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Buddhist Temples Of Vietnam

Buddhist Temples Of Vietnam

Where Mahayana, Daoist and Confucian Traditions Meet and Mingle


By Andrew Forbes

In Vietnam, where Chinese cultural influences are strong, the face of Buddhism is fascinatingly different. In the dragon-ornamented temples of Hue, or behind almost any shop front in Cholon, an ancient Buddhist tradition, the Mahayana, flourishes. The institutions which preserve and pass on this faith are the country's Chua Viet, or Vietnamese Buddhist temples. Here the Mahayana traditions of Central Asia merge and mingle with Chinese Confucianism, Taoism, and the archaic spirit-worship indigenous to the civilisations of mainland Southeast Asia. These temples serve primarily as centres of worship – yet their social function is clearly more than just religious. In addition to offering spiritual solace, they function as community centres, provide religious guidance and advice, and above all offer a place for the reaffirmation of national identity so dear to the Viet soul.

What is it that makes Vietnamese Buddhism so distinctive and so easily differentiated from the Thai, Lao and indeed Chinese variants of the Middle Path? To begin with, Vietnamese Buddhism belongs to the tradition of the "Great Vehicle", or Mahayana. This distinguishes it from the Theravada, or "Way of the Elders" variant observed in Thailand and Laos, and so called because of its great age – approximately 2,400 years, or as old as the Buddhist doctrine itself. The Mahayana, by contrast, is a relative newcomer, which developed in South India a mere 1,900 years ago.

Despite this division of Buddhism into two sects, the central tenets of the faith are common to both – specifically, the principles contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the laws of Karma, and the goal of Nirvana. Those differences that exist are based on issues of emphasis and interpretation. Where as the Theravadin strives to become a perfect saint, or arhat, ready to attain Nirvana, the Mahayanist ideal is that of the bodhisattva – one perfected in the necessary virtues of generosity, morality, patience, vigour, concentration and wisdom, but who elects voluntarily to stay in this world and help others, rather than entering directly to Nirvana.

Mahayanists consider Gautama to be just one of many manifestations of Buddha. There are countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, "as numberless as the universes to which they minister". Together with an equally large number of Taoist divinities, these have combined to form a pantheon of deities and demi-gods whose aid and advice can be sought through invocations and offerings.

In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism is known as Dai Thua or Bac Tong, literally meaning 'from the north', or from China. This is to distinguish it from the Theravada Buddhism practised by ethnic Cambodians in the Mekong delta, which is known as Tieu Thua or Nam Tong, which translates as 'from the south', or from India. The main form of Mahayana practiced in Vietnam is called Thien, or Zen – though the Pure Land School, or Dao Trang, is also widespread, particularly in the south.

In Vietnam the "Great Vehicle" of Mahayana Buddhism has become closely associated with Khong Giao, or Confucianism, an ethical system originating in China and based on the teachings of the moral philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC). Similarly linked is Taoism, or Lao Giao, founded in China during the sixth century BC by Lao Tzu as a system of speculative philosophy centring on the concept of man's oneness with the universe. Collectively the three teachings have practically fused, and are known as Tam Giao, or the Triple Religion.

To this may be added ancestor worship, known in Vietnam as hieu, or the ritual expression of filial piety. Yet even this truly heterogeneous mix is not enough to satisfy the spiritual needs of Vietnamese religion. It may be that the Triple Religion, as it stands, is just too Chinese for Viet tastes. After all, Vietnam's long relationship with the Middle Kingdom has been a love-hate relationship, with greater emphasis on the latter part of this equation. The Vietnamese, Sinicised though their civilisation may be, are still a Southeast Asian people, so local spirits must too be appeased. In clear indication of this, albeit largely obscured behind a statue of Kuan Yin or hanging by a back gateway, a spirit house dedicated to the local guardian spirit may often be discerned.

Common Features of Vietnamese Temples

Chua Viet, or Vietnamese Buddhist Temples, are similar to, and yet distinct from, their Chinese equivalents. The Vietnamese pagoda is usually a single-storey structure rather than a multi-tiered tower. Most will have a sacred pond, usually replete with sacred turtles, a bell tower, and a garden.

In front of the pagoda there is generally a white statue of a standing Avalokitesvara in her feminine Chinese incarnation as The Goddess of Mercy, known in Vietnamese as Quan The Am Bo Tat, or "Kuan Yin Bodhisattva". She is often depicted holding her adopted son in one arm and standing on a lotus leaf – a traditional symbol of purity. Her husband is sometimes depicted as a parakeet.

The main building of the pagoda consists of several rooms. At the front are three doors which are only opened for major religious festivals. Behind these doors lie a front hall, a central hall, and the main altar hall, usually arranged in ascending levels. Behind the temple, or to the side, are living quarters for monks – or, if the pagoda is served by women, nuns. There will also usually be one or more subsidiary altar rooms specifically dedicated to the rites of ancestor worship, where funerary tablets and pictures of deceased monks and relatives are displayed.

Chua Viet are immediately distinguishable from Theravada temples by their lavish use of dragon (long) rather than snake (naga) imagery. These are not the dangerous, destructive creatures of Western mythology, but the noble and beneficial dragons of imperial Chinese tradition. Look for them outside on the eaves and the apex of main roofs; inside they may be twined around supporting pillars, holding up altars, and guarding doorways.

Inside the main sanctuary are representations of three Buddhas. These are A Di Da, or Amitabha, the Buddha of the past; Thich Ca Mau Ni, or Sakyamuni, the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama; and Di Lac, or Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Buddhas are distinguished by their elongated ear lobes, the presence of an urna, or third eye, in the middle of their foreheads, and their tightly curled hair. They are usually represented in one of the classical mudras, or attitudes, and seated on a throne, often in lotus form.

Close by will be found statues of the eight Kim Cang, or Genies of the Cardinal Directions, as well as various La Han, or Arhats, and Bo Tat, or Bodhisattvas. These are usually depicted as princes, wearing rich robes and crowns or head-dresses. A popular image is that of Quan Cong – usually rosy-cheeked and green-cloaked, accompanied by his two trusty companions, General Chau Xuong and the Mandarin Quan Binh, and often with horse and groom.

General decorative images to look for, besides dragons, include swastika motifs and the yin-yang symbol of Taoism symbolising the duality, or male and female elements of existence. Chinese characters, too, although long abandoned by modern written Vietnamese, remain de rigeur in the spirit world.

Sometimes, in temples where Taoist influences are strong, a separate altar may be set aside for Taoist divinities such as Ngoc Hoang, the Jade Emperor, and Thien Hau Thanh Mau, the Queen of Heaven. This latter divinity is also known as Tuc Goi La Ba, the Goddess of the Sea and the Protectress of Fishermen and Sailors. Naturally enough, this divinity is particularly venerated in coastal temples serving fishing communities.

Vietnamese Buddhists strive to keep their temples in fine condition, and are generally pious and proud observers of their religious tradition. Both the ordained guardians of the temples – whether monks or nuns – and the local laity are pleased to show visitors around and to explain the finer details of the "Triple Religion" pantheon.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Pictures by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media