Historically, most Vietnamese have identified themselves with Buddhism, which originated in what is now southern Nepal around 530 B.C. as an offshoot of Hinduism. Its founder was Gautama, a prince who bridled at the formalism of Hinduism as it was being interpreted by the priestly caste of Brahmans. Gautama spent years meditating and wandering as an ascetic until he discovered the path of enlightenment to nirvana, the world of endless serenity in which one is freed from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. According to Buddhist thought, human salvation lies in discovering the "four noble truths"--that man is born to suffer in successive lives, that the cause of this suffering is man's craving for earthly pleasures and possessions, that the suffering ceases upon his deliverance from this craving, and that he achieves this deliverance by following "the noble eightfold path." The foundation of the Buddhist concept of morality and right behavior, the eightfold path, consists of right views, or sincerity in leading a religious life; right intention, or honesty in judgment; right speech, or sincerity in speech; right conduct, or sincerity in work; right livelihood, or sincerity in making a living; right effort, or sincerity in aspiration; right mindfulness, or sincerity in memory; and right concentration, or sincerity in meditation.
Buddhism spread first from China to Vietnam's Red River Delta region in approximately the second century A.D., and then from India to the southern Mekong Delta area at some time between the third and the sixth centuries. The Chinese version, Mahayana Buddhism, became the faith of most Vietnamese, whereas the Indian version, Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism, was confined mostly to the southern delta region. The doctrinal distinction between the two consists of their differing views of Gautama Buddha: the Mahayana school teaches that Gautama was only one of many "enlightened ones" manifesting the fundamental divine power of the universe; the Theravada school teaches that Gautama was the one-and-only enlightened one and the great teacher, but that he was not divine. The Mahayana sect holds further that laypersons can attain nirvana, whereas the Theravada school believes that only ordained monks and nuns can do so.
Few Vietnamese outside the clergy, however, are acquainted with Buddhism's elaborate cosmology. What appealed to them at the time it was introduced was Mahayana ritual and imagery. Mahayana ceremony easily conformed to indigenous Vietnamese beliefs, which combined folklore with Confucian and Taoist teachings, and Mahayana's "enlightened ones" were often venerated alongside various animist spirits.
Before the country was unified under communism, Buddhism enjoyed an autonomy from the state that was increasingly threatened once the communists gained power. For pragmatic reasons, however, the regime initially avoided overt hostility toward Buddhism or any other organized religion. Instead, it sought to separate real and potential collaborators from opponents by co-optation and control. For example, within months after winning the South, the communist regime set up a front called the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee. The committee's purpose was to promote the idea that all patriotic Buddhists had a duty to participate in building a new society liberated for the first time from the shackles of feudal and neo-colonialist influences. The committee also tried to show that most Buddhists, leaders and followers alike, were indeed rallying behind the new regime and the liaison committee. This strategy attempted to thwart the power of the influential, independent groups of Buddhist clergy, particularly the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which had been a major pre-1975 critic of the Saigon government and of the roughly twenty Buddhist sects in Vietnam the most vocal in opposing the war.
Communists also pressured monks and nuns to lead a secular life, encouraging them to take part in productive agricultural labor or to become actively involved in the work of the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee. For their refusal to collaborate, some prominent clerical leaders in the South were placed under house arrest or imprisoned, their pagodas were converted to public use, and their holdings were confiscated. Such activity closely paralleled communist actions against Buddhists in the North in the 1950s. In addition, the party prevented Buddhist organizations from training monks and nuns in schools that previously had been autonomous. In April 1980, a national committee of Buddhist groups throughout the country was formed by the government. The government-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church was established in November 1981, and it emerged as the only officially sanctioned organization authorized to represent all Buddhist groups both at home and abroad.
As a result of communist policy, the observance of Buddhist ritual and practice was drastically reduced. A 1979 study of a Red River Delta commune, reported to be "overwhelmingly Catholic," disclosed that the commune's two pagodas were "maintained and frequented regularly by the faithful (the majority of whom were old women), especially on the Buddhist feast days." No monks or nuns had been observed, however, and the study went on to note that pagodas had been eliminated entirely in nearby Hanoi. In 1987 occasional reports suggested that the observance of Buddhist ritual continued in some remote areas.
The communist government's attitude toward Buddhism and other faiths being practiced remained one of tolerance as long as the clergy and faithful adhered strictly to official guidelines. These guidelines inhibited the growth of religious institutions, however, by restricting the number of institutions approved to train clergy and by preempting the time of potential candidates among the youth whose daily routine might require study, work, and participation in the activities of communist youth organizations. In an apparent effort to train a new generation of monks and nuns, the Vietnam Buddhist Church reportedly set up one Buddhist academy in Hanoi in November 1981 and another in Ho Chi Minh City in December 1984 . These academies, however, served as an arm of the state
Christianity in Vietnam
Christianity enters Vietnam
Christianity was introduced to Vietnam in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe’s main Catholic evangelist countries, France, Spain and Portugal. One of the early arrivals was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit who greatly impressed the Trinh lords who ruled the north at that time, thus easing the way for permanent missions in Hanoi, Danang and Hoi An. Expulsion from Vietnam
As the creator of the Romanised written form of the Vietnamese language, Alexandre de Rhodes could justifiably be considered as one of the founding fathers of modern Vietnam. However, his reward was expulsion along with all the other Christians when the Trinh lords decided that Christianity in the form of Catholicism was subverting the beliefs that kept them in power. Apart from its later use in the Catholic Church in Vietnam, his script was ignored until the 20th century.
However, de Rhodes continued to proselytise through the Societe des Mission Etrangeres, a French evangelical organisation he helped to create, seeking converts throughout Indochina. In the following years, Catholicism was re-established in Vietnam and grew rapidly. Oppression under Minh Mang
By the beginning of the 19th century, there were many thousands of Catholics in Vietnam. Catholicism’s relationship with Vietnam’s rulers was uneasy: the kings were wary of its doctrine of equality in the eyes of God, a belief that directly challenged the feudal Confucian system that legitimated their control. Under King Ming Manh, a strict Confucian, suspicion turned to oppression. Churches were razed, and Vietnamese and foreign devotees refusing to renounce their faith were executed. Enter the French
Minh Mang’s excesses, although much exaggerated, gave the French the excuse they were looking for to invade, and Catholicism was reinstated. The Catholic Church flourished under the colonialists’ patronage, opening missions, schools and hospitals all over the country, and becoming Vietnam’s largest landowner. Vietnamese Catholics were favoured above their compatriots and became an educated elite. An exodus to the south
By the 1950s, with the communists governing in the north, over half a million Catholics crossed the demilitarised zone to settle in the south, then controlled by the Saigon regime led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic. Those that remained in the north were allowed to continue to practice their faith, but under tight control. The post-war years
After reunification, the communists placed restrictions on the Catholic Church and imprisoned several of its leaders who had actively opposed the new government. Since then, controls have relaxed and relationships between Vietnam and the Vatican have become cordial. However, a papal visit to the second-largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia is still some way off. The Protestant faith
Protestantism was mainly introduced by the Americans in the south in the form of militant evangelism, and now claims approximately half a million adherents. Many of these are in the ethnic groups of the Central Highlands. In recent years, there has been considerable unrest in the area. American ‘Gospel’ organisations frequently issue ‘reports’ alleging human rights abuse and denial of religious freedom. Putting aside the issue of differing perceptions between the US and Asia about what constitutes ‘human rights’, a trawl of the Internet soon reveals that the aim of many such groups are more political than religious. The buildings
From a visitor’s point of view, many Catholic churches are well worth a visit. The Gothic edifices of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hue and Da Lat are replicas of European cathedrals, and often built of imported materials. They have attractive features, but the home-grown products are of greater interest to the traveller. The famous ‘Stone Church’
In particular, the ‘Stone Church’ of Phat Diem in the north, the bell tower of which was immortalised by Graham Greene in ‘The Quiet American’, is a highly satisfying blend of Christianity and the orient. The lifetime achievement of a Vietnamese cleric, Father Tran Luc, it is an architectural gem combining what looks like a Vietnamese temple at first sight with Christian symbolism and statuary. The interior is stunning – a 75m roof supported by huge ironwood pillars and a magnificent altarpiece. Unusual churches
Many of the churches in the Central Highlands also combine Western and Eastern styles and some have highly unusual features, reflecting the area’s strong animist tradition
Confucianism in Vietnam
Confucianism’s originator, K’ung Fu Tzu (Latinised to Confucius), was an official in the Chinese court. During his lifetime (around 500 BC), China had broken into rival states fighting for supremacy. Confucius, comparing the turmoil of the life of the people with the formalised rituals of the court, set about creating a code to regulate social conduct, thereby enabling people to live in peace and harmony. He left the court and travelled the country, explaining his ideas. The principles of Confucianism
At the heart of his teaching were two fundamental principles, the necessity of correct behaviour and the importance of loyalty and obedience. In each case, the message was reinforced by rites and ceremony. He made no mention of a spiritual dimension, but stressed the observance of traditional rituals. The status of Confucianism as a ‘religion’ in Vietnam is, therefore, questionable.
At that time, the philosophy was radically different. Status was to be acquired not by power and heroic actions, but by selflessness, respect for others and non-violent behaviour. It challenged the concept of lineal heredity by associating a person’s worth with learning, rather than birthright. Only intellect and erudition could give an individual a ‘Mandate from Heaven’ to be in a position of authority. Confucian precepts
The ideas of Confucius took root in China, and developed further. Deference was central to the code of conduct: children were to obey their parents without question, wives their husbands, students their teachers and citizens their rulers. Education was the primary means of advancement.
Confucius’s ideas led to a rigidly stratified society. Children were taught their filial duties to their parents and the community to prepare them to assume their correct place in the social hierarchy and to behave accordingly. Those that succeeded in education would achieve higher rank. Those that surpassed their fellows would be able to enter the ranks of the Mandarins, a non-hereditary ruling class immediately under the Emperor. Social stability at the expense of progress
The emphasis upon tradition and social order created stability and uniformity but, over time, diminished national and personal initiative. Progress and change slowed to a snail’s pace. Gradually Confucianism absorbed elements of Taoism, degenerating into an ideology in which the Emperor and Mandarins used their ‘Mandate from Heaven’ for their own purposes. Eventually, a stagnating China was easy prey for invaders from Europe, whose military technology had long outpaced that of the Chinese. Confucianism in Vietnam
Confucianism was firmly implanted in Vietnam during the thousand years of its occupation by China and mirrored its development. As in China, an intellectual elite developed, and the principles of obedience and respect for education and authority were instilled throughout society, profoundly influencing the family structure and creating a tightly defined social hierarchy.
In Hanoi in 1070, the establishment of the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), a temple of learning dedicated to Confucius, marked the emergence of Confucianism as a cult. Like China, it reached a peak during the 15th century - the ‘golden age’ of King Le Thanh Tong, then steadily decayed into decadence and corruption opening the door for the French invasion. The influence of Confucianism in Vietnam
The profound impact of Confucianism remains strong in Vietnam. Social order is defined by its principles, and the rituals or deference and obedience are still observed. Unlike the West, teachers and education are held in high esteem, children defer to their parents, even in middle age and beyond, and most wives still follow the wishes of their husbands without question.
However, the value of Confucianism as a moderating influence upon social behaviour is being rapidly superseded by the need for flexibility and openness in a developing society
Taoism in Vietnam
The glue that binds the elements of the 'tam giao' - the triple religion
Taoism is believed to have originated in China with a man named Lao Tzu at around 500 B.C. The legend says that Lao Tzu was so "saddened by his people's disinclination to cultivate the natural goodness he advocated" that he decided to abandon civilization. Before leaving, he wrote a brief work called Tao Te Ching, (The Classic of the Way and its Power) describing the meaning of the Tao (the way, or path) and how one should live according to the Tao.
The Tao is described in highly poetic allusions that are far from clear. The book directs its readers ‘to take no action contrary to nature’ and to ‘live in harmony with the Tao’.
A follower of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, further developed the Taoist philosophy, emphasising that the Tao cannot be taught or expressed in words. All things are reconciled in the Tao – there is no concept of good and evil. Only virtuous, non-violent, compassionate behaviour can take one closer to the meaning of the Tao. Taoism becomes a religion
In the first century AD, Lao Tzu gradually became deified, thus enabling his followers to improve their chances of immortality through worship, complex rituals, good deeds and meditation. A pantheon of Gods and the panoply of religion, including magic, geomancy, astrology and communication with spirits developed. Yin and Yang
Central to the Taoist philosophy is duality, a ‘oneness’ made of complementary opposites. Yang is male, associated with the sun, hot, active, rigid and conformist. Yin is female, associated with the earth, cool, passive, flexible and unorthodox. This principle applies to all elements of existence – from nature to a particular individual. Social disturbance, natural disasters, personal illness, unsettled family relationships and so on are all the result of an imbalance between the forces of Yin and Yang. Restoring harmony cures the ills and gives a sense of direction. The implications of Yin and Yang
The tacit suggestion that there is a natural law governing all life and directing activity towards harmony prompts Taoists to behave in a way that least disturbs the balance of Yin and Yang. Lifestyles should therefore be based on regulated harmonious behaviour, and relationships between men and women, parents and children, rulers and subjects, should be carefully regulated in the interests of harmony and balance. Government should be minimal and forces for change avoided. Taoism and other beliefs
The congruity of Taoism and Confucianism is immediately obvious. Confucianism is a means of regulating behavior without a spiritual dimension. Taoism is spirituality and mysticism lacking firm precepts. The association of Theravada Buddhism with Taoism also had synergies –the principles of Buddhism included non-violence, passivity and a path to enlightenment, but lacked ritual. Mahayana Buddhism adopted many of the Taoist Gods and practices. Vietnam and Taoism
In Vietnam, Taoism is the linking mechanism for Buddhism, Confucianism, Ancestor worship and animism. Countless images of the Gods of Taoism are in temples and pagodas throughout the country. Most homes use their altar to worship the ‘Kitchen God’, the name for the triumvirate of Taoist deities that monitor the families’ behaviour. Many of Vietnam’s festivals, including Tet, have a Taoist tradition.
Fortune-telling, astrology and geomancy are an accepted part of everyday life. Ingredients for traditional medicine and foods are designated as ‘hot’ or 'cool’, and the principle of harmony and balance underpins healthcare.
Visitors to Vietnam will often be puzzled by a small mirrored octagonal disc, with the Yin Yang and other symbols, fixed above the door of most houses and small shops. It is to guard the house by barring wandering spirits, or ghosts
Shamanism in Vietnam
A shaman is an intermediary between humankind and the spirit world, occupying a role similar to that of a priest: a religious specialist, possessing the ability to communicate with spirits, to appeal to them to dispel evil, to explain turns of fate, and to transmit the instructions of spirits. He or she usually has healing and magical powers, and can influence the spirits to bring about good and evil. The practice of Shamanism
There are several elements of shamanism in Taoism. Killing and expelling demons with the aid of charms and incantations, invoking spirits, holding ritual offerings, and presenting written memorials to spirits with the aid of a medium are all shamanistic practices.
Shamanism is not unique to Asia. Most of the long-established religions have elements of its beliefs and practices – the rite of exorcism in Christianity, for example, in which a priest attempts to communicate with, and expel, an evil spirit from another person, an animal or an inanimate object such as a house. Shamanism in Vietnam
Although shamanism exists in mainstream religion in Vietnam, it is mostly found in the traditions of the country’s ethnic minority groups, many of whom retain a shaman in each village. To invoke the spirits, a shaman uses songs and dances, spells and talismans leading to the induction of a trance-like state during which he or she is in direct contact with spirits.
In theory, such activities are labelled as superstition and are illegal. However, the law is largely ignored, and even the authorities recognise the tourism potential of such rituals. As an example, one ethnic group in the Central Highlands has a traditional annual festival in which the highlight is the ritual slaughter of a buffalo as a sacrifice to the spirits. This gory spectacle is now being promoted by the tourism department of the area and has become very popular. The fortune-teller
Another type of shaman specializes in divination, a common practice throughout the country. Vietnamese people believe that there are good days and bad days, and one’s future welfare depends upon choosing the most propitious date and time before undertaking any significant venture or activity.
Divination by astrology is the main tool to be used to determine what day a person should move house, apply for a job or get married: in each case, the verdict of the fortune teller is taken very seriously. The recommendation is almost invariably followed to the letter. The cost of this service is seldom cheap, sometimes running into hundreds of dollars – a large sum in a poor country.
Sometimes the outcome is highly inconvenient – having to move house in the middle of the night, for example. In other cases, the advice can lead to major life changes – an ‘unsuitable match’ verdict upon a couple (or one of the sets of parents) seeking guidance upon a possible marriage almost inevitably leads to a break-up.
A man will sometimes consult the shaman to ask how he should deal with what he considers his wife’s unsuitable behaviour (deep-rooted Confucian subservience inhibits women from doing the same). Sometimes, this leads to divorce. Young people sometimes spend several months’ salary seeking a way forward after rejection by a girl or boyfriend