cultural mark of Vietnamese people, he said.
Buddhism was localised under the influence of Vietnam’s culture
According to Dr Tran Khanh Du, Director of the Centre for Preserving Religious Culture under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, before Buddhism came to Vietnam, Vietnamese people mainly worshiped the Holy Mothers, making it a favourable land for the new religion to grow.
With careful selection and mingling, Buddhism has become localised. Therefore, Vietnamese Buddhism is, to some extent, different from general Buddhism or Chinese and Indian Buddhism. They celebrate wedding at pagodas. In some region in Vietnam, ashes and remains of dead people are sent to pagodas with the hope of peace in later life Du said, adding that Buddhist deities worshipped in Vietnam are described in ways that fit Vietnamese people’s belief and expectations.
Most Buddhist gods are loved rather than feared. Quan Yin, who is portrayed in different cultures as either female or male, is regarded by Vietnamese people as the goddess of mercy under the influence of the Mother worshipping. The deity was even woven into the Vietnamese folktale of Quan Am Thi Kinh (Goddess of Mercy), a Vietnamese nun named Thi Kinh, who, through great love and sacrifice, attained Nirvana Buddhahood. She was worshiped as a Vietnamese goddess for her integrity, dignities, and spirit of self-sacrifice.
The Buddha himself has also entered Vietnam’s folk culture as a gentle and kind old deity called “But”, who is always there for disadvantaged people and their sufferings. The "But" has also featured in folk songs, chants and fairy tales. Vietnamese people even have their own Buddha. King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), the third king of the Tran dynasty had a huge influence on Vietnam’s view of Buddhism. The King ceded his throne at the age of 35 after 15 years in power, and spent the rest of his life on the Yen Tu Mountain practising and propagating Buddhism. He founded Vietnamese Zen Buddhism called Truc Lam Yen Tu with minimal amounts of transition from traditional Chinese Buddhism. The King-Monk also worked to unify different Vietnamese Buddhism sects into Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, Du said.
Meanwhile, Dr Dang Tai Tinh, former Director of International Cooperation Department under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs underscored the tolerance of Vietnamese culture, saying that it tends to protect its identity, yet is open to positive influence from foreign cultures.
Many international delegations from Buddhist nations have been surprised at the fact that Vietnamese pagodas are not just dedicated to Buddhist deities. There are different altars at each pagoda, worshipping Buddhist deities, Mother Goddesses, even national heroes. Facilities of different religions, such as churches and pagodas coexist in one area without disputes. This reflects the unique characteristics of Vietnamese Buddhism and the freedom and harmony in religious practices of Vietnam.
Tinh also highlighted the way Buddhism has mixed well with the ancient ancestors worshipping and practices of Vietnamese people. The Buddhist Vu Lan Festival is celebrated in tandem with the Vietnam Mother’s Day, when children express their gratitude towards their parents (especially mothers) and help ancestors’ souls find their way back to the earth, he said, adding that it has also become an annual large-scale Vu Lan Veggie Festival, inspiring vegetarian culture and environmentally friendly life style.
Buddhism upholds national patriotic tradition
In an interview with VNA correspondents, Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu, Vice Chairman of the VBS Executive Council highlighted the strong attachment Buddhism has developed to Vietnam, saying that the religion weakened during the nation’s colonial period and thrived with peace and prosperity in the nation. It was considered the nation’s religion for the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225) and Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), when pagodas were built and upgraded nationwide and many kings became Buddhists.
He also underlined the patriotic tradition of the Vietnamese Buddhism. During the war against the US, many pagodas became bases or shelters for revolutionaries. Patriotic Buddhists stood by the nation and joined the revolutionary movement, shared sufferings and hardship with all Vietnamese for the cause of national liberation. Late Most Ven. Thich Quang Duc, who lit himself on fire to protest the war, encapsulated the revolutionary nature of the southern Vietnamese Buddhists in the 1960s.
Building on tradition, most dignitaries, monks, nuns, and Buddhists practice the grace of the nation as one of the religion’s four graces. Many dignitaries have participated in the nation’s political system, including the National Assembly, the Vietnam Fatherland Front Central Committee, local People’s Councils, and socio-political associations. They also join patriotic movements, charity work, poverty reduction, environmental protection and climate change adaptation.
Annual requiems have been conducted to pray for peace for fallen soldiers in many cemeteries nationwide, including Con Dao, Phu Quoc, Truong Son, Quang Tri and Dien Bien cemeteries, Most Ven. Thich Thanh Nhieu said that the VBS considers this one of its key tasks, showing respect and gratitude to martyrs who died for national liberation and defence.
In an interview with VNA correspondents, Dr. Bui Huu Duoc, head of the Buddhism Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, said Buddhism has been growing fast, with the number of Buddhist followers rising to nearly 40 million people, more than 40 percent of the nation’s population.
The Vietnam Buddhism Shangha has chapters in all 63 provinces and cities, hundreds at district, communal level nationwide, and Associations of Vietnamese Buddhists in 11 nations worldwide. There are four Buddhism universities, eight college-level training programmes and 34 primary Buddhism schools.
The Party, State and Government have facilitated the development of all religions, including Buddhism. Their practices and outstanding contributions have always been recognised. The VBS was granted with the first-class Labour Order of the Party and State on the occasion of its 35th anniversary in 2016.
Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers have been uniting and standing by the home country and its people, making significant contributions to the nation’s Doi Moi (reform), building and protection, thus enhancing Vietnam’s reputation on the international arena, Duoc reiterated.