Vietnam is a country which has a rich and wide
variety of religions. These include religions based on popular beliefs,
religions brought to Vietnam from the outside, and several indigenous religious
Religion has exerted a deep influence on Vietnamese
culture and the Vietnamese concept of life. The attitude towards life, death,
and the world beyond bears a deep imprint of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism,
which have been coexisting peacefully for centuries in Vietnam.
In regard to the major world religions, Vietnam
is a multi-religious state, with more than 20 million believers, and more than
30,000 places of worship.
The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism,
which is also one of the world's great religions. Buddhism was first introduced
into Vietnam under the Chinese domination, in the second century B.C., by
Chinese immigrants and by Indian preachers coming by sea, and reached its peak
in the Ly dynasty (11th century). It was then regarded as the official religion
dominating court affairs. Several kings took the cassock or retired into a
pagoda after their abdication. Buddhist monks served as counselors to the king
at court. Moreover, Buddhism was preached broadly among the population and it
enjoyed a profound influence on people's daily life. Its influence also left
marks in various areas of traditional literature and architecture. As such, many
pagodas and temples were built during this time.
Since the Tran Dynasty (1225-1440), Buddhism
began to show signs of decline. Nevertheless,
the ideological influence of Buddhism remained very strong in social and
cultural life. Presently, over 70 percent of the population of Vietnam are
either Buddhist or strongly influenced by Buddhist practices.
Buddhism was originated in India by Shiddharta
(563-483 B.C.) or Gautama Buddha, which means the Enlightened One". According
to Buddha, man was born into this world to suffer. The cause of suffering is the
craving for wealth, fame, and power that necessarily brings about frustration
and disappointment. In order to be free from suffering, man must suppress its
ultimate cause: craving. He must not be attached to anything in this "world
appearance" and live a life full of virtue, according to the Eightfold Path.
This core of Buddhist teaching holds that there are eight "right" ways to live
virtuously: right views, right thought, right conduct, right speech, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. An
individual's fate in this existence is determined by what he has done in his
previous existence. This is the law of Karma, or cause and effect.
The soul does not perish at death, but reincarnates in another existence and
this goes on and on. The Buddhist's goal is to be freed from the circle of
reincarnation and reach Nirvana, which is a state of complete redemption and
supreme happiness. Theoretically, any person may become a Buddha by suppressing
craving and following the Eightfold
but those who actually attain Buddhahood are rare.
There are two branches of Buddhism: Hinayana (Little Vehicle) also called
Theravada Buddhism, which nourishes in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and
Burma, and Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism which is found in China, Korea,
Japan, and Vietnam. Most Vietnamese Buddhists belong to the Mahayana branch. The
Theravada branch exists in communities of ethnic Cambodians and Vietnamese
living in the Mekong Delta.
The great majority of Vietnamese people regard themselves as Buddhists but not
all of them actively participate in Buddhist rituals at the pagoda. For
centuries, the Buddhist clergy has not been organized into a hierarchical
system. Each pagoda was completely autonomous of others and was entirely
administered by local individuals or communities. The first attempt to organize
Buddhism on a national scale was achieved by the General Buddhist Association in
1955. Further efforts culminated in the establishment of the Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam in 1964.
Confucianism is more of a religious and social philosophy than a religion in the
accepted meaning of the word. It has no church, no clergy, and no Bible. It
advocates a code of social behavior that man ought to observe so as to live
in harmony with society and attain happiness in his individual life. There is
little concern about death, the world beyond, and spiritual feelings in this
Confucius, or Kung Fu-tzo (551-479 B.C.), the founder of this religion, stressed
the improvement of the moral self as the basic duty of the individual as well as
the statesman. In order to rule the world, one must rule one's country; in order
to rule the country, one must rule one's family; and in order to rule the
family, one must have control of oneself. Consequently, the improvement of the
moral self is the cornerstone of Confucianism. Confucius believed that man is
born with an essentially good nature which becomes corrupted in his contact with
society. In order to improve his moral self and regain that original good nature
with which he was born, man must practice the five cardinal virtues of
benevolence, propriety, loyalty, intellect, and trustworthiness. In order to
keep harmony in the nation and happiness in the family, man must observe the
three basic relationships between sovereign and subject, father and son, and
husband and wife. On the national level the basic virtue is loyalty to the
sovereign, and on the family level, the basic virtue is filial piety. The ritual
expression of filial piety is ancestor worship.
Confucianism was introduced into Vietnam as early as the first century, during
the Chinese domination. Two Chinese governors at that time, Hsi Kwang and Jen
Yen, were most instrumental in its introduction. It was after Vietnam achieved
independence that Chinese influence and Confucianism became important in
Vietnam. Because of a political philosophy that was favorable for the monarchy,
Confucianism was promoted and supported by the government. In 1253 the Institute
for National Studies was founded by the king to teach the classical books of
Confucius. Under the Le dynasty, studies of the Confucian doctrine attained
their apogee. With the French conquest and the influence of Western
philosophies, Confucianism began to decline. However, Confucianism still
pervades the thinking and behavior of Vietnamese people from all walks of life.
It should be noted that the Vietnamese people do not follow many of the
Confucian tenets. As an illustration, the pronouncement that "when the father
dies, the mother should obey the children" has in reality never been practiced.
The widowed mother is till respected and obeyed by all her children.
Another religion which has a deep imprint on the way of life of the Vietnamese
is Taoism. Lao Tse (600-500
B.C.), the founder of Taoism, advocated a philosophy of harmony between man and
man and between man and nature. To achieve this state of harmony, all forms of
confrontation should be avoided. The virtues of simplicity, patience, and
self-contentment must be observed. By non-action and keeping away from human
strife and cravings, man can reach harmony with himself, other people, and the
universe. Reason and knowledge cannot lead man to the right path (Tao), which
can be reached only by inward probing and quiet meditation. In essence, Taoism
is a religious philosophy. However, the followers of Lao Tse transformed it into
a religion with church and a clergy involved in the communication with deities,
spirits, and the dead. Taoist clergymen claimed they could cure illness,
alleviate misfortune, and predict the future.
Taoism was introduced into Vietnam during the Chinese domination period. By the
time Vietnam recovered its independence, it had become one of the main religious
faiths of the Vietnamese people. Under King Ly Nhan Ton (1072-1127), the
examination for the recruitment of officials consisted of essays on the "three
religions." Under the succeeding dynasties, Taoism became a source of
inspiration for poets and writers. From the end of the Tran dynasty, Taoism
began to turn to mysticism and polytheism. It was this mystic aspect of Taoism
that appealed to the common people of Vietnam.
Despite being the crucial religion of the world,
Christianity does not play a major role in Vietnam’s culture.
It was introduced into Vietnam rather late, in the second half of the sixteenth
century, by Portuguese, Spanish and French European missionaries. The first
missionary, Ignatio, came to Vietnam in 1533.
However, it was not until 1615 that the first
permanent Christian missions were founded in Hoi An by the Portuguese Jesuits.
In 1626, Alexandre de Rhodes was chosen to head the Jesuit mission in North
Vietnam. He published a catechism book in Latin and Vietnamese in 1650 and the
first Vietnamese, Portuguese and Latin dictionary in 1651 in Rome. Christianity
began to develop rapidly.
Since the early decades of 18th century, the
preaching of Christianity was banned in Vietnam. Despite the proscription,
Catholic missionaries continued their evangelization of Vietnam. Under the
Nguyen dynasty, especially under Kings Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, and Tu Duc, the
Christians were persecuted and labeled "perverse to the public order." Using the
persecution of Christians as a pretext, the French conquered Vietnam in the
second half of the nineteenth century. Under the French administration, the
Catholics enjoyed the support of the government. It was during the Ngo Dinh Diem
regime that the Catholics filled key positions in the government, the army, and
Today there are about three million Christians in
Vietnam, most of them Catholics. Despite representing a small percentage of the
population, the Catholics played an important role in the political life of
Vietnam during the last three decades prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975.
There are two religious sects, Cao Dai and Hoa
Hao, which have recently been established in Vietnam. They
have been confined to the rural sectors of the Southern Delta region. Their
influence on Vietnamese culture has been not so significant.
Caodaism was first introduced to the country in
1926. It is a synthesis of different beliefs, including the teaching of Buddha,
Jesus, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Victor Hugo, and so on. It was founded in 1919 by Le
Van Trung who established a priestly hierarchy modeled along Roman Catholic
lines. The seat of Caodaism is in Tay Ninh, about 60 miles from Saigon. The
adherents to this sect have been estimated at about two million.
Hoa Hao is a reformed Buddhist sect of the
Theravada variety. Founded in 1939, it is concentrated in the Mekong Delta with
its number of followers around two millions.
Mother Worship (Tho Mau)
Researchers describe the Vietnamese
mother-worship cult as a primitive religion. Mother, Me in the Vietnamese
language, is pronounced Mau in Sino-script. The mother worship cult might be
originated from the cult of the Goddess in ancient ages. In the Middle Ages, the
Mother was worshipped in temples and palaces. Due to the fact that it is a
worshipping custom and not a religion, the Mother worshipping cult has not been
organized as Buddhism and Catholicism have. As a result, the different
affiliations of the cult have yet to be consistent and different places still
have different customs.
The custom of Mother Worship originated from the
north. In the south, the religion has integrated the local goddesses such as
Thien Y A Na (Hue) and Linh Son (Tay Ninh).
In fact, the Mother worship cult was influenced
by other religions, mainly Taoism.