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Oberlin College

Publication Date

Spring 2009

Program Name

Viet Nam: Culture and Development


How do Buddhist pagodas and other Buddhist institutions, practices, and practitioners engage with the larger realm of society in Vietnam? Does the majority Mahayana Buddhist population enact this tradition's Boddhisatva ideal of helping all beings transcend suffering? What Buddhist teachings might provide a successful model for social engagement today? This paper addresses these questions in the context of the city of Hue, with an in depth case study at Tu Hieu pagoda that is situated within an investigation into the broader culture of Buddhism in this city.

Using participant observation, interviews, and literature reviewed, I explore the vibrant presence of Buddhism in contemporary Hue society. I argue that the youth generation currently entering adulthood shows interest in maintaining Buddhism as a central component of their lives. Social service programs run by pagodas are widespread and receive substantial support from the lay community. There are well-established networks of communal support among the monastic and lay Buddhist communities. A close relationship between the state and religious institutions both regulates and facilitates social engagement. However, there remains a perceived schism between life in the pagoda and life in society that prevents Buddhist teachings from fully entering daily life in Hue. The two major Mahayana strains in Vietnam, Pure Land and Zen, both offer inspiration for the practice of social engagement, although both carry different philosophical limitations for this practice.

The “engaged Buddhism” taught by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers an alternative and innovative practice that integrates the transformation of the self and society. This humanistic tradition is currently practiced at Tu Hieu pagoda, but has only been recently reintroduced to Vietnam following Thich Nhat Hanh's 2005 return from a long exile in the West. This practice offers concrete tools for transforming personal suffering as well as working for positive change in society. If it is successfully re-adapted to Vietnamese culture, this tradition may help to develop a model of Buddhist social engagement that is effective for contemporary Hue society. This model will draw on the strong existing practices of Buddhist social engagement and integrate traditional beliefs with new advancements in mindfulness practice as a tool for confronting the personal and social issues of our time.


Religion | Social Welfare


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