Temple Design &
Symbolism

 

My interest in touring the temples of Vietnam is to become familiar with their architecture and symbolism, and use these elements to identify historical currents and (countercurrents) in the diverse regions of North, Central, and South Vietnam. Much of Vietnamese history is encoded in its temples, and by studying their religious history, statuary, and donor and royal inscriptions, one can learn much that modifies or contradicts official accounts.

There are many types of temples in Vietnam, from the "Den" or "Mieu," dedicated to legendary spirits, great generals, the classic village-house (dinh), dedicated to the founders of villages or crafts, to the "Chua," usually a pagoda dedicated to the Buddha. While the term "Chua" is classically reserved for the worship of the Buddha, in the south many Chinese temples to Quan Cong are referred to as "Chua Ong."

In many cases, the spirits of these temples received royal recognition from the Ministry of Rites. The recognition came in the form of silken certificates written in Chinese characters and bearing the imperial seal. The emperor Tu Duc flooded the country with more than 12,000 such certificates in the early 1850s; look closely in most famous temples and you'll find one.

Royal certificate issued by Tu Duc to the Van Thuy Tu
(the "Whale Temple") in Phan Thiet

 

VILLAGE COMMUNAL HOUSES (DINH)

The village community houses (dinh) in the north have received a good deal of scholarly attention. These are relatively simple gathering-places with altars to the spritis of one or two founders of the village. These dinh have very little in the way of statuary, but some of the older ones have beautiful and elaborate wood-carved panels in the rafters.

The Dinh (or Dinh Than) in the south have not received nearly as much attention, though they often contain many altars to historical figures and legendary spirits that bear witness to the Nguyen lords' gradual expansion into this region. I'm thinking here of the temples to the commanders of the "Three Fleets" in Vung Tau, Dinh Ben Thuy in the outskirsts of Can Tho city, and the dinh to one of the early anti-colonial martyrs, Nguyen Trung Truc, in the city of Rach Gia.

 

TEMPLES TO REGIONAL OR NATIONAL SPIRITS (DEN)

Sometimes a temple is built to a figure who is both the founder of a village, and a figure of much wider renown. These temples are often called a "Den." One example is the temple to the 13th-Century hero, Tran Hung Dao. He is revered as the ancient founder of Kiep Bac, to the east of Hanoi, but he is also widely known as the great general who defeated the armies of Kublai Khan.

His military prowess has been translated into the power to heal those suffering illnesses provoked by malevolent spirits, and he also has developed a reputation as an herbalist. In a related way, he has also been adopted by other temples as a protective figure. Interestingly, this translation from a military to a civil role is also seen in the appearanc of the Chinese general Guan Yu (Quan Cong) in Buddhist pagodas.

Famous figures memorialized in the Den often attract pilgrims from throughout Vietnam. Among the more famous examples is "Saint Giong" (Thanh Giong) in the village of Phu Dong north of Hanoi. Tran Quoc Vuong suggests that this spirit, also known as "Ong Dong," was once purely a nature deity--later immortalized by the Confucian literati in the story of a small boy who grew to enormous size in a few days and led a Vietnamese army against northern invaders.

The crossover between Dinh and Den is seen in many other places in the north, such as Dinh Kim Lien, both a communal house and a royally-recognized temple to Cao Son, a mountain spirit who was named as the southern "guardian" of the city of Thang Long (Hanoi).

In the north, a Den can be characterized as having a much more complex floor plan (relative to a northern dinh), with multiple chambers and altars for subsidiary figures and officials who must be approached before entering the main sanctuary. In this respect, they can sometimes be confused with a Buddhist pagoda (chua).

The architectural imagery of the Den includes the "Tam Quan" gate (with three arched entrances), statues of horses, bas-relieve images of dragons, elephants, and tigers, and racks of sacred weapons in front of the altar.

Sometimes the symbolism of a Den may overlap with features of the Buddhist pagodas, particular examples being, the nghe dog, the phoenix, the calabash (a Taoist emblem), and cranes standing on the backs of turtles (representing longevity of the ancestor's cult). Some Buddhist pagodas will also have the "Tam Quan" gate; I suspect this feature only appears at pagodas that receive royal visitors, but am not certain of this.

The sacred weapons can be quite fanciful,
reminding us not of military forcebut spiritual battles.
Buddhist pagoda of Giac Vien in Saigon.

The image of the bat is especially popular in Hue, where it is taken to symbolize good fortune. (This is a visual pun--the Chinese word for "bat" sounds like the word for "good luck.")

 

BUDDHIST PAGODAS (CHUA)

Most of the pagodas in Vietnam reflect the Mahayana tradition followed by the ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh). The popular form of the Mahayana incorporates many of the tenets of the "Pure Land" faith, including the belief that a layperson can achieve nirvana in one lifetime. The teaching tradition for the monks includes various forms of Zen (Thien) meditation. (One of the most interesting is the Truc Lam school, which takes Yen Tu Mountain as its home.)

In earlier times, central and southern Vietnam was ruled by Cham and Khmer kings who followed a form of Theravada Buddhism similar to that in Cambodia. You can still see a few distinctive Theravada temples in the Mekong region, but most of the pagodas in these regions are now Mahayana communities founded by the Kinh (majority Vietnamese) settlers.

The most prominent representation of the Buddha is Amitahba, the Buddha of the past and the guardian of the western paradise that is celebrated as the "Pure Land." The main altar in the northern temples usually has a distinctive array of statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

There have been numerous schema to describe the typical arrangement of these statues in northern pagodas. One of the best graphic representations appears in Louis Bezacier's 1955 book on Vietnamese art and architecture (see below). This volume is hard to come by these days, but the Friends of Vietnam Heritage's excellent booklet on the Tran Quoc Pagoda gives a similar layout.

 

Detail of Bezacier's pagoda layout (showing only the main chamber;
I have highlighted the Buddhas in orange). In many pagodas the
Buddha is shown as a baby boy rather than recumbent (Nirvana).
Also, the teacher-monk Bodhidharma is now usually found
in a separate chamber behind the main altar, where the
prominent monks of the pagoda are venerated. Similarly,
Ksitigarbha is now often found in a side-chamber
devoted to deceased laypersons of the pagoda community.

 

The topmost row is traditionally composed of three identical Buddhas of the "Three Eras" (Tam The), also sometimes referred to as the "Three Bodies." The idea of the three "eras" or "bodies" of the Buddha means different things to different monks and laypersons, and may take a while for me to unravel in my book. (The Wikipedia discussion of the "Trikaya" is a good starting-point for these concepts.)

There are usually three rows after the "Tam The," with a Buddha in the center of each row. In the vertical arrangement, however, the Buddhas are portrayed in their individual forms: Amitahba, the Buddha of the past, the historical Buddha "Shakyamuni," often shown as a gaunt ascetic, and the well-known Buddha of the future, chubby Maitreya (left). Each of these Buddhas is flanked by some of the most famous of the Boddhisattvas.

It is interesting to compare this arrangement to the "three-in-one" concept of divinity that is so familiar to Catholics. The top row shows the three manifestations of the Buddha as identical in form; the vertical row shows them as different. If we had consistent icons for the Father and the Holy Ghost, we might see the same sort of thing in Christian iconography. (Since most of these statues were carved and deployed in a time when Catholic monks were already teaching the doctrine of the Trinity in Vietnam, it would be interesting to explore whether this more than a coincidental observation.)

A small statue of the baby Buddha will often be found at the front of the array, pointing with one hand to the sky and the other to the ground (right). According to tradition, the Buddha took seven steps after being born and then made this gesture to indicate that his teaching was the only one that applies to both heaven and earth. The baby Buddha will often be encircled by a golden trellis of dragons, who, according to the tradition, spouted "pure water" that cleansed him.

In the north, many other altars are typically scattered around the central worshipping-hall, particularly statues of the widely-worshipped bodhisattva/ goddess Avalatikosvera (Quan Am in Vietnam, Kwan Yin in China, and Kannon in Japan). Some Taoist deities have also crept into the temples: you may see Nam Tao and Bac Dau, the star-gods who record births and deaths, or perhaps even the Jade Emperor (Ngoc Hoang) himself.

The forward or side hallways will often have flanking rows of the "Kings of Hell" (five on each side, as shown below left). Also, to the rear of the pagoda, you may find chambers devoted to the remembrance of the patrons of the pagoda and to its superior monks. Some pagodas are famous for their statues of the of the lineage of 28 Zen teachers from Buddha to Bodhidharma, or of the "18 arhats" in their characteristic poses (below right).

 

 

 

More information about Vietnamese temples:

500 Danh Lam Viet Nam (500 Famous Pagodas in Vietnam), Vo Van Tuong, NXB Thong Tan, Saigon, 2008. An updated and expanded edition of Vo Van Tuong vast catalogue of noteworthy Buddhist pagodas from north to south, with color illustrations for each and text in Vietnamese and English.
Buddhist Temples in Vietnam, Ha Van Tan, Nguyen Van Ku, Pham Ngoc Long, The Gioi Publishing House, Hanoi, 2007. More polished than Vo Van Tuong's book, but with fewer pagodas and less source material, this handsome edition is also an essential reference.
Dinh Viet Nam (Community Halls), Ha Van Tan and Nguyen Van Ku, NXB T.P. Ho Chi Minh, 1998.
Dinh Lang Mien Bac, The Village Dinh in Northern Vietnam, Le Thanh Duc, Trade-Union Printing Works, Hanoi, 2001
L'art vietnamien, Louis Bezacier, Paris, 1955. A very interesting and insightful study into the temple and tomb architecture of Vietnam, with heavy emphasis on Hue and the two northern temples of But Thap and Phat Tich. P.J. Honey notes that this is "to some extent a new edition of M. Bezacier's Essais sur l'art annamite published in 1944 at Hanoi."
• "The Legend of Ong Dong from the Field to the Text," Tran Quoc Vuong in Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, edited by K. W. Taylor, and John K. Whitmore, Cornell, Southeast Asia Program 1995.
Pagodas, Gods, and Spirits of Vietnam - Ann Helen Unger and Walter Unger, Thames & Hudson, 1997. A beautifully photographed book with accompanying text on pagodas, iconography, religious traditions, spirit cults, and ancestor worship.
Tran Quoc Pagoda Hanoi - An excellent illustrated guidebook published by the Friends of Vietnam Heritage, explaining the arrangement of Buddhas and the significance of the Holy Mothers, Guardian of the Pagoda, Guardians of the Law, etc.

My Master's Robes, Memories of a Novice Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 2002 - Originally published in a Buddhist magazine in the 1950s, these stories are particularly interesting for their first-hand impressions of temple life in central Vietnam (Hue). Thich Nhat Hanh became a monk at age 16, during the very turbulent years from 1942 to 1947, which saw Japanese occupation, famine, and the beginning of the war against French colonial rule.
Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, & Spirit - An on-line companion to the recent exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (March 15, 2003- March 7, 2004). The accompanying book is still commercially available, including informative essays on Vietnamese festivals and rituals of the ethnic minorities.
Spirit Possession Religions and Popular Rituals Flourish in Vietnam - Article on the government's "anti-superstition" campaign and the Holy Mother cult and other spirit cults, by Leslie Evans. [Center for Southeast Asian Studies/UCLA International Institute]


INDEX
NORTH: Hanoi & Vicinity | Yen Tu Mountain | Thanh-hoa | Hoa Lu | Chi-lang Pass
CENTER: Hue Tombs & Citadel | Champa: Amaravati | Champa: Vijaya |
SOUTH: Saigon | Chau Doc | Khmer & Mekong |
OTHER: Museums | BUDDHIST ICONOGRAPHY |