Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

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FiveSkandhas
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Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

Post by FiveSkandhas »

Traditionally, as many of you will probably know, Vietnam has
been a strong southern home to Mahayana. A number of people erroneously assume that Vietnam is primarily Theravadan, due to its location in Southeast Asia, but this is not the case.

Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is, of course, the most globally famed exemplar of Vietnamese Mahayana, and I was reminded by my own earlier post* today that Vietnam also has a long-lived and profound Pure Land tradition. This latter school appears somewhat "Sinetic" in flavor, as opposed to the Japanese Pure Land practices of the Jodo, Jodo-Shin, and Ji sects (among others). It also may have its own characteristics, but sorting out the Chinese and "native" aspects of Vietnamese Pure Land is beyond me.

It is perhaps even less well known that Vietnamese Buddhism has an esoteric strain. The only English source containing any information on this that I am aware of is an older book called "The Quintessence of Secret Buddhism," which may or may not be still available anywhere. If I am not mistaken, the book notes that at one point the esoteric lineage in Vietnam was lost, following which a certain number of Vietnamese masters studied esotericism based on earlier writings without direct transmission. According to this book, under such state of affairs, Masters were considered to be able to validly train in and practice esoteric Buddhism, but not to pass it down in their own lineages. This is the only instance I have come across of such a system of esotericism. I may also have read that esoteric Buddhist lineage(s?) was/were re-established at some point by Japanese Shingon and/or Tendai priests, but I cannot fully confirm this point.

Vietnamese esotericism seems (again, if I am not mistaken -- it has been some time since I read anything on this elusive topic) to be similar in scope to Japanese Mikkyo: dealing, that is, with what the Tibetans would call the "lower tantras" rather than the "higher." It also appears to work heavily with a number of diagrams that might be considered "yantra-like," although the examples I have seen are complex linear drawings that appear more similar to Taoist talismans than Indian Yantras.

I'd like to open a thread about Vietnamese Buddhism, in the hopes someone will know more than me on the topic. While I have read a bit on it, works in English are rare and apparently small in number. (I will head over to academia.com to see if I can find any specialist dissertations or papers). There is a wiki article on it but as most of us know, wiki is full of dangerous errors, so I won't be using it here. In the meantime, these are my open questions:

1) Vietnam has been a Communist nation for some time. As communists, they have generally taken a dim view of religion. Even before Communism, there was a strong Catholic presence that eroded Buddhism. To what extent is Buddhism still a living religion in Vietnam? I am aware it is legally recognized and controlled in theory by the central government.

2) The central government apparently established a single "unified Vietnamese Sangha" (official name unknown to me) in the 1980s, and this is what is permitted. This seems to suggest there is no offical sectarianism (as in Japan, for example). Can anyone corroborate this (without using Wikipedia)?

3) The temple used to play a central role in traditional Vietnamese villages. To what extent, if any, is this still true? How much of Vietnamese Buddhism is "top-down" government-controlled and how much is grassroots village-level tradition.

4) What is the scope of Vietnamese Mahayana? In addition to Zen, Pure Land, and esotericism, were there other sects or schools traditionally? If Vietnam is not sectarian now, was it ever? I tentatively feel the situation was, as in China, more fluid than the Japanese millieu, with it's sectarian history (although it appears that strict sectarianism may have been more a theory than a practice for most of Japanese history, too.)

5) Further information on the esoteric form of Vietnamese Buddhism would be particularly welcome. I may be able to scrape up a bit more myself...but probably not much more.

6) Throughout most of Vietnamese history, villages were intensely isolated from each other. There was the Village level, the Imperial level, and not much in between. This social situation differs markedly from that of other Mahayana nations like Japan, China, and Korea. How was this intense localism reflected in traditional Buddhism?

7) Syncretism with local traditions: it took place. Anyone have any details?

8) Anything else on the topic is welcome.

Off to dust off a few old sources and do some academic searches.


*In this thread: https://dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=60&t=32954
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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

Post by humble.student »

FiveSkandhas wrote: Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:03 am
It is perhaps even less well known that Vietnamese Buddhism has an esoteric strain. The only English source containing any information on this that I am aware of is an older book called "The Quintessence of Secret Buddhism," which may or may not be still available anywhere. If I am not mistaken, the book notes that at one point the esoteric lineage in Vietnam was lost, following which a certain number of Vietnamese masters studied esotericism based on earlier writings without direct transmission. According to this book, under such state of affairs, Masters were considered to be able to validly train in and practice esoteric Buddhism, but not to pass it down in their own lineages. This is the only instance I have come across of such a system of esotericism. I may also have read that esoteric Buddhist lineage(s?) was/were re-established at some point by Japanese Shingon and/or Tendai priests, but I cannot fully confirm this point.
There was a thread on this before I think.
The case you outline for Vietnam is more or less the same as for China, although the concern for lineage is not something that seems accurate in this respect since many of the practices are derived from dharani sutras, which do not require empowerment. The "earlier writings" you mention include the Xianmi Yuantong Chengfo Xinyao ji, which also does away with the need for a master, in favour of direct practice. This is the work the Quintessence book you cite is based on, as far as I recall.

In more recent years, some Vietnamese masters have gone to study in Bhutan and brought back some lineages from there in order to revitalise the practice of "proper" Tantra. Unlike Korea, I never heard of Shingon priests there.
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

Post by FiveSkandhas »

humble.student wrote: Sat Oct 10, 2020 12:21 am

There was a thread on this before I think.
The case you outline for Vietnam is more or less the same as for China, although the concern for lineage is not something that seems accurate in this respect since many of the practices are derived from dharani sutras, which do not require empowerment. The "earlier writings" you mention include the Xianmi Yuantong Chengfo Xinyao ji, which also does away with the need for a master, in favour of direct practice. This is the work the Quintessence book you cite is based on, as far as I recall.

In more recent years, some Vietnamese masters have gone to study in Bhutan and brought back some lineages from there in order to revitalise the practice of "proper" Tantra. Unlike Korea, I never heard of Shingon priests there.
Great information; thanks!
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi

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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

Post by Sentient Light »

Sorry to revive a two year old thread, just noticed this coming up in a search I'm doing for something else, and thought to provide some answers as I know them, since this didn't get many replies.
FiveSkandhas wrote: Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:03 am
1) Vietnam has been a Communist nation for some time. As communists, they have generally taken a dim view of religion. Even before Communism, there was a strong Catholic presence that eroded Buddhism. To what extent is Buddhism still a living religion in Vietnam? I am aware it is legally recognized and controlled in theory by the central government.
Communists have a dim view of religion in politics (as opposed to a country like the US where politicians can lean into their religiosity), and there are political and socioeconomic advantages to declaring yourself an atheist on state documents, but freedom of religion is practiced. Ho Chi Minh was a devout Buddhist and declared Buddhist monasteries and shrines to be cultural heritage sites under the protection of the communists during the war--it was the Republicans backed by the CIA who were anti-Buddhism, remember. The one thing is that clergy go through a sort of background check type of thing, sorta like getting your credit checked, and this is to help ensure that no one is trying to use religion as a means to foment a capitalist insurrection--this is why certain Buddhist clergy who were known to be involved in leadership roles in the American occupation of the south against the Communists remained under house arrest until their deaths--they were allowed to practice their religion freely, what they were not allowed to do is plan a coup.

If you ask a Vietnamese person how many Vietnamese people are Buddhists, most will probably answer 80-88%. The "strong Catholic presence" that existed under foreign occupation largely migrated south, and then overseas. So there is a disproportionate number of Vietnamese Catholics in diaspora, and the religion itself remains a sizeable minority within Vietnam proper. The rest practice either various Vietnamese neo-Buddhist cults (like the Hoa Hao), constructed religions from the modern era, like Cao Dai, or folk religion.

2) The central government apparently established a single "unified Vietnamese Sangha" (official name unknown to me) in the 1980s, and this is what is permitted. This seems to suggest there is no offical sectarianism (as in Japan, for example). Can anyone corroborate this (without using Wikipedia)?
Overall, sectarianism has never really been a thing in Vietnamese Buddhism in general. The first unified Vietnamese sangha was established in the 1920s, but the existence of Mahayana and sravaka monastics within the same temple community has never really been too uncommon. It's much more organized these days, but we consider all Buddhist paths to be valid paths.
3) The temple used to play a central role in traditional Vietnamese villages. To what extent, if any, is this still true? How much of Vietnamese Buddhism is "top-down" government-controlled and how much is grassroots village-level tradition.
The anti-communist propaganda filtering your view is really amusing. In the villages, the temples still play a central role. You'll see hundreds of villagers amassing into the monastery grounds on the posadha nights. In the cities, this doesn't happen as much, and you'll find a more secularized youth. The government doesn't really play a role in religion, other than screening monastics in the whole credit check thing I mentioned above. Some Vietnamese in diaspora might criticize certain Vietnamese monastics, like Thich Nhat Tu, for being propaganda puppets for the Communist Party, but I think that's more of just their overall fascism coloring their perspective, and the reality is that when Thich Nhat Tu talks about the synchronicity between Buddhism and Marxism, it's because he genuinely believes this and is just a gung-ho supporter.

That said, I do have criticisms of the Vietnamese Communists and their relation to Buddhism, insofar as they have a vested interest in propagating modernist conceptions of Buddhism and seek to downplay aspects of it that are deemed exploitative (like fortune telling) -- I think you have to walk a very fine line here, because it's hard to determine what is cultural heritage and what doesn't align with "proper Marxism-Leninism". So modernist temples tend to get more state funding (yes, the government funds the construction of temples and monasteries as well).
4) What is the scope of Vietnamese Mahayana? In addition to Zen, Pure Land, and esotericism, were there other sects or schools traditionally? If Vietnam is not sectarian now, was it ever? I tentatively feel the situation was, as in China, more fluid than the Japanese millieu, with it's sectarian history (although it appears that strict sectarianism may have been more a theory than a practice for most of Japanese history, too.)
Huayan and Tiantai both came into Vietnamese and both survive. However, we have never been particularly sectarian. Most of the great Buddhist masters in our history, like Tran Nhan Tong, were also unifiers of separate lineage systems, so at least for all the important parts of Buddhist history, we have a cultural memory of pretty much always being unified.
5) Further information on the esoteric form of Vietnamese Buddhism would be particularly welcome. I may be able to scrape up a bit more myself...but probably not much more.
As I understand it, Vietnamese esotericism really kicked off in the 7th century when Master Van Ky went to the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya (modern day Java, Sumatra) and received esoteric transmission from a master named Jnanabhadra (Tri Hien). It became most popular in the 11th century, after Master Tu Dao Hanh went to Burma and brought back certain dharani texts and practices. He became renowned as a skilled thaumaturge, eventually entering a cave and self-mummifying. His mummy was enshrined in a monastery in Hanoi and then was burned by the Chinese in the Ming Dynasty. Also, it's taught that it was because of Dao Hanh that the rebirths of old masters are not sought out to lead the monastery lineage again, in order to avoid nepotism, basically (because Dao Hanh stopped a power-hungry monastic leader from taking rebirth as the son of the king, and then used his tantric power to prevent rebirths from being identified in Vietnam at all). This is part of what eroded way the ideas that individual lineage in esotericism are important. The result of Dao Hanh's actions already began to liberalize esoteric practices across lineages.

And here is where Daoshen's text comes in, the rise of Huayan thought, which systematized how Chan, Pure Land, Yogacara, Madhyamaka, Tathagatagarbha and Tiantai fit together philosophically, which absorbed all the esoteric practices, presented a solid justification of their use within the Huayan-Chan-Yogacara framework, and stripped away the idea of secret lineage transmission and opened up the direct practice of esoteric texts.

It's important to note here that the esotericism in Vietnam is a result of textual and practical transmissions from all over Asia: from China, from India, from the Southern Seas... from Mahayana esotericism AND from Theravadin esotericism. More recently, from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Japan. So it really is a big hodge-podge, so those who pursue the Secret school will encounter quite a lot of variety. It's honestly sort of interesting, because the government has an interest in pushing this zen modernism, but at the same time, the Buddhist culture--both monastic and lay--right now are leaning HARD into esotericism and mysticism.
6) Throughout most of Vietnamese history, villages were intensely isolated from each other. There was the Village level, the Imperial level, and not much in between. This social situation differs markedly from that of other Mahayana nations like Japan, China, and Korea. How was this intense localism reflected in traditional Buddhism?
Mostly what this resulted in was the continued proliferation of small deity cults within the broader Buddhist system, so you continue to have these monastics that also fulfill the roles of animist mystics. It should also be noted that many of these isolated villages.... they aren't Buddhist. I mean, many are, but many aren't. Especially if they're that isolated. If we're talking about the very isolated villages, we're not even talking about Vietnamese people (the ethnicity) anymore--those are Vietnamese nationally, but they are typically not the Kinh people. They may be Cham or Montagnard or Khmer or Hmong or Red Thai or Black Thai, and most of them practice their own folk religions, or in the case of Cham, Islam (or some very small minority of Cham still practice Hinduism). The Kinh majority are often in the less isolated villages, towns, and cities. That said, if we are talking about Buddhist villages that are somewhat isolated from the rest, this is typically where you'd find the pocketed Theravada communities or communities that are strictly devoted to say, Medicine Master Buddha, or Maitreya, or some such.
7) Syncretism with local traditions: it took place. Anyone have any details?
This is a very broad question I don't know how to answer.
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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

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Sentient Light wrote: Mon Dec 05, 2022 7:46 pm Sorry to revive a two year old thread, just noticed this coming up in a search I'm doing for something else, and thought to provide some answers as I know them, since this didn't get many replies.
Fascinating, thank you.
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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

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Sentient Light wrote: Mon Dec 05, 2022 7:46 pm Sorry to revive a two year old thread, just noticed this coming up in a search I'm doing for something else, and thought to provide some answers as I know them, since this didn't get many replies.
...
What you provided is excellent - thanks.
Unfortunately, as a necro post, it is also against our TOS.

I locked it pending review. It is now open again, since it's a good example of a topic to which our necro rule isn't very relevant. There are only a few old posts, so everyone can (and should!) read them before posting, and the topic itself is not at all out of date.

And of course readers are now well aware that there has been a two-year gap, and that some members may have moved on. :smile:

:namaste:
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Re: Vietnamese Mahayana and esoteric Buddhism

Post by Javierfv1212 »

Is this the book you meant?

https://selfdefinition.org/tantra/Quint ... ddhism.pdf

Also, the following dissertation might answer some of your questions: Vietnamese Buddhism in America (2007) by Quang Minh Thich
https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q ... 2749194061

Don't let the title fool you it discusses Buddhism in Vietnam as well including a whole section on Mantrayana in Vietnam

It seems the Uṣṇīṣavijayadhāraṇī, the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī and the Śūraṅgama mantra are particularly important, as they remain in Chinese Buddhism

And, of course, if one considers the Heart sutra is actually a dharani text, that counts too

Interestingly, it does not seem like there was a separate tantric sect or school, like Shingon in Japan. It seems, from my cursory reading of this, that the esoteric practices were held and introduced by Vietnamese Thien masters

Quang Minh Thich concludes the section on Esoteric Buddhism in Vietnam by saying:
At present, it is still the norm in Vietnamese Buddhist temples, both in Vietnam and abroad, that these mantras, as elements of the Mantrayana, are recited either in their distinctive chanted sessions or in conjunction with other popular Buddhist scriptures. In function, the Vietnamese Tantric practices serve as a complement to the practices of Zen and Pure Land, not as an independent tradition. p. 51
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