The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
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The majority of noted poets in the first half of the nineteenth century were Confucian scholars. Their knowledge, their raison d’être and the orientation for their social activities depended for the most part upon this scholarly background. Five to six centuries ago, scholars already took Confucianism as their main subject of learning: Buddhism and Taoism were excluded from the educational system as far back as under the late Tran dynasty. The Nguyen court raised Confucianism to the position of a national doctrine so it should be said that scholars at the time were deeply penetrated with the knowledge of Confucius, Mencius, Cheng, Zhou. Confucianism is a doctrine concerned with the principles of true loyalty to friends, relatives, rules etc… and that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated. This doctrine points out the five moral obligations, namely between king and subject, father and son, husband and wife, in-between brothers and friends; and the five virtues, namely benevolence, righteousness, civility, knowledge, loyalty. That is the conception of man’s ethics rooted in its origin from God. That is the ideology advocating that man’s fate is determined by God and that human beings must abide by the laws of God. That means before entering into active life, those scholar-poets should have been equipped with a Confucian system of world outlook and outlook on life.

Entering into an active life means for any scholar the getting of a mandarin’s official appointment because Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, had said: "A man who studies hard to gain a deep knowledge is expected to become a mandarin". Given the fact that only by becoming a mandarin could a scholar have the possibility of bringing into full play his talent and ability, be provided with the opportunity to enlighten the king on how best to govern the commoners and bring favors and benefits to the inhabitants so as to satisfy man’s will to keep a well-arranged home and properly govern the country. One more important thing is that only by making oneself a mandarin can one have both "honors" and "privileges". Those scholar-poets at that time made no exception to this rule. The great poet Nguyen Du, after weighing the pros and cons, made up his mind to join the mandarin class. He enthusiastically depicted the characters of his long novel in verses titled "Kieu" from their passing examinations to their joining the mandarin class, saying that without passing examination, one never has the opportunity to become a mandarin. He wrote in the Kieu novel verses such as the following: "Successfully passing the examination, Vuong and Kim could figure in the list of laureates on the same day". The scholar Nguyen Cong Tru expressed his sentiments in a rather clear manner in the following verses: "Once living in this world, one should gain a reputation to be worthy of the land of birth" (in his poem "Self-opinion while on the way to the examination"), "Once gaining favors and honors from the king one must take pride in them and have them shown on great national occasions" (in his poem "Self-opinion,"). The scholar Cao Ba Quat considered getting a pass in court competition, examination and obtaining a mandarin’s post to be a quite obvious philosophy. He said: "On entering into life with much literary knowledge, I don’t appreciate such behavior as to escape from glory and honors...". Their ideal about entering into an active life differed greatly from the viewpoints on human life and on release from suffering, as preached by Buddhism.

Those scholars gained more or less the honors and privileges as they wished. They were appointed by the Nguyen court to hold different positions and were entrusted with heavy responsibilities. In order to show their gratitude to the king for the honors and privileges bestowed on them they deemed that it was their duty to do their utmost to serve the court and the dynasty, to strive for the fulfillment of the assignments given them and this in defiance of difficulties and trials. That is why, irrespective of the post held, either commanding troops for an expedition or going abroad on a mission as king’s special envoy, they would make every effort to fulfill the tasks entrusted by the king to them as a mark of reciprocating the favors received. That sense of responsibility and that conduct of theirs demonstrated that they acted as world-engaging people of Confucianism.

However, in their poems and literary works, as well as in their ideas, they felt somewhat related to Buddhism. They drew much inspiration from Buddhism and took the themes for their works from pagodas, from Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and found that their way of thinking was much similar to Buddhist circles. This seemed to be difficult to understand and to be somewhat contradictory. But all things considered, there were far-reaching causes for such happenings and not a few ways necessarily leading to them.

There was no need to search for the cause because it was rather conspicuous... it found expression in their life and work. It was related to their work of creation in making poems and writing literary works, that is to say, related to their mood of entering the world and their devotion to life. It should be said that pagodas were at that time not only places of worship in which people put all their faith but also scenic spots which could meet the aesthetic sense of man. Pagodas were usually built in an environment of famous landscape where wonderful scenery of river and mountain, trees and forests was to be seen.

The air space itself offered many wonderful sights. Pagodas constituted architectural beauties made by man’s creative labor. Pagoda’s roof, its bell-tower, its statues of Buddha, ornamental plants, etc., were highly stylized, representing different things in artistic forms and embodying the conception of the outlook on life and the aesthetic sense and the burning thirst for beauty of many talented artists. They could have great attraction for the visitors coming from every corner of the country who found in them the objects of their admiration and enjoyment. Writers, poets, irrespective of their ideological and artistic trends, came to visit the pagodas in ever growing numbers to admire their surrounding beautiful sights, their ornaments and architecture, and also to draw inspiration from them.

For that reason they felt more eager than commoners and even than Buddhist believers to frequently visit and keep a close contact with pagodas. Pagodas were usually built in places with peaceful scenery, and isolated from the noise and tumult of the city, which would make the visitors feel ease of body and mind. The feudal ethical behavior put man under too much constraint which caused him sometimes to feel it very hard to endure; he found it necessary for him to have some rest and recreation to ‘let loose’ the mind. In addition, a mandarin had a rather strained life coupled with moments of glory and shame, in the course of exercising his function and of promotion and demotion in his rank and grade, which made him disgusted with such an easy but too humdrum life and willing to escape from the profession he had chosen. He would regain a balance for his mind when visiting pagodas with beautiful natural sights, wonderful objects of cult and a good stylized architecture, which relieved his mind from his daily chores and worries.

Besides, it should be recognized that the Buddhist doctrine is better than Confucianism in terms of concern for man. Confucianism speaks only of hierarchy and order of precedence in society, whereas Buddhism deals with many aspects of life: existence and non-existence, having and having not, life and death, misfortune and luck... which are problems related to everyone’s life and at times occupy one’s thoughts and need a proper solution when the occasion arises. Buddhism still exhorts people to comply with the principles of compassion, benevolence, relieving one’s fellow-creature from suffering and pain, which are the guidelines in conformity with the mentality of the majority of the people who are inclined to give relief to the poor and suffering. Entrusted with the mission of serving the cause of man, the majority of writers and poets at that time would consider Buddhism to be a good means, a philosophical basis for them to have a full cognition of man and to better comprehend him. For that reason, they took Buddhism as a mainstay for calling upon their fellow countrymen to act as saviors of human sufferings.

Those were the reasons leading writers and poets under the Nguyen dynasty and making them have form connections with this religion. But their attitude toward Buddhism was not the same: it differed according to their political stand, their experience in life, their knowledge, their sex and age group This was evidenced by the following poets.

Nguyen Du (1766-1820) was a great poet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. His works1 either written in Han (Chinese character) or in Nom (Vietnamese demotic script), have several parts dealing with Buddhism, in which there were recorded stories of noble hearts, and miserable lives and their denouement. These works deserve to be largely introduced to readers. A Confucian scholar like so many others, Nguyen Du fully recognized his feudal relations and knew too well the rulers’ requirements to propagate the feudal order. He was fully aware of the function of poetry and songs as defined by original Confucianists: the function was to inculcate morals into the people’s mind ("Van di tai dao"). But Nguyen Du did not pay proper heed to the above requirements. On the contrary, he was consciously using poetry to express the innermost feelings of those men whose fates had made a deep impression on his mind and thought.

Living in the period of rapid transition between the three dynasties of Le Trinh,Tay Son,Nguyen Gia Long, Nguyen Du continually witnessed many pitiful plights of the population, many changes from wealth to poverty, from luck to misfortune, from success to failure... He had the opportunity to keep in close touch with the people and to know about their ups and downs in life, and all these gave him much food for thought. Through what he had seen and heard, he could not look upon and judge things as the men of the past generations had done and thereby his thinking was not like his contemporaries.

In the many plights presented to his mind, Nguyen Du paid only attention to the miserable people, to those troubled by misfortune and unhappiness, - irrespective of their different destinies. In the past there had been people committing monstrous climes against their fellow-countrymen, but with his immense humanitarianism, Nguyen Du forgave them their past criminal offenses and had no hard feelings toward them as others did. And more than that, he still felt sorrow for their actual trouble and sufferings, he had pity on those who lived alone in an out of-the-way place and had no support whatsoever from their relatives and compatriots. He deemed it was the duty of the inhabitants to help those poor people in trouble and to bring them back to a life of happiness.

Among the miserable people Nguyen Du gave special attention to and was particularly impressed by the lot of talented and beautiful women predestined to live a miserable life. Those women, though coming of different family backgrounds, were similar to one another in terms of talent and beauty, but it was their lot to suffer great misery and to feel deep grief and sorrow in their heart. Among them, there were women who acted as a songstresses in Thang Long (present-day Hanoi) or in the region of Guangling, who became concubines of a Tang emperor in China, and particularly noted was the case of Thuy Kieu, a girl famous for her talent and beauty, who, coming from a well-to-do family, was driven into a bawdy-house where she served both as songs- tress and prostitute. The misfortune and suffering of this girl which in any case should not have happened to her had deeply impressed Nguyen Du and made him thoughtful about her lot. Are such persons blamable or worthy of pity? Should they be neglected or be taken into consideration?

In Nguyen Du’s opinion, the people at large seemed to show little interest in them and held them rather cheaply. He wrote the following sentences in the funeral oration addressed to the songstress of Thang Long:"In society, nobody feels pity for the people with bad destiny; in their tombs ill-fated women regret their having come into being." The talented woman in the Guangling region was victim of a glaring injustice, which she was disposed to suffer by herself ("Doc Tieu Thanh Ky"). Then, the royal concubine with a bewitching beauty finally suffered an unjust death before the court,"nobody daring to uphold her cause and redeem her bewitching beauty in place of a thousand years in the tomb."

Afterwards came the story of Thuy Kieu, a woman with both talent and beauty, which found expression in the following verses: "She is second to none in beauty and so is her talent"; but she had to drag on her life of prostitution and could not escape from it. Nguyen Du wrote the following sentence to depict Thuy Kieu’s life of prostitution: "One incident succeeded to another which made Thuy Kieu enter two times into bawdy-houses and wear for two times a prostitute’s dress." Nguyen Du found those women only worthy of pity but not deserving any blame, only worthy of public concern but not deserving any resentment. He saw that society displayed an unjust attitude toward them. He deemed it was his duty to search for the origins of those injustices. Nguyen Du put the blame on the "Creator", on God. By the words uttered from the mouths of various characters in the novel, he indirectly attributed the cause of ill-fate of those women to the Creator, which was proven in the following verses: "By boldly making a leap in the dark, shall we see how the Creator will arrange our lot?"

And more than that, he came to a generalization of his views as follows: "It is the Creator who decides upon everything in this world; when He has the power to give birth to a person, He can model him as He wishes; He may either involve him in the turmoil of life, or raise him to a high position in Society." But who is God? Where does He live? Nguyen Du could not explain and give answers to these questions. And for that reason he would not even believe in his explanations if he could give some. So he must ponder over it still more carefully. He searched through traditional ideas and found that the Buddhist philosophy proved to be a most sensible and convincing one, and it conquered his mind. Nguyen Du’s works bore in many parts the color of Buddhism by referring a lot of the concepts and notions of the Buddhist doctrine for elucidating life. Such concepts as suffering, predestined affinity, predestined love, release from suffering, lusts of the flesh, good heart, etc., which were words coming from the Buddhist philosophy and were frequently used in his poems and verses. And in him appeared a clear-cut conception of Buddhism.

It should be said that the Buddha whom Nguyen Du referred to in his verses was Buddha of the Ch’an (Dhyana) sect. That Buddha could be found right in man’s mind and in man’s heart. He wrote the following verses in Kieu: "Kindness is in our mind; Good heart is much better than talent"; and in his funeral oration Nguyen Du addressed to the souls of the dead: "He who takes Buddha as a guide for his action, will be without a twinge of remorse when going through rebirth."

Like other persons following the precepts of the Ch’an sect, Nguyen Du considered that nothing was in existence in this world, and that what was called a thing was but a product of man’s imagination. He said: "A mirror is not a polished surface reflecting images, nor is a bodhi tree a tree in itself."

He still advocated the preaching of religion without recourse to writing and tongue. He said: "Finally it is found that a prayer-book without writing is a genuine one." To be compared with other Ch’an sects in the Orient, Nguyen Du’s view belonged to the "Enlightenment Dhyana" sect. However, the conception of Buddha held by Nguyen Du was not consistent because he did not fully grasp the ideas of the Ch’an sect. Believing the notion that Buddha is the mind, in reality there could be no possible explanation of man’s life, and thereby this notion could not in any way meet the requirement of releasing man from his suffering. So in Nguyen Du’s conception, there were the elements of Pure Land and Tantrayana. The following extract would suffice to demonstrate that fact: "Thanks to Buddha’s supernatural power the souls of the dead are free from suffering, Buddha’s aureole saves them from pains and worries, rallying them from the four corners of the universe; Buddha’s aureole sets their minds at peace, without worry and hatred for one another." These sentences were found in the "Funeral oration addressed to the souls of the dead" written by Nguyen Du. The upper part bears the nuance and tonality of Pure Land. The lower part contains the nuance and tonality of Tantrayana.

Apart from the above traits, Nguyen Du’s ideas still bore the particular features of the traditional ideology, which consisted in conciliating the ideas of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism: thus the author made a large use of concepts and notions of one religion to replace those in other religions. Here and there, in Nguyen Du’s words and phraseology one finds "dang thien" (Confucianism) interchangeable with "dang Phat dai" (Buddhism), and words such as "nhan duyen" and "tuc nhan" (Buddhism) treated as equivalents of "tien dinh" and "menh dinh" (Confucianism); even the words "co duyen" (Buddhism) in Nguyen’s work come to mean "co troi", "van troi", etc. As a consequence, some people said that Nguyen Du had mistaken one religion for another. But in reality, Nguyen Du was making very ‘consciously chosen’ mistakes and expressing a notion fully shaped in his mind.

Though producing many arguments taken from Buddhism, Nguyen Du was unable to give explanation about man and his fate. He did not know that unfortunate fates were derived from the social regime, from the domination by the ruling forces at that time. That is why he could derive consolation when he said: "Kindness is in our mind" and "Good heart is far better than talent". He expressed personal ideas which were harassing him for a long a time: "How painful is the fate of the woman, She is born to suffer and nobody knows the reason why."

Nguyen Du passed away but he left such questions in his works as: "How to make man get rid of suffering?", "How to realize justice in society?" The generations succeeding him have found the proper answers to these questions.

Contemporary with Nguyen Du under the Nguyen dynasty was Nguyen Cong Tru (1778-1858), a poet with a particularly vigorous characteristic. He had a strong inclination to Confucianism but he had also a tendency toward Buddhism, that is to say, starting from Confucianism he oriented himself toward Buddhism. When entering into his active life, Nguyen Cong Tru was quite eager to attain both honors and fame. He did not conceal his thinking. He said: "When born in this world, it would be not worth living if one had neither honors nor fame", or "A man’s will to make his way in life is to contrive to attain honors and fame", or "Fame is badly needed to stand in society". In order to get honors and fame as he wished for, Nguyen Cong Tru pursued both civil and military careers in relation to promotion or demotion in rank and grade in the course of life. And he succeeded to some extent in carrying into effect his wish. But more than anyone else, Nguyen Cong Tru was affected by the seamy side of life. He felt deeply the changes to bad fortune when engaging on the path of fame and honors. He knew better about the fact that honor often went along with shame, that the character of the people living under the feudal regime was devious, greedy and lacking in benevolence and righteousness. This made him disgusted with life. A man with a dearly defined morality such as Nguyen Du finally uttered the following words: "Nobody can understand well the differences between the sweets and the bitters of life."

He considered that Confucianism would help him attain honors and fame but this was really a string tying man down, preventing him from developing his own ideas and feelings and many a time making his life under the feudal regime very oppressive. On the other hand, he found that honors and fame would have very little significance if compared with the insecurity they bring at the same time. He often said: "Honors and fame are meaningless in this world", "It is not yet known whether our body even exists or not, so why pay too much attention to honors and fame?" And then he made up his mind to come to Buddha which found expression in the following phrase: "It would be better to say greetings to Amitabha Buddha."

But the Buddhist doctrine could not entirely win his heart and mind. He still had a deep attachment to worldly affairs and human life. Thus, he could not give up Confucianism which was a religion dealing chiefly with worldly affairs and human life. Finally, he placed his faith in both Confucianism and Buddhism and found out some unity between Confucianism and Buddhism in order to make it serve as a basis for his faith in both religions. He was of the opinion that both religions would last forever and supplement each other.

Another famous poet in the first half of the nineteenth century was Cao Ba Quat (1809-1855), many of whose poems dealt with pagodas and Buddha. Through these poems, people would find out many particular traits in his impressions and feelings and in his mentality toward Buddhism. Those traits contributed to popularizing the spiritual aspects of Buddhism during that epoch. Unlike Nguyen Du, and even different from Nguyen Cong Tru, Cao Ba Quat viewed Buddhism with an atheistic and practical eye. He found that there were many absurdities in Buddhist rites. His poem titled "Buddha with a broken arm" was a piece of satirical writing by which he would like to express a simple and obvious reality: Buddha had a broken arm, he could not save even himself, how could he profess to save the living creatures; when he could not help himself, how could he profess to help others.

He was skeptical about the supernatural quality of Buddha and put a big question mark upon the people’s faith in him. He made the following poem to describe Buddha satirically: "Believers say Buddha has a body made of diamond, but before my eyes Buddha has a broken arm. He cannot help himself, how can he help other people. The monk presents Him with fruits and other gifts which would make Him only indulge in more errors." But by this poem Cao Ba Quat did not intend to negate Buddhism. It was not easy to deny a traditional religion and moreover this could not be done simply with the aid of a visual fact. To do this, many other facts were needed at that time, but they were not yet available. That is why he still showed much attachment to this religion. From the following aspects, people would be able to gain an insight into Cao Ba Quat’s mentality.

From the aspect of worldly affairs and of human life, Cao Ba Quat found himself to be badly in need of visiting pagodas, and of keeping in close touch with the Buddhist religion. First and foremost, he made frequent visits to pagodas for the purpose of admiring the beauty of nature sights around them. For instance, when visiting Con Son pagoda, he felt deeply impressed by the beautiful scenery there and wrote the following verses:

In the fog the space seems to be dim and immense,

Mountain succeeding mountain making a beautiful panorama;

The visitor with a gourd of wine in hand strolling here and there under the vast sky


Beheath Thau Ngoc bridge hang numerous wild flowers;

In Thanh Hu cave birds are twittering all the day.

(Con Son Hanh)

Among the many principles of Buddhism, Cao Ba Quat sympathized with the principle of uncertainty and insecurity, but his view was not entirely like that of Buddhism. The Buddhist religion regards everything as uncertain, insecure and considers all things to be continually changing in the current of life and bearing the character of nihility. As for Cao Ba Quat, he held the view that human life was uncertain and insecure but the natural sights were something habitual. Maybe he found that natural sights were changing too, but slowly and if compared with the rapid change of human life, it seemed that natural sights did not change at all. Due to his perception of uncertainty and insecurity of life, Cao Ba Quat had the intention to select for himself another way to go ahead, different from the mandarin’s career he has then pursuing. Cao Ba Quat only made up his mind to choose another way to go in his life but in reality he could not proceed further toward Buddhism: his personal traits were not in conformity with the Buddhist creed and also Buddhism had not yet enough power to convince him to follow it.

Different from the thinking of the above-mentioned poets, the poetess Ho Xuan Huong (in the early nineteenth century) who was famous for her poems written in Nom (Vietnamese demotic script), did not have any sympathy with Buddhism. Her poetry often touched upon the seamy side of Buddhism, and even lashed out against Buddhism... She scoffed at this religion in three aspects: religious life, pagodas and monks. She held that the religious life was a heavy one. She wrote a poem dedicated to the religious life as follows:

The religious life is as heavy as carrying a load of stones,

Why devote so much pain for so little favor?

Anyone who wishes to enter the Land of Buddhas

It would be better to deviate from that way.

She made fun of those monks who were slack in saying prayers but eager to court women. Her following verses denoted their character:

You are neither Chinese nor ours,

Your head is clean-shaven, your dress without clasps;

Before you, placed some glutinous rice cakes,

Behind you, found several voluptuous lay female believers.

Ho Xuan Huong’s scoffing at monks was somewhat too excessive but it would be necessary to understand her because this poetess was a woman with a practical mind who was strongly desirous to have a conjugal happiness while Buddhism required bonzes and nuns to lead a life of severe self-discipline and privation, let alone conjugal happiness. The phenomenon of Ho Xuan Huong was not typical in Vietnam’s literary history as well as in Vietnam’s Buddhist history. For the first time in history, a person used the form of literature to lash out at Buddhism. It should be said that she had been and remained the only person who criticized severely the religion. She constituted a particular phenomenon and apart from her, nobody else was to be found advocating such a viewpoint. So she did not symbolize the way of thinking of her contemporaries.

Through the above-mentioned poets, we realize that Buddhism under the Nguyen was not the object of full respect and veneration as it had been under the previous dynasties. The Ho Xuan Huong phenomenon and to some extent Cao Ba Quat’s way of thinking were the very few examples found in the literary works dealing with Buddhism. That was, indeed, a new point in literature at that time because some people dared look straight at the truth and had enough courage to criticize a religion actually dominating over the society. The behavior of both Ho Xuan Huong and Cao Ba Quat had more or less the character of an ‘enlightenment’.

But on the other side, it was found that Buddhism was still deeply rooted in the mind of various strata of the population, that it still kept a close touch with man by its multiple relations and that it still served as an ideological basis for those men with much suffering and ambition. This fact is proven by the poems written by all those people who had much sympathy with Buddhism during that epoch.



1 Nguyen Du’s works: Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu), Thanh Hien Tien Hau Tap, Bac Hanh Thi Tap, Nam Trung Tap Ngam, Van Te Thap Loai Chung Sinh.

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