Who’s who in Buddhism, Vietnamese-style!

Hi all,

As part of the Lunar New Year, I had the good fortune to visit a certain Vietnamese Buddhist temple near my home recently for the first time. Since studying in Hanoi, Vietnam 12 years ago I haven’t seen a Vietnamese-Buddhist temple, and back then I knew almost nothing about Buddhism. This time, I could visit with a more experienced eye, and notice things. It was quite interesting because many things were familiar to me because of my background in Japanese Buddhism (which is also Mahayana Buddhist), but at the same time, many things were new to me. Big thanks go to the Địa Tạng Viên Quang Tự temple in Lynnwood, Washington for allowing me to take photos, answering my annoying questions, and being very friendly and helpful. If you’re curious about Vietnamese or Mahayana Buddhism in general, and live in the north Seattle area, I highly recommend giving them a visit.

Anyhow, since we came during the Lunar New Year, the temple was very brightly decorated:


If you notice the two statues below, these are the same guardian figures you see in Japanese temples called niō (仁王). Here’s a closer look at one of them:


The idea is that they frighten off evil spirits and wicked people in general. Here’s a similar statue I photographed at Todaiji in Nara, Japan for comparison:

Todaiji Guardian of Outer Gate

…quite similar.

Anyhow, the temple’s name comes from the Earth Store Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha, who is called Địa Tạng in Vietnamese or jizō (地蔵) in Japanese. The “t” in Vietnamese is pronounced more like a hard “d” sound, so it’s almost like “dia dang”. Not surprisingly, you see statues of him throughout the temple. Here’s one such example:

The Earth Store Bodhisattva

And here’s a statue of the Earth Store Bodhisattva I took in Japan at Ueno Park years ago:

Jizo Bodhisattva at Ueno Park

Clearly, very similar.

Also, another figure I saw often was the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who is called Quán Âm in Vietnamese (the “qu” sounds like “gw”) or Kannon (観音) in Japanese. Again, let’s compare. Here’s Avalokitesvara at the temple:


…with one I photographed in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, Japan:

Kannon Bodhisattva Statue

Again, very similar. But the main highlight was the main altar of course:


Here you could see the differences more. The altar was very brightly lit and colorful, whereas Japanese Buddhist altars tend to be more muted and darker. Compare with Tsukiji Honganji temple in Tokyo (one of my favorite):

Tsukiji Honganji Main Altar 2

…but the figures were still the same. From the far-left is:

  • The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Đại Hạnh Phổ Hiền Bồ tát, Fūgen Bōsatsu 普賢菩薩)
  • The Pure Land “trinity” of Amitabha Buddha in the center (A Di Đà Phật, Amida Nyorai) and his two bodhisattvas, Mahasthamaprapta and Avalokitesvara
  • And on the right Manjushri Bodhisattva (Đại Trí Văn Thù Sư Lợi Bồ tát, Monju Bōsatsu 文殊菩薩).

Also, in Vietnamese they also recite the name of Amitabha Buddha as Nam mô A di đà Phật just like in Japanese Buddhism (namu amida butsu, 南無阿弥陀仏).

The ceiling had a really nice chandelier shaped like lotus blossoms:


And the back wall showed rows and rows of Buddhas:


Our guide mentioned a lot of teachings from the Lotus Sutra from time to time, including the teaching that all people are capable of becoming Buddhas, which impressed me. The little Buddhas on the walls were meant to represent this too. I haven’t seen a lot of temples in Seattle that explicitly use the Lotus Sutra as a foundation for their teachings, but it seems to be much more common in Vietnamese Buddhism.

I asked the priest what kind of temple this was (i.e. what school), but he stated it was simply Mahayana Buddhism with an emphasis on Pure Land teachings. Due to the decline of the Dharma over time since the death of the Buddha, people are less capable of putting other teachings into practice, and so the vow of Amitabha Buddha is to bring such people to the Pure Land after death, and there they can practice the Dharma much more easily. This is very similar to the teachings of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, but it’s interesting that this temple is very inclusive of other Buddhist figures and emphasizes the Lotus Sutra so much. This is something you don’t see as often in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism much, especially Jodo Shinshu which tends to be a little exclusive. In many ways, this temple more closely resembled Japanese Tendai Buddhist teachings because of its emphasis on both the Lotus Sutra and Pure Land teachings.

It seems that Vietnamese Buddhism doesn’t really have “schools” (宗派) like Japanese Buddhism. Each temple in Vietnam tends to have a “focus”, but otherwise they’re all Mahayana Buddhism. Interesting how the two approaches are somewhat different, even though it’s the same Buddhism. In practice though, I believe the two approaches really aren’t that different except in textbooks and Wikipedia. ;p

Anyhow, speaking of the Lotus Sutra, the priest guided us to another, smaller altar room:

Lotus Sutra, two Buddhas

This one depicts the famous scene of the Lotus Sutra, chapter 11, when the Buddha Many-Treasures (Đa Bảo Như Lai, Tahō Bōsatsu 多宝如来) appears to validate what the Buddha Shakyamuni preaches in the Lotus Sutra. On the left is the Buddha Many-Treasures, and on the right is Shakyamuni Buddha. You can see Shakyamuni’s hands are in a special gesture, or mudra, showing he is giving a special teaching.

Also, on the left I was surprised to see an esoteric Buddhist figure like Akasagarbha Bodhisattva (Hư Không Tạng Bồ tát, Kōkuzō 虛空藏菩薩):

Akasagarbha Bodhisattva

Compare with the same figure at Todaiji temple (to the left of the Daibutsu):

Kokuzo Bodhisattva far away

In a room next to this altar the Lotus Sutra was enshrined:

Lotus Sutra, Vietnamese

In Japanese, people sometimes say namu myōhō renge kyō (南無妙法蓮華経), and in Vietnamese they say something similar: Nam Mô Diệu Pháp Liên Hoa Kinh, or just Nam Mô Pháp Hoa Kinh for short.

Also, again, the walls were covered with many Buddhas:

Myriad Buddhas 2

Anyhow, the temple was great. The priests were very patient and friendly, and the temple looks very small from the outside, but is actually quite large and has plenty to see and do there. For me, it was really fun exploring the familiar and unfamiliar, and how the same Buddhist culture I see in Japan gets expressed in a Vietnamese context. Thanks again to the Địa Tạng Viên Quang Tự temple. 🙂 I plan to visit again someday.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Sorry for the double-post today… blog schedule is getting a little crowded. 😉

P.P.S. More photos of the temple can be found on their website too. I have more photos on Flickr as well, but there were too many to post.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “Who’s who in Buddhism, Vietnamese-style!”

  1. This is fascinating to me, as I know little of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism. Question: just under the pictures of the chandelier and the wall and ceiling you have a paragraph that includes the words “Our guide mentioned a lot of teachings from the Lotus Sutra from time to time (including this one)..” It seems as though you intended to put in a link that in the current version is not there. What teaching were you referring to here?

    Also, did you guide tell you anything about the meaning of the big hand between Many Treasures (Taho) Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha. Why is it there? What is the mudra? Why is it so large? I have seen altars in a lot of Chinese and Japanese temples, but never anything like this.

    Great post, Doug. Keep ’em coming. I am grateful, and I know others are too.


  2. Love this post! 🙂

    In my visits (quite a few over the last six months) to the local Vietnamese temple I too have noted the inclusiveness of practice. I feel very “at home” with my new Vietnamese friends, even if I don’t know most of their names by memory yet and I can’t translate the language “on the fly.”

    Awesome photography! The temple here isn’t anywhere near as gorgeously ornate, but I suppose I might be a little distracted by it all if it were!

    Thank you, and be well!


  3. Hi all,

    Merry: That’s poor editing on my part. If you transpose that sentence and the previous, it will make more sense. I’ll edit that. 🙂 I forgot to ask about the hand, but I’m curious about it too, now that you mention it. If I go again, I’ll be sure to ask. They’re only open for certain services during the year it seems, so no Sunday services like you see some other places.

    Hickersonia: The story behind this temple is that it’s branched off from an older temple in downtown Seattle. That one might be less ornate since it’s older and space is limited. Yeah, I haven’t been to Vietnamese temples before because I don’t really speak the language anymore (even when I did, it was “textbook” northern dialect which is noticeably different), but I have admit people were really quite friendly, even the younger generation lay people. It’s certainly encouraging.


  4. Doug, I finally found time to sit down to read your blog post today. I see that you have quite a good observation and I’m surprise that you were able to link the similar buddhist figures from Japan to our temple very accurately. Thanks for sharing your photos and for coming to visit our temple.


    1. Hi Ven. Minh Thanh and welcome!

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and I certainly enjoyed visiting your temple. 🙂 Since Vietnam and Japan both have common roots in Mahayana Buddhism, it was fun to explore the common features and common deities. At the same time, I learned a lot about Vietnamese Buddhism in particular. I hope to write more about Vietnamese Buddhism so that non-Vietnamese can understand and appreciate it more. 🙂


  5. Thanks for your postings on the varieties of “Buddhisms”. I’m fascinated by its different manifestations in each and every culture.


  6. Hi, Doug. I found this blog post while looking for photos of guardians of the dharma. As Westerners are often confused because of the smorgasbord of Buddhism available to them, a book with the similarities in statues, as well as the different terms for the same thing ie. Địa Tạng Vương Bồ Tát, Jijiang Posal, Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, Dàyuàn Dìzàng Pusa, Jizō Bosatsu are all the “Earth Treasury”, “Earth Store”, “Earth Matrix”, or “Earth Womb” Bodhisattva.

    As a Vietnamese Buddhist Bhikkhuni, I will add that there are different schools of Buddhism in Vietnam. Pure Land (Tịnh độ), Zen (Thiền), and Theravada Buddhism coexist peacefully. I’ve been told that there are some Tibetan Buddhist temples in Vietnam, as well.


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