BUDDHISM IN PROSPERITY AND PEACE:
THE LE DYNASTY (15th Century)
CONTEXT AND HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE
Le Loi, who pacified the country after a ten years
war against the Ming Chinese invaders, proclaimed himself emperor,
thereby establishing the Le dynasty. The Le dynasty marked the start of
an important period in the history of Vietnam’s independence. In many
aspects this era was one of changes - in ideas, society, learning, as
well as spirituality - which hold great significance for Buddhism.
Learning and Scholarship
From the Dinh to the end of the Tran dynasty,
learning was the province of bonzes, and Buddhism entirely dominated
this area of the feudal monarchy. Dinh Tien Hoang, when he ascended to
the throne, appointed the bonze Ngo Chan Luu to the post of
highest-ranking court mandarin of education. The earlier Le and Ly
dynasties had sent dignitaries to the Chinese imperial court to seek
Buddhist sutras (Tripitaka). Though known in Vietnam at the time,
neither Confucianism nor Taoism was widely followed by the population.
It was not until the fourth year of the Thai Binh era (l075) that King
Ly Nhan Ton authorized the first three-class examination in order to
select candidates for the mandarinate. This marked the entry of
Confucianism into the domain of learning, and the beginning of its
involvement in the feudal polity.
Buddhism did not, however, relinquish its role in
scholarship. The court three-religion examination, held throughout the
Tran dynasty, testifies to the fact that the influence of Buddhism did
not entirely wane. But by the Le dynasty, Buddhism had clearly been
forced to yield its place to Confucianism. The move by Le Loi and
subsequent monarchs away from Buddhism and towards patronage of
Confucianism can be understood as politically motivated, as it served to
emphasize the transition of power to a new line. The extinction of the
Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Ch’an sect, after a history spanning three
consecutive generations, therefore comes as no surprise.
Moreover, the pragmatism of the Confucianism
philosophy must have been a useful asset to the kingdom in building and
consolidating the feudal system. King Le Thai To ordered the building of
the "Temple of Literature" (Quoc Tu Giam or Van Mieu), a school
dedicated to Confucianism; and in 1442 decreed the inception of the
court examinations for the degree of Doctor, whose laureates would
receive appointments as high dignitaries in the monarchy.
Provincial authorities also organized competitive
examinations for bonzes and issued permits to those who passed the
examination, allowing them to enter the priesthood permanently. Those
who failed would be compelled to return to the world.
The Hong Duc code promulgated during the reign of
King Le Thai Ton makes no mention of Buddhism. Indeed, this monarch
sought by every means possible to remove Buddhist influences from every
aspect of social and political life, considering it a harmful influence
best eradicated from society. It is safe to say that by the reign of
King Le Thanh Ton Confucianism had "completely replaced" Buddhism. It
should, nevertheless, be emphasized that the preponderance of
Confucianism extended mainly to the area of scholarship and competitive
examinations and was not without negative consequences for Vietnamese
letters. Throughout the centuries when Confucianism held sway over
scholarship, many outstanding youths where drawn into the labyrinth of
procedures necessary to obtain a pass into the examinations in an
attempt to become a mandarin; their efforts meanwhile were of no
tangible utility to the country as a whole. From the Le dynasty onward,
countless doctor - first laureates in various court examinations - after
becoming high-ranking mandarins did not formulate any ideas nor
discover any principles which might bring progress to the country. The
poetry and literature which they produced show no value of national
importance, but rather reflect only their lack of self-confidence, their
feelings of inferiority, to the point of slavish dependency upon the
ancient scholars and the Chinese model.
In the Realm of Ideas
Learning and ideas are organically bound together.
Thus Confucianism, after triumphing over Buddhism, held great
significance for the world of ideas. Since the introduction of Buddhism,
up to the Le dynasty, three sects, introduced at different points in
time, held sway. These were namely the Vinitaruci, the Wu Yantong, and
the Thao Duong sects, each with its own particular history and
genealogy. Nor let us forget the Truc Lam sect of Yen Tu mountain,
founded by King Tran Nhan Tong.
Throughout its long history, Buddhism dominated both
scholarship and philosophy, and nurtured a non-negligible number of
scholars and works. But it should be noted that the contributions of
Vietnamese Buddhism were still too modest to warrant comparison with
other cases in the history of Buddhism worldwide. Some claim that
Chinese invasions destroyed a lot of books, which greatly reduced the
number of works which once existed. Yet Vietnamese Buddhism undeniably
lacked men of a considerable range of knowledge, and lacked works of
some degree of importance until the late Le period and even contemporary
and modern times. These deficiencies explain why Buddhism in Vietnam
has never been able to work out an adequate system of organization and
training on a national scale.
The Vietnamese generally recognized the existence of
three religions: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism had, at
several points, provided the opposition to Buddhism, but finally all
three religions achieved harmony with each other through the doctrine of
‘three religions sprung from a common source’. This was in no way a
Vietnamese innovation, but simply the adoption of ideas born in China
under similar conditions and circumstances. Within Buddhism itself,
until the early Le and even up to the present, confusion reigned among
its three constitutive elements, Ch’an, Amidism and Tantrism, each of
which held a particular cultural significance.
Ch’an is essentially a method of self-awareness,
self-recognition, and self-demonstration. This doctrine emphasizes man’s
individualistic, solitary and deeply philosophical relation to the
universe. Self-recognition and self-demonstration should permit a man to
know whether the water he drinks is cool or warm. Yet he is powerless
to impart this knowledge to anyone else. This slate is considered in
Ch’an as analogous to a dream state.
The concept of the Pure Land can be understood and
explained in several ways. According to the precepts of Amidism, the
Pure Land is the calm and chaste land of Amida Buddha, inhabited by the
Buddha of this sect and other deities [i.e., Bodhisattvas]. The Amidist
method prescribes reliance on one’s own powers as well as encouraging
those of others. Amidism preaches that man should aspire to a most
perfect human society.
Tantrism clearly differentiates itself from Amidism,
both conceptually and in its view of society. Tantrism, in the deepest
sense, is a conditional combination of doctrine and belief aiming at an
understanding of the truth through a combination of sound and diagrams.
This process leads from phenomenal study to ontology, based on a dual
vision of the world, which corresponds to two ways of becoming involved
in the religious life. To look at the horizontal plane means to analyze
and to make a clear distinction between point of departure and point of
arrival. On the vertical plane, point of departure and point of arrival
Culturally, Tantrism bears a native Asian character
which spread throughout a large area, starting from India, then reaching
up across the Himalayas through the Western Mongolian plateaus and
finally penetrating into China. Korea, Japan and Vietnam are only the
"rippling tails" of this vast movement. In fact, in China, Buddhism
first entertained close relations with the 16 northern countries,
grouped into five nations, known collectively as the Ho, where it soon
became the national religion. The process of contact between the Ho and
the Han nationalities signified a mixing of Indian and Chinese cultures.
Under the absolute monarchies which ruled the Ho nations, Buddhism was
expected to spread its teachings, but do so by adapting to agree with
native beliefs and with the social needs of the people. Therefore,
incantations and healing constituted the largest portion of Buddhist
practice. The monks who preached Buddhist ideas were both intellectuals
and mystics, occupying positions close to the throne. The three
components of Vietnamese Buddhism, far from being original to it,
constituted the baggage necessary for immigration into the "Western
region" (as the Chinese called it); but in China, these elements were
modified after contact with Taoism and geomancy.
During the golden era of Buddhism in Vietnam, its
activities in the cultural and spiritual realm were concentrated, as
indicated by historical documents, on such practices as interpreting
omens as good or bad, auspicious or inauspicious; praying to Buddha for a
male heir; praying to Buddha for a long life; praying for rain;
chanting incantations to heal someone of disease. Monks and nuns were
completely dependent on the feudal system. On the big bells hung at
every pagoda the following verses were usually inscribed:
If the Throne prospers,
Then the way of Buddhism will be eased.
If Buddhism and the King’s right are strengthened,
Dharma Wheel moves on naturally.
This demonstrates the interdependency of Buddhism and
the feudal monarchy. Up until the end of the feudal period in Vietnam,
many altars in pagodas displayed golden inscriptions which read, "Long
live the Emperor", a feature which characterizes the stance of Buddhism
towards the feudal regime. This indicates how Buddhism, while still
strong, lowered itself to become a sort of tool, a second-rate ornament
of the feudal system, and transformed itself into a simplistic popular
belief, concerned only with offerings and incantation to the deities.
As mentioned above, Buddhism had dug the grave for
its own decadence in the very time of its prosperity. Such was the sorry
state of Buddhism when the Le monarchs demanded that it abandon its
heterogeneous character for homogeneity, in other words, go "from
imperfection to perfection." Thus the replacement of Buddhism by
Confucianism in the favor of the Le rulers was unavoidable. Confucian
scholars were growing in number and strength, attaining an ever higher
social status, while Buddhist priests were held in contempt. Monks were,
in these scholars’ opinion, capable only of chanting incantations while
prostrating themselves before inanimate statues. During the very period
of Buddhism’s apogee, under the Tran, the scholar Truong Han Sieu wrote
these critical words on the site of the Link Te tower: "‘The old Buddha
preached the three nihilities to finally enter into nirvana; the
following generations, did not follow Buddhism as they should have, but
instead only enchant living creatures. Pagodas occupy a fifth of the
country’s territory. Monks pay no heed to morality, wasting money in
pleasure. Believers naively put their faith in those monks. It would be a
rare thing indeed that they should not turn into devils".
In the reign of King Ly Cao
Ton, following a report made by the mandarin Dam Di Mong, the monarch
issued a decree by which a number of monks were dismissed from their
posts. During the late Tran dynasty (under Kings like Tran Du Ton), the
caliber of people seeking to enter the priesthood fell even lower: "At
that time, following many years of consecutive crop failure, the
population would do their best to make a living by becoming monks or
hiring themselves out as servants."1
In addition, monks and Buddhist
emissaries constituted a means for the Chinese Empire to the north to
infiltrate our country. The propagation of Buddhism to Vietnam by the
Ming could be seen as a most wicked strategy of invasion. The daughter
of a monk from the Ho nations was selected as a royal concubine. This
monk traveled to Vietnam often under the reign of King Nhan Ton. He
claimed to be able to sit in the lotus position on the surface of the
water for three hundred years. He also claimed that he could contract
his stomach and bowels, pushing them up towards the diaphragm to make
his abdomen completely vacant. And he ate only sulphur, cabbage and
sweet leeks. This monk lived in our country for a few years, then
returned to China. The next time he came to Vietnam he had the honor of
seeing his daughter, Da-La-Thanh, selected as the King’s concubine."2
Further: the Ming also sent an envoy to Vietnam with the aim of luring
several Vietnamese monks into China. Of this episode it is reported:
"The eunuchs Nguyen Dao and Nguyen Toan had previously been sent to the
Ming emperors who used their services in the palace, and they were very
well treated. On this occasion the eunuch Nguyen Dao had reported to the
Ming emperors that Vietnamese monks practiced a magic much more
effective than that of the Chinese. The King sent an envoy to Vietnam to
recruit monks well-versed in magic, and recommended that about twenty
of these highly qualified monks be brought to Jin Ling citadel." After
debriefing them, the Chinese sent these monks back to their native
This history further reports that "in former times,
Ming Taizu of the Ming dynasty sent an envoy to search for monks who
were qualified practitioners of male castration, as well as beautiful
girls skilled at the art of massage. The Vietnamese King, Tran De Hien,
ordered his eunuchs, Nguyen Toan, Nguyen Dao, Tru Ca and Ngo Tin, to
bring them to the Ming court. Afterwards, the Ming emperor sent back to
Vietnam only the monks and the beautiful girls but retained the eunuchs,
whom he put in the service of the royal palace. As the Vietnamese
eunuchs knew the local topography rather well they were also eventually
handed back to the Vietnamese Kings to act as spies and report back on
The opening of schools and the propagation of
Buddhist sutras were also aimed at furthering the Ming’s agressive and
expansionist plans through the medium of culture. "The Chinese dignitary
Banh Dao Tuong demanded that he be authorized to open schools in
districts and sub-districts and searched for fortune-tellers, physicians
and monks on whom he conferred the title of mandarin and to whom he
assigned the task of teaching. Besides, he forbade both men and women to
cut their hair short, and particularly compelled women to wear long
robes as they did in China." And further: "Now the supervisor of
education, Duong Nghia, was sent to Vietnam to bestow grades on
Confucian schools at the district and sub-district level, and then send
monks to preach at Buddhist clergy services. As for books, and other
writings dealing with the history and legends of our country from the
Tran dynasty onward, he ordered their complete confiscation and sent
them to Jin Ling citadel."
What other option did King Le Loi and his successors
have but to support Confucianism, in the face of such a situation in the
pagodas, when the society was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with
the invaders from the North? The historical developments of the time
are extremely significant in regard to both Vietnam’s territorial
boundaries and the fate of Vietnamese Buddhism. Under the reign of Tran
De Hien, rigid laws were promulgated, forcing monks and novices to
enlist in the army and join the struggle against Champa. In the reign of
King Tran Thuan Ton, all monks under 50 years of age were forced to
return to secular life. In the second year of the Thuan Thien era, under
King Le Thai To, all monks were examined on their knowledge of Buddhist
texts and prayers, as well as their obedience to Buddhist law. The
examinations were carried out in provincial town-halls. Those who passed
were allowed to become monks, but those who failed were compelled to
defrock. Besides, monks were still forbidden to have any contact with
women in the royal palace, to build pagodas and to celebrate Buddhist
funeral rites for families.
Interestingly enough, despite these interdictions,
the Le still allowed the population to carry out religious activities
which were essentially Buddhist in nature. For instance, organizing the
procession to carry a Buddhist statue from Phap Van pagoda in a plea for
rain; granting the mandarin’s uniform to bonze Hue Hong, repairing the
Bao Thien and Thien Phuc pagodas; holding the Vu Lan Buddhist festival.
Nevertheless, the Le Kings’ general policy towards Buddhism explains
their destruction of Tran dynasty literature, as well as the extinction
of the Truc Lam sect after only three generations. This sort of
destruction of past literature is not unique in Vietnam’s history: the
same thing occurred when the Tran replaced the Ly, and when the Nguyen
came to power they did the same to the Trinh lords and Tay Son Kings.
BUDDHISM IN THE WORKS OF CONFUCIAN SCHOLARS OF THE 15TH CENTURY
Within feudal Vietnam’s system of ideas,
Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were three inseparable constituents,
which, though they wielded their influence sometimes strongly, sometimes
weakly, maintained a sort of balance in the intellectual and spiritual
life of the scholars. Although from the beginning of the Le period
Confucianism replaced Buddhism in the political sphere, it could not
take the place of Buddhism in satisfying the spiritual needs of the
population for a more mystical truth, clearly beyond the scope of
Confucianism. Consequently, there were those scholars who eagerly and
enthusiastically engaged in both writing about and in criticizing the
achievements of Buddhism, and yet subsequently were converted to
Buddhism. Truong Han Sieu, quoted above, is a case in point. In China,
the cradle of Confucianism, many more similar examples are to be found.
These circumstances nevertheless account for Buddhism’s limited
influence on the literature of the early Le dynasty. Nguyen Trai, Luong
The Vinh and Kinh Le Thanh Ton are generally considered to be the
writers most representative of the period. Many of Nguyen Trai’s verses
are deeply impregnated with Buddhist philosophy, the following one for
When free from trouble, the mind is light.
Buddha is in our heart, there is no need to pray.
These lines from one of Nguyen Trai’s poems are
almost identical to a statement attributed to the Great Master of the
Truc Lam sect. When King Tran Thai Ton left the court and entered
monastic life with the intention of becoming a Buddha, the Great Master
told him: "No, Buddha is not to be found in these remote mountains. He
is right in our heart; a peaceful and lucid heart is Buddha. If your
Majesty has an enlightened heart, you will immediately become Buddha.
Why then seek elsewhere?" (from the "Preface" of Thien Ton Chi Nam).
The following verses by Nguyen Trai express the Buddhist doctrine of being and non-being:
A bunch of roses is reflected in the face of stream.
These flowers have no stain, and have a Buddha heart.
This afternoon they fall, but tomorrow blossom anew.
This strange thing is proof of the doctrine of being and non-being.
(Cay Moc Can)
The above poem illustrates a unique concept in
Mahayana Buddhism, which Nguyen Trai adopted and exercised in the very
thick of the arduous and dangerous struggle for national independence.
This concept successfully overcomes all contradictions, being and
non-being, right and wrong, to serve as a basis for action in secular
life, as it had for the monks in the Tran and Ly dynasties.
The influence of Buddhism gave Nguyen Trai’s poems a
spirituality and feeling that Confucian pragmatism could never have
inspired. As in the following lines:
The clouds part and so the Buddhist bed is cold and lonely.
Flowers falling from the tree leave their scent on the stream.
(Tieu Du Tu)
Moreover, the unlimited compassion preached by Buddhism inspired Nguyen Trai with an ardent love of his country and its people:
We are of one family and should love each other,
Northern branch and Southern, both sprung from the same trunk.
(Bao Kinh Canh Gioi)
Buddhist doctrine raises the benevolence advocated by
Confucianism to a higher degree, encompassing all living creatures in
the spirit of mercifulness and self-sacrifice preached by Buddha. In
another poem, Nguyen Trai writes:
Sympathy for the fish who bites on the hook.
Feel for the fly who dies in a bowl of soapberries.
(Bao Kinh Canh Gioi)
Among the scholars of the early Le, Nguyen Trai’s writing is without question the most deep and expressive.
Luong The Vinh was first laureate in the court
examinations and so was appointed to the post of high dignitary of the
court academy. A very talented writer, he produced only a few essays on
Buddhism, mostly dealing with Buddhist rites. Nevertheless these few
activities touching on Buddhism earned him his exclusion from the Temple
of Literature and from the ranks of those venerated as great Confucian
scholars, because he was seen as a pro-Buddhist element.
King Le Thanh Ton presents a somewhat different case.
He was renowned for his benevolence and righteousness towards his
subjects whom he loved like his children. He is the author of a work
called Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van which expressed his compassion and benevolence towards human suffering in society. This work deals with Co Hon,
forsaken spirits. What kind of creatures are they? According to
Vietnamese Buddhists, the forsaken spirits are the souls of people who
in their lifetime were the victims of glaring injustices or died
reluctantly. These souls could not be freed from their worldly
sufferings and wandered aimlessly in hell, in darkness, with no
relatives to perform rites for them. On the fifteenth day of the seventh
lunar month, in the spirit of compassion and benevolence taught by
Buddhism, people traditionally make offerings to those forsaken spirits.
Among these unfortunates were people of every kind and class,
differentiated into 10 categories.
Le Thanh Ton’s work was not originally inspired, but
the result of a combination of several subjective and objective factors,
as well as the political and social situation of the time. The
subjective element was the King’s benevolence meeting the compassion of
Buddhism. The objective factor was the influence of the Buddhist work Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc
which deals with the rites for forsaken spirits carried out on the
fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. Meanwhile, in the
socio-political realm, Buddhism was facing many difficulties.
The Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc shows Ch’an,
Amidist and Tantrist influences, and includes directives on how to put
the doctrine into practice through meditation, and praying to Buddha
with the use of talismans and magic. It is a work of deep feeling and
great style, and served also as the inspiration for Nguyen Du’s funeral
oration, dedicated to the ten categories of living creatures, written
In Le Thanh Ton’s Phap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van, the ten categories of forsaken spirits include:
1. Buddhist priests
4. Confucian scholars
5. Astronomers and geomancers
7. Officers and generals
The 12 categories mentioned in the Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc are the following:
l. Kings and lords
2. Generals and officers
4. Confucian scholars
5. Buddhist priests
9. Women in childbirth
10. Barbarians; slaves; the deaf, dumb and blind.
11. Imperial concubines and beautiful women.
12. Prisoners, beggars.
Comparing the two lists, we notice that Le Thanh
Ton’s ten categories make no mention of kings and lords, warriors, women
in childbirth and the whole class of ‘barbarians, deaf, dumb and blind
people’, but add the class of astronomers and geomancers, and
physicians. Le Thanh Ton equates courtesans with the category of
beautiful women and concubines, and libertines with prisoners and
beggars. For the rest, his list is similar to that in the Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc. Both works are made up of three similar parts, although they differ as to their length and style. The Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van
is divided into three parts: a description of each category of forsaken
spirits, a lament over their plight, and a poem dedicated as a tribute
to them. The Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc’s three parts also consist of a request, a justification and a lament.
Though inspired by the latter work, King Le Thanh Ton
deliberately excluded the categories of kings and lords, and warriors.
He clearly did not intend to include those of his own class among the
mass of hungry spirits forsaken by the population. He excluded warriors
as well because of a similar reticence to damn the men who had laid down
their lives in the defense of his family line.
Inspiring himself from the same source, Nguyen Du did
not exclude anyone of the types, and strove to paint a true picture of
the society of his time:
There were people filled
with ambition to become famous, rich and powerful, who sought by all
means possible to reign over the country, and struggled bravely, but
when they failed in their attempt their disappointment was all the
greater. When in power, wealth and fame brought them only resentment and
hatred; in defeat, they left behind a mass of descendants, lost and
unfavored, who were beheaded to become the prowling spirits that lament
on rainy nights. Success or failure is a matter of predestination, but
the souls of people who died victims of injustice will never find relief. 3
As a matter of fact, when King Le Loi founded the new
dynasty, the "descendants of the lost Tran Kingdom" suffered just such a
fatal destiny. When the Le dynasty fell, their descendants met an
equally cruel lot at the hands of the next dynasty. This pattern is
repeated many times throughout the rise and fall of’ dynasties in
Nguyen Du depicts the warriors’
lot as follows: "There were people who enlisted in the army and had to
leave their home affairs in order to take charge of their country’s
affairs. They led a hard life, drinking water from the stream and eating
dry rice balls. Their life was short, for Death did not spare them on
the battlefields, where scenes of carnage were most frequent. Those who
died would wander as ghosts, lamenting over their misfortunes."4
Le Thanh Ton’s Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van,
although it expresses a compassion for the suffering of his subjects
which is identical to Buddhist compassion, does not directly refer to
Buddhist ideas or doctrine, for reasons we have already made clear. On
the other hand, Nguyen Du wrote:
Thanks to Buddha’s
supernatural power to free souls from their suffering, the living
creatures in the four corners of the globe shed their sorrows and griefs
and harbour no resentment against one another. (....) Thanks to
Buddha’s power of conciliation, people harbour no resentment against one
another. All ten categories of beings, male and female alike, went to
listen to lectures on Buddha’s teachings. Their short life was but a
drifting scene. As the saying goes: a thousand scenes are only
nothingness. All who believe in Buddha will shed life’s sorrows.5
The two works quoted above deal with the same topic
and were influenced by the same source but were written in different
periods, the one during the golden age of the Le dynasty, the other
during the decline of the same dynasty. Both are permeated with the
spirit of their time. Both clearly demonstrate that, while Buddhism was
excluded from the political scene and lost much of its influence on
society, it still exerted a profound effect in the mind and feelings of
the population, and found expression in many scholarly as well as
1 Su Cuong Muc. Bk 9, p. 45b.
2 Su Cuong Muc. Bk 9, pp. 3b-4a.
3 Van Te Thap Loai Chung Sinh.