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

Part Five: Buddhism during French Colonial Times (Second Half of 19th through First Half of 20th Century)





If "world acceptance" suggests the inclination of a religion to advocate political participation and to seek resolutions of sociopolitical problems, then Buddhism cannot be considered a "world-accepting" religion. Buddhism is a religion characterized by aloofness from and pessimism toward mundane earthly matters. Due to the special privileges and advantages it enjoyed, the royal family of Siddhartha Gautama was plagued with murderous intrigues. As the family’s eldest son (the crown prince), Siddhartha Gautama was destined to succeed to the throne. With the early death of his mother (seven days after his birth), he grew up under the care of his father’s second wife, amid a bitter and conspiratorial atmosphere. The four walls of the Kapilavastu citadel teemed with beggars and poor people whom Siddhartha Gautama would encounter passing through the gate. Moreover society at that time suffered under the oppressive and ubiquitous traditional Hindu caste systems. It was in response to this, that we find the true origin of Gautama Siddhartha’s decision to abandon his family, social position and go in search of a doctrine and religious way of life capable of bringing enlightenment to himself and his countrymen. The sense of mission and accomplishment embodied in his decision suggests his true compassion and greatness.

Even during periods when he predominantly concerned himself with describing the path towards and principles of enlightenment, Gautama Siddhartha continued to attack the caste system: "There are no castes in the streams of red blood. There are no castes in the streams of salty tears". But the theory which he championed was not aimed at overturning injustices or social inequalities. Because of the formidable power of the contemporary caste system and the stifling character of India’s spiritual tradition, Gautama Siddhartha had to launch his attack indirectly.

According to Gautama Siddartha, human life is so full of suffering and misery that the collective tears of humanity would far surpass the amount of water in the ocean. Man’s misery is an unavoidable product of his natural life (birth, ageing, illness and death), in the transmigration of his soul, in the mistakes of his past lives and in his very existence itself. To escape this suffering, Gautama Siddartha did not advise men to participate in social activities but to enter the monkhood and follow a prescribed monastic path as a means to reach nirvana, a world devoid of birth, death, joy or suffering. Buddhism thus preaches release from rather than participation in daily life.

No form of Buddhism is primarily concerned with solving sociopolitical problems. In South Asia, Buddhism chose to leave this work for other religions such as Braminism and Hinduism. In East Asia, Confucianism and Taoism played this role. Such functional specialization has allowed Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism to peacefully coexist in Asian societies. While the content of these three religions has often been at odds with one another, they have rarely openly contested each other’s position. However there have been times in its development when Buddhism, in response to concrete situations, has played a role in social affairs. While this participation has rarely led to the codification of a new principle or added new theoretical arguments to the existing doctrine, it has been motivated by a clear consciousness; by a certain sympathy accorded to collective action and has made Buddhist activity vibrant and relevant.

In Vietnamese history such situations have occurred under the Le-Ly-Tran dynasties. Under these dynasties many Buddhist monks played active political roles. For example, Bonze Ngo Chan Luu played a decisive role in the consolidation of the Dinh dynasty, and was awarded the honorary title of Bonze Superior Khuong Viet by King Dinh Tien Hoang. Due in large part to his legendary rhetorical talent, Bonze Phap Thuan was appointed by King Le Dai Hanh as the main escort for foreign envoys and ambassadors. Bonze Van Hanh put his skills as a strategist at the disposal of King Ly Cong Uan, thus helping him establish the Ly Dynasty. And Bonze Minh Thong offered crucial advice to King Ly Thanh Tong on aspects of national administration.

Moreover, many kings either sympathized with Buddhism, personally followed a Buddhist doctrine, or actually entered the monkhood. King Ly Thanh Tong for instance, entered the monkhood and patronized the Thao Duong sect. King Tran Thai Tong was a committed devotee to the religious life and wrote the famous religious work entitled Khoa Hu Luc. King Tran Nhan Tong founded the Truc Lam sect in Yen Tu mountain.

From the late 19th to the early 20th century Buddhism again established a close connection with socio-political life. The sociopolitical dimension (tendency toward "world acceptance") of Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th century differed significantly from that which had existed during the Le, Ly and Tran eras. During these dynasties, Buddhism was held in high esteem and regarded as a tool for social administration. As all Buddhists were automatically considered dynastic subjects, the status of "Buddhist" and "subject" became consonant with one another. People could participate in secular or religious activities according to their personal preference.

But at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century the position of Buddhism declined and the doctrine was subjected to harsh criticism. A chasm widened between the religious and secular spheres and it became accordingly difficult to vacillate between secular and religious life and even more so to move thoroughly from a Buddhist towards a patriotic or nationalist consciousness. Moreover Buddhists undertaking activities for the common good did so at great personal risk as they came into opposition with political leaders. As a result the tendency toward "world acceptance" during this period was expressed in dangerous ways such as through revolt and political subversion.

Buddhism’s new concern with secular affairs did not come about by chance. During the late 19th century Vietnam began losing land to the French colonialists, and was eventually completely colonized. For the people, loss of country meant loss of life, loss of freedom, loss of independence, and a loss of the right to form their own value system.

Vietnamese Buddhists were Vietnamese first and foremost, and thus shared the national agony with their countrymen. Moreover, French rule created conditions for Christianity to develop at an inordinate pace and encroach upon and replace native religions. In response, intelligent Buddhist leaders attempted to fuse inherent Buddhist concepts of compassion and benevolence with new ideas capable of provoking the masses to resist the foreign invaders, and protect their nation and native religion.

Pagodas at that time exhibited a dual function, on the one hand by serving as local religious and spiritual centers and on the other by acting as safe-havens and secret meeting places where patriots could store secret documents and prepare for future uprisings. Pagodas in Northern Vietnam, in the provinces of Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and in Southern Vietnam, were particularly active in this regard. Never before had Buddhist pagodas played such a role. The combination of patriotism and hatred for the enemy allowed people to accept the coexistence of these two functions.

Many pagodas became famous for the role they played in the movement against the colonialists. For example, in 1858 and 1859 Chau Quang pagoda of Mach Lung commune in Son Tay served as a storage site for secret documents and a safe-haven for patriotic monks who were organizing in oopposition to Tu Duc’s court. Between 1895 and 1898 the Ngoc Long Dong pagoda of Chuong My district in Ha Dong was used as a base for northern patriots launching resistance operations against the French and Nguyen feudal administrations. From a base at Nui Cam pagoda of That Son in An Giang province a powerful force was assembled and sent forth against the French regime in Sai Gon in 1916.

Throughout the 1940s Tam Bao pagoda of Rach Gia province served as a rallying point for southern patriots. During that same period, Dong Ky pagoda in Ha Bac province was an important base for the revolutionary activities of the central committee of the Communist party. Many research works have already noted the contribution made by the pagodas to the history of our nation’s indomitable spirit.

Many Buddhist monks from the late 19th and early 20th century were formidable patriotic fighters. They organized numerous uprisings against the feudal colonial regime with other patriots. They also suffered arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution. While many of them remain anonymous, a number have achieved a level of historical distinction. A good example is Hoang Van Dong originally from Tam Buu hamlet in the Tu Liem district of Hanoi who resided at the Chau Quang pagoda in Son Tay province. When arrested and interrogated before the Nguyen court, he refused to divulge important information about clandestine operations going on in the pagoda. Another example is Vo Tru, a native of Binh Dinh, who between 1893-94 organized both Kinh and ethnic minority people in a patriotic campaign to oppose the feudal colonial regime in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen. Bonze Vuong Quoc Chinh (from Co Am village, Hai Duong province) lived at the Ngoc Long Dong pagoda in Chuong My district, Ha Dong province and organized an attack on Hanoi in 1898. Bonze Cao Van Long (from Ben Tre province), who lived in Nui Cam pagoda at That Son, spearheaded the attack on Saigon in 1916. According to French accounts, the revolt was led by "a prestigious, witty, steady and highly influential monk who enjoys much popularity and esteem among the population!"

Bonze Hoang Van Dong also known under his religious name Tri Thien, lived at Tam Bao pagoda in Rach Gia province. Completely devoted to the fight against French domination, he was arrested and deported to Poulo Condore where he met his death. The Sai Gon monk Thien Chieu was also active in the struggle against French colonialists in the 30s and 40s. Though arrested and actually crippled by severe torture, his commitment never wavered before the French authorities. Bonze Thong Hoa of Dong Ky pagoda provided invaluable assistance to Vietnam’s Communist Party members who were agitating prior to the August Revolution. The list goes on and on. Despite differences in origin and revolutionary strategy, these monks shared a sense of patriotism and devotion to their nation and religion. As a result, their names will remain vividly etched in the minds of people.

In addition to the personal contributions of the above-mentioned monks, we must mention the contributions of the anti-colonial and patriotic movements which they led. Amongst the myriad of such movements three stand out as particularly worthy of discussion: the 1898 attacks on Hanoi and Phu Yen and the 1916 uprising in Saigon.

The 1898 attack on Hanoi was spearheaded by the monk Vuong Quoc Chinh. Chinh, a Confucian scholar and intimate friend of the patriot Nguyen Thien Thuat, was active in the Can Vuong (anti - French loyalist movement) of the late 19th century. Despite his Confucian training, Chinh was also a devotee of Buddhism. After the failure of the Can Vuong movement, Chinh entered the monkhood and continued to agitate for national salvation under religious cover. Residing at a number of pagodas, he finally settled at Ngoc Long Dong pagoda of Chuong My district in Ha Dong province. In 1895, intending to mobilize patriotic forces, Chinh founded the Thuong Chi association at his pagoda. The association selected Chinh as its chief strategist and appointed Ly Thieu Quan or Nghe An to be its nominal leader. Concurrently, the group organized five army corps to prepare for military action during the revolt. The group planned to attack the Hanoi citadel first and then expand its military operations to neighbouring towns and cities. The association committed itself to three guiding principles: to expel the French, reestablish independence, and restore the monarchy.

The insurrection broke out in Hanoi on December 5th 1898, when the insurgents infiltrated into the crowd attending a large fair. Apprised beforehand, the French took precautionary measures and successfully crushed the revolt. When news of this failure reached the Northern provinces, small uprisings broke out in Ha Son Binh, Hung Hoa, Vinh Phu, Hai Hung and Ha Nam Ninh. The colonial administration reestablished law only under after considerable effort.

In the same year another uprising, this one under the leadership of Bonze Vo Tru (also known as Vo Van Tru, Nguyen Tru, Vo Than), broke out in Phu Yen province. Born in Nhon An hamlet, Vo Tru settled in Quang Van hamlet, Tuy Phuoc district in Binh Dinh province. Tru served successively as a village headman and a master of village rituals. Dissatisfied with life under the feudal colonial administration he left his village to enter the monkhood and pursue patriotic activities. Village officials, fearing the intervention of the colonial state, leveled a false charge of embezzling public funds against him. In the provinces Binh Dinh and Phu Yen he agitated successfully both with the Kinh majority but also with highland minority people. Wherever he went, Tru expressed concern for the lives of the local inhabitants. He routinely enquired into their family situations and their health, distributed medicine to the sick and agricultural equipment to farmers. At the same time he was very successful organizing and converting Buddhist to the political cause. As admiration for him among the local population grew, political support for him swelled. When the local mandarins of Tuy Phuoc, Son Hoa, An Nhon, Dong Xuan, and Tuy An districts learned of this nascent movement they grew frightened and pressured the Governor of Binh Phu and the French resident in Quy Nhon to send urgent messages to the Province council and the French resident superior in Hue. The French organized raids to capture Tru alive but sheltered and protected by the people, he managed to escape. When the French royal troops were unable to locate his whereabouts, they rationalized their failure as follows: "It is rumoured that this Buddhist monk is an angel who flies on a bird during the night."

Many pagodas in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces were turned into bases of activity for Vo Tru’s organization. During a traditional Buddhist Festival on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month in 1897 (Dinh Dau year) Vo Tru met other insurgent leaders in Tuy An district to prepare for an insurrection. In 1898 (Mau Tuat lunar year), a year marked by a series of devastating natural calamities, the local French administration levied particularly onerous taxes on the population. Seizing this opportunity, Vo Tru called for a general insurrection. In the summer of that year, insurgents, lightly armed with bows, lances and a kind of knife used by highlanders, struck in Dong Xuan district in an attempt to occupy both military barracks and the French resident’s office. Vo Tru received support from many wise Bonzes, but the French reacted to the attack in time and cut off the insurgents five kilometers west of the district seat. The defeated monks fled in disorder and many including Tru himself were arrested, jailed and finally executed. Although the insurrection failed, it succeeded in shaking the administration foundation of the colonialist state in Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa and Binh Thuan. The French grew frightened and only managed to reestablish law and order after a lengthy period.

In 1916 the monk Nguyen Huu Tri sparked an equally destabilizing attack on Sai Gon. Tri, a devout Buddhist, was born in the Can Giuoc area of Cho Lon. Hating the French with a deep passion equal to his love of religion and country, Tri led a band of devoted fellows into Cambodia where they consolidated their strength at Kampot province Ta Lon pagoda. While the patriotic forces looked to Tri as their main strategist, they considered Phan Phat Sanh (Phan Xich Long) their primary leader. In 1913 they launched an unsuccessful attack on Sai Gon, during which Phan Phat Sanh was arrested. Nguyen Huu Tri escaped and with the support of Bonze Cao Van Long, he began rebuilding his forces at the Cam Mount Pagoda in the That Son area of An Giang province. Waiting there for the arrival of another opportunity, Tri’s forces grew in size and strength.

With the outbreak of World War l, France’s ability to send military reinforcements to Indochina became severely curtailed. In recognition of this fortuitous situation, the insurgents decided to launch a two-pronged attack from their base in Cam Mount. While most insurgent forces headed for Sai Gon [Saigon], a second smaller force descended upon the central provinces of the Mekong Delta. Led by Nguyen Huu Tri, the attack on Sai Gon targeted the residence of the French Governor General of Indochina. After securing his capture, the insurgent planned to force the Governor General to open Kham Lon prison, freeing friendly insurgents detained from the 1913 uprising. They also hoped to seize arms and ammunition stored in the Sai Gon Arsenal.

During the night of February 12th, 1916, the patriotic forces left the Cau Ong Lanh dock by boat and arrived at Sai Gon at 3:00 in the morning. 300 insurgent troops headed immediately for the prison and the French Governor General’s residence. When their attempt to infiltrate these two targets was rebuffed, the insurgents fled in secret back to Cau Ong Lanh. Many, including Nguyen Huu Tri, were caught and the revolt ended in failure.

During the second leg of the revolt, attacks were launched in 13 out of the 20 provinces of southern Vietnam. While the insurgents initially proved effective, seizing village seats, hoisting their flags, and parading through major roadways, they were eventually defeated by French troops and fled in disorder.

Although the two attacks (1913, 1916) upon Saigon ended in defeat, they remained a testament to the patriotic and religious spirit of the people, particularly the Southern Buddhists. The attack also suggested that the security and control of the French regime was less than stable.

The anti-French revolts described above can be seen as continuation of the loyalist Can Vuong movement but under a different leadership. Whereas the Can Vuong movement was led by scholars and feudalist intellectuals, the revolts of 1898, 1913 and 1916 were sparked by Buddhist monks and their devoted followers. This change does not only reflect the different world outlook of different generations but a transformation in ideological orientation within the minds of patriotic leaders. Vuong Quoc Chinh, Vo Tru, and Nguyen Huu Tri, for example, originally followed a strain of Confucian patriotism, but as Confucianism revealed itself as increasingly impotent, they looked to Buddhism, a religion whose deep roots in national spiritual life allowed it to be used more effectively.

The insurrections launched after the defeat of the Can Vuong movement attest to the strength and courage of the insurgents. These qualities arose not only out of the people’s patriotic spirit but from their religious commitment, because patriotism and religious devotion frequently expressed a unity of purpose; and because patriots and religious devotees both had experience in mobilization, it was easy for the two movements to join forces. As they shared a world outlook with the commoners, the leaders easily found ways to mobilize the courage of the masses. Because many of the leaders of the past Can Vuong movement were highly esteemed Buddhist monks or devotees, popular support was particularly forthcoming.

Although devout Buddhists late in life, Vuong Quoc Chinh, Vo Tru, Ly Thieu Quan, Nguyen Huu Tri, and Phan Phat Sanh began their careers as Confucian scholars only after running into severe difficulty along the path toward national salvation. These scholars took refuge in pagodas where they eventually attained high positions in the Buddhist hierarchy. With this in mind, it could be argued that these patriots simply used Buddhism as a convenient cover for their revolutionary activities.

Such a position however is undermined by the fact that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism have historically co-existed harmoniously in Vietnam, each faith constituting a single component in the overall world outlook of the Vietnamese. Thus before they actually entered the monkhood, these patriots had already been exposed to and internalized many elements of Buddhist doctrine. Becoming a monk simply entailed the further development of existing Buddhist tendencies and the transformation of these tendencies into concrete principle. While it is difficult to generalize, patriotic converts were on the whole sincere. Their sincerity is evidenced by the extraordinary support and followings they enjoyed among the Buddhist masses.

As the insurrections discussed above originated out of and were continually supported by Buddhist pagodas, it is valid to ask whether this connection suggests a violation of the Buddhist principles of compassion, benevolence and prohibitions against killing. While it is true that these insurrections entailed violence, their ultimate purpose was to secure the rights of people to live and practice their religion freely. The insurrections aimed to confer on the people the opportunity to realize Buddha’s basic teachings. Thus the insurrections should be understood as an application of Buddhist principles in a unique situation. In response to the particular conditions brought on by foreign domination, the insurrections represented a slight transmutation of Buddhist principles in the interests of protecting both the nation and faith from extinction. These insurrections fueled the patriotic movement and represented a significant contribution by Vietnamese Buddhists towards securing the nation’s destiny. Vietnamese Buddhists did not hesitate when faced with this situation and should take pride in their behavior and performance.



1. "Chau Phe under the Nguyen Dynasty", in document collected by Ly Kim Hoa.

2. Tran Van Giau, Su Phat Trien Cua Tu Tuong o Viet Nam Tu The Ky XIX Den Cach Mang Thang Tam (The Evolution of Thought in Vietnam from the 19th Century to the 1945 August Revolution), Vol.1, Social Sciences Publishing House, Hanoi, p. 527.

3. "Chau Phe under the Nguyen Dynasty", in document collected by Ly Kim Hoa.

» Ảnh đẹp
» Liên kết website
» Từ điển Online
Từ cần tra:
Tra theo từ điển:
» Âm lịch