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Worldwide Locations

Religion in Vietnam

A World of Gods and Spirits

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

A World of Gods and Spirits


Religious Vehicles of Dissent

One method of enforcing orthodoxy applied mostly to Buddhism. It consisted of imposing bureaucratic control over the organization and size of the Buddhist clergy through the supervision of doctrinal exams and ordinations into the clergy; limiting the number of temples that were built and the amount of land they were given; and manipulating the distribution of cultic and scriptural materials that were channeled through the court. Taoist priests, not being organized, were much less amenable to this form of control. But the more the state tried to enforce orthodoxy, the more it invited challenges from more traditional quarters, challenges which could be open, taking the form of rebellion, or merely implicit. The state's concern over the link between religion and rebellion was far from fanciful. In times past, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests had been known to lead movements of rebellion. Monasteries were still being used as places of refuge by rebels against the throne. This was one powerful reason behind the efforts to regulate Buddhist monasteries in the 19th century. It was easy enough to limit the number of ordained monks, and to defrock those who did not meet the standards set by the officials. However, given the limited resources of the traditional state, it was harder to prevent people from pursuing a religious life in places where the state did not penetrate. Such was the case of the southwestern frontier, a pioneer region through much of the 19th century, a meeting ground for various ethnic, cultural and religious groups, and thus a fertile place for heterodoxies to flourish.

For reasons that are not clear, Catholic missionaries were not successful in attracting converts in the south before the colonial period. Most of the Catholics who were in South Vietnam in the 1960s were refugees from the north, or had become Catholics during the French colonial period. The brand of heterodoxy that flourished in the south in the 19th century was thus a product of Vietnamese popular religion, a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and animist beliefs. What distinguished this heterodoxy from the state religion was partly the prominence of Buddhism and Taoism over Confucianism, and partly a fundamentally different world-view. Confucianism was at base optimistic; life was good, nature was kind. This view was a logical outgrowth of the idea that the emperor's rule was benign and beneficial. Vietnamese religious dissidents, on the contrary, held a much more pessimistic view of life. Theirs was an apocalyptic vision of history.

According to this interpretation, the cosmos evolved in series of cycles. Each of these cycles included a phase of prosperity, decay and ruin. At the end of each cycle, when ruin, disasters and wickedness had taken over, there would be an apocalyptic event, a flood perhaps, or a cosmic conflagration, or a huge typhoon. It would engulf the world and cleanse it of evil. All wickedness would disappear, and only what was good and virtuous would remain. The forces of the cosmos would rearrange themselves in a new "creation of Heaven and establishment of Earth" (tao thien lap dia), and a new era of peace, prosperity and virtue would begin. It was believed that our present era, ruled over by the historic Buddha Gautama, was about to end, and that it would be replaced by the era of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.

Maitreya was a popular figure of worship throughout the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. In the Temple of the Heavenly Mother in Hue stands a huge statue of him. Until the 19th century, he embodied hope rather than despair. He symbolized the aspirations of Vietnamese Buddhists for salvation and rebirth in his Pure Land. Even though predictions of an impending apocalypse had surfaced many times over the centuries, the Maitreya ideal was not linked to the fear of apocalypse. In the 1850s, however, a new religious movement was founded on the claim that the apocalypse was about to come, and that all wickedness was to be destroyed. Then, the Buddha Maitreya would descend to usher in a new millennium of peace and prosperity. The exact location of his descent was to be a desolate hilly area near the Cambodian border in southwestern Vietnam. Those who wished to strive for salvation and rebirth in the reign of Maitreya were to gather there to cultivate themselves and lead a good life. The new religious movement became known as Buu Son Ky Huong or Strange Fragrance from the Precious Mountain. The name of the movement was meant to refer to the fact that Maitreya was expected to appear in the Seven Mountains of Chau Doc province (hence the idea of a Precious Mountain) and that he would preach a new Buddhist doctrine, likened by the believers to a strange fragrance.

Southwestern Vietnam in the 1850s was pioneer territory with a sparse, but mixed population. The Vietnamese there were in the minority against both Cambodian natives and Chinese immigrants who had poured into the area in a steady stream since the turn of the century. Among the Vietnamese were people who had come in search of a better future. But there were also many defrocked monks from other regions, as well as people who were considered undesirable by the authorities of their native places and had been sent into exile to this frontier. The Vietnamese population in this region was thus adrift from its cultural moorings, for traditional village structures had not yet acquired solid foundations, and few representatives of the state were in evidence.

What the Buu Son Ky Huong movement had to offer to these pioneers, dissidents and rebels was an ideology of moral, social and cultural integration, an ideology that made sense of their hardship and of their experiences, and provided them with hope for the future. This ideology was presented as a return to the original purity and simplicity of Buddhism. Observing the teachings of the Buddha in one's daily life would be the only path to salvation, not the mindless utterance of prayers, not costly offerings and elaborate ceremonies. It was thus a reaction to the rigid monasticism of 19th century Buddhism. It was an ideology that celebrated hard work and frugality, that did not distinguish between rich and poor, that was family-oriented rather than congregational or monastic. It was thus tailor-made for its pioneer following.

Despite the sect members' self-image as orthodox Buddhists, their leaders tended to be practitioners of popular religion -- faith-healers, soothsayers, and Taoist priests whose occupation gave them power over the world of spirits and put them in contact with a wide variety of people. Even the Buddhist monks among them did not belong to mainstream Buddhism. The leaders spearheaded the creation of new villages where the sectaries would be able to live according to the beliefs and practices of their sect while waiting for Maitreya's descent. They believed that all the hardships they suffered, battling wild beasts and inclement nature and enduring the ravages of unrest and periodic wars between Vietnam and Cambodia, prepared them for rebirth into the perfect world of Maitreya. All else would perish. The myth of the millennium was thus a powerful incentive to attract pioneers and to give them the courage to remain in this inhospitable region. At the same time, the religious teachings of the sect fostered a sense of community that overcame the absence of long-standing village institutions and kinship ties.

No more than the Catholics of the north did these unorthodox pioneers openly challenge the authority of the emperor. They sought above all to remain in the margin of mainstream society, free of official interference. But even as they believed themselves to be loyal subjects of the emperor, they put Maitreya -- and the prophets who claimed to be the reincarnation of Maitreya -- above him. That in itself made them vulnerable to suppression as heretics. But while the Catholics, linked in the minds of the officials with the Westerners, came under increasing persecution, the sectaries of the southwest were valuable allies of the state as settlers of the disputed frontier area. The state thus chose to leave them alone.

The sectaries became involved in the anticolonial movement soon after French conquest. It was the first time that their apocalyptic vision had led them into political militancy. In their calculations, the apocalypse loomed nearer, and the need to use violence against the established order as a prelude to the birth of the new millennium became more urgent. Not surprisingly, the French banned the sect, but were unable to eradicate it completely. Its roots were established firmly among the population of the southwest, and were able to survive into the 20th century.

One reason why the Buu Son Ky Huong sect was able to outlive repeated persecution was its essentially family oriented nature. It had a minimum of organizational structure. It was a way of life more than an organized movement. Only when they rebelled did the sect members join together, for congregational worship was rare. Partly because of this characteristic, partly because of earlier suppression, the survival of this millenarian tradition went largely unnoticed in the first few decades of the 20th century, a time when secular political parties made their first appearance in Vietnam. Of these the Communist party was the most successful and visible, as well as the chief target of repression by the colonial state.