Buddhism in Vietnam (1) - Mai Tho Truyen

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One fifth of the Vietnamese population of approximately 25 million is composed of hill tribes. According to an accurate remark of a French observer at least three quarters of the popolation, or 15 million, are "lukewarm or warm Buddhists": the reason being that the "Light of Asia" apread very early in the country; from the beginning of the second century of the Christian era in fact.

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

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

I. THE INTRODUCTION OF BUDDHISM

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

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

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

II. GROWTH

a) Beginning.

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

b) Pause (939-968)

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

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

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

c) Prosperity (969-1009)

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

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

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

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

d) Flourishing under the Ly (1010-1225)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(to be continued)

Chanh Tri MAI THO TRUYEN

Source: phatviet.com