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The Buddha Side

Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam

Alexander Soucy

Publication Year: 2012

The most common description of the supernatural landscape in Vietnam makes a distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist “sides.” The “Buddha side” (ben phat) is the focus of this investigation into the intersection of gender, power, and religious praxis. Employing an anthropological approach to Buddhist practice that takes into account modes of action that are not only socially constructed and contextual, but also negotiated by the actors, The Buddha Side uniquely explores how gender and age affect understandings of what it means to be a Buddhist.

In seeking to map out the ways and meanings of Buddhist engagement, Alexander Soucy examines everything from the skeptical statements of young men and devotional performances of young women to the pilgrimages of older women and performances of orthodoxy used by older men to assert their position within the pagoda space.

Soucy draws on more than four years’ experience conducting ethnographic research in Hanoi to investigate how religious practice is grounded in the constitution and marking of social identity. From this in-depth view, he describes the critical role of religion in shaping social contexts and inserting selves into them. Religion can thus be described as a form of theatre—one in which social identities (youth, old age, masculinity, femininity, authority) are constructed and displayed via religious practice.

A compelling look at the performative aspect of Buddhism in contemporary Vietnam, The Buddha Side will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Buddhism as it is practiced on the ground.

4 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Topics in Contemporary Buddhism


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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. vii-viii

Often when scholars expand their research beyond Buddhism and include Buddhists, the results challenge the usual definitions of that religion based on its teachings and practices. In this wide-ranging study of Vietnamese Buddhists, Alexander Soucy presents such a challenge...

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pp. ix-x

There is a long list of people who deserve my thanks for the part that they played in the creation of this work. My wife’s family has supported me and helped me in a myriad of ways since we first met during my fieldwork in Hanoi. Thank you, Bố, Mẹ, Em Hương, Em Hà, Em Hùng, and...

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pp. 1-15

It was early morning. Quán Sứ Pagoda, the most important pagoda in Hanoi, was crowded.1 Because it was the fifteenth day of the lunar month, middle-aged and elderly women were everywhere, wearing the brown robes and the Buddhist prayer beads that marked them as lay...

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Chapter 1. Views of the Religious Landscape

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pp. 16-36

For most people in Vietnam religion is lived rather than experienced intellectually. People pray to the buddhas, chant sutras, offer incense to gods, goddesses, or ancestors, and have their fortunes read without, for the most part, pondering the cosmological implications of their actions. Buddhism, as most people approach it, cannot be understood through the philosophical content...

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Chapter 2. Space and the Ranking of Buddhisms

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pp. 37-59

At the foot of the steps of Quán Sứ Pagoda, where I first started research in 1997, there was a notice board that warned, “Do not commit the offense of bringing spirit money into the pagoda to worship.” As I stood in front of this notice board, I found it difficult to reconcile the dictate, given...

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Chapter 3. Masculinities and Performances of Skepticism

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pp. 60-78

Minh was twenty-two years old when I first met him in 1997. He was in charge of the guesthouse where I lived for most of my first year in Vietnam. He was bright, thoughtful, and had a good sense of humor; we quickly became good friends. Minh came from a poor family in a village...

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Chapter 4. Offerings and Blessings

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pp. 79-96

The fifteenth day of the lunar month had arrived, one of the two days each month when offerings are believed to be most efficacious and when most devotees make an effort to visit a pagoda. My wife called up and reminded me that she wanted to go to the pagoda that afternoon. On...

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Chapter 5. Women, Offerings, and Symbolic Capital

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pp. 97-117

When I met Thảo in 1997, she was a thoroughly modern, urban, twenty-fiveyear- old woman who came into frequent contact with foreigners because of her job in a joint venture company. She wore fashionable clothing, was well educated and multilingual, and viewed many...

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Chapter 6. Sutra Recital and Buddhist Identities

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pp. 118-137

Buddhist practice in Vietnam, being nonprescriptive, can take a number of forms. However, the various options for practice are interpreted as leading to different ends and are given very different values, depending on perspectives. There is no systematic or authoritative stipulation regarding which activities are mandatory for a Buddhist, which activities are beneficial...

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Chapter 7. Conspicuous Devotion and Devotional Distinctions

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pp. 138-158

I went on a one-day pilgrimage touring temples with a busload of women from a village on the outskirts of Hanoi in January 1998, shortly after Tết Nguyên Đán (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday). It was similar to the pilgrimage described in Chapter 6, though it was with a group...

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Chapter 8. Interpretive Distinctions

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pp. 159-177

Mr. Trung was born in the late 1920s, and describes his life as having been difficult. He never really knew his father, who died when Mr. Trung was four years old. He was the youngest of six children, and was moved around quite a bit, living for periods with various members of his mother’s family. At...

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Chapter 9. Language, Orthodoxy, and Performances of Authority

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pp. 178-198

In the bright summer morning, a group of old Vietnamese men and women chatted quietly in the courtyard of Phúc Lộc Pagoda. The air hung with moisture as usual, but the oppressive sun had not yet stolen away the cooler morning air. Outside the pagoda gates the fury of market...

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pp. 199-204

The people introduced in these chapters expressed a range of possibilities for what it means to be Buddhist in Hanoi. Thảo, the young woman who considers herself to be a fervent Buddhist, neither meditates, recites sutras at the pagoda, nor reads extensively about Buddhist philosophy. Her...


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pp. 205-218


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pp. 219-230


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pp. 231-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865856
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835989

Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Topics in Contemporary Buddhism
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OCLC Number: 821725614
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Buddha Side

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Buddhism and state -- Vietnam.
  • Buddhism -- Social aspects -- Vietnam -- Hanoi.
  • Women in Buddhism -- Vietnam -- Hanoi.
  • Buddhism -- Vietnam -- Hanoi -- Customs and practices.
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