Buddhism in Vietnam (2) - Mai Tho Truyen
During the first seventy years of the Trần dynasty, the expansion of Buddhism slowed down, though it maintained its importance despite the advances made by Confucianism. The founder of the dynasty himself and his grandson, crowned in 1278, were held to be even more devout than the Emperors of the Lý dynasty. Vietnamese Buddhism is indebted to the former for many favours and an unreserved support and also for two treatises, one on meditation and the other on the Doctrine in general, both of which are of a high religious and literary standard.
His grandson abdicated after a reign of fifteen years, in order to retire to a monastery on Mount Yên tử, where he devoted himself to the practice of Zen and the instruction of numerous disciples. In North Viet Nam he is considered the first of the three patriarchs of the Trúc Lâm (Bamboo Forest) sect.
But it seemed that Buddhism had already attained the height of its ascendancy. In 1414 Viet Nam again fell under Chinese domination; this time for ten years. Under the influence of the Minh dynasty a new impetus was given to Confucianism, which produced significant developments in philosophy and literature. The influence of Taoism grew also and there was an influx of Tibetan Buddhism in its Tantric form. At the same time the Chinese governors confiscated all Buddhist books and had Buddhist temples systematically destroyed.
Viet-Nam regained its indepedence in 1428 but this did not help Buddhism very much. The Emperor Thái Tổ of the later Lê dynasty instituted an examination for monks: those who failed had to return to lay life. Thirty years later repressive measures were introduced, which interfered with the monks and prohibited the construction of new temples. Buddhism retained its support among the people as a whole but it lost its original purity and degenerated into a mixture of different ideas or syncretism.
Between 1528 and 1802 the struggle for power between the lords of Trịnh in the North and the lords of Nguyên in the South favoured the creation of new Zen sects, under Chinese masters, and the building of temples, as both factions wanted the support of the people, who were profoundly attached to Buddhism. The rebuilding of the temples Quỳnh Lâm and Sùng nghiêm, ordered by the lord Trịnh Giang in the North, is famous on account of the tremendous amount of work involved; 6,000 craftsmen and builders working day and night for a whole year.
The lords of Nguyễn in the South showed a similar zeal. In 1601 Nguyễn Hoàng ordered the Thiên Mụ temple to be built, which is still to be seen at Huế. A pagoda of seven storeys and an exceptionally resonnant bell are the pride of this famous temple. Encouraged by Nguyễn Hoàng many Chinese monks travelled around the country, expounding the Doctrine, and they were responsible for building most of the temples in and near Huế, so that they are well remembered.
The Nguyễn restored nationl unity but Buddhism became in their hands an instrument for consolidating political power. The monks were simply custodians of official temples and had to be on hand to preside at ceremonies. The essence of Buddhism was so obscured that there was a general slackness in the monasteries and people imagined that the Buddha was a sort of god, who would reward them if they gave him presents.
The situation became worse still with the advent of French colonisation in the second half of the nineteenth century. For the ensuing period of eighty years or so Buddhism was actively menaced by Roman Catholicism and was subject to many repressive measures, such as control of the monks, necessity to obtain permission to built temples, restrictions on the right of the Community to accept gifts and legacies etc. Serious monks therefore prefered to live a solitaty life, which left the field open for those who indulged in «priestcraft». The latter, who naturally had only their own interests at heart, furthered the development of the syncretism already mentioned, so that Buddhism in VietNam presented the sorry sight of a religious hotch-potch, composed of mysticism, Tantrism, animism and polytheism.
IV. MODERN BUDDHISM
Starting in 1920, after the manner of similar events in Nationnalist China, a new movement was launched simultaneously in the three main regions of Viet Nam: North, Centre and South. The movement aimed at a regeneration of Buddhism and even serious obstacles were not able to stop it. But it was not until 1931 that the first Association of Buddhist Studies was founded at Saigon Similar associations were founded at Huế in 1932 and Hanoi in 1934.
Each association naturaly had its own programme but, composed as they were of both monks and laymen, it was their task to improve conditions in the monasteries, tighten up discipline, instruct a new generation of monks, who should be both devout and well educated and finally to ensure a wide diffusion of the Doctrine in the language of the country and not, as in the past, through the medium of Chinese characters. With such aims in view many magazines and translations from the Buddhist Canon, both Theravadin (Southern) and Mahayanist (Northern), were published. It is paradoxical that while Zen lost its influence it was Amidism that took its place, which it retains at the time of writing.
This movement to revive Buddhism met with success and there was a change of opinion among the intellectuals, who were disillusioned with Western materialism. Many joined the movement and supported it not only financially but also with their help in the work of Buddhist instruction. Unfortunately the second World War just about put a stop to all these efforts but they began again in 1948 when the situation seemed a little clearer. At Hanoi the communities of monks broken up by the war were reformed and the Buddhist community was reorganized, together with the Association of laymen. A year later, thanks to the initiative of Venerable Tố Liên and Trí Hải and the strong support of the laity, an orphanage, a school, a printing press and social works to help the victims of the war raging in the countryside, were also established at Hanoi. Similar reorganization was carried out at Huế. Ruined temples in several places were rebuilt or restored; old publications reappeared and authors and translators went back to work with energy.
Two year later a new Association of Buddhist Studies came into existence at Saigon, to replace the previous one that was no longer active.
On May 6th., 1951, a national Buddhist Congress was held at Huế, attended by about fifty monks and laymen. Important resolutions were passed, concerning the unification of the three Associations, the reorganisation in depth of the Sangha, the standardisation of ceremonies. Buddist instrution for adults and the formation of Buddist youth movements. The Congress further ratified the support given by Venerable Tố Liên, delegate from the North, to the World Fellowship of Buddhists, which came into existence as a result of the first World Congress held at Colombo in 1950.
The second World Congress, held at Tokyo in September 1952, gave to Vietnamese Buddhism, now unified, an opportunity to show its vigour. The Singhalese delegation to this Congress were taking a relic of the Buddha to Japan, aboard the French steamer «La Marseillaise», which had to stop for a day at Saigon. It was decided to accord a devout reception to this relic and under the auspices of unified Vietnamese Buddhism 50,000 people, who had assembled in less than six days, gave the capital of Vietnam an impressive view of faith, devotion and discipline such as had not been sen before.
This peaceful demonstration had happy results. From the North to the South a reinvigorated Buddhism, warmly acclaimed, was able to broaden its scope and offset the effect of unorthodox sects. Since then social works, shools for monks, private schools under Buddhist auspices and youth organizations have increased and flourished. Progress was made in making known Buddhist thought and it was only the partition of the country into two zones by the Geneva Agreement that hindered still more far-reaching results.
(to be continued)
Chanh Tri MAI THO TRUYEN
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