Zen in Vietnam: The Making of a Tradition

A century ago, Buddhists in Vietnam—and in much of Asia—started rewriting their traditions, and in some cases even their history. Alec Soucy explains how what we think we know of Vietnamese Buddhism points to a much more complex reality.

By Alec Soucy

On the first and fifteenth day of each lunar month in Hanoi, Vietnam, temples teem with devout Buddhists. Devotees arrive at the temple with bags full of fruit flowers, incense, and spirit money. Off to the side of the shrine, people arrange their offerings, piling the fruit and spirit money (as well as real money) on the provided plastic trays. Reverently, they enter the temple, place their offerings on the altar, the flowers in the vases, and then step back; clasping hands together, they identify themselves, reporting their names and addresses to the buddhas, and then make wishes for themselves and their families to be healthy, successful, and prosperous. They then visit the other various altars for bodhisattvas and spirits, making similar but smaller offerings. When the incense from the main altar has burned down and the offerings have been infused with the blessings of the buddhas, the fruit and money are retrieved from the altars, and the buddhas are thanked for their blessings. The supplicant burns the spirit money in the furnace outside, conveying the essence of the money up to the buddhas, and then brings the offerings and real money home to be shared with the family so that they can also benefit from the buddhas’ blessings through the consumptive talismans.

Later in the day, a group of more devout Buddhists gathers in the main shrine to chant from the Buddhist liturgy called the Sam Nguyen, to atone for their transgressions and lighten their karmic burden. The liturgy consists of chanting pieces from various sutras as well as the names of important buddhas and bodhisattvas, then doing the nembutsu, called Niem Phat in Vietnamese. While some see this as a chance to reflect and recite the dharma, for many of the practitioners it is seen as an enhanced way to bring the buddhas’ benevolence to their families so they can thrive in this challenging world.

In overseas Vietnamese temples, from Hamburg to Hamilton, California to Canberra, the Buddhist practices are not dissimilar. Largely devotional, they generally involve meeting on Sundays to chant a variation of the penitence liturgy and recite the names of various buddhas, especially Amitabha, to atone for transgressions. These practices tend to be less syncretic than in northern Vietnam, with the temples generally being dedicated only to the Buddhist pantheon and not including altars to spirits. Individual practices like offerings of money (real or spirit) are not done. Nonetheless, devotees often make the same kinds of requests for help with worldly issues, particularly seeking the help of Quan The Am (Avalokiteshvara). Divination blocks are often placed in front of her altar so people can get advice about important decisions they need to make. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong communal element at these overseas temples, so while individual food offerings are not made, the offerings placed on the altars are consumed in a communal meal after the service is over.

When I first started doing research on Vietnamese Buddhism at a local temple in Montreal in 1990, written descriptions of Vietnamese Buddhism were rare. The two available English accounts that I could find in my university library were Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire and Thich Thien An’s Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam, both of which described Zen as being at the core of Vietnamese Buddhism—a very different presentation from what I was seeing at the temple. There was one additional French account by a priest–anthropologist named Léopold Cadière, who lived and conducted research in central Vietnam over many years in the middle of the twentieth century. Cadière’s short account in his extensive three-tome work on religious practice in Vietnam concluded that there was no clear Vietnamese Buddhism: “there are no real Buddhists except the monks—and not even all of them, because for most it is a job.” This was similarly unhelpful, since surely what these devout Buddhists were practicing had to be understood as Buddhism.

Buddhism as a Religion

It has taken me many years to make sense of the wide gap between the accounts by Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh, and the way that Buddhism is actually practiced by most Vietnamese. The first step was to recognize the way that globalization has led to the reconstruction of Buddhism. The Age of Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the development of the idea of “religion” as a social category. European exploration and imperial conquest brought Europeans in close contact with other societies, and the scientific method that had taken root led them to study and create typologies of all aspects of the natural and social world. The label “religion,” which had been used internally within Christianity to denote monastics, was adopted to label the category of beliefs and practices that could be found in different forms throughout the world, across spiritual traditions (though academics still debate exactly what the category of “religion” should include). A defining aspect of this new category was the centrality of salvation or enlightenment.

Peter Beyer describes in his book Religions in Global Society how different realms of human endeavour came to be systematized and seen as distinct enterprises: politics, economics, entertainment, academia, medicine, and so on, so that each had their own internal rules and processes and were incommensurate with one another. Religion, also, was developed as a distinct category separate from secular activities, leading to the idea of separation of church and state. The category of religion was recognized as comprising a number of distinct religions, and the academic field of religious studies was carved from theology to set about exploring and defining what these were. While from today’s perspective it seems self-evident that religion is an identifiable category made up of discrete and definable religions, at the time, this represented an entirely new way of looking at the world. This view has since reverberated across the globe, altering all traditions in different ways and to varying degrees.

Through interactions between Western Orientalist scholars, Asian Buddhist reformers, and Western converts and sympathizers, Buddhism was restructured to conform to this modern view of religion. It was distinguished from other religions, but also from beliefs and practices that were seen as extraneous, termed as “culture,” “custom,” or “tradition,” or pejoratively as “superstition.” It is out of these views that Cadière pronounced that there are no Buddhists in Vietnam.

The colonial discourses of European superiority and Asian inferiority appeared self-evident to many Asian intellectuals, who saw their traditions as retrograde and premodern, and the cause for their subjugation and humiliation. There was a religious response as well, with religious leaders calling for the modernization of their traditions. Mostly these came in the form of calling to a return to a golden age from which their tradition had been corrupted over time. These views were at the forefront of reconfiguring their traditions to construct core rituals, texts, philosophies, and practices into what we recognize as Buddhism today.

These Buddhist reform movements took place throughout Buddhist Asia, with figures such as Shaku Soen and Dharmapala being important figures in Japan and Sri Lanka, respectively. The reform movements were also international in scope, drawing ties between the various traditions, sects, and countries to draw the contours of the newly constituted religion. The central projects in this regard were to establish unifying symbols and foundational aspects of the religion. The historical Buddha was refashioned as Buddhism’s founder—an historical account, ironically, first assembled by a British missionary named Spence Hardy, whose aim was to prove the inferiority of Buddhism compared to Christianity. It was then taken up by the more sympathetic founder of the Pali Text Society, T. W. Rhys Davids. Bodhgaya was wrestled from Hindu control by Dharmapala to be remade into the geographical center of Buddhism. A Buddhist flag was adopted. The Buddha’s birthday was made into the main global Buddhist celebration. (In Vietnam it was not celebrated until the 1930s, and it still wasn’t an important day in the north when I started doing research there in the 1990s.)

Even as these reform movements engaged in transnational dialogue, they were also heavily implicated in nationalist discourses. Most tended to be country-based and were reactions to Western imperialism and Christian missionary pressures. They were usually elite movements that were part of larger projects of asserting national and cultural identity to push against European colonial powers. For Buddhists, these projects combined efforts to organize by forming associations and to assert nation-based Buddhisms that had been cleansed of superstitious elements and cultural accretions.

Zen and Buddhist Reform in Vietnam

Vietnam started this process quite late (in the late 1920s) and took its cues mostly from Chinese reformers, especially Taixu, who called for a humanistic Buddhism. Associations and study groups were founded in all of the major urban centers of southern, central, and northern Vietnam, but the French rulers prevented them from uniting into a single organization. The regional associations established schools for monastics to put forward a new, international Buddhist orthodoxy. They began publishing Buddhist journals that condemned superstitious practices like burning spirit money and supplicating the Buddha for worldly benefits. They also advocated for Buddhist monks to be socially active. It was at one of these new schools that Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh studied, and for one of these journals that Thich Nhat Hanh spent time in the 1950s editing, writing about humanistic Buddhism (which he later called Engaged Buddhism), and calling for the unification of Buddhists in Vietnam.

The Zen narrative fit well into the nationalist impulses of the Vietnamese reform movement and was adopted as the main narrative of Vietnamese Buddhism, repeated in nearly all subsequent historical accounts of Buddhism in Vietnam.

The nationalist impulses within the reform movement called for a new narrative of a distinctly Vietnamese Buddhism. This narrative was delivered by the scholar and participant in the reform movement in Hanoi, Tran Van Giap. Shortly before leaving to study at the Sorbonne, he discovered a fourteenth-century text called the Thien Uyen Tap Anh (“Outstanding Figures in the Vietnamese Zen Community”). It was composed during a period when, having achieved independence from a thousand years of Chinese occupation, the Vietnamese were trying to assert themselves as a distinct people and independent country in the face of periodic attempted invasions. Situated on the doorstep of arguably the most powerful military and cultural force in the world at that time, the Vietnamese had an ambiguous attitude toward China. On the one hand, they resented Chinese pressures, but on the other, Chinese culture was regarded as the pinnacle of civilization. The author(s) of Thien Uyen Tap Anh, in seeking to legitimize Vietnamese Buddhism, fashioned it on the Chan “transmission of the lamp” texts that recorded the biographies of Chan patriarchs as they passed the dharma to their disciples. The Vietnamese American Buddhologist Cuong Tu Nguyen undertook a thorough critical analysis of the Thien Uyen Tap Anh and concluded that some of the stories were lifted from Chinese sources, while the ones that appeared to be indigenous represented an eclectic form of Buddhism that was not particularly Zen. Instead, he writes in Zen in Medieval Vietnam, “Buddhism in Vietnam was a mixture of some Buddhist elements from India and China and the beliefs and practices characteristic of the indigenous people’s religious sensibilities and popular cults. This Buddhism emphasized magic, ritual, and thaumaturgy [miracle-working].” While there were some Zen adherents who made their way to Vietnam, and Zen literature was popularized in elite circles, it had a greater impact in shaping conceptualizations than actual practices. Thus, as Cuong Tu Nguyen notes, throughout Vietnamese history, there have been “no Zen monasteries, no sizeable Zen communities (we can even say no Zen communities), no recognizable Zen monasticism or practices as in the case of Japan or Korea.”

Tran Van Giap, however, uncritically used the Thien Uyen Tap Anh as the basis for an historical account of Vietnamese Buddhism that broke it up into distinct Zen lineages, despite the incongruence with the realities of everyday Buddhist practice in Vietnam. His account was published in 1932 in a two-part article titled “Le bouddhisme en Annam, des origines au XIIIe siècle.” The narrative fit well into the nationalist impulses of the reform movement and was adopted as the main narrative of Vietnamese Buddhism, repeated in nearly all subsequent historical accounts of Buddhism in Vietnam. Both Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh’s histories of Vietnamese Buddhism repeated Tran Van Giap’s uncritical reading of the Thien Uyen Tap Anh.

In 1954, Vietnam was partitioned, with the Communists taking control of the north and the US-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem assuming control of the south. In the north, under pressure of Marxist suppression of religious activity, the reform efforts largely stagnated. In the south, meanwhile, reformist discourses continued. Several monks went to study overseas, in Japan (Thich Thien An), the United States (Thich Nhat Hanh), Taiwan, India, and Europe, where they were further exposed to global modernist discourses of Buddhism that stressed salvation/enlightenment as the foundational goal of religion and emphasized the importance of individual experience and faith.

These internationalist impulses resulted in many foreign works being translated into Vietnamese and published in Buddhist journals, including the works of Western philosophers and thinkers. D. T. Suzuki’s works had a particularly important impact in reinforcing long-held elite fascinations with Zen and confirming that Zen represented the core of Buddhism. A number of young monks who were associates in Saigon in the 1960s were drawn to the Zen discourse. Among these were Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh, both from central Vietnam, and Thich Thanh Tu from the Mekong Delta in the south.

Thich Thanh Tu asked the question, “Why was Buddhism transmitted to Japan five hundred years after Vietnam, and their understanding has surpassed ours? The Thien [Zen] sect has been here for such a long time, but no one has a desire to study from us—even worse, we go to Japan to study. Isn’t it lamentable?” He embarked on a self-directed study of Zen and recreated a fourteenth-century Vietnamese Zen sect called Truc Lam, which has today become a prominent organization in Vietnam and has spread overseas (although almost exclusively within the ethnic Vietnamese community).

After Thich Thien An finished his doctorate in Tokyo in 1960, he requested approval from his superiors to start a Buddhist university in Saigon but was instructed to return to Japan for further instruction. He went to a Rinzai Zen temple in Kamakura, Japan (likely Engakuji, the reformist temple where D. T. Suzuki had studied Zen under Shaku Soen). After returning to Vietnam and helping to establish Van Hanh  along with Thich Nhat Hanh and others, he went to teach at UCLA, becoming the first Vietnamese monastic to take up permanent residence in the United States. At the request of his students, he started to teach meditation to Westerners and then established the International Buddhist Meditation Center, and though he claimed the Vietnamese sectarian label, Lam Te, it is likely what he taught them was the Rinzai Zen practices that he had learned in Japan. Notably, he also later established another temple for Vietnamese refugees a few blocks away, which practices the usual devotional form of Buddhism. Thich Thien An, a foundational figure for Buddhism in the United States, sadly died young of cancer, and his impact has faded into obscurity over time.

The version of Buddhism introduced to the West by Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh is part of the continuum of development in Vietnam, but it also stands somewhat apart. It is not representative of the way Vietnamese Buddhists mostly practice or think of their practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s trajectory was similar. From 1961 to 1964, he studied and taught in the United States, at Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia University. In his published journal from that period, Fragrant Palm Leaves, he concluded that Zen teachings and practices were more suitable for Westerners. Returning to Vietnam in 1964, he also contributed to the establishment of Van Hanh University, leading the School of Youth for Social Service as a way to actualize Buddhism. In Vietnam, he was known as a teacher, writer, and poet, and eventually became more involved in peace activism, particularly through his contacts with American peace activists such as Alfred Hassler and Daniel Berrigan. In 1966, he was invited to give a lecture at Cornell University and continued on a lecture tour to present the Vietnamese Buddhist position for peace in Vietnam to the American public. At that point, it became clear that his life would be in danger if he returned to Vietnam, so he went to Paris to try to bring public attention to the Buddhist position during the Paris Peace Talks. After the end of the war, a return to Vietnam became even more impossible, so he reluctantly turned his attention to setting up a permanent life abroad. It was around this point that he started to write more about Zen and established himself as a Zen master in the West, presenting an interpretation of Buddhism that uniquely incorporated many of the discourses of the Buddhist reform movement in Vietnam.

What we can conclude from this is that the version of Buddhism that has been introduced to the West by Vietnamese monks like Thich Thien An and Thich Nhat Hanh is without question part of the continuum of development in Vietnam, but it also stands somewhat apart; it is not representative of the way that Vietnamese Buddhists mostly practice or think of their practice. The modernist discourses closely linked to Zen have placed an emphasis on realization, awakening, or enlightenment as the ultimate goal of Buddhism, but for the vast majority of Buddhists in the world, both in Asia and in the West, the purpose more closely aligns with what Charles Taylor calls human flourishing. While modernist reform discourses led to an assertion that Zen is at the core of Vietnamese Buddhism, these assertions need to be understood within the context of the developments of Buddhism in Vietnam in the modern period.

The developments in Vietnamese Buddhism in the last century illustrate how modern discourses have restructured and reconceptualized Buddhism at a global level in the modern period. This history of Buddhism’s reinvention as a world religion, which involved reacting to external forces, crafting a new identity, and then embracing that new narrative as history, holds important implications not only for how we understand what Buddhism is today, but also for recognizing how it arrived to us in the West.

Alec Soucy

Alec Soucy

Alec Soucy is a professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he is also a research associate for the Centre for the Study of Sport and Health. An anthropologist of religion, he has focused his work primarily on Vietnamese Buddhist practices, exploring themes of gender, age, transnationalism, globalization, and neoliberalism.