Buddha 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.
Buddhism enters Vietnam
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 others.
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.