Buddhism and contemporary religiosities of Vietnam

Wednesday March 14, 2018: Buddhism and contemporary religiosities of Vietnam, lecture by Pascal Bourdeaux, lecturer, École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Pascal Bourdeaux presented the diversity of Vietnamese religious life in contemporary times to highlight the peculiarities of this culture.
Explaining in prologue his interest for a specific region of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta, the speaker recalls that while being marginal compared to the Vietnamese empire, the latter has always been a crossroads of civilizations and exchanges between different societies, populations, systems of thought. It is customary to divide Vietnam into three regions, the North, the Center and the South, they are not only political or administrative constructions but are based on an important cultural and historical background.
Buddhism, or Buddhism, is a construction that emerged from the XVIIIe s. and strengthened in the XIXe s. when the Orientalists of the time, succeeding the missionaries, tried to define what these religions were according to their own categories. The phenomena that are the expressions of what is called religious modernity, stemming from the transformations of spirituality, especially in the colonial period, express a need or a social and spiritual expression. This magmatic set of "popular religions" is extremely difficult to define because it is a diffuse religion that changes over time and over the course of social upheaval. Since the 1990 years, we see a religious renewal and we can ask the question of what this religious dynamic means.

The nam tiên ("march towards the South"), process of conquest of the territorial space by the Viets.

Cult of the hero Trần Hưng Đạo (kiếp bạc). © Bourdeaux.

Worship given to the Mother Goddesses. © Bourdeaux.

Historically, Vietnam was formed from different elements: the Center, Cham and Hindu, and the South, which for much of its history, was part of the Khmer space and was influenced by Theravada Buddhism. . Understanding the history of Vietnam is thus understanding the diversity and then the pluralization of religious life that will appear over the centuries. Vietnam is above all a part of sinized Asia, whose structural elements of civilization (writing, Confucian monarchy) have deeply penetrated local traditions without however making them disappear. As much, in the majority of the countries of South-East Asia, there was or there still is a state religion, as Vietnam can be characterized by its religious plurality and the historical existence of a state. quasi-secular. Since 2013, the Hùng kings have been officially celebrated by the entire national community. We see here how the government perpetuates the imperial tradition of founding temples dedicated to national heroes.
In ancient Vietnam, one finds, as in China but under specific expressions, the triple teaching (Tam giáo Đồng nguyên) which is this coming together of common or compatible elements from Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. This phenomenon is fundamental to understand the ideological construction of the state and the establishment of relations between the people and the emperor but also the whole of community and intersubjective relations. The coexistence of these three teachings is found in the various temples that dot the territory. However, we note in XIIIe s. the emergence of a Buddhist school (Trúc Lâm Yên Tửwhich emancipates from the Chinese tradition to found a Vietnamese expression of Mahayana Buddhism.
Enshrined in this triple teaching, patriotic cults and heroes have been perpetuated. That of Trần Hưng Đạo (General of XIIIe s. which repelled the Mongol invasion) expresses a secular sacrality of the Empire (and today of the Nation): object of pilgrimages, it gives rise, not without polemics, to practices of possession to communicate with the celestial entities. The cult of the spirits is strongly implanted in the Vietnamese mentality as well as the cult of the Taoist Immortals. These cults of possession are the subject of a patrimonialization and the cult of Mother Goddesses is today inscribed in the intangible cultural heritage of Unesco. Another specificity of Vietnam is the communal house of the villages which shelters the tutelary genius (thân thành hoàng), founder and protector of the community. Each year, it is the object of processions and special cults. The Vietnamese communal house is the cultural, spiritual and social center of the village. If the building houses the traditional Vietnamese cultural values, it often presents a typical architecture in the north of the country that cannot be found identically elsewhere (colonial architecture in the south for example). Finally, ancestor worship is very important in family life and orders the cycle of life, from births to weddings and up to funerals. All these practices, public and domestic, individual and collective, irrigate an intense spiritual life in various forms.

The communal house of Chu-Guyen.

Buddha statue before Bửu Quang Tự pagoda. © Bourdeaux.

Altar in a temple of religion Religion Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa. © Bourdeaux.

Catholicism was established in Vietnam from the 16the s. thanks to the evangelization of the Portuguese, Spaniards and then of various religious orders, in particular, the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. Throughout the centuries, Christianity has adapted and structured the life of whole villages in certain regions. In the north of the country, there are still communities that practice ancient rites while in the South, the clergy followed and nourished the spirit of Vatican Council II. Protestantism, of Reformed or Evangelical tradition, is a much more recent expression of Christianity (XXe century) but certainly the most dynamic today, especially in its neo-Pentecostal forms.
Another aspect of the historical dynamic of Vietnam is the “march towards the South”, a process of colonization from North to South, peaceful and agricultural but also warlike and violent, which confirmed the conquest of the kingdom of Champā by Đại Việt, then the annexation of the Mekong delta which had until then been part of the Khmer space. This explains the complexity of mentalities, first sinicized, then in contact with the Brahmanic world and with Theravada Buddhism. Because of this, but also because of the partition of the country into two principalities, the Trịnh family in the North and the Nguyễn family in the South, Buddhism will evolve differently during the XVIIe-XVIIIe centuries. The construction of pagodas and the foundation of Buddhist schools will engender a certain osmosis of meditative Buddhism (Thiền or Chan) and compassion (tinh độ or Buddhism of the Pure Land). The North will continue the tradition of a Mahayana Buddhism strongly tinged with Confucianism.
During the XIXe-XXe centuries, the French colonization will provoke a cultural upheaval and religious debates that will see confront the ideal of evangelization and the so-called emancipatory values ​​of the IIIe Republic, both within the colonial society and part of the Vietnamese intellectual elite, traditionalists and modernists, who will separate between clerical and anticlerical, spiritualistic and materialistic. Nevertheless, the XIXe s. sees a revival of Mahayana Buddhism perceptible in the renovation of temples, a reflection on the texts, the translation into vernacular sutras, hence a better understanding of the doctrine and rituals. Theravada Buddhism will also benefit from the translation of the Pali sutras into the Vietnamese language romanized in the 1930-1940 years and will be adopted by some Vietnamese who will found new communities and the construction of temples.
Forms of messianic and apocalyptic Buddhism were also born in the Mekong Delta in the middle of the 19th century.e s., which express an attempt to return to the origins to move away from divination practices and other heterodox beliefs. Hòa Hảo Buddhism is today one of its direct emanations. More generally, intra-Asian circulations and religious hybridizations will characterize this time when the renewal of spirituality is manifested almost everywhere in the Chinese and Indian worlds.
This overview of religious modernity must finally evoke the caodaism, religion of synthesis instituted in the 1920 years in Cochin China who will reinterpret the local medium tradition by bringing it closer to certain Western spiritualist practices, founding its clergy and the Holy Land in Tây Ninh.

Caodaist temple in Ho Chi Minh City. © Bourdeaux.

Cathedral of Bui Chu. 1885.

Cham Mosque in An Giang. © Bourdeaux.

Finally, let us remember that some Muslim communities are also present, especially in the center of the country and at the border of Cambodia (Cham), and that the big mosque of Saigon is now very frequented by Cham, expatriate communities and tourists (Indonesians , Malay, etc.). In the same city, some Hindu temples of the colonial era are still frequented by Vietnamese who respect the rites, the liturgical calendar and the sacredness of the places.

To illustrate this wealth of religious practices and beliefs, it is sufficient to detail the architectural variety, in Vietnam itself but also abroad now, temples, pagodas, religious buildings and all their votive and liturgical objects for report on it. All this reflects this diversity and contemporary vitality of Vietnamese religions.


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