Buddhism in Vietnam
Buddhism in Viet Nam
15/06/2012 04:53 (GMT+7)
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One fifth of the Vietnamese population of approximately 25 million is composed of hill tribes. According to an accurate remark of a French observer at least three quarters of the popolation, or 15 million, are "lukewarm or warm Buddhists": the reason being that the "Light of Asia" apread very early in the country; from the beginning of the second century of the Christian era in fact.

In what way did the Doctrine of Buddha come to Viet-Nam? How was it spread? What influence has it had on the life and thought of the people; on literature and arts? What is the Vietnamese conception of Buddhism and how is it put into practice? And what is the present situation? These are the questions we shall try to answer to.

But we must first notice one thing; which is that the history of Buddhism in Viet-Nam has evolved side by side with the history of the country, so that the two are often inextricable. We hope our readers will not mind if we sometimes mention both of them together.


Vinh Nghiem Temple in Bac Giang City



Opinions differ as to the exact date of the introduction of Buddhism to Viet-Nam but it is most likely to have been in about the year 189 of Christian era.

It was probably a former Taoist who had become a Buddhist, Meou-Po, a Master from You-tcheou, China, who was responsible for making known the Buddhist teaching in Viet-Nam. Before him other missionnaries, such as Mārajīvaka, Kalyānarūci and K'angseng-houei, had come from China or arrived by sea, and had stayed some time in Giao-Châu, cradle of the present Viet-Nam. It is hightly likely that they expounded the Doctrine and thus prepared the way for Meou-Po.

At this time Viet-Nam was attached to Imperial China, interested only in the propagation of Confucianism. Buddhism was barely tolerated and only known in its outward form. A few unsignificant efforts were made to spread the Doctrine but out of an extremely rich Buddhist literature only a few sūtras (discourses) were known in Vhinese translations.



b) Beginning.

From 544 to 602 Viet-Nam enjoyed a brief period of independence, which was favourable to the expansion of Buddhism. But progress was still slight and is was not until the third period of Chinese domination from 603 to 939 that it really began to get under way. A decisive factor was the arrival of two missions. The first in 580 was led by Venerable Vinitaruci, an Indian by birth who was later recognized as the first Patriarch of the Zen sect in Viet-Nam. The second, in 820, was conducted by Venerable Vô-Ngôn-Thông, who founded another separate Zen sect. The country had 20 stupas (shrines) in which to house the precious relics, offered, as a diplomatic gift by the Cinese Emperor, as well as many temples and some 500 monks, many of whom were famous for their grreat knowledge and strict discipline.

b) Pause (939-968)

In 939 Ngô Quyền having expelled the last Chinese governor and defeated the Imperial army that was sent against him, declared hiself king, thus briging to an end more than a thousand years of foreign domination.

But the Ngô dynasty, weakened by internecine conflicts, only held the throne for a while. It fell amid the fire and blood of the «Rebellion of the Twelve Lords», one of whom, Đinh-bộ-Lĩnh, emerged victorious from the struggle and assumed the title of Emperor.

In this period the Buddhisme in VietNam had marked a pause but in China, it was submitting under a terrible persecution.


c) Prosperity (969-1009).

With the coming to power of Đinh-bộ-Lĩnh, who became a protector of Buddhism, began an era of prosperity for the Doctrine, which lasted until 1009, during which the religion assumed the charater of a popular belief.

At Phật-Đà monastery lived the monk Ngô-chân-Lưu, who was a refined scholar, a talented poet and moreover advanced in the Zen practice of meditation. The Emperor having heard good reports of him, invited him to expound the Dharma at court and was so satisfied with his teaching that he placed him at the head of the Sangha (Community of Buddhist monks), that he had just created. A year later the sovereign confered on Ngô-chân-Lưu the honour of making him an Imperial Councillor, with the complimentary title Khuông Việt (Servant of Việt-Nam), in order to express his appreciation of the latter's sound advice on public affairs.

The Lê dynasty succeeded that of the Đinh (980-1909), and continued to favour the Sangha, and also to listening to the advice of monks like Ngô-Chân-Lưu on political as well as religious matters. It was under this dynast that, for the first time, a Vietnamese embassy was sent to China in order to bring back a complete collection of the Tripitaka (Buddhist texts).

One particular fact helps to explain the privileged position of Buddhism under the Đinh and Lê. Sinse the year 187 people in Việt-Nam had been taught to read and write Chinese characters, as a result of Chinese domination. But this instruction was limited to a small elite, apart from the Buddhist monks who hoped to find in Chinese translations the essence of a Doctrine, the purely oral transmission of which seemed to them to be insufficient. Cultured men were therefore to be found in the restricted circle of monks who were respected throughout the country not only for their spiritual attainments but also for their vast learning. To the Vietnamese, as to the Chinese of the time, the scholar was highly valued as a man of letters, as well perhaps as a poet, moralist, lawyer, astrologer, doctor or palmist: from which it can easily be imagined with what veneration the monks, who in the public eyes were the repositories of the learning of the Great Masters of China, were surrounded.


d) Flourishing under the Ly (1010-1225)

The last ruler of the Lê dynasty was a cruel despot. His death was the signal for a palace revolt which brought to power Lý-công-Uẩn, one of the pricipal mandarins. Pupil of Venerable Cổ Pháp and former disciple of Venerable Vạn-Hạnh, Lý-công-Uẩn ascended the throne in 1010, from which date he was known as Lý-Thái-Tổ. To the history of Vietnamese Buddhism he has left the memory of one of the greatest spiritual figures. Under his rule the progress of Buddhism was assured; the prestige of numerous Zen masters, such as Vạn-Hạnh, Đa-Bảo and Sùng Phạm, adding particular brilliance to the teaching and practice of the Dharma.

Lý-Thái-Tổ died in 1028. His successors, such as Lý-Thái-Tôn (1028-1045), who was a most devout Buddhist, proved worthy of the examples of devotion that they had been set. Lý-Thái-Tôn is thought to have attained satori (insight) while under the instruction of his guru (teacher) the Venerable Thiền-Lão of the Vô-Ngôn-Thông sect.

Among the most notable events marking the expansion of Buddhism during his reign, the construction on the orders of the Emperor of 95 temples, accompanied by many ceremonies and an exemption from taxes in 1031, the restoration of all images of the Buddha and another fiscal amnesty in 1036 and finally the construction of the Diên-Hựu temple, in 1049, must be mentioned. This temple was inspired by a dream, in which the Emperor saw himself led to the Lotus Palace by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and it explains why he had it built in the unusual form of one column in the midst of an artificial lake. This historic monument, which was one of the most famous in Hanoi, where it was populary known by the name of Chùa Một Cột (the Temple of the single column), was the object of vandalism by unknown hands in 1954, shortly before French troops withdrew from the capital of the North. Fortunately it was possible to restore it with the help of plans kept in the archives of the French School of Far Eastern Studies.

Lý-Thánh-Tôn, who succeeded LýThái-Tôn in 1054, was a living image of Buddhist compassion. Surrounded as he was by the magnificence of court life he nevertheless remembered the unhappy lot of the poor and the sufferings of those in prison, especially during the winter. His reign was marked by the frequent distribution of food and clothing to poor families and by the remission of many prison sentences; in which respect he emulated Asoka, the Buddhist Emperor of India of the third century B.C, noted for his social works. He died in 1072 but three years before his death, in 1069 to be precise, a significant event occurred. At  that time the country was at war with the kingdom of Champa, a turbulent neighbour, whose frequent incursions into Vietnamese territory caused great alarm. The Emperor returned from an expedition against Champa with a number of prisoners of war, whom he offered as slaves to the mandarins of his court. It so happened that one of the mandarins was a Buddhist monk, who was surprised to find that, during his temporary absence, someone had made corrections to his collection of Buddhist writings. A rapid inquiry revealed that the corrections were the work of one of the slaves presented by the Emperor. When the latter heard of it he sent for the man and questioned him closely about the Dharma. The prisoner answered all the questions in such a way that everyone marvelled at his learning, and it was in fact discovered that he was the Chinese Master Thảo-Đường, who happened to be on a preaching tour outside his own country when he was captured. He was at once admitted to the Vietnamese Sangha and allowed to the expound the Dharma at the Khai-Quốc temple. He attracted many disciples and later established a new Zen sect, which still bears his name. The sovereign himself was interested in this sect and like his ancestor is thought to have attained enlightenment.

Lý-Thánh-Tôn was succeeded by Lý-Nhân-Tôn (1072-1127). Confucianism, as we have seen had already been introduced by a previous monarch, and now it entered into the intellectual life of the country on the occasion of the first competitive examination instituted by Imperial Decree for selecting mandarins. But the new movement did not harm Buddhism, which continued to prosper under official patronage.Many writings of the time show the profundity of contemporary Buddhist thought, represented for example by Venerable Viên Chiếu, Ngô Ấn and Khô Đầu. Like Khuông Việt under the Đinh and the Lê, the latter filled for a while the important post of Imperial Councillor.

From 1128, until the end of the Lê dynasty in 1225, three Emperors were interested in following Zen meditnation and practice. The last even became a monk himself, abdicating in favour of his daughter, who in her turn transferred her authority to her husband Trần Cảnh, the founder of the Trần dynasty.

Throughout Vietnamese history Buddhism was never so flourishing as under the Lý dynasty: during eight reigns spread over a total of 215 years, the religion of Sakyamuni was the only one worshipped and honoured. This imperial support was a genuine act of devotion, inspired as much by the sublime teachings of the Buddha as by spiritual calibre of the followers of the Doctrine.



During the first seventy years of the Trần dynasty, the expansion of Buddhism slowed down, though it maintained its importance despite the advances made by Confucianism. The founder of the dynasty himself and his grandson, crowned in 1278, were held to be even more devout than the Emperors of the Lý dynasty. Vietnamese Buddhism is indebted to the former for many favours and an unreserved support and also for two treatises, one on meditation and the other on the Doctrine in general, both of which are of a high religious and literary standard.

His grandson abdicated after a reign of fifteen years, in order to retire to a monastery on Mount Yên tử, where he devoted himself to the practice of Zen and the instruction of numerous disciples. In North Viet Nam he is considered the first of the three patriarchs of the Trúc Lâm (Bamboo Forest) sect.

But it seemed that Buddhism had already attained the height of its ascendancy. In 1414 Viet Nam again fell under Chinese domination; this time for ten years. Under the influence of the Minh dynasty a new impetus was given to Confucianism, which produced significant developments in philosophy and literature. The influence of Taoism grew also and there was an influx of Tibetan Buddhism in its Tantric form. At the same time the Chinese governors confiscated all Buddhist books and had Buddhist temples systematically destroyed.

Viet-Nam regained its indepedence in 1428 but this did not help Buddhism very much. The Emperor Thái Tổ of the later Lê dynasty instituted an examination for monks: those who failed had to return to lay life. Thirty years later repressive measures were introduced, which interfered with the monks and prohibited the construction of new temples. Buddhism retained its support among the people as a whole but it lost its original purity and degenerated into a mixture of different ideas or syncretism.

Between 1528 and 1802 the struggle for power between the lords of Trịnh in the North and the lords of Nguyên in the South favoured the creation of new Zen sects, under Chinese masters, and the building of temples, as both factions wanted the support of the people, who were profoundly attached to Buddhism. The rebuilding of the temples Quỳnh Lâm and Sùng nghiêm, ordered by the lord Trịnh Giang in the North, is famous on account of the tremendous amount of work involved; 6,000 craftsmen and builders working day and night for a whole year.

The lords of Nguyễn in the South showed a similar zeal. In 1601 Nguyễn Hoàng ordered the Thiên Mụ temple to be built, which is still to be seen at Huế. A pagoda of seven storeys and an exceptionally resonnant bell are the pride of this famous temple. Encouraged by Nguyễn Hoàng many Chinese monks travelled around the country, expounding the Doctrine, and they were responsible for building most of the temples in and near Huế, so that they are well remembered.

The Nguyễn restored nationl unity but Buddhism became in their hands an instrument for consolidating political power. The monks were simply custodians of official temples and had to be on hand to preside at ceremonies. The essence of Buddhism was so obscured that there was a general slackness in the monasteries and people imagined that the Buddha was a sort of god, who would reward them if they gave him presents.

The situation became worse still with the advent of French colonisation in the second half of the nineteenth century. For the ensuing period of eighty years or so Buddhism was actively menaced by Roman Catholicism and was subject to many repressive measures, such as control of the monks, necessity to obtain permission to built temples, restrictions on the right of the Community to accept gifts and legacies etc. Serious monks therefore prefered to live a solitaty life, which left the field open for those who indulged in «priestcraft». The latter, who naturally had only their own interests at heart, furthered the development of the syncretism already mentioned, so that Buddhism in VietNam presented the sorry sight of a religious hotch-potch, composed of mysticism, Tantrism, animism and polytheism.



Starting in 1920, after the manner of similar events in Nationnalist China, a new movement was launched simultaneously in the three main regions of Viet Nam: North, Centre and South. The movement aimed at a regeneration of Buddhism and even serious obstacles were not able to stop it. But it was not until 1931 that the first Association of Buddhist Studies was founded at Saigon Similar associations were founded at Huế in 1932 and Hanoi in 1934.

Each association naturaly had its own programme but, composed as they were of both monks and laymen, it was their task to improve conditions in the monasteries, tighten up discipline, instruct a new generation of monks, who should be both devout and well educated and finally to ensure a wide diffusion of the Doctrine in the language of the country and not, as in the past, through the medium of Chinese characters. With such aims  in view many magazines and translations from the Buddhist Canon, both Theravadin (Southern) and Mahayanist (Northern), were published. It is paradoxical that while Zen lost its influence it was Amidism that took its place, which it retains at the time of writing.

This movement to revive Buddhism met with success and there was a change of opinion among the intellectuals, who were disillusioned with Western materialism. Many joined the movement and supported it not only financially but also with their help in the work of Buddhist instruction. Unfortunately the second World War just about put a stop to all these efforts but they began again in 1948 when the situation seemed a little clearer. At Hanoi the communities of monks broken up by the war were reformed and the Buddhist community was reorganized, together with the Association of laymen. A year later, thanks to the initiative of Venerable Tố Liên and Trí Hải and the strong support of the laity, an orphanage, a school, a printing press and social works to help the victims of the war raging in the countryside, were also established at Hanoi. Similar reorganization was carried out at Huế. Ruined temples in several places were rebuilt or restored; old publications reappeared and authors and translators went back to work with energy.

Two year later a new Association of Buddhist Studies came into existence at Saigon, to replace the previous one that was no longer active.

On May 6th., 1951, a national Buddhist Congress was held at Huế, attended by about fifty monks and laymen. Important resolutions were passed, concerning the unification of the three Associations, the reorganisation in depth of the Sangha, the standardisation of ceremonies. Buddist instrution for adults and the formation of Buddist youth movements. The Congress further ratified the support given by Venerable Tố Liên, delegate from the North, to the World Fellowship of Buddhists, which came into existence as a result of the first World Congress held at Colombo in 1950.

The second World Congress, held at Tokyo in September 1952, gave to Vietnamese Buddhism, now unified, an opportunity to show its vigour. The Singhalese delegation to this Congress were taking a relic of the Buddha to Japan, aboard the French steamer «La Marseillaise», which had to stop for a day at Saigon. It was decided to accord a devout reception to this relic and under the auspices of unified Vietnamese Buddhism 50,000 people, who had assembled in less than six days, gave the capital of Vietnam an impressive view of faith, devotion and discipline such as had not been sen before.

This peaceful demonstration had happy results. From the North to the South a reinvigorated Buddhism, warmly acclaimed, was able to broaden its scope and offset the effect of unorthodox sects. Since then social works, shools for monks, private schools under Buddhist auspices and youth organizations have increased and flourished. Progress was made in making known Buddhist thought and it was only the partition of the country into two zones by the Geneva Agreement that hindered still more far-reaching results.



In theory there are three main religions in Vietnam: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism; but in fact there is only one, which is an amalgam of these three doctrines, each of which represents a particular aspect of the whole. This state of affairs makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish three separate religious communities among the Vietnamese. There are perhaps some people who follow either Taoism or Buddhism but they are in a minority. The bulk of the popolation remains unprejudiced and is not interested in sectarian distinctions. A Buddhist family for example will visit Taoist temples and perform the rites belonging to the Confucian cult of ancestors.

Though this confusion sometimes fosters superstitious practices and ignorance it also has its good points and exerts a tolerant influence on life and thought.

Many scholars are really products of Buddhism, though they do not deny the principles of Confucianism. Even if there is no direct borrowing of ideas many Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, karma (action), causality, rebirth and earthly sufferings are found in their writings, so that there can be little doubt about their common origin.

Buddhism has had a particularly strong effect on morals and behaviour. Even uneducated Vietnamese and non-Buddhists fear the results of bad actions conceiving them in the symbolism of the «Ten Hells» and this fear often makes them avoid such actions, encouraging them instead to be kind. Strengthened by the Five Precepts, or basic morality of Buddhism, it is part of the reason for the gentle manners, which came to pervade Vietnamese life, thanks firstly to the opportunity for happiness out of the ordinary inherent in Amidism. Vegeterianism is followed by the laity on specific dates and is the standard diet for monks. It has the merit of mitigating the sanguinary instinct common to all.

The influece of the three religions is clear in the artistic field, where that of Buddhism is predominant. Architecture, painting and sculpture are often inspired by two of the key ideas of Buddhism, which are Purity and Compassion. The flower of the lotus is a frequent motif and the various representations of Avalokiteshvara are greatly venerated, especially by women.



Though the movement for reform which started in 1920 achieved good results it is still far from reaching the goal put forward by its sponsors.

The efforts of these enthusiasts succeeded to some extent in throwing light on the essence of Buddhism and ridding it of certain excrescences. Vietnamese Buddhism remains faithful to the Mahayana tradition, of which the emphasis is on Compassion, as is well known, represented by the Bodhisattva doctrine, based on the exhortation of the Buddha: «Delivered, deliver; enlightened, enlighten.» For this reason the supporters of the movement, monks and laity alike, continually try and improve their spiritual life and translate into action the truths that they have found in the texts. They now see ceremonies and moral precepts for what they are: means to attain wisdom and peace of mind, but not ends in themselves. They have a clear conception of Mahayana symbolism and understand its essence. If they subscribe without reservation to the orthodoxy extolled by the Theravadins, who have had a group in Saigon for a few years now, they also accept the later works based on it by Nagarjuna, Asvaghosa, Vasubandhu and others, as well as Amidism or the Pure Land School, which they know to be the form of meditation most easily accessible to the majority.



Under this chapter it is dealt with the actual situation of Buddhism in VietNam seen from the standpoint of the General Buddhist Association of Viet-Nam. This Association, as compared with other coexisting groups, is by far the most important, the best organized, the only dynamic and also the only one that is officially recognized as being fully qualified to represent the millenary Buddhism of the country. For these purposes, it would not be necessary to mention further, still it is the only organization that reflects faithfully the genuine picture of the Vietnamese Buddhism.

Moreover, it should be noted that the General Buddhist Association of Viet-Nam (G.B.A) is a menber of the World Fellowship of Buddhists since the foundation of this latter in 1950 at Colombo. It has thus attended several international Buddhist conferences and is in good relation with numerous Buddhist countries in the world.

Organization.- Under the GBA's authority and general direction, are grouped, on the one hand, 3 Sanghas numbering well over 3.000 monks and about 600 nuns, on the other hand, three communities of disciples which branch out their ramification as far as to remote hamlets. The figures of adherents to these three legally constituted about 1,000,000, to which it shoud be added an important number of no-associate disciples by as much as threefold.

The responsibility is assigned as follows: the Sanghas are responsible for all spiritual tasks and to the lay communities comes the duty of relieving the religious from all material preoccupations.

Propagation of the Dharma.- For the spiritual training of both associates and non associates, the propagation of the Dharma is organized on a large scale: weekly lectures in Saigon, periodical conferences in the provinces with movies utilization of radio – cars equipped with movies projectors, wide dissemination of magazines and vernacular pamphlets coming out of the GBA's press with a monthly rhythm of 30,000 copies. In addition, special courses are open, in Saigon and in its vicinities for commencing, to the intention of people who need a higher knowledge of the Doctrine. Activity of this kind is also assisted by the presence of numerous libraries provided with or without reading rooms.

Formation of cadres.- The foregoing activities raised the problem of cadres resulting from the increasing of cadres resulting from the increasing number of monastic schools (4 in 1956, 10 in 1962) and the creation of a Preaching Corps without mentioning the sending of young monks abroad to attend perfection courses (3 at Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, 4 in Japan).

In monastic schools, the educational program is mixed, there the students learn canonical texts and the official curriculum as well. Many of them are attending or already terminated their high study at the Saigon and Hue Universities.

Buddhist Youth.- Lay youths, aged from 8 to 20 years, are incorporated in a Youth Movement, known under the name of Gia dinh Phat tu  (Buddhist Family).

Etablished in 1940, this widespreading Movement aims to give these youths a religious education, susceptible to make them, later on, fervent buddhists, practitioners, capable of sacrifices for the maintenance and expansion of their parents' religion, to become honest citizens and useful to the society.

After 23 years of existence, this Movement, benevolently conducted by a 3,000 trainer Corps, numbers about 70,000 youngsters and unequally dividing into 1.000 groups from the city to the country. One fouth of these youngsters attend private, primary and secondary schools established by lay associations, and their brilliant success at different examinations began to attract the attention of the public.

Social welfare.- Other efforts have been realized in the social welfare sphere, for instance the installation of sanitary units (clinics, dispensaries, maternities). Among these, the clinic at the Xa loi Pagoda, GBA's head-office, is most important, where free medical cares are distributed to over 200 poor patients daily. It is conducted by a Doctor, member of the Association of Saigon, assisted by two young monks working as nurses and five specialists physicians for particular cases.

Two day-nurseries are functioning in Saigon and Dalat, where nuns gratuitously take care of the children from workers' families, without discrimination of race nor distinction of religion.

Every week on Thursday, a Committee of Dames visit either a hospital or a maternity in Saigon to bring comfort and material aid to needy patients.

To these social works, which are created, conducted and financed by members of lay communities, it should be added the special relief works contributed by both rich and poor to the benefit of victims of public disasters, more particularly fires which are frequent.




This brief statement on modern Buddhism in Viet-Nam shows the enormous efforts performed by both religious and laities of a country which is practically in war since 1940, to maintain not only their faith but also to develop and give it a vitality conformable to the fundamentals of Buddhism: the Compassion. This effort is more meritorious especially as it is fulfilled with their own means only without any external aid.

The social reformative tendency inspired by all activities of the General Buddhist Association is a hilarious initiative. It is quite sure that with the return of peace, more encouraging results will be obtained to the mightiest glory of Buddha.


To art, letters and philosophy (in Viet Nam)


Buddhism appears to have been introduced in Viet Nam towards the end of the second century by way of China, having been preceded by Confucianism and Taoism. Four hundred years later, when Viet Nam succeeded in freeing itself from Chinese domination, it progressed by leaps and bounds under the patronage of the ruling families. Since then, in spite of the antagonism of other rival religions, it continued to expand almost uniterruptedly both in extent as well as by conviction. During a particular epoch of history, from 968 to 1414 it was given the status of a State religion. Several emperors of the Ly and Tran dynasties even went so far as to practise what they preached: some as faithful followers, some as monks proper, having abdicated and chosen the monastic way of life. A curious fact, this, and it would indeed be interesting to study it without necessarily digressing from the subject of the present paper.

Vietnamese Buddhism continues to hold this supremacy in our own times, not in public life it is true, but in the hearts of a good majority of the people. It is therefore easy to understand how great an influence the Dharma of Buddha has had on the VietNamese mind, and the generous contribution it has made to the moral and spiritual training of a people whose gentleness and simple outlook on life predisposed them to accept the «Religion of Compassion.»

The dominant trait in the person of the Great Teacher made his teaching known and felt throught the country. The artist, the philosopher and the poet of those days imbibed it and many of those of modern times still continue to draw their inspiration from it.

An European author, tracing back the history of Chiese philosophy[2] wrote: «Buddhism was the first foreign influence which had a powerful bearing on the evolution of Chinese thought; and the effect of such an influence was to rekindle, stimulate and develop to the highest pitch not only the religion but also all the other spheres of its civilisation A casual glance, even by one who is almost completely unaware of the spiritual world of China, at the plastic arts of China shows how completely they stem from the spirit of Buddhism and how wonderfully they blossomed forth during the Buddhist period….» Without going too deeply into the matter, it can be said that this remark can apply word for word to the Vietnamese scheme of things as regards Buddhist influence in VietNam on architecture, sculpture and painting. Those examples which have withstood the ravager of time and the havoc of war testify to what a degree art developed under this benign influence, as also the interesting and profitable research work done by archoeologists prior to 1945.

But if in some countries and in cetain respects the artist rather than the monks is closer to the community of the faithful in interpreting their interests and daily pursuits, a view which is held by Professor Paul Mus, in Vietnam it is actually the literateurs on whom this task devolves, especially on the poets who are also philosophers of note. That – for reasons which are difficult to explain – is because if the Vietnamese is capable of expressing his wonder at the form and colour of things, cnanot really be deeply stirred except by vibrations of sounds. This tendency makes him an ardent lover of the theatre, of music which is not only instrumental or vocal, but of words whose music is magic to his ears; in other words, Poetry. Hence we seem to have been guided not towards Art but towards Letters which are the true repositories of thoughts – and Letters, only, assuming the rarity of literary works which are either lacking in philosophical reflections or which contribute nothing to the development of moral themes – if one is to know what good Vietnam has derived from her seventeen centuries of conversion to Buddhism.

In order to do that it is necessary to go back to the sixth century when the monastries both centres for the spread of Buddhism as well as schools for training men of letters. There were no public schools and besides there were few young men who were keen to study the Chinese characters apart from the Buddhist monks who were prompted by a desire to delve deep into Chinese translations for the essence of a doctrine which they found wonderful but which failed to satisfy them because they were conveyed orally up to then. The tradition was passed on from one epoch to another so that between 1010 and 1225 during the Ly dynasty it was almost impossible to find a poet with more than average talent outside the religious circle, all the Masters of Dhyana from the famous School of Meditation stemming from the themes developed by these poet-monks were generally beyond the comprehension of the general public, the work of these monks nevertheless contributed not a little towards raising the prestige of Buddhism which had already gained considerable popularity.

The position was reversed at the beginning of the fifteeth century. The literary figures who were supporters of Confucianism profited by the existing rivalry and supplanted the Buddhists by winning imperial trust and favours. This defeat however was but temporaty. The hold of Buddhism remaied firmly anchored in the minds and hearts of the people and soon became as strong as it had been in earlier times from the birth in China of syncretism whose source also gave rise to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The literary luminaries of Vietnam had perforce to submit to it without unduly protesting since after some initial hesitation they firmly admitted, like their Chinese predecessors, that the value of a true culture was based on the possession of the «three teachings.» The result of this for literature and philosophy was to enlarge their sphere of action to say the least.

However, great though the progress was which Buddhism had made during the period under review, as regards literature, it fell far short of that which was made later in the seventeeth and eighteeth centuries following the advent of «Chu-nom» a national calligraphic system which was invented to replace the Chinese characters. This was the golden age: authors and speakers spoke the same language; the obstacles provided formerly by syntax and foreign phonetics having been removed, the translation of thought into speech and writing became direct and rapid. This event provided an enormous stimulus to the spread of syncretism already referred to which it would be good to study.

It must first of all be remembered that even if there had been belief bases on prejudice no religious fanaticism existed either in China or in Vietnam to the point of provoking bloodshed as has happened in some countries. Furthuer, by seeking to know the adversary better in order the better to fight it, the adherents of each camp would have ended by noting existing lacunae in their doctrine and at the same time the identity of certain apparently contradictory declarations. For example, the Confucianist system while stating its belief in an all-powerful heaven, recogises man's personal responsibitity. Weak indeed are the nuances between its tenets and the Buddhist Karma that they cannot be reconciled or brought nearer to each other. Besides, Confucianist positivism, whatever one may say, is far too materialistic to satisfy the aspirations common to all men, who in the world is there who does not want to study the beyond, to lift the veil of «after-death» to question the future, and so many other questions to which the Sage's Teachings provide no answer. The poets of the old Vietnam were undoubtedly not indifferent to their metaphysical preoccupations. That is the explanation which appears most plausible to account for the fusion of thoughts of such different origins and which from the point of view of application is proof of the widest rationalism and very straitlaced logic by attributing to each of these religions, a sphere of influence which normally belongs to each. As a general rule, the doctrine of Confucius is responsible for governing earthly affairs (organisation and administration of the family, society, etc.) and for Buddhism and Taoism together to settle problems of a much higher order.

True it is that from the point of view of orthodoxy, such a mixture is hardly desirable but viewed from another angle it must be realised that it has produced – apart from appeasing the restless spirit – beneficial effects on minds and hearts, to say nothing of the fact that it has made it possible for the masses to understand the elementary ideas which each of the systems in combination needed to spread on their individual behalf.

A detailed study of the poems of the period written in «Chu-nom» – prose works were still very rare – will not fail to reveal the brighter side of that which unsuspecting persons would be tempted to refer to disdainfully as a doctrinal tangle or an unpardonable heresy. A good example of this is KIM VAN KIEU, a masterpiece which enjoys unrivalled popularity because of its lively musical quality, the beauty of its verse which is incomparable, and above all because of its rich treasure-house of thoughts from noble Buddhist inspiration. It would be no exaggeration to state that this poem which elaborates a theme which is akin to the life of the country, has of itself achieved much more than thousands of treatises on morals or philosophy as regards the good fight it led for the triumph of goodness, forgiveness, purity of thoughts, and loftiness of ideals. Even now a hundred years later and in spite of the attractions of modern culture, it still is for some a sort of encyclopoedia of the Vietnamese language or a sort of literary Bible, and for others a civic and moral code, and finally for the whole world a manual of elementary and practical Buddhism. Accepted by all social circles, loved by men and women equally, KIM VAN KIEU brought and still brings the light of Salvation to all by drawing attention to the inexorable Karma-ist reactions, by extolling interior peace promised to «those who root out passion from their lives, by putting men on their guard against evil reincarnations if they do evil.» All this may seem very commonplace; but what it asks and no more is simple minds for whom all religions appear to have been founded.

In Vietnam, Buddhist influence is not limited to the realm of Art, Letters and Philosophy. It inspires the theatre, serves as a basis for certain good, customs, inspires stories and legends, provides suggestions for popular songs and proverbs. If Buddhism is the source at which intellectuals quench their thirst it is also the breast which suckles spirits enamoured of spirituality; it is in its school of wisdom that passion-troubled spirits awaken; it is the Enlightenment of its illustrious founder that Vietnam is learning to find herself, to know herself; finally it is under the roofs of her monasteries that her devotees meditate devoutly and her unfortunates seek consolation.

Because Buddhism is so intimately bound up with the Vietnamese citizens, existence and daily life it has become a vital necessity.

It was a forein religion.

It is a national religion.




Từ Trung Hoa Phật giáo được truyền sang Việt Nam lối cuối thế kỷ thứ hai, nghĩa là cách nay trên một ngàn bảy trăm năm, sau Khổng giáo. Bốn trăm năm sau, liền khi Việt Nam chấm dứt quyền đô hộ của người Tàu, Phật giáo bắt đầu phát triển mạnh, nhờ sức hộ trợ của các quốc vương, và từ đó tiếp tục bành trướng không gián đoạn luôn cả về hai mặt rộng và sâu, dầu rằng đã phải có một đôi khi gặp sự tranh chấp đố kỵ cũa Khổng giáo và Lão giáo. Trải qua một khoảng thời gian lịch sử khá lâu, từ năm 968 đến 1314, Phật giáo còn được nâng cao lên đến hàng quốc giáo. Dưới hai triều Lý, Trần, nhiều vua đứng ra nêu gương tu hành tinh tấn, thậm chí có vị đã từ ngôi lánh tục, vào núi tham thiền. Chuyện nghĩ cũng lạ và giá không bị bắt buộc phải đứng yên trong phạm vi bài thuyết trình này, có lẽ tôi đã thử nghiên cứu trường hợp của các vị đạo tâm cao cả này và chắc sẽ có nhiều thú vị.

Như đã nói, Phật giáo thời bấy giờ chiếm một địc vị gần như độc tôn. Địa vị ấy, đến ngày nay, Phật giáo còn nắm giữ, đành rằng không phải công khai như thuở xưa, mà trong thâm tâm của một đa số rất quan trọng. Cứ vào đây mà xét thì dễ đoán biết ảnh hưởng của Phật giáo lớn lao như thế nào ở trên đất Việt và những gì quí báu mà Phật giáo đã cống hiến cho việc xây dựng nền luân lý và đạo đức của một dân tộc hiền hòa, chất phác, hình như sinh ra là để nghing đón đạo Từ bi.

Chính dưới nét đậm Từ bi này của con người đức Phật mà giáo lý của ngài được người dân Việt hiểu biết và tán thán. Các nghệ sĩ, hiền triết, văn nhân thời xưa, không ai là không nhuần thấm đạo Từ bi; đến nay vẫn còn đông số người trong ba giới này tiếp tục chịu ảnh hưởng gương xả thân cứu đời của Phật tổ.

Một tác giả Tây phương, khi vẽ lại con đường lịch sử của nền Triết học Trung hoa, có viết: "Phật giáo là ảnh hưởng ngoại quốc đầu tiên đã thúc đẩy mạnh bước tiến triển của dân tộc Trung hoa trên phương diện tâm lý, nhờ đó chẳng những tôn giáo mà các ngành khác của nền văn minh trong nước đều được phục sinh, vun bón và phát đạt đến cực độ. Bất luận ai, dầu là người chưa từng hiểu biết đời sống tinh thần của dân Trung hoa đi nữa, chỉ một liếc mắt qua những công trình tuyệt tác của nghề nặn tượng cũng nhận rằng nền mỹ nghệ xứ này đã bắt nguồn thâm sâu ở tinh hoa Phật giáo, cho đến nỗi khi Phật giáo đạt đến mức tối huy hoàng, thì mỹ nghệ cũng theo đà mà đơm hoa kết quả sum mậu lạ thường".1 Chúbng tôi tưởng lời nghiệm xét của tác giả có thể chuyển sang nguyên vẹn cho việt Nam, khỏi sửa đổi một điều nào, đối với khoa kiến trúc, điêu khắc và hội họa. Những chùa chiền, tranh tượng còn sót sau những tang thương do thời gian và chiến tranh gây ra, cũng như những công trình khảo cổ trước năm 1945, đều chứng tỏ ảnh hưởng to tát của Phật giáo trong địa hạt này.

Giáo sư Paul Mus cho rằng trongng về một vài phương diện, nhà nghệ sĩ thường gần các thiện tín hơn là nhà tu sĩ để diễn đạt những gì họ quí chuộng và lo nghĩ hàng ngày. Điều ấy hẳn đã vậy, nhưng ở Việt Nam, vai tuồng đó, nhà nghệ sĩ hình như đã nhường lại cho nhà văn sĩ, nhứt là thi sĩ, và những thi sĩ này cũng là những bậc triết gia xuất sắc. Sở dĩ như thế là vì dầu biết thích ngắm những cái dáng mỹ miều, những màu sắc cân đối, người Việt vẫn chỉ cảm xúc thật sự trong những rung động của âm thanh. Tại sao thế? Thật khó mà giải thích. Xu hướng đó làm cho người Việt rất mê thích ca nhạc, chẳng những lối nhạc của đờn sáo mà thôi, mà còn và nhứt là lối nhạc không kém du dương và uyển chuyển của câu thi lời phú. Vì vậy, chúng tôi thiết nghĩ, muốn biết nước Việt đã hưởng được những lợi lạc gì sau mười bảy thế kỷ quy y Phật pháp, cần phải hướng sự tìm tòi về nẻo văn chương hơn là về nẻo mỹ nghệ. Sách vỡ mới thật là kho tàng của tư tưởng. Và cũng không cần moi tìm ở đâu nữa, vì trong Văn chương đã có sẵn Triết học, bằng cớ là ít có một áng văn hay nào mà trong đó không lồng một vài triết lý hay luân lý.

Đến đây, cần phải đi lùi lại thế kỷ thứ sáu, lúc các am tự vừa là những nơi phát huy ánh sáng của đạo Phật, vừa là lò đào tạo các bực tao nhân mặc khác. Nên nhớ rằng thời ấy không có trường công, và trong đám thanh niên ít người học Nho, ngoại trừ nhà Sư. Camn thấy trong giáo pháp Phật đà có những đạo lý cao siêu, huyền diệu, các tu sĩ, bất mãn với lối khẩu truyền, bèn cố gắng học Hán tự để tham khảo kinh điển cho đến chỗ tinh vi. Đời này sang đời khác đã thành một cái lệ, kịp đến khoảng giữa năm 1010 và 1225, dưới triều nhà Lý, ngoài chốn Thiền môn, thật khó mà tìm một thi sĩ có tài. Thiền môn thật, vì các văn gia nổi tiếng thời ấy đều là những Thiền sư do các Tổ Thiền tông từ Trung hoa sang đào luyện. Tuy sâu xa khó hiểu cho đại chúng, văn phẩm của các ngài không vì lẽ đó mà không làm tăng uy thế của Phật giáo lúc ấy đã lan tràn gần khắp nơi.

Từ thế kỷ mười lăm, tình thế bị đảo lộn: Nho giáo đã thắng Phật giáo và được nhà vua tin dùng, ủng hộ. Tuy thất bại chốn triều trung, Phật giáo vẫn sống vững torng tâm hồn của dân chúng đã được mấy trăm năm giáo hóa, để rồi nhân phong trào "Tam giáo qui nhứt" ở Tàu mà phục phát một cách mạnh mẽ như trước. Các Nho gia hình như cũng nhận chịu phong trào ấy, cho nên sau một lúc do dự, đã cùng các bực tiền bối Trung hoa, cho rằng muốn có một thực học, cần phải tham bát tam giáo là Nho, Thích, Đạo. Nhờ phong trào ấy, mà phạm vi hoạt động của văn chương và triết học được nới rộng ra nhiều.

Những tiến bộ về mặt văn chương trong thời kỳ vừa nói thật đáng kể, nhưng chưa quan trọng bằng những kết quả thâu lượm được ở hai thế kỷ 17 và 18, sau khi "chữ nôm" được sáng tạo. Còn lúc nào thuận hơn cho việc truyền bá tư tưởng? Tác giả và độc giả chúng nói một thứ tiếng, tất cả những trở ngại vì âm thanh bất đồng, vì lối nói xuôi ngược do chữ Nho tạo ra, đều bị chữ nôm dẹp hết, thành ra sự học hỏi được dễ dàng và mau lẹ hơn một phần nào. Sự kiện ấy đã giúp rất nhiều cho công cuộc bành trướng phong trào Tam giáo qui nhứt.

Nay xin xét sơ phong trào này. Trước hết nên ghi rằng, tuy có sự tin tưởng sai khác giữa ba mối đạo, ở Trung hoa cũng như ở Việt Nam, chưa hề có một sự cuồng tín đến đổi gây họa đổ máu như ở một vài nơi trên thế giới. Lại nữa, trong khi tìm hiểu giáo lý của đối phương để dễ chiến thắng, mỗi đạo có lẽ đã thấy, tuy ngoài có chỗ trái ngược nhau, ba giáo tựu trung vẫn đồng trên một căn bản. Thí dụ: Nho giáo tin ở quyền thưởng phạt của Trời, nhưng cũng nhìn nhận trách nhiệm của người. Thế thì giữa thuyết này và luật nghiệp báo, sự sai khác quá mỏng manh khiến cho đôi bên không thể nào không dung hòa được. Vả lại, dầu ai nói gì đi nữa, cái thực dụng chủ nghĩa của Nho giáo quá thiên về vật chất cho nên không làm sao thỏa mãn được những khát khao về mặt thiêng liuêng, huyền bí là sự khao khát chung của nhân loại. Thật thế, thử hỏi trên thế gian này, dân tộc nào không tìm tòi xem biết coi cảnh bên kia thế giới là như thế nào, chết rồi sẽ ra sao, tương lai có những gì, v.v.., toàn là những câu hỏi mà không sao kiếm được câu trả lời dứt khoát torng giáo lý của họ Khổng. Các văn gia thi sĩ của Việt Nam chắc không tránh khỏi những thắc mắc vừakể . Thiết nghĩ có giải thích như thế này mới hiểu được nguyên ủy việc xáo trộn những tư tưởng rất cách biệt nhau ở chỗ nguồn cội. Đứng về mặt thực hành, phải nhìn nhận rằng chủ trương Tam giáo qui nhứt rất là hợp lý, vì bề ngoài là hợp mà bề trong có chia, và chia đây chỉ là chia phạm vi hoạt động và ảnh hưởng thế nào cho cân xứng với tính cách của mỗi đạo. Đại khái, Nho giáo thì lo về nhân sự, tu tề như thế nào để đi đến chỗ trị bịnh, còn Phật giáo và Đạo giáo thì lo giải quyết những vấn đề cao siêu hơn.

Đứng về mặt thuần túy mà xét, sự xáo trộn ba đạo như vừa nói, thật không phải là một việc đáng mong, nhưng nếu đứng về kết quả mà luận, thì thấy rằng nhờ có sự xáo trộn đó mà lòng người dường như bớt xao xuyến lo âu, tánh tình phong tục mới được tốt đẹp, chưa kể cái việc giúp cho quảng đại quần chúng thâm nhiểm được đôi phần những giáo lý phổ thông mà mỗi đạo cần phải truyền bá vì sự lợi ích riêng của chính mình.

Khảo cứu tỉ mỉ được những áng thi ca bằng chữa nôm – chúng tôi không nói đến những văn xuôi, vì thời bấy giờ loại văn này rất ít – chắc chắn sẽ làm sáng tỏ phương diện lợi lạc của cái mà người bất thức thường xem như một món "tả bính lù" hay như một tà giáo khó tha thứ. Ở đây chúng tôi xin phép dẫn Truyện Kim Vân Kiều làm thí dụ. Truyện Kiều là một áng văn vần tuyệt tác, không tiền khoán hậu, âm thanh tao nhã, thi vận êm đềm, khiến cho người đọc dễ cảm, huống chi từng hồi lại còn thêm những ý tứ cao siêu đượm nhuần hương từ bi giác ngộ. Thật không quá đáng mà nói rằng, với bao nhiêu nhân tình thế thái rất gần với đời sống xã hội thực tế đã được diễn tả thần tình trong đó, Truyện Kiều có một hiệu lực bằng cả ngàn sách luân lý hay triết học trong công cuộc chiến đấu để đem thắng lợi về cho Từ bi, Hỷ xả, Thanh cao. Ngay đến thời bây giờ, dầu xa cách hàng trăm năm và dầu dân trí có hướng về tân học, Truyện Kiều vẫn còn được kẻ này xem như một quyễn Việt ngữ bách khoa hay như một kinh văn tôn quí, người khác như một khuôn vàng thước ngọc cho việc xử thế tiếp vật. Còn đối với tất cả, có thể nói đó là một quyển Phật giáo yếu lược cho hạng sơ cơ rất là tiện lợi. Được mọi giai cấp xã hội nồng nhiệt đón tiếp, nam thích mà nữ cũng ưa, Truyện Kiều đã đem đến và còn tiếp tục thức tỉnh về luật nghiệp báo nghiêm minh, lòng hâm mộ sự an lạc của những tâm hồn vô dục và…. Khuyên bảo mọi người phải dè dặt, đừng làm thất nhân tổn đức mà phải chịu tái sanh trong đau khổ. Có người sẽ bảo: như thế thì quá tầm thường, chưa phải là Phật giáo. Vâng, nhưng những tâm hồn thơ ngây có đòi hỏi nhiều hơn đâu và chính họ mới là những người đáng để ý, vì hình như tại có họ mới có tôn giáo…

Trước khi chấm dứt bài thuyết trình ngắn ngủi này, xin nói thêm rằng, cho đến ngày nay, Phật giáo vẫn còn là nguồn cảm hứng cho kịch giới, nhiều thuần phong mỹ tục đều nhờ Phật giáo mà tồn tại, nhiều truyện xưa tích cũ chịu ảnh hưởng đạo Phật còn được người trong xứ ứ thích, nhiều ca dao, cách ngôn còn căn cứ tren6 nền tảng Phật giáo. Nếu Phật giáo là nguồn nước để giải khát cho hàng trí thức, Phật giáo cũng là giọt sữa để nuôi dưỡng những đạo tâm nồng nhiệt, là ngọn đuốc soi đường cho kẻ say mê lạc lối, là bờ giác đề cho người đắm đuối quay về. Cửa Thiền là nơi mà các bực tín tâm đến chiêm ngưỡng mà cũng là đám vườn xanh giữa bãi sa mạc chờ đón những ai quá khổ vì nóng bức.

Vì thấm nhuần đời sống hằng ngày của dân chúng một cách mật thiết như thế, đạo Phật hiện nay đã trở thành một nhu cầu tối yếu cho người dân Việt. Trước kia là một đạo của xứ ngoài, Phật giáo nay là một đạo của dân tộc.


[1] Original Text: Le Bouddhisme au Vietnam (in French, English, Vietnamese), published by q groupe of author’s friends, Xa-loi Pagoda, Saigon, 1962.

[2] E.V. zenker, History of Chinese Philosophy, Translated by G. Le Page, Payot, Paris, 1932.

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