Vietnam Heritage, June-July 2011 — The statues of the Buddha in Vietnam are totally diffirent from those in China, Japan, Thailand and Laos, due to the particular way of the Vietnamese people in their interactions with the outside world.
The Vietnamese style of Buddhist sculpture is robustness, innocence, simplicity of the people of this country. It is their tolerance, open-heartedness, abandon, joyfulness, and compassion. These statues are for cultic purposes but remain deeply secular, sophisticated but not professional or drily and coldly manneristic. They are done by inspiration and at liberty.
Some statues are only finely-tuned in several details where necessary; and some parts are fully expressed at true value and the rest is left undone. Whenever possible they are gilded in whole; if not, they are covered with silver then with gold paper. The faces of the statues are not divinized to become supernatural and separated from familiar daily life. This is in accordance with the philosophy of Buddhism.
Even if they are statues of new-born Sakyamuni Buddha, of Avalokitesvara-Kwanyin on the Mount, of Avalokitesvara-Kunidii, of Manjusri, of Samantabhadra, or even the Trimurti set of the Buddhas of the Three Worlds, there is the same way of working. Buddhism does not profess divinisation of people, or idolatry. It is when the basic nature of existence is seen that one is enlightened and becomes a buddha. Every person, a farmer or an intellectual, can become a buddha.
I have the feeling that the artisans of old took the models of their statues from the faces and figures of their neighbours and families to paint and carve. This is complete difference from the divinised statues of the Buddha in Laos and Thailand. Those in Japan are imposing in their august scale, while those in China are so complex and detailed as to be sterile and exhausted.
I do not know if it is because of a disregard of order and rules together with an innocent and robust view of life that the statues in the pagodas of Vietnam are so beautiful and so particular. Too-well-done, exact, smooth, slick and velvety are strange and alien to the nature of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese are more sensualistic than rationalistic, rather nearer to insight and intuition than to rationality.

By Le Thiet Cuong