Ethics in Practice: Compassion Intertwined with Wisdom


“Ethics” is a familiar subject that most of Vietnamese student has studied in the foundation years at their primary schools. However, “ethics” should not only be the early lessons of childhood, but also the accumulation of lifelong learning and practice. And most importantly, “Ethics” are not rigid disciplines forcing learners to follow, rather, “ethics” need to be nurtured in empathy, mutual understanding through critical analysis and flexibility in real-life contexts. The “Ethics in Practice” course was designed and taught with such spirit by Dr. Nguyen Nam, currently overseeing the Vietnam Studies Major at Fulbright University Vietnam. The course inspires a generation of whole-person learners to not only acquire Knowledge and Skills but also strengthen Morality – built on Asian philosophy (Buddhism, in this course) associated with Vietnamese identity.

Professor Nguyen Nam in a field trip with students, 2019

In recent years, especially during the uncertain time of the global pandemic, the concept of mindfulness, loving kindness or Vipassana meditation (Vipassana is Buddhist term meaning “seeing things as they really are”) has been gaining a lot of traction. The popularity of these Buddhist-derived practices indicates a positive tendency that the Vietnamese have paid more attention to their mental, spiritual health and the circulation of energy inside the physical bodies. However, when assessed critically, the normalization of these practices has blurred foundational philosophy, losing the original ethical values and even, in some cases, going against what the Buddha taught. Given that, the course “Ethics in practice: Buddhist Philosophical Ethics in Vietnam and Beyond – Fall 2021 invited learners to return the roots of Buddhism, explained practices related to moral philosophy, and encouraged them to reflect on contemporary practices from the Buddhism perspective. In addition to reading assignments and lectures like many other courses, a special feature of this course is a series of guest lectures from a diverse pool of Vietnamese and international scholars, as well as Buddhist and mindfulness practitioners, which gives students a multi-dimensional view of Buddhist Philosophical Ethics through both academic and religious perspectives.

No-self and Interbeing

One of the fundamental theories in the course is the Engaged Buddhism movement initiated by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. “Engaged Buddhism” means acting completely voluntarily in order to apply the Buddhist ethics, insights acquired from meditation practice, and the teachings of the Buddhist dharma to contemporary situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering, and injustice. While Vietnam’s tradition of incarnation dates back thousands of years, Engaged Buddhism emergence and widespread as a social practice in the mid-twentieth century has been perpetually embraced and is still relevant in today society. The basis of this practice is “no-self” and “interbeing”.

When the poem “Call me by my true names” by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was introduced in the class, it perhaps raised emotional and rational conflicts inside each student. Acknowledging that there is no “self/ ego” that exists independently, but always exists interdependently, formed by many factors, influenced by diverse relationships, which makes us aware of the “immutable ego” illusion constructed with nuanced complexities of things when talking about “the self”. Breaking out of the illusion “I am the one and only” is the first step to realize that “self” is a part of society and nature; and that is also where the spirit of forgiveness begins. Such transformative change is not easy to perceive, especially for those who were nurtured to embrace their unique selves and compete to assert themselves. Challenging yet possible, after 12 weeks, students gradually realized that “no-self” and “interbeing” were the foundation of empathy, togetherness and the path leading to effective social intervention, family harmony, and even the World’s Peace.

The “service-learning” is the unique assignment of this course which requires students to practice what they’ve learned from classroom in their daily lives. With the topic “Teaching English to disadvantaged students” of Group 2, Nguyen Thi Thuong (Class of 2024), who served the community engagement role, had an epiphany when reflected on her pursuit of ego.

When we promoted our workshop, there were more than 70 sign-up. However, the actual turnout of the event were only 20, which was really disappointing to my ambitious self. When I reflected on what I had learned, I realized I was wrong to put my personal desire above the needs of the students and I let go of that frustration. I thought it was great that I helped as much as I could and even sent the workshop materials to those who did not participate. This may sound minute and insignificant, but for a perfectionist like me, this is a huge step.”

Service learning report of Group 2 on “Online workshop for disadvantaged students”

Another group practiced “the beginner’s mind” (Shoshin according to Zen Buddhism) to design a programming crash course for the visually impaired students. “In Computer Science classes, the teachers usually give students coding examples and describe them with pictures, but that does not work for visually impaired students. So we [our group] converted all [text and pictures] into voice, which was not easy. Therefore, a very simple coding lesson took a whole day to be delivered,”  shared Ly Minh Tu (Class of 2023). Despite the limitation of time and technical aspect, the six-week virtual learning course had planted the seeds of confidence and passion inside the visually impaired students of the class, as a participant shared: “I used to think Programming is something that is just beyond our [the blinds’] reach, but thanks to you [the team], I now know that I can learn it by just trying a little harder.”

Ly Minh Tu (Class of 2023) was sharing about her team’s experience with service learning activity

Understanding and loving in mindfulness

In Vietnam, one of the causes that create gaps between parents and children and among diverse communities is the fact that they are living with or practicing different ethical values. That gap can generates suffering in the form of torture, in the name of love. “Every parent wants their child to be happy, but not everyone knows how to raise their child to be happy, because they usually raise their children in the way they were raised, which might not have turned out well, and so unconsciously, the vicious cycle ensues” shared Ms. My Yen, Mindfulness Coach, guest lecturer of the sharing session “Understanding and Loving, Parents and Children”. “As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh once said ‘Without understanding, love will make you suffocated’. Instead of being a free and unconditional gift, love becomes a conditioned relationship of attachment, grasping and process of existence, and that causes us great pain.” The love that comes from a clear comprehension is the foundation for each of us to be fully present in the present, accepting everything with a calm, compassionate attitude towards others and to ourselves. And that is the mindful practice of understanding and loving-kindness.

The “tree of life” model reminds us about the diverse backgrounds of human beings, so we should not apply ‘our tree of life’ on ‘other’s tree of life’

Managing our instinctive reactions constructed in the environment that we grew up is easy to say but extremely difficult to do. It requires the practitioner to slow down, take a step back and mindfully observe the thoughts, feelings and the structurization of behaviors, to hold themselves from releasing the tempering expression and action. Being “mindful” does not mean denying the state of emotions that are often viewed as negative, namely anger or grief, but recognizing the arising of those emotions, observing the train of thoughts inside our physical body, thus, foster a calm and proper attitude in the spirit of Four Immeasurables. Being kind and compassionate to yourself is the beginning of a transformative journey of mind and action in the interaction with other beings.

One of the most memorable experiences in the lecture by Ms. My Yen was “The gift of 1 minute – 3 steps of self-compassion”: acknowledge your feelings, give yourself a pat on the back, and say kind words to yourself.  “At first I thought it would be nothing if I hug myself, but then I was able to sense warmth, I felt calmer, a calmness of tired days, I shuddered,  Nguyen Thi Thanh Lam (Class of 2024) recalled.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lam (Class of 2024) was sharing her feeling after practicing 1-minute of self-compassion

“Thank you for helping me connect with my parents” – a few words of a student at the end of the lesson on Understanding and Loving opened a promising journey of loving in mindfulness, not only in relationships with parents, but also with other social relationships, to be able to empathize and connect with each other more effectively.

Great questions of “human life”

Besides understanding theory and its application in life’s context, the course also allowed students to observe and analyze contemporary practices that are considered to be derived from or related to Buddhist teachings through the research-intensive final team projects. In place of traditional exams, students were split into eight groups to approach different aspects of life, which presented a feast of knowledge, in-depth discussion, and foundation for further research. The topics of the groups varied from Vietnamese people’s perception of Buddhist concepts such as Karma, Reincarnation; to the views on gender equality in Buddhism, the “Le Hang Thuan” ceremony at the temple, the release of living beings and the relationship between other socio-religious practices, such as Buddhism and vegetarianism or tolerance of Buddhism towards the LGBTIQ+ community. There were monks, nuns, and experts in mindfulness joining students’ presentations, therefore, the constructive discussion and in-depth multi-dimensional explanations were effectively monitored.

Snapshot of video presentation of Group 5 – “Kill ’em with kindness” raised a critical view on the popular social practice “life release”.

Accompanying Mr. Nguyen Nam and the students during the 12-week course, Ms. My Yen proudly said “I really admire the class: under the guidance of Mr. Nam, young students were brave to raise such great questions, the questions of human life, not just small problems.”. Encouraging students to raise great questions, to challenge established norms, to analyze and discuss issues together under an interdisciplinary and academically liberal approach, is one of the main pillars in educational practices that Fulbright University Vietnam pursues.

The “Ethics in Practice” course expanded the students’ understanding on themselves and social ethics from a Buddhist perspective, inspired them to practice “mindfulness” in managing emotions and behaviors, and above all, contributed to shaping the pillar of “Morality” in young minds, so that “our students not only come to know important things, we want them also to be able to do important things, learn to empathize and work with others, all while living purposeful, fulfilling lives,” Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam affirmed.

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