THE SECOND CHAN SECT IN VIETNAM:
WU YAN TONG, CAM THANH, AND THIEN HOI
THE LIFE OF WU YAN TONG AND THE WU YAN TONG SECT
In 820, about two centuries after Vinitaruci, a
Chinese Buddhist monk known as Wu Yantong (Vo Ngon Thong in Vietnamese)
came to live in the Kien So pagoda located in the village of Phu Dong,
Bac Ninh province (present-day Ha Bac). He was to become the founder of
the second Chan sect in Vietnam. He was born in Guangzhou with the
family name Zheng. He later studied at the Shuanglin ("double forest")
pagoda in Yuzhou, China. According to some sources, Yuzbou was then part
of Zhejiang province. To others, it belonged to Guizhou and was the
main town of the Weichuan district. Following the fall of the Tang
dynasty, Yuzhou became known as Sizhou. Although very learned, Wu
Yantong was said to be a reserved man (e.g., the Chinese monograph Chuan Deng Liu referred to him as Bu Yutong, or "not through spoken language"). The following story is recounted in Thien Uyen Tap Anh:
One day Wu Yantong was praying to Buddha when a man came by and asked, "What are you praying to?"
The monk answered, "Praying to Buddha."
Pointing to the statue of Buddha, the man asked, "What is this?"
The monk was unable to answer. That night, the monk,
in full garb, came to kneel before this man and said, "l do not
understand the principles of that which you questioned me about
The man asked, "How many summers (1) have you been in orders?"
"Ten summers", answered the monk.
The man then asked, "Have you definitely left your home to enter religious life?"
The monk was perplexed. Then the man continued, "If
you don’t understand my questions, even one hundred summers of worship
would be of no use to you".
The man brought Wu Yantong to study under the Daoyi
who had been the disciple of Nanyue Huairang. But Daoyi had died just
before the new monk arrived, so the latter asked to be a disciple of the
monk Bai Zhang, who was himself Daoyi’s best disciple. ("Daoyi’s family
name was Ma, and he was therefore commonly known as: "Ma the
Bai Zhang (Vietnamese: Bach Truong) (710-814),
originally from Changluo in Fuzhou, was Ma the Patriarch’s favorite
disciple. After finishing his studies under Ma, he went to cloister
himself in Da Hong mountain, near Fuzhou. He owed his name to the height
of the mountain where he retired, for Bai Zhang means "one hundred
paces". According to the Chinese Chuan Deng Liu (Truyen Dang Luc),
Bai Zhang founded two Chan sects in China, the Thien Quy Nguong and
Thien Lam Te sects. In fact, Bai Zhang was also at the origin of another
sect, the Wu Yantong sect, this time in Vietnam, not China. To
understand the conceptual basis of the Wu Yantong sect which concerns us
here, we must first have a firm grasp of Bai Zhang’s philosophy.
The fundamentals of his philosophy can be inferred
from this conversation between Bai Zhang and some of his disciples. One
day, during a lesson, a disciple asked Bai Zhang about the Buddhist
concept of corruption expressed in the scriptures. He answered:
First of all you must give up all predestined
inclinations, forget everything, good or evil, in this world or out of
this world, must remember none of this, nor think of it, in order to
devote your body and your heart and allow them thereby to become free
and detached. The heart becomes as hard as wood, as hard as stone,
making no distinctions, engaging in no action. If your heart reaches
that point, the sun of your intelligence will appear as naturally as the
sun appears when the clouds disperse.
The Chuan Deng Liu, which reports this
conversation, adds that after hearing the master’s explanation, Wu
Yantong had a deep religious experience, went back to Guangzhou and
secluded himself in the An Hoa Pagoda. (Thien Uyen Tap Anh refers
to it as the Hoa An Pagoda). The fundamental concept of Bai Zhang’s
philosophy is a state of absolute abstinence called the "no-thinking"
position. One is absolutely at peace, free from interminable, disorderly
thought and feeling in the mind and heart. Then one’s spirit may blaze
and reality will appear clearly before one’s eyes. That is enlightenment
and deliverance. That is Nirvana. This is the nature of Bai Zhang’s
teachings which were to be spread in Vietnam through the Wu Yantong
In the year 820, Wu Yantong went to Vietnam and came
to the Kien So Pagoda in Phu Dong (Bac Ninh province). All day long he
sat, facing the wall, without pronouncing a word. He sat like this for
several years, without anyone knowing who he was. Only the resident monk
of that Pagoda, named Cam Thanh, knew that he was a high-ranking monk
in his Buddhist order, and served him with devotion.
In 826, Wu Yantong died, passing his Buddhist seal to Cam Thanh. Before dying he spoke to Cam Thanh:
Long ago, my master was Nanyue Huairang. Before dying he taught me:
All knowledge alike
Is born from the heart.
The heart has no point of origin,
Knowledge has no permanent place of rest.
If one can conquer the heart,
Nothing will stand in the way of action.
If not in the presence of higher intelligence, prudence in words.
When he had taught this, Wu Yantong clasped his hands
and died. Cam Thanh incinerated his body, gathered the remains and
built a tower on Tien Son mountain. Wu Yantong died at the age of 98, in
the year of the horse (826).
The litany recorded above and attributed to Huairang
(677-714) is an important scripture, as this monk was the direct
disciple of the sixth Patriarch of the Chinese Chan sect, Hui Neng, and
the most famous one as well. Huairang became Ma Daoyi’s teacher, who was
later to be Bai Zhang’s. Finally Bai Zhang passed his knowledge lo Wu
Let us delve a bit into the significance of this
litany. The last two lines express a warning: "If not in presence of
higher intelligence, prudence in words." If the interlocutor is not a
highly intelligent, educated man, one must not communicate the content
of this litany. Why was such a warning necessary? Was it because the
depth, the power of these words was beyond the simple man’s
How do we understand the first four lines according
to Wu Yantong’s and Huairang’s philosophy? Knowledge is in nature, all
events: all phenomena in the universe appear to make up reality, but in
fact they are dependent on the activity of consciousness to subsist and
maintain themselves. This is the mysterious truth that the simple man is
unable to believe or understand. If through training, a person succeeds
in ending consciousness, reaching the state called "no thinking",
without thought, consciousness or differentiation, then all knowledge,
all things, all phenomena lose their support, are unable to live or
become reality. It is then that real enlightenment comes, that the
intelligence blazes forth. The religious person receives enlightenment
and deliverance; all obstacles are swept away.
Reality exists before us, but distorted, disfigured
by the will of the heart that tries to differentiate things. That
propensity to differentiate is our ordinary conscious state. Religious
training aims at mastering this will to make way for the illumination of
the intelligence. In Buddhist writings this is called Prajna’s
intelligence, a state of perfect understanding. In the light of Prajna’s
intelligence, the world we perceive before us is not the everyday
world, but the reality, the world of Nirvana.
SPREADING OF WU YAN TONG SECT’S IDEAS AND
According to Thien Uyen Tap Anh, the Wu
Yantong order spanned 15 generations. Only the first four are of concern
to us here, the rest will be dealt with in a following chapter
(Buddhism under the Ly).
1. Wu Yantong (died 826)
2. Cam Thanh (died 860)
3. Thien Hoi (died 900)
4. Van Phong (died 959)
The Wu Yantong Chan sect differs from Vinitaruci in
several respects. Though both sects were introduced from China, the
Vinitaruci sect was established in Vietnam by an Indian monk and betrays
the influence of Indian Buddhism, while the Wu Yantong order was
founded after Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch, and therefore carries the
mark of Chinese Buddhism. Bai Zhang followed three generations after Hui
Neng in a direct line, and was to become Wu Yantong ‘s teacher. He
wrote a well-known series of books titled Bach Truong Thanh Quy
which lay down the laws regulating the activities and training of monks
in religious institutes. It is quite possible that Wu Yantong himself
introduced these regulations into Vietnamese pagodas. The aim of this
set of rules was to create a stable routine in training and daily
activities, thus aiding monks to achieve tranquillity in their hearts.
The fundamental idea in the Wu Yantong system is that
the truth is not far from us, it is before us, in every man himself.
Truth can only be perceived directly and cannot be understood through
the medium of language, written texts, books. When speaking about prompt
enlightenment, we mean that there is no need of language, written texts
or any speculation.. Here we should associate these thoughts with a
statement by Bai Zhang, typical for South China Chan sect: "If the heart
is void, the intellect will blaze itself’. What does the word "void"
mean? At a low level, it means to have no evil deed or thought, to have
no trivial and vulgar ambition. At a higher level, it means something
superior than language, thought and speculation. The consciousness seems
to stop and does not run after any inside or outside predestined fates.
Later on, several authors, basing themselves on this
text, went on to explain it as "prompt" enlightenment. Such an
explanation does not conform to the fundamental thought of Chan Buddhism
in general, and not only Hui Neng’s Chan sect in particular. It should
be understood as a direct (and not prompt) enlightenment.
Let us recall the litany said to be written by
Bodhidharma, which summarizes the guiding principles of Chan Buddhism as
Not through word or language
Not to communicate truth through dogma
To go straight into the heart
To train the heart to become Buddha.
If we do not refer to texts for explanation, but base
ourselves instead on the intent of the litany, we understand that the
fundamental idea is that truth is not far from us, but is in every
person’s heart, that we can find Truth in that heart by apprehending it
directly without the help of language, texts, books or teaching.
Basically, one cannot grasp Truth in words, not even through the
classical prayers or a master’s teachings, nor even by one’s own power
of reason. Truth must be met directly. In fact the crux of the matter is
not whether it takes a short or long time to reach this point but
whether one approaches it directly or indirectly. If indirectly, then
Truth will remain forever far from us; if directly, then Truth appears
right in front of us.
The aim is not only to deliver mankind from suffering
and the cycle of reincarnation, but also rather to reach Truth as an
end in itself. It is necessary, however, that you know to look into
yourself to find the truth that resides in your soul, your heart. If you
search for truth around you, you will pass from Karma to Karma without
reaching enlightenment and deliverance. The ocean of suffering will only
widen and the shores of enlightenment remain distant and dark
Nguyen Hoc (died 1175), also a patriarch of the
fourth generation of the Wu Yantong order, tried to clarify these
precepts in the following verses:
The Way has no form
It exists before you, not far away.
Turn into yourself to find it,
Don’t search for it another place (or another person)
For though you may find it there,
What you find will not be really truth.
These lines express the fundamental beliefs of Vietnamese Buddhism, and of Buddhism in general.
CAM THANH, THE SECOND GENERATION
Cam Thanh was born in Tien Du district. While his
original name remains unclear, we do know that he first took the name
Lap Duc upon entering the orders. A notable in the village, by the name
of Nguyen, built a pagoda and asked him to become the resident monk. He
at first refused, but then, according to Thien Uyen Tap Anh, he
had a dream, in which an angel advised him to accept the offer, for not
long thereafter he would benefit greatly from it. He therefore accepted.
The pagoda was called Kien So, located in Phu Dong, Tien Du (former Bac
Soon thereafter, Wu Yantong
came over from China. Lap Duc recognized him as an extraordinary man and
served him with great devotion. Wu Yantong renamed him Cam Thanh. One
day the old monk imparted to him the following history of the sect:
"Long ago, due to a predestined cause, the Buddha came to life. Once his
noble mission was accomplished, he entered Nirvana. Buddha’s true,
great and marvelous heart was called ‘the eyes denote quietness’."2
Sakyamuni personally transmitted his religion to his disciple,
Mahakasyapa, who in turn passed it down from generation to generation:
The great Bodhidarma left India and, after facing many dangers came and
transmitted the religion to the sixth patriarch, Hui Neng, himself the
disciple of the fifth patriarch, Huang Ren. When Bodhidarlna first
arrived, as he was entirely unknown, he started proselytizing, in order
to ease the transmitting of his teachings. Once he had recruited 90
followers from among the people, realizing that proselytizing could
cause factionalism, he stayed with Hui Neng and ceased all proselytizing
from then on. From then on, teaching was to be done from heart to
Nanyue Huairang was the first to receive this heart
to heart teaching; Huairang taught Ma Daoyi in the same way, and he in
turn became Bai Zhang’s teacher. It is from Bai Zhang that I know this
method. It is by now well known in the North. Since there are many men
who follow the way of Mahayana, I decided to go South to seek men of
intellect: A predestined cause ordained our meeting".
Then Wu Yantong taught his disciple a litany, which we divide into several parts and paraphrase, in the interest of clarity.
a. History of Buddhism. The first section of the poem
recalls the legendary history of the faith, beginning from Sakyamuni,
passing through Mahakasyapa and so on, until Bodhidharma brought it to
China and founded Chinese Chan Buddhism. Thereafter, Chan Buddhism was
divided into five sects. The first Chan order is known as the "heart
sect", since it postulates the heart which is in every living creature
as its fundamental principle.
b. The principle of the heart. To say that Buddha
transmitted the religion of the eyes to his disciple Mahakasyapa is in
fact to say that Buddha transmitted nothing at all, because genuine
religion is nothing more than the heart that resides already within
Mahakasyapa as it does in every person. If we can attest to the
existence of the heart, we can also be sure that the Western Paradise,
Buddha’s universe, the Nirvana, is always to be found in that heart and
nowhere else. The same moon, the same sun, the same mountains and rivers
fill this world, so if we can attest to the existence of the heart,
then the same moon, sun, mountains and rivers can be said to constitute
Nirvana. One must follow this Truth exactly, for the slightest error
will cause a deviation of a thousand miles. Indeed, Truth is within
everyone, and the farther one goes searching for it, the farther one is
from the Truth.
c. Wu Yantong enjoined Cam Thanh to observe
carefully, think deeply and not misunderstand the spirit of his
teaching, as any misunderstanding might lead future generations into
error. The marvelous heart, i.e. Nirvana, cannot be asked about
directly, because it is above reason, above language. Thus if anyone
asks about it, one must keep silent.
THIEN HOI, THE THIRD GENERATION
Thien Hoi was born in Sieu Loai district, Bac Ninh
province (actual Ha Bac). As a boy, he studied at the Dinh Thien Pagoda
in his native village. While still an adolescent he entered orders and
took the name To Phong. He then became a disciple of Cam Thanh in Kien
One day the disciple asked his teacher, Cam Thanh,
"In the sutras, Gautama Buddha said he trained in the immensity and void
to become a Buddha. Now you say the heart is Buddha. Buddha is the
heart: "What do you mean by this?" The master answered, "Who is the
person speaking the words spoken in the sutras?"
"Those words were not pronounced by the Buddha then?"
"No, Buddha did not speak those words. In the
Scriptures, Buddha says, "when I was among the living, I taught them for
49 years, without ever writing down a single sentence". This he said
because his religion was the true one. If you rely upon written texts to
find the way, you will become bogged down in details; if you endure
suffering to find Buddha you will become lost; if you part with the
heart to find Buddha, you commit a heresy; but if you accept that this
heart is Buddha then it must be so."
The disciple asked, "If you say the heart is Buddha, then within the heart what is Buddha and what isn’t?"
To this the master answered,
"Long ago someone asked the Patriarch Ma, ‘If you say that the heart is
Buddha, then what in the heart is Buddha?’ Ma answered, ‘If you suspect
that the heart is not Buddha, please take it out and show it to me.’ The
man could not. Ma pursued, ‘If you succeed, you will find Buddha
everywhere, in everything. If you fail you will go from one error to the
next.3 This means that you err because you are hidden from the truth by one sentence only. Do you understand now?"
"If that is so, I understand."’
"What have you understood?"
"That Buddha is everywhere, in everything and where Buddha is, there also is the heart."
Once he had spoken, the disciple prostrated himself.
Cam Thanh said, "So you have achieved enlightenment." He then gave his
disciple the name Thien Hoi, which means "to understand well". The
latter returned to Dinh Thien Pagoda to become the resident monk there.
In the year 800 he died, passing his seal to his disciple, Van Phong.
Between the introduction of Buddhism in Vietnam and the founding of the
Wu Yantong sect lies a period of almost one thousand years. Vietnam was
during this time known successively as Giao Chi, Giao Chau, Ai Chau,
Nhat Nam. It was already one of the bases from which Buddhism was to
spread through East Asia, one of the earliest locales where Buddhist
sutras were preached and translated, and finally one of the important
stops for monks teaching and searching for scriptures.
Whether originating from the South or the North the
proselytizing of Buddhism was always peaceful and showed no sign of
xenophobia towards foreign religions, as was the case in China. Many
Vietnamese came to Buddhism of their own accord, and adopted the
Buddhist beliefs such as compassion, reincarnation, retribution, etc.,
in order to train themselves and help others. There were some (such as
Ly Phat Tu) who used Buddhism to rally the population to resist the
domination of the Chinese. In time, Buddhism penetrated deeper and
deeper into the heart of the Vietnamese people. By the end of Chinese
rule, it had become generalized throughout the society. In every
Vietnamese Buddhist, religious identity and national identity were
closely related, and became strong factors in the national insurrection
of the tenth century. This mixed identity also created favorable
conditions for the adoption of Buddhism as a national religion after the
recovery of Vietnam’s independence.
1 One summer is equal to one year cloistering in a temple.
2 I.e., the Buddha’s intelligence.
3 From the Chinese original, meaning, "If successful, everyone will become Buddha; if not, they will fail forever."