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Vietnam has a population of about 25 million inhabitants, a fifth of which is composed of mountain tribes. It is believed that of the rest at least three fourths, that is to say 15 million are "cool or warm Buddhists," according to a very accurate term of a French author - the reason is that the "Light of Asia" spread over the country in the very early days, from the beginning of the second century of the Christian era [*].


The date of the introduction of Buddhism to Vietnam has been much argued and as yet there is no generally accepted opinion. However according to the most believable opinion, the date would be about the year 189 (A.D.).

 The task was probably carried out by Master Meou-Po, from You-Teheou (China), an ex-Taoist converted to Buddhism. Before him, other missionaries such as Marijivaka, Kalya-Naruci and Kang-send-Houei, by the way of China or from sea, had come to Giao-Chau, the cradle of the present Vietnam. It is more than probable that they had preached the good word, thus preparing the way to Meoupo’s ulterior apostolate.

VIETNAM was then under the direct administration of the Great Chinese Empire which was only interested in the propagation of Confucianism. Hardly tolerated, Buddhism was known only by its ritual form. Few efforts were made to disseminate the Doctrine whose wonderfully rich literature was represented by a few "sutras" translated into Chinese.


From 544 to 602, Vietnam enjoyed a short period of national independence which, nevertheless, promoted an expansion of Buddhism. But the progress was superficial, for it was just before and during the third Chinese domination (603-939) that began a period of real progress with the coming of two missions in 580 and 820. The first was conducted by the Superior Vinitaruci, Indian by birth, recognised later on as the first patriarch of the "Zen" Sect in Vietnam, the second by the Venerable Vo-ngon-Thong who formed another Zen apart. The country had 20 "stupas" to house the precious relics offered as a diplomatic present by the Chinese Emperor, many temples and 500 monks, many of them were famous by their vast knowledge and their rigorous discipline.

 In 939, Ngo-quyen, after having chased out the last Chinese governor and defeated the imperial army, proclaimed himself king, putting an end for ever to a domination which lasted for a total of more than 1,000 years.

 But the Ngo dynasty, undermined by internal conflicts was short-lived. It ended in the fire and blood of the "rebellion of the twelve Lords". One of them, Dinh-Bo-Linh, came out of the struggle as a victor and gave himself the title of Emperor.

 During this time, Buddhism was forced to remain motionless, while in China it underwent the most dreadful persecution.

 With the accession to power of Dinh-bo-Linh who gave his protection to Buddhism, started an era of prosperity for the "Doctrine" which became then a popular belief. This period of prosperity lasted until 1009.

 A monk named Ngo-Chan-Luu, lived in the monastery of Phat-Da. His reputation as a distinguished scholar, a talented post, well versed in the practice of contemplation (Zen), was soon called to the attention of the Emperor who invited him to come to the court to explain Dharma. Very satisfied with Ngo-Chan-Luu’s teaching, Dinh-Bo-Linh appointed him Head of the Buddhist Clergy he had just created. It was in 946. A year later, to thank him for his intelligent advice on the conduct of public affairs, the Emperor elevated him to the dignity of Imperial Councillor with the lauditory surname of Khuong-Viet (Servant of Vietnam).

 The Dinh dynasty was succeeded by the first Le’s (980-1009). During the latter’s reign, the Buddhist Clergy continued to profit by royal favours as the king, by the monks’ advice on political and religious matters (Ngo-chan-Luu was one of them). It was then that a diplomatic mission was sent to China for the first time to bring back a complete series of sacred books on Dharma.

 The last representative of the Le dynasty was so cruel and despotic that, at his death, a court revolution broke out and a high mandarin named Ly-cong-Uan was brought to power. Godson of the Superior Co-Phap and former disciple of the Venerable Van-Hanh - one of the greatest spiritual symbols of Vietnam Buddhism - Ly-cong-Uan, known later on under the name of Ly-thai-To, ascended the throne in 1010.

 The fortune of Buddhism was made since then. Many Zen Masters, Van-Hany, Da-Bao, Sung-Pham with their incontestable prestige, contributed to make teaching and practice of Dharma particularly brilliant and successful.

 Le Thai To died in 1028, leaving to his successors the most beautiful traditions of piety and devotion. The first of them was Ly-Thai-Ton (1028-1054), a practising layman of exceptional favour who has probably obtained the "satori" under the tutoring of his "guru", the Venerable Thuyen-Lao of the Vo-ngon-Thong sect. In respect of Buddhist expansion, the noticeable events, during his reign, were the erection - by order of the King - of 95 pagodas whose completion was pompously celebrated and marked by a general exemption of taxes in favour of the people; the restoration of all Buddha statues in the existing temples followed by another fiscal amnesty (1036); and finally, in 1049, the construction of the Dien-Huru pagoda decided in consequence of a dream. The king saw himself led to the Lotus Palace by Bodhisattva Avalokitsevara; and therefore he gave to the temple its original shape; a lotus flower sustained by a single column planted in the middle of an artificial lake. Built up in Hanoi and called by the public "Chua Mot cot" (one columned Pagoda), this historical monument was sabotaged by anonymous hands at the end of 1954, just before the withdrawal of French troops from the capital of Northern Vietnam. It is rumored now that the pagoda has been restored.

 The third king of the Ly dynasty was Ly-Thanh-Ton (1054-1072), a living image of Buddhist compassion. Very often did he happen to recall - specially in Winter time - the miserable life of his poor people and the prisoners’ sufferings. That is why distributions of food and clothes to unfortunate people and reduction of prison terms in favour of prisoners were so frequent during his reign.

 Three years before the death of this good monarch, in 1059, a sensational event occurred. The country was at war with Champa, a small neighbouring kingdom. On the return from a raid against the enemy who used to make frequent and sudden attacks against Vietnam, Ly-Thanh-Ton brought with him a group of prisoners of war which he gave as slaves to his mandarins. One of these happened to be a member of the Buddhist clergy. One day coming back from town, he discovered - to his surprise - that some parts of his selection of Buddhist thoughts bore written corrections. The author was soon found out. It was one of his slaves. The mandarin reported it to the Emperor who had him brought to the Court and there "questioned" him on the Dharma. The prisoner evinced an outstanding knowledge. Nothing was astonishing about it any way: the man was a Chinese Zen Master called Thao-Duong. He was captured while he was preaching in a foreign land.

 Then, he was admitted into the national clergy by order of the king who allowed him at the same time to start as a preacher in the Kahi Quoc Pagoda. Many students soon clustered round the new Master, Thao-Duong founded a third Zen sect that took his name. The king joined in and like his forefather, probably attained Enlightenment.

 Under Ly-nhan-Ton (1072-1127), the successor of Ly-thanh-Ton, the Confucian culture, having appeared in the previous reign, made its entry in the intellectual life of the country, on the occasion of the first competitive exam instituted by imperial edict for mandarin recruitment. But it was far from endangering Buddhism which continued to flourish under the King’s protection. Many manuscripts still existing in the present days, attest the profundity of thought in the Buddhism of that epoch, represented by group of scholars, namely the Venerable Vien-Chieu, Ngo-an and Kho-dau; the latter had assumed the high functions of Imperial Councillor for a certain time, just like Khuong-Viet under the Dinh and the first Le.

 From 1128 to 225, at the end of the Ly dynasty, there were still three kings who went in for the Zen practice. The last of them weary with social life, became a monk, after having abdicated in favour of his daughter who, in turn, handed the power to her husband Tran Canh, the founder of the Tran dynasty.


There were therefore fundamentally three main religions in Vietnam; Taoism; Confucianism and Buddhism. But in fact there was only one which is the product of their mutual interpretation and each one of which may be considered as one of the different aspects. That continuing situation which renders difficult even impossible, to divide the Vietnamese into three separate and independent communities. If a majority - monks or laics devotes itself exclusively either to Buddhism or Taoism, the bulk of the people is open-minded and has no discrimination. It may belong to Buddhism whilst approaching Taoist temples or performing the rites required by cult of ancestors.

 It is doubtless that such a confusion often brings about superstitious practices and hence it furthers and maintains ignorance. However it is not without any beneficial effect on morality, way of thinking, in short on life of the people.

 Many scholars, without denying so far the principles of Confucianism, are in effect Buddhist products, and if there has been no direct borrowing of ideas the main Buddhist theories such as: Impermanence, Karma, Causality, Reincarnation, Earthly Sufferings etc…are much reflected in many literary works to enable one to find out the source. But it is especially in the field of morals that such an influence will play its effective role. The most illiterate, the very non-Buddhists are afraid of the Karma reactions which they conceive through the symbol of "Ten Hells". Often this knowledge prevents them from doing any harm to others and prompts them towards acts of kindness. Strengthened by the "five commandments", it provides the faithful with a softness of morals which the liberating Zen first of all and the Amidism full of promise for an incomparable felicity afterwards contribute to make more vivacious and lively. The vegetarian regime is particular, observed on specific date by laics and in a continuing manner by monks, has at least the merit smoothing the sanguinary instinct common to the whole humanity.

 In the field of Fine Arts, the same influence is noticed. The architecture, sculpture and painting are inspired mostly by these two main ideas of Buddhism: Purity and Compassion. The flower of lotus is a very valuable figure and Avalokiteswara under its manifold representations is another design which is highly appreciated by women.


We have pointed out the effort undertaken by the reformist movement since 1920. It has indeed made a long way but does not yet reach its aim. The results obtained are not less encouraging.

 The promoters have succeeded to some extent in making clear the essence of Buddhism, by depriving it from foreign contributions, but they are willing to remain faithful to the Mahayanist traditions, the prevailing matter of which it is known, is the compassion represented by the theory of Bodhisattava which is based on this exhortation of Buddha; ‘Delivered, deliver; advised, advise’. The reason why the followers of the movement are complied, whether they are monks or laics, to improve gradually their spiritual formation and to behave accordingly through actions the truths they have learned from the sutras. They realize now the real meaning of rites and shila which are mediums to attain internal peace, wisdom…and not for personal purposes. They will be no longer deluded by the symbolism often in use in the Mahayana and they know how to extract from it the substantial nectar. If they subscribe without restriction to the orthodoxy extolled by the Theravadins, they abandon neither the theories established later on that base by Nagarjuna, Asvaghose, Vasabandhu and others nor the school of "Pure Land" or the Amidism which is known as a practical form of the difficult Dhyana since it is accessible to the majority.

 In Vietnam, Buddhism remains the religion which gathers the most of adapts, the approximate figure has been given at the beginning of this brief study. It is especially prosperous in Central Vietnam as it was also in North Vietnam by the end of 1954. Because of lack of contract with this latter region, it is not possible for us to supply accurate information on its present situation. In South Vietnam, its numerical size is far less, because of the coexistence of other creeds from Western or local origin. However the faith in the Dhamma is maintained ardently within the strictly Buddhist circles as well as within the faithful of other religious systems more or less connected with the Shakyamuni teaching; this justified the expression "fervent or indifferent Buddhists" previously mentioned.

 If we should make now the division between traditional and deformed Buddhism on the one hand and modern or reformist Buddhism on the other hand the same proportions remain available as for the repartition of faithful in three parts of Vietnam. In effect Central Vietnam has about two million reformists, while South Vietnam has not exceeded twenty thousand. But the idea took shape in this latter area and we may hope with the return of peace, modern Buddhism will make prompt and tremendous progress.



As, in a field of perfected, when the seed

That’s sown is perfect and the deva rains

Perfecting it, grain to perfection comes;

No plagues are there; perfect the growth becomes;

And crop and fruit reach to perfection then.

So, perfect alms in perfect precept given

Leads to perfection - for one’s deed is perfect.

In this a person longing for perfection

Should e’er be perfect and should follow men

In wisdom perfect - thus perfection comes.

In guise and knowledge perfect, he, the heart’s

Perfection winning, heaps up perfect kamma

And gains the perfect good. Knowing the world

In verity, he grasps the perfect view.

And coming to the perfect Way, he goes

On perfect-minded. Casting by all dirt

He gains perfection’s state, the cool, from ill

Completely freed, and that is all-perfection.

The Buddha in Anguttara-Nikaya



[*] This article was written in the 1950s, and thus, those population statistics are no longer appropriate.


Computer typing: Lydia Quang Nhu
Update : 01-12-2001

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