Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1

Buddhism and Formation of Vietnamese Cultural Identity (1st to 10th Century AD)

Bachchan Kumar

Vietnam lies at the easternmost end of mainland South East Asia. It is located between 102°10' and 109°28' East longitude and 8°22' to 23°23' North latitude. On the geographical map, Vietnam appears as an elongated ‘S’ or Vietnamese very aptly describe their country as “a carrying pole with two rice baskets hanging from its ends.” It is bordered on the north by China, to the west by Laos and Cambodia, and to the east and south by the South China Sea.

Vietnam is a composition of two words i.e. Viet and Nam. The Viet is a dominant ethnic group while Nam means south. Thus the meaning of Vietnam appears to be Viet of south. Vietnam was known by various names during rules by various people and various times. Early Chinese historians used the term Bach Viet (hundred of Yues) for the people living south of Yangtze River.1 In fact, the generic term used for a number of tribal groups, among them the Lac Viet, who lived on the plain and coastal regions of present day northern Vietnam and part of present-day Guangdong province in China. Lac Viet then comprised 15 tribes, each with a fixed area of habitation. In the seventh century, after putting down a series of revolt by the Vietnamese, the Chinese renamed the territory Annam, meaning “pacific south”. After the Vietnamese overthrew the direct Chinese rule in AD 939, the territory was called as Dai Co Viet (country of the great Viet people). As the kingdom extended its borders, the three natural divisions of Vietnam-north, central and south-came to be known to the Vietnamese as Bac Viet, Trung Viet and Nam Viet respectively. Vietnam is the modern name, which was given in 1802 when Emperor Gio Long for the first time unified the country.

At present, Vietnamese identify themselves as Buddhists. But apart from the priests, monks and other professional religionists, few Vietnamese adhere rigidly to tenets of Buddhism. The Buddhism in Vietnam has undergone spiritual and interpretative transformation because of the impact of Taoism, Confucianism and local folklore, other religious institutions and superstitious belief during various independent dynastic rules. This paper discusses the development of Buddhism in Vietnam and the formation of Vietnamese cultural identity during Chinese rule.

For the study of Buddhism in ancient North Vietnam, very little sources are available. The original source materials are in Chinese. After arduous efforts made by the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha, monks and scholars have translated some of the original works which are now available in Vietnamese and English. The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha is also doing sincere efforts. The Sangha is not only translating the original Vietnamese Buddhist texts but also analyzing the philosophical essence of the classical works of the important Buddhist monks and bonzes.

The Vietnamese inherited their rich cultural heritage from four consecutive indigenous civilizations i.e Phung Nguyen (end of the third millennium BC), Dong Dau (second half of the second millennium BC), Go Mun (early in the 1st millennium BC) and the most developed Dongson (800 BC to 2nd century AD). The Dongsonian acclaimed the most dynamic prevailing religion, the Buddhism that had humane value, philosophy and beliefs.

Pre-Buddhist Vietnamese Culture :

The Vietnamese trace their origin to Hung Vuong, the founder of the Vietnamese nation and of the first Vietnamese dynasty — the Hong Bang. The Hung kings were firmly in control only of the Me Linh region at the confluence of the Red River and its two tributaries, the Da and the Chay, at the point where the Red River emerges from the mountain. Beyond this, the Hung kings were to some degree dependent upon the cooperation of the Lac Viet lords, a branch of ethnic group who lived on the plains and coastal regions of present-day northern Vietnam and part of present day Guangdong province of China. The Hung kings seemingly protected the Lac Lords against raids and invasions from the mountain, while the Lac lords supported the Hung kings with their manpower and wealth. Henri Maspero2, conjecturing from the upland societies of northern Vietnam in his day, described this as a hierarchical society based on hereditary privilege, mutual obligation, and personal loyalty. The people lived in the village or small kinship communities under the rule of Lac lords. The Lac lords enjoyed different level of privilege and authority, from the village headman up to regional leaders who personally advised the Hung kings. The Hung kings maintained their prestige with a prosperous court life that facilitated peaceful relations with neighbouring mountain people. Legendary traditions and Dongson tombs confirms this picture of Lac society. Lac society was relatively advanced and apparently self-contained.

Most scholars believe that in the Lac society, women played an important role.3 It is most likely that bilineal family system existed. It was a type of family system in which inheritance rights could have passed through both maternal and paternal sides. The Lac people had very organized and advanced society which could be considered more developed than the expanding political centers of north China. This situation began to unravel with the arrival of Chinese power on the South China Sea in the fourth century BC.

Towards the end of the 3rd century BC, King Thuc Phan of the Tay Au (a-mountain regions of the present day Viet Bac and also some parts of Kwangsi in China) defeated the last Hung ruler and merged the territories of the Tay Au and Lac Viet to form the kingdom of Au Lac in the year 258 BC. He took the royal title of An Duong and set up an embryonic state, with a court and an army.4

After the victory over Hung, King An Duong transferred the capital from the hilly region to the plains, to Co Loa (about 20 kilometers from the present day Hanoi). The king built Co Loa citadel, from where he ruled until his defeat at the hands of Trieu Da, ruler of the kingdom. Co Loa citadel was built from the point of view of controlling both land and seas. It was a most extensive complex — the circumference of the outermost of its three ramparts was some 8 kms. The complex consisted of nine earthen ramparts walled in the shape of a small shell, containing a military encampment, a central market, and some sort of administrative-religious structure of fired bricks and tiles. The construction of citadel points to self-sufficiency of the economy of the kingdom.

The discovery of the bronze drums shows a high degree of metal technology of that time. Appearance of both Iron and lacquer subsequently reveals the prevalence of a specialized crafts workshop. Bronze art and its technology was at its zenith. Large-scale irrigation works were also done which indicate the advancement in agricultural technology in the red river delta. So far the religious practices are concerned we come across very little of that period. Only Dongson drums give a glimpse. It is believed that the Dongson drums were made for the purpose of invoking rain and sometimes it was called “rain drums”. On the drums, which were generally found in the tomb, we see splendid boat laden with figures dressed in feathers. Probably they represent souls embarking for the Land of the Blessed, situated somewhere beyond the eastern origin of the great ocean. In contemporary belief, the soul is often linked to a bird, and that the Shammans, who must have been the “priests”, dressed as birds in order to fly to the land of the dead, where they learn of future events.5

In 111 B.C, Han Empire of China annexed the territory of northern part of Vietnam. It is generally viewed that Vietnam was loosely attached to the Chinese Han Empire until 43 AD when Trung sisters were defeated and 65 citadels were annexed. Complete military and administrative control of northern Vietnam was established only in 43 AD by Han Chinese rule.

Parallel to this advanced culture, there existed another brilliant culture in Vietnam, which extended from a narrow strip of coastal land from south of the Nang Pass (18th parallel) to the basin of the Dong Nai River. This was the Sa Huynh culture, named after the site where it was first discovered on the coast of present-day Nghia Binh province. The main distinguishing characteristic of the culture is a large number of funerals jars (usually 0.6 meters high) containing human remains, ornaments made of bronze, precious stones and glass and bronze or stone tools, artifacts. This Sa Huynh culture later on gave rise to a Malay Polynesian state on the coastal plains of central Vietnam in the 1st century A.D.

It appears that during the past centuries, Vietnamese enjoyed most organized society and advanced culture, which had refined bronze in the form of drums and other objects as well as iron objects. But we come across very precisely the religious belief and practices of that period. No doubt, ethnic religious belief might have been in practice based on nature worship.

Introduction of Buddhism in Vietnam:

Vietnamese scholars believe that Asoka’s two religious missionaries Sona and Uttara brought Buddhism in Vietnam during 3rd century B.C. It is believed that in their honour, one Asoka tower was constructed. Based on Chinese sources, Vietnamese scholars identify that tower at Ne Le Citadal in Giao Chi (presently at Do Son near Hai Phong).6 But unfortunately no other relative materials are available so far.

During third century BC, Vietnamese had a organized society under a strong powerful Au Lac kingdom. Without having convincing religious philosophy, the Vietnamese society had also primitive religious belief based on nature worship. The social, political and cultural set up of Au Lac, no doubt, must have carved the way to welcome a new religion, which had ideology and philosophy. If we consider the existence of Asoka tower at Ne Le Citadel, it might have been constructed under royal patronage. The religion introduced by two Asoka’s missionaries, no doubt, should have been very appealing and convincing one, which impressed the ruler to build a relic in their honour for perpetual existence of the new religion.

According to Nguyen Lang7, during the centuries of the Christian era when there was no trace of Buddhism in South China, the Vietnamese had solid Buddhist Centre Luy Lau located at Giao Chi. It was because there were direct routes between Giao Chi and Thien True (India). At Giao Chi, during that period, there were 20 Buddhist Pagodas, having more than 500 monks and 15 translations of Buddhist scriptures8, From this Centre, Buddhism spread at the different Chinese Centres namely Pen Cheng and Loyang. It is quite possible that the Mahayana Prajna was transmitted from the southern India to Vietnam via Indonesia and Champa (Central Vietnam). In China, the earliest Prajna text was translated under the Han dynasty between 147 and 186 AD but its influence was neither great nor lasting. In Giao Chau, Khuong Tang Hoi translated the Astasahasrika at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, which is considered to be the most ancient Prajna literature. By the beginning of third century, Luy Lau became the educational and cultural center of Vietnam. Early in the 5th century AD, after the arrival of Kumarajiva in China Prajna classics were published in large number.9 The Dasa-sahasrika, translated by Lokaksema at the end of the Han dynasty, appears to be of the much later date than the Prajna.

Foundation of Luy Lau Centre and the First Phase of Consolidation of Buddhism in Vietnam:

It is generally believed that the Buddhism reached in Vietnam through China via Tibet and Central Asia. This needs to be reinvestigated. Vietnamese scholars believe that Mahayana form of Buddhism was already flourishing in Vietnam before it got prominence in China. This Mahayana Buddhism inspired the Vietnamese for the construction of Luy Lau Centre at Giao Chi. Mahayana Buddhism was an active ideological movement, which harmoniously combined independence of opinion and flexibility of character of Buddhism with the enthusiastic dissemination of Buddhism regardless of sacrifice and misfortunes.

A great Centre of Buddhist learning, Luy Lau, was located at the Centre of Red River Delta in Ha Bac province. By the early century of the Christian era, this Centre became an important one among three Centers of Buddhist learning. It was founded by Chiao To in around 179 AD.10 This Centre got prominence because of the regular visits of the traders and scholars from India through Central Asia and Indonesia. Indian scholars introduced medicines, agricultural techniques, astronomy, customs and beliefs. Along with the traders and scholars, Buddhist monks also came to this place and some of them settled here. They introduced Buddhist literature in Sanskrit. At this Centre, the Chinese bonze namely Mau Tu translated, for the first time, Ly Hoac Luan (Truth-Illusion-Metaphysics) in Han script. Later, this Centre became important for Sanskrit learning. The Chinese monks who wanted to go to India to study Buddhism also stopped at Luy Lay for some time in order to learn Sanskrit and get in touch with Indian monks to ask them about the most convenient way to India.

A large number of documents give us idea of the situation and richness of this Centre of Buddhist learning. The Linh Nam Trich Quai (Collection of the stories) mentions about the Indian monk who preached Buddhist doctrine to a trader. Later on that trader left his profession and took shelter in the Buddhist Sangha. The record mentions as follows: “Dong Tu and his wife Tien Dung established trading streets and had commercial exchanges with foreigners. One day, Dong Tu went to the foot of the mountain to bring fresh water. There he met with the Indian monk. The monk, at his hut, taught Buddhist doctrines to Dong Tu. Afterwards, Dong Tu, entrusted all his riches to another trader to do trade on his behalf. While Dong Tu was leaving the hut, the monk gave him a magic stick saying that “it will help you at your adverse situation”. The stick later on helped Dong Tu a lot during adverse situations. Dong Tu first preached the Buddhist doctrines to his wife. Later, forgetting everything, Dong Tu and his wife went permanently to the Buddhist Sangha. By the 3rd century AD, Mahayana form of Buddhism had taken strong hold in the northern part of Vietnam. Later, many learned Buddhist monks visited this center. The talent of the monks and their miracles might have attracted a large number of people of the locality to adopt Buddhism.

The Kim Cuong (Vajra), the most important Prajna works, was popular in Vietnam. Nagarjuna’s Trung Luan (Madhyamika) doctrine exerted great influence on the Buddhism of both Vietnam and China. Analysis of the Buddhist writings by the Vietnamese bonzes of the sects of Ty Ni Da Luu Chi (Vinitaruci) and Vo Ngo Thong-reflect the Mahayana Prajna ideology. Besides the Centre of learning, Luy Lau was developed as a cultural Centre. Many Chinese scholars visited this place for peace at the time of trouble in China. By the beginning of third century, Luy Lau became the cultural center of Vietnam. A letter sent by Vien Huy to Tuan Hue in 207 AD mentions the cultural and religious environment of Luy Lau. In that letter there is a paragrah praising Si Nhiep (Shishe in Chinese) for keeping Giao Chau peaceful for more than 20 years. “Whenever he came or went, there was the sound of bells and flutes, the streets were full of horse carriages followed by ten Ho people holding incense sticks.” “Ho” people meant Indian monks who were numerous in Giao Chau at that time.

The consolidation of Buddhist ideology and philosophy took place in Vietnam only after first century AD through regular visit of renowned monks from abroad. During that period under the guidance of Indian monks, Vietnamese studied Buddhist sutras and became monks. A large number of conversions to Buddhism took place in Vietnam during first century AD, after the visit of able monks who had also supernatural powers. The Vietnamese later combined Buddhist philosophy with the psychology and traditional belief in such a way that it became the part and parcel of the life of wet rice grower of the Red River delta and continued till date. They also gave solid foundation to the Buddhist Centre Luy Lau in such a way that its importance lasted for centuries. Through Buddhism, Vietnamese also retained their culture under the Chinese rule. During Chinese oppressive rule, Vietnamese monks representing intelligentsia in society at that time shared sympathy and expressed understanding with the people. Against the Chinese oppressive rule, an uprising under the leadership of Lady Trieu broke out in 248 AD, which was successfully suppressed by the Chinese rule. Under the umbrella of Buddhism, Vietnamese maintained their cultural identity. The most important monks who visited Luy Lau and spread Buddhism in Vietnam were:

1. Maha Ky Vue (Mahajivaka): The two bonzes i.e. Maha Ky Vue (Mahajivaka) and Khau Da La arrived together at Luy Lau Centre during the end of the third century AD. About Maha Ky Vue, it is said that he came from India and travelled to many places, both civilized and uncivilized without ever stopping anywhere. He did not stay at Luy Lau center for long time. After spending some more time at this Centre, he left for China to teach the doctrines of the Buddha. According to Cao Tang Truyen (Narration of the Enlightened Monks), Maha Ky Vue belonged to Tay True (Ceylone).11 He had supernatural power and acted in an unpredictable manner among his disciples and entourage. There is a story relating to his supernatural power which is as follows: ‘One day, when he came to cross the River Tuong Duong, seeing him in rags, the ferryman refused to aboard him in his boat. After repeated request, the ferryman crossed him to the river. On arriving at the opposite bank, Ky Vue remained standing at a place for some time. Two tigers then came and greeted him. The monk stroked their heads and then the two tigers went away.’ On seeing this happening, many people became his disciple and popularized Buddhism.

Maha Ky Vue had also knowledge of high-level meditation and contemplation. He visited Lac Duong during the reign of Tan Hue De of the Tsin dynasty (290-306) and returned to his place because of the trouble prevalence in China.

2. Khau Da La (Kalaearya): Reverend Da La was a monk who came from southern India.12 The name Kalacarya was transliterated into Vietnamese as Gia La Do Le, which was possibly another transcription of the Sanskrit Kalachary, meaning the black sage. He had also supernatural power and lived in Luy Lau for a long time. His name has been mentioned in several historical documents of Vietnam. His name is also mentioned in the genealogical register of Phap Van, one of the most ancient pagodas in Vietnam.

Kalacarya introduced four statues namely Phap Van, Phap Vu, Phap Loi and Phap Dien into the Dau pagodas for worship. These four statues signify four vessels: “Phap Van” (Dharmamegha, Buddhism as a fertilizing cloud), “Phap Vu” (the rain of Buddha-truth which fertilizes all beings), “Phap Loi (The thunder of dharma, awakening man from stupor and stimulating the growth of virtue, the awful voice of Buddha-truth) and “Phap Dien” (The lightning of the truth).13 The cloud, rain, thunder and light are the entire natural phenomenon, which was incorporated into Buddhism by the Vietnamese to retain their cultural identity. These four statues are worshipped with great pomp and show every year on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. People from different parts of the country, young and old, male and female, gather at the Pagoda for entertainment and singing. Some noted monks also visit Lay Lau for their religious devotion. This ritual was named the Buddha Bathing Festival. By continuing the activities at pagodas, Vietamese saved their identity.

It is learnt that when Chinese Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Jin dynasty (323-325 AD) learnt the importance of these statues, he sent his general Tao Kan and an army to Vietnam to bring the statues in China. But, they could not carry these statues as they became as heavy as Altai Mountain. Afterwards, the emperor sent a big troops consisting of 3000 soldiers. Even then, they could not succeed. Later the armies, who took part in this venture, fell ill and died. Then the Emperor Tao Kien, personally visited the pagoda and prayed to Buddha for mercy.14

About the other activities of Kalacarya, very little are known. According to Baa Cue Truyen, Kalacarya preached the essence of dharma to Vietnamese monk Tu Dinh and his daughter namely ‘A Man’. Later on ‘A Man’s’ name was changed as Man Nuong and she became a great devotee of Buddha and worked for the spread of Buddhism in Vietnam. From Vietnamese sources, it appears that Venerable Kalacarya did a lot of work for Buddhism. He converted a number of lay men to Buddhist order. Also, he taught the Buddhist philosophy and laws of Dhamma to Vietnamese monks.

3. Mouzi and Li Huo Lun:

After the death of Emperor Lingdi, China fell into the turmoil and compelled the Chinese people to seek asylum in Giao Chao where peace existed. Mouzi (born in around 167), a Han Chinese and a Taoist, reached in Giao Chau. After the death of his mother, Mouzi visited Lay Lau center where he studied Buddhist philosophy under the guidance of Indian monks. He also took rufuge in Triratna and became a devotee of Buddha.

Mouzi was probably the first Chinese who wrote exemplary work on Buddhism entitled Li Hua Lun (Li Hoac Huan in Vietnamese). Through this book, he tried to make.corrections in Vietnamese Buddhism.15 In the second century, corrupt practices appeared among the Confucian and Tao believers. Mau Tu criticized: “some of the monks drink too much wine, have wives and children, have too much money and many valuable goods and often deceive people.” Besides, some of the monks indulged in sins like killings and claim for up to four sins unpunishable through Buddhism. These corrupt practices might have affected Mouzi to a great extent. Through this work, he tried to bring reforms. No doubt, Mouzi acted as a reformer in Vietnamese Buddhism. Though, his ideologies were influenced by both Confucianism and Taoism, he gave a right path to the Buddhism in Vietnam.

4. Khuong Tang Hoi:

Reverend Hoi was an intelligent monk whose ancestors were Indian. He studied Buddhist sutras in Sanskrit in Lay Lau Centre. He also studied Chinese and translated several sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese. He left for the Jiang Dong region of China during the 10th year of Wu Emperor Sun Quan in 255 AD. He informs that the people were not practising Buddhism during that time. Vietnamese scholars, however, refute it. According to Vietnamese scholars, Buddhism was very much flourishing in Jiang Dong.

Reverend Hoi translated and annotated a large number of Buddhist works. He has also written two texts namely Lue Do Yeu and the Ne Hoan Phan Boi which are not available. Out of his eleven translated works, two are the Satparamita Sannipata sutra (Nanjo 143) and the Samyukta avadana sutra (Nanjo 1359). In these two works, Reverend Hoi has used many avadana and jatakas to illustrate the six cardinal virtues of the Bodhisattva, namely generosity, moderation, patience, purity of the soul and meditation and wisdom. In Vietnamese Buddhism, Reverend Hoi first introduced meditation.

5. Chi Cuong Luong (Kalaruci):

By the middle of 3rd century AD, a monk called Kalaruci (in Chinese Zhi Gang Liang Lou) came to Giao Chau. He was of foreign origin probably from India. The Nanjo Buddhist bibliography mentions about his work. During 255-256 AD, he translated a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras. Among his translation works, the most important is Pahap Hoa Tam Muoi, which he translated at Lay Lau Centre with the help of Vietnamese monk Dao Thanh. The Chinese scholars considered these Mahayana sutras most important and translated them into Chinese seven times during Wu and Sui dynasties. With this translation, Avalokitesvara, a god of benevolence and boundless compassion, got prominence both in Vietnam and China.

Second Phase of Consolidation of Buddhism (4th to 5th Centuries AD):

By the end of third century, many corrupt practices entered in the Buddhism of Vietnam. During 4th century AD, Vietnamese consolidated the translated works in Sanskrit and Chinese at the Lay Lau Centre. By that time this center became very prominent in the field of scholarship. Vietnamese brought some changes in the Buddhist way of life. The Vietnamese opposed the view of Confucian way of life. The Taoists who believed in the immoral practices were also opposed. Even we have no record of 4th century which mentions about the prevalence of meditation practices.16 The Buddhist monks began leading their life as laid down by the Buddhist Sangha. Some of the pagodas were built for the stay of monks. It is quite remarkable that during 4th century no important monk from abroad visited Vietnam. Probably, it seems quite possible that it was a period of purification of Buddhism in Vietnam. By this way, Vietnamese tried to maintain their cultural identity.

Vietnamese Buddhist records mention the name of some important monks of 5th century AD who contributed for the development of Buddhism in Vietnam. Reverend Dharmadeva of India origin was a noted Buddhist monk. He was a renowned scholar and a noted meditation practitioner. Another noted monk was Reverend Thich Hue Thang who was a inhabitant of. Giao Chau (Vietnam). About Reverend Thang, Vietnamese record mentions: “he led secluded life at Chau Son pagoda, read prayers form Lotus sutra every day. He was a disciple of Dharmadeva. Dharmdeva taught him many things to lead virtuous life. But he practised only those which were strictly necessary.” Because of leading virtuous life, he was invited by the Chinese Emperor to live at U The pagoda located at Niu Tou mountain in Shang Yuan district of present day Jiangsu province. He stayed there for a long time. At the U The pagoda, he led austere life. Reverend Thang was dependent on begged food, which was one of the characteristic features of Indian monk’s way of life. It is very difficult to say it was Reverend Thang’s way of life or the way of life of all monks of Vietnam. But no doubt, he had great impact of Reverend Dharmadeva. Some scholars believe that Reverend Thang pretended to behave as dull monk in China because he was forced to live in China. In the 5th year of Vinh Minh (487 AD) rule, he opted Chinese nationality. He died at the age of 70.

There were some other important monks namely Reverend Thich Dao Thien, Reverend Dam Hoang, Reverend Dao Cao and Reverend Phap Minh in Vietnam who were great scholars having in-depth knowledge of Buddhist doctrines and contributed a lot for the development of Buddhism. During 5th century Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha was well developed as revealed from the works of the monks. However, Chinese criticized the Vietnamese Buddhism and its Sangha.

Buddhism in 6th century and the introduction of first Chan sect in Vietnam

The glory of Buddhist sangha remain maintained till the first half of the sixth century AD. Vietnamese monks maintained their dignity, stuck to the rules of Buddhist sangha and preached the Buddhist doctrines as presented by the Indian monks. The first mass Vietnamese insurrection against Chinese rule began in 544 AD by Ly Nam De but the Chinese soon suppressed it very successfully. Vietnamese sources reveal the fact that Ly Nam De highly praised Buddhism and respectfully consulted Buddhist monks on every event matter concerning liberation movement especially on building and consolidation of state.17 It appears that the Vietnamese Buddhist Sanghas were the center of activities of the independence movement and monks took active part against the Chinese oppressive rule. In spite of that Chinese interfered in the Vietnamese customs and religious ideas. Moreover, it made little impact on Vietnamese, as they were very conscious towards their cultural identity.

The Chinese sources mention that the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha began to loose their glory during the later part of the sixth century AD. During that period, the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha became center of power and Buddhist monks showed their attachment with values. But according to Vietnamese sources, monks of this period were quite learned. They passed their time in their study, religious practices and spreading dhamma. Because of it, they were enjoying popularity. Knowing the scholarship of the monks, Chinese Imperial Court invited missionaries of Vietnam for their advice.

Vinitaruchi, an Indian monk, visited Vietnam in the later part of sixth century. He was a great scholar. In 574, when the Chinest Emperor Wu Di was repressing Buddhism, he met with the third Head Priest of Chinese Chan sect. There he also learnt that the Priest himself was leading secluded life because of the Emperor’s repressive attitude. In 580, Vinitaruchi stayed at the Phap Van Pagoda and translated Tong Tri Sutra (Sutra on Samadhi), which was greatly appreciated by the Vietnamese. He promulgated his own religious theory in verses, which stressed on the purity of the soul. According to Vinitaruchi, it was considered most important by Buddha himself. Revered Vinitaruchi also promoted meditation in Vietnamese Buddhism. He later introduced the Chan sect in Vietnam. Through meditation, he had acquired supernatural power called of Cabala. Scholars believe that the renowned monks in Vietnam could achieve cabala by practicing tantric cult. But it seems quite impossible.18 At the time of Venerable Vinitaruchi, tantric cult was not in existence but he had attained cabala. Venerable Vinitaruchi died in 594 AD but the Chan sect existed in Vietnam up to 12th century.19

After the death of Venerable Vinitaruchi, Venerable Phap Hien became the head of Chan sect of Vietnam. He promoted the Chan sect and was praised as a living Bodhisattva. When the then Sui emperor of China heard about the death of Vinitaruchi, he wanted to send Chinese monk as Head Priest of Giao Chau. But Vietnamese monks refused to accept Chinese proposal. It seems quite possible that the Sui rulers (581-618 AD) had tried to indulge in the activities of the Buddhist Sangha. But they could not influence the religious activities of Vietnamese monks to a great extent. Vietnamese people were very particular for their cultural identity and promotion of Buddhist Sangha.

Venerable Hien developed Buddhism by paying attention towards education of monks, translating the Buddhist canons and building towers and pagodas in Vietnam. He lived in Chung Thien Pagoda and taught Buddhist doctrines to 300 people.20 Many Vietnamese people voluntarily came to the Sangha and adopted Buddhist beliefs such as compassion, reincarnation, retribution etc. in order to train themselves and help others. The Venerable Hien died in 626 AD.

Dark Age of Buddhism in Vietnam

During the Tang rule, Buddhism in Vietnam suffered a lot. In 622 AD, the Tang ruler converted the whole Vietnamese area into protectorate and named it Ngannan (Annam). For the shake of administration, it was divided into five separate administrative zones. Tang rulers also began the policy of assimilation and several assimilatory measures were taken. In spite of the firmness in administration, the Vietnamese continued to be restive. A great uprising took place in 722 AD under the leadership of Mai Thuc Loan. The capital city of Tong-binh was seized. Toan, Iater, was proclaimed by the Vietnamese noblemen as an Emperor. He patched up the differences with Champa and succeeded in getting support from the northern Cambodian kingdom of Upper Chen-Ia. But the powerful Tang soon annexed the territory of Vietnam. The Tang’s authority later curbed incessant Chams’ raids into Annam. The Tangs also repelled the Javanese fleet from the Tonkin coast in 767 AD. Because of the continuous political instability and strong army rule, monks could not do religious activities. Moreover, the Viet people did not totally reject all that was Chinese, neither did they swallow everything that was thrust upon them. Somehow, they managed to extract the best, which was in Chinese culture and created their own personality. In Vietnamese Buddhism, religious and national identities were closely related, which during tenth century became a strong factor in the national insurrection.

Vietnamese also improved their knowledge in arts, crafts, literature, housing and other activities. They learnt the organizational tactics of the Chinese army, and, at the same time, they did not forget their own basic style of guerrilla warfare. Buddhism penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of the Vietnamese people and became very common in the society. The Buddhist Sangha played active role for the continuation of independence struggle. The monks and their disciples gave shelters to the people who were associated with the freedom struggle. The educated monks directed the struggle movement. Sometimes monks fought directly against the oppressive Tang rule. There were also some monks who led rally to resist the domination of the Chinese. Thus it is quite apparent that even during the tough administrative rule of Tang, Vietnamese kept their identity and maintained their culture. Under the shelter of Buddhism, they. continued their resistance and freedom struggle.

Introduction of Second Buddhist Order:

No doubt, the Tang administration also took part in the religious activities in Vietnam. They patronized Dhyana School of Mahayana Buddhism in which emphasis were laid on meditation and deep studies. Moreover, the Tang Chinese tried to sinicise Vietnamese culture through their assimilatory process.

In 820 AD, a Chinese bonze named Vo Ngon Thong reached Kien So Pagoda in the village Phy Dong in Ha Bac province (north Vietnam) and founded the second Buddhist order of the Thien Tong sect. This sect existed parallel to the Chan sect founded by Venerable Vinitaruchi. About Venerable Thong, very little is known. He was an intelligent monk having vast knowledge of Buddhist doctrines. Also, he used to speak very little but think a lot.

He introduced philosophy of emptiness in Vietnam. He said: “from the emptiness of heart, the light of wisdom appears. The light gives immense brightness as sunlight appears after the dispersal of the clouds. This brightness leads a person to the enlightenment and nirvana. This source of enlightenment shown by Vo Ngon Thong is recorded in the Diamond Sutra or doctrine of Prajna in Vietnam.21 He died in 826 AD but this Second Buddhist Order continued up to 13th century in Vietnam. It seems quite obvious that the Tang rulers of the end of eighth century or beginning of ninth century had soft corner towards Vietnam and acted for the promotion of Buddhism. But it was quite negligible.

Beginning of the Glorious Period of Buddhism:

After the fall of the Tang dynasty in China in 907 AD, Vietnamese once again renewed their efforts to achieve independence. In the year 938, under the leadership of Ngo Quyen, a nobleman, a revolt arose against the Chinese traitors. Later, it turned into an organized battle in which Vietnamese succeeded against the Chinese Southern Han on the Bach Dang River. In 1939, Ngo Vuong Quyen became ruler and founded the first independent Ngo dynasty.22 The Ngo dynasty opted Buddhism as a state religion.

Later, the Dinh and early Le dynasty also followed the same policy. They made sincere efforts for the development of Buddhist Sangha and spread of Buddhism among the mass population. As a result of the formation of Vietnamese independent state, a stratum of Vietnamese monks emerged endowing with vast knowledge of Chinese (called as Han) and Sanskrit (called as Phan) language. They were good scholars and had acquired prominent place in the Vietnamese society. The new independent state needed spiritual and moral support for the development of society. In this situation, Buddhism had important role to play. By that time it had taken up a good shape. Numerous texts were already translated. The work for the prosperity of Buddhism was done enormously. At that time, not only Giao Chau but also few other centers of excellence of Buddhist learning namely Ai Chau and Hoan Chau in the province of Thah Hao and Nghe An respectively also came up. These centers had also a large number of pagodas. In the middle of 10th century, Khai Quoc Pagoda (now Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi) was developed into a headquarters for the dissemination of Buddhism. Another important Buddhist center set up by the Dinh and early Le dynasty was Hoa Lu.

Since the kings of these dynasties were fervent follower of Buddhism, they built many pagodas of which many still exist today. These pagodas were not only centers for the dissemination of Buddhism but also served as cultural centers. For example Buddhist center of Luy Lau was associated with the cult of guardian genius of agriculture. On accession to the throne in 971, Dinh Tien Hoang established a hierarchy of bonzes. He conferred the title of great master to Venerable Ngo Chan Luu, a renowned monk, and gave him the rank of Tang Thong (Chief Monk). On the other hand, Venerable Truong Ma Ni was appointed to the rank of Tang Luc (Deputy Chief). Other rulers of the dynasties also followed this system of hierarchy.

During later part of the 10th century, the monks of Vinitaruchi cult also initiated Tantric practices. According to Thien Uyen Tap Anh, the monk Ma Ha recited tantric scripture namely Dai Ni Tam continuously for three years. The Dharnisamadhi, a tantric practice for the spiritual improvement, was also in practice. The tantric performances were also made by the rulers through carving of the texts on the stone columns called ratnadhvaja. In 975 AD, ruler Dinh Lien erected 100 ratnadhvajas. These columns contain the magical formulas of Usnisavijayadharni, a book of secret and universal teachings. These magical formulas are written in Chinese but it has Sanskrit pronunciation.


After introduction of Buddhism in Vietnam, Vietnamese cultural identity took deep root. During pre-Christian era, Vietnamese passed through different civilizations, which flourished in different areas. From Buddhism, Vietnamese derived their philosophy, religious beliefs and practices.

Foot Notes:

   1.  Nguyen Khac Vien (1993), Vietnam: A Long History, Hanoi, p.15.

   2.  Henri Maspero (1918), Etudes d’histoire d’ Annam IV: Le royaume de Van-Lang, BEFEO,18/3, 1-36.

   3.  Ibid, P 12; K.W.Taylor (1983), The Birth of Vietnam, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 13; S. O’Harrow (1979), From Co-Loa to Trung Sisters Revolt, AP, 2212,p. 159.

   4.  Nguyen Khac Vien (1993), op. cit., p. 17.

   5.  B.P.Groslier (1962), Indochina: Art in the Melting Pot of Races, Germany, p.35.

   6.  Minh Chi, Ha Van Tan and Nguyen Tai Thu (1993), Buddhism in Vietnam from its origin to the I9'h century, Hanoi, p. 12.

   7.  Nguyen Lang (1973), Viet Nam Phat Ciao Su Luan, Vol. I, Hanoi-Saigon, pp. 15-28.

   8.  Vo Dinh Cuong ed. (1990), Vietnamese Buddhism and Its Activities   for Peace, Department of  Publication, Ho Chi Minh City, p. 3.

   9.  Prabhat Kumar Mukherj (1931), Indian Literature in China and the Far East, Greater India Society, Calcutta, pp. 92-93.

10 Minh Chi, Ha Van Tan and Nguyen Tai Thu (1993), op. cit., p. 14.

11 Ibid., p. 24.

12.  Ibid., p. 27.

13.  Minh Chi, Ly Kim Hoa, Ha Thuc Minh, Ha Van Tan and Guyen Tai Thu (1992), History of Buddhism in Vietnam, Hanoi, p. 36

14.  Ibid, p. 36.

15.  Ibid., p. 38.

16.  Ibid, p. 58.

17.  Vo Dinh Cuong, editor (1990), op. cit., p.5

18.  Minh Chi, Ly Kim Hoa, Ha Thuc Minh, Ha Van Tan and Guyen Tai Thu (1992), op. cit., p. 78.

19.  Nguyen Lang (1973), Viet Nam Phat Ciao Su Luan, I, Hanoi-Saigon, p. 115.

20.  Uy Ban Khoa Xa Hoi and Vien Triet Hoc (1988), Lich Su Phat Ciao Viet Nam, Hanoi, p. 106.

21.  Venerable Nguyen Hoi (1993), A Historical Survey of Vietnamese Buddhism,” An unpublished dissertation, Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi, p.34.

22.  Le Manh That (2001), Lich Su Phat Ciao Viet Nam, II, Hue, p. 405.



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