History of Buddhism in Vietnam
To the wide world, Vietnamese Buddhism may be mostly known for a self-immolating monk of Saigon and the teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh. There’s a bit more to it.
Buddhism reached Vietnam at least 18 centuries ago. Today Buddhism is arguably the most visible religion in Vietnam, although it is estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the Vietnamese actively practice.
Buddhism in Vietnam is primarily Mahayana, which makes Vietnam unique among the Theravada nations of southeast Asia. Most Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism is a blend of Chan (Zen) and Pure Land, with some Tien-t’ai influence as well. There is Theravadin Buddhism also, however, especially among the Khmer ethnic minority.For the past 50 years, Buddhism has been subject to a series of government oppressions. Today, some members of the monastic sangha regularly are harassed, intimidated and detained by the ruling communist party.
Arrival and Development of Buddhism in Vietnam
Buddhism is thought to have arrived in Vietnam from both India and China by no later than the 2nd century CE. At the time, and until the 10th century, the territory we call Vietnam today was dominated by China. Buddhism developed in Vietnam with an unmistakable Chinese influence.
From the 11th to 15th centuries Vietnamese Buddhism experienced what might be called a golden age, enjoying the favor and patronage of Vietnamese rulers. However, Buddhism fell out of favor during the Le Dynasty, which ruled from 1428 to 1788.
French Indochina and the Vietnam War
The next bit of history is not directly about Vietnamese Buddhism, but it’s important to understanding recent developments in Vietnamese Buddhism.
The Nguyen Dynasty came to power in 1802 with some assistance from France. The French, including French Catholic missionaries, struggled to gain influence in Vietnam. In time the Emperor Napoleon III of France invaded Vietnam and claimed it as French territory. Vietnam became part of French Indochina in 1887.
The invasion of Vietnam by Japan in 1940 effectively ended French rule. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, a complex political and military struggle left Vietnam divided, with the north controlled by a Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the south more or less a Republic, propped up by a series of foreign governments until the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Since that time the VCP has been in control of Vietnam.