Introduction to Buddhism in Viet Nam and Vietnamese Zen

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Introduction to


By Tam Ha Le Cong Da



Introduction to Buddhism in Viet Nam and Vietnamese ZenWhen Buddhism spreads to Vietnam, the Dharma, adapting to the times and the capacities of the people, consists of two traditions, the Northern and the Southern. The Southern tradition (Theravada) emphasizes everyday practical realities and swift self-emancipation, leading to the fruits of the Arahats or Pratyeka Buddhas. The Northern tradition (Mahayana, or Great Vehicle) teaches all-encompassing truths and stresses the goal of liberating all sentient beings, leading to the complete Enlightenment of the Tathagatas. With both traditions now existing in Vietnam, we can explain how Buddhism came to Vietnam.


Intent to give readers the overview of Buddhism in Vietnam, this article focus mainly on the great times and significant events that have great impacts on Vietnamese Buddhist history so that one may see clearly how Buddhism has made great contributions to the founding, and protecting of the country.


I. The beginning of Buddhism in Vietnam


How did the Buddhism come to Vietnam? Many people at first believe that it came from China. The reason is that China is a big neighbor and Vietnam was influenced strongly by Chinese politics as well as culture for many centuries. Actually, it's not true. Buddhism came to Vietnam directly from India.


In the past, Vietnam was very much like the intersection between India and China (That's why the French call this country as Indochina). At that time, either walking, or by boat, people made a trip from India to China or vice versa, in doing so they must cross Vietnam. Viet nam, therefore, was a good place to stop by for foreign business people as well as Buddhist monks.


Back to 3rd century BC, after King Asoka organized the Third Council - a Conference to Collect the Dharma - at Pataliputra, India, he sent 9 Buddhist monk delegates overseas. The monks went from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean to teach Dharma. One of these, lead by Sona and Uttara went to Burma then Indochina, including Viet Nam. Now, in Haiphong -60miles north east of HaNoi - there is a memorial tower to commemorate King Asoka that was built by local Vietnamese Buddhists at that time to express their gratitude to King Asoka. From that evidence, we may come up with conclusion that Buddhism came to Vietnam as early as 300 years BC, even before China.


Then in 2nd century (168-189), Buddhism in VietNam became more popular and developed with the contribution of three great Buddhist monks who came from India: MARAJIVAKA, K'ANG SENG HOUEI, TCHI KIANG LIANG and a local scholar, MECU -FO (MAU - BAC or MAU - TU in Vietnamese). Because MECU FO played a very important role in developing the Buddhism in Viet nam, we may want to take a close look at him.


MECU-FO was born in between the time 165 -170 in TS'ANG-WU. Many Chinese historians now acclaimed that he was Chinese, but in fact he was Vietnamese or might have been born and raised in a great Chinese-Vietnamese family. To support that theory , we knew that TS'ANG-WU, now consists of KWANG-TUNG and KWANG-SI provinces, originally was a part of Vietnam which was invaded and annexed to China under Han Dynasty, 111 BC. MECU-FO was a talented scholar who understood the philosophies of both great Chinese philosophers Lao Tseu and Confucius well, so that in any debate, he easily made the comparison between those Chinese philosophy traditions and Buddhism and gained the respect among the Chinese scholars at that time. His famous book, "Reason and Doubt" was considered as the first one written at that time about Buddhism, not only in Vietnam but also in East Asia.


MECU-FO was mandarin. He took advantage of his position to teach his people about Buddhism. Because of his important contribution, Vietnamese Buddhists always consider him as a first lay man to help build a Buddhist stronghold in Southeast Asia, particularly, in Luy Lau, the capital of Vietnam at that time.


II. The Ly (1010-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) Dynasties: The Golden Age of Buddhism


Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG, the founder of Vietnamese Meditation School, TRUC LAM YEN TU.


For almost 10 centuries, Vietnam was dominated by Chinese. Under the Chinese cruel rule, Vietnamese people were suffering a lots. The Chinese which employed the “Sinicization” - the cultural invasion - tried to uproot the Vietnamese traditions and in the long run, transformed the Vietnamese to become Chinese and annex Vietnam to be one of its province. Many historians now look back into the past still wonder how Vietnam can survive and still exist under such aggressive policy. For us, the answer would be Buddhism. Yes, it's no doubt that Vietnamese people have absorbed the Buddha teaching for many centuries. Buddhism was very much like a glue to tighten them together to live in peace and happiness. Strongly believe in Buddha teaching, especially the universal Law of Cause and Effect, Vietnamese people believe that the evil power someday would be eroded.


During the Chinese rule, there were many revolt attempts to liberate the country including the famous one led by TWO SISTERS TRUNG in the early years of First century. The Buddhist temples -or what we now call the Buddhist communities-by that time certainly played a key role in those movements. It's easy to understand why, because that's the common place to gather and mobilize people. That's why now Vietnamese Buddhist are always proud to say that Buddhism is people's religion. (What's happened to Vietnam in the past is exactly the same thing like the Tibetan Buddhist movements to liberate their country from Chinese at the present time).


Finally, in 939 NGO QUYEN, a Vietnamese general, led the Vietnamese people to fight and win the big battle against the Chinese army on the BACH DANG river, Vietnam then became an independent state. But from independence to a strong, healthy country, it took almost one century. For that period, especially under DINH Dynasty, Vietnamese Buddhists with many excellent monks worked closely with the current government helping to build the kingdom. In return, the emperor, DINH TIEN HOANG, is a Buddhist himself, was helping to organize the Shangha and named KHUONG VIET, the highest ranking monk as his national security adviser. He also named the Most Venerable PHAPTHUAN as his Secretary of State. This was the first time in Vietnamese history, the emperor declared Buddhism as a national religion.


The young nation, of course, had to deal with many problem, domestic as well as foreign matters. But, the critical problem was the pressure from its big neighbor, China. For that period, Vietnam was always under the threat of Chinese invasion. The threat became more clearer when the Chinese government (under SONG Dynasty) in 968 sent a diplomatic delegate to visit Vietnam. Actually, the visiting delegate carried a spy mission. Its purpose was to estimate how strong the kingdom was, in order to make the final decision whether or not to launch the attack. To reach the capital of Viet nam at that time, the delegation must crossed the HONG river and the first Vietnamese that they met were a ferry-man. During the conversation on the boat, the Chinese were impressed by that guy. They couldn't believe that in a small country like Vietnam, even the ferry-man was very smart and educated, who had deep knowledge about everything, able to discuss with them in any topics, including writing a poem just in seconds. The ferry-man, one may have guessed, was actually the Most Venerable PHAP THUAN, Secretary of State in disguise. Later on, when they met the Vietnamese counterpart, led by the Most Venerable KHUONG VIET, they knew exactly that the country was well prepared, therefore, it's too risky for them to launch the invasion. The kingdom was safe. That's the first time in Vietnamese history, we won a diplomatic war against China. Both KHUONG VIET and PHAP THUAN, the highest ranking monks of the Vietnamese Buddhist -the Sangha- with their diplomatic skills saved the new independent kingdom from invasion.


More than 30 years later, the Chinese began to build up the military force on its border with Vietnam. Facing with the near invasion, the country was in panic. The royal families and the army had no choice but to work together to elect the good leader to lead the country through that difficult time. LY CONG UAN, the Commander in Chief of the army, a talent, kind and high moral general was enthroned to become the new emperor. That's the birth of the LY DYNASTY (1010).

LY CONG UAN was Buddhist, actually a Buddhist monk when he was young. He was raised by Zen Master VAN HANH in a Buddhist temple since he was 3 years old. Looking into the political atmosphere at that time, we knew that VAN HANH was not only his religious master, but also his mentor. Therefore, when becoming an emperor, he asked The Venerable VAN HANH to become his national advisor. Under his rein, about 300 Buddhist temples were built, and in the capital, the Sangha with his help, was well organized which had about 1000 excellent monks. Like ASOKA of India, the emperor applied Buddha teaching into every aspects to govern the country. With full of compassion, the first thing the Emperor did was to give the order to burn all kinds of fishing nets, to set free all kind of birds. He also freed all the inmates from the previous dynasty. For people who felt mistreat by the local government, he allowed them to go to the capital to see him directly...


Influenced deeply by Buddhism, the next emperor was very kind too. The killings of animals, especially, cows and buffaloes were forbidden. He once woke up at midnight in a very cold winter. He saw his lovely daughter was trembling in the cold, and felt very sorrow, not for his daughter but for his all people. He said, “Oh! My daughter who has all kind of fine winter clothing was still tremble like that. How do my people who don't have enough clothing?”.


The LY Dynasty lasted more than two centuries. With good advice from VAN HANH at the very first beginning and many excellent monks later on, Vietnam rapidly became a strong, and civilized state. This is the first time in history, under LY dynasty, Vietnam had built the justice system that tend to educate the criminals rather than punish them. Also this is the first time, Vietnam had its first university which produced many talented scholars as well as public administrators who working for the royal government. Under LY dynasty, the military was also very strong. Employed by the strategy “The best defense is offense”, Vietnamese army, the first time in history, crossed the border and strike two provinces of southern China where the Chinese was building the logistic systems in preparation to invade Viet Nam. Vietnam won that war.


That's the golden time in Vietnam history, also the golden time of Buddhism in Viet Nam.


Then came the TRAN dynasty. Like the LY dynasty, all emperors of TRAN Dynasty were Buddhists who understood the Buddha teaching well. The Buddhism under TRAN dynasty went to the next stage, the highest level of development. The first emperor, TRAN THAI TONG (1225-1258) dedicated to being a monk rather than a king. So, one night, like what Buddha had done more than thousand years ago, he abdicated the throne, escaped from his family and went into hiding up in the mountain to practice Buddhism. The next day, the powerful prime minister lead the royal family members and all the members of the Imperial Court left the capital to look for him. Finally they found him and asked him to return to the capital to govern his country. The emperor refused. Knowing that they had no power to persuade him, all the people threatened to commit the suicide. The emperor had no choice but to return.


At that time, the Mongolian became a super power in the world stage. By then, half of the world already felt into the Mongolian hands: Central Asia, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Iran... then China. After dominating China, Mongolian look into Vietnam. Then 30,000 troops of Mongolian cavalry - very well known at that time - crossed the border and attacked Vietnam the first time on January 17, 1258. Emperor TRAN THAI TONG -the one who wanted to be a Buddhist monk - now commanded the Vietnamese army to fight back. It took about 2 weeks, the Mongolian was defeated.


Angry over the defeat, the Mongolian took the revenge. The second invasion was well prepared, began on August 1284, with 200,000 strong troops under the command of a Mongolian prince. This time, the commander of Vietnamese army was Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG, also a devout Buddhist. The second invasion was not luckier than the first time. After 6 months that both sides had engaged into the fierce battles, the Mongolian was defeated and there was only a few thousands survived to back home.


For Mongolian, especially Emperor Koubilai, the defeat was so unbelievable and unbearable. It's too shameful for the Mongolian empire, therefore, only two months after the defeat, Koubilai giving the order to mobilize all of his best units, ready to take the revenge. On December 25, 1287, 500,000 Mongolian troops under the command of the same Prince, one more time, crossed the border to invade Viet Nam the third time. Again, Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG led the Vietnamese army to fight back and defeat the Mongolian. This time it took for only 4 months. Like last time, there were only few thousands Mongolian survived to comeback. After the third try, the Mongolian quitting the idea to invade Vietnam. Vietnam then began enjoying the peaceful time for about two centuries.


After fulfilling the duties to protect the country and his people, Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG abdicated the throne to become a monk. He went to the YEN TU mountain to practice Buddhism. There he founded TRUC LAM (Bamboo Forest) Meditation School, the first Vietnamese Zen tradition that attracted thousands of followers at that time. TRAN NHAN TONG used most of his time to go to the country side, giving Buddha teaching to people. He organized many Buddhist conferences, wrote many books about Buddhism. After years of teaching, one day he came back to YEN TU mountain and asked his most senior, favorite student to come to see him. That night, after giving his student last lesson, he told him: "It's time for me to leave", then went to Nibbana peacefully. TRAN NHAN TONG was a big name in Vietnamese history as well as Buddhist history.


Vietnamese people as well as Vietnamese Buddhists enjoyed the golden time under TRAN Dynasty which prolonged about two centuries. One may recognize that in this historical period, the country 's intellectual class was mainly consists of Buddhist monks. It's easy to understand why. Under policy of exterminating Vietnamese culture, Chinese which dominated Vietnam for almost 10 centuries, had forbid to establish the local education system in Vietnam. Buddhist temples, therefore, were only places where people can go to get education. As a result , Buddhist Church had produced many talent scholars as well as public administrators to form a backbone of country's intellectual class at that time. That's the fruit of about one thousand years under Chinese non-educational system policy. The interesting thing was, though Buddhism obviously played the important role in shaping the country, it had never seek to influence the government or discriminate the other religions to gain the supremacy. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism together coexisted in harmony under the LY-TRAN dynasties.


III. Buddhism spread into the South (1558 - ...)


King Nguyen Phuc Chu (1691-1725), a Bodhisattva in Precepts, played a big role to prosper Buddhism in the South.


A historical turn in Vietnam's history had began with the power struggle between the two brothers - Nguyen Hoang and his brother in law, Trinh Kiem - within a powerful family under the Le dynasty. At that time, the king had no power, the real power was at Trinh Kiem' hands, acting as country's prime minister. To avoid persecuting and possible murdering by his brother in-law, Nguyen Hoang left the kingdom seeking refuge in the South where the territory which Vietnam gained from Champa from Tran dynasty had not been developing yet. Officially, he came there as the governor of the new land which was consists of four provinces: Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thuan Hoa (Hue), and Quang Nam (DaNang). Going with him are loyal followers and whoever wanted to seek the opportunities to build new lives in the new land. Thus, Nguyen Hoang was considered as a pioneer of a movement that Vietnam's history call “Southern Forward Campaign” aiming at expanding Vietnam territory to the South. He later found a Southern kingdom named DAI VIET -Great Vietnam- and claimed independent to the North that led to a war between two clans, the "Trinh-Nguyen Civil War" in Vietnamese history, that prolonged more than two centuries.

Nguyen Hoang was a devout Buddhist. After resettling in Quang Tri and moving to Hue later, he knew that a new country needs a new spirit so he relied in Buddhism to boost the country's moral. That's why he build many temples and promoted some Buddhist monks to the rank of State monks to taking care of religious affairs. The kingdom at that time, in fact, was in a state of war, facing two enemies at both ends, Champa in the South and Trinh in the North but Nguyen's dynasty had exempt young Buddhist monks from draft, that showed how favor of state toward Buddhism. Nguyen Hoang died in 1613. His son, Nguyen Phuoc Nguyen was enthroned. Nguyen was also a devout Buddhist and best known in history as a compassionate king who governed the country with loving and tolerance, that's why people loved him so much and called him "Chua Sai" - The Monk King.


But until NGUYEN PHUC CHU took power, then Buddhism in Southern kingdom got a big boost. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU (1691-1725) was enthroned at the age of seventeen and was a strong devout Buddhist more than any of his predecessors. Not satisfied with the present condition of Vietnam Buddhism, and upsetting about the Shangha where many Buddhist monks lacking of Dharma knowledge and not keeping precepts seriously, though very busy with national defense matters, he set a high priority to improve Shangha. Therefore, in 1695, he invited a well known Chinese monk of Kwang Tung, China, The Most Venerable THICH DAI SAN, came to Hue to help him reorganize and upgrade the Shangha. Ven. DAI SAN arrived in Hue in January of 1696, going with him was a fleet of monks and followers numbered at about hundred. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU was very happy to see him and said to him at the first meeting: "Most of monks don't follow the precepts completely. I will summon all of them here so you may work with them on this matter. Let's prepare to ordain them all and giving precepts. .. You, Sir, may make a public announcement about this event which will open on April 1 till Buddha Birthday (April 8) of this year". After three months working with the King and few Vietnamese state monks, THICH DAI SAN opened a Grand Bikkhus Ordained in Hue which had more than 1,400 Vietnamese monks took part. That would be a big mass ordain in Vietnamese Buddhist history, especially in Vietnam Southern state. Monks over the country had to participate this event in order to get the Precepts Certificate which carried a King seal that recognizes them as Buddhist monks, that could exempt them from military draft, public works and paying taxes.


King NGUYEN PHUC CHU, his family, and most of high ranking public administrators from Royal Court also asked Ven. THICH DAI SAN to be their spiritual master, and all of them got Bodhisattva in precepts from DAI SAN. Ven. THICH DAI SAN claimed that he is the 29th patriarch of Chinese TaoTong Zen School and because it's a great honor for him to have a King as student, he passed the position to King NGUYEN PHUC CHU as his successor, the 30th patriarch of TaoTong Zen School. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU also sent his men to China to buy thousand copies of Sutras, Vinaya ... to store in every temple's libraries. Under his directions, many temples were built or upgraded, such as Kinh Thien Temple (Quang Binh, 1716), Hoang Giac (Quang Dien, 1721),... and the famous one, THIEN MU temple, was refurbished in 1714 . The temple had a new big bell which its lovely sound may reach as far as ten miles away, best known in history as well as Vietnamese literature as "The Sound of Thien Mu 's Bell". To mark the celebration of the renovation temple, the King and family vowed to eat vegetarian foods strictly for one month; also to show his compassionate heart by giving foods, rice, money for the poor over the country.


Thus, one can see, King NGUYEN PHUC CHU has made a great contribution in establishing, expanding Buddhism to the South. More than one century, he and his predecessors have worked hard to prosper Buddhism and unofficially make it to become the state religion in his king dom. That's we are not wonder why Hue -the capital- as well as Quang Tri province were considered as the root, the stronghold of Vietnamese Buddhist from that time up to now which has produced many great, talent monks in the Vietnamese modern time. We may compare his works with two famous kings in Buddhist history, King Asoka of India and King TRAN NHAN TONG of Vietnam. Under his rein, Vietnamese also accomplished the "Southern Forward Campaign", took control over last piece of land of Champa Kingdom, now Binh Thuan province, in 1692 and began set foot on Cambodia territory in 1698.


IV. Buddhism in the contemporary time


The Buddhist Movement in 1963 and the Birth of Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Church.


Vietnam had been endured the French colonist for almost a century, since 1858. During that time, suspicious of potential threats to their power, the French was pursuing a persecuted policy toward Buddhism by limited the Buddhist clergy and curbed the construction of temples. Moreover, at the first place, the purpose of the French invasion was also to spread Christianity into Viet Nam. Therefore, no wonder why they favored Catholics and discriminated Buddhism. For example, in 1950, the French colonist government in VietNam issue Decree #10 which imposed a "private" status on Buddhism. Thus Buddhism now was considered as a club, not a religion, which required to obtain official permission to conduct any public activities.


There were many movements attempted to liberate the country. Finally, what we called "The First Vietnam War" -the war between Vietnam and France- ended in 1954. The Geneva Accord divided Vietnam into two countries, which put the North under Communists control and the South to the nationalists which was led by BAO DAI, the last emperor of VietNam. BAO DAI then assigned NGO DINH DIEM, a Catholic, as his prime minister to form a new government in South Vietnam. NGO DINH DIEM later overthrew BAO DAI to become the head of state.


President Diem applied exactly the same discrimination policy of the French toward Buddhism. Decree #10 of French colonist was reinforced. His older brother, NGO DINH THUC, the most powerful member of the NGO family and also a Catholic Archbishop, was assigned to Hue, Central of Vietnam, which is considered as a Buddhist stronghold in Vietnam.


Then on May 8, 1963, while the Buddhists in Hue prepared to celebrate Buddha's Birthday, one urgent order came from the central government that prohibited them to display the International Buddhist Flag. Coincidentally, a Vatican delegate visited Hue at the same time and people believed that archbishop THUC was behind that order because it irritated him to see the city of Hue - where, over 95% of population is Buddhist - covered with Buddhist Flags, during the visit of Vatican delegate. This act of discrimination upset many local Buddhists. Thousands of them then rallied in front of the local government radio station to listen to the Buddhist leader's address, the formal conduct to celebrate Buddha 's Birthday that has repeated every year. But this time, they hoped to hear some explanations regarding the government 's discrimination order too. Worried that the Buddhist leader might use the broadcasting system to criticize the government and mobilize his Buddhist followers to take the action, the director of radio station canceled the address. He then telephoned the local chief army for help. Five armored cars were dispatched to the scene to disperse the gathering with the result of 9 Buddhists lying dead in blood.


Vietnamese Buddhists had no choice but to stand up to condemn the killings and struggle for the religious freedom. The movement quickly gained the momentum and spread rapidly to the whole country. On May 25, 1963, 10 Buddhist delegates from both traditions in Vietnam held an emergency meeting in Saigon to discuss the situation. As a result, a "Committee To Protect Buddhism" was formed to lead the movement. The committee, on behalf of Vietnamese Buddhists, filed 5 - points petition asking the government to terminate the persecution against Buddhism. Since then, many rallies, demonstrations, hunger strikes took place everywhere. Then came a big thing: On June 11, the Most Venerable THICH QUANG DUC was self-immolated on a busy intersection of Saigon to protest. His last words, a respectful plea to Diem, asking the president to show "charity and compassion" to all religions. Next morning, a photograph of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who sat calmly on the street, pressed his palm together in prayer as a sheet of flame covered his orange robe, appeared almost on every newspapers' front page in the