Quang Minh Thich | FSU Library: Vietnamese Buddhism in America | 2-Abstract & Introduction
The Most Venerable H.T. Thích Thiên Ân
This dissertation seeks to shed light on the broad range of practices that Vietnamese Buddhism has contributed to the American religious landscape since its arrival due to the impact of the Vietnam War. Despite the presence of almost one million Buddhist Vietnamese and their Buddhist temples and centers, flourishing in nearly in every state of America, the diversity of this Buddhist tradition, however, has largely been neglected in the current academic study of religion. The major practices, religious activities, adaptations, as well as obstacles faced by the tradition are still issues to be addressed. My dissertation, being grounded in an immigrant’s experience and perspective, is intended to fill that gap, adding a more balanced and detailed view to the study of Vietnamese Buddhism. My historical, ethnographic, and phenmenological methods of study will establish the presence of major Vietnamese Buddhist practices, illuminating their contributions to American life, showing their adaptation and impact, and projecting the future prospect of the tradition. This dissertation, essentially, is a case study of religious adaptation and assimilation. I, however, do not limit my analysis to the theory that religious adaptation is promulgated merely by indigenous Buddhist cultural elites who have embraced and advocated the foreign faith in their own terms. Instead, I will add that religious adaptation is also initiated by the immigrants. The Vietnamese immigrants themselves, though trying to retain their Vietnamese Buddhist heritage, have initiated adaptation in order to serve the cultural and spiritual needs of their community in America. Adaptation is a survival mechanism for the immigrant communities.
Since the arrival of the Vietnamese refugees in the United States of America in 1975, the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition has also made its presence. Three decades later, in 2005, the tradition continues to flourish and Vietnamese Buddhist centers are established across the states. Yet, the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition and its activities have not been documented and misunderstanding about the practices of the tradition still goes on without clarifications.
Documenting the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition to fill that gap is the purpose of this study. Providing a historical, textual, and ethnographic study of Vietnamese Buddhism in America, I wish to shed light on the particular practices that Vietnamese Buddhism has contributed to the American religious landscape since its arrival in the U.S. during the Vietnam War period. In this study, I will demonstrate that Vietnamese Buddhism has made various adaptations in order to adjust to life in this country, while attempting to preserve its distinctive features. The major categories of adaptation for my study will include monastic organization, fundamental Buddhist practices, and interactions between monastic society and the laity. I will seek to challenge the idea that Vietnamese Buddhist practice has been watered down or somehow streamlined in the United States. Rather, I will show that Buddhist practice has been reinvigorated here as the result of thirty years (from 1975 to 2005) of enforced adaptations made both to preserve Vietnamese monastic tradition and to accommodate lay Buddhist participation in the United States’ non-Buddhist society.
The United States’ constitutional protection of religious freedom has provided a cultural framework conducive to the continuation and expansion of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. Vietnamese monastic training is flourishing; while more lay people pursue their Buddhist activities, including intensive practices. Buddhist centers run by the laity, an American improvement to the older tradition, continue to develop ways to enhance lay practices and to preserve the Vietnamese identity. As the laity gain more financial security after years of working hard to sustain their lives in the United States, they have more opportunities to devote to serious Buddhist practices. Working together, the monastic and the lay sectors of Vietnamese society have turned obstacles into opportunities for the expansion of their tradition. According to the census of 2000, Vietnamese Buddhists in the U.S. number roughly 900,000, about 80% of the 1,122,528 Vietnamese here. Vietnamese Buddhist temples, numbering at least 279, have flourished in almost every state of the Union. Nevertheless, the diversity of this Buddhist tradition has largely been neglected by the academic study of religion. Its major practices, religious activities, and adaptations, as well as obstacles facing the tradition, all present interesting issues to be explored. This dissertation, grounded in immigrant experience and perspective, is intended to fill that gap.
Buddhism was established in Vietnam even before the Common Era. A brief introduction to this tradition will offer a glimpse into its unique characteristics and point out the cultural significance of Buddhism in the history of Vietnam. Also, it will illuminate the links among the varieties of Buddhist practice embraced by Vietnamese people, including those who are now living in the United States.
Buddhism, especially Mahayana and Esoteric Buddhism, was initially introduced to ancient Vietnam by Indian Buddhist monks who arrived by sea during the third century B.C.E. After it was assimilated, during the Hùng Dynasty (r. 2000 B.C.E. – 43 C.E.), Buddhism became an integral part of Vietnamese culture and the religion of the land. The Bodhisattva practices of Mahayana Buddhism (the six paramitas or perfections), namely (1) giving, (2) morality, (3) patience, (4) effort, (5) concentration, and (6) wisdom, were the dominant ideals underlying traditional Vietnamese ethics. The concept of Buddha nature, which emphasized each individual’s potential to become enlightened, gave the Vietnamese confidence that they too could aspire to enlightenment in their own homeland.
Thus Vietnam came to be regarded by leading figures as a Buddha land, just like India and other great Buddhist countries of the time. There was felt to be no need for Vietnamese Buddhists to seek Buddhahood abroad. Moreover, the Bodhisattva vow – to work tirelessly for the benefit of sentient beings and alleviate their suffering while seeking enlightenment – offered people incentive to overcome their fear of death, while encouraging individuals to act for the common benefit. These Mahayana Buddhist elements were essential features for the unification of ancient Vietnam; the vows were embraced even by Vietnamese kings.
Mahayana elements were enriched further by the introduction of Indian Buddhism via the land routes, including that of the Silk Road through China. Without compromising its distinctive features, the Vietnamese tradition continued to enhance its vitality by absorbing certain practical elements of Chinese Buddhist traditions. They even made an effective use of Han, the classical Chinese language used to translate the Sanskrit of Buddhist scriptures, as a tool to propagate Vietnamese Buddhism.
Since the fifth century C.E., Esoteric Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, and Pure Land Buddhism have developed interdependently in Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism, due to its cultural and nationalistic features, suffered various kinds of attacks and challenges during the frequent historical invasions by the Chinese. In order to maintain its own character under the circumstances, which it did well into the eighteenth century, Vietnamese Buddhism had to constantly revitalize its own tradition while incorporating elements of others, such as Buddhist meditation practices from China. After surviving general suppression during the French colonial period, the Vietnamese tradition continued to revitalize its practices, embracing Theravada Buddhism, which had long had scattered adherents in southern Vietnam. (It was the dominant form in the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos.) When the communists came into power in Vietnam in 1975, their opposition to religions caused Vietnamese Buddhism to suffer further suppression.
Vietnamese Buddhism came to America in two waves, one during the Vietnam War and then after the fall of Saigon in 1975. During the war, Thích Nhất Hạnh introduced Buddhist mindfulness meditation when he was invited to the U.S. in 1961. Another meditation master, Thích Thiên Ân, initiated Mahayana inward Buddhist meditation when he came to University of California, Los Angeles, in 1966 as a visiting professor. He taught Pure Land Buddhism together with meditation as a unified method. These two leading Vietnamese Buddhist masters together popularized Vietnamese Buddhist meditation in the U.S. After the 1975 wave, when Vietnamese Buddhists escaping the Communist regime arrived in America as refugees, all major Vietnamese Buddhist practices became established in the United States.
In addition to illuminating the meditative Buddhist traditions introduced by Nhất Hạnh and Thiên Ân, this study will show that the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition is distinctly diversified. It includes all the major Theravada and Mahayana practices, such as Samatha, Vipassana, and Vietnamese meditations; Pure Land, Yogacara, Mantric esoteric practices; ritual and folk traditions, and so forth. This study will also highlight adaptations made by the tradition in areas of practice, outlook, and monastic roles, and it will examine adaptive interactions with the other Vietnamese Buddhist communities that scattered around the world after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The underlying reasons for such adaptations will be explored.
My goals are to document the presence of major Vietnamese Buddhist practices, to illuminate their contributions to American life, to show both their adaptation and their impact, and to predict the future prospects of the tradition. My dissertation, essentially, will be a case study of religious adaptation. I, however, do not limit my dissertation to the theory that this religious adaptation was entirely produced by an indigenous Buddhist cultural elite who attempted to articulate their original foreign faith in their own terms, as suggested by Mathew T. Kapstein in The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism and also by Eric Zurcher in The Buddhist Conquest of China. Instead, I will argue that immigrants moving to a new country also initiate religious adaptation. The Vietnamese themselves have adapted in order to serve their cultural and spiritual needs in America.
In order to achieve these goals, I have taken the following steps:
- I have gathered the historical and religious texts, annual and quarterly chronicles published by Vietnamese Buddhist communities, and also pamphlets and records of public Buddhist lectures or Dharma talks delivered by their monastic figures, so that the historical lineage of the practice can be traced, established, and confirmed. Published primarily in the Vietnamese language, these are public records that are traditionally released to the general public as a report about Buddhist activities, accomplishments, and local
- I have observed the practices and rituals performed at various Vietnamese Buddhist communities, especially in California and Texas, where the number of Buddhist centers is the largest, at least 105 centers and 26 centers, respectively. I made visits to those Buddhist centers during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year in February. Also, I visited their traditional Buddhist Summer retreats during the summer from June to August. These observations have been analyzed according to the original Buddhist texts, so that traditional practices and their adaptations can be further
- I interviewed leading monastic and lay figures, when possible, in order to clarify their traditional roles and their efforts to initiate adaptations. In the Vietnamese Buddhist community, initiators of particular Buddhist practices have often been prominent monastic figures. The questions for my interviews are attached in the appendices. The Human Subjects Committee at Florida State University has approved the questionnaire; official letters of approval are also included in the apendices. The main objectives of the questions were to gather public information about the origin of congregations, their form of management, the changes in their membership, their major activities and practices, and the plans for the young generations of Vietnamese American Buddhists at each individual temple. A Vietnamese translation accompanied each question so that it would be convenient and comfortable for participants who were not fluent in English.
- I have gathered information, including temple information, on residential monastic members, practice schedules, major ceremonies, practices and celebrations from the Vietnamese temple directories and from links posted on the internet. This included the Pluralism Project directed by Diana Eck, where a number of Vietnamese Buddhist centers were documented. I also discussed the issue of popular Buddhism in connection to the use of the internet as a new Buddhist medium in the Buddhist communities, as well as its
Altogether, the collected information has been translated, studied, and analyzed, using historical and phenmenological methods. Textual materials are indispensable as a means for the interpretation and verification of traditional practices within the Vietnamese Buddhist community. I have employed standard ethnographic methods of participant observation and of conducting interviews. Both are vital to this study, since they will show how the Vietnamese Buddhist community has made certain adaptations due to frequent contacts with other Buddhist traditions prevalent in present-day America. These adaptations have included the exchanges, enrichment, and modification of Buddhist practices. Another change has been the embrace of certain practices which have been popularized by a few of those prominent Buddhist figures in present-day Vietnam who are occasionally permitted to visit the United States and other Western countries. These findings have been used to illuminate changes made to the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition within an American context, as well as obstacles to future change.
Being a Buddhist bhiksu (ordained monk) trained in the Vietnamese Mahayana tradition, the major and the most populous among the Vietnamese Buddhist traditions, gives me the advantage of access to in-depth views of the principal practices of a place, of monastic structures, of major Buddhist organizations and their dynamics of governance and of various interactions between the monastic community and the laity. My Buddhist monastic status can be recognized by the word “Thích” as my last name. Here, in order to familiarize the reader with Vietnamese monastic names which will appear throughout the dissertation, it is worth while to note that the last name “Thích” is the Vietnamese translation of the word “Sakya,” the last name of the Buddha. Ordained Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns use “Thích” for their last names.
Also, after the last name “Thích,” nuns have the word “Nữ” which means “Female.” In addition to monastic knowledge of Buddhist texts and Mahayana Buddhist practices that I obtained from my training at the International Buddhist Monastic Institute located in San Fernando Valley, North Hills, California, I have my knowledge of the Vietnamese language, of Han (the classical Chinese language used in the Tripitaka), and of Sanskrit, which have all enhanced my textual investigation by reducing language limitations.
For more than a decade, I have conducted Buddhist teachings and practices and have interacted with and supported various Vietnamese Buddhist communities in the eastern and southeastern United States, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. This has provided me with a uniquely broad experience of Vietnamese Buddhist communities, their temple structures, Buddhist practices, major religious events, and also the obstacles they have faced in establishing such Buddhist communities. Moreover, I have made visits to several Buddhist countries in Asia, including India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Singapore. My observations of their traditional practices, Buddhist activities, and archeological remains will be taken into consideration for the purpose of highlighting the uniqueness of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. In addition, I will discuss the effort to establish a few Vietnamese Buddhist temples in Bodh Gaya, India – the site of enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha – by the Vietnamese Buddhist communities in diaspora.
Their collaboration has established further interactions between Vietnamese and Indian Buddhists. It is my hope to rediscover what has been lost, to give voice to what has not been heard, and to engage in what has been neglected.
Zen Master Thích Nhat Hanh
My dissertation has six chapters, as follows:
1. The Transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975. These will be explored, including their recent developments, and then will be analize in order, to trace the path of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism back into ancient times. I will document the presence of all major Buddhist practices in modern Vietnam and their direct links to those of the ancient Buddhist lineages of the country, as well as the Bodhisattva features underlying the Vietnamese practice of Mahayana Buddhism. Current Buddhist usage in Vietnam will be used to illustrate the differences between what had been practiced there and what is now practiced by Vietnamese Buddhists in the United States. It will also demonstrate the way the tradition made constant adjustments in order to survive Vietnam’s history of foreign domination.
In addition I will discuss the significance, in a religious context, of the language shift from classical Vietnamese (Nôm) to modern Vietnamese (Quốc-Ngữ). For centuries, the scriptural language of Vietnamese Buddhists had been Han, the classical language of the Chinese Tripitaka; this was itself a translation of the Sanskrit. The Tripitaka is the collection of the three Buddhist scriptures called the Sutra, the Vinaya, and the Abhidharma. In classical Vietnamese Nôm, a special way of adding certain characters to Han characters had been used to distinguish the Vietnamese pronunciation. This furthered, among other things, the national interest of the Vietnamese kings. As a result, Nôm was used alongside Han in Vietnamese Buddhist literature, and this use of Han and Nôm continued well into the 19th century, till the time when the French imperialists made Vietnam their own colony in Southeast Asia.
In 1865, in the first Vietnamese-language newspaper, the Gia Định, the French imperialist authorities advocated a Romanized version of the Vietnamese language; this was furthered by European missionaries with the goal of making Vietnam a French-speaking colony. They eventually institutionalized this language, in the early 1900s, but the colonial authority did not quite anticipate that it would one day become the national language of the Vietnamese. That came about because by the early twentieth century Vietnamese authorities and scholars, out of their desire to win over the French imperialist force, had initiated a Reformation movement which sought to modernize Vietnamese culture and to fortify the Vietnamese military according to Western models. Various ideas for reformation current in other Asian countries, including India, China, Japan, and Thailand, were examined to find the best options for the Vietnamese situation.
The reformists determined to embrace that Romanized version of the Vietnamese language. They encouraged people to study and use it, while modifying and gradually refining it into an acceptable form; it became the modern Vietnamese language called “Quốc Ngữ.” The move to embrace and popularize Quốc Ngữ was quite a phenomenon in Vietnam, which can be easily seen in Vietnamese newspapers and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, beginning with the aforementioned Gia Định. This modern form of the language was the official language of the Vietnamese under the Republic of Vietnam, after the collapse of the French Colonial powers. It continues to be the national language of the Vietnamese even at present day, under the communist regime.
Although Quốc Ngữ is an established national language, past debates concerning its pros and cons still offer a valuable insight into insider-outsider issues within contemporary religious scholarship. In Vietnam, during the colonial period, the country was fragmented and weakened due to the colonialist strategy of “divide to conquer.” A feeble royal house backed by a forceful military intervention from France resulted in the entrenchment of divergent interest groups, namely the French colonial oppressors, the colonist’s supporters, the Vietnamese anti-colonialist scholars, the revolutionary and anti-imperialist communists, the Vietnamese nationalist scholars, and the Vietnamese Buddhist supporters. These groups naturally favored conflicting agendas on national matters. Just like the insiders and outsiders in the study of religion, with their debates about the best stands for achieving objectivity, each of those groups claimed that their own strategic plans would bring the most improvement to the Vietnamese situation.
However, when it came to Quốc Ngữ, an unexpected outcome emerged. These many groups, despite their conflicting perspectives, eventually reached a compromise by adopting it. The reasons for this development are worthy of investigation. The situation may be instructive not only about the defense of one’s own stand in a debate, but also about the effort of reaching a compromise. It may also be relevant to the problems of adopting English encountered by the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha in present America. It is my hope that an analysis of the opposing perspectives that were involved in the adoption of Quốc Ngữ, especially the Buddhist perspective, will enhance our chance to compromise and tolerate conflicting scholarly stands in the study of religion.
Undoubtedly, scholarly objectivity is indispensable in any attempt to make a valuable contribution to the study of religion. It is, however, quite simplistic to assume that objectivity means that scholars have no stand, no outlook or limits that guide and inform their research and color their conclusions. Like the special interest groups involved in the adoption of Quốc Ngữ, everyone has personal interests and individual agendas which are the products of their own cultural bias. Having conflicting interests, however, should not prevent scholars from reaching certain compromises concerning objectivity.
In the Buddhist perspective, any event, including personal experience, is dependent on other related conditions. It is inter-related and inter-penetrated with its surrounding conditions; this is called pratitya-samutpada, having a dependent origination. Thus, scholarship cannot be isolated from its surrounding conditions and contingent influences. This fact was illuminated by Kathleen M. Erndl’s remark in Victory to the Mother that “no scholarship is value-neutral.” It is further confirmed by Rita M. Gross’s assertion in Soaring and Settling that “all scholars have their agendas.” As a counter-balance to any possible tendency of mine to favor privileged monastic training and practices, I will attempt to apply what Gross calls “the unity of methodology rule,” defined as “using the same standard to describe all positions and points of view, whether or not one finds them palatable.”
Vietnam has not been a democratic country that allows freedom of speech and expression. The country has no stable form of political government: several political regimes have come and gone within the last century. Textual resources from Vietnam, including histories, have been controlled to serve the interest of the authority that holds power at the time. A new regime will expose the dark sides of the previous one and glorify its own achievements while continuing to suppress opposing points of view. As a result, any scholarly investigation that accepts those materials at face value will go astray. Therefore, reading on the lines, off the lines, and between the lines will be all included in this scholarly investigation, since certain pieces of evidence (including those concerning Quốc Ngữ) could be suppressed and deleted by one group but resurrected and emphasized by another.
In keeping with the mood of reforming and modernizing the country, the leading Buddhist monks also saw a need to revitalize Buddhism. Even though Han was still a major requirement for studying Buddhist scriptures, they chose to support the move to popularize Quốc Ngữ as well. Adopting Quốc Ngữ, while maintaining a vital component of Han in monastic education, required a long and sustained effort. Nationally, Buddhism needed to revive in order to better serve Vietnamese Buddhists and the Vietnamese people in general. Internationally, Buddhism needed to maintain its own effective traditional features, while avoiding assimilation by non-Buddhist foreign and Western elements. The Vietnamese revitalization effort was forced to navigate between those conflicting requirements.
The Revitalization Movement became prominent after World War II, when bloody battles among the Western powers, and then the sudden collapse of the economy in the Mekong Delta under the French colonists, had shattered Vietnamese illusions about the invincibility of French colonial and other Western powers and of modernization in general. Vietnamese Buddhism needed to revitalize in order to avoid the disaster of being outdated, yet it had anticipated that blindly adopting modernization would be equally disastrous. It was thus that the tradition decided to embrace Quốc Ngữ while retaining the education requirement of classical Han in the monastic settings.
In addition to learning Quốc Ngữ themselves, leading Buddhist monks intensively trained the new monastic generations while encouraging lay people to learn and use Quốc Ngữ. They, individually or collectively, extended themselves to translate Buddhist scriptures from Han and Nôm to Quốc Ngữ. They even managed to publish Buddhist texts, chronicles, and bulletins in Quốc Ngữ. One of their visions was having the Vietnamese Buddhist Tripitaka in Quốc Ngữ.
Traditionally, Buddhist monks and nuns taught the Dharma and Buddhist practices in their monasteries. However, in keeping with the spirit of modernization they also embraced the new need to teach this modern Vietnamese language. It became a part of the monastic services to the public, helping to eradicate the illiteracy which had become widespread in the Vietnamese population as a result of French colonial policies. Soon monastics began to establish Buddhist schools, or Trường Bồ Đề, in order to provide elementary and high-school educations to young people. This became a national trend, especially after 1964 when the old colonial-period restrictions on Buddhism were outlawed. Also, due to the high number of orphans as a result of wars, Buddhist orphanages were established and managed by monastic members. Associations for Buddhist lay devotees emerged in various provinces of Vietnam and institutions were established in major cities by leading Sangha members. In addition to monastic training, Buddhist monks and nuns were allowed to attend public schools in various fields of secular studies.
Buddhist teaching, ideas, and activities from outside of Vietnam were studied and discussed in the hope of generating a more positive direction for Vietnamese Buddhism. In May 1950, the Buddhist Venerable Thích T6 Liên led a delegation of Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha on an official visit to Delhi and other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. Thích T6 Liên and his group also joined the International Buddhist Conference at Colombo, Sri Lanka. By this time, the experiences of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and Anagarika Dharmapala in the arena of Buddhist revitalization had already made their impact on Vietnam. As a result of this conference, Vietnamese Buddhism established firm and official connections to Buddhist communities worldwide. Another result was that the international Buddhist flag, which had been proposed in 1883 by the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, was brought back and raised in Buddhist temples across the land.
This trend toward revitalization of Buddhism in Vietnam continued well into the 1960s, when the National Buddhist Sangha was formed under the name “The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.” I will discuss the establishment of the national Buddhist institution in Saigon, named Vạn Hạnh University, and other major Buddhist monastic institutions in various regions of Vietnam. These are centers for training new generations of monastic members in the modernized Buddhist practices of post-colonial Vietnam.
During the 1960s, in order to update Vietnamese Buddhist educational methods, a generation of prominent Buddhist monks had been sent abroad to study. The majority of those monks eventually became the leading Vietnamese Buddhist monks abroad, since they could not return to Vietnam when the country fell under communism. Those monks are instrumental for the preservation and the propagation of Vietnamese Buddhist tradition among the Vietnamese communities in diaspora.
This brief survey of prominent Vietnamese Buddhist practices will serve as the cornerstone analysis of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition before the diaspora of the Vietnamese after 1975. The unification of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism within the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam appears to be a unique feature of the tradition.
2. The Communist Suppression of Buddhism in Vietnam. One of the major reasons for the Vietnamese Buddhists to escape from Vietnam was the lack of religious freedom. The Mahayana Buddhist Shanga, the leading majority of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, protested against the communist authorities when they restricted religious freedom and human rights. As a result, several leading members of the Mahayana Buddhist Sangha were targeted for stern repression by the communists. A number of them are still under house arrest. The present Constitution of the Social Republic of Vietnam will be explored in order to highlight the reasons for the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha to oppose the communist ideologies of the authorities. The Vietnamese Buddhist refugees, especially those in the United States, exposed to the world the grime reality of the communist suppression of Buddhism in Vietnam. They continue to support the Buddhist Sangha in Vietnam while trying to reestablish the tradition in America. The Buddhist struggle against the communist suppression is a part of the history of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition in its transmission to the United.
3. Vietnamese Zen in America. Thích Nhfit Hạnh introduced Vietnamese mindfulness meditation and “Engaged Buddhism” to the American public during the Vietnam War before 1975. This can be considered the period of American Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism, however, is not a new Buddhist practice. It began in Vietnam during the 1960s, with Thích Nhất Hạnh’s “Tiếp-Hiện Order,”or “Inter-Being Order,” as a way to promote peace and to protest against war in Vietnam. Based upon Bodhisattva practices, it encouraged members of the Inter- Being Order to engage in social services that provide comfort to people and alleviate the suffering caused by war and
This type of social engagement had previously been undertaken by several prominent figures in Vietnamese history who served as the National Buddhist Preceptors and advisors to the Vietnamese kings of ancient times. During the Lý Dynasty (1010-1225), the strategic relocation of the capital of ancient Vietnam to Thăng Long, or Hanoi at the present time, was accomplished at the direction of Meditation Master Vạn Hạnh. One can perhaps visualize the level of political engagement of these ancient Buddhist masters by comparing such a move to the strategic designation of Washington D.C. as the capital of the U.S. in 1800.
Thích Nhất Hạnh also introduced Vietnamese mindfulness meditation along with his engaged Buddhism. Vietnamese mindfulness meditation, which is based upon a Theravada meditative sutta, appeared to be extremely practical in dealing with the daily tasks of life. Soon after its introduction it developed a phenomenal appeal for the American public. It even became an essential part of his Engaged Buddhism. Books written by Thích Nhất Hậnh on this type of mindfulness meditation are still very popular.
Amanda Porterfield, in The Transformation of American Religion, recognized that Buddhism has entered the American religious landscape and that its audience continues to grow in response to the positive teaching by prominent Buddhist figures like the present Dalai Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh on training the mind as a source of happiness. She proposed that Buddhism, with its deconstruction of selfhood and its promotion of personal happiness, has contributed to the transformation of American religion. Her insights concerning those unique features of Buddhism will be highlighted in my analysis of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s texts on meditation.
Thích Nhất Hạnh’s mindfulness meditation was based upon the Satipattana Sutta or The Foundations of Mindfulness, a Buddhist Sutra drawn from the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Tripitaka. An analysis of this particular text will shed light on the appealing aspects of this mindfulness tradition. I will also discuss Thích Nhật Hạnh’s commentary on this particular Sutra, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation, in order to illuminate the Vietnamese features applied to the practice. Also, I will compare it with the Mahasatipatthana Sutta of the Pali Tripitaka’s Digha Nikaya and also the classical Vietnamese version, Kinh Đại An Bang Thủ Ý, and the Buddha’s Discourse on the Four Arousings of Mindfulness from the Chinese version of the same Sutra. Despite its Theravada origin, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta had long been combined in the Mahayana meditative practice of ancient Vietnam under the Vietnamese version of Kinh Đại An Bang Thủ Ý. These comparisons will illuminate both the authentic Theravada origin and the Mahayana practicality of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s mindfulness meditation.
Later, Thích Thiên Ân introduced another Vietnamese Zen tradition when he was invited to teach at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1966. The tenets and instructions for both these types of meditation will be elucidated and traced back to their foundational Buddhist texts and to the traditional Vietnamese lineages involved. I will analyze the three major texts written by Thích Thiên Ân, Zen Practice and Zen Philosophy, Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam in Relation to the Development of Buddhism in Asia, and The Zen-Pure Land Union in Modern Vietnamese Buddhism, for the purpose of establishing the origin of his meditative tradition.
Also, I will study his vision and activities in establishing Buddhist centers, in order to demonstrate his efforts to introduce Vietnamese Buddhism to the American public. The University of Oriental Studies and the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles, established under the leadership of Thích Thiên Ân in 1973, will be the focus of my exploration. Moreover, I will elaborate the efforts of Thích Thiên Ân and the Vietnamese masters, those who came to joined him at the University of Oriental Studies, to teach Buddhism and to train the first generation of Western Buddhist Sangha. Also, I will note the aims and impacts of the University of Oriental Studies, especially after the passing away of master Thích Thiên Ân in 1980.
4. Revitalization in Diaspora. The period from 1975 to 1992 was the time of rebuilding and strengthening the Vietnamese Buddhist community outside of Vietnam. Several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, including Thích Thiên Ân as the foremost, made great efforts to establish the tradition in America. Together, they prepared the foundation for the resurgence and expansion of the tradition that occurred in the U.S. a few decades later. The data, which will include my interviews and other materials collected, will generate information concerning their efforts. I will analyze their activities in establishing Buddhist temples and monastic training centers, and in propagating the Buddhist teachings; I hope to illuminate adaptations of tradition initiated by these prominent monastic figures as they promoted the continuation and expansion of the tradition.
When the University of Oriental Studies ended with the passing away of Thích Thiên Ân in 1980, the remaining leading Vietnamese Buddhist figures were dispersed. These masters moved on to establish their own practicing centers and to fulfill their own visions. In order to illuminate the adaptations that Vietnamese Buddhists made in order to revitalize their tradition, I will focus on three selective Buddhist centers, namely, the International Buddhist Monastic Institute (Phật Học Viện Qu6c Tế ) in Southern California, the Temple of Perfect Virtue (Chùa Đức Viên) in Northern California, and the Temple of Pure Heart (Chùa Tịnh Tâm) in Tennessee. They are exemplary because all the centers have had to struggle and make extraordinary efforts in order to establish themselves in the United States, and thus their history offers insights into the process of revitalizing a religious tradition. Examination of these centers will also illustrate three fundamental types of leadership in the Buddhist communities: those of the dedicated monk, the nun, and the laity, respectively.
A different Vietnamese meditation tradition taught by Thích Thanh Từ, a prominent Buddhist figure in Vietnam, has also become popular among the Vietnamese Buddhist communities in the United States. This will be discussed in relevant detail. Other prominent Vietnamese monks who arrived as refugees taught all the major Buddhist practices, but especially the Pure Land tradition of directing and transferring consciousness toward the pure realm of AmitƩbha Buddha. Altogether, the diaspora of monastics re-established Vietnamese Buddhism in America.
In order to serve the educational and spiritual needs of the Vietnamese Buddhist communities in diaspora, an effort was made to reprint Buddhist Sutras and other texts that had been published in Vietnam. Buddhist monks in diaspora also continued to publish newly authorized and translated Buddhist texts. The International Buddhist Monastic Institute (Phật Học Viện Qu6c Tế) in Sepulveda, California, with its own publisher, Ananda Publisher, was the foremost contributor to this effort, with a catalogue of more than fifty Buddhist texts in print during the 1980s and more than a hundred during the 1990s. Also, this publisher continuously shipped Buddhist texts of various kinds as donations to various Vietnamese refugee camps in Southeast Asia, in response to the requests of those who were anxiously awaiting their resettlement. In general, most of the Vietnamese Buddhist temples in America during the 1990s had their own Buddhist texts printed, though the lists of their books were quite limited.
In September 1983, the first traditional high ordination of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha in diaspora, the Thiện Hòa High Ordination, organized by Thích Đức Niệm took place at the International Buddhist Monastic Institute in Sepulveda. All of the prominent Vietnamese diaspora Buddhist monks, including those from Europe and Australia, joined together for this three-day-long, full-scale, and elaborate High Ordination. Their vision was to establish a new generation of Sangha for the purpose of preserving the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition in diaspora. They also envisioned that new, younger monastics could perhaps better serve the needs of the younger generations of Vietnamese Buddhist outside of Vietnam, while promulgating Buddhist teachings to the benefit of all. However, the precise details and methods of training those people who were ordained as bhiksu and bhiksuni (monk and nun), depended upon individual Buddhist temples.
The culmination of Buddhist Sangha activities in diaspora was the establishment of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in America in 1992. In Vietnam, the National Supreme Patriarch, Thích Đôn Hậu, passed away in the Thiên M\. Pagoda of Hue that year. His last message was an appeal for the unification of the Buddhist Sangha abroad, since those in Vietnam has been under stern repression since the communists came into power in 1975. After his funeral (abroad) ceremony, which was organized by the International Buddhist Monastic Institute in Sepulveda, the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha in diaspora invited all monastic members to join together as the late patriarch had requested. As a result, the Vietnamese American Unified Buddhist Congress in the United States of America was established in 1992.
Though individual temples maintained separate Buddhist training, practices, and financial matters, their unification in Buddhist ideology and in voice was intended to make them more effective. Similarly, other groups of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam came into existence in other countries within the same year. Here began the effort of organizing and unifying the Vietnamese Buddhist communities for mutual Buddhist practice and support in a systematic way. In addition to providing Buddhist texts and Buddhist materials to the Vietnamese refugee camps, the Unified Buddhist Church in America tried to dissuade the United States authorities from repatriating refugees to Vietnam at the closing of the refugee camps in Southeast Asia. The organization also made various efforts to sponsor monastic members who were there waiting for resettlement. Together, the establishment of various Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Organizations abroad fostered further interactions between the Vietnamese Buddhist communities in diaspora and other Buddhist communities.
5. Assimilation, Adaptation, Pilgrimages, and Interactions. Vietnamese Buddhism has flourished among the Vietnamese communities in America from 1992 to present. Vietnamese Buddhist temples have appeared in every state where there is a sizable Vietnamese Buddhist comminity, including Hawaii. The increasing number of Buddhist centers established will serve as evidence for the positive results of making adaptations. Both the activities and obstacles observed at those Buddhist centers will shed further light on the process of
The traditional role of Vietnamese Buddhist temples has been as religious centers which serve the spiritual needs of the populace. The temples have always been recognized as a place for chanting sutras, practicing Buddhism, studying the Dharma, and making dedications to deceased ancestors. However, in America they also function as cultural centers where the Vietnamese language is taught to young people and various types of cultural activities, such as Vietnamese vegetarian cooking, are made available to people of all ages. Some have even managed to organize musical performances during certain days of traditional festivity.
Ubiquitously, Vietnamese Buddhist temples continue to be the destination for visits made during Tet, the Traditional Vietnamese New Year. These additional functions of the Vietnamese Buddhist temple in America will be analyzed.
The effort, achievements, and obstacles facing the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition in the U.S. became quite widely recognized during this period. The Vietnamese Zen and Pure Land traditions have gained extensive support among Vietnamese Buddhists. Vietnamese mindfulness meditation and the movement of Engaged Buddhism initiated by Thích Nhất Hạnh continue to make their strong appeal among Americans. Pressing problems include the shortage of Buddhist monastic members and the difficulty of conveying Buddhism to Vietnamese-American youths.
During this same period, Vietnamese Buddhists also began to embark on pilgrimages from the U.S. to the important Indian Buddhist sites associated with the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. First of all, the fact of their making pilgrimages indicates that Vietnamese Buddhists have gained an appreciation of their Buddhist roots through their Buddhist training and practice in America. It also demonstrates that their circumstnces here, including religious freedom and financial security, have enabled them to follow their Buddhist ideas and that they have striven to embrace such religious opportunities.
Pilgrimages have been made to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha; to Bodh Gaya, the place of his enlightenment; Sarnath, the place of the first turning the Dharma Wheel; and Kushinagara, the place of his final Nirvana, all established by the tradition as significant places for pilgrimage. The stories, myths, rituals, practices, and symbols associated with these sacred Buddhist sites have inspired hundreds of thousand Buddhists, regardless of nationality and social status, to embark on pilgrimages. They are retold, performed, and explained to pilgrims by their group leaders.
These group activities at pilgrimage sites illuminate the fact that Buddhists, including the Vietnamese Buddhists, do not actively seek a sense of communitas where social status and hierarchy are temporarily discarded. I have been a participant observer in these religious activities, and have joined other devotees in order to experience my own practices as well as to observe and document those performed by others, during my three trips to those Indian Buddhist sites. I am inclined to agree with Kathleen M. Erndl, who has stated in her Victory to the Mother that the pilgrimage can have a personal significance that has nothing to do with the group as a whole. The Buddhist pilgrimage is an intensely personal thing, especially since everyone, including non-Buddhists, can always find his or her own spot to meditate or to make prostrations in solitude under the shading trees within the boundaries of those sacred Buddhist sites.
In addition to making pilgrimages to those Buddhist sites, Vietnamese Buddhists saw a need to have Vietnamese monasteries established at significant Buddhist sites in India. Thus, they joined other Vietnamese Buddhists abroad, making financial contributions that supported Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns from European countries in the construction of Buddhist monasteries there. The first Vietnamese Buddhist temple in India, situated a short distance from Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, was inaugurated in 2002. A few others are in progress.
Interactions among Buddhist communities outside of Vietnam became more regular, especially when they gained positive support from other Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church organizations abroad.
Vietnamese Buddhists have followed the religious practice of giving (dana, one of the six paramitas) to provide material support to needy Indians and poor students who live near those sites of pilgrimage. In the process, they also initiated interaction with Indian Buddhists. For example, Vietnamese Buddhist monks studying in India saw the massive conversion of low caste Hindus to Buddhism in Delhi in 2001 as a hopeful sign for the future of Indian Buddhism after Dr. Ambedkar. This event was widely reported and discussed in the Vietnamese Buddhist press and web sites. The Indian effort to revitalize Buddhism, initiated by Dr. Ambedkar in 1956 and now taken up by Udit Raj, an influential Dalit leader, was observed by the Vietnamese Buddhists with keen interest. While embarking on pilgrimages to the original land of Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhists were enthusiastic to see more Indians returning to embrace Buddhism.
Expressing support and solidarity to the new Buddhist converts in India was a part of their international interaction.
6. Achievements and Obstacles. At present, the dominant schools within the tradition of Vietnamese Buddhism in America are Zen, Pure Land, and the combination of the two. However, no separate sects of Buddhist practice have evolved from these prominent schools, as they have done in other Buddhist countries like China and Japan. This evidence confirms the fact that the tradition still retains its distinctive Vietnamese Buddhist features. The tradition has made various adaptations in order to assimilate into the American way of life. However, it retains its Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist core, serving the needs of the Vietnamese immigrants without having completely changed into a new sect of Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhist temples have flourished steadily in every state in the U.S. where there are noticeable Vietnamese communities. However, the lack of monastic members for several of those temples has become a pressing issue. In addition, the first generation of Vietnamese Buddhist masters has become very old, and a few have even passed away. As a result, the training of new Sangha members is vital to the survival of the tradition. Many temples organized by the Buddhist laity are in need of resident monastic members, and Vietnamese-American youths belong to an English-speaking generation and feel most comfortable obtaining Buddhist knowledge through the medium of English rather than Vietnamese. Thus, it is also a pressing concern that the new generation of monastic members must be trained to communicate in English and must have the capability to interact with young people in a more Americanized
As a conclusion, I will analyze the effective models of Buddhist assimilation elucidated in Buddhism in Hawaii by Louise Hunter and then make a projection for future directions of the Vietnamese Buddhist community in America. I will also examine Anthony F. C. Wallace’s “Revitalization Movements” for his theory concerning religious revitalization, in order to provide further assessments of the achievements and shortcomings of Vietnamese Buddhists in their adaptation to U.S. society. I will expand the analysis by referring to the reports and the yearly chronicles published by the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church in America after their conferences.
In this study I aim to illustrate the great resurgence of Vietnamese Buddhism in America by highlighting the broad range of practices and the unique features of the tradition, especially its ability to continue to embrace the Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition, the two major Buddhist schools. Instead of having a move to establish separate Buddhist sects based largely upon certain prominent texts, the tradition has chosen to harmonize the essential practices of certain major schools for the purpose of catering to the Vietnamese way of life. The significance lies not in the name and fame of a particular Buddhist school, but in the practicality of allowing an individual the ability to experience peaceful concentration and to maximize the benefits from the tradition. An individual can embark on Buddhist meditation when he or she has enough time and suitable conditions, or can undertake Pure Land practices while involved in busy daily interactions with others. Adopting these alternatives has been the long-standing practice of the tradition.
I will demonstrate that within Vietnamese Buddhist communities, despite the high regard for the Zen tradition, the Pure Land tradition combined with certain meditative techniques is the most prominent form of practice. On the other hand, I will also illustrate that Vietnamese Buddhist meditative traditions have proven to have great appeal to American Buddhists and have been integrated into the practices of their communities. Also, I will illustrate that the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition has made adaptations in practice in order to assimilate into the religious landscape of the United States. Such adaptations have produced a great flowering of Vietnamese Buddhist practices in America. The dual function of the Vietnamese Buddhist temples in the U.S., being religious centers as well as cultural centers, demonstrates one such adaptation. So does the existence of Vietnamese Buddhist centers run by the laity.
I will argue, however, that the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition still preserves its own Buddhist principles, monastic structures, and distinctively Vietnamese Buddhist practices. Some of these monastic structures will need to be further adjusted in order to accommodate the younger generations of Vietnamese Americans. Vietnamese Buddhism has, since its arrival, made heroic efforts to establish its roots in America. Serving the spiritual and cultural needs of the Vietnamese in diaspora and reaching out to benefit the general American public always have been the primary concerns of the tradition. In general, however, Buddhism is not a missionary religion, in terms of making an organized and concentrated effort to convert others. Rather, it is interested in accepting those who voluntarily seek to join the tradition for their appreciation of its teachings and their recognition of the benefits from its practices. As a religious tradition, Buddhism offers a solution to the eradication of suffering. It will no longer be needed when all sufferings are removed. This will continue to be the Buddhist tradition. Thus, an important function of Buddhism is to serve the needs of all people effectively, especially in the eradication of suffering. With regard to the young generations of Buddhists, the interests of Buddhism should not involve forcing them into certain beliefs. Rather, Buddhism should be concerned with bringing understanding, illustrating to those youths that they always have an excellent option for overcoming mental afflictions. This can be done by employing various skillful means, including modern technology. All the tasks of preserving and transmitting Buddhist teachings and practices are vital ones.