The bodhisattva Quan Âm has a following in Vietnam comparable to the Buddha himself. Sometimes called ‘Lady Buddha,’ her image is found at places of worship throughout the country.
On a hillside overlooking My An Beach in Da Nang, on the south-facing flank of the Son Tra Peninsula, a colossal figure in white fixes its gaze across hundreds of fishing boats anchored in the East (South China) Sea.
Rising 67 meters (220 feet) atop an 11-meter (35-foot) lotus pedestal, this is the tallest statue in Vietnam and the central feature of the Linh Ứng-Bãi Bụt pagoda. It can be seen all along the shoreline from many miles away.
Ironically, it isn’t the Buddha.
Locals sometimes refer to the sculpture as Lady Buddha. In fact, it is a representation of Quan Âm, the goddess of compassion, known as Kuan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan and Avalokiteshwara in India.
Completed in 2010 along with the pagoda and monastery, she appears to attract a respect equal to or greater than the Buddha himself. Indeed, Quan Âm’s enormous icon dominates the pagoda grounds, easily overshadowing a whimsical image of the so-called Laughing Buddha that sits nearby on his own lotus pedestal.
Devotion to Lady Buddha is a common element in Vietnamese Buddhism, a syncretic faith that weaves in elements of Taosim, animism, ancestor worship and folk religion. Although not every place of Buddhist worship portrays her as prominently as Linh Ứng, Quan Âm is inevitably accorded a place of honor wherever prayers are offered.
This isn’t the Buddhism that I learned in graduate school, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. But the practice of a religion in its daily application is often very different from its scriptural foundation.
I am reminded of the pious praise heaped upon the Madonna in Roman Catholicism, especially in Latin American countries. The Blessed Virgin, mother of the Christ, receives more adoration than Jesus himself. I don’t recall anything in the canons to suggest this should be the case.
Pure Land aspirations
Just as there are two primary schools of Christian thought and practice (Catholic and Protestant), so are there two main divisions of Buddhism. These are Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada Buddhism, which predominates in South Asia including Thailand, focuses on meditation and time-honored teachings without deities. In East Asia, including China and Japan, Mahayana Buddhism prevails.
Like Protestantism, Mahayana Buddhism has a great many “denominations.” Many Westerners may be familiar with Zen, an elite and intellectual practice, but it’s not accessible to the common people. Pure Land Buddhism, foremost in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, is.
Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land. Here, free of the trials of everyday life, they will find it much easier to concentrate on shedding their earthly attachments to achieve enlightenment, as the historical Buddha demonstrated 26 centuries ago. They do this by chanting sutras (Buddhist verses) in the name of the Amitabha Buddha.
A primary tenet of Mahayana Buddhism is a belief in the compassion of bodhisattvas. The old Steely Dan song might have suggested that you sell your house and become a recluse, but the concept is much deeper than that. A bodhisattva is defined as a devout Buddhist who commits to postpone enlightenment, to not transcend into nirvana, until every other person who similarly aspires has achieved this goal.
The Amitabha Buddha is a bodhisattva, known in Vietnam as Phật A Di Đà, the “buddha of infinite light.” Once a monk known as Dharmakara, he presides over the Pure Land, a kingdom whose residents have abandoned their egos and trusted in the infinite compassion of Phật A Di Đà.
In Buddhist pagodas and temples throughout Vietnam, his image sits to the right of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha in the hall of worship.
Compassion and peace
Quan Âm is also a boddhisattva, esteemed for her compassion and peace for all living creatures. She is often depicted holding a vase in her right hand, as a vessel for the nectar of life, and a willow branch of peace in her left. Devotees bring incense or fruit and ask her merciful assistance in making their lives better.
In fact, bodhisattvas are everywhere in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition. That Laughing Buddha? He’s actually another bodhisattva, an eccentric 10th-century Chinese monk named Budai. In his saintly incarnation, he carries a sack that holds food, sweets for children and the sadness of the world. His swelling belly represents wealth, happiness and good luck.
But there’s no scarcity of images of Gautama Siddhartha, the Fifth Century B.C. Nepali prince who became known as the Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” Most frequently, he is shown seated in lotus position, meditating under a bodhi (fig) tree, or sometimes reclining as he slips quietly into nirvana — in other words, as he dies.
At Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan, the largest pagoda in Buôn Ma Thuột, where I presently live, there are numerous representations, along with fierce guardians borrowed from Chinese Taoism. A short walk away at the Hong Phuoc pagoda, visitors are greeted by the Laughing Buddha, small children climbing all over his ample body. Nearby, shaded by trees, Quan Âm smiles beatifically.