BUDDHISM IN VIETNAM
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 [*].
INTRODUCTION OF BUDDHISM
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 Meoupos
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
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-Luus 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
Les (980-1009). During the latters 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
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
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 Kings 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.
INFLUDENCES OF BUDDHISM UPON LIFE AND THOUGHT OF THE
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
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.
PRESENT POSITION OF BUDDHISM
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
As, in a field of perfected, when the seed
Thats 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 ones deed is
In this a person longing for perfection
Should eer be perfect and should follow men
In wisdom perfect - thus perfection comes.
In guise and knowledge perfect, he, the hearts
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 perfections 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