One of the most important
features of religious faith in Vietnam is its great tolerance. There
has never been religious fanaticism or religious warfare in Vietnam.
The persecution of Catholics under the reign of Tu-Duc in the 19th
century was carried out merely because the Nguyen emperor suspected
the missionaries and Christian converts as spies for the Western
countries. The religious belief of the common Vietnamese is a synthesis
of the three traditional religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and
Taoism) which have been coexisting peacefully for centuries in Vietnam.
The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism, which is also on
of the world's great religions. Buddhism was introduced into Vietnam
under the Chinese domination, in the second century B.C., by Chinese
immigrants and by Indian preachers coming by sea. Buddhism became
the state religion of Vietnam under Ly Dynasty (1010-1214). Several
kings took the cassock or retired into a pagoda after their abdication.
Buddhist monks served as counselors to the king at court. Since
the Tran Dynasty (1225-1440), Buddhism has lost the status of a
state religion but nevertheless remained the dominant religion in
Vietnam and a major cultural force.
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.
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 Path, but those who actually
attain Buddhahood are rare.
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
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 behaviour
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 religion.
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
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 gaining independence that Chinese influence
and Confucianism became important in Vietnam. Because of a political
philosophy that was favourable 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 behaviours of Vietnamese people from all walks
of life. It should be noted that the Vietnamese 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 in Vietnam. 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.
Although a main religion of the world, Christianity does not play
a major role in the culture of Vietnam. 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. In the first half of the seventeenth
century, the Jesuits came to Vietnam and founded in Hoi-An the Cochin
china's mission. 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
About the middle of the seventeenth century, 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. Today there are about three million Christians in Vietnam,
most of them Catholics with a small number of Protestants.
Caodaism 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 Caodaism have
been estimated at about one million.
Hoa Hao is a reformed Buddhist sect of the Theravada variety. It
was founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So. This religious sect is concentrated
in the Mekong Delta with a membership estimated at about two million.