Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism in Vietnam

Among more than 94 million Vietnamese of all 54 minority groups, Buddhism is the most practiced religion. There are two types of different versions of Buddhism in Vietnam that vary in North and South Vietnam. Buddhists often go to pagodas to worship and pray in both north and south. Vietnam’s major ethnic group, the Việt, live mainly in tens of thousands of villages in the plains. These villages, the nation’s repositories, each have one or two Buddhist pagodas.

Differences between temples and pagodas 

A pagoda comprises a central building and several dependences. The central building is in the shape of a reversed “T” in which the hall of ceremonies ( bái đường) makes up the horizontal portion and the principal sanctuary ( chính điện or tam bảo), the vertical. The principal sanctuary houses the idols of the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism (School of the Great Vehicle), widely practiced in Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea. The most common are those of A Di Dà ( Amitabha, Buddha of the infinity light ), Thích Ca ( Shakyamuni the historic Buddha ), Di Lặc (Maitreya, Buddha of the future), and Quan Âm ( Kuan Yin, Goddess of Compassion). Noteworthy is that Buddhism is an atheist religion for its metaphysical nature and does not admit the existence of divinities- everything is only Maya or illusion. Thus, originally, it denounced all forms of idolatry.

Besides the central building, the pagoda also has a Chapel Room of the Patriarchs (Nhà Tổ). Worshipped here are patriarchal bonzes who lived in the pagoda. However, there is always an idol or a picture of a patriarchal with a collar beard and brozen complexion. Who is he? The “chư bà” (female celery) and the “lam già” (old faithful) – pagodas are often visited by the aged- are at a loss for the answer.

The bearded patriarch is in fact the Indian Bodhi dharma called “ Bồ đề Đạt Ma” in Vietnamese. His presence is rather curios on an altar where the rest are Vietnamese patriarchs. The common man somehow feels closer to Buddhas who fill the central building because they, despite their Indian origin, appear more Sinised, more Vietnamese than “Tổ Tây” or Western patriarch, as he is known.

Bodhiharma ( 470- 543) was an Indian Buddhist master, founder of the Chinese Chan ( Thiền in Vietnamese, Zen in Japanese, and Dhyana in Sanskrit), and the 28th patriarch after Shakyamuni. A scion of a Brahmin royal dynasty in South India, he left for Canton in China when he was 60, at the bidding of his master Prajnadhara.

He was a guest of Emperor Wu Ti of the Liang dynasty in Nankin. Wu Ti was an adept propagator of Buddhism. However, discerning that the ruler was not yet ready for the doctrine, Bodidharma crossed the Yangtse on a leaf, according to legend, went north, and took up residence at Shaolin monastery. He spent 9 years meditating in front of a wall before finding the way of Chan ( Thiền or Zen).

Thiền ( Chan or Zen) is a mixture of Indian Buddhism’s Dhyana and Chinese Taoism. Chan meditation is a concept drawn from the philosophic and religious thoughts of ancient India, but shaped by the Chinese school of Bodidharma, which was heavily influenced by the Sutra ( religious book) Lankavatara. The Chan school of Bodidharma teaches the immanence of the Buddha and techniques to attain Enlightenment; it advocates the transcendence of the intellect. Communication between master and disciple, and contemplation until Enlightenment .

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