The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
Kích cỡ chữ:  Giảm Tăng






After the first phase of colonial exploitation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vietnam’s socio-economic features took on a new shape. Social production began to exhibit a capitalist character. Urban settlements grew and with them appeared the first strata of the national bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the urban petty-bourgeoisie. In terms of lifestyle, behaviors, and interpersonal attitudes, these new classes differed from previous generations. The influence of imported French, Japanese, and Chinese cultures as well as the social impact of the Dong Du movement, the Duy Tan movement, and the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc opened horizons for the members of these new classes. Transformations in elite thinking trickled down to peasants, craftsmen, and commoners, resulting in a more generalized rejection of antiquated concepts and beliefs. The new generations demanded changes not only in their material and political life but in their spiritual existence as well.

While Buddhism was originally a product of ancient India, it continually changed in response to novel temporal and geographic circumstances. At the turn of the century, Vietnamese Buddhism was different in many respects from the Buddhism introduced into Vietnam during the early Common Era. But despite the changes which Buddhism had undergone, the doctrine was still considered backward by many people of the early 20th century. This perception provoked a range of opinions among concerned Buddhist monks. According to lay Buddhist Khanh Van: "Some people pretend to be Buddhist monks. Although they claim to be devoted to the cult of Buddha, they believe in superstitions, practice witchcraft, use amulets and secret drugs, and chant incantations to cure diseases. In reality they are capitalizing on the blind beliefs of the ignorant masses in order to enrich themselves. What good can these devil-monks do for Buddhism? They will end up the laughing stock of the population." Lay Buddhist Thanh Quang expressed a similar concern: "It is painful for our country when there are monks who profess themselves to be wholeheartedly devoted to the cult of Buddha but pay no attention to learning their prayer books. They conduct religious services for the people in exchange for fat rewards. While they wear Buddhist robes, they behave like common people."

Changes in Vietnamese Buddhism are also evidenced by the proliferation of splinter groups or syncretist sects which split from Buddhist orthodoxy and mingled Buddhist beliefs with ideas from other creeds. This phenomenon was most pronounced in South Vietnam where groups such as the Phat Duong sect, the Minh Su sect, and the Phat Thay sect sprouted and grew in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Cao Dai religion, combining elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Catholicism emerged several decades later around 1925-26. These new religious sects obviously posed a challenge and at some points even threatened to replace orthodox Buddhism.

Many Buddhists converted to the above-mentioned sects (the Cao Dai most dramatically) or embraced Catholicism or agnosticism. Unless Buddhism could find a way to adapt to its new circumstances, it risked losing its mass following. As national aspirations changed, the demands for a renovation became more pressing. If these new social currents were not taken into consideration, it would be impossible for Buddhism to participate in the popular movement, whose momentum was growing exponentially at that time. On the other hand, factors external to Vietnam’s domestic situation also had transformative effects. In the 1920s, the impact of agitation for the reinvigoration of Buddhism in China and Japan began to be felt throughout Asia and Europe. Chinese slogans such as "Revolutionize religious doctrine, revolutionize religious systems, revolutionize the church," religious books and magazines such as Hai Trieu Am, and activist monks such as the Chinese bonze superior Thai Hu became influential among Vietnamese Buddhists. New foreign currents provided Vietnamese Buddhists with encouragement, fresh knowledge, new interpretations of Buddhist texts, and opportunities to reevaluate their own force and vitality. From this clearer perspective, Vietnamese Buddhists could attempt to forge a new determination of unity and purpose and thus repopularize their creed as a newly invigorated and open movement.

This renovation was not led by traditional monks or sinicized scholars, but by devoted Buddhist doctors, teachers, and social activists. They traveled throughout the country and beyond to Europe. They spoke Chinese and French. The more ambitious supported renovation "in order to modernize the people’s knowledge and logic, because although superstition had been eradicated, science was not powerful enough to ensure the welfare and happiness of mankind. There must be a firm morality to enhance and secure an ethic for humanity."

Some Buddhist intellectuals from this period claimed that Buddhism is a science. For example in 1936, Le Khanh Hoa asserted that "Buddhist law does not transcend science and science does not transcend Buddhist law." However the accuracy of this claim is suspect. Buddhist reformers of the early 20th century in general supported bourgeois democratic tendencies, understood the important role of experimental science, and appreciated the value of freedom and human rights. These positions provided a basis for a reevaluation of old ideas and an attempt to reform society by harmonizing the old with the new.

The movement in support of renovation did not rely on the antiquated Chinese language whose characters had previously been printed on wood blocks and stored in temples but instead used ‘quoc ngu’, the intimate national language which enjoyed the advantage of being easy to read, easy to learn, and easy to print in newspapers and magazines. Buddhist reformers of this era did not simply present their ideas as religious propaganda, but as hypotheses to be debated and reexamined for accuracy and contradictions. While addressing doctrinal questions, these intellectuals also considered broader issues concerning the proper relationship between Buddhism and society, nation, and science. Due to the widening horizons of these Buddhist intellectuals, Buddhism developed the potential to develop in a variety of new directions.

Whereas previously, Buddhist centers had been typically established in scenic or mountainous areas (such as the Truc Lam sect in Yen Tu mountain) new centres began to spring up in large cities such as Saigon and Hanoi. Such new centers were composed of large pagodas, modern monastic schools, and printing facilities for the dissemination of books, magazines, and newspapers. Due to the urban location of these new Buddhist centers, the new movements could effect more people and facilitate communication more easily.

The origins of this movement are to be found in and around Saigon, the earliest and most profoundly exploited area of French Indo-China. Since the end of the 19th century, French and ‘quoc ngu’ publications with a distinctly bourgeois point of view had been steadily coming out of Saigon. As a result, relative intellectual freedom and sensitivity to modern global currents was heightened in Saigon. This atmosphere naturally fuelled the Saigonese attempts at religious reformation.

The Buddhist movement of this period was alternately referred to as a "resurrection", "renaissance", and a "restructuring." However as these terms suggest the revitalization of a dying doctrine, they are perhaps misleading. Buddhism at that time was still rather strong, it simply needed to be formally redirected away from some of its more glaring shortcomings These shortcomings included questions of form, content, doctrine and ritual as well as monastic issues. The movement’s central thrust therefore should be understood as a deep and comprehensive reform rather than as revitalization.

In 1920, Buddhist monks and their followers set up the Luc Hoa association in Southern Vietnam. The association’s aim was to foster unity and cooperation both among Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese Buddhists in order to enhance the processes of worship and study. The association was particularly interested in forging links with Buddhist groups in northern neighboring countries. Two monks, Khanh Hoa and Thien Chieu, spearheaded the association’s ideological organization projects. Khanh Hoa visited nearly all major pagodas in Cochinchina where be presented idea of renewal to the Buddhist circles there. Thien Chieu, accompanied by several colleagues, traveled around Annam and Tonkin spreading the association’s new Buddhist vision and persuading sympatric listeners to support the cause. Moreover, each monk oversaw the publication of reformist Buddhist magazines such as Phap Am by Khanh Hoa and Phat Hoa Tan Thanh Nien by Thien Chieu. The magazines were the first two Buddhist periodicals written exclusively in ‘quoc ngu’ in our country’s history. Both circled rapidly among young Buddhists. At the same time Dong Thap Thoi Bao (the French Indochina Times), a political organ of the French State published out of Saigon, began printing articles on Buddhism. For example an article from the paper entitled "A Summary history of Buddhism," presented the origin, history and content of the Buddhist doctrine. The style of writing in this article differed profoundly from that found in the former ‘Ngu Luc’, reflecting a new spirit. Finding such articles harmless, the French did not censure them.

The urgent and passionate writing published in the periodicals of Thien Chieu and Khanh Hoa and the direct appeal made for the "reorganization of Buddhism" made by articles in Dong Thap Thoi Bao aroused much excitement within Buddhist circles at the time. The call for reorganization was far-reaching, comprising changes in method of perception, means of explanation and mode of worship. It also demanded that Buddhism take an active role in social life, a demand which was gradually met during this period.

During 1925 and 1926, young Buddhist monks attended en masse patriotic speeches given by Nguyen An Ninh and Phan Chau Trinh at Landaroste in Saigon or at the Tonkin friendship society. When Bui Quang Chieu returned from France, Buddhist monks were among those who gathered to welcome him. Likewise monks from throughout the country participated in the movement to demand amnesty for Phan Boi Chau, and in the highly politicized funeral of Phan Chau Trinh.

While the participation of Buddhist monks in social activities was a new and forceful development, it had yet to be sanctioned by Buddhist doctrine. When politicized monks were asked by French authorities what had provoked them to political action, they found themselves at a loss for a coherent answer. This doctrinal shortcoming however was soon addressed by Thien Chieu in an article published in the Saigon Press. In response to the question "Why are monks participating in politics?", Thien Chieu responded, "It is the compassion and the benevolence preached by Buddha (and none other) that incites Buddhists to involve themselves in patriot deeds."

In 1929, Thien Chieu continued his agitation for Buddhist reform by publishing Phat Hoc Tong Yeu (A General Summary of Buddhism). The work included new translations of Sutras and Abhidharmas, articles introducing Hai Trieu Am from the Chinese Association of Buddhist studies, and some essays by Thien Chieu himself. The monk introduced many novel ideas and took a strong critical stance. This tone can be sensed already on the first page:

"Those who are simple slaves to convention rely not on their own power, but on the power of others. Those who think that success and failure, happiness and sadness are not created by themselves but determined by some divine force will never fully grasp Buddhist theory. They will become wicked, hurt the faith and contribute to its downfall. Alas."

Between 1929 and 1932, the book was hotly debated in such newspapers as the Dong Thap Thoi Bao, Trung Lap (The Middle Path), Than Chung (Sacred Bell) and Duoc Nha Nam (Southern Torch). It would be argued that the writings of such vanguard monks, including Thien Chieu’s Phat Hoc Tong Yeu, constituted the ideological prelude for the emergence of large, active and permanent Buddhist organizations in Vietnamese society Conditions specific to the 1930’s resulted in the formation of Buddhist study groups, first in the South and eventually in the Center and North. Between 1930 and 1933, four associations of Buddhist research were set up in the South. In 1931 the Hoi Nam Ky Nghien Cuu Phat Hoc, headed by eight influential Buddhist dignitaries including Khanh Hoa, Hue Quang and and Tri Thien, was established at Saigon’s Linh Son pagoda.

Tran Nguyen Chan also played a leadership role. Along with publishing the magazine Tu Bi Am, the association also consecrated amulets at various localities and sent envoys to collect texts of the Tripikata from China. In 1931, Bonze Hue Dang set up the Association of Ch’an Sects at Thien Thai pagoda in Ba Ria. To publicize its doctrine, the association published the magazine Bat Nha Am. In 1933, Buddhist monks from Long Hoa pagoda (Tra Vinh province), Thien Phuoc pagoda (Tra On province) and Vien Giac pagoda (Ben Tre province) joined forces to set up a boarding school for the study of Buddhism and the training of Buddhists. In 1934 the Luong Xuyen association of Buddhist study was founded in Tra Vinh province to preserve classical Buddhist texts, spread the faith and train the clergy. In 1935, this group opened a school for Buddhist study and published the magazine Duy Tam Phat Hoc.

In 1932, the Association for Buddhist Study in Annam was set up at Tu Quang pagoda. The Assocation was headed by Bonze Giac Tien and the ascetic Tam Minh - Le Dinh Tham. In 1933 the association began publishing Vien Am. It also founded groups committed to Buddhist ethical instruction such as "Popular Buddhist Families" whose task was to guide the literary, moral, and physical education of adolescents. The society also opened a Buddhist secondary school to train monks and nuns. Afterwards, it opened a Buddhist school at Bao Quoc Pagoda, later transferred to Tung Lam Tu monastery in the Kim Son region. Bonze Thich Tri Do served as the head master. In 1934, the General Buddhism Association of Northern Vietnam was set up at the Quan Su pagoda in Hanoi. In 1935, the Association published the magazine Duoc Tue (Torch of Enlightenment). Moreover, there still existed in Northern Vietnam other magazines such as Bo De Tan Thanh and Tieng Chuong Som jointly written and edited by a number of Buddhists. The General Buddhist Association opened a school for monks at Quan Su pagoda and one for nuns at the Bo De pagoda.

Among the monks who contributed to the foundation of schools, Vinh Nghiem, Thich Thanh Hanh, Tue Tang, Mat Ung, Duc Nhuan, To Lien, and Tri Hai deserve special mention. Buddhist laymen such as Nguyen Nang Quoc, Thieu Chuu, Bui Ky, Duong Ba Trac, Tran Trong Kim, Tran Van Giap, Phan Ke Binh, Nguyen Can Mong, Nguyen Trong Thuat, Le Toai, and Bui Thien Co also played important roles.

The establishment of associations and the publication of periodicals, the collection and preservation of Buddhist texts and the opening of religious schools contributed to an unprecedented degree of Buddhist development in all three regions of Vietnam. Membership in the branches of provincial Buddhist associations mushroomed. In 1935, only one year after its foundation, the Buddhist Association of Northern Vietnam boasted a membership of around 2000 monks and nuns and over 10,000 laymen. The group was led by a board of elected monks and nuns and led by Bonze Vinh Nghiem. In 1937, the Buddhist Association of Central Vietnam enjoyed a membership of 3000. Members typically had a broad range of knowledge both about Buddhist history and thought and about the contemporary social situation. As Buddhists became more interested in socio-political problems, many of them began to reconsider a number of theoretical questions concerning Buddhism’s relationship with the real world. Although the French prevented the formation of a nation wide Buddhist association, the different regional Buddhist groups gradually developed relations with each other, cooperated, and shared information.

Nevertheless, the movement evolved in fits and starts and often lacked a definitive direction. When the movement was still at a nascent stage, it was driven primarily by Buddhist concerns, but as it developed into a large social movement, its momentum and focus were conditioned by a variety of social factors and ideological currents both from within and outside Buddhism.

French influence was, of course, preeminent. The French hoped to redirect the movement to serve their own interests. In South Vietnam, the French Governor ordered the collaborator, Tran Nguyen Chan, to found and chair the Association for the Study of Buddhism. While Chan was to supervise the group’s daily activities, the Governor’s office laid down the over-arching policy it was to follow. In Northern Vietnam, a branch of the association was opened, led by the retired Vietnamese Governor Nguyen Nang Quoc and under the supervision of the French resident superior (the provincial governor Hoang Trong Phu). A similar hierarchical pattern was imposed on the organization’s central regional branch.

French influence in Buddhist associations was eventually challenged by the Vietnamese revolutionary movement. Beginning in 1925, the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League, a forerunner of the Communist party, introduced revolutionary methods into Vietnam which attracted patriotic youth. The formation of the Indochinese communist party and the eruption of the Nghe Tinh Soviet movement in 1930-31 stirred public opinion. During the 1936-39 Democratic Front period, and the 1941-45 period of Viet Minh-led struggle, the grip of French colonialists and Japanese fascists loosened and was replaced by the power of a patriotic spirit of independence, freedom and national salvation. As members of the Vietnamese nation, Buddhists came to love the Communist party and follow its leadership. As a result, Buddhist leaders fell under the influence of the communist movement. Moreover, incisive arguments made by communists, such as Hai Trieu, during the public debates on Buddhist questions enhanced their reputation in the eyes of the Buddhist devotees.

Furthermore, we must mention the purely religious motives of many Buddhist monks and lay people. Many were simply motivated by a desire to save the world from its suffering through their own benevolence and compassion, in accord with the narrow strictures of Buddhist law. They focused their energies on reforming only what they considered the most backward aspects of Vietnamese society. Wishing to maintain a separation between religion and politics, they kept their distance both from the French administration and from the new revolutionary movement. Many members of the new Buddhist organizations were attracted by such a position.

The three forces mentioned above (French, Revolutionary, and Religious) competed for support among the Buddhist masses. As a result, although the Buddhist movement retained the potential to develop in a variety of different directions, it often lacked coherency or durability. While some periodicals such as Phat Hoa Tan Thanh Nien, Tien Hoa, and Phap Am exhibited progressive and patriotic tendencies, others vacillated between a French and a more classically Buddhist line. Some individuals became revolutionary pioneers like Nguyen An Ninh and Thien Chieu, while others, although supporting Buddhism and hating the French, dared not take action. Still other groups poured their energies into elaborate religious rituals and attempted to escape from what they saw as a painful reality. Due to their rapid proliferation and divergent views, relations between different Buddhist circles were fraught with doubts, conflicts and contradictions (the notorious feud between the Luong Xuyen association for Buddhist Study and the South Vietnamese association for Buddhist Study is a prime example). French repression also contributed to disarray among Buddhist groups. The French for instance crushed the Buddhist Mutual Aid Society of Tam Bao pagoda after finding a workshop for manufacturing grenades at their headquarters. Finally, simple exhaustion and defeatism led to the downfall of other groups such as the Luong Xuyen association of Buddhist Study.

The above-mentioned divisions became more acute as the prospects for national independence improved, and Buddhists were forced to take sides in an ever more politicized atmosphere. During the August Revolution, Buddhist devotees were suddenly forced to choose between liberated or French-controlled areas. A new period in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism was ushered in as those in the French or revolutionary camps began following divergent lines of development.

The Buddhist doctrine encompasses both ideological tenets and rituals. Buddhist rites are connected to ceremonies and ways to express respect and veneration for a Buddha. Buddhist ideology is concerned primarily with perceptions that serve as a basis for belief. In recent reformations and the promotion of Buddhism, believers have primarily concerned themselves with the latter, changing their practices little. Over the current century, there has been heated debate in the press about the proper way of thinking and reasoning for Buddhists, the first public debate in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism and the first time Vietnamese Buddhists had to confront such fundamental issues. The debate has drawn many participants, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, who have closely scrutinized their values and their perceptions.

One such fundamental problem concerns moral actions. Traditional Buddhism points out that, for a man’s release from pain and suffering in this world, he must be "compassionate and benevolent;" and he must not "kill any animals." Tri Do Luan, in an essay on virtue and generosity, maintains that the Buddhist clergy is to save living beings from pain and suffering. In order to bring about benevolence, the Buddhist scriptures contain five commandments and 12 provisions. But those who practice these must swallow a bitter pill to endure all indignities, and withstand sacrifices and hardships in order to convert other people through their example of righteousness and generosity. Hence, the Buddhist clergy still holds to the concepts of "compassion and endurance" and considers them to be the domain of Gautama Buddha.

The Buddhist scripture also exhorts man to abide by its "five commandments" (one shall not murder, steal, lust, lie, or drink in excess). The "murder prohibition" has a broad meaning: a Buddhist should not kill animals and it is strictly forbidden to murder men. However, the concepts of ‘compassion" and "no murder" should have been ignored in the face of criminal actions of the French during their rule over Vietnam. These Buddhist doctrines effectively lulled some people to sleep and prevented them from rising up to kill the enemy for the sake of national salvation. This was irresponsive to aspirations to save the country and to the majority of the Buddhist masses.

However, during the period of French control of Vietnam, Bonze Thien Chieu put the question another way m order to get followers involved in the struggle against the French to save their fatherland. He wrote these pair of verses on a two-sided banner which he placed at the main gate of Unh Son Pagoda, where he had been the teacher of religious affairs:

Buddhist Teachings enter the world seeking no pessimism

Compassion is meant to ignore Ahimsha but for human salvation.

One can interpret these verses to mean true Buddhists should be involved in the cause of national salvation and that they should kill their aggressors in order to save the people. These iconoclastic verses caused a stir of public opinion not only because they were written on banners stretching across the streets of Saigon, but also because they expressed such an untraditional conception.

In order to counter Thien Chieu’s verses, the pro-French Buddhist Nguyen Nang Quoc affirmed that "a Buddhist should save mankind from misfortune and unhappiness, [but should] never be involved in political matters," essentially denying Buddhism a place as a worldly religion. In a speech he made on the occasion of Vinh Nghiem’s appointment as the "leader of Buddhism" in 1936 in Hanoi, Mr. Quoc said:

Religion has never interfered in our country’s political affairs, although it has exerted a rather great spiritual influence on the people, their customs and living situations. In order to maintain a steady position for religion, especially at this time of transition where there is much conflict between old and new and there is no standard yet for moral life, religion must play the role it has in being an excellent remedy to save mankind from misfortune and unhappiness.

Many other Buddhists, in the general press and Buddhist magazines, opposed Bonze Thien Chieu’s interpretation of Buddhist compassion and the desire to save the world. The majority of the clergy at the time followed the traditional line because they could not think otherwise, as it had always been the gist of Buddhism. Nevertheless, from Bonze Thien Chieu’s way of thinking, Buddhists pondered deeply whether it was right for them to cling to a literal interpretation of Buddha’s teachings. Surely there are things that ought to be done differently from the Buddhist Bible. And Buddhists should get themselves involved in political matters without the least uneasiness or anxiety.

A second important question that has been faced by Vietnamese Buddhists is whether Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. Does Buddhism consider God to be the sole creator of all of nature? In former times, this question was not properly dealt with; it was only put forward when one wished to ponder Buddha’s whereabouts. The different answers to this question throughout history have given rise to the foundation of different Buddhist sects.

The Ch’an sects (Thien in Vietnamese, Dhyana in Sanskrit, Zen in Japanese) hold that Buddha is in the mind and heart of Buddhists. The Pure Land (Sukhavati/Chingtu/Jodo) and Tantric (Vajrayana or Mantrayana) sects purport that Buddha lives in the West, in the Pure Land of Nirvana, implying that the Buddha Gautama is a deity having the power of deciding the destiny of man. However, during the 1930s the theistic nature of these beliefs did not match with reality.

Answers should have been given based on scientific advances and achievements made in Buddhist research. Thus, the question of whether Buddhism is theistic or atheistic remains to be answered. An answer to this question should be direct, define the limits to man’s knowledge and capacity, explain how man can master his own destiny, and should consider what man, or more concretely, the people, can do to transform their country’s situation.

Buddhism’s theological status has been of paramount concern. Many papers, magazines, and works were devoted to just this subject through the 1930s. There were clear and definite points of view, with little or few conflicting ideas exchanged between various Buddhist sects. On one side stood those who argued Buddhism was atheistic. Their leading proponents, along with Thien Chieu, were Le Dinh Tham, An Giang, Le Khanh Hoa, Nguyen An Ninh, Thich Don Hau, Truong To, and Nguyen Trong Thuat. On the other side of the issue stood the following leaders: the author of Tu Bi Am (The Voice of Compassion); Khue Lac Tu, the editor of a magazine titled For Christ Sake; and the writer of the Thuong De Luan ("A Dissertation about God").

Members of the first group based their opinions first and foremost on the Buddhist theory of causality: anything that happens is the result of what preceded it and the cause of what follows it, making all things seem without a beginning or an end. What is called "God" is only the result of what preceded it. Thus, there is no beginning and thereby nothing is sacred. In addition, members of this group believe that a theory should be a reasoned supposition put forward to explain facts with proof and evidence which can be analyzed and tested. According to them, the theory put forward by advocates of theism has "neither proof nor evidence," and thus their reasoned supposition proves to be unconfirmed and "can in no way be tested." What they believe in is a fabrication by means of which they capitalize on the credulity of the people.

Proponents of atheism also argue that their opponent’s position is full of contradictions. For instance, they question how Buddhist teachings on compassion and benevolence can be God-given when the world is full of human suffering and misfortune. Moreover, atheists criticize theists for the contradiction inherent in the religious opposition each founder of a sect establishes in relation to the other sects. As Bonze Thien Chieu put it: "The Heaven of Catholicism hates the Heaven of Protestantism. The God of Islam would like to kill the God of Brahminism. Even the new God in Southern Vietnam [referring to the Cao Dai religion] is to be split into two. The latter God denounces the former God as not genuine. People would see this as a tragic comedy, making them laugh and putting tears in their eyes."1

As a result of this reasoning, they have come to the conclusion: There is no God at all. Buddhism has no God. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Bonze Thien Chieu arrived at a clear-cut conclusion: "No! Buddhism does not believe in [God-determined] rewards and punishments. There is no Creator of the Universe. There is no cult of whatever deity and no belief in whatever Buddha, besides our trust in our own will."2

Le Dinh Tham argued: "It would be an error to regard Buddha as the Indra of Brahminism. That should be rejected as unfounded."3 Nguyen An Ninh affirmed that the particular trait of Buddhism is not to say anything about heaven. "Born 2500 years ago, right after Brahminism came into being, a religion which professes fabulous theories on heaven and the universe, Buddhism had the unique trait of never mentioning heaven"4

For people who lived in the 1930s, making a theoretical argument that Buddhism is an atheistic religion was rather strange, though the arguments sounded logical and compelling. On the one hand, the atheist’s theoretical point inspired Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike to have greater cause to understand the Buddhist religion. On the other hand, it created anger and frustration in the minds of conservative Buddhists. These people were disconcerted for they had little reason with which to refute atheism. More importantly, pro-atheistic arguments offended believers in other religions such as Cao Daism and Catholicism.

Some theists who had no argument to refute the opposition resorted to the old allegations such as those found in Thuong De Luan by Khue Lac Tu, who was a famous writer of the Cao Daist religion. He wrote: "God is a pure and genuine spirit who exists in the chaotic and misty times of the beginnings of the universe. God was neither born nor died because he is the Supreme Being, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe: that is why He is not subject to the laws of birth and death."

The Catholic priest J. M. Thich responded in kind: "The great error of this theory [referring to the atheist’s argument] is that it speaks only of living creatures but not of the Creator of the universe… When negating the existence of the Creator, there would be no other way than to deal with living creatures and their vicious cycles… if people knew about the significance of Christ’s coming into the world, these mistaken beliefs would not be held."5

There also were thoughtless charges and groundless abuses made by some such as Khue Lac Tu’s attack on Bonze Thien Chieu or the consideration by Catholic ideologues that the negation of the Creator would destroy the very base of morals and ethics. It should be recognized that the viewpoint of negating the existence of God and considering Buddhism to be an atheistic religion was not yet made clear to Buddhist believers and did not yet win their sympathy and approval. This inability was expressed differently by different persons. Bonze Thien Chieu held the opinion that atheism was also a religion although the two had been originally contradictory to each other. This led him to the assessment that Buddhism was an atheistic religion. Bonze Thien Chieu explained, "If we call Buddhism a religion, it remains forever an atheistic religion"6. He also affirmed, "Buddhism as I call it is but an atheist religion which differs entirely from theistic religions"7

Some other theorists tied. Buddhism to an atheistic metaphysics. Truong To explained the origins of the universe by saying it was not created by God but by the "four elements," namely earth, water, fire and wind8. This was a primitive materialist concept originally from ancient India which was not helpful to human understanding of human perceptions. Still, Le Khanh Hoa resorted to an esoteric explanation made by Manjusri in his time: "Ambition gives rise to chimera which gives rise to the four elements, the latter serving as the foundation of nature"9. Their limited knowledge was primarily due to their base in ideals and their failure to link atheism to combatant materialism. Through the following words uttered by Bonze Thien Chieu, that "Someone may think that I’m not a materialist, but I’m only a Buddhist scholar," people were able to see that he did not know yet about the origins of his limited knowledge.

In the meantime, Nguyen Trong Thuat’s assessment, although incompletely developed, proved to be the most sensible: "Saying that Buddhism is purely philosophical and atheistic is not correct. And it would be erroneous to say that Buddhism is pantheistic. We must admit that Buddhism is a religion but it is a religion which takes Man’s good heart as its main purpose"10

A third issue that has faced Vietnamese Buddhists is the mind-body problem: Does man have a soul? If he does, what about the relationship of the soul to the body? Is the soul immortal? Bonze Thien Chieu was the first Vietnamese Buddhist recorded to raise this question. "The soul is a term that does not exist in the Buddhist Sutras"11, as Pham Huu Binh, a Buddhist at the time, wrote. The idea of a soul came originally from Europe and Catholicism and was translated and incorporated into Vietnamese ideology. This concept has given rise to many discussions, given the fact that the issue of a soul bears a clear significance to Buddhist theory. Solving this question means confirming a base for the raison d’etre and the conduct of worship. So what does a soul mean? What is its relationship to the body?

Bonze Thien Chieu affirmed, "There is no soul. If we admit that the soul does exist, that means we give man a nature separated from his other characteristics and also separated from the universe. Science today holds that the idea of such a separate nature proves to be an error of our perception" (Questions and Answers About Buddhism). Nevertheless, in the process of his discussion, he admitted a so-called soul really exists and should be made clear. In his opinion, it is the ‘mind’ of knowledge, the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, sound from unsound, yet which also disappears when the body no longer exists.

Thien Chieu also wrote, "It is quite obvious, as shown by evidence, that a man’s spirit changes along with his body. Nevertheless, there are still people who believe in the immortality of the soul. They are reluctant to reject that way of thinking because they do not use their reason. So they are quite stubborn in their behavior" (Why I Must Thank Buddhism).

Buddhist, Le Dinh Tham, gave himself the task of clearly "defining the particular trait of the soul" as one of the two parts of a man. The soul must not be separated from the body. It is fully integrated into the body and finds expression in the existence of the body. There is no soul without body"12. Buddhist Pham Huu Binh asserted that the soul is dependent on the body and it would be a matter of imagination and superstition to say that the soul is independent from the body and can remain in the world when the body is buried in the earth. Thien Chieu, Le Dinh Tham and Pham Huu Binh’s ideas were similar and derived from the same standpoint.

These ideas created discontent and discomfort to opposing conservatives, forcing them to respond. The conservatives strove to find spiritual support in the Buddhist Sutras, and condemned the progressive Buddhists for having distorted them. Lien Ton, the Editor-in-Chief of Tu Bi Am, condemned Thien Chieu for "talking perversely." He said, "I would like to ask those who study Buddhism where they could find such in the Buddhist Sutras and where have they found someone who talked so perversely as Thien Chieu does?"13

An unknown author of an article in Tu Bi Am, with the initials of N.C.T., denounced Le Dinh Tham as a Buddhist who misunderstood the Buddhist Sutras. The anonymous author wrote:

By Le Dinh Tham’s statement that the soul has no eyes, no nose, no limbs, I fear that it would run counter to the Buddhist, Sutras. If saying that the soul has neither eyes, nor nose nor limbs, when the soul passes to Hell, in case it commits an offence, how can it be punished if it has no body, no eyes, no nose and no limbs of its own? Why do the Buddhist Sutras speak of terrible torture and execution in Hell? Can we attribute all these things to pure fabrications by the Sutras?"

Conservatives strove to find similar concepts in the Buddhist doctrine for the purpose of explanation. Bonze Bich Lien, in his "Adaptation of the Souls"14, pretended that the soul is one of the eight cognitions in the Buddhist Sutras, namely the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, sense, mana, and alaya ("alaya Karma"). In the Buddhist Scriptures they were called "consciousness of Karma, but the people in this world called it ‘soul’, so consciousness of Karma and the soul are ‘one and the same thing’"15. Consciousness was looked upon by the two above-mentioned bonzes as an abstract spiritual entity, which exists independently, not depending upon the body.

The answer to whether the soul is immortal could remain unclear even if the relationship between the soul and body were resolved. Buddhists Thien Chieu, Le Dinh Tham, and Pham Huu Bich did not believe in an immortal soul. As to Bonzes Lien Ton, Bich Lien, and Le Khanh Hoa and various other authors in Tu Bi Am, they argued that the soul, under the name of "consciousness," is immortal.

The two separate views of the immortality of the soul have different further implications. The conservative Buddhists’ views conformed more to the low educational standards of the Buddhist masses at that time. This strengthened the superstitious minds of the masses, promoting rigid dogmatic thinking, something inherent in the masses. The arguments of the progressives, though new and unprecedented, were convincing to educated Buddhists who did not believe in superstition. Their explanation indirectly presented an argument on perceptions in which there are a number of elements of the soul. The subject of perception is an entity of the soul and body combined together. The sense of vision, hearing, and feeling have important roles to play in man’s cognition which is a whole process with its limits and restrictions. If this line of argument is considered properly it could constitute a valuable theory of perception.

Nevertheless, this explanation by progressive intellectual Buddhists, despite its good points, was not yet fully convincing. On the one hand, they argued that the soul depended upon the body and would disappear with the body. On the other they admitted that there was a special soul, a special cognition which was immortal, and was believed to exist forever, and to serve as a basis for life. Buddhist Le Dinh Tham said, "I say there is no soul, that is to say there is no existence of that sort of soul according to the customary way of speaking,— that is, a soul having eyes, nose, and limbs and knowing everything,... that which knows how to hate and to love, but I do not mean there is not the sort of thing which gives life to the people. That does not belong to any body, to any life, that is relevant everywhere, and according to circumstances and to its own action, it would give life to this or that body. And together with the body, it would exist or die"16.

That thing with its all-purpose and sacred character is in effect the special immortal soul. Thien Chieu was inclined to distinguish the soul from cognition. The soul would die along with the body, but cognition would still be living when the body died. He argued that in the three time periods we are conscious of (the past, present, and future), none are the same though none are different (The Truth of Theravada and That of Mahayana).

Thus, the viewpoint of progressive Buddhists about the soul remained embryonic due to their lack of scientific knowledge and full understanding of the structure and function of a man’s mind. Neither did they know about consciousness. Le Dinh Tham’s medical doctor diploma as well as Thien Chieu’s scientific know-how could not help these two men much. In addition, they were Buddhists and hence prone to believing the Buddhist doctrine. Their minds were influenced by the theories of metempsychosis, spiritualism, and reincarnation in this religion. They could not be cleansed of their mystical religious philosophy.

The fourth point of debate concerns the Land of Bliss (Sukhavati). This question is related to the concepts of Paradise, the "West," and the Pure Land. Commoners and a number of Buddhists considered these concepts to be one and the same and they used them interchangeably. But for Buddhists in the 1930s, these were different concepts with different meaning. By word of mouth or through images, Buddhists with older ideas presented worlds of either cheerful or sorrowful scenes, which they called Paradise and Hell, or Nirvana and the "sinister." Their propaganda was meant to induce superstitious beliefs in the vulgar and make them entertain illusions about their future life. Progressive Buddhists criticized this type of proselytizing and presented their own conception about Buddhism. This debate lasted dozens of years without end. What had the Buddhists debated so ardently about? They wanted to answer the following questions: "What does the Land of Bliss really mean? If there is such a world, where does its lie? And how does one get to it?" in questions and answers about Buddhism and in articles published in Duy Tam and Duoc Nha Nam magazines, Buddhist Thien Chieu made every effort to answer the above questions in new ways. He held the opinion that Nirvana was quite different from paradise because it was a Buddhist concept while Paradise was a concept of Catholicism and other monotheistic religions. Nirvana is a mental state when a person’s mind is at peace, when he feels carefree and light-hearted. To his way of thinking, the concept of Nirvana is close to that of the "West." In order to get to Nirvana or to the West, he advised Buddhists not to pray to Amitabha to be sent there, neither should they demand for blessings from any deity or Buddha. But they should do their utmost to give up their reading of prayers and their demands of God’s blessings, and instead, direct their minds and hearts toward a peaceful and quiet life. Thien Chieu wrote:

There is no contradiction between the West and Nirvana. It would be the West if one ceases, indirectly, the reading of prayers and demands for blessings; it would be Nirvana when ceasing, directly, one’s reading of prayers and one’s demand for blessings. There is no contradiction whatsoever when ceasing either directly or indirectly one’s reading of prayers and one’s demand for blessings! That is why I confirm: The West is Nirvana, Nirvana is the West.17

Another contemporary BuDdhist, Chinh Tuc, had views very similar to those of Thien Chieu. He considered Nirvana to be quite different from Paradise. In Chinh Tuc’s opinion, Nirvana is a "deserted" and "dead" spot. Nirvana has many meanings but can find no similar concept in the Chinese vocabulary. He went on, "In short, Nirvana has [at least] three meanings: No birth, release from pain, and no death; due to its numerous meanings, Nirvana could not be translated into Chinese characters."18

Chinh Tuc’s view was quite different from that of Thien Chieu. He held that in the Buddhist scriptures there are references to Paradise and Hell although these are not scenes outside the mind of man. He concluded that "we come to the understanding that Paradise and Hell are in our minds. Man’s mind branches out in two directions, which one shall we take?"19. In his opinion, the method of reaching Paradise would be to put up with all things that happen in one’s life and to feel ‘smug’ [resigned] about one’s present circumstances. This viewpoint was also influenced by the ideas of Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Buddhist Lien Tong and some others stood opposed to Thien Chieu’s recommendation that one has not to resort to reading prayers and making requests for blessings. Lien Tong argued that the West and the Pure Land were in the real world, so man must pray to Amitabha for the favor to go there. He said this was true because it was written in the Buddhist scriptures. He quoted a statement by Sakyamuni to Amitabha: "If any living creature keeps praying to Amitabha, Buddha will appear before his or her eyes." He quoted Mahastanaprapta in the Surangama Sutra as follows: "Now that I’m living in this world, I shall take those who pray to Buddha to the Pure Land." Questioning Thien Chieu, he wrote, "Was it that Amitabha wrongly vowed or that Mahastanaprapta was wrongly received here?" (Bien Chinh, Tu Bi Am). Lien Tong’s viewpoint stemmed from what he read in old sutras written thousands of years ago.

Thien Chieu, Chinh Tuc and a number of young Buddhists at that same time advocated that man must create his own happiness and that any argument must be well-reasoned and proven through contemporary evidence, which can be easily scrutinized. This guideline was aimed at giving prominence to man eliminating his superstitious practices and conforming human thinking to science instead of dogmatism and empiricism. This guideline was heartily welcomed by educated and cultured people. For that reason, numerous people voiced their support of Thien Chieu’s viewpoint and vigorously criticized the view of Lien Tong, Editor-in-Chief of Tu Bi Am, saying that he put forth a backward and conservative viewpoint. The affirmed "theory of heavenly authority [referring to Lien Tong’s stand] can no longer be applied at this time to clear-cut science and philosophy. Everything must change with time and it is no good to stick to old fashion ideas"20

It should be noted, however, that the viewpoint of Buddhists such as Thien Chieu was still limited: he did not recognize that popular dreams of another world (The "West," Paradise, and Nirvana) were really just a reflection of dreams for happiness in modern life. His ideas did not correspond to realistic conditions of men striving for welfare and happiness. He could only advise the populace to carry out abstract ideas such as ceasing "to pray to Buddha," quieting their minds and spending their life peacefully without desire or passion. Chinh Tuc’s feeling was ‘smug’ about people’s actual circumstances, keeping them from trying for anything better as advocated by the doctrine of Lao Zi and Zhuangzi (following Chinh Tuc’s style), which proved to be out of conformity with the degree of knowledge of the masses at that time. For these reasons, up to the early 1940s, the masses still welcomed articles which gave publicity to the sights of joy and happiness in the "West" (Land of the Buddha) and those of the abominable Hell in Duoc Tue and Tu Bi Am magazines. They did not know that all these descriptions were works of fiction. They assumed them to be true and found them very attractive.

The fifth problem Vietnamese Buddhists dealt with during the 1930s and 1940s was the nature of all living beings and things in the universe, man and his behavior, and the question of "to be or not to be?" This question arose from the need to resolve the contradiction between Buddhist theory and reality. Buddhist Sutras contain the principle of "not being, nothingness, non-existence of the self, of a person’s nature," but persons living at that time, especially the Buddhist masses, were drowning in passions and unlimited desires. They devoted their strength to earning a livelihood. As a result of their greed they also created dissension among themselves.

The Buddhists did not know how to explain life by recourse to its own nature and to lay down practical and effective measures for satisfying the needs of men and resolving their personal contradictions. They sought causes derived from their mental reflection, ignoring life itself and objective reality. Nevertheless, they did recognize that they were unable to understand the full nature of all living creatures and each man’s self.

What might a person’s nature be like? The Buddhists were not able to come to terms with all the aspects of this question. They only concentrated their efforts on studying the ontology of things, namely of nature and man and solving the question whether these do "exist" or not. By asking "Was it that everything was just nothingness?", they implied a conception and an attitude of life. The Buddhist classics say "Nature is derived from consciousness which means consciousness gives rise to the form of the thing." Nevertheless, Buddhists wrote that all nature and phenomena were created by a predestined affinity, which had no character by itself, so it could be regarded as nothingness. These principles had for many successive generations dominated the mind-set and caution of Buddhists. But when the ideological currents from the West were introduced into the country, people obtained the necessary conditions to re-evaluate their traditional conceptions and principles, allowing them to be amended and promoted.

Living under such circumstances, the Buddhist ideologists at the time realized that they were held responsible for giving explanations and propagating the ideas of Gautama Buddha with a new spirit. As they found themselves able to do this, they felt more enthusiastic in fulfilling their jobs. They actively engaged themselves in creative work. Their writings were largely published in serial form in dozens of issues of Vien Am, the magazine of the time most inclined to receive articles of this kind. Most typical of them were by Le Dinh Tham and Thich Don Hau, two men who put forth well-reasoned arguments. They advanced the character of the so-called things or beings, then drawing conclusions from those things or beings after an elaborate comparison with the defined character, they proceeded to explain other people’s perceptions and assessments of the things or beings in such a way as to make them conform to their own conceptions. Such was the general argument they followed, and the particular steps advanced in proving it proof.

Le Dinh Tham pointed out that the conditions for the so-called "to be" were the "definite character," the self character," and the "private character." He wrote, "A thing need only have a definite character of its own in order to be regarded as existing"21. He had applied these stipulations in his consideration of things. Seeing that nothing he found met these conditions, he concluded: "There is nothing that has a definite character by itself. Therefore, nothing exists."22 With respect to things other people found to really exist, he explained that these things were merely existent because they contrasted with their opposites. He asserted, "The things we can see with our own eyes, though they are numerous, constitute no more than four, namely bright and dark, having a form and having no form. Something bright can be perceived because of the darkness around it; something dark can easily be perceived when around it all things are bright. Something may have a form only because it contrasts with formless things. Therefore, in the last analysis, nothing can have a definite character of its own"23

He added that things pretended to exist [i.e., their appearance is illusory] based on untrustworthy sensations:

In this world things are said to exist when they can be seen or heard. On the contrary; things which can be neither seen nor heard are said to be non-existent. Chairs and tables are considered to exist but the space and the air lying in between them does not exist. However, it is not true that space and the air do not exist. The things like chairs and tables which people regard as truly existing have only some shape or give some sensation or are hard or soft when they are touched. Apart from these, they have no other particulars. Why cannot other things which have no particular characteristics be considered to be ‘in existence’?24

From the above arguments he affirmed: "What is called ‘existing" is something seen in a dream, something seemingly found in the cognition of the mind. Cognition results from the process of perceiving things by the mind which makes one see as if one were seeing a sight much like that in a dream. Thus, such a thing is also an expression of the mind and only when one is awake does one realize that one has had a dream." He came to the conclusion that "All things are derived from the mind," meaning "all facts and all things are created by the mind’s perceptive power". All things and beings are products of the mind’s imagination.

Bonze, like Thich Don Hau, set for himself the task of proving that things said to exist really do not exist. He explained that if people recognized the existence of all living beings and things in the universe, it was because their being was either deceived or mistaken. First and foremost, people can be deceived by their senses. He said:

From what source do we know about the existence of living beings and things? When asked this question, everybody answers, ‘Because we see, hear and sense that there exist living beings and things’. But if this is based on people saying they see things with their own eyes, why, when they see images in the mirror do they not truly recognize that those images truly exist? We also cannot be so sure of our hearing, for after taking quinine pills one can hear noises in the ears. They do not recognize whether or not these noises truly exist. Lastly, if we say that people can sense things, then why when touching a chair or a table after holding their hand on a piece of ice do they feel that the chair or the table is rather warm? Inversely, when touching a chair or a table after plunging their hands into warm water, why do they feel as if the chair or the table is rather cold? The sensations of the nostrils and tongue are not quite the same. So how could we argue for the real existence of living beings and things in the universe?"25

Names too are highly deceptive. Bonze Thich Don Hau affirmed that things were made up of different components and names could not entirely reflect substances completely: "The name given to a thing is not that thing in itself. The word "book" is a noun that has no real existence, so too the word ‘cover’. The cover itself is made up of many component parts. If it is torn to pieces, the latter taken separately cannot be called a cover. It is the same for our and an animal’s body. The body is made up of cells. It has a name but has no real existence. The ‘cell’ is also only a name. So is the case with a set of tables and armchairs; excluding tables and armchairs, this set has no real existence." From this reasoning, Bonze Thich Don Hau concluded that there ware no ‘real things’, no ‘real dharma’, and no ‘real self’.

These Buddhists proposed false arguments chiefly intended to deceive those people who listened to them. They used the subjective dialectics of Laozi and resorted to the subjective idealism of George Berkeley. Laozi pointed out the opposites of things such as long and short, high and low, beautiful and ugly. All opposites depend upon each other for their own existence. By this Laozi advised people to take into account both opposites and not to value only one and discard the other. That is to say, people should not negate things.

Le Dinh Tham also brought up opposites (bright and dark, having and not having form) and said that the two opposites must depend one upon the other for existence. But he proceeded from these opposites to advance towards the elimination of the existence of things. He made a mistake by confusing one or two characters of a thing with its essence, by taking the character of a thing to replace the thing with itself. Berkeley held that things depend upon the sensations and perceptions of man. Without the senses, things do not exist. Cognition-based theorists held the view that sense plays an important role in the cognition of things but they remarked that the senses are not reliable and true, so things have no real existence. The conclusions drawn by both these Buddhists and consciousness-based theorists were similar to each other although their methodologies slightly diverged. Both theories bore the stamp of Berkeley, the Irish idealist philosopher of the eighteenth century.

Le Dinh Tham and his colleagues expressed their ideas concerning "to be" and "not to be" in 1934-1936, although their theoretical points on this problem were not further elucidated. Their arguments actually became more entangled and complicated. It was a matter of course that less-educated people could not understand their way of reasoning. Yet even the well-educated could not, based on their vague words, draw any conclusion.

Mr. Bui Ky, a Buddhist of that period, was one of these well-educated men. He exclaimed:

The phrase ‘not to be’ is too meaningful to understand. It seems to me that this word has too great a significance and that it finally becomes mystical. ‘Not to be’ has caused many doubts and suspicions for those people who wanted to ask but could not get an adequate answer. These people want to get more knowledge but cannot get enough material to enlighten them on this subject. So it is not yet known how much is need to complete this intricate job.26

Those consciousness-based theorists, who raised the above arguments, aimed to make people believe that life is but an illusion, a dream, so as to make them unattached. But the masses did not recognize this theoretical point because it did not conform to their experience in life and ran counter to reality. The inhabitants in the course of their daily chores always consider that their persons and their lives do really exist and for that reason they always entreat deities to help them have a more plentiful and happier life. And in practice they have made every effort to realize their wishes.

Like many other debates, these five problems above that arose from the movement to develop Buddhism were not definitively settled. The participants in the debate firmly kept to their viewpoints. Although in the course of time there were some minor alterations in the modes of reasoning, neither of the two sides could convince their counterparts. It is also important to note that these debates had attracted the attention of the Buddhist masses, drawing into them many participants. Through these debates, the masses could hear, appreciate, and accept the views they thought to be most suited for them.

This was an opportunity for the Buddhist masses to raise their knowledge of religion and of Buddha as well, and to make their own choice. With regard to history, this was indeed a new period for helping the Buddhist masses to understand the Buddhist scriptures better, to overcome their suffering, and to select for themselves a suitable path for self-release from pain.

Though the matter was not settled, the tendency to heed reality, i.e. to take into consideration scientific achievements, proved to be vital in convincing young Buddhists. In this way they could be equipped with enough theory and knowledge about Buddhism. They became aware of human life and society and accustomed to the study of Buddhism and to its way of reasoning. Those who joined the debates knew better about how to put forth a well-reasoned argument, gaining insight into the essence of their religion. They followed and had the conditions to control their personality and thereby made steps forward in terms of their world outlook.

The above debate was also meant to help forward Vietnam’s Buddhism in order to bring it into harmony with the world Buddhist movement, securing the conditions of its particular traits and viewpoints to that movement, and conversely, to inherit achievements from the world of Buddhism. From now on, there would be no passive isolation from the world of Buddhism. A new page of history of Vietnam’s Buddhism was opened.

It was quite obvious that the movement for the development of Buddhism has had far-reaching repercussions. Such appreciation has come from Confucian scholars, believers of other religions, non-party members, non-religious people, Marxists, and even from Buddhists. They all estimated not only the importance of the movement but also the role played by Buddhism in society. Now that history has traversed a rather long path in the course of its development, there is a significantly large database of events to reconsider the ideas and arguments so far put forth in an objective manner, so as to classify and determine what is wrong, what is rational, what is irrational, what is perspicacious and what is not, and if there are valuable ideas, how are they are to be rated.

Confucian scholars were most stupefied in the face of the movement for Buddhist development. They did not know that in former times Confucianism and Buddhism had co-existed and now Confucianism was declining while Buddhism not only was maintained, but was still undergoing changes for the better through reorganization and renewal. But it was not for this reason that the Confucianists were unable to suppress their testiness and engage in criticizing Buddhism, as had happened in past history. On the contrary, it turns out that the Confucianists this time supported the movement in favor of Buddhism.

The function [social role] of Buddhism at that time was somewhat the same as that of Confucianism and that supporting what Buddhism aimed to do was tantamount to speaking in favor of Confucianism. Confucian scholars like Bui Ky, Nguyen Trong Thuat, and Tran Van Giap spoke in support of their counterpart Huynh Thuc Khang who was Editor-in-Chief of the Tieng Dan paper, for his article praising and stimulating the Buddhist movement, and welcoming the publication of Buddhist papers and magazines. One of his articles said in substance the following: "There has been a change in the course of the past decades, that is, Confucianism is declining toward its own annihilation while Buddhism has not only been maintained but is also on the way to success because there are people who favor Buddhism and undertake to reorganize and promote it, such as those working at the Tu Bi Am magazine and those who follow the writers of Vien Am."27

Among the Confucian scholars who remarked upon the movement of Buddhist development, mention must be made of Huynh Thuc Khang, who made remarkable comments on the movement. He argued:

People say that science and religion do not go hand-in-hand. This assertion applies only to far-distant civilized countries!. But in such backward countries where people are mostly dull-witted as in our own, religion still constitutes a good remedy for our compatriots.... The principles of compassion, benevolence, altruism and metempsychosis of Buddhism prove to be of much interest to living beings in the world. Buddhism, as practiced in this scientific life, though it is made out of date by the passing of time, still enjoys much popularity and proves to be of much utility in our country.28

Through Mr. Khang’s ideas, it was rightly assessed that Buddhism was still necessary for the nation; the principles of compassion and benevolence showed that the people’s interests could be thereby enhanced. Under colonial and feudal rules, the above principles were the material equivalent of requests by the victims for concern, affection, relief, and aid, or they could be taken to represent the feelings of one’s compatriots about their life full of hardship and misery. For that reason, those principles which still embody humanism and patriotism were badly needed at that time.

But Mr. Huynh Thuc Khang committed an error when he overly praised the role of Buddhism by attributing to it a task which it could not serve, that of being a remedy for others. Second, another error lay in the fact that Huynh Thuc Khang wanted to reconcile religion and science. However, the two were contradictory to each other both in aim and purpose. When science develops, it narrows down the sphere of activity of religion and by no means goes along with it.

A number of intellectuals strongly criticized the development of Buddhism. They thought little of and even held in contempt Sakyamuni’s deeds, considering Gautama Buddha’s profession of saving men from suffering and pain to be a fantastic hope, and the development of Buddhism to be an action stuffed with pro-French notions. One of those intellectuals spoke ironically about Buddhism in the following terms:

Sakyamuni differed from an ordinary laborer who is looking to lift himself and his family up, since Sakyamuni already had surplus material wealth and then strove a transcendent happiness beyond life and death. ("Buddhism Seen with the Help of a Microscope,"29

This viewpoint, however, was too extremist and does not reflect reality. In fact, the scenes as described by Buddhism and the principles as worked out by Buddhism at that time constituted a spiritual motivating force helping people to go forward in the search for better living conditions; they remained moral standards after which people should style themselves in order to secure an appropriate way of behavior in society. In addition, the movement for the development of Buddhism went beyond the boundary of subjugation by the French and later on became a part of the patriotic movement of the nation.

A noted Marxist scholar at the time named Hai Trieu also formed and gave his judgment about this movement. Under the pen name H.T. he wrote a series of articles titled "Revival of the Buddhist movement" published in successive issues of Trang An magazine in the imperial city of Hue. He was of the opinion that Buddhism could not save the people’s life from suffering. Buddhism did not recognize the true things happening in life. Nor did it recognize the laws governing the evolution of mankind, so how could it save people from their suffering? He remarked that the great error committed by Buddhism was the elimination of man’s desire, which constitutes the basis for his action in society: "The basis for all action in life is desire,— which they [Buddhist believers] seek in every way to annihilate no matter whether the desire is legitimate or not." He advised people not to believe in the path shown by Buddhism. He advocated that Buddhists should be aware of real life in society. If not, the country would be involved in a dangerous and misery-ridden situation. He wrote: "We must get ourselves involved in the real life of the people and share with them wealth and woe. A race remaining indifferent to social occurrences is tantamount to a race putting itself to death."

H.T.’s assessment here is correct. Buddhism itself is not sufficient to play a role in national and social liberation. And it would be a treasonous doctrine if Buddhism’s development were limited to purely religious activities and neglected or refused to participate in the campaign for national salvation launched at the time by progressive social organizations. If Buddhism were to reform to keep pace with the nation and the epoch, it would have to be in conformity with the general trend of the country. And in the course of this development, worldly affairs and the raison d’etre of the nation once introduced into the movement would become a part of the patriotic movement in order to keep pace with the progressive ideas of the epoch. In reality, the movement promoting Buddhism did turn out to follow this course.

Critics in the movement for development of Buddhism included bonzes and lay Buddhists such as bonze Thien Chieu and Buddhist Nguyen An Ninh. The first man here was second to none in his efforts at renovating Buddhism. Within a rather short time, he wrote dozens of books (in addition to being the Editor-in-Chief of Phat Hoa Tan Thanh Nien, Thien Chieu compiled the monograph series "Phat Hoc Tung Thu" and published Phat Giao Van Dap, Cai Thang Phat Hoc, Kinh Phap Cu, Kinh Lang Nghiem, Phat Giao Vo Than Luan, Phat Phap La Phat Phap, Phat Hoc Tong Yeu, Chan Ly Tieu Thua va Chan Ly Dai Thua), to say nothing of many articles dealing with the atheistic viewpoint and the line for releasing living beings from suffering advocated by Buddhism. About him, one newspaper wrote:

Bonze Thien Chieu is a man who speaks with utmost sincerity, that is why he deserves our attention. In the current religious campaigns, he is the man endowed with a high ideal; a stronger, more sincere and courageous man than Thien Chieu cannot be found among the intellectuals in Central Vietnam. It is quite seldom that one meets a man with such religious purpose and unparalleled ardor…30

Nevertheless, Thien Chieu [surprisingly] gave up after over 20 years of propagating Buddhism. Nevertheless, his abandonment of Buddhism was not caused by outside pressure; it was chiefly due to his innermost feelings. This surprised many people, although he found it to be quite natural. He pointed out the restrictions imposed by Buddhism and its social role in a book entitled Why should I Thank Buddhism?, published in Saigon in 1936. It was easy for him to critique the restrictions of Buddhism because of its theory of causality which, in Thien Chieu’s opinion, ran counter to science. He wrote: "Buddhism’s theory of causality, though somewhat higher in content compared with the theories of a predestined-self and metempsychosis of Brahmanism, proves to be entirely contrary to the scientific relationship between cause and effects." He still added that such a relationship between cause and effect did not agree with the reality in the shaping of man, because it is unacceptable that man’s destiny is the effect of his former life. But is quite understandable that man’s particular traits are the result of his education and milieu. He cited many examples to illustrate this question.

Another defect is the fictitious character and the illusory nature of Nirvana. Thien Chieu said there would be neither Nirvana without transformation or evolution, nor without pain or joy according to laws of change in the current of earthly birth and death. He indicated that nobody could reach Nirvana: "Among the living beings in the world, no matter what class or social stratum they belong to, and irrespective of their being a bourgeois, a wealthy man, petty-bourgeois, a proletarian, even a man who professes to be a Buddhist of sublime thinking, l dare say that not any of them can become a Buddha, nor can any of them enter Nirvana." He insisted that nobody could overcome his own ambitions and hopes, and this kind of conquest constitutes the condition of prime importance for entering Nirvana. Even Thai Hu, the famous bonze of China and Vo Dang Tau Quan of Japan who always advised other people to annihilate their own ambitions and interests in order to be able to reach Nirvana, could not personally overcome their own ambitions and desires. For example, when in Paris, these two men had disputed with each other about which one of them had been the first to bring Buddhism to Europe!

In addition, Thien Chieu showed the shortcomings of Buddhism in the face of societal life. In his opinion, the doctrine was unable to help in the cause of saving living beings from hunger and misery. He said: "What is the cause of the hardships and misery suffered by the people when the economy enters a critical period? It is quite clear that Buddhism cannot help with its own method of saving living beings from pain and suffering." Buddhism has also been impotent in opposing heavenly and worldly authority. "The theory of no-self of Buddhism, no matter how powerful and effective, cannot do anything good in the elimination of heavenly authority and superstitions which are the ramparts protecting the current [French colonial] regime".

Finally, Thien Chieu left Buddhism in order to advance on another path. He could not yet expound his ideas unless the direction was rather clear for him: to head for and join the revolutionary movement of the masses. "I will take the path which is most convenient for me, and I should primarily be involved in the mass of people who are marching ahead in an orderly and disciplined manner." It was quite a natural thing for Thien Chieu to come to Buddhism in the early period and to leave it in the latter one. Living in the context of a country that had lost independence with people suffering from hardships and misery, he found himself duty-bound to save the country and the people from their station. Initially he believed Buddhism had the power to accomplish what he wished for. So, he entered the religion and did his utmost to secure this opportunity. But in the end, he found himself incapable to achieve his wishes, which led him to shift to another direction.

Like Thien Chieu, Nguyen An Ninh was very eager to renovate Buddhism. Nevertheless, when he left Buddhism, he took another path. This turning point in his life was marked in a book entitled A Review of Buddhism published in Saigon in 1937. In this book, he gave his judgments about the theory and the role of Buddhism in society. Nguyen An Ninh made clear that the way of saving mankind from suffering as preached by Sakyamuni proved to be ineffective and to some extent, harmful. In the above text he wrote: "Buddhism displays many idealistic ways which prove to be of no avail and still stuffs people’s minds with wrong ideas and wrong assessments. Like many other idealistic theories, Buddhism does not provide living beings with any thing good and crams into their heads wrong ideas."

He considered that the Buddhist law of causality was not based on scientific knowledge. Likewise, he said Nirvana was created by the power of fancy. "Nirvana and Paradise are both created by the imagination of man, they are strange shadows falling into this real world through the mind of man." In addition, he indicated the absurdities of the Buddhist doctrine, namely, "Buddhism grasps the whole universe in its mind, then by the power of imagination detaches that shadow from its mind, which is only an imaginary victory." Recalling a question put forth by Thien Chieu, he wrote, "lf all mankind follows Buddhism, kills all desires and passions so as not to be subjected to the cycle of birth and death, what would come of this world? Is it true that Buddhism will remain only for animals?" In short, Buddhism had no attraction for him whatsoever.

Thien Chieu came very early to Buddhism. He venerated and worshipped this religion for over 20 years, finally leaving it to embark on revolutionary activities. Nguyen An Ninh came to Buddhism after abandoning his revolutionary activities. Nguyen An Ninh was at the time very famous. After his prison days in 1926- 1927 he withdrew into Buddhism to console himself. He had a wooden fish and bell on his table. His head was clean-shaven and he walked bare-footed. He studied Buddhism in French, English, German, and through Buddhist activities in Vietnam.31 Though these two men had different starting points their viewpoints converged similar to many others. This demonstrates that Buddhism can only foster a certain degree of patriotic sentiment, the love of the people and a respectful attitude toward man among its believers. Any person who desires to go beyond those limits must seek another doctrine. That also testifies to the fact that the revolutionary path led by the Communist Party of the Vietnamese working class drew great interest and attracted the nation.

Thien Chieu, Nguyen An Ninh and a lot of other people left Buddhism to embark upon the field of revolutionary activities after being involved in the movement for development of Buddhism. As indicated above, that movement was based on different tendencies and intentions. Many of the participants in the movement remained faithful Buddhists to the end. It should be admitted that owing to the complexities of life, people will pursue their own dreams and strive for their welfare and happiness by their own means. No theory can please all. Buddhism has every reason to continue to exist and its history will continue to unfold.



1 See Thien Chieu, Why I Must Thank Buddhism.

2 Duoc Nha Nam, January 15, 1931.

3 Vien Am, July 8, 1934.

4 Critique of Buddhism, Saigon, 1937.

5 For Christ’s Sake, Hue, June 11th 1937.

6 Duoc Nha Nam, January 15, 1931.

7 Vo Than Luan [A Dissertation on Atheism].

8 Duy Tam, No. 24, September 1937.

9 Duy Tam, No. 8, 1936.

10 Duoc Tue, No. 71, 1937.

11 Vien Am, No. 50, June 1942.

12 Vien Am, No. 4, March 1934.

13 FN: Tu Bi Am, 15 September 1932.

14 Tu Bi Am No. 104.

15 Duy Tam 11 February 1936.

16 Vien Am No. 4, March 1934.

17 Supplement’ to Duoc Nha Nam, 25 June 1932.

18 "Where is Paradise and Where is Hell?" Vien Am 12 July 1934.

19 Ibid.

20 Truc Vien, Cong Luan, 21 December 1932.

21 Vien Am, No. 6, May 1934.


23, Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Vien Am, August 27, 1937.

26 Duoc Tue, No. 47, Nov. 1936.

27 "Our Country’s real situation apropos of Buddhist Study," in Vien Am, No. 3, l Feb. 1934.

28 Ibid.

29 Anh Sang, No. 36, 8 June 1935.

30 Phu Nu Tan Van, January 25, 1934.

31 See Tran Van Giau, Su Phat Trien Cua Tu Tuong o Viet Nam.

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