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



THE LE DYNASTY (15th Century)



Le Loi, who pacified the country after a ten years war against the Ming Chinese invaders, proclaimed himself emperor, thereby establishing the Le dynasty. The Le dynasty marked the start of an important period in the history of Vietnam’s independence. In many aspects this era was one of changes - in ideas, society, learning, as well as spirituality - which hold great significance for Buddhism.

Learning and Scholarship

From the Dinh to the end of the Tran dynasty, learning was the province of bonzes, and Buddhism entirely dominated this area of the feudal monarchy. Dinh Tien Hoang, when he ascended to the throne, appointed the bonze Ngo Chan Luu to the post of highest-ranking court mandarin of education. The earlier Le and Ly dynasties had sent dignitaries to the Chinese imperial court to seek Buddhist sutras (Tripitaka). Though known in Vietnam at the time, neither Confucianism nor Taoism was widely followed by the population. It was not until the fourth year of the Thai Binh era (l075) that King Ly Nhan Ton authorized the first three-class examination in order to select candidates for the mandarinate. This marked the entry of Confucianism into the domain of learning, and the beginning of its involvement in the feudal polity.

Buddhism did not, however, relinquish its role in scholarship. The court three-religion examination, held throughout the Tran dynasty, testifies to the fact that the influence of Buddhism did not entirely wane. But by the Le dynasty, Buddhism had clearly been forced to yield its place to Confucianism. The move by Le Loi and subsequent monarchs away from Buddhism and towards patronage of Confucianism can be understood as politically motivated, as it served to emphasize the transition of power to a new line. The extinction of the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Ch’an sect, after a history spanning three consecutive generations, therefore comes as no surprise.

Moreover, the pragmatism of the Confucianism philosophy must have been a useful asset to the kingdom in building and consolidating the feudal system. King Le Thai To ordered the building of the "Temple of Literature" (Quoc Tu Giam or Van Mieu), a school dedicated to Confucianism; and in 1442 decreed the inception of the court examinations for the degree of Doctor, whose laureates would receive appointments as high dignitaries in the monarchy.

Provincial authorities also organized competitive examinations for bonzes and issued permits to those who passed the examination, allowing them to enter the priesthood permanently. Those who failed would be compelled to return to the world.

The Hong Duc code promulgated during the reign of King Le Thai Ton makes no mention of Buddhism. Indeed, this monarch sought by every means possible to remove Buddhist influences from every aspect of social and political life, considering it a harmful influence best eradicated from society. It is safe to say that by the reign of King Le Thanh Ton Confucianism had "completely replaced" Buddhism. It should, nevertheless, be emphasized that the preponderance of Confucianism extended mainly to the area of scholarship and competitive examinations and was not without negative consequences for Vietnamese letters. Throughout the centuries when Confucianism held sway over scholarship, many outstanding youths where drawn into the labyrinth of procedures necessary to obtain a pass into the examinations in an attempt to become a mandarin; their efforts meanwhile were of no tangible utility to the country as a whole. From the Le dynasty onward, countless doctor - first laureates in various court examinations - after becoming high-ranking mandarins did not formulate any ideas nor discover any principles which might bring progress to the country. The poetry and literature which they produced show no value of national importance, but rather reflect only their lack of self-confidence, their feelings of inferiority, to the point of slavish dependency upon the ancient scholars and the Chinese model.

In the Realm of Ideas

Learning and ideas are organically bound together. Thus Confucianism, after triumphing over Buddhism, held great significance for the world of ideas. Since the introduction of Buddhism, up to the Le dynasty, three sects, introduced at different points in time, held sway. These were namely the Vinitaruci, the Wu Yantong, and the Thao Duong sects, each with its own particular history and genealogy. Nor let us forget the Truc Lam sect of Yen Tu mountain, founded by King Tran Nhan Tong.

Throughout its long history, Buddhism dominated both scholarship and philosophy, and nurtured a non-negligible number of scholars and works. But it should be noted that the contributions of Vietnamese Buddhism were still too modest to warrant comparison with other cases in the history of Buddhism worldwide. Some claim that Chinese invasions destroyed a lot of books, which greatly reduced the number of works which once existed. Yet Vietnamese Buddhism undeniably lacked men of a considerable range of knowledge, and lacked works of some degree of importance until the late Le period and even contemporary and modern times. These deficiencies explain why Buddhism in Vietnam has never been able to work out an adequate system of organization and training on a national scale.

The Vietnamese generally recognized the existence of three religions: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism had, at several points, provided the opposition to Buddhism, but finally all three religions achieved harmony with each other through the doctrine of ‘three religions sprung from a common source’. This was in no way a Vietnamese innovation, but simply the adoption of ideas born in China under similar conditions and circumstances. Within Buddhism itself, until the early Le and even up to the present, confusion reigned among its three constitutive elements, Ch’an, Amidism and Tantrism, each of which held a particular cultural significance.

Ch’an is essentially a method of self-awareness, self-recognition, and self-demonstration. This doctrine emphasizes man’s individualistic, solitary and deeply philosophical relation to the universe. Self-recognition and self-demonstration should permit a man to know whether the water he drinks is cool or warm. Yet he is powerless to impart this knowledge to anyone else. This slate is considered in Ch’an as analogous to a dream state.

The concept of the Pure Land can be understood and explained in several ways. According to the precepts of Amidism, the Pure Land is the calm and chaste land of Amida Buddha, inhabited by the Buddha of this sect and other deities [i.e., Bodhisattvas]. The Amidist method prescribes reliance on one’s own powers as well as encouraging those of others. Amidism preaches that man should aspire to a most perfect human society.

Tantrism clearly differentiates itself from Amidism, both conceptually and in its view of society. Tantrism, in the deepest sense, is a conditional combination of doctrine and belief aiming at an understanding of the truth through a combination of sound and diagrams. This process leads from phenomenal study to ontology, based on a dual vision of the world, which corresponds to two ways of becoming involved in the religious life. To look at the horizontal plane means to analyze and to make a clear distinction between point of departure and point of arrival. On the vertical plane, point of departure and point of arrival converge.

Culturally, Tantrism bears a native Asian character which spread throughout a large area, starting from India, then reaching up across the Himalayas through the Western Mongolian plateaus and finally penetrating into China. Korea, Japan and Vietnam are only the "rippling tails" of this vast movement. In fact, in China, Buddhism first entertained close relations with the 16 northern countries, grouped into five nations, known collectively as the Ho, where it soon became the national religion. The process of contact between the Ho and the Han nationalities signified a mixing of Indian and Chinese cultures. Under the absolute monarchies which ruled the Ho nations, Buddhism was expected to spread its teachings, but do so by adapting to agree with native beliefs and with the social needs of the people. Therefore, incantations and healing constituted the largest portion of Buddhist practice. The monks who preached Buddhist ideas were both intellectuals and mystics, occupying positions close to the throne. The three components of Vietnamese Buddhism, far from being original to it, constituted the baggage necessary for immigration into the "Western region" (as the Chinese called it); but in China, these elements were modified after contact with Taoism and geomancy.

During the golden era of Buddhism in Vietnam, its activities in the cultural and spiritual realm were concentrated, as indicated by historical documents, on such practices as interpreting omens as good or bad, auspicious or inauspicious; praying to Buddha for a male heir; praying to Buddha for a long life; praying for rain; chanting incantations to heal someone of disease. Monks and nuns were completely dependent on the feudal system. On the big bells hung at every pagoda the following verses were usually inscribed:

If the Throne prospers,

Then the way of Buddhism will be eased.

If Buddhism and the King’s right are strengthened,

Dharma Wheel moves on naturally.

This demonstrates the interdependency of Buddhism and the feudal monarchy. Up until the end of the feudal period in Vietnam, many altars in pagodas displayed golden inscriptions which read, "Long live the Emperor", a feature which characterizes the stance of Buddhism towards the feudal regime. This indicates how Buddhism, while still strong, lowered itself to become a sort of tool, a second-rate ornament of the feudal system, and transformed itself into a simplistic popular belief, concerned only with offerings and incantation to the deities.

In Society

As mentioned above, Buddhism had dug the grave for its own decadence in the very time of its prosperity. Such was the sorry state of Buddhism when the Le monarchs demanded that it abandon its heterogeneous character for homogeneity, in other words, go "from imperfection to perfection." Thus the replacement of Buddhism by Confucianism in the favor of the Le rulers was unavoidable. Confucian scholars were growing in number and strength, attaining an ever higher social status, while Buddhist priests were held in contempt. Monks were, in these scholars’ opinion, capable only of chanting incantations while prostrating themselves before inanimate statues. During the very period of Buddhism’s apogee, under the Tran, the scholar Truong Han Sieu wrote these critical words on the site of the Link Te tower: "‘The old Buddha preached the three nihilities to finally enter into nirvana; the following generations, did not follow Buddhism as they should have, but instead only enchant living creatures. Pagodas occupy a fifth of the country’s territory. Monks pay no heed to morality, wasting money in pleasure. Believers naively put their faith in those monks. It would be a rare thing indeed that they should not turn into devils".

In the reign of King Ly Cao Ton, following a report made by the mandarin Dam Di Mong, the monarch issued a decree by which a number of monks were dismissed from their posts. During the late Tran dynasty (under Kings like Tran Du Ton), the caliber of people seeking to enter the priesthood fell even lower: "At that time, following many years of consecutive crop failure, the population would do their best to make a living by becoming monks or hiring themselves out as servants."1

In addition, monks and Buddhist emissaries constituted a means for the Chinese Empire to the north to infiltrate our country. The propagation of Buddhism to Vietnam by the Ming could be seen as a most wicked strategy of invasion. The daughter of a monk from the Ho nations was selected as a royal concubine. This monk traveled to Vietnam often under the reign of King Nhan Ton. He claimed to be able to sit in the lotus position on the surface of the water for three hundred years. He also claimed that he could contract his stomach and bowels, pushing them up towards the diaphragm to make his abdomen completely vacant. And he ate only sulphur, cabbage and sweet leeks. This monk lived in our country for a few years, then returned to China. The next time he came to Vietnam he had the honor of seeing his daughter, Da-La-Thanh, selected as the King’s concubine."2 Further: the Ming also sent an envoy to Vietnam with the aim of luring several Vietnamese monks into China. Of this episode it is reported: "The eunuchs Nguyen Dao and Nguyen Toan had previously been sent to the Ming emperors who used their services in the palace, and they were very well treated. On this occasion the eunuch Nguyen Dao had reported to the Ming emperors that Vietnamese monks practiced a magic much more effective than that of the Chinese. The King sent an envoy to Vietnam to recruit monks well-versed in magic, and recommended that about twenty of these highly qualified monks be brought to Jin Ling citadel." After debriefing them, the Chinese sent these monks back to their native country.

This history further reports that "in former times, Ming Taizu of the Ming dynasty sent an envoy to search for monks who were qualified practitioners of male castration, as well as beautiful girls skilled at the art of massage. The Vietnamese King, Tran De Hien, ordered his eunuchs, Nguyen Toan, Nguyen Dao, Tru Ca and Ngo Tin, to bring them to the Ming court. Afterwards, the Ming emperor sent back to Vietnam only the monks and the beautiful girls but retained the eunuchs, whom he put in the service of the royal palace. As the Vietnamese eunuchs knew the local topography rather well they were also eventually handed back to the Vietnamese Kings to act as spies and report back on any developments."

The opening of schools and the propagation of Buddhist sutras were also aimed at furthering the Ming’s agressive and expansionist plans through the medium of culture. "The Chinese dignitary Banh Dao Tuong demanded that he be authorized to open schools in districts and sub-districts and searched for fortune-tellers, physicians and monks on whom he conferred the title of mandarin and to whom he assigned the task of teaching. Besides, he forbade both men and women to cut their hair short, and particularly compelled women to wear long robes as they did in China." And further: "Now the supervisor of education, Duong Nghia, was sent to Vietnam to bestow grades on Confucian schools at the district and sub-district level, and then send monks to preach at Buddhist clergy services. As for books, and other writings dealing with the history and legends of our country from the Tran dynasty onward, he ordered their complete confiscation and sent them to Jin Ling citadel."

What other option did King Le Loi and his successors have but to support Confucianism, in the face of such a situation in the pagodas, when the society was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the invaders from the North? The historical developments of the time are extremely significant in regard to both Vietnam’s territorial boundaries and the fate of Vietnamese Buddhism. Under the reign of Tran De Hien, rigid laws were promulgated, forcing monks and novices to enlist in the army and join the struggle against Champa. In the reign of King Tran Thuan Ton, all monks under 50 years of age were forced to return to secular life. In the second year of the Thuan Thien era, under King Le Thai To, all monks were examined on their knowledge of Buddhist texts and prayers, as well as their obedience to Buddhist law. The examinations were carried out in provincial town-halls. Those who passed were allowed to become monks, but those who failed were compelled to defrock. Besides, monks were still forbidden to have any contact with women in the royal palace, to build pagodas and to celebrate Buddhist funeral rites for families.

Interestingly enough, despite these interdictions, the Le still allowed the population to carry out religious activities which were essentially Buddhist in nature. For instance, organizing the procession to carry a Buddhist statue from Phap Van pagoda in a plea for rain; granting the mandarin’s uniform to bonze Hue Hong, repairing the Bao Thien and Thien Phuc pagodas; holding the Vu Lan Buddhist festival. Nevertheless, the Le Kings’ general policy towards Buddhism explains their destruction of Tran dynasty literature, as well as the extinction of the Truc Lam sect after only three generations. This sort of destruction of past literature is not unique in Vietnam’s history: the same thing occurred when the Tran replaced the Ly, and when the Nguyen came to power they did the same to the Trinh lords and Tay Son Kings.


Within feudal Vietnam’s system of ideas, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism were three inseparable constituents, which, though they wielded their influence sometimes strongly, sometimes weakly, maintained a sort of balance in the intellectual and spiritual life of the scholars. Although from the beginning of the Le period Confucianism replaced Buddhism in the political sphere, it could not take the place of Buddhism in satisfying the spiritual needs of the population for a more mystical truth, clearly beyond the scope of Confucianism. Consequently, there were those scholars who eagerly and enthusiastically engaged in both writing about and in criticizing the achievements of Buddhism, and yet subsequently were converted to Buddhism. Truong Han Sieu, quoted above, is a case in point. In China, the cradle of Confucianism, many more similar examples are to be found. These circumstances nevertheless account for Buddhism’s limited influence on the literature of the early Le dynasty. Nguyen Trai, Luong The Vinh and Kinh Le Thanh Ton are generally considered to be the writers most representative of the period. Many of Nguyen Trai’s verses are deeply impregnated with Buddhist philosophy, the following one for instance:

When free from trouble, the mind is light.

Buddha is in our heart, there is no need to pray.

(Ngon Chi)

These lines from one of Nguyen Trai’s poems are almost identical to a statement attributed to the Great Master of the Truc Lam sect. When King Tran Thai Ton left the court and entered monastic life with the intention of becoming a Buddha, the Great Master told him: "No, Buddha is not to be found in these remote mountains. He is right in our heart; a peaceful and lucid heart is Buddha. If your Majesty has an enlightened heart, you will immediately become Buddha. Why then seek elsewhere?" (from the "Preface" of Thien Ton Chi Nam).

The following verses by Nguyen Trai express the Buddhist doctrine of being and non-being:

A bunch of roses is reflected in the face of stream.

These flowers have no stain, and have a Buddha heart.

This afternoon they fall, but tomorrow blossom anew.

This strange thing is proof of the doctrine of being and non-being.

(Cay Moc Can)

The above poem illustrates a unique concept in Mahayana Buddhism, which Nguyen Trai adopted and exercised in the very thick of the arduous and dangerous struggle for national independence. This concept successfully overcomes all contradictions, being and non-being, right and wrong, to serve as a basis for action in secular life, as it had for the monks in the Tran and Ly dynasties.

The influence of Buddhism gave Nguyen Trai’s poems a spirituality and feeling that Confucian pragmatism could never have inspired. As in the following lines:

The clouds part and so the Buddhist bed is cold and lonely.

Flowers falling from the tree leave their scent on the stream.

(Tieu Du Tu)

Moreover, the unlimited compassion preached by Buddhism inspired Nguyen Trai with an ardent love of his country and its people:

We are of one family and should love each other,

Northern branch and Southern, both sprung from the same trunk.

(Bao Kinh Canh Gioi)

Buddhist doctrine raises the benevolence advocated by Confucianism to a higher degree, encompassing all living creatures in the spirit of mercifulness and self-sacrifice preached by Buddha. In another poem, Nguyen Trai writes:

Sympathy for the fish who bites on the hook.

Feel for the fly who dies in a bowl of soapberries.

(Bao Kinh Canh Gioi)

Among the scholars of the early Le, Nguyen Trai’s writing is without question the most deep and expressive.

Luong The Vinh was first laureate in the court examinations and so was appointed to the post of high dignitary of the court academy. A very talented writer, he produced only a few essays on Buddhism, mostly dealing with Buddhist rites. Nevertheless these few activities touching on Buddhism earned him his exclusion from the Temple of Literature and from the ranks of those venerated as great Confucian scholars, because he was seen as a pro-Buddhist element.

King Le Thanh Ton presents a somewhat different case. He was renowned for his benevolence and righteousness towards his subjects whom he loved like his children. He is the author of a work called Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van which expressed his compassion and benevolence towards human suffering in society. This work deals with Co Hon, forsaken spirits. What kind of creatures are they? According to Vietnamese Buddhists, the forsaken spirits are the souls of people who in their lifetime were the victims of glaring injustices or died reluctantly. These souls could not be freed from their worldly sufferings and wandered aimlessly in hell, in darkness, with no relatives to perform rites for them. On the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, in the spirit of compassion and benevolence taught by Buddhism, people traditionally make offerings to those forsaken spirits. Among these unfortunates were people of every kind and class, differentiated into 10 categories.

Le Thanh Ton’s work was not originally inspired, but the result of a combination of several subjective and objective factors, as well as the political and social situation of the time. The subjective element was the King’s benevolence meeting the compassion of Buddhism. The objective factor was the influence of the Buddhist work Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc which deals with the rites for forsaken spirits carried out on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. Meanwhile, in the socio-political realm, Buddhism was facing many difficulties.

The Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc shows Ch’an, Amidist and Tantrist influences, and includes directives on how to put the doctrine into practice through meditation, and praying to Buddha with the use of talismans and magic. It is a work of deep feeling and great style, and served also as the inspiration for Nguyen Du’s funeral oration, dedicated to the ten categories of living creatures, written centuries later.

In Le Thanh Ton’s Phap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van, the ten categories of forsaken spirits include:

1. Buddhist priests

2. Taoists

3. Mandarins

4. Confucian scholars

5. Astronomers and geomancers

6. Physicians

7. Officers and generals

8. Courtesans

9. Traders

10. Libertines

The 12 categories mentioned in the Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc are the following:

l. Kings and lords

2. Generals and officers

3. Mandarins

4. Confucian scholars

5. Buddhist priests

6. Taoists

7. Traders

8. Warriors

9. Women in childbirth

10. Barbarians; slaves; the deaf, dumb and blind.

11. Imperial concubines and beautiful women.

12. Prisoners, beggars.

Comparing the two lists, we notice that Le Thanh Ton’s ten categories make no mention of kings and lords, warriors, women in childbirth and the whole class of ‘barbarians, deaf, dumb and blind people’, but add the class of astronomers and geomancers, and physicians. Le Thanh Ton equates courtesans with the category of beautiful women and concubines, and libertines with prisoners and beggars. For the rest, his list is similar to that in the Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc. Both works are made up of three similar parts, although they differ as to their length and style. The Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van is divided into three parts: a description of each category of forsaken spirits, a lament over their plight, and a poem dedicated as a tribute to them. The Khoa Mong Son Thi Thuc’s three parts also consist of a request, a justification and a lament.

Though inspired by the latter work, King Le Thanh Ton deliberately excluded the categories of kings and lords, and warriors. He clearly did not intend to include those of his own class among the mass of hungry spirits forsaken by the population. He excluded warriors as well because of a similar reticence to damn the men who had laid down their lives in the defense of his family line.

Inspiring himself from the same source, Nguyen Du did not exclude anyone of the types, and strove to paint a true picture of the society of his time:

There were people filled with ambition to become famous, rich and powerful, who sought by all means possible to reign over the country, and struggled bravely, but when they failed in their attempt their disappointment was all the greater. When in power, wealth and fame brought them only resentment and hatred; in defeat, they left behind a mass of descendants, lost and unfavored, who were beheaded to become the prowling spirits that lament on rainy nights. Success or failure is a matter of predestination, but the souls of people who died victims of injustice will never find relief. 3

As a matter of fact, when King Le Loi founded the new dynasty, the "descendants of the lost Tran Kingdom" suffered just such a fatal destiny. When the Le dynasty fell, their descendants met an equally cruel lot at the hands of the next dynasty. This pattern is repeated many times throughout the rise and fall of’ dynasties in Vietnamese history.

Nguyen Du depicts the warriors’ lot as follows: "There were people who enlisted in the army and had to leave their home affairs in order to take charge of their country’s affairs. They led a hard life, drinking water from the stream and eating dry rice balls. Their life was short, for Death did not spare them on the battlefields, where scenes of carnage were most frequent. Those who died would wander as ghosts, lamenting over their misfortunes."4

Le Thanh Ton’s Thap Gioi Co Hon Quoc Ngu Van, although it expresses a compassion for the suffering of his subjects which is identical to Buddhist compassion, does not directly refer to Buddhist ideas or doctrine, for reasons we have already made clear. On the other hand, Nguyen Du wrote:

Thanks to Buddha’s supernatural power to free souls from their suffering, the living creatures in the four corners of the globe shed their sorrows and griefs and harbour no resentment against one another. (....) Thanks to Buddha’s power of conciliation, people harbour no resentment against one another. All ten categories of beings, male and female alike, went to listen to lectures on Buddha’s teachings. Their short life was but a drifting scene. As the saying goes: a thousand scenes are only nothingness. All who believe in Buddha will shed life’s sorrows.5

The two works quoted above deal with the same topic and were influenced by the same source but were written in different periods, the one during the golden age of the Le dynasty, the other during the decline of the same dynasty. Both are permeated with the spirit of their time. Both clearly demonstrate that, while Buddhism was excluded from the political scene and lost much of its influence on society, it still exerted a profound effect in the mind and feelings of the population, and found expression in many scholarly as well as popular writings.



1 Su Cuong Muc. Bk 9, p. 45b.

2 Su Cuong Muc. Bk 9, pp. 3b-4a.

3 Van Te Thap Loai Chung Sinh.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

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