Sacred Texts  Asia  Index  Previous  Next 

The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

p. 17



Buddhism came to Vietnam by the maritime route from India and from China by land. Those who first carried this religion to Vietnam seem to have been refugees from persecution in China and religious pilgrims from India.

The noted Vietnamese scholar, Tran-van Giap ("Le Bouddhisme en Annam, Des Origines au XIII Siecle" Bulletin de L’Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient XXXII, 1932 (1933) p. 205), insists that Buddhism could be found in Tonkin (North Vietnam) in the second century A.D. North Vietnam was the cradle of the ethnic Vietnamese culture as it was not until 1802 that the southern area, including the delta, was conquered and consolidated into the approximate area of Vietnam today.

Mou Po (in Chinese; Mau Bac in Vietnamese) is credited with bringing Buddhism to Vietnam. He was a native of Wu-chou, born between 165-170 A.C., who accepted Buddhism in place of his Taoism about 190 A.D. Because Confucianism was opposing Buddhism in China then, he came to Tonkin and propagated Buddhism by winning converts about 194-195 A.D.

Another figure of Vietnamese Buddhist history is Kang Seng-huei (Khang-tang-Hoi) who with his father left India for trading purposes. He was converted to Buddhism in Tonkin and was later ordained as a monk. Before his death in 280 A.D. his fame as a translator of Buddhist sacred writings from Sanskrit into Chinese enabled him to win the King of Wu, Suen Kuian, to Buddhism. A third figure was Marajivaka, also known as Jivaka, who arrived at Lo-yank after coming by ship to Funan and to Tonkin by 294 A.D. (Tran-van Giap, Op. cit., pp. 212-213). Others, like Ksudra, formerly a Brahman of western India, traveled, taught and won converts in North Vietnam so that Tonkin served as an intermediary for religion, trade and diplomatic exchanges between China and India.

Because Tonkin was on the direct sea route between China and India, it became a center for the propagation of Buddhism and the translation of Buddhist sacred scriptures. While Buddhism in Vietnam was started by pilgrims and refugees; diplomatic envoys, merchants, and immigrants promoted and spread it. Their activities resulted in many pagodas and monasteries being evident in Tonkin according to Giap (Op. cit., p. 227). Popular Buddhism with lay-adherents did not establish itself until later (Op. cit., 235). The founding of a dhyana (meditation) school of Buddhism dates from about the close of the sixth century. Dhyana translates as chan in Chinese, zen in Japanese and thien in Vietnamese.

By the seventh century the Chinese governor of Tonkin, Liou Fang, was reporting that "One sees in Giao-Chau (North Vietnam) numerous eminent priests spreading Buddhism among all the people and also pilgrims flocking from all parts of Asia" (Le Thank Khoi, Le Viet-Nam, Historie et Civilization, Paris: 1955, p. 128). The Chinese dynasty of Suei encouraged Buddhism by granting financial aid, requiring stupas (memorial towers often containing sacred relics of noted persons) to be built, while the Tang dynasty continued to show favoritism to Buddhism.

The independence of Vietnam from China in 939 caused a slowdown or even a temporary setback for Buddhism in Vietnam. But with the rise of Dinh Tien-hoang (969-980) the policy of supporting Buddhism was officially practiced. The basic reasons that Vietnamese rulers sought the support of the Buddhist bonzes and aided Buddhism were (a) the pagodas were almost the sole repositories of culture in both writings and personalities; (b) the scholars of Confucianism were exiled from political life as it was felt that their Chinese education might make them of questionable loyalty.

The Vietnamese ruler granted titles to various Buddhist clergy. The ruler also decreed the establishment of a Buddhist hierarchy that closely resembled the levels of civil government. He raised the bonze Ngo Chan-Tuv to the rank of Imperial Counselor and gave him the title "Khuong-Viet Thai su" (Great Master and Supporter of the Viets) while titles were bestowed upon other bonzes also (Khoi op. cit., p. 142). This royal policy of support was continued by the Le dynasty. The ruler, Le Dai Hanh,

p. 18

used monks as political, social, economic advisors and consultants in military matters. The bonzes were the official representatives of the ruler and of the State on state-occasions both at home and abroad from time to time. When this occurred at Tonkin, formal visits by dignitaries to such pagodas as that of Sach-giang were included on the official agenda. The Ly dynasty (1009-1225) practiced a similar policy and formed the high-water mark of official support for Buddhism until the present time. Khoi (p. 147) states that the Ly dynasty gained their accession to the throne by the support of the Buddhist clergy. Throughout their reign the throne and clergy were closely linked together with at least 95 pagodas being erected by Emperor Ly-Thai-ton (1028-1054). He caused restoration to numerous Buddha statues in other temples. It was in accord with a dream of his, that the One Column Pagoda of Hanoi was constructed standing in a water pond like a blooming lotus. It was Ly-Thanh-ton who first called himself Emperor of Dai-Viet (Greater Viet) in 1069 with his title continuing until 1832 when Gia-Long subdued the Champa Kingdom and united what is currently the two Vietnams.

The later years of Thanh-ton's reign like the rule of Le-Nhan-Ton gave official favor to Confucianism. Mandarins who were scholars highly trained in Confucianism and Chinese classics became government officials. Before this the ranks had presented candidates from which the government would choose the officials. Now it became possible to secure government positions without clergy approval. However, in many cases, the monks continued their leading roles. They were active in both the religious and political life of the kingdom as Kho-dau was named in 1088 Master of the Kingdom (Quoc-su) and served as Imperial Counselor.

As Buddhism increased its number among the Vietnamese laity, it also gained the appearance of a bureaucracy. In 1169 the Emperor Le-Anh-Ton (1138-1175) established a school for the study of the three religions, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The same ruler gave recognition as the official state religion to Buddhism, and granted it high privileges. The Buddhist clergy were placed under the Master of the Kingdom while retaining the hierarchy established by Dinh-Tien-hoang. They were given tax and military exemptions by passing an examination which gave an official certificate of authorization to their status. Occasionally they would receive pagodas with attached domains as princely gifts or as alms. The Master of the Kingdom would assist the Emperor in his prayers for the prosperity of the kingdom and serve as a counselor of State secrets. The Buddhist bonzes were much involved in Vietnamese politics during these years.

Royal support included money, power, and gifts of pagodas as the reigning monarchs continued the securing and copying of various Buddhist sacred writings. In 1018, Le Thai-Ton sent an official mission to China to secure and copy the texts of the Tripitaka (Tam-Tang: the three parts of Sacred Buddhist Scripture) and housed them at Dia-Hung. When the Sung Court in 1034 sent other copies of major canons as gifts, the royal court marked the arrival with a solemn reception.

Buddhism began its major Vietnamese adulteration about this time as its purer doctrines were mixed with philosophies such as Taoism, etc. Some monks turned to the study of the elixir of immortality while others engaged in the study of Taoist magic. Some bonzes became doctors of fame and some were credited with supernatural powers. By the close of the eleventh century, Buddhism had planted its roots so deeply into Vietnamese culture that it was no longer considered as an imported religion. It had been introduced and utilized as a court-religion; now it had filtered down to the villages and hamlets. Here mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, it became an indigenous part of the popular beliefs of the common people. The mixture of spirits and deities into the pantheon of Buddhists and Bodhisattavas created little difficulty because of its apparently flexible format. The various elements appear to have provided a ritual which satisfied the formalistic and spiritual demands of the Vietnamese peasantry generally. Having become deeply ingrained in Vietnamese thought and life, its eradication would be difficult, if not impossible, short of such tactics as the communists employ.

During the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) two writings, Viet-Dien U-Linh Tap (Collection of the Invisible Powers of the Country of Viet) by Le Te-Xuyen in 1329 and Thien-Uyen Tap-Anh Ngu-Luc (Chronicle of the Eminent Monks of the garden of Dhyana) are important. The latter book contains the biographies of famous monks in Vietnam from the Dynasty of Tang through that of Tran. The first book seems to stress animism and Taoism while the second argued for Buddhism. As the Tran Dynasty continued, native animistic beliefs and Taoism affected the concepts of Buddhism held by the Vietnamese even among the higher echelons of its society.

p. 19

[paragraph continues] Magic and sorcery became the accepted practices among some Buddhist bonzes. As the apparent decay of Buddhism and a unifying ritualistic structure increased, the processes of adoption speeded up.

The Tibetan Phags-Pa had introduced Lamaism (Mantrayana) from Tibet into the Chinese court. From there it quickly moved to Vietnam and added to the ever increasing adulteration of Buddhism. The funeral processions and mourning rites of ethnic Vietnamese are a reflection of that Mantrayana (one of the major forms of Buddhism formerly found in Tibet) introduced in bygone centuries.

Even as the introduction of philosophies continued to almost drown Buddhism in Vietnam, some beholders accused the Songha (Buddhist order of clergy) as being anti-civic, antisocial, etc. This was due to the accumulated wealth of the pagodas, monasteries and convents. The indigenous forces of animism and the strength of Taoism so changed Buddhism that by the end of the 14th century, it gave way to Confucianism as the primary religion of the government. Confucianism remained the court religion and practice until the impact of the western world in the nineteenth century took effect. However, Buddhism is such an inherent force in the culture of Vietnam that irrespective of its actual numbers, no comprehensive valid understanding of the people can be gained without awareness of its origin, development or influence.

The Chinese invasion of 1414 also brought many Confucian writings. During their short stay, the invading Chinese ordered the destruction of many pagodas and the confiscation of the Buddhist sacred writings. When the Vietnamese regained their independence fourteen years later in 1428, the Ly dynasty continued in favor of Confucianism with persecution of Buddhism according to Buddhist sources. The Emperor Le Thai-to (1428-1433) in 1429 instituted competitive examinations for all Buddhist and Taoist monks with failure requiring a return to lay life. No new temples of Buddhism could be erected without authorization and all monks were subject to surveillance.

Khoi states that most monks of this time were very poorly educated, and had little understanding of the doctrines of Buddhism now so greatly affected by Taoist, Tantric and animist elements. It is recorded that from time to time the Taoist or Buddhist monks would lead peasant uprisings against the government. "Faced with official Confucianism, guardian of the established order, doctrine of the feudatories and mandarins, these two religions Buddhism and Taoism in their most popular context served as a vehicle for social discontent" (Jean Chesneaux, Contribution a l’ Histoire de la Nation Vietnamienne, p. 33).

Chesneaux says that in 1442, the monk Than-Loi tried to become King by self-proclamation, even as earlier in 1391 a band of peasants under the leadership of the monk Su-On had attacked the capitol city Hanoi (Ibid., p. 33). In 1516 at Hanoi in Hai-Duong province, the monk Tran-Cao tried to pass himself off as a reincarnation of Buddha while leading a revolt against the Emperor. In doing so he required his soldiers to have shaven heads and wear black clothing. Even though such events did not basically cause any extended changes, they are indicative of the political and military involvement of Buddhist leaders. Understanding these factors aid to evaluate the current religio-political-military struggles in Vietnam.

During the civil war of the sixteenth century both the Nguyen rulers of the south and the Trinh dynasty of the north sought to claim the loyalty of their people by identifying themselves with Buddhism. Thus used as a political strategy, Buddhism began a limited recovery. The rigidity of Confucianism tended to reduce scholastic training to rhetorical exercises and philosophical speculation so that new schools of Buddhism coming from China were almost eagerly accepted by the courts. Such seems evident as Trinh Tac in 1662 issued a decree in Tonkin which banned all books on Taoism, Buddhism, and the "false doctrine" (Christianity). He urged all to remember and adhere to their traditional values, but new Buddhist schools were established anyway. So effective were some of these schools that the Empress Dieu-Vien (Trinh-thi Ngoc-Hanh), wife of Le Than-ton (1619-1643) and her daughter renounced palace life and became nuns after becoming converts to Buddhism.

The Trinh dynasty (fervent Buddhists) restored many Buddhist temples and built numerous temples. They welcomed Chinese Buddhist monks fleeing the Manchu conquest. Among these was Ta Nguyen Thieu (d. 1728) a noted builder of temples and monasteries, including the monastery at Vinh-An (later called Quoc-An, meaning Grace of the Kingdom) at Phu-xuan (Hue’) with his temples at Hue’ rivaling those of Thanh-Long in the north.

Even with the protection and support of the rulers, Buddhism was weak and Confucianism

p. 20

was not aggressive. This period may have given rise to the fusion of the three religions of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as the various scholars changed from religion to religion. The syncretism of this time formulated the religion of many contemporary Vietnamese by the absorption and modification of many beliefs and rites into a common folk-religion.

The Nguyen family, while being strongly Confucianist, attempted to achieve a sense of national unity, and was hostile to the popular beliefs of Taoism and Buddhism. The monks were reduced to temple guardians and masters of ceremony. The spirit of Buddhism seemed lost by the discipline of the monastery being relaxed while Buddha was given offerings for favors granted and worshipped as a God.

While Gia-Long, a strong adherent and advocate of Confucianism and ancestral cult (19021919), reigned, he disapproved of Buddhism and forbade any favors to its monks. His code expresses this in article 143 as it prescribed "forty blows of the cane to officials who permit their wives or daughters to go to the temple of Buddha, Dao or of genii...", while "eighty blows of the truong to those who without permission shave their heads or wear the Taoist headdress" is a part of article 75 (Chesneaux, op. cit., p. 88).

Buddhism increased its syncretism due to governmental pressures and multiple controls so that it came to be a religion thoroughly mixed with mysticism, tantrism, animism and polytheism. However, it played an active role in the religious nationalism of southern Vietnam during the period of 1860 to 1880. Later in 1885 it provided a structural unity for the anti-French nationalist movement and part in the 1885 insurrection.

In 1931 an association of Buddhist Studies was established in Saigon; a year later in Hue’ and in 1934, in Hanoi. Immediately a number of translations and publications were prepared, but the Second World War halted this Buddhist revival. In 1948 the monks of Hanoi reorganized their order of Buddhist clergy (Sangha) and their lay association as they established an orphanage, a college, a printing press, and took steps to care for the war victims. This was followed in 1930 by a new Association for Buddhist Studies being organized in Saigon. In Hue’ a year later (1951) a Buddhist Congress met and voted to merge the three regional associations, codify the rituals, develop adult religious education, organize a Buddhist youth group, and join the World Buddhist Organization. Again this was disrupted as the terms of the 1954 Treaty divided the country. The General Buddhist Association of Vietnam was formed in 1956, composed of three monk communities and three lay associations with the former being the Association of Buddhist Studies in South Vietnam, the Buddhist Association of Central Vietnam, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Association. As this was organized in Saigon, the Vietnamese United Buddhist Association was formed at the Fourth Buddhist Congress in 1958 (Hanoi) with the stated aim of uniting all branches and sects of Buddhism and more effectively continuing the plans established in the 1930's. Since this organization must have the permission of Hanoi to exist and operate, and since the communists are opposed to religion, there is some question to just how much freedom a religious organization may have there.

While there are at least sixteen members of the United Buddhist Association only five are significant enough to be included here. They are:

(1) Ethnic Cambodian Theravadists: primarily found in the ten delta provinces with 400,000 to 500,000 people. Their Buddhist customs are very similar to those of Cambodia and Thailand. With the histories of Wats (temples and temple grounds) totaling less than 75 years, it is believed that these Theravadists have been in Vietnam less than a hundred years. This group may have up to 20,000 monks, but no nuns although some women seem to aspire to this office. Being generally nonpolitical, it has been largely ignored by the Vietnamese government until now.

(2) Ethnic Vietnamese Theravada: A very small group with perhaps 30 monks with discipline and learning processes not to well organized yet. Its adherents, while few in number, are found in a half-dozen or more provinces as well as in Saigon and Danang.

(3) Ethnic Chinese Mahayana: This group has nine temples in the Saigon/Cholon area with some five associations based in the provinces where in the larger cities the Chinese are found as rice-merchants. Like the Chinese in general throughout much of the Asian scene, they do not take a noticeably active part in political activity, but are Members of the Chinese Buddhist Association and the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

(4) Vietnamese Mahayana: This is the major group of Buddhists found in Vietnam. They are almost everywhere except in the tribal areas where few wish to linger. It has some 12,000

p. 21

monks and about 4,000 pagodas or wats. Its leaders are the vocal spokesmen of Buddhism in Vietnam today with some apparently being more radical than others. As a religious faith, its doctrines are much the same as that of the Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, but its practice is modified by the same cultural patterns and influences which affect other Vietnamese.

(5) Hoa Hao (Pronounced "Wah How"): This reform Buddhist group has doctrines which stress simplicity of basic Buddhist precepts, and was founded by Huynh Phu So in 1939. As "puritan" Buddhism, physical symbols, hierarchy and ritual are not stressed so that elaborate pagodas, expensive bonze clergy and large offerings are not needed. The Hoa Hao are accepted as Buddhists by other Buddhist sects even though the Cao Dai are not so accredited. Since both the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai differ so radically from the various Buddhist organizations, studies on each of these two have been included as separate sections.


Armbruster, Paula, "The History of Buddhism in Vietnam" Class Paper for course 246b Yale University, Instructor; Dr. Richard Gard, Ph.D. (un-published manuscript).

Buddhasukh, Siri, Editor, Some Prominent Characteristics of Buddhism, Bangkok, Thailand, World Fellowship of Buddhist News Bulletin; 1964

Chesneaux, Jean, Contribution a L’Histoire de la Nation Vietnamienne, Paris, 1955

Gard, Dr. Richard, "Notes on Buddhism", Mimeographed lecture notes formerly utilized for presentation for American officials ordered to Asia. Dated 15 September 1963

Giap, Tran-Van, "Le Bouddhisme en Annam, Des Origines au XIII Siecle" Bulletin de L’Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient, Vol. XXXII, 1932 (1933) pp. 191-268

Khoi, Le Thanh, Le Viet-Nam, Histoire et Civilization, Paris, 1955

Thinh, Pham-Gia, "An Introduction to Vietnamese Buddhism" Viet My, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring 1960, Saigon; Vietnamese American Association

Truyen, Mai-tho, "Les Bouddhisme au Viet-Nam", Presence de Bouddhisme, Edited by Rene de Berval, Saigon, 1959

Watts, Allan W. The Way of Zen, New York, Pantheon, 1957

Woodward, F. L., Editor, Some Sayings of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon, London: Oxford University Press, 1955

Zurcher, E., The Buddhist Conquest of China, 2 Vol., Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1959


Buddhism, as founded by Buddha and practiced by Buddhists today, is not monolithic. Established about 500 B.C. as a revolt against conditions in India out of which Hinduism also arose, Buddhist philosophy is divided into such major schools of thought as Theravada (Teaching of the Elders), Mahayana (The Larger Vehicle) and Mantrayana (the Tibetan version). These schools are subdivided into approximately a thousand sects.

In Vietnam some sixteen of the Buddhist sects, including both Theravada and Mahayana, have joined together in the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Many of these are also strongly represented in the Vien Hoa Dao, The Institute for the Execution of the Dharma, headquartered in Saigon. The differing interpretations of the various sects lead to diversity of thought and behavior at times. When such forces as geography, climate, diet, economics, etc., are added to these religious concepts, there is little wonder that differences are to be noted.

Within Vietnam, Buddhism undoubtedly fills the need of many people which Animism and Confucianism leave void. Philosophically, Buddhism ties man to the universe eternally--past, present and future. In so doing, it provides some comfort to the bereaved, a sense of meaning to existence, and a philosophy (thought pattern) of adjustment to those things which the Vietnamese Buddhist adherent does not believe can be changed.

The major teachings of Buddhism are found in the Benares Sermon of Buddha. This sermon stressed a "Middle Way" between the extremes of licentiousness and asceticism. That this "Middle Way" might be realized by humanity, Buddha proclaimed what is now known as the Four Noble Truths which simply stated are: (1) Existence (life) is a succession of suffering or, to exist is to suffer; (2) Suffering is created or caused by desires or cravings; the ignorance of true reality allows ambition, anger, illusion, etc., to sustain an endless cycle of existence; (3) The extinction of suffering can be achieved

p. 22

only by the elimination of desire; 108 desires of humanity have been classified and are symbolized by the Buddhist prayer beads; (4) The elimination of desire or cravings can be achieved only through the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddhist adherent strives to perfect himself in this Path which is composed of: (1) right views; (2) right resolve; (3) right speech; (4) right action; (5) right living; (6) right effort; (7) right mindedness, and (8) right concentration.

The Five Commandments or Prohibitions of Buddha expressed in the negative are: (1) Do not kill; (2) Do not steal; (3) Do not be unchaste; (4) Do not lie, and (5) Do not drink alcohol. The positive approach to these commandments are: Preserve life (all life); give alms to the poor and respect their property; be chaste (which in popular Buddhism seems to have different connotations than the ideals of western morality, the term appears to imply discretion rather than restraint in conduct); speak the truth, and avoid those drinks or food harmful to oneself or to others.

The Twelve Principles of Buddhism are as follows:

(1) Law of Flux. The first (act of existence) is the law of change or non-permanence. This law declares the world (universe) and everything in it to be impermanent, changing and in constant flux. All things (living and non-living) pass through the same cycle of existence--birth, growth, decay and death. Life is the only continuous force seeking expression in changing or new forms. Someone expressing his concept in simple form observed, "Life is a bridge; therefore build no house on it."

In this concept, life is a continuous flow and anyone clinging to any particular form, regardless of its splendor, will suffer by resisting the flow. The Buddhist is therefore to struggle to escape this state of constant impermanency by seeking Nirvana. Nirvana is that permanent state which is perfect peace (tranquility) that is both eternal and absolute.

(2) Discontinuity of the Soul. The law of change applies equally to the "soul". Only that ultimate "Reality", that "namelessness" which exists in Nirvana is beyond change. All forms of life, including man, are merely manifestations of this Reality. The classic illustration of the flow of life within man is that man no more owns that life within him than the electric light bulb owns the current which gives it light.

(3) Karma. The universe is merely the expression of law. All effects have causes, so that man's character is the sum total of his previous thoughts and actions. Karma, which means action-reaction, governs all existence so that man is believed to be the sole creator of his circumstances. His reaction to such conditions determines his future status and ultimate destiny. By following the Eightfold Path, man can gradually so purify his inner nature that he can achieve liberation from the continuous cycle of rebirth. Such a development or process covers great periods of time involving repeated life cycles on earth, but providing everyone with the ultimate realization of Nirvana.

(4) Unity of Life. All life is one and really indivisible, though it has innumerable, ever-changing perishable forms. Thus, though every form must die, death or cessation of life is not possible, and is an unreality.

Paradoxically, this doctrine that the personal self is not real is pivotal in Buddhist Theology. Since there is no individuality of the self. there can be no continuity of the individual. Instead, it is the life-force which continues its almost endless cycle.

This is sometimes illustrated by comparing the individual to the waves of the sea. The waves are a part of the whole sea, but they return to it without separate identity. Therefore, when a man dies, he is absorbed again into the total universe, or totality of being. This principle stresses that man is no more a separate corporeal and spiritual entity in life than he is in death, even though such an illusion exists. Therefore some Buddhists prefer the term "demise" to "death". They believe that there is no death; that life is merely confined to one's body for a short time. Even so, that life-force is to experience a series of reincarnations so that eventual Enlightenment (Nirvana) is acquired.

This doctrine makes the distinction between reincarnation and transmigration of the soul. The latter is declared within Hinduism and refers to the continuing existence of the individual soul incarnated in either higher or lower forms of life. Reincarnation of the life force is understood by learned Buddhists as the teaching of the Buddha. However, within popular Buddhism, many adherents tend to think of themselves as personal candidates for reincarnation and Nirvana. To them, the earning of "Merit" through good works, promises to improve one's status in future existences. Within popular Buddhism, this hope of a personal reincarnation seems to have more validity than the hope of Nirvana. In this way he can realize the rewards and benefits of his personal labors and sacrifices in a more tangible fashion.

p. 23

The understanding of all life as a unity is believed to create compassion; or a sense of identification with life in all other forms. Compassion encourages eternal harmony so that the breaking of this harmony creates suffering and delays personal enlightenment. Since one does not possess a permanent self, little reason exists for seeking great wealth or property, especially since possessions tend to prolong the cycle of existence because material things encourage desires or cravings.

(5) Existence. Existence is suffering. In ignorance, man thinks he can successfully struggle for and achieve his own interests. This wrongly-directed selfish energy creates suffering. Man must learn that desires or selfish cravings are wrong and must be reduced and finally eliminated.

(6) Salvation. Self-salvation is the immediate task of every man. Increased understanding of the Dharma (teaching) can be gained as the Eightfold Path is followed. By facing existence as it is, and learning by direct and personal experience, gradual release from the endless cycle of existence is acquired.

(7) Eightfold Path. This Path is composed of eight successive steps. These are: (1) Right or perfect views which presuppose preliminary understandings; (2) Right aims or motives; (3) Right purpose; (4) Right speech; (5) Right acts; (6) Right livelihood; (7) Right effort, and (8) Right concentration involving development of mind. These, successfully achieved, result in full or complete enlightenment. Because Buddhism is a way of life to the Buddhists and not merely a theory, the following of this path is believed essential for self-deliverance to each one. Buddha's thoughts in this may be summarized as "cease to do evil, learn to do good, cleanse your own heart."

(8) Impersonality of the Supernatural. A God with describable attributes is not the final reality; such reality is indescribable. However, Buddha, a human being, did become the All-Enlightened One, because the purpose of life is to achieve enlightenment. Therefore that state of consciousness, Nirvana, the complete extinction of selfhood, can be attained on earth. All men, as well as all other forms of life, possess the potentiality of enlightenment. Buddhism therefore says to each adherent "look within as you are Buddha in the process of becoming."

(9) Guidance of Buddha. Because the Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, the basic required faith in Buddhism is that a guide (Buddha) has trodden this way and it is therefore worthwhile to follow him. Buddhism requires that the whole man, not merely heart and mind, be developed equally.

(10) Inner Life. Buddhism emphasizes the need for meditation and mental concentration in the development of the inner spiritual faculties. It stresses that the subjective life is as important as external facts so that periods of inner activity are essential for a balance life. The Buddhist is not to get "caught up in the passing show". He must develop a watchful attitude to those circumstances which man creates so that he may keep his reactions always under control.

(11) Individual Responsibility. Since Buddha taught "work out your own salvation", Buddhism believes the authority for final truth to be the intuition of the individual. The individual must be his own final authority. In view of this belief, man suffers the consequences of his own acts. Moreover, prayer to Buddha or to any other god will not prevent an effect from following its course. (While taught as theory, popular Buddhism in Vietnam seems to modify this concept.)

In this respect, it ought to be remembered that Buddhist monks (bonzes) are teachers and examples. Only in popular Buddhism are the bonzes intermediaries between the individual and ultimate reality.

This same principle of Buddhism is the basis for "Buddhist tolerance" which is to be practiced toward adherents of other faiths and religions or philosophies. This tolerance is based upon the concept that each man is his own means of salvation, and no one has the right to interfere with another's journey toward that goal. It is only natural that this ideal is not always realized by all peoples in all places. But it is probably as well practiced by its adherents as are similar concepts by those of Judeo-Christian persuasion.

(12) Man's Life Situation. Buddhism is a system of thought and religion which attempts to explain existence and man's relation to it. In philosophy it claims to be neither pessimistic or escapist. It does insist on self-reliance while declaring man to be the creator of the conditions of his present life and the sole designer of his destiny.

Buddhist Virtues

The five colors of the Vietnamese Buddhist flag signify the five virtues which Buddhists believe vital. While there are differences of opinion as to which color might represent a particular virtue, the virtues themselves are

p. 24

ideals held before the adherents by the Sangha. These virtues are developed as the adherent follows the Eightfold Middle Path and subdues the 108 desires or cravings which stand between man and Nirvana.

The moral quality most cherished by the Buddhist ideal is compassion. The use of this term infers a genuine concern for all living creatures as Buddhism makes no distinction between the life of man and that of animals, etc. Buddha told several stories of holy men who demonstrated this compassion by giving their lives to save the life of some animal. This quality is also demonstrated by the possession of the strain-cloth so that all drinking water can be strained to prevent the needless taking of even microscopic life. However, care is taken to illustrate the difference between deliberate killing and accidental killing. While the Buddhist theologians discuss these differences, the adherent of Buddhism in practice does not seem overly concerned about minor items and the Sangha (Order of Buddhist Clergy) has upon a number of occasions permitted or encouraged violence and loss of life when it was deemed necessary.

Patience is perhaps the second most important virtue of Buddhism. The quality of patience demonstrated in the daily life of the Vietnamese is almost unbelievable. Quietly, and without complaint, with a sense of certainty that everything eventually will work out, the peasantry waits for the appropriate action to occur. Since this virtue is so greatly stressed, the common folk of Vietnam take much abuse before reacting violently. Instead of shouting, screaming or loudly swearing, they smile at their opponents or adversaries. Undoubtedly, this high regard for patience springs from the concepts of Karma.

Optimism is a virtue which many members of the Sangha say is stressed. If misfortune occurs, the Buddhist adherent should consider it to be the consequence of the bad deeds of a previous existence which the Law of Karma extracts impersonally. Therefore, the individual has less of a debt to be paid off and can be happy and optimistic for the future. Others say that this virtue is courage, since it is courage that gives one strength to face the difficult and view the future with confidence.

Serenity as a virtue is best symbolized by the various statues of Buddha, especially those where he is seated with folded hands. To the Buddhist, serenity is a virtue which can be possessed only by those with purity of heart. Such purity may be developed by adherents as improvement of actions, thoughts, speech and intentions is realized. Serenity can be achieved only by the destruction of the desires which hinder freedom of mind; Nirvana cannot be achieved until serenity is a fact.

Freedom is a virtue to be greatly sought. It is an inner freedom from desires, and release from tensions caused by fear, want, or possessions. The shaven head and the robe of the Buddhist monk are symbolic of this virtue. They signify renunciation of the possession of material things or normal desires. Inner freedom must be achieved in order to escape the Wheel of Reincarnation into Nirvana.

Dynamism, according to some bonzes, is another virtue to be sought. Dynamism is that quality by which the Buddhist not only seeks to escape repetitious existences, but seeks to help others achieve Enlightenment also. Since Buddhism teaches man must be his own "saviour" from the Wheel of Life, this is a virtue of great value and one to be esteemed as worthy of admiration.

Buddha's Place In Vietnamese Buddhism

The members of the Sangha (monks, nuns, etc.), as well as the intellectuals within Buddhism, know that Buddha is not "God" (that is the supreme power), nor did Buddha ever claim this status. Neither did he ever claim the power to reverse the unalterable law of cause and effect called KARMA with its impersonal outworking in each existence. Rather, Buddha, to them, is believed to be the Enlightened One, the symbol of what man can achieve. He is a teacher from whom men seeking freedom from the Wheel of Endless Existence might better learn how to escape into Nirvana.

But to the adherent of popular Vietnamese Buddhism, especially of the Mahayana school, Buddha seems to be the supreme being. They appear to visit the pagodas to worship and make petitions of the One so majestically symbolized therein. Many Buddhist adherents believe that Buddha will help them in their various problems; that he will grant them protection, or children, etc. Many seem to be sure that Buddha can bring prosperity and long life. Their concept of Buddha seems to resemble the prayer-hearing and answering God that Christianity affirms. Since all men have the opportunity to escape eventually into Nirvana and thereby become Buddhas, there is an obvious difference between concepts of the supreme Buddha and the "Christian" God; but in much of everyday life, the attitude of worship, reverence toward

p. 25

and confidence in Buddha is strangely similar to that expressed by many who live in the Judeo-Christian heritage.


1. The Functions of the various ceremonies are: to venerate the Buddha idea; to regulate and maintain the Sangha monastic routine; to instruct the laity; and to provide links between the human-social order and the cosmic-natural order of all existences, etc.

2. Major Buddhist Sangha Ceremonies: These are several in number. Without using their Vietnamese names they are: (a) the initiation ceremony for novices following their period of probation; (b) ordination ceremonies for monks and nuns; (c) ceremonies which conclude the monastic residence or "retreat" (These normally take place at the end of the rainy season and are practiced by the Theravadists much more than among the Mahayana adherents); (d) the annual ceremony in which the laity dedicates cotton cloth to the monks which is used to make their robes (This, also, is more Theravadist than Mahayanist. Both schools are present in Vietnam); (e) periodic meetings at each new moon and full moon for sermon recitation and to hear the Teaching expounded and disciplinary rules repeated.

Buddhism has many ceremonies which involve both Sangha and laity. Normally, non-Buddhists are welcome as observers at any service where Buddhist laity is allowed. Basically, however, Buddhism does not emphasize collective worship which requires the assembly of many believers at one time. Each adherent is required to solve his own problems and seek escape from the Wheel of Life into Nirvana.

The Theravadists celebrate the Birth, Enlightenment, and Demise of Buddha on the same day of the year, usually in May. This school adheres to the belief that Buddha was born, received Enlightenment and died on the same day of different years. They commemorate all three events at the same time. The Mahayanist school in Vietnam celebrates Buddha's birthday on the 8th day of the 4th month of the Chinese lunar year. By way of contrast the Japanese, Tibetan and Mongolian calendars designate the occasion as the 4th day of the 6th lunar month. Buddhists in America believe Buddha's birthday to be April 8, his Enlightenment or Bodhi Day (named after the bodhi tree under which he sat when awaiting Enlightenment) as December 8 and Nirvana Day (date of his death or demise) as February 15. A detailed discussion of the various holidays and celebrations in Vietnam is given in a VIETNAMESE CALENDAR OF HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS IN VIETNAM published by SORO of the American University, Washington, D.C.


According to Buddhist spokesmen, Buddhism has many roles. These roles in simple terms include:

1. Helping all people to obtain Enlightenment and to realize Nirvana. This role requires concern for the public good so that the Sangha and lay associations conduct educational, cultural and welfare activities on many levels.

2. The utilization of Buddhist art in all its forms to promote Buddhism's idealism. This undoubtedly would include the understanding of art in its broadest terms, including architecture, music, etc. as well as in the traditional sense of pictures and sculpture.

3. To provide advice, guidance, humanitarian goals and values to society and to the governments of society. Because wrong conduct can not be tolerated due to its inconsistency with Buddhist ideals, such conduct must be opposed, and if necessary resisted by force. The Sangha (Buddhist order of clergy of all levels) has supported war from time to time when such war was believed necessary. Such support has included material assistance in the forms of supplies, facilities and personnel.

4. The active participation in political affairs has been practiced in Asia by the Sangha members directly. They have encouraged the Buddhist laity to have active roles in politics. The leaders of Buddhism are deeply concerned about the origin, establishment, purpose, function, administration and goals of political power both in theory and practice.


Buddhism is the "Middle Way of Life" in contrast to the extremes of indulgence or denial. It contends that the achievement of the perfect existence is obtained by a process of thought which was first taught, attained and exemplified by Buddha.

p. 26

Major Buddhist Traditions are three in number although there are many denominations or sects within the major teachings:

(1) Theravada is the teaching of the "Theras" or elder monks, and is the closest form of early Buddhism in existence, according to its adherents. Theravada uses Pali as its basic sacred scriptural language.

(2) Mahayana is the "Larger", "Greater" or "Expanded Way" of obtaining Enlightenment and uses Sanskrit as its basic textual. language. This is the prevalent form of Buddhism in Vietnam if the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai are excluded.

(3) Mantrayana/Vajrayana/Tantrism, Tantrism incorporates Hindu hymns and dances in erotic rites with worship of female divinities and mysticism while declaring Buddhahood can be attained through theurgic magical practices. Sanskrit and Tibetan are used as basic languages. While related to Mahayana, it is more to be found in its purer form in Tibet, Mongolia, etc., than in Vietnam where its major influence seems to be in funerals.

The difference of the major schools seem to be based more on social, geographic and economic factors than on widely differing basic concepts. This is evident as attention is given to the different forms of popular Buddhism in the various areas of Southeast Asia, or even within the same country.

The Three Jewels/Three Gems/Three Treasures are called Tiratana in Pali, the language in which Buddha spoke and the sacred language of Theravada, or Tri-ratna in Sanskrit which is the Mahayana and Mantrayana sacred language. They are considered to be the basis of all Buddhist schools and the symbolically supreme act of veneration. Reference is often made to them collectively much as Americans use the expression "So help me God". The Three Jewels are:

(1) The Buddha (The Enlightened One) who conceived, taught and exemplified the Dharma/ Dhamma/Karma. The Buddha, symbolized by the numerous statues, is the one who lived about 500 B.C. in Northern India, and is accepted as the originator of Buddhism.

(2) The Dhamma/Dharma/Karma is the teaching of Buddha given as doctrine. The concept of Karma contains the essence of Buddhism when combined with the Four Noble Truths. Karma declares that the sum total of a person's good and bad actions, with actions comprised of deeds, words and thoughts, determines the specific destiny of the next existence. It also affects the subsequent existences of the "rebirth" cycle. According to Karma, prior actions determine the conditions of mans present existence. Because his status is the result of his own actions, man must be his own savior from the recurring cycle of birth and death. Only by his own actions can he free himself from the Wheel of Existence and escape into Nirvana. Karma is an impersonal, unchangeable force not subject to modification by prayer, etc.

Karma is simply the belief or teaching that the moral order of the universe requires a good deed to have a good result and a bad deed to have a bad result. When expanded in ethical concepts, Karma infers that good or bad previous existences account for the present good or evil fortune, poverty, illness, etc. It is also the controlling law of the universe of which man is a passing part. Man is subject to Karma even as nature responds to its inherent laws. There is no escape known to Buddhism from the cause/effect concept of this law.

Within popular Buddhism, regardless of theological concepts, Karma is quite similar to the Hindu belief in the transmigration of the soul. Many Buddhists use the term "I" to speak of the on-going process. A major concern of the Buddhist is that his life force, the very self, will have to endure in future existences the results of actions committed in the past or present. The scale of future existences may be either upward or downward. Some adherents of popular Buddhism have remarked that one of the highest hopes of a woman is to be born as a man in a future existence, so that she may increase merit and thereby escape into Nirvana.

Karma seems to say to the non-adherent westerner that man reaps his own sowing; rewards or consequences are appropriate in quantity and quality to actions; good merit cannot balance out bad merit because both run their independent courses.

(3) The Sangha is the monastic order (organization) developed by the disciples of the Buddha as they followed his example and expanded his teachings. The Sangha is composed of the bonzes, or monks who are clergymen (incorrectly called priests) and is supported basically by the Buddhist laity through gifts which gain merit for the giver, or in some countries through taxation.

(a) The bonzes in Theravada tradition may have this role for an indefinite time, from a few weeks to a life-time vocation. Normally the bonzes are vegetarians, but may eat meat upon rare occasions. Their shaven heads and robes of yellow or saffron symbolize their renunciation of world pleasures as they follow

p. 27

the example of the Buddha. Besides the saffron and yellow robes, bonzes may wear either a brown or off-shade white robe.

These monks do not usually officiate at weddings, though they may be present and recite Buddhist sacred scripture or give sermons and offer congratulations. However, for deaths, the bonze leads the funeral rites in the home, and at the burial or cremation. He leads the religious rites after burial, including those on the first anniversary of a death. In rural areas, monks may be school teachers, or serve as bankers, advisors in economic, cultural, social, political and religious affairs. Often the monk is the best educated figure in his community and is therefore one of its guiding counselors. While participating in and conducting religious festivals, ceremonies or observances, they perform many functions and services for Buddhist adherents. The monks may lead the community in troubled times in solemn ceremonies to the pantheon of spiritual beings that form part of the traditions of Mahayana Buddhism.

Besides allowing the laity to earn merit placing rice in their "merit-bowls", the bonzes care for the temples, pagodas, wats and monasteries. They also assist or direct charitable activities such as orphanages, hospitals, welfare centers, etc. More important to Buddhists, the bonzes are examples of the Buddhist Middle Way of Life in the journey to Nirvana.

(b) Nuns have been part of the Sangha since the Buddha established the role of nuns in his lifetime. Nuns observe similar, but more strict, rules than bonzes. Their work is primarily in temples, pagodas, teaching, nursing and welfare work. The saffron, yellow, brown or white robes of the monks are quite familiar, in contrast to the seldom seen white robe and shaven or closely cropped hair of the Buddhist nun. Her appearance symbolizes acceptance of Eight Buddhist Principles which include: avoid unchastity; avoid drinking fermented liquor; avoid falsehood; avoid unseasonable meals; do not dance; do not play music or sing, do not see plays, movies, etc. Within Buddhism, her role is always subordinate to that of men, though in Theravada Buddhism her status is more acceptable than in Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism.

The Sangha has monks, nuns, disciples, and lay devotees who may be compared to the brothers of Roman Catholicism, or to devout women who devote their total life to the church, but who do not qualify as nuns. Leadership within the Sangha is normally elected by the members. These leaders have passed certain examinations and are usually quite senior in years of service. Consideration is also given to experience and ability. Rank within the Sangha may be indicated by fans or by clothing, but they are not ordinarily distinctive enough for the non-trained observer to note.

In addition to the Sangha, Buddhism has a growing number of laymen and women who take an active part in Buddhist organizational affairs. They work in schools, hospitals, youth work, and other cultural, social, religious concerns of Buddhism.

Merit And Merit Making: The Buddhist teaching of dana, which is giving for the sake of others without expecting compensation, has been largely replaced in popular Buddhism by the prevalent Asian folk belief in rewards and retribution. Thus the "merit-making" system is operative in popular Buddhist ethics due to its Karma concepts. Due to the axiomatic "By one's own good deeds, salvation must be won", the acquisition of Merit seems to be the basic motive of many religious acts. It also underlies much of daily social life. Many of the peasants assert that if the next incarnation is to be in a happier sphere, merit must be stored up. Merit may be gained by giving food to the monks, giving them robes, listening to sermons, giving money to the pagoda, becoming a monk, or even giving freedom to captive birds, turtles, etc.

Bad merit or demerits must eventually be worked off through suffering if Nirvana is to be achieved. In part, the concepts of Karma seem to result in a sense of fatalism. Man is the product of previous lives so actions in the present life cannot make too much difference.

The merit acquired by any act is dependent upon the following factors: the spirit in which the donor grants his gifts, and the worthiness of the recipient. Gifts to animals yield some merit; to evil men, a bit more; to good men, even a greater merit; to monks, a great value; and gifts to Buddha gain the greatest merit. These recipients of gifts or good deeds may be listed under 14 different categories. Merit is gained by the giver whether or not the recipient is in actual need of the gift.

Merit can be transferred from one person to another. When a boy becomes a novice, or when a man is ordained as a monk, they give merit to their parents. In giving one's merit to another, one's own merit is believed actually to be increased.

p. 28

Nirvana: is the highest state to which a Buddhist may aspire. It is a state of being that is outside or beyond the cycle of rebirth. An exact definition of Nirvana seems unobtainable since Buddha refrained from describing this state. When pressed for answers he gave parables and stated that it is the estate which his disciples should strive to reach. It is also the state in which the Buddha's followers believe him now to be as a result of the Enlightenment which he achieved. It was the lack of clear definitions of Nirvana that created the schism that resulted in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. In simple terms, Nirvana is the final release from Karma, the law that sustains the endless cycle of existence with its births and deaths. Nirvana can be obtained only with long and laborious effort, self denial, good deeds, thoughts, purification through successive lives and much perseverance. "Salvation" into Nirvana is the result of one's own efforts, and cannot be equated with the Christian concept of heaven.


Throughout Vietnam religious beliefs are so interwoven in daily life that little can be envisioned that does not include them. Traditionally the Wat, the pagoda, the Monastery, the "Spirit" Shrine, the communal house, in their respective locations have been the focus or center of village life. Birth, childhood, festivals, marriage, death, lunar occasions, as well as health, prosperity, posterity, travels, planning, house building, and similar events are very closely tied to religion. An understanding of the visible landmarks and symbols of Vietnamese religions will thus be helpful.

Wat: In all villages or communities where Buddhism is established, the area of the pagoda or temple, where the monks live, where the Buddhist school is, where an orphanage or "Old Folks" home is found, is called a "Wat", and has special significance to Buddhist adherents and to the others in nearby areas.

Pagoda (Vietnamese Buddhist Temple): This building is normally the largest, the best constructed, and the most ornate one in the village. Even in towns and cities its appearance quickly sets it apart from all other buildings. Pagodas are normally constructed with voluntary labor provided by adherents seeking merit for future existences, and construction funds are usually gifts from those seeking special "merit". Buddhism teaches that each individual must earn his own "eventual salvation in Nirvana", and constructing or funding the pagoda provide a good means by which merit can be gained for this end. The pagodas of Vietnam are normally constructed in the highly decorated style of the Chinese; and often utilize bits of glass and chinaware to give color and glitter. Often figures of dragons, the phoenix, and other legendary figures are interwoven with the accepted symbols of Buddhism, which besides the various statues of Buddha, include the "Wheel of Life" and the "Chu Van" (the "swastika" symbol which reminds the Westerner of the Hitler regime).

Wheel of Life: This is one of the earliest symbols of Buddhism, and consists of a circle (wheel) with eight or twelve divisions (spokes). The circle denotes the Buddhist concept of repeated births and endless existence. Eight "spokes" signify the Eightfold Path to reach Nirvana; and twelve "spokes" denote either the twelve "Principles of Buddhism", or the twelve-year calendar within an endless cycle of time.

Chu Van: This symbol is often found on Buddhist holy medals, on pagodas as decorations, and on the chests of the various statues of Buddha. It is the symbol of Enlightenment, the achievement of Nirvana. The Buddhist is taught that this sign will appear spontaneously upon the chest of the Enlightened. English speaking Vietnamese may tell you that it means "peace", but in reality it connotes a form of tranquility possible only to one who has passed beyond human emotions and has thus achieved Nirvana. The Chu Van is found in the following three forms:

(Chu Van
(Chu Van

(Chu Van
(Chu Van

Chu Van in Wheel of Life
Chu Van in Wheel of Life

Buddha Statue: This key symbol of Buddhism is found in various poses in nearly every pagoda as a central figure, and often throughout the pagoda area. It signifies the ideal of perfect compassion, perfect wisdom, etc., possible only to one who has experienced Enlightenment.

p. 29

[paragraph continues] While Buddha is not a god to the learned Buddhist, he undoubtedly fills this role in popular practice. In any case, the Buddha statue is held in sacred esteem, to the extent that this word to the Navy/Marine Team is not only sufficient but essential: TREAT SUCH STATUES AS YOU WOULD THE RELIGIOUS ARTICLES IN YOUR OWN CHURCH.

Gongs: These are used in Buddhist pagodas and homes for three basic purposes: to announce the time of a service or meeting; to mark the different phases or parts of a ceremony; and to set the tempo for chanting as an aid to increase one's meditation. The location of the gongs depends on usage, but they are usually found on the altar.

Bell: Located in or near the porch of the pagoda. The bell may be rung or beaten to inform the community that a meeting or special event is about to occur.

Drum: The drum of the pagoda is usually located on the porch of the sacred building, and is used to alert the surrounding community that a service or meeting is about to begin or has ended. The drum is normally sounded when dignitaries are present and participating in the meeting. According to Vietnamese practice, anyone hearing the gongs, bell or the drum is thereby invited to attend the event.

Flowers: Flowers are widely used for devotions in Vietnam, be it for family altars, graves, for worship in the pagoda, or for presentations when calling upon bonzes or older relatives. In the temple, flowers symbolize the shortness of life and the constant change inherent in existence. One of the meditations the adherent may offer when presenting flowers is:

These flowers I offer in the memory of the Buddha the supremely Enlightened One. These flowers are now fair in form, glorious in color, sweet in scent. Yet all will soon have passed away, their fair form withered, the bright hues faded, their scent gone. It is even so with all conditioned things which are subject to change and suffering and are unreal. Realizing this, may we attain Nirvana, perfect peace, which is everlasting.

Incense: Incense is symbolic of the spirit of self-purification and self-dedication. Incense produces a sweet fragrance, but only during burning. Similarly, as the adherent dedicates his body for a higher purpose, so will he diffuse fragrance. Incense is burned by the Buddhist as an offering in memory of Buddha, and as an aid to or a form of meditation. When Joss Sticks are burned, there are usually three to symbolize the Three Gems of Buddhism: The Buddha, Karma, and the Sangha. As incense fills all spaces, so the Buddhist hopes the moral perfection of the Enlightened Ones may be seen in all the actions of mind, body, and speech.

Lights (Candles or Lamps): Even as light drives away darkness, light from candies and lamps symbolizes Buddha's teachings which give light to the mind and drive away ignorance, replacing it with Enlightenment. To some, light signifies the hope that once they are enlightened, their lives will help enlighten other. s, even as they were helped by Buddha.

Food, Wine, Water: These are placed before the altars of Buddha, and symbolize that the best is first shared with Him. Only the essence of the food is essential for purposes of worship, so that the items themselves may later be retrieved and used as food by the worshipper. Foodstuffs placed in Vietnamese pagodas are generally simple. More elaborate settings, including prepared dishes such as roasted pig, are common to Chinese pagodas in Vietnam.

Merit Bowls: Better known as "Begging Bowls", a highly incorrect term used only by westerners, Merit Bowls are a means by which. Buddhist bonzes receive food for their daily repast. The practice of receiving food from the laity reflects the bonze's vow of poverty; and the gifting of the bonze with food provides a means of gaining merit for the laity. It is for this reason that the bonze does not thank the laity for the gifts; and that the laity feels grateful for the opportunity to earn merit.

Robes: The robe of the bonze is his identifying "uniform"; and because it is usually colorful, it immediately sets him apart as a man of religion. Differing colors of robes have no particular significance to the non-adherent, but among Theravada Buddhists only saffron (orange) seems to be worn. Bonzes of other Buddhist groups wear shades of white, brown, or yellow, without reference to order or status. However, the color yellow seems to be preferred for worship services and religious or civic ceremonies.

Buddhist Beads: These consist of a string of 108 beads, each symbolizing one of the 108 desires or cravings which must be overcome before one can become Enlightened. Although the beads are given other meaning, the larger number of Buddhist adherents and bonzes agree to this major symbolism. The beads are used in meditation.

p. 30

Buddhist Flag: The Buddhist Flag in Vietnam is composed of six vertical strips of equal width. The first five, from left to right, are colored blue, yellow, red, white, and pink or light orange. The sixth strip is composed of five horizontal strips of equal width, with the same colors and in the same order, from bottom to top. To the Buddhist, each color signifies a different virtue; but there is no consensus about which color denotes which virtue.

Lustral Water (Buddhist "holy-water"): is water which has been poured over a Buddha statue under proper conditions to gain some of the mystical effectiveness of the Buddha's virtues. This water may be used to pour over the hands of a corpse at funerals, the hands of a bridal couple at wedding festivities, to sprinkle' about a newly built house, or sometimes as medication for the ill. The American should treat this lustral water much as Roman Catholics treat Holy Water in order to avoid giving any offense.

Lotus/Lotus Blossom: The lotus bud or blossom early became the more favored symbol of Buddha's teachings. Sometimes rooted in mud and mire or pools of stagnant water, it develops without being stained by its lowly environment. Buddha used it to symbolize the fact that the human spirit can strive for purity regardless of circumstances. He used its four stages of growth to symbolize the stages through which people pass in their growth toward Enlightenment. The lotus is a quite popular offering to be given bonzes or taken to the pagoda or temple. The devout may be seen seated in worship listening to a sermon recitation and clasping an unopened lotus bud in folded hands. The seed of the lotus may be used either green or dry as sweet food. Its roots may be used to form parts of salads or soups or candied as a bit of desert. The lotus is often seen as decoration in pagodas, temples, graves and in art works of many types in Vietnam.


1. Essential beliefs: Buddhists often perceive Buddhism as a teaching with its Three Gems being Buddha the Teacher, the Dharma (Karma) or Teachings, and the Sangha (Order of Monks) which has preserved and transmitted the Dharma (Karma or Teachings).

Christians normally consider their essential beliefs to be God's revelation, with both Old and New Testaments carrying the ring of "Thus saith the Lord".

The two faiths have contrasting concepts of religion. To its adherents, Christianity is more than a teaching: it is the proclaiming of the Good News of the Incarnate and redeeming God in love and grace who may be accepted by man for both abundant and eternal life, with the news of this Power being the result of revelation. Buddhism is essentially a teaching "system" of knowledge that is metaphysical, moral, psychological and intuitive, with Buddha as the Great Teacher (and example) of a "Way" (The Middle Way) that "connects" and "identifies" man with his universe.

2. Divine Being: Buddhism does not accept the existence of a creative sustaining and redeeming God. Rather, its devotees are encouraged to accept the world (universe) as it is; then to ascertain means of following the pathway from the predicament of man in a world of suffering to escape from the "Wheel of Life" (Endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth, etc.). Christianity accepts God as basic and essential, as the beginning and end of all being; with no equivalent concepts in Buddhism, the contrast is evident.

3. History: Buddhism and Christianity hold opposing concepts of history. Buddha accepted the Indian cosmology of a repeating cycle of time. Since Buddha did not feel that knowledge of the origin of the world contributed to religious life, he apparently refused to discuss it. The concept of time advocated by Buddhism seems to be basic to the doctrine of a continuous cycle of existence. This doctrine necessitates rebirth but it is different from the Brahaminic transmigration of the soul. Buddha taught that the "human life-force" has endured an almost endless cycle of previous existence in the past, while the future holds a similar fate unless Nirvana is achieved through an escape from the Wheel of Existence. Buddhist theology also discusses just what is reborn or transmitted in this repeating cycle in accord with each person's individual Karma--"life-force" to the theologian, but this is much like the reborn individual within popular Buddhism. History that is cyclical, or self-repeating, tends to deprive nations, individuals, and events of significant importance as the endlessly repeated events, like the passing spokes of a rotating wheel, do not warrant great attention.

In contrast, Christianity begins and ends history with the presence and power of God. To its adherents, God is the Creator, Sustainer and man's Redeemer so that history has both

p. 31

pattern and purpose. To the Christian, history has significance because God works with and through humanity. Man's goal therefore is not escape, but reconciliation with God so that man may reach his fullest humanity; his value is not his tangible worth, but that which the Eternal God gives him.

This contrasts with the non-personal force which Buddhism accepts as the universal power. Through this force each man must be his own saviour as he works out his individual Karma in accord with that non-changing force. This concept is modified in practice by popular Buddhism, as many Buddhists seem to accept Buddha as a god-like power who can and does provide protection, care and support at times.

4. Salvation: Buddhism teaches that Enlightenment is reached by self-effort through following the Eightfold Path (The Middle Way). Christianity maintains that salvation comes by the grace of God.

5. Life's meaning: Buddhism regards this as fundamental and of universal concern. Buddha said: "I came to teach suffering or sorrow and the escape from suffering" (Potthapada Sutta p. 29). "This is a noble truth of suffering; birth is suffering, old age is suffering, death is suffering" (Vinaya, Mahavagga 1.6.10).

This is a value judgment based on the concept that the peace of mind and heart cannot be realized unless there is a permanency and unchangability. Thus the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of suffering and its cure, are basic to all Buddhist thought.

The Christian thinks of life as good, as a gift of God, to be lived and enjoyed in accordance with a Divine plan, even when recognizing the presence and influence of evil and its consequence. The Christian affirms that man, while having many flaws, holds the potential of growth and development through the indwelling God.

6. Tranquility and Peace: Buddhism praises the peace and tranquility which are the result of meditation and quiet reflection, while Christianity urges that the life of inner joy is a gift of Divinity. The Buddhist concept of the ideal goal of tranquility in its fullest and ultimate concept is Nirvana. The quest of joy and peace for the Christians has its roots in the sense of forgiveness and reconciliation with God; this reaches its highest completion in "heaven" where there is continuous and eternal community and unspeakable happiness in the presence of God,

7. God: Buddhism has no God in the Christian sense--no transcendent, personal, redeeming God. The Buddhist must therefore find within himself the purpose, wisdom, and significance of the ultimate, as well as release and peace. While the Buddhist has the example of Buddha in this quest, he must of himself provide his own release from the endless round of rebirth and suffering. However, within the popular forms of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, many adherents seem to believe that Buddha can help them, even though escape from the Wheel of Life must be achieved through one's own success in accord with the Law of Karma.

Within Christianity, God is generally presumed as the basic fact of existence. Because He is, man may have a way of salvation. Having come of God, man may return to Him. Though man may wander far and wide he is not an orphan, though only in conscious union with God can humanity achieve its ultimate destiny.

Because Christianity contends that salvation is possible only through Jesus as the Son of God, it is an exclusive religion. Buddhism, not having a personal creative, sustaining, and redeeming God, affirms that man as part of His universe may gain release from an endless existence and into Nirvana by following the Eightfold Path. While appreciating the basic difference of concept, syncretism of Buddhism and Christianity would seem to be impossible due to irreconcilable concepts of God.

8. Tolerance--Forgiveness: Buddhism teaches tolerance and Christianity advocates forgiveness as ethical virtues and goals. The difference of these two terms may create a chasm difficult to bridge. However, the practice of these two qualities by persons of the different faiths creates an atmosphere of cordial rapport regardless of possible implications of the terms themselves.

9. Prayer: The Christian concept of prayer involves communication with an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, prayer-hearing and answering God who cares enough for man that He gave His Son. Buddhism does not perceive of a power with these capabilities in its basic theology. So the prayers which may be said by some adherents in contemporary Buddhism seem to be a modification of basic teachings.

10. Sin: Christianity believes sin to be an alienation from Divinity created either by man in his current state or by transgression of Divine Will. Because Buddhism does not recognize such a Divine Power to who each man is personally responsible, "Sin" as understood in the Christian context does not exist.

p. 32

11. Worship: Christianity is a worship in which men are enjoined to have concern for fellow-man as a child of God. The adherent worships as an individual in a collective act regardless of economic status. Because the Buddhist adherent must work out his own Karma, and is not basically involved with others in this act, Buddhism tends to be a more solitary form of worship. Again in Vietnam, this is modified by the many influences.


1. Both religions are Asian in origin. (1) Both founders taught their concepts by parables, similes, proverbs, and sermons. Their forms of speech and thought images are sometimes remarkably similar. (2) The two founders recognized common problems; but thought them to be of different origins and, therefore, as having different solutions.

2. Both religions provide guidance to man; pose metaphysical and moral questions; are reforms of established religions; theoretically oppose legalism and meaningless ceremonialism.

3. Both seek to point out values believed to be permanent, supreme and all-encompassing. Neither Jesus or Buddha left any actual writings, yet what each taught by deed, word, character and through disciples forms the bases of the two religions, each of which now has millions of adherents.

4.. Both attract people with similar temperaments: of a devotional nature, with transcendent ideals and capable of voluntary renunciation of worldly aspirations.

5. Both resulted in major organizations, i. e., the Christian Church and the Sangha or Buddhist Order of Monks and its associations of laity.

6. Both founders gave commissions to followers requiring missionary activity, with messages aimed at all mankind. Both are still involved in varying degrees of effort aimed at the conversion of unbelievers.

7. Both Christianity and Buddhism have been state-religions at various times and places, although there is little evidence that either founder favored such establishments.

8. Both Buddhism and Christianity have been divided into major divisions; Buddhism into Theravada, Mahayana and numerous sects; and Christianity into Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and the sects.

9. Both religions developed monasticism (monks and nuns); suffered decline, absorption and impurities of the faith; both have largely disappeared from the lands of their births.

10. Both religions agree in a number of areas in the assessment of man's condition and predicament in a temporal world.

a. Both agree that man's current life is short and filled with sorrow.

b. Both religions repudiate man-made materialism and materialistic values as being of primary or supreme value; each asserts values and goals that transcend this present life and its achievements. Christianity has no qualms with regard to material acquisition as long as this is kept in balanced proportion so that spiritual growth is not retarded. Buddhism deplores the 108 desires, and, as an ideal, encourages as essential for Nirvana the suppression of these desires or cravings.

c. Each religion teaches that evil, in the form of anger, cruelty, greed, lust and desire, is found in the heart of man. Both offer solutions to these conditions, but with radically different means and methods.

11. Both Buddhism and Christianity stress that life and reflective thought are significant.

a. Within Christianity human life is important because man can commune with God since he is in God's image. He is given access to a future that transcends death as a gift of the Divine Being. Each individual may claim this gift. Buddhism teaches that man's life is so full of dynamic forces and vitality--consciousness, deeds, will and memory--that life simply cannot cease at physical demise (death), but must continue through rebirth. Only the one who obtains Enlightenment can bring life processes to a halt. This Enlightenment can be gained only by the greatest of detachment and personal discipline.

b. Both religions attach genuine importance, not only to this physical life, but also to those qualities which transcend it.

c. Each religion teaches that mental processes are involved in spiritual growth; the Tripitaka (Teachings of Buddha) stress right thinking, right analysis, etc., while the Christian Scriptures say "As a man thinketh, so is he".

d. Both religions stress the concept of cause and effect. Buddhism does this through the Law of Karma as well as the Law of the Seed and the Fruit, while Christianity observes, "As a man soweth, that shall he also reap".

p. 33


It is in the area of ethics that the agreement between Christianity and Buddhism is greatest; particularly so if the philosophy rather than the practice is considered. For instance:

1. Both Buddhism and Christianity are ethical religions.

2. Both stress that sincere attempts at moral growth are essential if man is to achieve the ultimate goal, be it reconciliation with God or Nirvana, even though moral perfection is not an ultimate goal in and of itself.

3. Both religions stress the existence of transcendent law: Karma for the Buddhists; "God's Will" for the Christians. Adherents believe that the law cannot be flouted, dismissed or ignored without serious consequence to individuals or society. Buddhism emphasizes the importance of deeds and the acquisition of "merit" (the fruit of right action), while to the Protestant Christians, observance of the Law is the result of commitment of faith, with "works" being the result of faith, rather than a prerequisite of salvation.

Mahayana Buddhism in practice provides "outside help" (from Buddha, etc.) for man's release from the cycle of rebirths, while Theravada Buddhism believes that man's release from the Wheel of Life is solely dependent upon personal effort. It is man's diligence toward attaining conformity to the precepts of the Eightfold Path that determines his release from existence in the endless Wheel of Life. Because hate is the foe of serenity, it is disapproved. The acquisition of serenity is given great importance as it enables the faithful to control gradually the 108 desires which would otherwise prevent the Buddhist from gaining Nirvana.

4. The voluntary renunciation of material possessions and pleasure is one of the highest forms of "merit-making" to the Buddhist; the Buddhist bonze is supposed to have only his robes (given to him), his merit-bowl, a razor, a cloth for straining water to prevent needless killing, etc. In addition, numerous voluntary vows may be followed or given up at will, particularly among Theravadists. The Christian also sometimes voluntarily renounces certain possessions and desires which he believes to be incompatible with his Christian development.

5. It appears that popular Buddhism in Vietnam is more interested in those ethical actions that result in rebirth under improved conditions and status than in an urgent seeking of Nirvana. The Christian understanding of "heaven" cannot be equated with Nirvana, as the two concepts are radically different.


Bernard-Maitre, Henri, Pour La Comprehension De L’Indochine Et De L’Occident, Paris: Les Humanities D'Extreme-Orient; (nd)

Conze, Edward, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, New York, Philosophical Library (no date)

Khanlipalo, Bhikkhu, What Is Buddhism, Bangkok: Social Science Association Press of Thailand, 1965

Kitagawa, Joseph M. (Editor), Modern Trends in World Religions, LaSalle, Ill., The Open Court Publishing Co., 1959

Kitagawa, Joseph M., Religions of the East, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1960

Nguyen Phut Tan, A Modern History of Vietnam, Saigon: Nha Sach Khai-Tri, 1964

Nhat Hanh, Aujourd’hui Le Bouddhisme, (Translated from Vietnamese by Le Van Hao), Saigon: Association of Vietnamese Buddhists, 1964

Noss, J. B., Living Religions, Philadelphia, United Church Press, 1962

Sujib Punyanubhab, Some Prominent Characteristics of Buddhism, (English translation by Siri Buddhasukh), Bangkok: World Fellowship of Buddhists News Bulletin, 1964

Vietnam--Past and Present, Paris/Saigon, Edition Frances-Asia, 1956


Warren, Henry C., Buddhism in Translations, New York, Atheneum Press, 1963

Woodward, F. L., Some Sayings of the Buddha, London: Oxford University Press, 1939

p. 34



A Buddha statue. Similar statues are   found in every Buddhist place of worship.
A Buddha statue. Similar statues are found in every Buddhist place of worship.

Buddhist Wheel of Life on gate of Cao Dai   Temple in Danang.
Buddhist Wheel of Life on gate of Cao Dai Temple in Danang.


Next: VI. Islam