Buddhism in Vietnam:
An Education in Enlightenment
By Nathan Lane
The Vietnamese people are among the warmest, friendliest and most gracious we’ve ever encountered. It’s likely not a coincidence that more than half the country practices Buddhism, a religion focused on enlightenment.
Buddhism is one of the four primary religions and philosophies that shape the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people. (The others are: Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity.) A fifth religion takes elements from each of the three Eastern religions and fuses them with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known collectively as tam giáo, or “triple religion.”
It’s estimated that more than 60 per cent of Vietnamese people practice some form of Buddhism, and both of its two main schools—Mahayana and Theravada—are represented. Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” predominates due to the powerful historical influence of the Chinese. It was introduced in northern Vietnam during the 3rd century A.D.
Differentiating the Schools
The fundamental difference between the two schools of Buddhism is that Mahayana Buddhists work toward the enlightenment and salvation of all sentient beings, while Theravada Buddhists believe in a personal quest for enlightenment. Theravada Buddhists claim to adhere to the original teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, while Mahayanists claim to have expanded on these teachings for the greater good, and consider Gautama only one of the innumerable manifestations of the Ultimate Buddha.
These countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas gave rise to the plethora of deities whose aid can be sought through invocations and offerings. Bodhisattva is the name the Mahayanas give to those who have renounced their chance at Nirvana and have instead returned to Earth to help all beings reach enlightenment.
Theravada, or “Tradition of the Elders,” is considered by some to be a purer form of Buddhism. It travelled to Vietnam about 100 years earlier than Mahayana, by way of the south, along Indian trade routes through Siam and Myanmar. Today, it exists only in small pockets of the Mekong Delta.