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






Some time around 580 A.D., the Indian monk Vinitaruci founded the first Chan sect in Vietnam. This exact date is unclear for even according to Co Chau Phap Van Bon Hanh Ngu Luc, during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-419 A.D) "an Indian monk named Vinitaruci, knowing of Buddhism’s existence in what is now Vietnam, came and lived in the Phap Van Pagoda. There he taught the doctrine, contributing to its blossoming during this period".

Regardless of the date, monk Thong Bien’s quote in Thien Uyen Tap Anh affirms, by reference to his disciple Phap Hien (Fa Xian in Chinese), that Vinitaruci was the founder of a Chan sect in Vietnam. "Now, the Honorable monk Phap Hien having reached enlightenment with Vinitaruci, propagated the Three Founders’ principles, was a living Bodhisattva, lived in the Zheng Shan Pagoda, and educated and invested about 300 people, not insignificant for China." On Vinitaruci’s life, Thien Uyen Tap Anh relates as follows:

The monk Vinitaruci belonged to the Brahmin caste, was born in South India and came to China. About the Nham Ngo year (562 A.D) under the 6th Dai Kien era of the Chen’s reign, he came to Chang’an. In 574, when Buddhism was repressed by Wu Di, he went to the Ye area (Henan, China). At that time, the third Head Priest of the Chinese Chan sect enjoyed the right of sanctuary in this region of Sikong mountain. When Vinitaruci met the founder, Zeng Can. and saw his uncommon manner, he clasped his hands three times, but the founder remained quiet without saying a word. While standing pensive, his heart brightened as he was self-assured and he bowed three times. The founder did nothing, but nodded three times. Vinitaruci moved backwards three steps and said: "Up to now, your devotee has had no opportunity, now I beg your compassion to accept me to be your servant." The founder told him: "Go quickly southward and get in touch with the people, do not remain here any longer". He immediately left the founder and went southward. He lived in the Zhi Zhi Pagoda in Guangzhou. It was about the sixth year of the Da Di era. In that place, he translated a certain number of prayers as Tuong Dau and Nghiep Bao Sai Biet. On the third month of the year Canh Ty, second year of the Da Qiang era (580), he came to our country, cloistered in the Phap Van Pagoda, and translated the Tong Tri prayers.

Before translating, he called his disciple Phap Hien and read him the litany. That litany appears in Thien Uyen Tap Anh as follows:

The heart that bears the mantle of Buddha

Never deceives and gets to the Great Void

No lack, no plenty, no departure, no arrival.

No gain, no loss

No resemblance, no difference

No length, no shortness

No creation, no destruction

No leaving off

Due to my great aspiration for grace

I gave to myself a false name

So did Buddha in three generations, he succeeded

So did the founder in many generations,

And he succeeded too

And so did I.

You can do the same and you will succeed

To do so intentionally or unintentionally

One can succeed and my founder Zeng Can,

When giving me such a heart, ordered me to go preaching.

And not to stay here any longer

I have passed through many places before arriving here

Now I have the pleasure to meet you

What a marvelous meeting!

Behave yourself seriously

Now I have to go far.

Once those words were said, the monk joined his hands and died. His disciple, the venerable monk Phap Hien, held a solemn Buddhist funeral service, buried his teacher’s remains, and built a tower of mourning. His death occurred in the 14th year of Sui Emperor Kai Huang’s era (594 A.D).

Despite the little remaining biographical information on Vinitaruci, there are a certain number of remarkable historical details we know about him:

1. Vinitaruci was Zeng Can’s most enlightened disciple, the third founder of the Chinese Chan sect. We can thus consider Vinitaruci as the fourth founder of the Chan sect who can be credited with spreading Buddhism in northern Vietnam. Dao Xin was Zeng Can’s other enlightened disciple, being also the fourth founder although he remained in China. Vinitaruci was Dao Xin’s contemporary. The final part of the above mentioned litany shows dearly his deep sentiment towards spreading Buddhism: "Our ancestor Zeng Can, when giving us such a heart, orders us to practice religious education."

2. Beginning his litany, Vinitaruci refers to the Buddhist mantle, which means a disciple’s true heart is confirmed by receiving his teacher’s mantle (literally, "heart seal"), and not because the student is just aspiring according to the Buddhist religion. When speaking about consciousness, one should speak about the heart, and when speaking about diffusing religion to a follower by a monk, one should speak from the heart. But what is this heart exactly? Vinitaruci used a series of negative words as "no lack, no plenty, no gain, no loss, no departure, no arrival, no resemblance, no difference, no length, no shortness, no creation, no destruction, no leaving off." The general meaning here is very clear: "The true heart is a reality but cannot be shown through language; it can be only perceived and felt".

Zeng Can’s poem, "Believing the brightened heart," concerns exactly this issue:

If anybody wants to penetrate religion, he must not make a choice, must not love or hate. Religion naturally shows itself. A little misunderstanding leads to separation, as the sky and. the earth. To become immediately impregnated with religion one must let his heart be involved with favorable thoughts or adverse thoughts, with adaptable or opposite deeds. If one does not hate human life, human life would then be religion, too... If one remains constant to his beliefs, does not change his heart, truth would be the true heart, would be the perfect language, and would be the time. In short, if one keeps his heart unchanged, he will possess religion, will get truth. Truth is not far from him but is in himself. It is in front of him.

These thoughts, as we will see in the Buddhist poems during the Ly and Tran reigns, can be regarded as fundamental thoughts running an through the history of Buddhism in Vietnam.

The last part of the litany confirms the historical hypothesis on the passing of the Buddhist mantle from Zeng Can, the third founder of Buddhism in China to Vinitaruci. A teacher’s passing of his mantle is his affirmation that his disciple has achieved enlightened consciousness conformable to the Buddhist heart, the heart which as the scholar says in his litany does not deceive, has the great emptiness, has no shortness, no abundance. Passing the mantle means passing one’s beliefs to another heart without the help of anybody or anything. The scholar and his disciple harmonize themselves in the same heart, also called Buddhist virtue, or the origin of consciousness for everybody. Every human being has it in his heart, no lack, no plenty, no increasing, no reducing, no creation, and no destruction. Therefore to pass a mantle means in reality to pass nothing because of the existence of that heart in oneself.

During Ly Thai Tong’s reign, the King wrote a litany in the monk Vinitaruci’s honor as follows:

You opened a way to the country Nam

I was told that you had been trained and educated in Buddhism

And showed openly your beliefs in Buddha

Separate or together you kept the same source of beliefs

The moon Lang Gia light was so bright

The lotus Prajna emitted a marvelous perfume

When we meet each other, we will discuss religion.

Although Vinitaruci was the founder of the Chan sect in Vietnam, Buddhism also came to China and Vietnam via the teachings of Bodhidharma, whose doctrine retained a large number of characteristics of Dhyana (the Indian Chan sect). It was Hui Neng, from the later sixth generation, who developed Chan Buddhism into a doctrine with Chinese characteristics.

Consequently, the first Chan sect introduced in Vietnam at the end of the sixth century, although having come from China, was first propagated in Vietnam by an Indian monk. This may be why numerous characteristics of Vietnamese Chan Buddhism resemble the Indian Dhyana sect. Mention is also made of Vinitaruci in the Chinese historical record Tishi Tongjian written by Ti Beniue during the Song dynasty: "About the year... [582 A.D] Sui Wendi called the Indian monk, Dharmajanana, (the Chinese name was Fa Zhi) to the capital to translate Buddhist prayers."

At that time, Vinitaruci, whose Chinese name was Mie Xi, had just arrived. He was also requested by the King to translate prayers. In February of that year, Vinitaruci finished the translation of the Tuong Dau Prayers. In March, Dharmajanana finished the translation of Nghiep Bao Sai Biet. In July, Vinitaruci finished the translation of Tong Tri.

Although these two historic documents disagree on the dates, the place, and the translators’ names, this confusion can be resolved. Thien Tuyen Tap Anh recounts that in 580, Vinitaruci came to Vietnam while according to Tishi Tongjian, he was still in the Sui capital translating prayers in 582 A.D. implying that Tong Tri was translated there and not in Vietnam. Nevertheless, due to the fact that Vinitaruci and his sect had close ties to the compilers of Thien Uyen Tap Anh, this text is likely the more reliable one. In addition, Chinese historical documents primarily mention Vinitaruci without providing valuable details.

In contrast, Thien Uyen Tap Anh gives a wealth of detail: "He came to the Phap Van Pagoda March of the year Canh Ty (580) where he lived and trained people until the year of Giap Dan (591); he died afterwards in that pagoda." Thus he stayed in Vietnam 11 years in all. When he came to the Phap Van Pagoda, a Vietnamese monk named Quan Duyen was also educating people about Buddhism. Vinitaruci remained there and chose Phap Hien who later studied Buddhism with Quan Duyen, as his disciple.

Thien Uyen Tap Anh lists the monks that belong to the 19 generations of Vinitaruci’s Buddhist sect as follows:

1. Vinitaruci (died in 591)

2. Phap Hien (died in 626)

3. Hue Nghiem, one of Phap Hien’s 300 followers.

4. Thanh Bien (died in 686).

5. A monk whose name and biography remain unknown.

6. A monk whom nobody knew.

7. Long Tuyen cloistered in the Nam Duong Pagoda.

8. Dinh Khong (died in 808) and two others whose names and biographies remain unknown.

9. Thong Thien and two others whose names are unknown.

10. La Quy An (died in 936), Phap Thuan (died in 991), Mahamaya (died in 1029) and another unknown monk.

The nine remaining generations under the Ly dynasty are presented below in Chapter 8.

Vinitaruci’s Doctrine

Vinitaruci was Zeng Can’s disciple, the third founder of Buddhist religion in China, three generations before Hui Neng. He lived in a period hungry for new religious ideas from India, ideas that emphasize and advance reform, including the radiating Prajna. At the same time, it was then believed that religions must have supernatural powers and abilities, often called "cabala."

One should not think, however, that after self-reflection and achieving "cabala," a monk is necessarily a Tantric Buddhist. Anybody patient in self-revision and refection when reaching the highest step of progress could resemble "cabala" and need not belong to Tantrism. The arhats at every level had "cabala" but not all arhats trained themselves according to Tantric principles.

Much less, Indian Tantrism blossomed only from the beginning of the seventh to the tenth centuries, while Vinitaruci was in China since 562, and the first prayers he had translated called Gayaciras were not Tantric prayers but a series of very important Mahayana prayers belonging to the Prajna system.

The first monk who had introduced those prayers in China was Kumarajiva. He translated a text which was called Manjusri sutra (Nanjo 238). Vasubandu wrote an interpretive text on these prayers, called in Sanskrit "Manijuribodhisata Pariprhha Bodhi Sutra Sastra" Bodhiruci translated Vasubandu’s interpretations into Chinese, including the original text (Nanjo 1121). Vinitaruci translated the text as Tuong dau tinh xa or "Elephant head prayers." Did Vinitaruci do a translation wrongly? No. Vinitaruci had come to China in 562, and it was not until 20 years later in 582 that he translated these prayers, clearly enough time to allow him to learn and master Chinese.

This name is actually based on a place, Gautama Buddha’s starting point, where he taught those prayers. After having stayed in Uruvela and having awakened the consciousness of one thousand Buddhist believers, Gautama Buddha went to Gaya, and made a halt at Gayasira (Elephant head) temple where he preached these prayers. Afterwards they were called the "prayers of the Gayasira, the elephant Head." Among the listeners were the King Bimbisara and many Brahmans and laymen.1

The substance of these prayers deals with consciousness-wakening, i.e., Bodhi. The book Historical Essays on Vietnamese Buddhism (Viet Nam Phat Giao Su Luan) by Nguyen Lang (page 117) contains an excerpt of those prayers:

Buddha told Manjusri: Bodhi is pelfect in three fields: perfect in speech, perfect in language and no need for home. Moreover, to take refuge in an unsafe refuge means to take refuge in Bodhi, to take refuge in a disagreeable refuge means to take refuge in Bodhi, to take refuge in Nothingness means to take refuge in Bodhi, to take refuge in Buddhist spirit means to take refuge in Bodhi. Moreover, the intellectual must use religion as substance. Religions and reason must be equitable. There must be no distinction, because it is a means. One must penetrate oneself with the five Commandments of Buddhism, the twelve affinities, the mutation from life to death and from death to life and the different forms of good and evil, all is like transformation, without being, without nullity…

The thoughts about no refuge, about perfection of being and nullity were Prajna thoughts and were introduced by Long Tho (Nagarjuna) at the beginning of his book Trung Luan (Madhyamika) with the Prajna litany:

No creation and no destruction

No length and no shortness

No constancy and no difference

No arrival and no departure

In short, according to Nagarjuna, the true nature of magical powers cannot be seized through religious practice and Prajna. It was by those means that one could enter the true nature of magical powers. Similar words were used by Vinitaruci to his disciple Phap Hien before dying: "Buddha’s heart does not deceive us. It exists plentifully as the Great Emptiness, no lack, no plenty, no departure, no arrival, no gain, no loss, no one, no two, no creation, and no destruction."

The conversation between Vinitaruci and Phap Hien at their first meeting also expressed thoughts on language, written text, and the concept of the true nature of magical powers. Their conversation was written in Thien Uyen Tap Anh as follows:

Since his arrival from Guangzhou to that pagoda (i.e., the Phap Van Pagoda), Vinitaruci saw Phap Hien, looked attentively at his face and asked: ‘What’s your family name? The monk Phap Hien asked Vinitaruci the same question. Vinitaruci asked again: "You don’t have a family name?" Phap Hien answered: "I surely have a family name, but how do you know?" Vinitaruci shouted: "To know, what for?" The monk Phap Hien suddenly recovered possession of himself, bowed to his knee and was immediately recognized as a predestined Buddhist.

According to Vinitaruci, the substance of the magical powers cannot be known. One does not need to know because it is perfect in language, perfect in conceptual thinking. It can be only reached through abstinence and meditation, using Prajna. Thien Uyen Tap Anh relates that after Vinitaruci’s death, Phap Hien went straight to the Tu Son mountain and enveloped himself in silent meditation. His body became dried out as a tree. He forgot everything. Birds flew towards him. Wild animals went around him.

The Chinese book Chuan Deng Liu also related a similar conversation between Dao Xin (the fourth founder of Buddhism in China) and Huang Ren (the fifth founder) as follows:

One day Xin came to Huang Mei. In the middle of the road, he met a strange boy, different from others. He asked him: ‘What’s your family name?’ The boy answered: ‘I belong to Buddha’s family’.’ The monk asked again: "You don’t have a family name, do you?’ The boy answered: ‘My name isn’t that.’ The monk silently realized that the boy was a talented man of religion, ordered his servant to come and see the boy’s parents, asking for their permission to let him come with them home. Thinking that it was predestinated, his parents easily agreed, allowed him to become the monk’s follower and named him Huang Ren.

These two stories had two different personages of the same spirit. Not surprising, for Vinitarucian monks have the same thoughts expressed in their litanies, conversations, and poems. The monk Dao Hanh (12th generation) and the monk Hue Sinh (13th generation) both adopted Vinitaruci’s line of thought.

In summation, according to Vinitaruci’s ideas, scholars should adopt a non-prejudicial spirit without refuge, i.e., not admit existence, nor nullity, not to confuse any particular virtue with the true nature of magical powers and, of course, not to have prejudice towards any particular virtue,…… all is nothing but the imagined product of personal reasoning. The state of Buddhist meditation is the truly perfect language, perfect with written texts and conceptual thinking.

All of this can be expressed through a negative sentence from Long Tho’s litanies of Bat Bat (the eight "no’s"), or through a monk’s funny and strange answers when he is asked an unanswerable question as to the material character and the true nature of the magical powers. The state in Buddhist meditation is not the state of simple living, being subject to three dangerous things: ambition, loss of temper, and ignorance, similar to the well-known Buddhist story about blind men trying to describe an elephant.

The living being does not differ from the blind man who touches the elephant: he would say that the elephant would be like a column if he touched its leg, a fan if he touched its ear, or a plank it he touched its back. The matter is not touching with the hands or by conceptual thinking. The matter would be to open one’s eyes, that is to say practice total abstinence, meditation, and Buddhist penetration. The man who enters mediation sees things differently from the vulgar. He has more possibilities, more powers than the vulgar which are provisionally called ‘cabala’ in Buddhist books.

As a matter of act, our realms and capabilities are limited by our dispersed thoughts, lack of concentration, and lack of determination. If our thoughts were truly concentrated, interested, and not dispersed, we would see things more clearly, more calmly. With a certain degree of concentration, we would obtain possibilities and powers that would be called "supernatural magic." Truly speaking, those are only the natural possibilities of a man who realizes progress in his worship and not supernatural magic or ‘cabala’. Therefore, it would be wrong to call a magic performing monk a Tantrist.


The Vietnamese monk Phap Hien was born in Chu Dien, what is now in the Gia Lam district of Hanoi. He became the second founder of the sect that bears his teacher’s name after being presented with his teacher’s mantle. He was praised as a living Bodhisattva by the monk Tan Tian in his report to the Sui court dissuading the Emperor from sending a delegation of missionaries to Giao Chau, for at this place is "The honorable monk Phap Hien, who reached enlightenment together with Vinitaruci, propagated the Three Founders’ principles, has been confirmed as a living Bodhisattva, and lives in the Chung Thien Pagoda teaching and training 300 people to become Buddhists."

Phap Hien was praised and given highly honorable titles such as a living Bodhisattva by Tan Tian himself, a high ranking monk known as a profound scholar in the Sui capital. According to Thien Uyen Tap Anh, the monk [Phap Hien] had the family name of Do, cloistered in the Chung Thien Pagoda located in the Thien Phuong mountain in Tien Du and was born in Chu Dien. At the beginning, he studied with the monk Quan Duyen in the Phap Van Pagoda. He was afterwards accepted as a disciple by the Indian monk, Vinitaruci, who had come from China. The latter had also transferred his Buddhist mantle to him.

After Vmitaruci’s death, "he [Phap Hien] went straight to Tu Son, and concentrated himself in meditation: the body having gotten dried out as a tree, his body fell down and he forgot everything. Birds flew towards him, wild animals turned around him. Hearing of this, uncountable contemporaries came and asked for lessons. The monk built a pagoda and taught followers. Their number often reached more than 300. Buddhist religion in the South blossomed from then on".

A Chinese vice-governor in Giao Chau named Liu Fang under the Sui’s reign, reported to the King Sui Gaozu that "This country had honored Buddhist prayers for a long time and highly estimated virtuous and well-known monks." The King ordered the governor to grant five cases of Buddha’s remains, as well as promulgate royal ordinances and order the construction of towers for the Buddhist cult. Phap Hien built towers in the Phap Van Pagoda in Luy Lau and in other well-known pagodas in territories as Phong, Hoan, Truong, and Ai.

When Phap Hien received relics or ashes left after the cremation of a Buddha or saint from the Sui Emperor, he distributed them to the well-known pagodas in the territories: Phong, Hoan, Truong, and Ai. Phong or Phong Chau now is in the Vinh Tuong and Lam Thao districts of Vinh Yen. Hoan, i.e., Hoan Chau is Nghe An province today. Truong Chau is called Tuyen Quang today. Lastly, Ai Chau is in present-day Thanh Hoa province, called the Cuu Chau (Nine Districts) during the Sui dynasty. Numerous pagodas were built in a lot of districts in Vietnam, from Nghe An to Tuyen Quang. All of Phap Hien’s work ended under Tang Wudi’s reign in the 9th era (626 A.D) when he died.

The primary lesson of Vinitaruci’s Buddhist sect is its veneration for worship and religious striving. This was why, at Tang Wudi’s death, Phap Hien left the Phap Van pagoda for good and came straight to the Tu Son mountain, concentrated himself in Buddhist mediation to the point of having his body dry out and he to forget everything. Nevertheless, he did not abandon propagating the doctrine, and he built pagodas to receive many followers to whom he taught Buddhism. Educating people is every monk’s work, no matter which sect he belongs to. In spite of Bodhidarma’s teaching against the written word, Buddhists in Vietnam have paid great attention to educating, preaching, and translating the Buddhist canon.


1 Warren, Buddhism in translation, p. 351.

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