Pascal Bourdeaux: the specificities of Vietnamese Buddhism

- through Fabrice Groult

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In Vietnam, popular attachment to Buddhism is historically stronger in the south of the country than in the north. Nevertheless, today we are seeing a growing interest among young people in Buddhism throughout the country, underlines Pascal Bourdeaux, lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in charge of the religions of Southeast Asia. In this interview, he evokes the history and specificities of Vietnamese Buddhism.

What makes the uniqueness of Vietnamese Buddhism? You write that it is at the crossroads of the Mahayana tradition and the Theravada tradition.

My research focuses in fact more particularly on the south of Vietnam, in particular on the Mekong delta which is geographically a meeting place between these two traditions. If one is interested in the current world of Mahayana Buddhism in Sinicized Asia, it should be remembered that it previously established relations with other practices and with other traditions in Central Asia, which has always been a zone of contact between the Indian, Persian, Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese worlds. At another level of analysis of time and space, the singularity of the Mekong delta and southern Vietnam is due to the fact that they are places of interface and intersection of these two traditions.

During Vietnam's southward expansion, Mahayana Buddhist practices were integrated into what are known as the "three teachings" of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. During the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, this meeting of religious traditions and peoples gave shape to renewed and modern expressions of Buddhism as a direct result of reinterpretations of the texts and practices of Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, which were expressed in southern Vietnam.

When did these movements of renovation and revitalization begin?

The movement for the renewal of Buddhism dates back to the XNUMXth century. In Theravada Buddhism, under the Rama dynasty in Thailand, we observe a first movement of rationalization of Buddhism, in other words of reflection on the texts, compilation and chronological rearrangement of sutras and monastic rules. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, it was rather Buddhism Mahayana which turns to its own textual traditions and to the place of Buddhism in modernity. It was in those years that the sutras began to be transcribed and translated for the first time into Vietnamese (Romanized, quoc ngu). Before, they mainly circulated only in Chinese. The will then appeared to publish the Buddhist texts in Romanized form, so that the monks could reclaim their own knowledge and that the entire Vietnamese population could have direct access to it. Newspapers and printed matter thus make it possible to disseminate texts which, until now, were only kept in pagodas and read by monks. The laity then took on an important part of the transmission of Buddhist education. They play a major role in the phenomenon of renovation of this Buddhism which arouses real popular fervor.

Vietnamese Buddhism would have known, you write, its peak in the XNUMXth century and then a slow decline until the XNUMXth century.

We can indeed observe an extremely fruitful and prosperous period of Vietnamese Buddhism from the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century, a period during which the Ly and Tran dynasties revived the importance of Buddhism in society. It was at this time that the second emperor of the Tran dynasty founded what was to become the first school of Vietnamese Buddhism of meditation. dhyana, what is called Zen, and which in Vietnam is called Thiên. We then observe a return of state Confucianism. Buddhism then loses its close relationship with the emperors and is thus relegated to a minor position. The tradition and the study of Buddhism lost their prestige and regressed to become a popular practice in the villages or isolated in modest monasteries until the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. As elsewhere, the effects of colonization and modernization will be felt in Vietnam. Along with the discovery of modern science, ideologies of progress and positivism, there is thus a renewed interest in Asian beliefs and cosmologies and, in a more scholarly form, exegesis. We then enter into a process that tends to redefine the place of Buddhist thought and Buddhist practice in the modern world.

What was the impact of the Vietnam War on this process?

Before evoking the Vietnam War, it is necessary to recall this earlier work of religious renewal. Buddhism, whose spirit of tolerance and effects on the appeasement of individual and collective pains were praised, expressed few political demands with regard to the colonial regime. During decolonization, which was particularly violent in Vietnam, buddhism de will be strained and drawn into the cycle of revolution. The dilemma that arises both for monks and lay people is then that of knowing whether one can be both a Buddhist and a patriot. How to engage in the fight for independence and for which society? Some will do so and openly take a position in the Cold War, others more numerous will remain in a position of neutrality.

“During the Vietnam War, the dilemma that arose both for monks and lay people was that of knowing whether one could be both Buddhist and patriotic at the same time. »

During the war in Indochina, we observe phenomena of Buddhist mobilization that have nothing to do with what took place in the 1960s, when the country was torn between a north controlled by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and a South governed by the Republic of Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism then experienced an asymmetrical evolution: in the north, the Buddhist sangha came under the control of the Homeland Front and its popular practice, like any other religious practice, fell, while in the south, the movement for the renovation of Buddhism continues. Many Buddhist organizations interact in local events and social debates, some of which have international resonance. Since the end of the war and the reunification of Vietnam, the question of the reunification of the sangha and its presence in contemporary society has been posed with acuity. Today, Vietnamese Buddhism is experiencing a rare vitality that can be seen both in the country and abroad, where many Vietnamese communities live. Given historical connections, France remains an important center of Vietnamese Buddhist practice and teaching.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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