Pagodas and other sanctuaries in Vietnam

Videoconference by Pascal Bourdeaux, Senior Lecturer, École Pratique des Hautes Études and Nicolas Cornet, journalist and photographer, specialist in Vietnam.

This conference, the fruit of the crossed eyes of the researcher and the photographer, is based on the book Pagodas Vietnam Pagodas by Nicolas Cornet.

Pascal Bourdeaux first recalls the history of the spread of Buddhism in Asia from India. From the third century BC. JC the teachings of the Buddha will reach Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the west of the Indochinese peninsula (current Burma-Myanmar and Thailand) where will be structured, after the twelfth century, societies under Buddhism Theravada (Ancient Buddhism or Hīnayāna, in its pejorative sense of Small Vehicle); simultaneously Buddhism Mahāyāna (or Great Vehicle) spread from northern India to Central Asia, China and the Far East. In the seventh century, it is a third school, the Vajrayāna (vehicle of the diamond of tantric or esoteric nature) which takes shape in the North of India and in Upper Asia. It will be very successful in the Himalayan world, reach Mongolia and will be adopted by the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The North of Vietnam which was strongly sinized will adopt a Buddhism Mahāyāna tinged with Confucianism while in the South, it is Buddhism Theravada Cambodians who will maintain themselves alongside new Buddhist forms (Tịnh độ or Pure Land Buddhism, Thiền or Meditation Buddhism).
The pagodas were the object of an important work of preservation and analysis of the architectures and the decorations. In particular, Louis Bezacier (1906-1966), member of the EFEO, will study and restore a good number of monuments between 1935 and 1945 and publish numerous works. Apart from these historical and heritage sites, the pagodas, often more rudimentary and modern, are home to everyday and popular religious life. Some were thus made of reinforced concrete in the 1970s (Xá Lợi pagoda in Sài Gồn). They are nonetheless of historical value. It should not be forgotten either that Vietnamese Buddhism is also that practiced by the diaspora both in Europe and in the United States. We must however distinguish the practicing population (about 16%) and those who consider themselves Buddhist (we could speak of cultural Buddhism) but only frequent the pagodas during the main festivals.

Diffusion of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Pagoda Tây Ph.Tng.Thach Xa (suburban district of Thach Thât, Hanoi). © Nicolas Cornet.

Pagoda Dâu. Hanoi. © Nicolas Cornet.

If Buddhism is founded on impermanence, it is embodied, like all the great religions, in sites and monuments which become heritage and historical places.
Nicolas Cornet recalls that his idea of ​​producing this book germinated when he realized that some pagodas were being dismantled to build new ones without really taking into account the existing ones. It seemed necessary to him to carry out a sort of inventory to bear witness to the architecture and decorative art of the traditional Vietnamese pagodas of the Red River delta and the northern provinces. The art is expressed in the pagodas in the manner of the Gothic religious sculpture which one sees better in the cathedrals than in the museums. As in the cathedrals, the sculptures and the reliefs which one finds on the beams, the ceilings, the enclosures, were used for a long time to the teaching of the life of the Buddha and his way of salvation.
Buddhism and the pagoda are also the receptacle of various popular practices, to venerate ancestors, to obtain an oracle or to be treated by traditional medicine.
It should be noted that religiosity is expressed in different places such as the communal house housing the tutelary genius of the village (family), regional temples housing Taoist deities or patriotic cults (đên), the temples dedicated to Confucius (miYesu), pagodons dedicated to nature worship or other spirits (miễu). In Buddhism, we must also distinguish between different spaces and terms: Temple (pagoda), you come (Buddhist institute), đạo tràng (meditation center), tịnh xá (monastery) but also the what (monastery Theravada) and the hội quan which is a temple attached to a Chinese congregation.
In the Dâu pagoda, near Hanoi, the oldest in Vietnam and many times restored, we do not only find Buddhas or bodhisattvas; for example, the guards of the entrance are associated with statuettes of genies of the ground which attest the presence of a popular cult. Pagodas are places to go to for funerals, anniversary celebrations of the dead, Tet feast, the tenth and fifteenth days of the first lunar month.
Pilgrimages are also part of the Vietnamese religious landscape as the one that brings thousands of visitors to Chùa Hương (Perfume Pagoda) during the first lunar month. This vast complex of temples and shrines built in the limestone mountains of Hương Tích not only houses a Buddhist shrine inside the Hương Tích cave but also other temples that mix elements of popular worship. Another important Buddhist pilgrimage site is Mount Yên Tử which is the birthplace of the first branch of Vietnamese Buddhism. It was there that King Trần Nhân Tông (1258-1308) retired to lead an ascetic life. There he created the school of Truc Lam (bamboo forest), the first purely Vietnamese Buddhist sect. The mountainous site is covered with pagodas and stupas, and every year from the tenth day of the first lunar month and for the next three months, thousands of pilgrims flock from all over to attend the Yên Tử Festival, commemorating King Trần. Nhân Tông and worship Buddha.

Guardian at whose feet we can see the genies of the ground. Pagoda Dâu. Hanoi. © Nicolas Cornet.

Pilgrims in the Hương Tích cave. © Nicolas Cornet.

Stūpa on Mount Yên Tử. © Nicolas Cornet.

Buddhism has also become more urban and the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, located on West Lake in Hanoi, although being in a natural space is also integrated into the metropolis. Originally built near the Red River in the sixth century, it was moved to its current location in the seventeenth century. The characteristic of wooden pagodas is that all the pieces of wood are assembled and can be dismantled, transported and reassembled. People come there at the time of major festivals to make their devotions to the Buddha but also make offerings for the success of the family, the success of businesses or initiatives. Once again, we are at the crossroads of Buddhism and all popular beliefs.
It seems that a certain youth is now seeking, through an approach to Tibetan Buddhism, the spirit of original Buddhism and a new relationship to spirituality. Thus, in bookstores, one finds a large number of works devoted to the great llamas and the great thinkers of India. If during the second half of the twentieth century Buddhism was the object of suspicion, today it is perfectly integrated into the social fabric. The government uses Buddhism and the cult of heroes to promote rules of life and restore moral values ​​to society.
We must not forget that even in large cities, there is a cult of tutelary geniuses from the ancient villages which are now dissolving in the city, in particular in Hanoi. One can see particularly festive processions there when these geniuses are taken for a walk in a palanquin during the holidays.

Trấn Quốc Pagoda. Hanoi. © Nicolas Cornet.

Teenagers discussing Tibetan Buddhism. Hanoi. © Nicolas Cornet.

Procession of a tutelary genius. Hanoi. © Nicolas Cornet.

The Bô Dà pagoda, was built in the eleventh century under the Lý dynasty (1009-1225), then was restored in the eighteenth century under the Lê dynasty (1428-1788). It is one of the rare pagodas to have preserved its typical original architecture in a natural environment. Its labyrinthine plan is particular and martial arts were taught there. It has a collection of carved woods which made it possible to make woodcuts reproducing and illustrating both Buddhist sutras and Taoist-inspired plates.
Huế, the ancient capital, and still an important center of Buddhist studies today. There are schools such as the Báo Quốc pagoda, a high place of contemporary Buddhism. If the teaching is done mainly in Chinese there is, more and more, a desire to find the original writings by looking for them in the Pali texts. Monasticism Mahāyāna regulates the life of the novices between prayers, study, meditation, meals and free time. In the pagodas, you can also see children from poor families who are sent there for education. Some people sometimes decide to become a monk.
It should be noted that vegetarian restaurants are developing within the very walls of the pagodas and around them. The interest of young people in the practice of vegetarianism at certain times of the year is a marker of their interest in the spiritual values ​​of Buddhism.

Carved wood for woodcut. Bô Dà pagoda. Huế. © Nicolas Cornet.

Taoist impression. Bô Dà pagoda. Huế © Nicolas Cornet.

Classroom. Báo Quốc Pagoda. Huế. © Nicolas Cornet.

Some Huế pagodas pay homage to the monks and nuns who set themselves on fire in opposition to the war, especially in the 1960s. It is there that an original form of committed Buddhism was formed.
The Từ Hiếu pagoda, located five kilometers from Huế is a fine example of an arrangement with its triple door protected by a screen wall (to stop evil spirits) which precedes a body of water, then a hill on which the pagoda is built. , all this in the middle of lush vegetation. It should be noted that the enclosure of the pagodas is always very wooded and that the trees, the bodies of water, the natural reliefs and the constructions create a kind of microcosm loaded with symbols.

After having evoked the North and the Center of Vietnam, the book takes us towards the South, in the region of Saigon and the Mekong Delta which has long been part of the Khmer space before the Vietnamese and Chinese migrants created there. an original civilization. There is consequently a strong implantation of Buddhism. Theravada.

Entrance to Từ Hiếu Pagoda. Huế. © Nicolas Cornet.

Giác Lâm Pagoda. Ho Chi Minh City. © Nicolas Cornet.

Lacquered and gilded sculpture on jackfruit wood. Giác Lâm Pagoda. Ho Chi Minh City. © Nicolas Cornet.

Giác Lâm Pagoda is the oldest in Ho Chi Minh City, its foundation dating back to the eighteenth century. Its shape, quite characteristic of the pagodas of the South, evokes a typical cake of the region. One of its most remarkable features are the carved jackwood panels, typical of ancient southern architecture. These panels are the only ones to have been perfectly preserved in Vietnam.
The Bửu Phong pagoda, near Biên Hòa, reminds us that the Chinese community had an important role in South Vietnam. When the Qing dynasty takes power in China, many Ming legitimists decide to leave the country by boat and seek refuge with Prince Nguyễn who ruled the Center and the South. These first migrants will settle in the region and create the first Chinese homes. These Chinese temples are decorated with ceramics and scenes that evoke both Buddhism and court novels.
During the Tet festival, Chinese pagodas and temples, as well as Hindu temples in Saigon, are frequented by all the local population, without exclusivity. Buddhism is also the religion of death and ceremonies are organized in the pagodas, at home or in the alley next to the house of the deceased.

Bửu Phong Pagoda. Biên Hòa. © Nicolas Cornet.

The statue of Thiên Hậu surrounded by mothers. Bà Thiên Hậu Pagoda. Saigon. © Nicolas Cornet.

As said previously, pagodas are also places where traditional medicine is practiced and some have specialized in the sale of traditional pharmacopoeia.
Bà Thiên Hậu Pagoda is a Taoist temple that was built in the nineteenth century by Chinese traders. It is dedicated to the sea goddess Thiên Hậu (the Heavenly Lady) who was supposed to protect sailors and fishermen. This pagoda was taken over by Buddhism and is very important for women who wish to have children.
The Mekong Delta has a number of cultural peculiarities. The Tây An pagoda located in the Mount Sam region presents an original architecture mixing Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist styles. Another temple is the object of the most important pilgrimage in the south of the country, Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ which is dedicated to the Goddess of the Territory. The statue of the goddess, which dates from the sixth century, is in fact a sculpture in the Hindu tradition.

Temple of the Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa sect. © Nicolas Cornet.

Temple of the Hòa Hảo sect. © Nicolas Cornet.

Anniversary ceremony at Âng Pagoda. Trâ Vinh. © Nicolas Cornet.

Forms of messianic and apocalyptic Buddhism also emerged in the Mekong Delta in the mid-nineteenth century, which further express an attempt to return to the origins to move away from divination practices and other heterodox beliefs. The temples of the Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa sect are devoid of statues and a single red fabric evokes the presence of the Buddha. Another branch, Hòa Hảo Buddhism, revere Huỳnh Phú Sổ (1919-1947) who is considered a prophet and now revered as a bodhisattva.
Buddhism Theravada is also prosperous in the Mekong Delta and one counts in the region among the most beautiful Cambodian pagodas (Ang pagoda in Trà Vinh for example). These sanctuaries have multiple roofs with raised ends. The interior architecture of a what is very simple, two rows of columns, often remarkably decorated, divide it into three bays and support the roof. In these pagodas one sees only statues of the historical Buddha Sâkyamuni and illustrations of his life but no allusion to bodhisattvas or transcendent Buddhas and even less to the deities of the Vietnamese tradition.

Anniversary ceremony at Âng Pagoda. Trâ Vinh. © Nicolas Cornet.

Funeral ceremony in an alley. Chợ Lớn. Saigon. © Nicolas Cornet.

Through this photographic peregrination, we can thus realize that Vietnam is an Asian country where Buddhism is very much alive, multifaceted. These two forms of Buddhism are found there in particular. Mahāyāna  et Theravada, without forgetting the more popular or scholarly forms which give this particular color to this country.


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