The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
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Part Four: Buddhism under the Nguyen Dynasty (19th Century)





Having wandered for a long time to avoid being killed and to reorganize his force, Nguyen Anh, backed by a western capitalist expansionist force, at last managed to overthrow the Tay Son dynasty, then ruled by Nguyen Quang Toan. Nguyen Anh, ascended the throne and founded the Nguyen dynasty in 1802. The first year of this dynasty was also the second year of the 19th century, a century full of historic convulsions.

Though as a dynasty, the Nguyen was not as advantageous as the preceding dynasties, whose advent to power was either the result (the Le) or the demand (the Ly, the Tran) of the national liberation wars against foreign invasion. The complete victory over foreign invaders made it possible for the former dynasties to win the national confidence and support, thus creating a relative stability in their early years. In contrast, the Nguyen dynasty, seeking help from an outside expansionist force to win power, had become unrelated to and isolated from the people right at birth. The Nguyen dynasty practiced its rule over a larger territory with a greater population from the North to the South than any previous dynasty. Nevertheless, subsequent trouble arose out of the underdevelopment of a commodity economy, traffic inconvenience, the local tendency to separate from the central government, and the different-mindedness among various factions,—all of which could possibly lead to hostility.

Incapable of gaining a steadfast unity and for fear of the worst, the Nguyen had practiced an unprecedented arbitrariness in order to preserve its rule. In the socio-political field, the Nguyen dynasty established many policies characterized by a harsh despotism. The Nguyen Kings held the legislative, judiciary, executive and supervisory power. Nguyen Gia Long even made it a rule to practice "four no’s" (no prime minister, no conferring the title of First doctor in metropolitan examination, no Queen, no outside-of-Royalty princes). Minh Mang abrogated such great administrative zones as Bac Thanh and Gia Dinh Thanh, and the governorship there, and divided the country into 29 provinces under the Court’s direct rule. The Nguyen Kings massacred without mercy the hostile elements either evident or suspected, even courtiers with eminent records of service in the foundation of the Nguyen dynasty, etc.

In the field of culture, ideology and religion, the Nguyen dynasty sought for a doctrine, a religion favorable for its centralized arbitrariness. Confucianism with its theory of "Tam Cuong"1 and "Ngu Thuong"2 considering the king as the son of Heaven who symbolized power and reason, satisfied the Nguyen’s demand. The Nguyen dynasty sought to make Confucianism the ‘monolatry’ of the nation on the one hand, and lashed out at Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism on the other. Under the Nguyen, Catholicism was at times prohibited. Churches were demolished and the Catholic population imprisoned. Buddhism, as a traditional religion with no relation to foreign invaders and no idea to vie for social domination, was not covered by the Court’s penal law. Nonetheless, because of its popularity which could make the population deflect from the Court’s principles, it presented a persistent awkward problem with which the Nguyen had to busy itself.

By and large, the Nguyen tried to limit Buddhist growth by further managing Buddhist monks and nuns, forcing them to join social work, restricting Buddhist influence on the population, minimizing the pagoda-building, statue-coloring, bell-casting of the Buddhist population. Gia Long "ordered courtiers to examine all the district pagodas and to register names of the Bonze Superiors down to servants for submission, then gave district clerks an instruction that clergies aged 50 and over were exempted from heavy manual work but no exemption was applied to those aged below 50. Any shirker should be punished."3 Gia Long even banned the building of new pagodas, statue-coloring, bell-casting and ceremony organizing... "Recently some devotees to Buddhism have built terribly splendid many-storied pagodas, cast bells and colored sophisticated statues, organized ceremonies, held expensive festivals to worship the Buddha and to support bonzes to such an extent that they themselves have become emaciated in order to pray for fantastic blessings. Consequently, from now on only ruined pagodas can be repaired; as to the building of new pagodas, statue-coloring, and Buddhist festivals, all these are banned. Village headmen are supposed to inform the county official of names and addresses of true bonzes in order to know their number".4

What Gia Long had done was repeated by Tu Duc who ordered that "pagodas to worship the Buddha be repaired only in case of being ruined; new building, bell-casting, statue-coloring, ceremonies, and preaching, all these are banned. The village headman is supposed to make a report to his superior of the list of true bonzes among all the bonzes living in pagodas, in order to record their numbers."5 Tu Duc even went further by separating Buddhist activities from the Court’s activities. This was proved by the following story: "There had been no rain in Binh Dinh. The King’s representative of the province, Vuong Huu Quang, invited a monk to pray for rain in the provincial building. The rain having poured down, he told the story to the King. The latter said: "Prayer reciting should not be set as models for mandarins and population. I decide to fine you three months’ salary and from now on any prayer reciting or ceremony-organizing must be done at pagodas, not in the public building."6

Together with the promulgation of policies to control Buddhism, the Nguyen dynasty involved all the Court officials and many Confucian scholars in criticizing Buddhism with a view to toppling this religion in terms of religious doctrine. They attacked the Buddhist doctrine of predestined affinity and retribution, claiming it to be useless and unrealisable. Gia Long’s proclamation on the building of village regulations to the Northern population pointed out that "he who worships the Buddha only prays for blessings. The Buddhist book reads, ‘It is predestined whom Buddha saves’. It is said (in books), ‘It is of no use to practice abstinence and to pray to Buddha without reverent care of one’s parents. It doesn’t matter to be absolutely loyal to the king if you fail to worship Buddha’. Consequently, the auspicious need no Buddhist salvation whereas the inauspicious can by no means be saved by Buddha. Take some examples. Muc Lien, who had attained full prajna and became Buddha, failed to save his mother; one so devoted to Buddhism as Tieu Dien could not save himself, let alone the disloyal, the undutiful who don’t know the king in the presence of the Buddha,..these latter desert their parents to pray to the invisible!7 [Buddhists say] ‘Human life is predestined’. Thus misfortune cannot be relieved, nor can blessings be prayed for. Worshipping and praying all get nowhere..."8

In addition, Buddhism was considered as an evil damaging feudal ritualism and the practice of Confucian dogmas. Ngo Tong Chu, a high-ranking mandarin under the Gia Long reign, told the Crown prince Canh: "That the king opposes Buddhism is a wise measure; why are his representatives not wordier about this [grave matter]? ... I myself don’t hate Buddhist monks, yet the danger of Buddhism, Taoism is far greater than Yang Zhou and Mozi, and I can’t help talking about it."9

There was nothing new in the Nguyen rulers’ theory, yet mouthed by the power-holders and supplemented by the policies to control Buddhism, it resulted in an occasional decline of Buddhism and a lack of due veneration for monks and nuns. That explained the remark that since the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnamese Buddhism had entered its decadent period. "Since the changes in the country’s destiny, Buddhism had embarked upon its stagnancy, and then decadence."10 "From then onwards there had been no historical literature to prove a splendid period of Buddhist history."11

Objectively speaking, Buddhism at the time remained in a steady position. The above-mentioned policies and critical words somehow lowered its charisma, yet failed to stop Buddhism’s growing. Why did Buddhists neither petition the king to reconsider the royal unfair proclamations and ordinances, nor respond to the criticism against them? Could they not reason appropriately? Were they sure of themselves? Both are perhaps true. In fact, Buddhist doctrine kept influencing silently the spiritual life of many people from all walks of life. Buddhism managed to infiltrate into the places where Confucianism could not or even into the Royal palace where Confucius’ and Mencius’ doctrines represented the most important outlook on life. Queen mothers, Queens, princesses, and royal concubines in the palace were the greatest devotees to Buddhism. They worshipped Buddha for further blessings, for Buddhist salvation of their souls after their death. They themselves urged their husbands to build altars in their houses. The then famous Bonze superior Phuc Dien wrote: "Princes built small pagodas in their homes."12 They wanted to be close to Buddha, to recite their prayers regularly. Grand ladies demanded that kings organize ceremonies and pagoda festivals.

It was recorded that under the Gia Long reign "a great ceremony was organized in Thien Mu pagoda. Princess Ngoc Tu insisted on organizing a ceremony to offer for the deceased Monarch."13 While she was dying, she beseeched Ming Mang to "fulfill my unsatisfied desire of cutting my hair and entering Buddhist nunhood to worship Buddha."14

It was not that all Nguyen Kings opposed Buddha. Among them some like Gia Long, Tu Duc shunned and suspected Buddha but some believed in Buddha. Why? It was due to the circumstances. In the reign of Gia Long, the Buddhist opinion of royalty generated hostile elements whereas Tu Duc had to return to Buddhist orthodoxy to save the dynasty from retrogradation. Between the two-mentioned reigns, under the reigns of Minh Mang and Thieu Tri, the kings benefiting by the social stability were somehow able to pay attention to the spiritual with a view to showing their belief in generosity (and involving religion in consolidating their reigns).

Yet, the first obstacle facing Minh Mang and Thieu Tri was the long-established royal bias against Buddhism as "superstition" and "unaccepted rites," and the assessment of pagoda-building as "wastage of popular blood and effort". Next, Buddhist doctrine did not deal with "loyalty" and respect for the emperor’s power. It took time to overcome these obstacles. The words of the Monarchy gradually changed. First they allowed the repairing of pagodas, and the organizing of offering-ceremonies in pagodas in order to "follow the predecessors," to "have full blessing," and to "pray for long-life blessing"; then they assumed that Confucianism and Buddhism "both teach people to do good," that "it is unfair to consider Buddhism superstitious."15 Minh Mang sometimes had to explain his deeds in favor of Buddhism, which is illustrated by his words on the decision to organize a ceremony at Phat Tich (Sai Son) pagoda: "It is not to flatter Buddha," he said;16 or on his visit to Thanh Duyen Pagoda he inscribed his poem, "My impartial attitude towards Buddhism is expressed in this poem."17 Thieu Tri considered all Buddhist activities inevitable. Thieu Tri even composed poems to admire the pagoda scenery. It was recorded that "In the third year of Thieu Tri reign, a booklet of poems was published as a tribute to twenty wonders. The poem entitled "Giac hoang phan ngu" was engraved in a stele that erected on the ‘east of the pagoda."18 In the reigns of Minh Mang and Thieu Tri many pagodas were built, big sums spent repairing old pagodas, many bonzes were provided "gioi dao" and "do diep", many ceremonies which lasted several days were held.19

Besides the king, to different degrees mandarins and scholars showed their belief in Buddhism. Some who were high-ranking mandarins claimed themselves to be Bodhisattvas attending upon pagoda-building, stele-carving and scriptures-engraving. Some often visited the pagoda scenery to live with nature and to show their sympathy for Buddhism and for the clergy. Some were sympathetic towards some of Buddhism’s theories on human plight and on the way to release from it. Those who were sympathetic towards Buddhism were demonstrating a common opinion of the times, representing the majority of the population and leaving in words a deep impression of their outlook on life.

Among the broad masses of the people, a dynastic change by no means resulted in a change of belief. The regulations against Buddhism defined by the Nguyen dynasty worked only temporarily and in a limited space. The practice of "King’s law is inferior to village customs," the decentralized authority, and the backwardness of traditional society made the ordinances of the royal court rather ineffective and not well-known to the population. As under the preceding dynasties, the common people turned their thoughts toward Gautama Buddha and carried out their customary pilgrimages and worship. They put their faith in Buddha, who really became an idol in their mind and to whom they pledged eternal respect and veneration.

Every year, on the occasion of the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, regardless whether in the South or in the North of Vietnam, in the lowland or in the highland, belonging to Lin Ji or Cao Dong sect, people went in great numbers to pagodas for worshipping. When there, they would pay their homage to Buddhas, present their sorrows and griefs, and pray to Buddhas for favors. When returning home, they would feel released from their worries and fully satisfied as if their wishes had been fulfilled. They were content with making such visits to pagodas all their lives. It seemed that such things could inspire people with renewed enthusiasm, more hope and confidence in life so as to have enough strength to tide them over difficulties and trials.

Completely devoted to the cult of Buddhas and placing all their faith in them, the people would consider the making of contributions to pagodas’ funds as an obligation which they fulfilled voluntarily and joyfully. The bonzes residing at pagodas would be held responsible for recording the names of donors on the bells, inscribing them on the stele or writing them in the genealogies, to say nothing of doing religious services for the donors when the donors happened to die. For these reasons, donations given by the inhabitants to pagodas kept increasing with time. With the good heart of the people, many pagodas and temples were built anew, and the damaged ones quickly restored. All these made Pham Quy Thich, a Confucian scholar living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, to become jealous and testy. He wrote a literary composition and had it engraved on the surface of a new cast pagoda bell as follows: "You don’t know what the villagers do! They accumulate money to enrich themselves. They do that not for the interest of anybody else: when they are requested to donate property and money to pagodas, they do it of their own free will. They fear to be outranked [in this] by others. Even the poor people, who can hardly make both ends meet, are quite happy to give some coins, some bowls of rice without hesitation!"20 Under the Nguyen dynasty pagodas and temples mushroomed and developed into a whole system comprising all types and dimensions and ranging from home and village to countrywide pagodas and temples. Particularly in Hue imperial city, the Thap pagoda was repaired and enlarged and became an architectural beauty in the city. The Thien Mu pagoda underwent many repairs and meliorations and was the place of frequent religious services and ceremonies attended even by the king and many high dignitaries of the Court. Other pagodas such as Giac Hoang, Dieu De, Thanh Duyen, were the objects of deep care from the king who usually came for the purpose of visit and worship. South Vietnam was then famous for its population’s faith in Buddha. There was the saying: "People in Gia Dinh area are greatly devoted to the cult of Buddha" Pagodas and stupas had been built everywhere. The emigrants who came in big numbers from other localities in the country to South Vietnam for the purpose of changing wasteland into cultivated areas, undertook to build their own pagodas in order to pray to Buddha for blessings, for bringing them comfort and happiness and for helping them to make a good living there. The Buddhist clergy was particularly numerous in the reigns of the Nguyen Kings. Big pagodas had each as many as thirty persons. Small pagodas were staffed at least by some five to seven persons. Every day, the bonzes said prayers three or four times, in the morning, afternoon, evening and at night. The prayer books they often used in religion services were Chu Kinh Nhat Tung Vo Luong Tho, Quan Vo Luong Tho, A-Di-Da, Dieu Phap Lien Hoa, etc. Among the Buddhist clergy, there were a number of persons who "shirked state duties" or escaped the military and other services imposed on them by the court but in general they were devoted to the cult of Buddha and played the role of intermediary between the common people and Buddhas. They enjoyed much confidence and respect from Buddhist believers.

The above-mentioned facts showed that Buddhism under the Nguyen dynasty constituted a particular stage with many traits different from those in the previous times. The difference affected many aspects, ranging from the system of pagodas and the way of organizing the Buddhist clergy to the forms of rituals, the relationship between the Court and the Buddhist clergy, the religious mentality, etc. That difference originated from the interaction between the policy of the Nguyen court and Buddhism at that time. On the one hand, the court attempted to bring Buddhism into the sphere of its ideological conception. On the other, endowed with a world outlook of its own and rather strong traditional belief, Buddhism strove its best to break from the court’s bonds and sought for itself an independent way of development, and furthermore regulated the conception and attitude of the court. This is a stage which cannot be ignored.

In the course of its development, Buddhism under the Nguyen dynasty could do a lot of work, get much credit and play an important role in its long course of development. That role found expression in the following aspects:

Buddhism continued to be a thousand-year-old creed and thereby maintained a cultural tradition bearing the Buddhist character of the nation: pagodas and temples remained, as always, the very places where festivities and games, customs and practices in rural areas, were held and displayed. In those places, people would see not a few degenerate customs and practices but they would also remark not a few talents and skills among the participants. It could be said that numerous artists became mature as a result of their participation in festivities and games. It should be noted that the five commandments of Buddhism (against murder, theft, lust, lying and drunkenness) were advice and at the same time a moral teaching: if these five commandments of Buddhism are observed, then man’s spiritual behavior and the relation between man and man becomes much finer. Notions of Buddhism such as "good finds good", "retribution", "good is repaid for good, evil for evil," though having a ‘mystical’ character, constitute nonetheless a good faith and a firm foundation for people to do good acts and avoid bad acts. And that should help create equilibrium in the relations between man and man in a society of agricultural inhabitants. By having a good faith in Buddhism, the inhabitants under the Nguyen dynasty could maintain and develop to a certain degree the fine traditions of the past, and moreover they could have confidence in themselves to overcome difficulties and sufferings caused by the harsh rule of the Court and by natural calamities.

Under the Nguyen, a network of pagodas and stupas was put ‘under restoration’. In North Vietnam, the pagodas named Dau, But Thap, Phat Tich, Vinh Nghiem, Keo, Sai Son, Tay Phuong, etc., were either brought back to their original form or put ‘under repair’: if this were not the case, they would have been destroyed or ruined by the tropical climate and humidity. In central Vietnam, especially in the capital of the Nguyen feudal dynasty, a series of pagodas and stupas were built which bore both the colors of the ancient Viet culture, thus creating a rather new architectural style. In South Vietnam, the Thap pagoda put under reconstruction in this period received many particular traits of the Southeast Asian culture. The pagodas and temples left over by the Nguyen dynasty contribute an invaluable asset for our country. The people of today may see through them and know more about the talents and skills as well as the righteousness, the way of thinking, psychology and the general intellectual character of the past generations of the Vietnamese people.

A series of holy scriptures was then collected and printed. A number of persons were especially appointed to do this work and a number of pagodas were specializing in engraving and printing these books and in storing wooden printing plates (the Bo Da, Tu Quang, Lien Tong… pagodas in North Vietnam, and other pagodas in Hue imperial city). Buddhist prayers, commandments, genealogies and communications, stories... were published in rather big numbers, surpassing by far the number in the preceding dynasties. Such sutras as Hoa Nghiem, Phap Hoa, Duoc Su, Dia Tang, Tam Thien, Phat Danh, Dai Du Da... and such "records" as Thien Uyen Tap Anh Ngu Luc, Ke Dang Luc, Tam To Thap Luc21 were printed in this period. With these publications, Buddhist believers had the conditions to gain an insight into the origin of the appearance of Buddhism as well as other Buddhist, teachings and principles and to get rid of wrong thinking about this religion.

With a view to getting a contingent of bonzes and nuns well trained in doctrinal know-how and in virtue and faith, the Court of Nguyen kings had many a time organized training courses for bonzes and nuns and exerted repeated control over the latter’s virtue and generosity, to say nothing of many campaigns of granting honorary titles and diplomas to the Buddhist clergy and organizing oath- taking ceremonies for the latter. That way of doing thing by the Nguyen kings aimed first and foremost to reduce the number of bonzes and nuns in permanent service at pagodas and eliminate those who entered into the religion for the sole purpose of evading military service or hard work imposed on them by the authorities, and of leading activities in opposition to the royal court. But apparently, they said that these measures were taken for the purpose of reorganizing the Buddhist religion and bringing it into line with the policy of the court. The examinations conducted for the selection of good bonzes and nuns, the conferment upon them of honorary titles and diplomas as well as their nominations to leading posts brought the pagodas to a rather good level of organization and made them fully meet the required standards. Bonzes and nuns were more qualified in doing religious services and other rituals. That was a situation different from under the Le-Trinh dynasty in the North or from that under the Nguyen and the Tay Son dynasties in the South of Vietnam.

Apart from that, Buddhism under the Nguyen dynasty still produced a deep effect on poetry and songs and on writers and poets who concerned themselves with the country’s situation and human livelihood, and helped the latter to have a particular outlook and a special attitude toward the society and human life. The works written by them not only positively contributed to Vietnam’s literary history but also added new pages to the history of Vietnam’s Buddhism when interpreting Buddhist doctrine or taking Buddhism as an ideological basis for their poems and songs.



1. The three mainstays of social order (King and subject, father and son, husband and wife).

2. The five basic virtues (benevolence, righteousness, civility, knowledge, loyalty).

3. Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien (DNTCB, a record of political convulsions of the Viet country), Vol.2, History Publisher, Hanoi, 1963, p. 289.

4. Op. cit., Vol. III, p. 167).

5. Op. cit., Vol. XXVIII, Social Sciences Publishing House, 1973, p. 136.

6. Op. cit., Vol. XXVII, p. 376.

7. Op. cit., Vol. IV, History Publisher, Hanoi 1963, p. 166.

8. Op. cit., Vol., IV, p. 167.

9. Op. cit., Vol., II, p. 289.

10. A summary of Vietnamese Buddhist History by Superior monk Thich Mat The was reprinted by Minh Duc, Publisher-Saigon 1960, pp. 215-216.

11. Ibid.

12. Thien Uyem Ke Dang Luoc Luc (A book of continuous stories about veteran bonzes) by Bonze Superior Phuc Dien, Library of the Han-Nom institute. VH. Vol. 9. p. 45.

13. DNTLCB, Vol. V, p.112; .

14. DNTLCB.Vol. VI., p. 234

15. DNTLCB, Vol. XVII., p. 54.

16. DNTLCB, Vol. XXII., P.154.

17. Op. cit., p. 156.

18. Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi (The reunification of the Viet country), Vol. I, Social Sciences Publisher, Hanoi, 1969, p. 71.

19. Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien, Vol. V, XVII, XXVI.

20. Pham Qui Thich, Pham Lap Trai Thi Van Lap (Collection of poetry and literature of Pham Lap Trai). (Book in Chinese characters).

21. See bonze Phuc Dien, Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc (Text in Chinese characters and engraved in wooden planks), Library of the Han-Nom Institute. VH. Vol. 9. pp. 41-44.

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