"Buddhism in China has developed through four
dynasties with thousands of tower pagodas and Buddha statues now... But
over the past few years, the people’s belief has been at a low ebb: the
people have refused to practice sincere belief but make luxurious
competition their aim. Nobody has cared for the repair of ruined pagodas
but each of them has wished to build a pagoda of his own to show off
his wealth. Timber, bamboo, gold, copper, brocade, fabric were wasted in
great quantities. This is contrary to the laws which should control
these matters. If not, things will be worse. So, I would like to request
that from now on, if anyone wishes to cast bronze statues, he must go
to the capital for the permit, anyone wishing to set up tower pagodas
must go to the district administration, explaining the reason and
waiting for the permission before the construction. If not, the bronze,
gold, timber, tiles, bricks... will be confiscated for the public
The Emperor agreed with the report. The incident took
place in the year 435 under Song Emperor Wendi’s reign. Attention
should be drawn to the following sentence in the above paragraph:
"Buddhism in China has developed through four dynasties with thousands
of tower pagodas and Buddha statues now". This evaluation showed that
during the fist years of its import into China, Buddhism was confronted
with a strong opposition from Confucianists and Taoists. Later, it
gradually developed in scope and scale in both Northern and Southern
China, occupying a firm position in the Chinese society as a perfect
religious constitution with all components such as canon, ceremonies,
organizations, Buddhist schools, and a large number of followers of all
social strata: kings and queens, mandarins, generals to Confucianists,
intellectuals, traders, handicraft workers, peasants. That is to say the
social foundation of Buddhism in China was so firm that the religious
organization on the one hand still took advantage of the politicians’
support and on the other sought to defend itself and affirm its
independence. In 404, monk Hui Yuan in Lu Shan (southern China) made
public his book saying the monks do not have to respect kings and
queens, while monk Fa Guo in Northern China (died in 410) tended, on the
other hand, to identify the emperors with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
These attitudes of the religious organization and a
number of negative phenomena were unavoidable when Buddhism thrived
(with big pagodas, big statues and a too large contingent of monks,
while a small number of people joined the army and production...), which
led to reaction and opposition from many responsible people in the then
administration, including some kings and queens.
The report mentioned above is one example of that
common reaction. Xiao Buzhi also criticized, that "over the past few
years, people’s belief has been at a low ebb". Of course, he wanted to
speak of genuine belief, which is called "true belief" in Buddhist
books. According to him, by then very few people had genuine belief
while many ran after luxurious waste.
When Xiao Buzhi submitted the report, Hue Lam also published his book Bach Hac Luan (also called Quan Thien Luan)
which was most resolutely critical of Buddhism by Confucianist
representatives, though the author was a Buddhist monk himself, even not
an ordinary monk but the one called by the people the "Black-dressed
first minister of the king," because from 426, monk Hue Lam was invited
to work as the advisor to Song Emperor Wendi. That a monk worked as the
advisor to the king and strongly criticized Buddhism was really a rare
thing and an extraordinary phenomenon, which can be understood only
through the analysis of the background of Chinese Buddhism at the time,
as well as an analysis of Hue Lam himself.
From the third century on, the Chinese received
Buddhism in a passive way (mainly through the translation of classical
Sanskrit books), then more critically, beginning with the hot debate
among Chinese monks on the conception "Nihilism" or "Voidness" in the
Prajna Sutra. This debate has left in the history of Chinese Buddhism
the names of six theorists, including Yu Daoshui who wrote the book Duyen Hoi Nhi De Luan, explaining
that everything and every phenomenon was created by conditions which
didn’t really exist, so, it was called "Nihilism". Yu Daoshui, a native
of Dun Huang died in Vietnam on his way to India for the Buddhist sutras
in 320, when he was only 31 years old.
In addition to the Chinese monks’ debates on the
question of "existence" and "voidness", there was a series of incidents
such as monk Giac Hien who quited Kumarajiva’s Sutra Translation Board
in Chang An; monk Thich Dao Sanh (a contemporary of Hue Lam) was
expelled from Thach Vien pagoda because he had explained that "even
Ichantika can become Buddha"; and finally Hue Lam was expelled to Giao
Chau by the religious organization in Southern China for he had written
the book Bach Hac Luan in 433. However, under Song Emperor
Wendi’s protection, the expulsion was delayed till 456 when the latter
was killed by his son.
The above situation showed that by Liu Song’s time in
Southern China, Chinese Buddhism had developed so strongly that the
religious organization dared to order the expulsion of a monk, an
advisor to the Emperor. However, once Buddhism widely and deeply
infiltrated the society, it could not help but be affected by vices
already found in the society, which Buddhism should have strongly
criticized and gotten rid of, for instance, formalism: people competed
with one another in building pagodas, casting statues, organizing big
rituals. In his book Bach Hac Luan Hue Lam was strongly critical
of this. He also criticized a number of Buddhist theories which, though
accepted by almost every adherent, monks as well as followers, had not
been confirmed, such as the theory on metempsychoses, and the theory
that Buddha and Bodhisattvas were supermen with many supernatural
powers, with boundless halos, with eternal life, etc.
So what kind of person was Hue Lam? With what
influence and talents could he dare to run counter to the accepted
belief of the whole religious organization? In the book Quang Hoang Minh, Dao Tuyen wrote about Hue Lam as follows:
Hue Lam native to Qin district, entered his monkhood
at Zhi Cheng pagoda in Yang Du. He was a learned man and an acquaintance
of king Lu Long of the Song dynasty. He wrote the book Bach Hac Luan,
of which the gist was that while practicing Buddhism and Confucianism
simultaneously, people should not praise one while disparaging thc other
just only because of their different origins; rather, though two
different ways, they both lead to one destination.
It should be noted that in the book Quang Hoang Minh,
Dao Tuyen refused to call Hue Lam by the name Thich Hue Lam, but by the
name Luu Hue Lam. It is true that Dao Tuyen, a Buddhist historian, as
well as many of his contemporaries, refused to recognize Hue Lam as a
genuine Buddhist monk, though as a learned man with many talents.
One thing we should inquire into is how Hue Lam intended his book Bach Hac Luan to be understood.
Did he mean for it to reform Chinese Buddhism? Obviously, Hue Lam
wished to build a Buddhism that conciliates Buddhism and Confucianism,
not philosophically but in social virtues. For Buddhism, the six
Paramitas of the Mahayana Buddhism must be practiced: alms-giving,
observance of precepts, patient resignation, skillful means of study,
meditation in the highest possible equanimity, and wisdom; while for
Confucianism five rules of conduct must also be practiced: benevolence,
righteousness, politeness, wisdom, belief. Hue Lam didn’t agree with
Buddhism of the "charity" type as seen in the making of statues and the
construction of pagodas, which exhausted the property and strength of
the people and the State. He also refused to accept the metaphysical
self-argument of "Non-existence and Existence" theory, because,
according to him, if one said everything did not exist and was untrue,
why did one encourage the construction of big pagodas, the making of big
statues, and why did one run after empty fame, after formalism? Hue Lam
also refused to accept some Buddhist theories which could not be
confirmed, such as the theory of metempsychoses, the theory on boundless
halos around Buddha’s body, and the theory on eternal life. His
argument ran counter to a Buddhist trend which was then very common and
universal, namely "The Pure Land School" or "The Lotus Sect". The
followers believed that to the west of our world full of misery and
misfortune, existed a world full of happiness, called "Sukhavati" (The
world of Supreme happiness) where lived Buddha Amitabha and two
Bodhisattavas, Avalokitesvara and Samantabhadra. Any living being who
daily said in pray the Buddha’s name would be reborn into the
"Sukhavati" world after his death, not only living happily but also
being won over to the religious ideal directly by the Buddha. What the
followers needed to do to achieve this was to have a sincere belief in
Buddha and say his name daily. Obviously, that was a fairly easy way to
attain the enlightenment, which being largely based on Buddha’s
strengthen, required very little effort from the adherents. It was,
therefore, very popular then in both Northern and Southern China.
One of the evidences for this was that all Buddhist
sutras belonging to this sect were translated and published many times.
For instance, the book Dai Vo Luong Tho (Eternal Life) had
ten different translations, not to mention other forms of publication.
The book was about the endless illumination attained by Buddha and his
eternal life.Yet, Hue Lam dared to say in his book, Bach Hac Luan,
that "he [Buddha] illuminates endlessly, but nobody sees any light,
saying that he has an eternal life, while no one sees a 100-year old
man". Clearly, as a Buddhist monk, Hue Lam did not oppose and criticize
Buddhism in general, but he attacked strongly and directly the Buddhist
situation during the Liu-Song period, which, according to him, the then
religious organization was largely responsible for.
DAO THIEN AND DAM HOANG
Thich Dao Thien’s theory of Buddhism
The second Vietnamese monk, as mentioned in Monks’ Stories after Hue Thang, was Thich Dao Thien:
Thich Dao Thien, a native of Giao Chi (former
name of Vietnam), renounced the world while still young and entered the
monkhood. He was respected and loved by villagers and fellow monks for
his good virtues. Previously Tien Chau Son pagoda had been frequented by
tigers, but they were no longer seen once Dao Thien came to the place.
By then, Qi Emperor Jing Ling deployed the study of Dhyana, setting up
many lecture halls. Therefore, people from various localities flocked
into Jing Ling. They were all talented persons and outstanding
disciples. Dao Thien lectured to them on interesting books through which
truth was presented. During the first years of Rong Ming’s reign, he
came to the capital city, staying at Van Cu Ha pagoda, near Zhong
mountain. He was so proficient in well-known sutras that Buddhist monks
and nuns set a firm confidence in him. He explained in a serene way,
from which they learnt the majestic gesture. The number of people, urban
and rural, who came to him for religious practice reached over one
thousand and the frequent students numbered several hundreds. He usually
got away from noisy places, took ordinary food and wore shabby clothes.
If anyone offered him good foods, he gave them to the poor and the
sick. Near the end of his life, he stayed in the pagoda on a mountain,
refraining from any contact with the worldly life, leading a life of
poverty and preserving good virtues. Dao Thien felt happy with such a
life, though people thought it gloomy. He died in his temple at the age
The above excerpt from the book Monks’ Stories helps us draw some conclusions about the monk Dao Thien personally and about his historical background:
a) Dao Thien was a monk well-versed in theories on
Buddhism. He strictly observed the religious life. His name was known so
widely, even in China, that he was invited to Jing Ling to teach
Samadhi at various lecturing halls set up by Emperor Jing Ling, a son of
the Qi Emperor Gaozu (479-482). According to Nan Qi Shu, Jing Ling organized two Buddhism congresses during the Qi Wudi reign (483-493). Regarding the first congress, the Nan Qi Shu
wrote that "noted monks were invited to preach Buddhism and rewrite the
sutra, in a new language: therefore, Buddhism finally prospered in
Jiangzuo region". Among the noted monks invited by Jing Ling to preach
Buddhism was Thich Dao Thien, a Vietnamese.
b) While in Jing Ling to lecture on Buddhism, Dao
Thien’s prestige was so high that the number of people who came to him
for religious practice reached one thousand, and the frequent students
numbered several hundreds. Though held in such high prestige, Dao Thien
preferred to live a secluded life with spare meals and simple dress. If
anyone gave him good clothes or good food, he gave them to the poor and
Monk Dam Hoang and the suicide by fire at Tien Chau Son pagoda.
Monk Dam Hoang’s life story was written in the Monks’ Stories as follows:
Thich Dam Hoang, a native of Hoang Long, renounced
the world while still young and was very good at Buddhist theory. During
the 420-422 period, he moved to the South, staying at Dai pagoda then
Tien Son pagodas in Giao Chi, reading prayers in the Eternal life sutra
and Guan Jing and with determination to be reborn in the world of
Supreme Happiness (Sukhavati). In 445, he set himself on fire on the
mountain. However, he was saved by his students, but with half of his
body burned. After one month’s treatment he recovered. Later, one day
when people in the pagoda went to attend a festival in a nearby hamlet,
he again set himself on fire. Villagers came to rescue him but this time
he was dead. So they put more firewood on the fire to cremate him. The
fire lasted till the next day, then died out. On that day, people saw
Hoang dressed in yellow and riding a yellow deer to the West without
stopping to ask after anyone. Having seen this, the people and monks
collected his bones and ash for veneration.
The book, Monks’ Stories, was compiled
by Hue Hao in 530, that is 80 years after the voluntary self-burning.
The writer might have relied on details already written or noted down,
or told by Giao Chau people about Dam Hoang’s self-burning, and, of
course, with things added or cut to make the story more mythological and
sacred. Another book entitled Vang Sinh Tinh Do Truyen, also about Dam Hoang’s story, was compiled later, in the l066-l077 period by Gioi Chau. Its content was similar to that in the Monks’ Stories,
and only different in the following paragraph: "His disciples gathered
his remains which, when struck against stone, did not break but gave out
light. The next day, people saw Hoang dressed in yellow, riding a
yellow deer and moving hurriedly to the West: he didn’t answer when
called to by anyone. If called a second time, he only pointed one hand
to the West. Some people tried in vain to run after him..."
According to Hue Hao, Dam Hoang was Chinese, not
Vietnamese. His native place was Hoang Long, namely Hebei province, near
Peking. But according to Gioi Chau, he entered his monkhood in Guang
Ling of the present day Jiangsu province. Having followed the Sukhavati
Sect or Chingtu Sect, he daily read prayers in two books: The Eternal
Life and the Guanjing. These books taught the Pure Land Sect, hoping for
rebirth in Buddha Amitabha’s Western Paradise (Sukhavati) or the World
of Supreme Happiness, which was very popular then in China. After Khuong
Tang Khai, a Caucasian monk translated the Eternal Life sutra.
Dam Hoang always used it. By Dam Hoang’s time, namely within two
centuries, the book had had ten different translations, including the
very well known one by Kumarajiva. It is realized through this that the
Chinese belief that the Buddha had endless halos was deep-rooted. In the
chapter "Monk Hue Lam and the book Bach Hac Luan", we clearly see that Hue Lam had attacked directly that [deeply-rooted] belief.
Hue Lam’s criticism and the book Bach Hac Luan
made public in 435 under Song Wendi’s rule occurred simultaneously with
Xiao Buzhi’s report demanding that the king issue a decree restricting
the construction of pagodas and the casting of statues because they were
causing a big waste of material and heavy losses to the public fund.
Can it be true that Dam Hoang’s self-immolation at
Tien Chau Son pagoda, especially the detail that "people saw Hoang
dressed in yellow, riding a yellow deer and going in great hurry to the
West..." was an answer to Hue Lam’s book Bach Hac Luan?
SIX LETTERS EXCHANGED BETWEEN LI MIAO AND TWO BUDDHIST MONKS: DAO CAO AND PHAP MINH
The full texts of these six letters were found in Hoang Minh Tap by Tang Hoi and rewritten in Chinese in Dai Tang Kinh.
Because of the importance of the six letters, we would like to present,
in the first part, the main characters, namely two Buddhist monks, Dao
Cao and Phap Minh, then Li Miao. Then, we will summarize the content of
each letter with explanation and comments.
a) Persons mentioned in the six letters:
The two monks, Dao Cao and Phap Minh, lived during
the Liu Song dynasty, namely in the middle of the fifth century,
420-478. This can be confirmed through a still extant text in print
titled "Reply Letter to Li in Giao Chau, from Thich Dao Cao" during the Song dynasty.
On Thich Dao Cao:
One of the two authors of the six letters: One thing
we know for sure is that Thich Dao Cao had to be a person from Giao
Chau, namely a Vietnamese, because he was mentioned in Chinese
historical documents with the same footnote "Dao Cao, a monk from Giao
Chau" (Quan Song Wen, book 63).
Secondly, Dao Cao was not only one of the authors of the six letters but also the author of the book titled Ta Am ("Borrowed sounds") and another book called Dao Cao Phap Su Tap (See Nhat Ban Quoc Kien Tai Thu Muc Luc,
quoted by L.M. The., Van Hanh Compilation Board). So in addition to his
works on Buddhism, Dao Cao wrote the book on the [linguistic]
principles to borrow sounds in speaking to describe Vietnamese things
not available in China or without Chinese words to describe them. It is
also known that in the above Japanese bibliographical book, an anonymous
book called Ta Am Tu, a dictionary of borrowed words, was also compiled. Could Dao Cao also be the author of that dictionary?
Meanwhile, the book Dao Cao Phap Su Tap, as
mentioned in the Japanese bibliographical book, might be a complete work
or a collection of Dao Cao’s works. Regrettably, these two books, Ta Am and Dao Cao Phap Su Tap, are no longer available. However, all the letters have been kept till today in Hoang Minh Tap (Hoang Minh’s collection) by Tang Huu and preserved in Han Tang.
On Thich Phap Minh:
So far, Phap Minh has not been mentioned in any historical document except for one sentence in Quan Song Wen
by Yan Kejun referring to "Phap Minh, a monk from Giao Chau". This
indicates that Phap Minh was a native of Giao Chau, and not Chinese.
On Li Miao:
Phap Minh and Dao Cao called Li Miao "su quan"
in Vietnamese which might be the special envoy of the Chinese Emperor,
who was sent to a certain locality for a certain mission, or the chief
of a district. Though his biography was not clearly mentioned in
historical books, he was a man of the Northern Court, who had a broad
knowledge of Confucianism and great concern for the role of Buddhism in
b) The summary and explanation of the contents of the six letters:
The common title for the original letters in Hoang Minh Tap is: "Cao Minh Nhi Phap Su Dap Giao Chau Ly Mieu Nan Phat Bat Kien Hinh Su",
which means "Two monks Dao Cao and Phap Minh answering the question of
Li Miao in Giao Chau on the non-appearance of Buddha’s image".
The content of the first letter:
Ly Miao asked— If Buddhism is considered miraculous,
why didn’t Buddha appear in this world now? Now, it’s time for Buddha to
appear. If not, the doctrine would be only empty words. (Why did he say
"now"? Is it true that by this time Hue Lam had already written the
book Quan Thien Luan or Bach Hac Luan, which stirred the
Buddhist circles in China and Giao Chau because Hue Lam had denied the
story of Buddha with endless halos and eternal life?)
The second letter, Dao Cao’s reply:
Buddha appeared in three ways: First, he appeared
physically as a human being, as did Sakyamuni Buddha; second, he
appeared by leaving his religious practice behind for others to follow;
and third, he appeared by leaving behind the Buddhist regulations for
people to obey. Which way he appeared depended on the desires of living
beings during each period. Whatever their aspiration and need, Buddha
would appear in that way.
Moreover, these things are unseen because they were in the past,— hence we have to believe what had been written down in books.
The third letter, Li Miao’s letter:
At present, Li Miao said, Confucianists and disciples
of Mozi have feverishly attacked Buddhism and Buddhist practice. We
cannot only use reasoning and books to argue with them. Buddha is a holy
person with unlimited wisdom and boundless love: why does he not appear
to get rid of all doubts?
Moreover, there are things which can be relied on in
books,— for example, the worldly things mentioned by Confucius. Yet
Buddha spoke not only of things in this world but also about things of
the future. When speaking of future things, the vestiges of Buddha
should prevail for at least three generations, that is, they must exist
now. But where are those vestiges?
The fourth letter, Dao Cao’s letter:
The vestige you seek is found in the fact that some
people sit for meditation in the jungles, some enter the monkhood, some
observe Buddhist rituals, some sing in praise of Buddha. All these
things can be heard and seen. Moreover, whether the vestige and light of
the holy being are seen or not depends on one’s sincerity. With
sincerity, one would have inspiration, and when inspired one would see
them. Without sincerity one would not have inspiration and would not
see. People who have seen tell those who did not see. What could we do
if the latter do not believe? You asked where were the things done by
Buddha, if with sincerity and with ability to see, they are just in
front of you, before your very eyes.
The fifth letter, Li Miao’s letter:
Li Miao recalled his initial doubt, and intended to
say that Confucianism also discussed future things, not only things of
the present life. Li Miao quoted the following sentence, "Doing good
things one will be happy, doing bad things one will be miserable," to
prove his viewpoint.
The sixth letter, Phap Minh’s:
On behalf of Dao Cao, Phap Minh answered the above
letter from Li Miao. He held that Confucius was incomparable to Buddha
who taught things of three generations, while Confucius’s teachings only
stopped at the present life, as Li Miao said previously in his letter.
Buddha spoke of living beings, sunk in metempsychosis
[rebirth] from generation to generation without end. People are so
dull-witted and indulged in superstition, so how could they see Buddha?
Meanwhile, the Buddhist sutras circulated in this world are just like
trapping baskets waiting for those who have predestined affinity to
Buddhism: they will be able to understand and practice, to be inspired
and see. Phap Minh stressed the theory of inspiration initiated by Dao
Cao, citing this time a series of examples mentioned in historical
books. For instance, the stories that Emperor Han Mingdi dreamed of
Buddha, then sent his envoys to India for the Buddhist sutras; that Song
Wudi was told in his dream that because he had given a bowl of rice as
alms to Buddha Amitabha, he had been put on the throne; that Wu Zongquan
was allowed by monk Khuong Tang Hoi to see Buddha’s splendidly
illuminating sarira pearl (still kept today at Jianchu (Jianye)
pagoda); that a stone statue of Buddha drifted in the sea offshore from
Wu district, which hundreds of monks and followers tried in vain to pull
up while later a group of five or six monks, together with a group of
four persons led by Zhou Zhang, pulled it up, easily; that Guo Wenju
touched a tiger’s mouth, or Lan Gong flicked off snow on a tiger; that
with Hu Gong’s prayer, the dried up streams suddenly became flooded with
water... Phap Minh cited those examples to prove that the theory of
inspiration advocated by Dao Cao and himself was correct.
The above six letters show that by the sixth century
Buddhism in Giao Chau had strongly developed, and that Giao Chau monks
had a broad knowledge and had thoroughly grasped the Buddhist theories,
and their reputation had spread so widely that even officials from the
Chinese Royal Court came to learn from them.