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The History of Buddhism in Vietnam

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This work on Vietnamese Buddhism from its beginnings through the 20th century provides much evidence requiring Western Buddhologists to radically revise their heretofore accepted time-table for the arrival and development of Buddhism in Vietnam. It provides previously unknown data, detailed in nomenclature, time, and place, scrupulously gathered from archeological finds and ancient archival records by Vietnamese research-teams. Providing much historical analysis and cultural interpretation along the way, this work carries its project forward through the various royal dynasties and the French colonial period.

Part One: Buddhism’s Entry into Vietnam and Its Practice under Chinese Control (from 1st to 10th Centuries A.D.)

Chapter I, "The Introduction of Buddhism into Vietnam: Dates and Routes of Introduction," argues that Buddhism came directly to Vietnam from Indian traders and missionaries in the 1st or 2nd century A.D., centuries before the massive waves of Buddhist influence which came from China. Indeed, by the beginning of the 4th century, Vietnamese Buddhist monks were traveling in turn to India to retrieve more Buddhist sutras and do advanced study.

Chapter II, "Ancient Luy Lau during Chinese Control of Vietnam, in the Early Centuries A.D.," shows that the Vietnamese people of Giao Chau, in present-day Ha Bac province, Vietnam, had Buddhism, probably a Mahayanist form of Buddhism, by the 2nd century B.C., and two or three centuries later had 500 monks and was already sending Buddhist missionaries to South China. The Chinese feudal landlords who dominated Giao Chi during much of this time were Confucianists and Taoists. But from Luy Lau in Giao Chi, Buddhism spread to the rest of Vietnam, gradually developing into a unique Vietnamese Buddhism.

Chapter III, "The First Buddhist Missionaries in Vietnam," reconstructs the missions of the Indian monks Mahajivaka and Kalacarya, filtering out fiction and legend insofar as possible; it then examines the Li Huo Lun, a Buddhist primer written by Mouzi, a Chinese who became a Buddhist in Vietnam and returned to China in his old age; finally it moves on to Khuong Tang Hoi, an Uzbekistani who entered the monkhood in Vietnam and became an early predecessor of what was later to be the first Vietnamese Ch’an sect.

Chapter IV, "Vietnamese Buddhism from Mid-3rd Century to the 5th Century," first reports on Kararuci and Dao Thanh, who disseminated Buddhist "lotus-meditation"; it then proceeds to a discussion of the book Bach Hac Luan ("Discussion between Black and White"), written by the monk Hue Lam. Hue Lam rejected the Pure Land (or "Lotus") school prominent in Vietnamese Buddhism at the time, probably because he wanted to conciliate Confucianism and Buddhism.

This chapter goes on to argue that the famous self-immolation of the monk Dam Hoang, and the latter’s visible ascent to the Pure Land, functioned as a monastic defense of Pure Land teaching and a refutation of Hue Lam. The chapter closes with an intriguing analysis of a well-known epistolary correspondence between the Chinese official Li Miao and two Vietnamese monks, revealing the impact of contemporary doctrinal controversy on Vietnamese society and vice versa.

Chapter V, "The First Ch’an Sect in Vietnam: Founded by Vinitaruci and Phap Hien," records the history of Vinitaruci, an Indian who was tonsured in China and officially transmitted Chinese Ch’an to Vietnam circa 580 A.D. This chapter translates one of his litany-prayers, which emphasizes the Prajna (‘wisdom of emptiness’) tradition and Ch’anistdirect transmission’ of bodhi (‘enlightenment’) from Master to disciple. The chapter continues on to a detailed biography of Ven. Phap Hien, who succeeded Vinitaruci as head-monk of the Vinitaruci Ch’an sect, becoming its second Patriarch.

Chapter VI, "The Second Ch’an Sect in Vietnam: Wu Yantong, Cam Thanh, and Thien Hoi," explains the foundation of the Wu Yantong sect, the second Ch’an sect in Vietnam, named after its founder. Wu Yantong was a Chinese monk ordained in China by the great Bai Zhang, a reputed founder of China’s Caodong and Lingji sects. Wu arrived in Vietnam in 820 A.D. and, shortly before his own death in 826 A.D., transmitted his ‘Buddha-heart seal’ to Cam Thanh, the sect’s second Patriarch. The Wu Yantong sect emphasized Bai Zhang’s well-known doctrine of ‘no-thinking’. This chapter concludes with biographies of the Ven. Cam Thanh and the Ven. Thien Hoi, respectively the second and third Patriarchs of the Wu Yantong sect.

Part Two: Buddhism from the Ngo to the Tran Dynasties (10th -14th Centuries A.D.)

Chapter VII, "Buddhism under the Ngo Dinh and Early Le Dynasties," examines Buddhist developments after Vietnam’s great victory of 938 A.D., putting an end to 1000 years of Chinese domination. Buddhism over the next century steadily strengthened itself. The monks provided an intelligentsia for the royal court, were entrusted with diplomatic missions, etc. This chapter delves into the growth of Buddhist Tantrism during this period, the widespread use of mudra, dharani, and so on. Prayer columns excavated by archeologists supply much of this helpful information.

Chapter VIII, "Buddhism under the Ly Dynasty," reports on the ascendancy of Buddhism throughout this dynasty’s tenure (1010-1225). Because the Ly Kings venerated Buddhism, even urging as many men as possible to become monks, the bureaucratic strata supplied many monastic vocations. The Vinitaruci Ch’an sect at this time emphasized both Tantrism and the ideological issue of ‘existence and non-existence’. The Wu Yantong Ch’an sect emphasized direct enlightenment and the doctrine of sunyata. This chapter does the service of translating many beautiful poems of this period. It closes with a careful description of Ly religious architecture, and a profile of popular religiosity (Amitabha-worship, etc.).

Chapter IX, "Buddhism under the Tran Dynasty," describes the big changes which took place in Vietnam during the transition from the Ly to the Tran and the latter dynasty’s tenure. King Tran Nhan Tong took tonsure and founded, with the help of two others, The Truc Lam Ch’an sect, ending the preceding two Ch’an sects. At the end of the twelfth century, the Buddhist monastic establishment had begun to fall into corruption, breaking the Precepts both surreptitiously and publicly. This chapter provides many translations, and describes much of the Tran dynasty scholarship (which became highly developed). King Tran Thai Tong’s great Buddhist works and their special teachings are critiqued, as are those of Tran Nhan Tong. It closes with two biographies, that of Ven. Phap Loa, who consecrated 15,000 monks and nuns in his lifetime; and that of the great monk-poet Huyen Quang, who shrank from being the third Patriarch of the Truc Lam sect, preferring the eremitical life.

Part Three: Buddhism from the Later Le To Tay Son Dynasties (from 15th to 18th Centuries)

Chapter X, "Buddhism in Prosperity and Peace: the Le Dynasty (15th century)," describes and analyzes how, in the 15th century, the Le Dynasty imitated the Chinese emperors, privileging Confucianism and integrating Buddhism further into the state-system, thus subjecting it to paralyzing controls. At the same time, the Le tolerated and sometimes favored Buddhism at the popular level because of the religion’s stabilizing benefits.

The author summarizes and critiques three ‘Confucianscholars who wrote Buddhist works: Nguyen Trai, who wrote beautiful poetry; Luong The Vinh, who wrote essays on Buddhist rites, thereby earning himself exclusion from the imperial (and Confucianist) ‘Temple of Literature’; and King Le Thanh Ton (an exception in that he was a Monarch himself), who is most famous for his descriptions of the hon (forsaken spirits) which have not passed over to the next life but are trapped in ‘aimless wandering’.

Chapter XI, "Buddhism in the Period of the Country’s Partition by Different Feudal Groups (16th-18th century)," is panoramic in scope, describing the civil war between the new Mac Dynasty and loyalists of the former Le Dynasty. This period of suffering motivated two great Buddhist narratives, "The Story of the Goddess of Mercy Thi Kinh," and the "Story of the Goddess of Mercy of the Southern Sea," both of which our author analyzes here. Next, in sequence, the author treats two well-known Buddhist dignitaries of the period; and the contemporary influence of the Lam Te Ch’an sect and the Tao Dong Ch’an sect. He closes with a critique of Thach Liem, one of the most controversial figures in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Chapter XII, "Buddhism in the Stirring Period of Peasant Insurrections (in the latter half of the 18th century," shows how tumultous events such as the rout of the Nguyen regime in the South by the Tay Son, the invasion and defeat of Chinese troops, and the sudden overthrow of the Tay Son regime, together generated a mind-set which Confucianism could no longer adequately serve. A new synthesis of the best of each of the ‘three religions’ had to be invented. The scholar Ngo Thi Nham attempted to do this, though the underpinning of his ideas remained Confucianist. The Buddhist monk, Toan Nhat, was more successful, producing the great Tale of Hua Su. Bonze Toan Nhat deployed Buddhism to argue for

(1) anti-royalism, (2) the necessary relation of labor to truth and mercy, and (3) the necessary relation of armed struggle to authentic compassion.

Part Four: Buddhism under the Nguyen Dynasty (19th Century)

Chapter XIII, "Buddhism in the Period of Dominant Confucianism under the Nguyen Dynasty," describes the new accommodation with Buddhism once Nguyen Anh, backed by western capitalist force, seized power. The Nguyen Dynasty was unpopular and autocratic. Catholicism was sporadically prohibited and Buddhism sometimes severely restricted. Later, the rulers Minh Mang and Thieu Tri were good to Buddhism, but often had to manifest their good will indirectly, lest their actions become resented by the Confucianist establishment. Our author chronicles the Buddhist scholarship and pagoda-building sponsored by Minh Mang and Thieu Tri.

Chapter XIV, "Buddhism Characterized by Great Poets under the Nguyen Dynasty," annotates and critiques the literary production of the first half of Vietnam’s 19th century, when Buddhism necessarily operated in a Confucianist-dominated milieu. The great poet Nguyen Du paid special attention to the motif of the ‘beautiful woman who has suffered glaring injustice’. The poet Nguyen Cong Tru could not give up a Confucianist commitment to worldly affairs, but he preferred Buddhism when dealing with life’s sorrows, reverses, and insecurity. Cao Ba Quat satirized the common people’s naive faith in Buddha, but appreciated Buddhism’s reflectiveness and esthetic sense. Finally, the poetess Ho Xuan Huong, who was a non-believer, in her poetry derided the decadence of corrupt members of the clergy.

Chapter XV, "Typical Bonzes under the Nguyen Dynasty," describes the character of Buddhism under the Nguyen. The distinctive contribution of the bronzes during this time was the building of a big academic archive which both collected historical records of the Vietnamese samgha and produced new histories and doctrinal catechisms. Bonze Thanh Dam emphasized Ch’an teachings such as the ‘Buddha-heart’, sunyata, and ‘silent transmission’. The Most Ven. Phuc Dien produced histories and doctrinal treatises. Bonze An Thien was a well-known apologist, and compiled comprehensive Buddhist lexicons.

Part Five: Buddhism during French Colonial Times (Second Half of 19th Through First Half of 20th Centuries)

Chapter XVI, "Buddhism’s Tendency towards World Acceptance," means by "world acceptance" a pro-active commitment to seeking solutions for sociopolitical problems, and this chapter grants that Buddhism is not by nature a "world-accepting" religion in this sense. Buddhism considers suffering in this life inevitable, and Buddhism guides believers towards enlightened release from the samsaric world. However, Buddhism also has fought to secure the rights of people to live and practice their religion freely. Thus our author in this chapter documents the heroic contributions of Buddhist monks to the anti-(French-)colonial insurrections of 1898, 1913, and 1916. ppBonzes Vuong Quoc Chinh[[ and ppVan Tru[[ led the 1898 revolt, and Bonze Nguyen Huu Tri led the 1916 revolt.

Chapter XVII, "The Development of the Buddhist Movement in the Early Decades of the 20th Century," examines the ‘movement for development of Buddhism’ and kindred activities which sought to adapt Buddhist teaching to the realities of 20th century Vietnam, a country under foreign control at the time, and coming into contact with both capitalism and ‘modernity’. This chapter analyzes five Buddhist issues and how Buddhist and anti-Buddhist polemicists diversely handled their problematic:

(1) ‘non-killing’ and ‘compassion’; (2) Buddhistatheism’; (3) ‘no-soul’ (anatman); (4) the status of Pure Lands; and (5) Buddhistcausality’.

Intriguing biographies of scholars and activists are profiled, including those of several who later forsook Buddhism and joined the Communist Party. Many other Buddhists in the movement, our author reports, remained devout Buddhists to the end of their lives.