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In Session: Engaged Buddhism: Historic Relic of the 1960s or Alive and Well in Contemporary Southeast Asia
1: Crafting a Buddhist Public: Engaged Buddhism in 1960s and Late-Socialist Vietnams
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies , Netherlands
In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War and the Buddhist crisis in southern Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh formulated his vision of “Engaged Buddhism” (Đạo Phật đi vào cuộc đời) in war-torn Saigon. Fast forward to the contemporary period, a new generation of urban Buddhists, both monastics and lay, is re-inventing what engaged Buddhism can mean in post-war, post-economic reform Ho Chi Minh City. Combining archival research with extensive ethnographic fieldwork at Buddhist institutions and networks in Ho Chi Minh City from 2016 to 2019, this paper examines continuities and changes in urban Vietnamese Buddhism, with a focus on comparing the forms and structures of socially engaged Buddhist programs in the 1960s and the contemporary period. I argue that to understand Vietnamese engaged Buddhism, it is imperative that we consider the diverse range of social, religious, and political aspirations of Buddhist actors and carefully examine how Buddhism is entangled with socio-political structures of the two time periods. While it continues many imperatives surrounding social and political welfare found in Buddhist movements of the 1960s, I show that with the rise of new communication technologies and recent models of Buddhist “industrialized philanthropy” (Weller et al. 2018), contemporary engaged Buddhism in Ho Chi Minh City proposes novel approaches to social engagement, citizenship, and education that foster a new late-socialist Buddhist public and community.