Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990s

Robert Topmiller. Cross Currents. Volume 50, Issue 1/2. Spring 2000.

Since July 1996, I have made three research trips to Vietnam to examine the 1960s Buddhist movement. In the process, I have discovered the great diversity, vitality and strength of Vietnamese Buddhism, despite the oppression it has suffered from the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the severe internal divisions that retard efforts to present a unified message on the role of Buddhism in Vietnam at the end of the twentieth century. To my great surprise, many Vietnamese seemed dedicated to discussing Buddhism and its task in trying to bring reconstruction to a country that still suffers severely from the war.

As a general rule, as long as the discussion avoided any mention of politics, I had no difficulty carrying out interviews. In fact, I found many Buddhists eager to talk about the 1960s and their opposition to the war particularly in bringing down the hated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. Some Buddhist leaders praised Communist efforts to unite Buddhism under one national organization and end the extreme factional struggles that arose during the war, while others expressed outrage and fervent opposition to the VCP.

I also discovered many young people in Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples. In fact, the number of Buddhist youth entering the clergy seemed surprising in a country where the VCP tightly controls religion. In some cases, I encountered children as young as five or six living in temples as Buddhist acolytes.

Buddhism came to Vietnam in the early part of the Christian era by way of China and India. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by China, absorbed elements of Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship along with the veneration of local deities. The emphasis in northern and central Vietnam came mainly from the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which dominated in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism, which developed several centuries after the death of the Buddha, places great emphasis on achieving social justice and assisting others to reach enlightenment, and worships a multiplicity of deities. Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia, came into the southern part of present day Vietnam before the beginning of the Christian era. It is more fundamentalist and conservative, places greater emphasis on monasticism and focuses on the Buddha alone. Despite the doctrinal differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, both streams place the concept of compassion and nonviolence at the center of their ideology.

Buddhists, in general, subscribe to a number of beliefs drawn from Hinduism. One of the most important is the concept of karma, wherein Buddhists trust that an individual's role in life is determined by actions in a previous existence. Good actions confer higher status while immorality can cause one to return as an insect or snake or some other unfortunate creature. Most Vietnamese lay people adhere to Pure Land Buddhism and hope that their actions today can influence their fate tomorrow. Thus, they have faith in the importance of performing meritorious acts to ensure that their future will be easier. Vietnamese, unlike many people in the West, have little sense of a personal god although they believe in a world inhabited by spirits that can wreak great havoc on those who do not appease them. Most monks and nuns, on the other hand, subscribe to Thien (better known as Zen), a discipline that teaches that liberation can be attained through meditation on a seemingly incongruous statement or question (most familiar in the West as a koan).

Despite their belief in nonviolence, some Buddhists leaders sense no contradiction in upholding the rights of the people against an oppressive government or foreign invaders. Thus, Buddhist clergy have at times constituted a highly educated, disciplined, sometimes radical religious intelligentsia in Vietnam who have remained very shrewd in understanding their relationship with their fellow Vietnamese. Buddhist prelates seldom work outside of the pagoda and therefore depend on the people to provide for their daily necessities, while the laity looks to the clergy for leadership and moral guidance. Out of this symbiotic relationship grew the interdependence that represents the essence of Vietnamese Buddhism.

The multiplicity of sects in the country, including significant numbers of both major streams of Buddhism, and the historic autonomy of the pagoda, however, has often worked against the creation of an effective national Buddhist organization. Hence, the decentralized nature of Vietnamese Buddhism militates against a nationwide establishment while the liberal doctrinal basis of Buddhism has invited the kind of factionalism that continues to plague their organizational efforts.

Part of the factionalism that has beset Vietnamese Buddhism results from a struggle over the proper role of Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhists have argued with increasing ferocity throughout the twentieth century about the suitable character of Buddhism in a society permeated with violence and injustice. The disagreement has raged between those who see work for social justice and peace in the political arena as proper for Buddhist clergy and those who have emphasized religious values and removal from the world. These conflicts have often operated on different levels influenced by age, education, region, family background, rank in the religious hierarchy, and attitudes toward authority. Buddhism, therefore, has never spoken with one voice in Vietnam, particularly given the myriad of attitudes within its organizations.

In 1964, as the Vietnam War and the American commitment to confront Vietnamese Communism accelerated, Buddhists attempted to fashion an adequate association to carry out political and religious activities. Recognizing the need to project a united voice in opposing the war, they created the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which combined elements of eleven different sects and the Theravada and Mahayana streams of Buddhism. Nevertheless, seven major groupings of Buddhism still exist in Vietnam: the UBC; Chinese Buddhists; Vietnamese Theravada Buddhists; Khmer Theravada Buddhists; Hinayana Buddhists; Hoa Hao; and non-UBC Buddhists.

The Communist takeover in 1975 exacerbated the problem of factionalism. Fearing the broad appeal of the UBC as the only long-term domestic opposition movement during the war, the VCP gradually attacked them, and other religious organizations, with the same vigor it had utilized against the GVN and the U.S. In time, security forces raided pagodas, closed down orphanages, disbanded religious organizations and placed prominent Buddhist leaders like Thich Tri Quang under house arrest or imprisonment in remote locations. Worst of all from the UBC standpoint, the new regime established a government—sponsored and—controlled Buddhist church, which became the only recognized Buddhist religious association in the country, leading to a serious rift in the Buddhist hierarchy at a time when the country desperately needs their leadership to address the considerable social ills left over from the war. A few have chosen outright defiance, some have engaged in silent protest while others have acquiesced in government dominance of religion by tacitly accepting state control.

The UBC has taken a leading role in opposing the Communists. In January 1992, Thich Quang Do, a prominent leader of the UBC, published an open letter to Vo Van Kiet, Prime Minister of Vietnam. This poignant statement detailed the long history of religious and political repression in Vietnam from the ascension of the VCP in 1945 to the time of the letter and ended with a courageous call for religious freedom in a country that had seldom witnessed it throughout its modern history. Thich Quang Do subsequently received a five-year prison term for his actions. During the same period, other members of the UBC came forward with complaints about religious persecution and likewise received prison terms.

Vietnamese authorities released Thich Quang Do from prison in August 1999, as part of a general amnesty of political prisoners to commemorate the anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). During my interview with him in March 1999, he detailed his considerable problems with the Communists. The week before, for example, when he had tried to speak to his fellow UBC leader, Thich Huyen Quang, the police had detained him for five days in Central Vietnam. He also described the difficulties the UBC has had with the Communists since 1975, pointing out that the Communists began to oppress the UBC almost immediately after taking power, preventing the organization from carrying out its functions, seizing its property and imprisoning its leadership.

He claims it remains impossible to say how many members of the UBC still exist because continued intimidation by the VCP prevents many supporters from publicly identifying themselves. To him, the creation of a puppet church after liberation represents one of the most pernicious acts of the VCP Thus, monks and nuns who support the government have taken over its official functions and property while the UBC continues to suffer persecution. As he argued, the existence of an official church means, “monks oppress other monks.” To him, the greatest service that can be performed for him and the people of Vietnam is to remind the world of the situation there. At a time when the idea of defending human rights has waned in the West, Thick Quang Do stands as one of the great practitioners of moral commitment, unflinching courage and uncompromising integrity of the twentieth century.

Yet he has not stood alone in opposing the Communists. In 1965, Thick Quang Lien launched an indigenous peace movement in South Vietnam that led to his temporary ouster from the country. During a 1996 interview, he openly criticized the VCP despite the danger to himself for speaking out. He discussed his peace movement, education at Yale University and other scholarly achievements while complaining that the VCP generally suppresses religious freedom and changes its attitude toward religion every day. To him, Buddhists and the VCP should focus on rebuilding Vietnam.

Others have chosen to cooperate with the state, or at least decline to defy it, to better serve the people. Numerous Buddhists emphasized the social role of Buddhism in ameliorating human suffering while steering clear of any discussion of the political situation in the country. In 1996, Professor Minh Chi, an expert on Vietnamese Buddhism, discussed the historic role of Buddhism as the guardian of the people and the social and political role of Buddhism in Vietnamese history. Yet, when I mentioned Thick Quang Do and Thick Huyen Quang, he leapt back in his chair and said, “You know about them? I know them very well; they are fine scholars and good men.” Abruptly, he stopped and said, “This is very difficult to talk about.” During a 1999 interview, he explained that the VCP's fear of the instability that could result from free political or religious activity has terrifying implications for the future of the party. Thus, UBC defiance of the regime seems to threaten its very existence.

Thick Tri Quang (not the same person who gained fame in the 1960s) described his work with the government in Ho Chi Minh City in assisting the many underprivileged people in the city and sponsoring scholarships for poor children. When I later expressed frustration to his disciple Thick Tam Thien that I could not get his master to talk about politics or history, he replied, “That is why he is the most influential monk in Vietnam today.” He explained that since he avoids political involvement, his master's prestige as a religious figure is enhanced and the people and the government respond to his leadership on social justice issues.

At the Vanh Hanh Institute, Thick Minh Chau, a supporter of the VCP, argued that education and the retention of culture remain the most important goals for Vietnamese Buddhism. He pointed out that Vietnam suffered too much during the war and now is the time to reconstruct the country. He expressed pride in the educational accomplishments of the institute, which has 45 resident monks and nuns and 250 students. Many of the young people who come to the institute today, he maintains, join because of their concern for social justice and a desire to help their country.

Thich Thanh Kiem, the abbot of the Vinh Nghiem pagoda, claimed that his pagoda has over six hundred students and offers two classes in Buddhism: a four-year course of study in the Buddhist classics and a three-year program of study in the higher classics. In addition, the pagoda houses over a hundred visiting monks. Like Thich Tri Quang, Thich Thanh Kiem argued that the political activism of the 1960s hurt Buddhism and that, since 1975, the efforts of the VCP to form one Buddhist organization has ended much of the factionalism that plagued it before “liberation.” While it remained hard to judge the sincerity of his statement, it appeared very similar to one made by Thich Tri Quang and indicated that it was said more as an act of self-preservation than a closely held belief.

Despite the difficulties encountered by Buddhists, one of the things that impressed me during my trips was the large number of young people I observed living and studying in pagodas. Everywhere I went I encountered young Buddhists willing to share their religious experiences with me. Many, in fact, wanted to make it clear to me that Buddhism holds the key to what ails the West also. Many young people still embrace Buddhist tenets to a degree that Buddhism will continue to flourish in Vietnam long after the VCP has exited the scene. At the Tu Dam pagoda in Hue, for instance, a young monk named Thich Phuoc Nhon provided me with a cogent account of his early life, the rigors of his training, the affection he feels for his master, the quality of his education, instruction in Thien, and his deep concern for the future of Vietnam. In his opinion, “Buddhism has to show the way” to the people of Vietnam to lead them to better lives.

It is obvious that it remains impossible to characterize Vietnamese Buddhism in simple terms. Certainly, freedom of religion, as we understand it in the West, does not exist in Vietnam. Buddhist clerics, moreover, should have a voice in deciding how resources are distributed and programs designed to improve the livelihood and welfare of the people. The VCP, however, by terrifying much of the religious leadership of the country into silence while at the same time repressing the UBC, has sent a stern message to all monks and nuns to avoid the briefest mention of politics or human rights. Yet, Buddhism remains alive because of the young people who keep bringing renewal to it. The social commitment they bring to Buddhism and their concern for the people will eventually awaken their political consciousness and remind them of the centuries-old relationship between the people and Buddhism. Someday, they will liberate Vietnam.