There were six, if not more toilets at Như Lai Thiền Tự, a Buddhist temple in San Diego. I figured six was excessive—until three coaches of pilgrims pulled up in front. Celebrations for the Lunar New Year continue, and this includes the ancient tradition of temple hopping. Apparently the new year is the best time to make merit—and to wait in a long line to pee.
On any given day, there is very little about Như Lai Thiền Tự to distinguish it from the multitude of other Vietnamese temples across North America. There is a main shrine hall, an ancestor hall—even a special stage set up for Tết ceremonies. Statues of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and classic characters from Chinese Buddhist literature meet you at every turn, always accompanied by a incense holder for the devotee. But this is not your typical Mahayana Buddhist temple.
Như Lai Thiền Tự is rooted in a relatively recent Vietnamese Buddhist tradition called Khất-sĩ. (Pronounced like “cut-see”, read as two English verbs.) I prefer to use the term “Mendicant” tradition, as Khất-sĩ comes from the Chinese 乞士, another term for a bhikkhu, which focuses on the act of begging for alms (i.e. 乞 khất “to beg”). Little was I aware of the importance of the alms round! At lunchtime, I found myself lining up with a row of practitioners to pick up an alms bowl, fill it with various vegan fare, followed by mealtime chanting and silent consumption.
Founded in Vietnam in the 1940’s by the Ven. Minh Đăng Quang, the Mendicant tradition is a blend of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Like their Theravada counterparts, Mendicant monks and nuns wear saffron robes and eat from an alms bowl. Doctrinally, they incorporate Mahayana characteristics, such as an emphasis on emptiness and bodhisattvahood. Their chanting is mixed, although more heavily drawn from a Vietnamese Mahayana tradition. From my experience in both Mahayana and Theravada Vietnamese communities, the Mendicants seem much closer to the Mahayanists—with a special affinity for ideals of Theravada discipline and simplicity. (I should emphasize ideals!)
When asked about the differences between the Vietnamese Mahayana and Mendicant traditions, one of the monks noted the influence of context. “In Vietnam they are very different, but in America it’s hard to tell them apart.” Traditionally, the Mendicant tradition places a special emphasis on meditation, scholarly research and charitable works—all while de-emphasizing superstition, ritualistic ceremonies and purely cultural characteristics.
The monks and nuns I’ve met certainly speak to these qualities. They have spent years abroad, studying Buddhism throughout Europe, India and Southeast Asia. They have a particular affinity for meditation and learning about other Buddhist traditions. But the interests of individual monastics don’t necessarily translate to how institutions operate on the ground.
In the Mendicant tradition’s twenty-or-so North American institutions, the temples have often bowed to market forces. The core of meditation, research and charity are still there, but communities also have high expectations for superstitions (such as fortune telling), ceremonies (such as ornate funerals) and cultural characteristics (such as Vietnamese school for children). In balancing these expectations, these temples drift further from their foundational paradigm.
During the end of French colonialism, Japanese invasion and subsequent American occupation, the discipline and principled character of the Mendicant tradition made a huge impression on many Vietnamese lay Buddhists, earning the tradition significant support. From the monk I talked with at Như Lai Thiền Tự, there is a sense that this time of exceptional recognition has passed. As meditation, scholarly research and charity permeate Buddhist communities on an ever broader, more global scale, what will set the Mendicant tradition apart? Will the Mendicant tradition simply be reabsorbed into the traditional Theravada or Mahayana Buddhist communities?
These are just some superficial thoughts about a tradition that I not-too-long-ago knew nothing about. I found almost no online English-language resources on the Mendicant tradition—so I hope my readers can appreciate that what may appear to be a monolothic and ancient tradition of Vietnamese Buddhism is in fact much more diverse and modern than at first glance. Imagine what more is out there.
Comments and corrections are welcome as always. Questions too, but I probably won’t have answers.