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Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990s

Robert Topmiller
University of Kentucky



Since July 1996, I have made three research trips to Vietnam to examine the 1960’s Buddhist movement. In the process, I have discovered the great diversity, vitality and strength of Vietnamese Buddhism despite the oppression it has suffered from the Communist party and severe internal divisions that retard efforts to present a unified message on the role of Buddhism in Vietnam at the end of the 20th century. To my great surprise, I found many monks eager to talk about Buddhism and its role in trying to bring reconstruction to a Vietnam that still suffers severely from the war. Many, in fact, wanted to make it clear to me that Buddhism holds the key to what ails the West also. (1)

As a general rule, as long as the discussion avoided any mention of politics I had no difficulty carrying out interviews. In fact, I found many Buddhists eager to talk about the 1960’s and their role in opposing the war and particular their role in bring down the hated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. Some Buddhist leaders went out of their way to praise the communist efforts to unite Buddhism under one national organization and end the extreme factional struggles that arose during the war.

In the same manner, I discovered a multitude of young people in Buddhist schools, monasteries and temples. In fact, the number of Buddhist young people entering the clergy was very surprising in a country where the church is tightly controlled. In some case, I encountered children as young as age five or six living in temples as Buddhist acolytes.

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

Buddhists, in general, subscribe to a number of beliefs drawn from Hinduism. One of the most important is the concept of karma wherein Buddhists believe that an individual’s role in life is determined by actions in a previous existence. Good actions confer higher status while immorality can cause one to return as an insect or snake or some other unfortunate creature. Most Vietnamese lay people belong to the Pure Land school of Buddhism and trust that their actions today can influence their fate tomorrow. Thus, they have faith in the importance of performing meritorious acts to ensure that their future will be easier. Vietnamese, however, have little sense of a personal god, unlike many people in the West. Most monks and nuns, on the other hand, subscribe to Thien (better known as Zen), a discipline that teaches that the key to liberation can be attained through meditation on a seemingly incongruous statement or question.

Despite the doctrinal differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, both streams place the concept of compassion and non-violence at the center of their ideology. Non-violence, however, constitutes more than a strategy to win expanded civil rights or other political goals. It is a way of life that respects the rights of every living creature.

Many Vietnamese note that Buddhist clerics traditionally led the battle against foreign invaders. Pagodas served as supply depots and centers of resistance during the long struggle with the French, and Vietnamese monks have historically taken an active role in political affairs, particularly in the long campaign to expel the Chinese. Thus, despite their belief in non-violence many sense no contradiction in upholding the rights of the people against an oppressive government and a foreign invader. In fact, the high point of Vietnamese dynastic history, the Ly era, coincided with the greatest period of Buddhist influence.

Often, Buddhist clergy have constituted a highly educated, disciplined, sometimes radical religious intelligentsia in South Vietnam. Buddhist clergy have often opposed the government but always retained close ties to the people. Thus, Buddhist clergy remain very shrewd in understanding their relationship with their fellow Vietnamese. Buddhist prelates seldom worked outside of the pagoda and therefore depended on the Sangha to provide for their daily necessities while the laity looked to the clergy for leadership and moral guidance. Out of this symbiotic relationship grew the interdependence that represents the essence of Vietnamese Buddhism. (2)

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

In 1964, as the Vietnam War and the American commitment to confront Vietnamese Buddhism accelerated, Buddhists attempted to fashion an adequate organization to carry out political and religious activities. Recognizing the need to project a united voice in opposing the war, they created the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which combined elements of eleven different sects and the Theravada and Mahayana streams of Buddhism. Despite the fact that the UBC has been outlawed by the Communists, seven major groupings of Buddhism still exist in Vietnam: the UBC; Chinese Buddhists; Vietnamese Theravada Buddhists; Khmer Theravada Buddhists; Hinayana Buddhists; Hoa Hao; and non-UBC Buddhists. (3)

Part of the factionalism that has plagued Vietnamese Buddhism resulted from a struggle over the proper role of Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhists have argued with increasing ferocity throughout the 20th century about the suitable character of Buddhism in a society permeated with violence and injustice. The disagreement has raged between those who see work for social justice and peace in the political arena as proper for Buddhist clergy and those who have emphasized religious values and removal from the world. (4) These conflicts have often operated on different levels influenced by age, education, region, family background, rank in the religious hierarchy and attitudes towards authority. Buddhism, therefore, has never spoke with one voice in Vietnam, particularly given the myriad of attitudes within its organizations.

The Communist takeover in 1975 exacerbated the problem of factionalism particularly after they created an official church in 1981. Their new Communist overlords, fearing the broad appeal of the UBC as the only long-term domestic opposition movement during the war, gradually attacked them, and other religious organizations, with the same vigor it had utilized against the GVN and the US. In time, security forces raided pagodas, closed down orphanages, disbanded religious organizations and placed prominent Buddhist leaders like Thich Tri Quang under house arrest or imprisonment in remote locations. Worst of all, from the UBC standpoint, the new regime established a government sponsored and controlled Buddhist church, which became the only recognized Buddhist religious association in the country. (5)

Yet, a serious rift still exists in the Buddhist hierarchy at a time when the country desperately needs their leadership to address the considerable social ills left over from the war. Some like Thich Quang Do have chosen outright defiance while others like Thich Tri Quang have engaged in silent protest and others, probably most, have acquiesced with government dominance of religion by refusing to speak out and tacitly accepting government control.

The UBC has taken a leading role in opposing the Communist government despite the great personal risk involved. In January 1992, Thich Quang Do, a prominent leader of the UBC published an open letter to Vo Van Kiet, Prime Minister of Vietnam. (6). This poignant statement detailed the long history of religious and political repression in Vietnam from the ascension of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in 1945 to the time of the letter and ended with a courageous call for religious freedom in a country that had seldom witnessed it throughout its modern history. Thich Quang Do subsequently received a five-year prison term for his actions. During the same period, other members of the UBC came forward with complaints about religious persecution and likewise received prison terms. (7)

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

He claims it remains impossible to say how many members of the UBC still exist because continued intimidation by the VCP prevents many supporters from publicly identifying themselves. To him, the creation of a puppet church after liberation represents one of the most pernicious acts of the VCP. Thus, monks and nuns who support the government have taken over its official functions and property while the UBC continues to suffer persecution. As he argued, the existence of an official church means, "monks oppress other monks." To him, the greatest service that can be performed for him and the people of Vietnam is to remind the world of the situation there. (8)

His position remains unimpeachable. The world has stood by silently while the Communists have carried out a fierce suppression of the UBC despite the efforts of individuals like Thich Quang Do. In a time when the idea of defending human rights has waned in the West, Thich Quang Do stands as one of the great practitioners of moral commitment, unflinching courage and uncompromising integrity of the 20th century.

Yet, he has not stood alone in opposing the Communists. Thich Quang Lien lives at the Quang Duc pagoda, a charmingly beautiful temple in a small rural neighborhood outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Everything about it was lovely and peaceful. The wall leading into the temple has an inscription in Vietnamese and English that says, "Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world. By love alone they cease this ancient law" which effectively sums up his life work, in 1965, he launched an indigenous peace movement in South Vietnam, later suppressed by the South Vietnamese government and repudiated by the UBC that led to his temporary ouster from the country. During a 1996 interview, he was very open in expressing his criticism of the VCP despite the danger to himself for speaking out. He discussed his peace movement, education at Yale University and other scholarly achievements while complaining that the Communists generally suppress religious freedom and that the GVN changes its attitude towards religion every day. To him the most important goal of Buddhism and the GVN should be the rebuilding of Vietnam.

Other monks and nuns have chosen to cooperate with the state or at least decline to defy it in order to be able to serve the people. Numerous Buddhist emphasize the social role of Buddhism in ameliorating human suffering while steering clear of any discussion of the political situation in the country. Professor Minh Chi, an expert on Vietnamese Buddhism, discussed the historic role of Buddhism as the guardian of the people and the social and political role of Buddhism in Vietnamese history. Yet, when I mentioned Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, he leapt back in his chair and said "you know about them?" and "I know them very well, they are fine scholars and good men." Abruptly, he stopped and said, "This is very difficult to talk about."

Thich Tri explained his work with the government in Ho Chi Minh City in attempting to bring amelioration to the many poor people in the city and sponsoring scholarships for poor children. As we were leaving, I complained to my friend that I was frustrated that I could not get his master to talk about politics or history. Thich Tam Thien replied, "that is why he is the most influential monk in Vietnam, today." He explained that since he avoids political involvement, his master’s prestige as a religious figure is enhanced and the people and the government respond to his leadership on social justice issues.

At the Vanh Hanh Institute, I discovered another important aspect of Vietnamese Buddhism today: education. The Institute has a large courtyard framed by classrooms and cells for monks with a small temple located in the center. Thich Minh Chau, the director of the Institute, argued that education and the retention of culture remained the most important goals for Vietnamese Buddhism, then and now. He also maintained that Vietnam suffered too much during the war and now is the time to reconstruct the country. He seemed proud of the educational accomplishments of the Vanh Hanh Institute with 45 resident monks and nuns and 250 students. Many of the young people who come to the institute today, he claims, wants to join because of their concern for social justice and a desire to help their country.

The abbot of the Vinh Nghiem pagoda, the largest in Vietnam, Thich Thanh Kiem, a diminutive and serious man claimed that his pagoda had over 600 students and offered two classes in Buddhism: a four year course of study in the Buddhist classics and a three year program of study in the higher classics. In addition, the pagoda houses over 100 visiting monks. Like Thich Tri Quang, Thich Thanh Kiem argued that the political activism of the 1960s had hurt Buddhism and that, since 1975, the efforts of the GVN to form one Buddhist organization had ended much of the factionalism that plagued the church before "liberation." While it remained hard to judge the sincerity of his belief in this statement, it appeared very similar to one made by Thich Tri Quang and indicated that it was said more as an act of self preservation than a closely held belief. Nevertheless, he emphasized the importance of education while pointing out the he has published over 100 books on Buddhism.

As I walked around the Tu Dam pagoda in Hue, a young monk named Thich Phuoc Nhon provided me with a cogent account of his early life, the rigors of his training, the affection he feels for his master, the quality of his education, instruction in Zen and his deep concern for the future of Vietnam. In his opinion, "Buddhism has to show the way," to the people of Vietnam to lead them to better lives.

Despite the difficulties encountered by Buddhists, one of the things that impressed me throughout my trip was the high number of young people I observed living and studying in pagodas. While the GVN suppresses Buddhism in many ways, it appeared that many young people still embrace its tenets to a degree that Buddhism will continue to flourish in Vietnam long after the VCP has exited the scene.

Even though government repression of Buddhism had been firmly entrenched by the GVN long before 1975, the VCP elevated it to a new level by restricting all religious and political activity in the country after 1975. Ironically, in 1999, South Vietnam no longer exists and the US has little interest in what goes on in Vietnam. Certainly, freedom of religion, as we understand it in the West, does not exist in Vietnam. Buddhists clerics, moreover, should have a voice in deciding how resources are distributed and programs designed to improve the livelihood and welfare of the people. The VCP, however, by terrifying much of the intellectual leadership of the country into silence while, at the same time, repressing the UBC, has sent a stern message to all monks and nuns to avoid the briefest mention of politics or human rights. Yet, Buddhism remains alive because of the young people who keep bringing renewal to it. They may not discuss politics yet, but the social commitment they bring to Buddhism and their concern for the people will eventually awaken their political consciousness and remind them of the centuries old relationship between the people and Buddhism. Someday, these young monks and nuns will help liberate Vietnam. Yet, the UBC stands alone in its opposition to the Communist government while people still embrace the UBC to a degree that indicates that Buddhism will continue to flourish in Vietnam long after the VCP has exited the scene.

Robert Topmiller

University of Kentucky





(1) I conducted a series of interviews in Vietnam with prominent Vietnamese Buddhists in 1996, 1997 and 1999 and was able to observe Vietnamese Buddhism under Communist domination. Also, see Robert Topmiller, "Tu Do Ton Giao Tai Viet Nam?"(Religious Freedom in Vietnam?) Que Me (Homeland) (Winter, 1997).

(2). For an excellent explanation of the importance that Buddhist monks attach to their relationship to the people, see Minh Chi, Ha Van Tan and Nguyen Tai Thu, Buddhism In Vietnam (Hanoi, 1993) and Minh Chi, "A Survey of Vietnamese Buddhism: Past and Present," Buddhist Institute Of High Studies (Undated). I discussed this during an interview with Professor Minh Chi in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in August 1996.

(3) While in Ho Chi Minh City during March 1997, I sought out Vietnamese religious figures that belonged to sects that did not align to the UBC. Thich Thien Minh (not the same monk as the one mentioned in this work), a Vietnamese Theravada monk claimed that while two Vietnamese Theravada monks, Thich Ho Giac and Thich Phap Tri held leadership positions in the UBC, most of the monks in this sect stayed out of the struggle with the GVN but still agreed with Buddhist efforts to end the war. Some monks formed a different organization but within a year joined the UBC. During the same trip, I visited a Khmer Theravada pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City where two monks and a layperson told me that while most members of their sect avoided joining the UBC, they also supported the Buddhist mission of ending the war. They argued that most Khmer monks opposed US intervention in South Vietnam because of the high rate of civilian casualties from American operations. In addition, they claimed that most Vietnamese did not accept the presence of foreign soldiers in their country and many monks responded to this feeling by opposing the war. Oral Interviews, Thich Thien Minh, Eka Suvanna, Phala Suvanna, and Nguyen Huu Nghiep, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March, 1997.

(4) Nguyen Tai Thu, ed., History of Buddhism in Vietnam (Hanoi, 1992), 369-370.

(5) Thich Quang Lien, an important Buddhist leader in his own right, told me he often thought Thich Tri Quang was a Communist until he was placed under house arrest by the Communists in 1975. He remains under house arrest today at the An Quang pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. I made four attempts to visit him during the summer of 1996 and another in March 1997, but he refuses to talk to foreigners. Thich Quang Lien, Oral interview, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, July 1996. The An Quang pagoda is still the center of Buddhist radicalism in Vietnam. When I visited there in 1996 and 1997, I was struck by its immaculate appearance, sense of order and discipline in comparison to other pagodas in the country that had a run down decrepit appearance. Even the repression of the Communists has failed to blunt the spirit of the An Quang. The first time I visited the pagoda, I walked upstairs to the worship area while a number of monks and nuns chanted in front of the altar. As I sat there in a lotus position, a young woman approached me and handed me a hymnal so I could follow along. Suddenly, I observed an older monk walk into the room and sit next to another elderly monk. Because I was sitting on the floor, I could see the first monk slip a piece of paper from beneath his robes to the other monk. Just then, I looked up and could see one of the ubiquitous informers the government uses to spy on religious sites leaning over a rail and straining to see what the monk had passed to the other. Unfortunately, I did not see the end of the story. I decided to leave rather than get caught up in a police raid since I was conducting research on a tourist visa, a criminal offense in Communist Vietnam. Steven Denny, "Human Rights In Vietnam," The Mindfulness Bell (Summer, 1994): 30-31.

(6) . All Buddhist monks in Vietnam adopt Thich as a surname upon ordination. It comes from the Vietnamese translation of the Buddha’s name, Thich-Ca or Shakyamuni. Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (New York, 1974), 1.

(7) I consider Thich Quang Do’s open letter to Vo Van Kiet to be one of the great human rights documents of the 20th century. For more on this, see "Vietnam: The Suppression of the Unified Buddhist Church," Human Rights Watch Asia 7:4 (March 1995), 1-16.

(8) While in Ho Chi Minh City in March 1999, I decided to visit Thich Quang Do. Meeting him was an inspiring experience. One would assume that a man who had endured years of imprisonment and isolation would be a serious, sober and traumatized individual. Instead, he is a warm, friendly, articulate person who exuded kindness and commitment to his principles. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and seemed genuinely happy to meet me. He told me that he became a monk because he loves Buddhism and wanted to help his people and, since Buddhism teaches love, it makes him very happy. Thus, his defiance of the regime can be seen as expression of his hope to bring social justice to his society. His opposition has come at a heavy cost, however. Since 1975, he has spent extended periods of time confined in prisons for calling for religious freedom in Vietnam and despite his recent liberation from jail, he has suffered harassment from security forces since his release: his phone is tapped and his movements are constantly monitored by the police. I expected the police to crash through the door at any time and my regard for his incredible courage and steadfastness in the face of fierce persecution grew as we spoke. Yet, when I called him a great man, he tried to deflect my praise with protests of humility. He seemed unfazed by the obvious danger he courts by speaking so freely. Finally, I decided to take my leave from this extraordinary human being. As I was walking down the stairs, he grabbed my arm and asked me if I remembered my promise to him. Would I keep it? Would I tell the world about the plight of Buddhism in Vietnam? What else could I say but yes? Thich Quang Do, Oral interview, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 25, 1999.

Source: The Wisdom of the Heart and The Life of the Mind - Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000


Update : 01-12-2001

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