The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
Font size:  Zoom out Zoom in




The Nguyen dynasty was not a period in which powerful monks made influential doctrinal and institutional innovations or secured for themselves a heightened degree of social prestige. While evidence does not permit us to identify outstanding religious figures from the era, there certainly existed monks and nuns who were devoutly religious and worked hard organizing Buddhist forces and propagating the faith.

While some bonzes were promoted to important positions or awarded special honors, less esteemed bonzes contributed to the strength of the movement by vigilantly keeping the faith, improving their doctrinal erudition, and maintaining a lifestyle consistent with Buddhist tenets. Both officially recognized and anonymous devotees contributed significantly to the prestige and position of, Buddhism during the era. Moreover, several common traits can be identified which suggest some distinctive characteristics shared by Buddhist supporters during the Nguyen, as opposed to during previous dynasties.

The following list includes a handful of Nguyen bonze superiors who held court-appointed positions in various localities. In the North, Bonze Superior Phuc Dien from the Lien Tong and Thien Quang pagodas in Hanoi, Bonze Tich Truyen (Buddhist name: Kim Lien) from the Van Trai pagoda in Hanoi, Bonze Chieu Khoan (Buddhist name: Tuong Quang), from Van Trai pagoda in Hanoi, Bonze Pho Tich also from Van Trai pagoda and later transferred to Thien Quang pagoda in Hanoi, Bonze Thong Vinh from Ham Long pagoda in Hanoi, Bonze Thanh Dam (Buddhist name: Minh Chinh) from Bich Dong pagoda, Yen Khanh district, Ninh Binh province, Bonze Thanh Nguyen (Buddhist name: Minh Nam) in Ninh Binh province, Bonze An Thien from Dai Giac pagoda, in Bo Son village, Ha Bac province, etc.

In central Vietnam there were Bonze Nhat Dinh (Buddhist name Thanh Thien) at Thien Tho (named afterward Bao Quoc) pagoda, then removed to Linh Huu pagoda, Hue; Bonze Dieu Giac (Buddhist name Hai Thuan) at Dieu De pagoda, who had the merit of rehabilitating Hue Lam, Bao Quoc and Kim Tien pagodas in Hue; Bonze Giac Ngo at Bat Nha pagoda in Dong Xuan district Phu Yen province, later removed to Dieu De pagoda in Hue; Bonze Lieu Triet (Buddhist name: Tu Minh) at Quoc An, Linh Quang pagodas, being concurrently the Patriarch of Giac Hoang pagoda in Hue; Bonze Pho Tinh, alias Dao Minh at Thien Tho (Bao Quoc) pagoda in Hue; Bonze Mat Hoang residing at times in Gia Dinh, Quoc An (Hue) and Thap Thap Di Da pagoda (Binh Dinh province); Bonze Dieu Nghiem at Tu Quang pagoda in Song Cau district, Phu Yen province. In South Vietnam, there were Bonze Lieu Thong alias Chan Giac, residing at Phuong Son pagoda in Cay Mai area, Gia Dinh; Bonze Vien Quang at Tap Phuoc pagoda, Gia Dinh; bonze Vien Ngo at Lan Nha pagoda, Gia Dinh; bonze Phuoc An at Hung Long pagoda, Binh Duong district, Gia Dinh; Bonze Dao Thong residing at the various pagodas at intervals in Go Cong and Gia Dinh province.

At that time transport facilities between regions were improved and the cultural life and religious adherence were almost at the same level. The need of having guidance in their spiritual life among Buddhist believers in the various regions, though slightly different in form, became very urgent. It served as a background for every region to create its religious leaders, who differed from very little in quality, virtue and prestige. Many of the above-mentioned bonzes conducted their activities over a large area, not necessarily confined to their home village nor limited by their sect. They traveled everywhere, if required. In addition to those who traveled by the demand of the court, most traveled in the monastic tradition or at an area’s request, consequently widening the scope of activity for the sake of learning and preaching Buddhism.

Some bonzes journeyed far from their native places. For example bonze Lieu Thong, of native of Thanh Hoa province, went a long way to the Cay Mai, Gia Dinh, an area near Saigon, where he built a pagoda and, preached Buddhism. Mat Hoang, another itinerant monk, started from Binh Dinh province to Gia Dinh in the south, then went north to Hue and finally returned to Binh Dinh. Some monks originated their journeys from Buddhist centers, traveling to the surrounding area and later returning, such as bonze Phuc Dien. This bonze left Hanoi to Bac Ninh, Son Tay, Nam Dinh, went south to Hue, then returned to Hanoi. His shuttling, and that of others, between different regions enhanced mutual understanding and solidarity between Buddhist believers of different localities, helping Buddhism develop faster within the framework of an already politically unified nation.

From their origin, the above-mentioned bonzes were affiliated to different Buddhist sects. For example bonze Pho Tinh, Quang Nam province, belonged to the Lieu Quan sect; bonze Mat Hoang and Vien Quang belonged to Nguyen Thieu sect; and bonze Thanh Dam, to the Ch’an Nguyen sect. Regarding the continuation of disciples, their bonzes had successive generations of fame. Along the line of disciples initiated by bonze Mat Hoang, the most famous in the first generation was bonze Nhat Dinh; in the second, Dieu Giac and Cuong Ky; and in the third, Vien Giac and Hue Phap. Of bonze Tich Truyen’s sect, the famous disciples of the first generation were bonze Chieu Khoan, and of the second, Pho Tinh (Hanoi). From the sect of disciples of bonze Phuc Dien there were Thong Vinh and An Thieu.

Despite the various names, these schools did not truly create significantly original tenets, rituals, or moral doctrines enabling their posterity. Pagoda annals list successions of bonzes and their practices and ideologies, but there were little differences between them. The most apparent reason for this lack in variety was the stifling control by the Court, impeding independent development and destroying all new thought for a whole generation.

Bonzes of high scholarship at that time, besides investigating and practicing rituals at pagodas, were also involved in studies and discussion on the nature of the Buddhist faith. This was required by their own religious life as well as by their aim of propagating Buddhism among disciples. Personal thoughts appeared in Buddhist lessons that summed up their religious lives, or in their notebooks on sacred books of prayers (pitaka), referring to such concepts as mind, nothingness, and such relations as mind-body, mind-outside world, existence-nonexistence. Though filled with concepts, theses arguments are, however, far from unique, - all of them still considering spirit to be the source of all things, and nothingness the essence of nature and the phenomenal world. In sum, their philosophies were no more advanced than that of their predecessors.

But in the name of the clergy representing the prestige of their religion of their time, they had to make contributions to the enhancement of their need, to the treasure of Buddhism they inherited, and to create something new for their time. This task they knew well, and tried to materialize what was in their power and conditions. In reality, they made some contributions in the various fields.

Buddhist monks under the Nguyen dynasty built a big archive on Buddhism, to store the canon (the pitaka of three kinds) and other Buddhist documents. They worked on and through all steps of the processes, such as collecting, supplementing, systematizing, taking notes, explaining, printing, distributing and storing. Among the Buddhist monks participating in this work, the most distinguished were Bonzes Phuc Dien, An Thien, Thanh Dam and Dieu Nghiem. The bonzes also systematized and compiled documents on their own work, and composed books of their own. Based on their rich collections, they managed to write a number of valuable books on the history of Buddhism, or on new approaches to ancient books. For example, bonze Phuc Dien wrote Thien Uyen Truyen Dang Luoc Luc; bonze An Thieu wrote Dao Giao Nguyen Luu; bonze Thanh Dam authored Phap Hoa De Cuong and Tam Kinh Truc Giai; bonze Dieu Nghiem wrote Su Nghia Luat Yeu Luoc and Su Nghia Quy Quyen and others.

From Dao Giao Nguyen Luu by bonze An Thien we know that in his time a big number of archives on the Buddhist literature were built.1 In terms of the Sutra Pitaka, there were 84 books with at least a copy for each, and at most 120 copies (in the case of the Bao Tich Kinh). There were five sets of 40 copies or more of the Hoa Nghiem, Phan Giap: 82 copies; Hoa Nghiem Phuong Sach: 81 copies; Phat Ban Hanh: 60 copies.

As for the Vinaya Pitaka there were 26 books with a minimum of one copy and maximum of 40 copies (the Dai Luat Tang). There were 4 sets of Abhidharma and 61 research works with a maximum of 55 copies for one book (Phat To Thong Ky). This number of Buddhist books was unknown in the past.

To manage to do this, these bonzes had to rely upon efforts by pagodas. Some pagodas at that time became printing houses, housing the whole printing process: buying paper and wood, renting wood cutters, carving printing plates, etc. These pagodas also turned a number of their rooms into repositories for printing plates. Costs of the printing works were paid for by donations by Buddhist believers and sympathies. Here we should name some of these pagodas: Lien Tong (now called Lien Phai, in the southern part of Hanoi downtown); Dai Giac in Bo Son, Bac Ninh (now Ha Bac province); Thien Phuc in Dai Lam village, Yen Phong district, Bac Ninh province; and the various pagodas in Hue city.

Another achievement of Buddhist monks under the Nguyen dynasty was their presentation of Buddhism in the country as well as throughout the world. Foreign books on the history of Buddhism in the world were made available, although few in number and often unintelligible to Vietnamese monks and followers. Some books on the history of Buddhism in Vietnam were available, such as Thien Uyen Tap Anh, Thanh Dang Luc, and Chu To Luc. However, these books only dealt with the pre-Tran dynasty period, leaving a big gap between the Tran dynasty to the Nguyen dynasty.

An urgent need was felt by some Buddhist monks to fill this gap. Thus numerous monks collected materials to compile their own books of Buddhist history to meet this demand. These books not only helped their contemporaries learn about the history of their religion, but also help us nowadays to know the level of knowledge of Vietnamese under the Nguyen dynasty. Bonze Phuc Dien and his disciple bonze An Thien made a large contribution in this field as we shall see below.

Buddhists under the Nguyen dynasty followed these two courses of action: collecting documents and generalizing the history of their religion, partly to meet the demand of Buddhist believers of their time and partly to push the development of Buddhism itself. How far did this trend develop? In order to answer this one must examine all of history. Furthermore, such a trend did not exist unless through those men who were conscious of their mission. Objectively, the work done by these bonzes constitutes a review of the course of development of Buddhism in Vietnam and a preparation for future developments. These bonzes were unable to point out future prospects but their service helped their successors to strive for a new phase of development.

The achievements of Buddhism under the Nguyen dynasty resulted from big efforts by many Buddhist monks and a large number of Buddhist believers. But especially distinguished services were rendered by a certain number of people. It would be unjust if we were not to present the life and work of these men.

Bonze Thanh Dam (the dates of birth and death are unknown) had the merit of having an explanatory work on Buddha’s teachings and of his initiatives and thoughts on a number of Buddhist principles which serve as the basis of faith in Buddhism.

Thanh Dam, alias Minh Chinh, resided at Bich Dong pagoda in Dam Khe village, Yen Khanh district, Ninh Binh province. He was a disciple of Bonze Dao Nguyen, belonging to the Ch’an Nguyen sect which had its origin from the Truc Lam sect. He entered the religious life in 1807. In 1819 he wrote Phap Hoa De Cuong at Liem Khe pagoda. Twenty-four years later, in 1843, he completed another book: Tam Kinh Bat Nha Ba La Mat Da Truc Giai (Explanations on Prajnaparamitahrdaya-Sutra).2

Being a draft of fundamentals and a direct explanation these two books had fully enunciated his view on Ch’an and Buddha. Bonze Thanh Dam concentrated his study on the content of the mind (Heart), the central concept of Buddhism. He examined the mind’s various aspects, its epistemological and ontological status. Although he did not speak directly of the mind’s ontology, in reality he examined it on this plane. He thought the soul was the invariable, unchanged, but the very source of all things, the creation of all things. He said: "What is wonderful is that the mind is always pure. That the mind, from its timeless origin, remains unchanged under any circumstances: - unaided by a ‘holy place’ and not diminished by worldly life; in fact, not diminished by dirt, nor any need to get cleaner in cleaning; it [the soul] is naturally filled with dharma and prevails throughout the universe.

The mind is the origin of Buddha and also the Buddhist element in every creature. Originally, it is formless but develops into all forms; it comes from nothingness, but becomes the source of’ nothingness. It is like the transparent "Mani", which is colorless but diffuses all colors, like the sea of enlightenment, which mirrors the phenomenal world but receives no grain of dust. Like a painter who paints the world, it is the spiritual mother of all perceptible things. The Hoa Nghiem Sutra says:

If one likes to know

The Buddha of the three times,

Let him observe the phenomenal world:

All is created by the mind.

(Epilogue of Phap Hoa De Cuong).

Bonze Thanh Dam solved the relationship between the sprit (mind) and nature (Dharma), considering the mind to be the decisive factor. This is idealism, either objective or subjective, depending on the content of the mind in different contexts. How does the soul create the world? Bonze Thanh Dam presented a chain of metamorphoses, beginning at the mind and stopping at ‘being’ (the phenomenal world). This is mind-Dharma-being, in which Dharma plays an important bridge. He said: "Dharma is all creatures, the materializing of the pure mind. Pure mind is the sacred sources of all creatures. Dharma is the mind and vice versa. Dharma is the means of existence; when not being contaminated, it’s pure Dharma. He further examined the content and the role played by Dharma: "Although Dharma are innumerable, they can all together be reduced to the six senses (eyes, ears, tongue, nose, body, feeling) and the six ways of appearance (color, sound, smell, taste, touch, dharma) and consciousness. This three types are manifestations of the pure mind, as the saying: "Dharma takes roots from mind, mind is the source of Dharma". An initial idea has caused innumerable rebirths, continually floating, revolving in the circle of life and death, pursuing up to the present time a false hope…" Clearly here is a picture of transformation founded on an ‘idealist’ philosophy.

But what is the mind? Can we understand it? In reply, bonze Thanh Dam approached the theory of cognition. He thought one could not recognize the mind through language and explanation: "The mind goes beyond world and signs: the mind by nature is invisible, so how can we point it out? As I have mentioned above, words and signs fail to grasp the mind". Then how can we understand the mind? He showed two ways:

First, to rely on senses: "Although the soul is invisible, the application of senses leave visible tracks which enable the learned person to decipher these tracks of application, and in this light find the way to the mind". Second, to rely on intuition and self-learning: "Query: How can this mind be transmitted? Answer: Lord Buddha raised a branch of flowers and ‘Kasyapa smiled’. Later the masters of future generations preserved their story to hand it down. But because of different circumstances, only ‘awakened’ people are able to know it by themselves." This explanation depends on a concept of using the mind to convey the soul. Bonze Thanh Dam gave a lot of explanations, but in the end he considered "the soul is Buddha, and vice versa." This concept laid the foundation for the paths of seeking the mind and Buddha. He pointed to three directions: the first is to seek inside oneself, not the outside, because in seeking the outside, people become entangled with phenomena and involved in dharma [= composite characteristics], like a man riding on the back of a buffalo but still in search of that very animal, or like a man having a lighted lamp but still asking for fire; or like a man adding fog over snow. Such people are self-content, — they think only the Masters and Buddha possess this marvelous power, and as common men they should go and seek the soul in the outside world." The second is the attitude of ‘the soul is omnipresent, how should one go and find it?’ In this attitude, one relies on the two litanies enunciated by King Tran Nhan Tong about "The six senses and the seven elements. [The six ephemeral senses but every one constitutes the awareness of the pure mind. The seven elements represent Buddha’s spirit"], and Bonze Thanh Dam composed3 13 litanies of his own. The third is the attitude that ‘one needs not find it, because this will be futile work’:

Shining moon, fresh breeze are self-existent.

Failing to seek the mind, and stop looking for it!

Then say goodbye to it since we shall fail;

And if we think we have found it,

what we have found is a false mind.

The trouble is that we are carrying a lighted lamp and still asking for fire.

I’d rather stand on the river bank to chant a chant of mine.

(Tam Kinh Bat Nha Truc Giai - A literal explanation of the Prajnaparamitahrdaya Sutra)

The Bonze pointed out the three directions to seek the soul, but he only meant the third one, i.e. the non-necessity of going to seek it. Treating the nature of the soul and the cognitive attitude toward it, Bonze Thanh Dam aimed at showing the way for clergymen to train themselves. This is an easy way to success because the mind is present everywhere; there is no necessity to go and seek it. This is the way of ignoring "senses" and "consciousness", because these are unreal: "Consciousness is a mirage, and senses are transient; both are of no use in the religious life". In other words, man should free himself from worldly affairs, and from the ‘right and wrong’, since all is nonsensical: "Don’t speak about ‘short and long’. Long or short, good or bad, all is wrong. Seeking the good is clumsy in the others’ eyes. You hunt ravens but wolves are awaiting. A superhuman is like the morning fog. Richness and power, a long dream. They don’t know the nature of things is nothingness. Thinking ignorantly, we squander the efforts of our life" (A lecture in Tam Kinh Bat Nha Truc Giai).

The sublime goal a bonze wants to pursue is Prajna. Bonze Thanh Dam’s way of approach to the soul proves contradictory. On the one hand, with his concept that Buddha lives in one’s mind, and Buddhist character is present in everyone, he upholds human beings, and recognizes the independent value of every person, be he saintly or mundane, a sage or an idiot. It means an opposition to Confucianism’s theory of predestination, a theory only recognizing the value of the ruling circles and people of transcendent genius. But on the other hand, with the proposal to seek a release within the spiritual life, setting aside the realistic life and the moral values accumulated in the social life, he is trapped in nihilism, considering human life but only to seek a release, and upholding human beings but only to devalue them.

The concept that Buddha is omnipresent in everyone and everywhere, and the way of approaching him is outside language and script,… has its origin in the Ch’an, the fundamentals of which are found in such canonical books as Dieu Phap Lien Hoa, Tam Kinh Bat Nha La Mat, etc. Previous Buddhist masters had already treated and explained this theme, so Thanh Dam only inherited this conception. He, however, did a good service in discovering the fundamentals of these canonical books, supporting them with details and heightening them further. This helped his reader better understand the supreme principles of Buddha, and hence materialize what he called "release".

The biggest contributions to the compiling of Buddhist texts during this era was made by the most venerable Phuc Dien (the date of birth and death are unknown). His family name is Vo, a native of Son Minh, Hanoi. At 12 years old, he entered the religious life at Thinh Liet pagoda, in Dai Bi, Hanoi. At 20 years old, he went to reside at Phap Van, Phu Ninh district, Bac Ninh province. In the 21st year under King Minh Mang he inaugurated Bo Son pagoda in Bac Ninh. In the third year under King Thieu Tri, he inaugurated Phu Nhi pagoda in Son Tay province. In the sixth year under Thieu Tri, he opened Lien Tri pagoda in Hanoi. The next year he inaugurated Bao Thien pagoda, in Hanoi. In the 5th year under King Tu Duc, he returned to Lien Tong pagoda in Hanoi and organized the rebuilding of the pagoda. Under King Ming Mang he was summoned to the royal capital city of Hue to give an explanation of the Buddhist canonical bocks. The King bestowed on him the knife-shaped lance of abstinence and the royal passport. He stayed in Hue for a few months and had a chance to survey the pagodas in Hue, the royal city, and the nearby provinces.

Also in this period, he made a systematic investigation of the decrees on Buddhism issued by the Nguyen court, and compile information about the development of Buddhism in the Southern part of the country. All this was beneficial to his writings later on. He died on the 16th of the eleventh lunar month, at the age of 80. Many pagodas in the Northern part of Vietnam built altars for him: Lien Tong, Thien Quang and Ham Long (Hanoi); Phu Nhi (Son Tay), Bo Son (Bac Ninh) and some others in Nam Dinh province. Many of his disciples became famous, such as Bonzes Thong Vinh, An Thien, and Pho Tinh, ect.4

Bonze Phuc Dien was well aware of his religious service. In his religious life, which lasted for 70 years or so, he traveled a great deal, going to many places and pagodas. He set foot in almost every pagoda in the Red River Delta. Everywhere he went, he tried to reconstruct old pagodas and towers, distribute Buddhist canonical books, give lectures on Buddhism and train clergymen. He learned the Chinese characters by himself during his service at pagodas. His knowledge of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism was self-taught. He had a command of the Chinese characters as good as that of scholars of the first rank; his knowledge of religions was not as profound but was good enough for him to argue and compare the sameness and differences between these religions, and from this, he was able to affirm and uphold Buddhism. He was a rarity in his time.

His works are many and different in genre. As for creative works, these are Phong Sinh Gioi Sat Van, Tam Giao Quang Khuy, Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc. His compiled works include Tam Bao Hoang Thong, Chu Kinh Nhat Tung Do, Thien Gia Kinh Chu Cac Khoan, Tieu Du Da, Tai Gia Tu Tri, Ngu Gioi, Thap Gioi Diep, Ky An Nhuong Tinh Diep, Am Hon Diep, (12 chapters), and edited Phat To Thong Ky, Ta Vi Phuong Sach (12 volumes), Cac Chu Su Tich, etc.; and in translation he had: Sa Di Luat Nghi Giai Nghia. He was also in charge of the printing of Kinh Hoa Nghiem (80 volumes), Dai Gioi Diep, Thien Uyen Tap Anh, Cuu Ban Phat To Ke Dan, Ho Phap Luan Quoc Am Ban, Truc Song Quoc Am Ban, and Thien Lam Bao Huan Quoc Am Ban. The word-carving plates of these books were stored at Bo Son pagoda, Bac Ninh province, and Lien Tong pagoda in Hanoi.

It is both unnecessary and impossible to present here the content of all his books, except a number of typical works for the reader to make some acquaintance with his treatment, his thoughts and his service rendered to Buddhism in Vietnam.

Phong Sinh Gioi Sat Van is a booklet, comprising 20 pages only, and written in Chinese characters.5 As is meant by the title, the book is aimed at recommending people to practice one of the five commandments (against murder, theft, lust, lying, drunkenness), the one against murder. This is a way to practice the "three initiations" into Buddhism. Following Buddha, one will not go to Hell; following Dharma one will not go into the world of famine [i.e., of preta or ‘wandering ghosts’; and following the religious life one will not go into the bestial world]. This is also a way to go along with the morale of Confucianism, with the Creator’s ethics on life-nurturing, and with human conscience; and when applied to politics, it will bring peace and prosperity for the country. The canonical books of Buddhism, and of Confucianism such as The Book of Rites, etc., served as the basis for his arguments and quotations. His style is simple, clear and convincing in relation to the Buddhist believers of his time.

Sa Di Luat Nghi Giai Nghia was written by the Chinese bonze Chu Hoang, at Van The pagoda, China. It was translated into the Vietnamese language (the Nom), accompanied by explanatory notes. The book was comprised of two volumes, 372 pages in all, and was printed at Thien Phuc pagoda, Bac Ninh, in the 14th year under King Tu Duc (1861). Its content includes the ten commandments, and 24 ways of behaviors concerning learning, resting, washing and bathing and behaving with others. In summary, the book makes recommendations to Buddhist monks and believers on their way of life and behavior, ushering Buddhism in Vietnam into an orderly and disciplined life.

Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc is the most important work of Bonze Phuc Dien. The book has another title: Dai Nam Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luc. This one-volume work is comprised of 146 pages, printed by woodcarving plates, in Nom cheaters.6 Its genre is miscellaneous, embracing several topics: description of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam, a survey of the contemporary situation of Buddhism, the bonze’s service to the compilation and reservation of Buddhist texts (maybe written by his successors). In his introductory words, Bonze Phuc Dien explains his reasons, the documentary sources, the content and purpose of his book. His material includes: Luoc Luc Thien Gia, several Ngu Luc Truyen Ky (compiled into one volume). In addition there are: Bao Cuc Truyen, Thanh Dang Luc, Co Chau Luc, ThienUyen Tap Anh, Cung Dieu Ngu Khoa, Linh Nam Chich Quai, Chu To Luc, etc. Finally there are supplements such as the Document of the Court, Nam Bac Luong Ky, Luoc Luc Danh Son, and Danh Du Danh Hanh Cao Tang. The last was aimed at serving the continuation of the various Ch’an sects. Because of all these we can conclude that Bonze Phuc Dien was the authentic author of the book.

In his treatment of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam, he dealt with the early period of Buddhism up to various sects under the Tran and Le dynasties, and the history of the various pagodas in Hue. From legendary tales in Linh Nam Chich Quai, he concluded that Buddhism had penetrated into Vietnam since the era of King Hung. He cited the tale of Chu Dong Tu who was initiated into Buddhism by Bonze Phat Quang. Later Dong Tu and Tien Dung, "New to the heavens from the swamp," of Da Trach. From the earlier documents he concluded that two Buddhist sects were established in Vietnam in two different periods. The one was the Lam Te-Yen Tu sect which entered Vietnam under the Song dynasty of China, beginning with Bonze Dai Dang, and was followed by others famous monks: Ung Thuan, Thien Phong, Vien Chung, Tieu Dao, Tue Trung, Dieu Ngu (i.e., King Tran Nhan Tong), Phap Loa, and Huyen Quang. The second sect was Lam Te-Phat Tich, introduced into Vietnam by the most venerable Vien Mai under the Ming dynasty in China, with the following generations of disciples: Vien Mai, Minh Luong, Chan Nguyen, Nhu Trung, Tinh Tuyen, Hai Quynh, Tich Truyen, Chieu Khoan, and Pho Tinh. This Buddhist sect measured up to Bonze Vien Mai’s thoughts, which were crystallized in 48 words in Chinese characters, meaning:

keeping one’s mind pure and clear, one’s virtues perfect and shining; trueness being immense like the sea; making peace and calmness prevail everywhere; bringing the soul to the world; enhancing this kind of awareness; practicing good deeds as the Saints did; habitually doing generous and benevolent things; keeping and handing down Dharma to prosperity; collecting enlightenment as much as possible spiritual proofs of awareness; preserving virtues; maintaining the sect forever.

Treating the various pagodas in Hue, Bonze Phuc Dien gave an account of the history of Thien Mu pagoda, the building of Linh Huu, Long Quang, Thuy Van, Giac Hoang pagodas in Hue and Hong Nhan pagoda in the Forbidden royal citadel under King Minh Mang. With this account, he gave a panorama of the network of pagodas in the royal capital city during his era.

On the situation of Buddhism, Bonze Phuc Dien took notes in detail on every royal decree ordering the building of pagodas; and he drew up a list of bonzes in charge of each pagoda, and a list of Buddhist believers who made big contributions to the building or reconstruction of pagodas; also lists of canonical books printed and distributed, of examinations held for monks and believers, and of the various important Buddhist celebrations, etc. Becaue of all this documentation, Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc is valued as a history of Buddhism and it contributes a great deal to study in this field, particularly that of Buddhism during the Nguyen dynasty.

Bonze Phuc Dien spoke little of his thought, but through his works we can identify his own thinking. This thinking involves a sense of reconciliation, of recognizing the outlook of the various doctrines, religions, sects, whatever their concern and matter is. His methodology is to start from an established postulate and later find proofs to testify. In particular, he tried to convince readers by means of proofs whose viewpoints are near and dear to him. This practice somewhat constrained his descriptions, because he emphasized the unanimity of various points of views while downplaying their differences. Not strictly scientific, his work resulted in creating a specific thought, a new point of view.

This ‘reconciliation’ as a hallmark of thinking and conception is nothing new. It remains an important element in the tradition of thinking and religious life in Vietnam. Late in the 18th century, many had the same tendency as Bonze Phuc Dien, first of all Bonze Trinh Hue. If Tinh Hue conciliated Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism on a Confucian basis which is beneficial to the first, Phuc Dien did the same for the benefit of Buddhism. His conciliatory viewpoint was also expressed in his embracing differing Buddhist sects indiscriminately, and he made use of one or another sect according to how he deemed it beneficial to his own Buddhist creed. Only before his death, reviewing his life and work, did he come to this eventual conclusion: only Ch’an was acceptable. The following litany written by him in his later years expresses this thought:

All the various doctrines explain their ways of enlightenment,

Using them in pursuit of awareness.

Outside the path there is no path;

In emptiness there is no emptiness at all.

Now the genuine dharma is preached:

This is the prolongation of it from the ancient times.

The way to understand it is from nothingness, and

Not by means of language.

Finally, he considered the void to be the basis of all, the ideology of Ch’an. However, his sense of the reconciliation of Ch’an, Amidism and Tantrism was not blurred by this concept.

Another Bonze, An Thien, followed Bonze Phuc Dien’s path and also rendered a good service in compiling and preserving the Buddhist literature. An Thien (the dates of birth and death are unknown) had the family name Nguyen. He resided at Dai Giac pagoda, Bo Son village, Bac Ninh province. He was the most intimate disciple of Bonze Phuc Dien. His works include Dao Giao Nguyen Luu, three volumes, printed in 1845 under King Thieu Tri. Dao Giao Nguyen Luu is a masterpiece comprised of 993 pages. It treats the various fields of activity of Buddhism, from history to explanation of Buddhist terms. It was also the biggest work of its time.

The first volume is comprised of 329 pages and 450 sub-titles. It deals with the genesis of Buddha, the essentials of Buddhism, the historical development of Buddhism, Buddhist literature and relics, and the various Buddhist sects in Vietnam. Noticeable are the following items: "Dai Nam Thien Hoc So Khoi" in which he noted down the legend of Phat Quang, an Indian Bonze who initiated Dong Tu into Buddhism in the legendary King Hung dynasty. Dong Tu afterwards initiated Tien Dung into the religion, and the story of marsh Da Trach (adapted from Linh Nam Chich Quai); "Dai Nam Phat Thap," in which he describes the earliest Buddhist towers built in Vietnam by the Indian Bonze Vinitaruci and Bonze Phap Hien (adapted from Bao Cuc Truyen); "Vo Ngon Truyen Phap" deals with the story of the Chinese bonze Wu Yantong under the Song dynasty in China. He introduced Buddhism into Vietnam while residing at Kien So pagoda, Phu Dong village, now on the outskirts of Hanoi, and created a lineage of his Buddhist sect in this country: Cam Thanh, Thien Hoi, Van Phong, Khuong Viet, Da Bao, Dinh Huong, Vien Chieu, Thong Bien, Dao Tue, Minh Tri, Quang Nghiem, Thuong Chieu, Thong Thien, Tuc Lu, and Ung Vuong; "Danh Chan Trieu Dinh" gives a list of famous bonzes under successive dynasties, - Early Le, Ly, and Tran. They are: Bonzes Khuong Viet, Van Hanh, and Huyen Quang; "Vinitaruci Preaching Dharma" relates that this Indian bonze introduced Buddhism into Vietnam at the time contemporary to the Sui dynasty in China and created the earliest Buddhist sect in this country. The successive masters of the sect include: The first generation: Vinitaruci, the second: Phap Hien... the fifth: Thanh Bien... The ninth: Dinh Khong.... the eleventh: La Quy... The thirteenth: Van Hanh... The fifteenth: Khanh Hy, the sixteenth: Gioi Khong; "Tuyet Dau Truyen Phap" records the Tuyet Dau sect in Thang Long (now Hanoi). Its masters are: Tuyet Dau, Bat Nha, Hoang Minh, an unknown master of the fourth generation, Chan Huyen and Hai Tinh.

The second volume, 333 pages, 669 items. This is a miscellaneous work. The most outstanding topics are: the history of Confucianism, stories about Confucius and his disciples, stories about famous Buddhist nuns, and profane activities against Buddhism in history.

The third volume, 331 pages, 171 items. It is also a miscellaneous work, with such topics as: stories about Taoism, the life of Laozi, and a lexicon of Buddhist terms and legends.

The book aimed at several purposes. First, it provided the reader with knowledge of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. From this, he could draw out the similarity between these religions and recognize their co-existence. The author pointed out that the common cause of these religions was the pursuit of the good, and the person concerned with the "the soul" and "character" of human beings.

"There is only one path. One becomes three because there are comparisons. One path but three religions, why? No comparison, there is only one. But by comparing, there are three". (Foreword to Dao Giao Nguyen Luu). All this is a result of reasoning and the state of things: "Depending on the circumstances, their power, their times and in suitable forms, the Saints created their doctrines". Here is his personal opinion on the unique origin of the three religions.

Second, the book upholds the role of Buddhism in society. For this aim, he hailed the wonderful effectiveness of Buddha’s doctrine: "Buddha remains outside the three worlds. He has neither beginning nor ending. He does not go and return. He is self-sufficient with regard to the five senses and six elements. His death or life is only metamorphosis." [From the above-mentioned foreword]. He pointed to the benefit of practicing Buddhism: "When Buddha is present in a country, the people will be endowed with a clear mind and a good nature, able to avoid bad things and do good things. Thus, it is greatly beneficial to the world. That is why the Kings of the Zhou dynasty tried to annihilate Buddhism but they failed. And when one fails to exterminate it, how can one despise it? " (Upper volume, pp. 18-19). He even upheld Buddhism by supplying myths: for example, - that Buddha Sakyamuni came into the world from the side of his mother; that on the birthday of Buddha, the sun bore two halos; that when Buddha passed away, fire appeared to consume his body and leave behind remains which are the former Karma of Laozi or Kasyapa; that even Confucius spoke fine words about Buddha, etc.

Third, he defended Buddhism by countering attempts to distort Buddhist figures in the past. He criticized such anecdotes as those which claimed that Ho monks’ incantations could bring death to others; that Buddha failed with Pho Dich, because there was a halo on Buddha’s forefront, but this halo disappeared before Trinh Hieu; or that Buddha’s teeth were inflammable but crushed by Trieu Phuong; and that Buddha’s teeth were sacred but destroyed by goat horns, etc. Bonze An Thien said: "These stories, telling false tales against Buddha, are sins against him." (Upper volume, p. 19). He reviewed the numerous campaigns against Buddhism, which the religion still always managed to survive, such as the ones launched by Wei Wudi, Zhou Wudi and Tang Wudi.

In his book, Bonze An Thien’s style and language in some places are ambiguous, and some cited events are incorrect. He also fails to properly differentiate what is real or unreal, legendary or realistic, and his arguments are commonplace. This is unavoidable because he was self-taught, not having undergone formal education courses. This explains the fact that, no matter how big his efforts were, he still failed to establish a particular sect; and that no matter how devoted he was, he also failed to wield significant influence on his contemporaries and posterity.

His works, however, constitute an effort to supplement and systematize the knowledge of Buddhism of his times, to bring religion close to life, Buddha close to Confucius; and an endeavor to compile and collect documents facilitating the learning of Buddhism in Vietnam. His works, therefore, became indispensable for contemporary Buddhist believers and clergymen.

As Nguyen Dang Giai, a ranking mandarin at the Nguyen court who was influenced by Buddhism, put it: "The work, though somewhat incoherent in structure and commonplace in argument, is a real work of compiling a host of books and opinions. Together with his other books on cause and effect, this book is so important that it has become a manual for both sects, Ch’anist as well as Amidist… This book is worth reading by clergymen in the Buddhist pagodas as well as those who practice Buddhism at home" (Foreword to Dao Giao Nguyen Luu).

Besides devoted monks, many ranking mandarins and scholars were also influenced by Buddhism, and were self-styled Buddhist practitioners at home. They were Trinh Hoai Duc, governor of Gia Dinh province (Saigon today), Lam Duy Nghia, governor of Hanoi; Nguyen Dang Giai, governor of Ha-Ninh province; and Nguyen Hang, doctor of literature. They were exceptions in a time when Confucianism exerted its monopoly, but due to this, they won greater merit in preserving and developing Buddhism in their era.

Among the above-mentioned personalities, Nguyen Dang Giai was the most shining example. Having the Buddhist name Dai Phuong, he was a native of Phu Chinh village, Le Thuy district, Quang Binh province. Having assumed important posts at the court and outside, such as minister of defense, governor of Son Tay, Hung Hoa, and Tuyen Quang provinces, and other posts as well, — he styled himself a ‘Bodhisatva’ practicing at home, and made big efforts supporting the cause of Buddhist development. Bonze Phuc Dien described him as "a great man in enhancing Buddhism, a great man of the court whose virtues belong to the Buddhist church... a man who resorts to every means to develop his religion, whom we can only find once in a millennium."7 With his power and service, he became a firm prop for Buddhist monks in the Northern part of Vietnam.

He personally organized joint efforts to build numerous pagodas and towers, including the very expensive and elaborate works such as the eight-stories golden tower, in each of the seven upper stories of which was placed a golden statue of Buddha. Some pagodas were built in large scale, such as Dai Giac pagoda in Bo Son village, Tien Du district, Bac Ninh province, which provided housing for 30 monks and nuns and had a cultivatible land of 37 acres; or Dai Quang pagoda in Phu Nhi, Son Tay province, embracing 200 compartments, possessing 20 acres of rice fields, and staffed by 30 resident monks and nuns.

Another service rendered by him was his striving for the legal status of Buddhism. At that time the Court and a great number of Confucian scholars considered Buddhism to be superstitious and harmful, and that it should be wiped out. He opposed this prejudice by proving the similarity between the three religions, particularly between Buddhism and Confucianism. He stated that the three religions resembled each other in mind and character. Buddhism advocates "clarifying the soul and recognizing character", Taoism advocates "improving the soul and training character", and Confucianism advocates "self-improving and nurturing virtues". He considered "the five commandments of Buddhism to be similar to the five basics virtues of Confucianism."8 He also proved the similarity between the theory of cause and effect in Buddhism and the concept of retribution for one’s good or bad deals in the Book of Changes and the Book of Rites written by Confucius. His above-mentioned deeds are characterized by subjective and constrained characters, since he simplified the content of these concepts to seek the formal similarity between them. But this was quite acceptable for common men of his era.

He also, when needed, sided with Buddhism against Confucianism. He argued that Buddhism also upholds the principle of loyalty (by subject to the King), and concern over worldly affairs, and Sakyamuni was praised by Confucius as a saint who "did not rule the society yet there were no riots, did not speak but was self-confident, and did not do teaching as much as self-practice". He said, regarding charity to relieve human sufferings, even the golden era under King Yao and Shun in China was helpless, but Buddhism had been prohibited by numerous dynasties but it is still survived. The two latter arguments of his are real and significant to his time, giving Buddhists a prop to maintain and develop their religion.

Through the thoughts and actions of the above-mentioned bonzes and Buddhist sympathizers, we can recognize a trend to restore the role of Buddhism in society, to bring it to the same level as Confucianism, and to regulate the attitude of the Court towards it. We also find the emergence of a new tendency which considered the three religions to be of the same roots, based not on the foundation of Confucianism in the 18th century, but on Buddha’s principles. At the same time, there were aspirations to bring religion nearer to the worldly life, Buddhism nearer to Confucianism. These points marked the characteristics of Buddhism under the Nguyen dynasty.

Bonzes of the Ch’an sect and Buddhist believers at that time were longing for the return of the golden time of Buddhism, but they failed to see this was their nostalgics motive; for during the Nguyen dynasty they did not assume any important role in the society and had little influence on the court, unlike the Buddhist monks under the Dinh, Le, Ly and Tran dynasties. On the other hand, they also did not enjoy a systematic training and were unable to elaborate on a higher level the doctrine of Buddha, a doctrine which is so utterly evasive and abstract.

These limitations made them unable to usher Buddhism into a new phase of development. Their contributions, therefore, were confined to the fields of collecting documents, presenting Buddhism through the course of history at a certain systematized level, and concretizing or designating some principles of Buddhism.



1. An Thien, Dao Giao Nguyen Luu, Chapter "Ban Quoc Thien Mon Kinh Ban" in Chinese characters, printed in 1845, Han Nom Institute Library, code A 1825.

2. For materials on the above-mentioned book, see Nguyen Lang, "Vietnam Phat Giao Su luan" (Essays on the History of Buddhism in Vietnam) volume II. La Boi Publishing House, Paris 1976.

3. Seven elements: soil, water, fire, wind, nothingness, air, perception, consciousness.

4. Phuc Dien, Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc, copy in wood-carved printing, library of Han-Nom Institute, code Hv. 9.

5. Phong Sinh Gioi Sat Van, copy in Chinese characters, printed at Bo Son pagoda, Bac Ninh, dated the 5th year under King Tu Duc, library of Han-Nom Institute, code A.1963.

6. Phuc Dien, Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc, Library of Han-Nom Institute code Hv 9.

7. Phuc Dien, Dai Nam Thien Uyen Ke Dang Luoc Luc, op.cit. pp. 45-46.

8. Nguyen Dang Giai, Foreword of Dao Giao Nguyen Luu written by An Thien, op. cit., p. 4.

 Go back      Go top        Print view       Send to frinend        Send opinion
» Audio
» Photo gallery
» Buddhism Dictionary
» Lunar calendar