Monday, October 25, 2010

Books About Vietnamese Buddhism

There is remarkably little in English about Vietnamese Buddhism.
Of course, I am excepting here the vast body of work of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has almost single-handedly introduced Vietnam's distinct version of Mahayana Buddhism to the world. But so much of his writing is about Buddhist doctrine and practice, and is intentionally not culturally focused. For a real insight into Vietnamese Buddhist culture I recommend his book Zen Keys, which goes into some detail about his training as a monk in Vietnam, and is a great read.
But the historical and cultural aspects of Vietnamese Buddhism are still largely unadressed in English, and were my Vietnamese language skills better I would like to do some academic work in this area. Indeed, the whole reason I went to learn Vietnamese in 1999 was so that I might be able to do exactly this kind of work. But I am by nature a lazy man, and so I never really acquired the necessary skills. I guess it's never too late.
Anyway, I have on my desk two books that I will be reading this month that are absolutely fascinating, and very helpful to me as a lover of Vietnam and an amateur scholar of Vietnamese religion and culture.

Buddhism in Vietnam: Past and Present by Bhikkhuni Tri Hai - this book was presented to me back in the 90s by the author herself. It is really just a pamphlet, photocopied and bound and distributed among the elder nun's friends and students. Bhikkhuni Tri Hai was Vietnam's most respected female Buddhist monastic, and lived on the grounds of Van Hanh Buddhist University, until her tragic death in a car accident some years ago. I was lucky enough to know her, and she was charming, wise and incredibly inspiring. In fact, I have read this little book many times, and drew on it's information extensively when writing my own book, Destination Saigon. Elder Nun Tri Hai's view of Buddhism was eccentric and modern, and I find this book constantly challenging (in a good way) and a fascinating angle on the meanings of Buddhism and Buddhist monasticism in particular.

Buddhism in Vietnam by Minh Chi et al - A wonderfully shoddy paperback produced by the The Gioi government publishing house in Hanoi, this little book is deathly dull, but an excellent source of nuts and bolts information. It is easily available in bookshops in Vietnam that cater to foreigners, but be warned, it is not the kind of thing you'd read for pleasure. Indeed, even reading it purely for information can be a struggle, so woefully has it been translated. Nonetheless, it is the most thorough-going history of Buddhism in Vietnam, and all the names, dates and places are there. I have never actually read it cover to cover - I doubt it is possible.


  1. Awesome reads Walter! I've got tree more to recommend to you...
    - The origin and development of Buddhism in Vietnam between the 1st and 18th century by Pham Kim Dzung
    - Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam, In relation to the development of Buddhism in Asia by Thich Thien An
    - Buddhist Discourse in Traditional Vietnam by Ngoc Duong Dung

    These are books I had to read for my final thesis with professor Birnbaum on Zen Poetry in Vietnam.

  2. Thanks Minh. I have the Thich Thien An book (which is quite a rare item, but I don't know the other two - shall have to hunt them down.
    And you need to send me a copy of your thesis! I really want to read it.


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