Quang Minh Thich | FSU Library: Vietnamese Buddhism in America | 3-CHAPTER 1: The Transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam | Part 1

Figure 1 . One Pillar Pagoda, a lotus on a pond of lotus and a national symbol.

As refugees, the Vietnamese Buddhists have come to America since 1975 after the fall of Saigon. As a result of the Vietnam War, the images of the Vietnamese refugees perceived by the American public have been tainted by various colors of war. The Vietnamese Buddhist tradition was seen under a similar lens because the Vietnamese Buddhists protested against war during that time. However, behind that veil of war, the tradition has a rich tradition of peaceful and calm spiritual practices which can be traced back to the glorious Buddhist tradition of India. The American public might have known the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition as a “Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” Yet, they have not seen the other side of the tradition as it is perceived through its effective spiritual cultivations. Not only did the tradition, like the lotus, survive the scorching fire, it also rose dignified above the water and blossomed with serene fragrance, without being tainted by the surrounding filthy mud. This chapter will offer a vision of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition beyond that veil of war. It is my aim to portray the tradition in a vision of the pure and fragrantly blooming lotus above the mud of secular life.

My discussion will begin with the early transmission of Buddhism from India to ancient Vietnam. The first Indian Buddhist masters, their first Vietnamese Buddhist disciples, and the first Vietnamese Buddhist temple will be illuminated to show the long-standing and traceable lineage of the tradition. Various temple records and Buddhist texts will be used to introduce the major Buddhist activities of the time, including the early translation of Buddhist texts, the pilgrimages of the early Vietnamese Buddhist monks to India, and the initial obtaining of the Tripitaka, the standard collection of all Buddhist teachings. The early Buddhist practices of the Vietnamese and its impacts on the country as a whole will be highlighted. As will be shown in this chapter, Buddhism transmitted from India had enriched the life of the Vietnamese and had given them the national identity which enabled them to build a prosperous nation and to survive frequent foreign invasions.

Also, the major Buddhist traditions of Tantra, Pure Land, and Meditation (Zen), will be elaborated to show the flourishing of Buddhism in Vietnam. Unifying in practices, they worked together to enhance the life of the Vietnamese. Through the practices promoted by these traditions, the continuous link of Vietnamese Buddhism up to the present time will be established. In diaspora, the Vietnamese will reestablish this link in order to enhance their lives.

Vietnamese refugees, including Vietnamese Buddhists, first arrived in the United States of America in 1975 mostly empty-handed. Rather than having a preparation or a concrete plan for the future, they arrived due to a hurried evacuation as the disastrous result of the Vietnam War. With only the clothes on their backs and a few personal possessions, their only hope was to get to America, the land of freedom and the major ally of their former Republic country, and to escape the Communist rule. They were simply fleeing from their homeland – let alone entertaining thoughts of establishing Buddhism in the new world. One could hardly find any traces of Vietnamese Buddhism in the four major refugee camps in the United States, which were established to receive and settle the first 125,000 Vietnamese refugees, namely Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee at Forth Smith in Arkansas, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach in Florida.[1]  A decade after the first wave of arrival, and despite the continued influx of Vietnamese refugees (“boat people”), the Vietnamese Buddhist community did not have a noticeable presence. Rather the world heard more about the perilous escape and the terrible ordeals confronted by the Vietnamese refugees, who were risking their lives while attempting to cross the open sea and without knowing where they would be settled even after landing. This heart-wrenching mass human exodus lay behind the matter, as follows:

At the height of the exodus, over 56,000 Vietnamese left in the month of June [1978] alone and this number reached over a million by the mid-80s. Thousands drowned. Thousands were raped and massacred by pirates. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), around 500,000 to 600,000 boat people perished at sea. Those who survived reached refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. From those camps, many were admitted to the United States and other “third countries.” (Community History 1)

By 2005, three decades later, however, Vietnamese Buddhism has flourished in the new land. In the U.S., Vietnamese Buddhist temples emerged steadily in every state, including Hawaii. In those thirty years, with many Vietnamese-Americans were simply in the process of adjusting to the new culture while others were still arriving, a phenomenal number of 279 Buddhist centers were established. This is a remarkable presence for a population of approximately 900,000 Vietnamese Buddhist followers, about 80% of the total Vietnamese population of 1,122,528.

Vietnamese Buddhist temples are highly concentrated in the states with the largest number of Vietnamese refugees. California, with a Vietnamese population of 447,032, has 115 Buddhist centers. Texas, with a Vietnamese population of 134,906 has 29 Buddhist centers. The flourishing of Vietnamese Buddhist centers in communities populated by Vietnamese refugees indicates that Vietnamese Buddhism has continued to serve its people well in a new religious landscape and that the tradition has demonstrated its adaptability.

Before shedding light on the remarkable flourishing of Vietnamese Buddhism in America and its future directions, I will journey back in time to the Vietnamese Buddhist past, including the time before the exodus of Vietnamese refugees, so that an overview of the intricate links between the historical transmission and major practices of the tradition can be established. My investigation will define the traceable lineage of Vietnamese Buddhism. It clarifies the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from India to ancient Vietnam before the Common Era.

Also, it offers the doctrinal principles of the tradition through the first Buddhist texts translated for practice by the earliest monks. Illuminating the major contributions of the Buddhist tradition to the ancient Vietnam, a link is drawn between the Buddhist tenets and the formulation of a Vietnamese national identity and sovereignty. In order to shed light on the practice of the tradition in ancient Vietnam, my presentation will cover the three major Mahayana traditions of Mantra, Pure Land, and Meditation (Zen). These major branches of Buddhism have been influential and prominent in Vietnam from its inception until the present. Their major texts, which are still in use, will be examined for their beneficial tenets and relevant applications to the Vietnamese life. Also, I will briefly focus on Theravada Buddhism, which was officially introduced and recognized as a part of the predominant Vietnamese Buddhism since 1930s.

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[1] An account from Frank H. Smoker, Jr., a retired Major General of Fort Indiantown Gap, mentions that in 1975, when over 22,200 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees arrived at the Fort, “A Vietnamese Catholic Priest conducted services in the Area 6 Chapel on a regular basis. The Area 5 Chapel was also reactivated as a Buddhist temple to accommodate those many refugees who were Buddhists.” (Smoker 2)

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