- Theravada Buddhism in
- Binh Anson
Buddhism came to Vietnam in the
first century CE . By the end of the second century, Vietnam developed a major Buddhist
centre in the region, commonly known as the Luy-La^u centre, now in the Ba('c-Ninh
province, north of the present Hanoi city. Luy-La^u was the capital of Giao-Chi?, former
name of Vietnam, and was a popular place visited by many Indian Buddhist missionary monks
on their way to China, following the sea route from the Indian sub-continent by Indian
traders. A number of Mahayana sutras and the Agamas were translated into Chinese scripts
at that centre, including the sutra of Forty Two Chapters, the Anapanasati,
the Vessantara-jataka, the Milinda-panha, etc.
In the next 18 centuries, due to geographical proximity
with China and despite being annexed twice by the
Chinese, the two countries shared many common features of cultural, philosophical and
religious heritage. Vietnamese Buddhism has been greatly influenced by the development of
Mahayana Buddhism in China, with the dominant traditions of Ch'an/Zen, Pure Land, and
The southern part of the present Vietnam was originally
occupied by the Champa (Cham) and the Cambodian (Khmer) people who followed both a
syncretic Saiva-Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism , although Champa probably had
a Theravada presence from as early as the 3rd century CE, whilst Cambodia received the
Theravada as late as the 12th century. The Vietnamese started to conquer and absorbed the
land in the 15th century, and the current shape of the country was finalised in the 18th
century. From that time onward, the dominant Viet followed the Mahayana tradition whilst
the ethnic Cambodian practiced the Theravada tradition, and both traditions peacefully
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were a number of movements
in Vietnam for the revival and modernisation of Buddhist activities. Together with the
re-organisation of Mahayana establishments, there developed a growing interest in
Theravadin meditation and also in Buddhist materials based on the Pali Canon. These were
then available in French. Among the pioneers who brought Theravada Buddhism to the ethnic
Viet was a young veterinary doctor named Le Van Giang. He was born in the South, received
higher education in Hanoi, and after graduation, was sent to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to work
for the French government .
During that time, he developed a growing interest in
Buddhism. He started to study and practice the Pure Land and Tantric ways but was not
satisfied. By chance, he met the Vice Sangharaja of the Cambodian Sangha and was
recommended a book on the Noble Eightfold Path written in French. He was struck by the
clear message in the book, and decided to try out the Theravada way. He learnt meditation
on the breath (Anapanasati) from a Cambodian monk at the Unalom Temple in Phnom
Penh and achieved deep samadhi states. He continued the practice and after a few years, he
decided to ordain and took the Dhamma name of Ho^.-To^ng (Vansarakkhita).
In 1940, upon an invitation by a group of lay Buddhists
led by Mr Nguyen Van Hieu, a close friend, he went back to Vietnam and helped to establish
the first Theravada temple for Vietnamese Buddhists, at Go` Du+a, Thu? Ddu+'c (now a
district of Saigon). The temple was named Buu-Quang (Ratana Ramsyarama). Later,
the Cambodian Sangharaja, Venerable Chuon Nath, together with 30 Cambodian bhikkhus
established the Sima boundary at this temple . The temple was destroyed by
French troops in 1947, and was rebuilt in 1951.
Here at Buu-Quang temple, together with a group of
Vietnamese bhikkhus, who had received training in Cambodia, such as Venerables
Thie^.n-Lua^.t, Bu+?u-Cho+n, Kim-Quang, Gio+'i-Nghie^m, Ti.nh-Su+., To^'i-Tha('ng,
Gia'c-Quang, A^'n-La^m, Venerable Ho^.-To^ng started teaching the Buddha Dhamma in
Vietnamese language. He also translated many Buddhist materials from the Pali Canon, and
Theravada became part of Vietnamese Buddhist activity in the country.
In 1949-1950, Venerable Ho^.-To^ng together with Mr Nguyen
Van Hieu and supporters built a new temple in Saigon, named Ky`-Vie^n Tu+. (Jetavana
Vihara). This temple became the centre of Theravada activities in Vietnam, which
continued to attract increasing interest among the Vietnamese Buddhists. In 1957, the
Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist Sangha Congregation (Gia'o Ho^.i Ta(ng Gia` Nguye^n Thu?y
Vie^.t Nam) was formally established and recognised by the government, and the Theravada
Sangha elected Venerable Ho^.-To^ng as its first President, or Sangharaja.
During that time, Dhamma activities were further
strengthened by the presence of Venerable Narada from Sri Lanka. Venerable Narada had
first came to Vietnam in the 1930s and brought with him Bodhi tree saplings which he
planted in many places throughout the country. During his subsequent visits in the 1950s
and 1960s, he attracted a large number of Buddhists to the Theravada tradition, one of
whom was the popular translator, Mr Pha.m Kim Kha'nh who took the Dhamma name of Sunanda.
Mr Kha'nh translated many books of Venerable Narada, including The Buddha and His
Teachings, Buddhism in a Nutshell, Satipatthana Sutta, The
Dhammapada, A Manual of Abhidhamma, etc . Mr Kha'nh, now in his 80s, lives
in the USA and is still active in translating Dhamma books of well-known meditation
teachers from Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka.
From Saigon, the Theravada movement spread to other
provinces, and soon, a number of Theravada temples for ethnic Viet Buddhists were
established in many areas in the South and Central parts of Vietnam. As at 1997, there
were 64 Theravada temples throughout the country, of which 19 were located in Saigon and
its viccinity . Beside Buu-Quang and Ky-Vien temples, other well known temples are
Bu+?u-Long, Gia'c-Quang, Tam-Ba?o (Da`-Na(~ng), Thie^`n-La^m and Huye^`n-Kho^ng (Hue^'),
and the large Sakyamuni Buddha Monument (Thi'ch-Ca Pha^.t Dda`i) in Vu~ng Ta~u.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Vietnamese bhikkhus
were sent overseas for further training, mostly in Thailand and some in Sri Lanka and
India. Recently, this programme has been resumed and about 20 bhikkhus and nuns are
receiving training in Burma.
Historically, there has been a close relationship between
the Cambodian and the Vietnamese bhikkhus. In fact, in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge were
driven out of Phnom Penh, a group of Vietnamese bhikkhus led by Venerables Bu+?u-Cho+n and
Gio+'i-Nghie^m came to that city to re-ordain 7 Cambodian monks, and thus re-established
the Cambodian Sangha which had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge when they were in control
Dhamma literature in the Vietnamese language comes from
two main sources: the Pali Canon and the Chinese Agamas, together with a large
collection of Mahayana texts. Since 1980s, there has been an ongoing programme to publish
these materials by scholar monks of both Mahayana and Theravada traditions. So far, 27
volumes of the first 4 Nikayas, translated by Venerable Minh-Cha^u, and the 4 Agamas,
translated by Venerables Tri'-Ti.nh, Thie^.n-Sie^u and Thanh-Tu+`, have been produced.
Work is under way to translate and publish the 5th Nikaya. In addition, a complete set of
the Abhidhamma, translated by Venerable Ti.nh-Su+., has been printed, together
with the Dhammapada, the Milinda-Panha, the Visudhi-Magga, the Abhidhammatthasangaha
and many other work.
In summary, although Buddhism in Vietnam is predominantly
of the Mahayana form, the Theravada tradition is well recognised and is experiencing a
growing interest especially in the practice of meditation, in Nikaya-Agama literature and
in Abhidhamma studies.
Perth, Western Australia
08 June 1999
 Nguye^~n Lang, 1973. Vie^.t Nam Pha^.t Gia'o Su+?
Lua^.n, vol 1 (A Critical History of Buddhism in Vietnam)
 Andrew Skilton, 1994. A Concise History of Buddhism
 Le Minh Qui, 1981. Ho`a Thu+o+.ng Ho^.-To^ng (Biography of Maha Thera Ho^.-To^ng)
 Nguyen Van Hieu, 1971. Co^ng Ta'c Xa^y Du+.ng Pha^.t Gia'o Nguye^n Thu?y ta.i
Vie^.t Nam (On The Work of Establishing Theravada Buddhism in Vietnam)
 Pham Kim Khanh, 1991. Narada Maha Thera
 Giac-Ngo Weekly, no. 63, 14-06-1997
 Thi'ch Ddo^`ng Bo^?n, 1996. Tie^?u Su+? Danh Ta(ng Vie^.t Nam (Biography of Famous