Most Venerable Thích Như Điển
as a pioneer of Vietnamese Buddhism in Germany:
challenges and success stories between tradition and globalization
Olaf Beuchling & Tuan Van Cong
Most Venerable Thich Nhu Dien has been a member of the Buddhist order for 55 years, passed on the Vietnamese Lam Te School in Germany and authored of over 60 books: The Vietnamese monk ThíchNhưĐiển is one of the most important representatives of Buddhism in Germany; at the same time he is a co-designer of Vietnamese integration in this country. An essay on the life and work of a Vietnamese Dharma Master on behalf of his 70th birthday.
A New Perspective: Globalized Buddhism
Already in 2001, the religious scholar Martin Baumann had proposed to speak of a new epoch in the history of Buddhism. After canonical, traditional and reformist Buddhism, we can now speak of a fourth epoch: an epoch of "global Buddhism". At the same time, Baumann launched a new scientific journal, the Journal of Global Buddhism. Since then, scientific articles on Buddhist developments from all over the world have been published there (see www.globalbuddhism.org). Other experts also see the globalization of Buddhism as its most striking feature at present: the anthology Westward Dharma, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann, documents the spread of Buddhism in Europe, North America, South Africa and other regions of the world. Another book describing the transfer of different Buddhist teachings into Western societies is Stephen Batchelor's book The Awakening of the West. These and other expert publications show: For the first time in its more than 2,500-year history, the transcontinental and transnational stream of Buddhist ideas, practices and people has reached an extent that emphasizes globalization as the characteristic feature of contemporary Buddhist development.
Characteristics of the Globalization of Buddhism
At the time of the historical Buddha Gautama over 2500 years ago, there were narrow limits to the spread of Buddhist teachings: Buddha and his followers wandered through the eastern Ganges valley in the border area between today's India and Nepal. Their medium of communication and instruction was the spoken language and the lived social model. At the same time, the Buddha also had the claim to spread the Dharma for the benefit of all living beings. The ancient Pali-text Vinaya Mahavagga (Maro 1) hands down how Gautama sent away his first 60 monks shortly after his sermon of Benares to spread the Dharma:
"Go forth, monks, and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, and for the welfare of gods and men, let not two of you go the same way "
Also in Vinaya there is a passage that shows that the spread of Buddhism was not bound to a certain language. "I allow", says the Cullavagga, "that the statements of the Awakened are learned in their own native language." In the Indian context, this statement probably first referred to various related regional languages and dialects. With the translation of the first Buddhist texts into Chinese from the middle of the 2nd century onwards, Buddhism was also translated into a language that was fundamentally different from the Indian languages previously used.
No less important than the translation of texts for the further spread of Buddhism was the spread of the sangha as a clearly defined monastic institution. Thus, it was the wandering monks who followed the trade routes from North India to Central Asia to China - the famous Silk Road - with a missionary intent. Later, the first monasteries along these routes were built and became important stations and centres for the spread of Buddhism. Since these monasteries were not economically productive, but depended on the support of laymen or sympathizing rulers at that time, successful monasteries could not exceed a certain size. If they grew beyond this level, some monks went out again to preach the Dharma somewhere else and, if necessary, build a new monastery there, for example in a fertile agricultural region or on the outskirts of a larger city.
As one can see, the spread of Buddhism across provincial, country and language borders was already given at its beginnings. Even if one often hears that Buddhism is not a missionary teaching, it was - like all religions - dependent on the transmission of the teaching from one generation to the next.
Thus Buddhism has gradually developed from a doctrine of salvation that had emerged in the context of the Indian subcontinent to a world religion that is represented on all continents. Buddhism is currently the fourth largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. The vast majority of Buddhists still live in Asia, especially in the countries of South, Southeast and East Asia. But the number of Buddhists is also growing in other regions of the world.
However, there are major uncertainties regarding the quantification of this process. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, there are 488 million Buddhists worldwide, representing about 7 percent of the world's population. Of the three main streams of Buddhism (Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna), Mahāyāna-Buddhism with its numerous followers forms the largest Buddhist tradition in populous Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea or Vietnam. The second largest branch is Theravāda Buddhism, which is native to countries such as Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos or Cambodia. The Vajrayāna Buddhism (which can also be assigned to Mahāyāna, but has taken up numerous Tantric elements) is the smallest of these traditions. Its main distribution area traditionally lies in countries such as Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia.
Beyond the Asian regions of origin, Buddhism has spread worldwide - a process that has gained in importance especially since the 1960s. In North America, the number of Buddhists is now estimated at 3,860,000, in Europe at 1,330,000, and between 1996 and 2001, the number of Buddhists in Australia grew by 79 percent to over 528,000 in the 2011 census. Surprisingly high figures are also reported for the Middle East and North Africa (approx. 500,000) and for Latin America and the Caribbean (410,000). Even in sub-Saharan Africa, about 150,000 Buddhists are currently estimated.
However, these figures hide the fact that Buddhist life outside Asia is facing very different challenges. The half a million Buddhists who are to live in the Middle East and North Africa are mainly guest workers from Asia who work in the Gulf states. They are not granted freedom of worship. An exception in the region is Israel, where a real Buddhist scene exists. For sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, there is hardly any reliable information on Buddhism. Here South Africa is an exception, where the information situation about the Buddhist scene looks better.
This globalization of Buddhism can be seen in a number of distinct but interrelated developments:
- Improved means of mass transportation and the openingof many states to immigration led to Buddhist migrants from Asia settling in western societies and elsewhere. In the context of their immigration and settlement process, they founded places of worship and associations in the host societies and thus contribute to a pluralization of religious landscapes.
- At the same time Buddhism fascinates many people from the West. While initially it was small circles of middle class and mostly better educated Europeans who discovered and propagated Buddhism in their home countries, an interest in the Dharma had grown after the Second World War in broader parts of European population. The fusion of an Asian teaching with a European context and thinking was fruitful. New forms of Buddhism emerged. Catholic religious discovered Zen meditation, mindfulness exercises became popular, and some Buddhist groups nowadays explicitly see themselves as "Western".
- Long-distance travel has become more comfortable, cheaper and more popular. The simplification of travel led to worldwide travel activities of Buddhist teachers, which allowed further traditions to spread faster all over the world. Even monastic life has become internationalized. Ordination ceremonies, where both the future monks or nuns and the leaders of the ceremonies come from different countries and belong to monasteries that can be thousands of kilometres apart, are no longer a rarity. In addition, there are international Buddhist conferences, where experts from research, practice and interested lay people exchange information on Buddhist topics, or tourists who are on holiday in a Buddhist country and who take part in meditation retreats.
- In times of global commodity flows, the global trade in Buddhist- and Buddhist-inspired artifacts such as Buddha statues, meditation cushions or singing bowls has increased. On the one hand, these are in demand by Buddhist centres and groups. On the other hand, they have become an important market segment of the furnishing, decoration and wellness industry. In Germany, as journalist Harald Martenstein once ironically stated, Buddha figures became the successors for the traditional garden gnomes.
- And finally, the globalization of Buddhism has increased rapidly as a result of worldwide medialization and digitalization. In all European languages there is a wide range of literature with Buddhist non-fiction books, reports on experiences and guides. The most important sutras of the Buddhist canon are available on the Internet in their original languages and in very good translations. Dharma sermons by well-known monks can be heard on Internet platforms such as YouTube. Buddhists and people interested in Buddhism can exchange ideas on relevant websites and discussion forums. Where something is becoming increasingly popular, the film industry is not far away: with movies like “Little Buddha”, “Seven Years in Tibet” or “Kundun”, an international audience is entertained and millions of dollars are earned.
The Globalization of Vietnamese Buddhism
Like other national traditions and teachings of Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhism has spread worldwide. This process began mainly in the 1970s and was the result of flight and migration. Against the background of the Vietnamese refugee crisis since the 1970s, the largest group of overseas Vietnamese arrived in Western countries. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Vietnamese went as workers to the former socialist states, where Vietnamese communities developed even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Others migrated for study purposes, as family members, were adopted as war orphans or sought their fortune as illegal immigrants in supposedly wealthier societies. Today, larger communities of Vietnamese migrants can be found on every continent.
The largest overseas Vietnamese communities in western countries are found in the United States, Canada, Australia, France and Germany.
Table: Number of persons of Vietnamese origin in selected Western societies
Population Census 2016
Estimates by Thanh Binh Minh Trân
Population Census 2016
Population Census 2016
With these global migrations, Vietnamese Buddhism has also globalized. Vietnamese Buddhist pagodas and places of worship can nowadays be found in places so far away as San Jose in California, Perth in Australia or Hamburg in northern Germany.
In the West, the best-known representative of Vietnamese Buddhism is Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who enjoys great international recognition with his "Order of Interbeing" and centres in southern France and in Walbröl in Germany. For Vietnamese Buddhism abroad, however, the master Thich NhuDien, who has been resident in Germany for 40 years now, is also important. It is thanks to him that Vietnamese Buddhism has taken root in Germany and is one of the strongest traditions in the country in terms of numbers. More than a dozen monasteries, run by monks as well as nuns, and a community life that is as vital as it is traditional, began in the foundation centre of the Lam Te School in Germany: the Pagoda VienGiac in Hanover.
Thích Như Điển - the pioneer of Vietnamese Buddhism (not only) in Germany
ThíchNhưĐiểnĐiển was born on 28 June 1949 as Le Cuong in the small village MỹHạt as the youngest of eight children in a poor farming family. He spent his childhood in the central Vietnamese province Quảng Nam. The region has long been a power centre of Vietnamese Buddhism. At the same time, foreign influences came into the country via the famous port city of Hoi An. During the Vietnam War, the region was the scene of fierce fighting.
On April 15, 1964, with the consent of his parents, ThíchNhưĐiển moved to VienGiac Monastery in Hoi An as a novice candidate. Here, later also in the Pagoda Phuoc Lam ("Forest of Merit"), he completed his novitiate. Although he was not a good student at MỹHạt during his primary school years, his performance improved noticeably as a result of Buddhist practice. He attended the TrunghọcBồĐềhigh school in Hội An and finished his school time in Saigon, where he was awarded as the best student of his year. In retrospect, the monk attributes the marked improvement in his school performance over the years to the intensive practice in everyday monastic life, where memorizing the recitation texts, meditation and the absence of worldly distractions helped the young person to focus his mind.
Study in Japan
The most promising monks had the opportunity to receive a scholarship to study in Japan after graduating from high school. Among them was ThíchNhưĐiển.In the winter of 1972 he went to Japan to study abroad. However, life in Japan was a great challenge for Vietnamese students: the language proved difficult, the cost of living and tuition fees were high. In his memoirs “CảmtạxứxứĐức / Thank you, Germany” from 2002 the venerable monk describes the situation as follows:
"The Vietnamese students felt lost in a foreign country. We young monks, who were busy knocking on the door of the university, knew nothing about the way of life and habits of the ordained in Japan. Where should we live, eat, study, etc.? We were all left in the dark." (ThíchNhưĐiểnĐiển 2002, p. 361f.)
ThíchNhưĐiển initially lived with Vietnamese monks and attended two parallel Japanese language courses to save time and money. Between 1973 and 1977 he could live in the temple Honryuji in Hachioji. Here, as a monk, he took on many duties in the pagoda and thus came closer to the Japanese Buddhist tradition. During his semester break he worked to pay tuition fees after passing the entrance examination to study educational science at the private TeikyoUniversity in Tokyo Prefecture. Despite the great challenges, the monk managed, with perseverance and diligence, to complete his pedagogical studies on 25 March 1977 (52nd Showa year) - as second best.
In view of the uncertain situation at home after 1975, when the troops of the Communist-led North Vietnam had taken the pro-Western South Vietnam, he decided not to return home at first. Instead, he contacted a friend who studied medicine in Germany and who invited the monk to come to Germany.
The way to Germany
Following the invitation of his childhood friend Dr.Van Cong Tram, ThíchNhưĐiểntravelled to Germany in 1977. He first lived in Kiel and took a German course at the university. Already in March 1978 he was able to enrol in the faculty of education at the University of Hanover.
In the same year 1978, the public in Germany began to become increasingly aware of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands of people fled by land or across the South China Sea to the neighbouring countries. Most of the refugees came from Vietnam. They left their homes to escape political repression such as re-education campaigns, expropriation and imprisonment in labour camps, fled from economic hardship due to economic incompetence and crop failures and later also due to military conflicts with Cambodia and the People's Republic of China.
The Federal Republic of Germany became involved with the refugees early on. Their commitment to take in initially 1000 refugees at the end of 1975 was gradually increased to a contingent of almost 40,000 people. Until well into the 1980s, Vietnamese citizens could expect to be recognised as refugees for humanitarian and political reasons. In view of their sometimes dramatic flight circumstances and the media coverage, the boat refugees attracted the attention of the world public. Other Vietnamese arrived in Germany as part of family reunification or asylum procedures. ThíchNhưĐiển also applied for asylum, which was granted after a short examination in view of the political situation in Vietnam.
Vietnamese Buddhists who already lived in Germany convinced the Venerable to stay in Germany, so that he could care for the local Vietnamese Buddhists. At the end of 1978 an "Association of Vietnamese Buddhist Students and Refugees in the Federal Republic of Germany" was founded, in 1979 the first issue of the magazine "VienGiac" was published and in 1980 the "Congregation of the United Vietnamese Buddhist Church, Department Federal Republic of Germany" was founded. At the beginning of 1981, the community moved into a former metal factory in Hanover - in direct proximity to the present location of the pagoda.
The first ten years
Already in the first 10 years after the foundation of the congregation in Germany, further Vietnamese Buddhist local groups or small pagodas were added nationwide. The nun ThíchNữDiệuTâm settled in Hamburg. The harbour city had become a stronghold of Vietnamese refugees, and so there was a need to build a place of worship. In January 1985, in the presence of 150 visitors (among them the CSU politician Dr. Peter Gauweiler), a place of worship named TâmGiác was inaugurated in Munich. However, it took several more years before an ordained person was found to take long-term responsibility for the pagoda. In Berlin the first Buddhist activities can be traced back to visits ThíchNhưĐiểns to local students and refugees. In the early years there was a good cooperation with the famous Buddhist House in Berlin-Frohnau and the German Buddhists of the "Buddhistische Gesellschaft Berlin e.V.". In 1981 a local association was founded, from 1983 plans for the foundation of a Vietnamese Buddhist place of worship or pagoda were developed. However, it was not until 1987, when the Linh ThứuPagoda was inaugurated. In other cities like Bremen, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Münster, Fürth-Erlangen, Wiesbaden, Rottershausen, Barntrup or Norddeich Buddhist local associations had started work, held regular events or founded youth and cultural groups. In some places the activities were discontinued after a few years, in others they could be expanded and led to the foundation of regular places of worship or pagodas.
In 1986 ThíchNhưĐiển became a German citizen. On the one hand, his return to Vietnam was uncertain, while the German passport would facilitate his travel activities within Europe, the USA and Australia, which went hand in hand with his appointment as First Secretary of the Congregation of Vietnamese Buddhists in Europe. On the other hand, German citizenship and the rights and obligations associated with it facilitated integration into German society.
After 1989: Vietnamese Buddhism in Unified Germany
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, another group of Vietnamese migrants in Germany came to the fore. Up to 60,000 Vietnamese had lived as contract workers in the former GDR. The meeting of the two Vietnamese communities - on the one hand the mostly South Vietnamese refugees in the old federal states, and on the other hand the often regime-oriented North Vietnamese workers - was anything but easy. Illegals from other former socialist countries who came to Germany to pursue criminal activities were a particular problem in the 1990s.
1989 was also the year when ViênGiácmonastery was built at its present location. In December 1991 the congregation moved into the new building. One and a half years later, in August 1993, the solemn inauguration ceremony of the monastery took place in the presence of Buddhist dignitaries from home and abroad. At the time of its completion, the monastery was the largest Buddhist building in Germany, made possible by donations and loans amounting to DM 9 million, as well as countless hours of personal contribution by committed Buddhists. It is still one of the largest Buddhist buildings in Europe. The two-storey main building has an area of 815 square meters, the outbuildings of 666 square meters. The devotional hall covers 450 square metres, which means that it can accommodate around 400 people. There is also a large communal kitchen, an event room, a patriarch and meditation room, a library and many other rooms. Shortly after moving into the pagoda, national and international events were held: The Dalai Lama visited the monasteryViênGiác in Hanover several times, most recently in 2013; the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC) met there in 1991 with the participation of 70 influential ordained and representatives of Buddhist organizations from 16 nations; in 1995 the Vietnamese Sangha held the first meeting of the Vietnamese Sangha abroad in the pagoda.
Vietnamese Buddhism in Germany today
Vietnamese Buddhism spread nationwide from Hanover. In addition to the ViênGiác centre, there are monasteries and smaller locations in Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Aachen, Freiburg, Nuremberg, Mönchengladbach and Ravensburg. The latter city became the home of the Pagoda Vien Duc, another personal project of ThíchNhưĐiển, which has served him as a new home since his resignation from his office in Hanover. In Schmiedeberg (Saxony)ThíchHạnhTấn (one of the first fully ordained students of ThíchNhưĐiển and abbot of the pagoda ViênGiác in the years 2003-2007) founded the Amitayusretreat centre. Regional television channels reported several times about the different Vietnamese pagodas and their activities.
Today, Vietnamese Buddhism is one of the strongest Buddhists organisations in Germany. In contrast to ThíchNhat Hanh's "Order of Interbeing", the traditional Lam Te School under ThíchNhưĐiển is more traditionally oriented and more strongly influenced by Buddhism of the Pure Land. Also, the majority of practitioners are still of Vietnamese origin. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese Buddhists in Germany have established very good local relationships with other Buddhist groups and are always involved in cross-group activities such as the local Vesakh celebrations. Vietnamese Buddhism has established itself and is an integral part of the Buddhist scene in Germany.
The importance of ThíchNhưĐiển for Buddhism and the Vietnamese community in Europe is shownin his life's work: in the foundation of the VienGiac Monastery and other Dharma sites as power centres of Buddhist life in Germany, in his high productivity as author and in his work as teacher of tens of thousands of Buddhists from Vietnam and the whole world. The importance of ThíchNhưĐiểns is also evidencedby the recognition he has received in Buddhism worldwide. For example, his work was honoured by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and Sri LankanRamannaNikaya (one of three Orthodox monastic orders in Sri Lanka), who awarded him an honorary title in 2011 in recognition of his services to the spread of Buddhism in Europe and presented him a folding hand fan that traditionally is reserved to the masters of the ruling house. No less than the famous Dharma master ThíchNhấtHạnh emphasized during the visit of ThíchNhưĐiểns to the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in autumn 2014 in front of 1000 guests that ThíchNhưĐiển has the merit and the honour of being the founder of Vietnamese Buddhism in Germany. All ordained students of the EIAB should therefore bow in gratitude and respect for the life's work of the Founder Abbot. In view of his life's deeds in establishing Vietnamese Buddhism in Germany and in shaping the extremely successful integration process of Vietnamese Buddhists in this country, one award seems long overdue: that of the Order of Meritof the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz). This award is the only general order of merit award of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is awarded (in several stages) for special achievements in the political, economic, cultural, intellectual or charitable fields. The fact that the venerable ThíchNhưĐiển has not yet received this recognition will primarily have to do with the fact that a corresponding proposal has not yet been made. His merits for Buddhism, the integration of Vietnamese refugees and his contribution to constructive intercultural coexistence in Germany make it seem overdue.
Tuan Van Cong & Dr. Olaf Beuchling
Dr. Olaf Beuchling
Chair of International and Intercultural Education at Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. He is author of several books and many scientific articles on Buddhism as well the Vietnamese diaspora (www.beuchling.de)
Tuan Van Cong, Dipl.-Ing.
(dharma name: NguyênĐạo). Researcher,
head of IT of the clinicum for Radiology&Neuroradiology at the University clinicumSchleswig-Holstein. Author of three books in German and Vietnamese.