BUDDHISM IN VIET NAM
Chanh Tri MAI THO TRUYEN
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.
Vinh Nghiem Temple in Bac Giang City
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 K'angseng-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.
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
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 latter's
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
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
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 meditnation 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
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.
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
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)
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
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
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
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.
V. INFLUENCE OF BUDDHISM ON THE LIFE AND THOUGHT OF THE VIETNAMESE.
In theory there are three main religions in Vietnam:
Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism; but in fact there is only one, which is an
amalgam of these three doctrines, each of which represents a particular aspect
of the whole. This state of affairs makes it difficult, if not impossible, to
distinguish three separate religious communities among the Vietnamese. There are
perhaps some people who follow either Taoism or Buddhism but they are in a
minority. The bulk of the popolation remains unprejudiced and is not interested
in sectarian distinctions. A Buddhist family for example will visit Taoist
temples and perform the rites belonging to the Confucian cult of ancestors.
Though this confusion sometimes fosters superstitious
practices and ignorance it also has its good points and exerts a tolerant
influence on life and thought.
Many scholars are really products of Buddhism, though
they do not deny the principles of Confucianism. Even if there is no direct
borrowing of ideas many Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, karma
(action), causality, rebirth and earthly sufferings are found in their writings,
so that there can be little doubt about their common origin.
Buddhism has had a particularly strong effect on morals
and behaviour. Even uneducated Vietnamese and non-Buddhists fear the results of
bad actions conceiving them in the symbolism of the «Ten Hells» and this fear
often makes them avoid such actions, encouraging them instead to be kind.
Strengthened by the Five Precepts, or basic morality of Buddhism, it is part of
the reason for the gentle manners, which came to pervade Vietnamese life, thanks
firstly to the opportunity for happiness out of the ordinary inherent in
Amidism. Vegeterianism is followed by the laity on specific dates and is the
standard diet for monks. It has the merit of mitigating the sanguinary instinct
common to all.
The influece of the three religions is clear in the
artistic field, where that of Buddhism is predominant. Architecture, painting
and sculpture are often inspired by two of the key ideas of Buddhism, which are
Purity and Compassion. The flower of the lotus is a frequent motif and the
various representations of Avalokiteshvara are greatly venerated, especially by
VI. CONCEPTION AND PRACTICE OF BUDDHISM IN VIET NAM
Though the movement for reform which started in 1920
achieved good results it is still far from reaching the goal put forward by its
The efforts of these enthusiasts succeeded to some extent
in throwing light on the essence of Buddhism and ridding it of certain
excrescences. Vietnamese Buddhism remains faithful to the Mahayana tradition, of
which the emphasis is on Compassion, as is well known, represented by the
Bodhisattva doctrine, based on the exhortation of the Buddha: «Delivered,
deliver; enlightened, enlighten.» For this reason the supporters of the
movement, monks and laity alike, continually try and improve their spiritual
life and translate into action the truths that they have found in the texts.
They now see ceremonies and moral precepts for what they are: means to attain
wisdom and peace of mind, but not ends in themselves. They have a clear
conception of Mahayana symbolism and understand its essence. If they subscribe
without reservation to the orthodoxy extolled by the Theravadins, who have had a
group in Saigon for a few years now, they also accept the later works based on
it by Nagarjuna, Asvaghosa, Vasubandhu and others, as well as Amidism or the
Pure Land School, which they know to be the form of meditation most easily
accessible to the majority.
VII. PRESENT POSITION OF BUDDHISM
Under this chapter it is dealt with the actual situation
of Buddhism in VietNam seen from the standpoint of the General Buddhist
Association of Viet-Nam. This Association, as compared with other coexisting
groups, is by far the most important, the best organized, the only dynamic and
also the only one that is officially recognized as being fully qualified to
represent the millenary Buddhism of the country. For these purposes, it would
not be necessary to mention further, still it is the only organization that
reflects faithfully the genuine picture of the Vietnamese Buddhism.
Moreover, it should be noted that the General Buddhist
Association of Viet-Nam (G.B.A) is a menber of the World Fellowship of Buddhists
since the foundation of this latter in 1950 at Colombo. It has thus attended
several international Buddhist conferences and is in good relation with numerous
Buddhist countries in the world.
Organization.- Under the GBA's authority and
general direction, are grouped, on the one hand, 3 Sanghas numbering well over
3.000 monks and about 600 nuns, on the other hand, three communities of
disciples which branch out their ramification as far as to remote hamlets. The
figures of adherents to these three legally constituted about 1,000,000, to
which it shoud be added an important number of no-associate disciples by as much
The responsibility is assigned as follows: the Sanghas
are responsible for all spiritual tasks and to the lay communities comes the
duty of relieving the religious from all material preoccupations.
Propagation of the Dharma.- For the spiritual
training of both associates and non associates, the propagation of the Dharma
is organized on a large scale: weekly lectures in Saigon, periodical conferences
in the provinces with movies utilization of radio – cars equipped with movies
projectors, wide dissemination of magazines and vernacular pamphlets coming out
of the GBA's press with a monthly rhythm of 30,000 copies. In addition, special
courses are open, in Saigon and in its vicinities for commencing, to the
intention of people who need a higher knowledge of the Doctrine. Activity of
this kind is also assisted by the presence of numerous libraries provided with
or without reading rooms.
Formation of cadres.- The foregoing activities
raised the problem of cadres resulting from the increasing of cadres resulting
from the increasing number of monastic schools (4 in 1956, 10 in 1962) and the
creation of a Preaching Corps without mentioning the sending of young monks
abroad to attend perfection courses (3 at Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, 4 in Japan).
In monastic schools, the educational program is mixed,
there the students learn canonical texts and the official curriculum as well.
Many of them are attending or already terminated their high study at the Saigon
and Hue Universities.
Buddhist Youth.- Lay youths, aged from 8 to 20
years, are incorporated in a Youth Movement, known under the name of Gia dinh
Phat tu (Buddhist Family).
Etablished in 1940, this widespreading Movement aims to
give these youths a religious education, susceptible to make them, later on,
fervent buddhists, practitioners, capable of sacrifices for the maintenance and
expansion of their parents' religion, to become honest citizens and useful to
After 23 years of existence, this Movement, benevolently
conducted by a 3,000 trainer Corps, numbers about 70,000 youngsters and
unequally dividing into 1.000 groups from the city to the country. One fouth of
these youngsters attend private, primary and secondary schools established by
lay associations, and their brilliant success at different examinations began to
attract the attention of the public.
Social welfare.- Other efforts have been realized
in the social welfare sphere, for instance the installation of sanitary units
(clinics, dispensaries, maternities). Among these, the clinic at the Xa loi
Pagoda, GBA's head-office, is most important, where free medical cares are
distributed to over 200 poor patients daily. It is conducted by a Doctor, member
of the Association of Saigon, assisted by two young monks working as nurses and
five specialists physicians for particular cases.
Two day-nurseries are functioning in Saigon and Dalat,
where nuns gratuitously take care of the children from workers' families,
without discrimination of race nor distinction of religion.
Every week on Thursday, a Committee of Dames visit either
a hospital or a maternity in Saigon to bring comfort and material aid to needy
To these social works, which are created, conducted and
financed by members of lay communities, it should be added the special relief
works contributed by both rich and poor to the benefit of victims of public
disasters, more particularly fires which are frequent.
This brief statement on modern Buddhism in Viet-Nam shows
the enormous efforts performed by both religious and laities of a country which
is practically in war since 1940, to maintain not only their faith but also to
develop and give it a vitality conformable to the fundamentals of Buddhism: the
Compassion. This effort is more meritorious especially as it is fulfilled with
their own means only without any external aid.
The social reformative tendency inspired by all
activities of the General Buddhist Association is a hilarious initiative. It is
quite sure that with the return of peace, more encouraging results will be
obtained to the mightiest glory of Buddha.
To art, letters and philosophy (in Viet Nam)
Buddhism appears to have been introduced in Viet Nam
towards the end of the second century by way of China, having been preceded by
Confucianism and Taoism. Four hundred years later, when Viet Nam succeeded in
freeing itself from Chinese domination, it progressed by leaps and bounds under
the patronage of the ruling families. Since then, in spite of the antagonism of
other rival religions, it continued to expand almost uniterruptedly both in
extent as well as by conviction. During a particular epoch of history, from 968
to 1414 it was given the status of a State religion. Several emperors of the Ly
and Tran dynasties even went so far as to practise what they preached: some as
faithful followers, some as monks proper, having abdicated and chosen the
monastic way of life. A curious fact, this, and it would indeed be interesting
to study it without necessarily digressing from the subject of the present
Vietnamese Buddhism continues to hold this supremacy in
our own times, not in public life it is true, but in the hearts of a good
majority of the people. It is therefore easy to understand how great an
influence the Dharma of Buddha has had on the VietNamese mind, and the generous
contribution it has made to the moral and spiritual training of a people whose
gentleness and simple outlook on life predisposed them to accept the «Religion
The dominant trait in the person of the Great Teacher
made his teaching known and felt throught the country. The artist, the
philosopher and the poet of those days imbibed it and many of those of modern
times still continue to draw their inspiration from it.
An European author, tracing back the history of Chiese
wrote: «Buddhism was the first foreign influence which had a powerful bearing on
the evolution of Chinese thought; and the effect of such an influence was to
rekindle, stimulate and develop to the highest pitch not only the religion but
also all the other spheres of its civilisation A casual glance, even by one who
is almost completely unaware of the spiritual world of China, at the plastic
arts of China shows how completely they stem from the spirit of Buddhism and how
wonderfully they blossomed forth during the Buddhist period….» Without going too
deeply into the matter, it can be said that this remark can apply word for word
to the Vietnamese scheme of things as regards Buddhist influence in VietNam on
architecture, sculpture and painting. Those examples which have withstood the
ravager of time and the havoc of war testify to what a degree art developed
under this benign influence, as also the interesting and profitable research
work done by archoeologists prior to 1945.
But if in some countries and in cetain respects the
artist rather than the monks is closer to the community of the faithful in
interpreting their interests and daily pursuits, a view which is held by
Professor Paul Mus, in Vietnam it is actually the literateurs on whom this task
devolves, especially on the poets who are also philosophers of note. That – for
reasons which are difficult to explain – is because if the Vietnamese is capable
of expressing his wonder at the form and colour of things, cnanot really be
deeply stirred except by vibrations of sounds. This tendency makes him an ardent
lover of the theatre, of music which is not only instrumental or vocal, but of
words whose music is magic to his ears; in other words, Poetry. Hence we seem to
have been guided not towards Art but towards Letters which are the true
repositories of thoughts – and Letters, only, assuming the rarity of literary
works which are either lacking in philosophical reflections or which contribute
nothing to the development of moral themes – if one is to know what good Vietnam
has derived from her seventeen centuries of conversion to Buddhism.
In order to do that it is necessary to go back to the
sixth century when the monastries both centres for the spread of Buddhism as
well as schools for training men of letters. There were no public schools and
besides there were few young men who were keen to study the Chinese characters
apart from the Buddhist monks who were prompted by a desire to delve deep into
Chinese translations for the essence of a doctrine which they found wonderful
but which failed to satisfy them because they were conveyed orally up to then.
The tradition was passed on from one epoch to another so that between 1010 and
1225 during the Ly dynasty it was almost impossible to find a poet with more
than average talent outside the religious circle, all the Masters of Dhyana from
the famous School of Meditation stemming from the themes developed by these
poet-monks were generally beyond the comprehension of the general public, the
work of these monks nevertheless contributed not a little towards raising the
prestige of Buddhism which had already gained considerable popularity.
The position was reversed at the beginning of the
fifteeth century. The literary figures who were supporters of Confucianism
profited by the existing rivalry and supplanted the Buddhists by winning
imperial trust and favours. This defeat however was but temporaty. The hold of
Buddhism remaied firmly anchored in the minds and hearts of the people and soon
became as strong as it had been in earlier times from the birth in China of
syncretism whose source also gave rise to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The
literary luminaries of Vietnam had perforce to submit to it without unduly
protesting since after some initial hesitation they firmly admitted, like their
Chinese predecessors, that the value of a true culture was based on the
possession of the «three teachings.» The result of this for literature and
philosophy was to enlarge their sphere of action to say the least.
However, great though the progress was which Buddhism had
made during the period under review, as regards literature, it fell far short of
that which was made later in the seventeeth and eighteeth centuries following
the advent of «Chu-nom» a national calligraphic system which was invented to
replace the Chinese characters. This was the golden age: authors and speakers
spoke the same language; the obstacles provided formerly by syntax and foreign
phonetics having been removed, the translation of thought into speech and
writing became direct and rapid. This event provided an enormous stimulus to the
spread of syncretism already referred to which it would be good to study.
It must first of all be remembered that even if there had
been belief bases on prejudice no religious fanaticism existed either in China
or in Vietnam to the point of provoking bloodshed as has happened in some
countries. Furthuer, by seeking to know the adversary better in order the better
to fight it, the adherents of each camp would have ended by noting existing
lacunae in their doctrine and at the same time the identity of certain
apparently contradictory declarations. For example, the Confucianist system
while stating its belief in an all-powerful heaven, recogises man's personal
responsibitity. Weak indeed are the nuances between its tenets and the Buddhist
Karma that they cannot be reconciled or brought nearer to each other.
Besides, Confucianist positivism, whatever one may say, is far too materialistic
to satisfy the aspirations common to all men, who in the world is there who does
not want to study the beyond, to lift the veil of «after-death» to question the
future, and so many other questions to which the Sage's Teachings provide no
answer. The poets of the old Vietnam were undoubtedly not indifferent to their
metaphysical preoccupations. That is the explanation which appears most
plausible to account for the fusion of thoughts of such different origins and
which from the point of view of application is proof of the widest rationalism
and very straitlaced logic by attributing to each of these religions, a sphere
of influence which normally belongs to each. As a general rule, the doctrine of
Confucius is responsible for governing earthly affairs (organisation and
administration of the family, society, etc.) and for Buddhism and Taoism
together to settle problems of a much higher order.
True it is that from the point of view of orthodoxy, such
a mixture is hardly desirable but viewed from another angle it must be realised
that it has produced – apart from appeasing the restless spirit – beneficial
effects on minds and hearts, to say nothing of the fact that it has made it
possible for the masses to understand the elementary ideas which each of the
systems in combination needed to spread on their individual behalf.
A detailed study of the poems of the period written in
«Chu-nom» – prose works were still very rare – will not fail to reveal the
brighter side of that which unsuspecting persons would be tempted to refer to
disdainfully as a doctrinal tangle or an unpardonable heresy. A good example of
this is KIM VAN KIEU, a masterpiece which enjoys unrivalled popularity because
of its lively musical quality, the beauty of its verse which is incomparable,
and above all because of its rich treasure-house of thoughts from noble Buddhist
inspiration. It would be no exaggeration to state that this poem which
elaborates a theme which is akin to the life of the country, has of itself
achieved much more than thousands of treatises on morals or philosophy as
regards the good fight it led for the triumph of goodness, forgiveness, purity
of thoughts, and loftiness of ideals. Even now a hundred years later and in
spite of the attractions of modern culture, it still is for some a sort of
encyclopoedia of the Vietnamese language or a sort of literary Bible, and for
others a civic and moral code, and finally for the whole world a manual of
elementary and practical Buddhism. Accepted by all social circles, loved by men
and women equally, KIM VAN KIEU brought and still brings the light of Salvation
to all by drawing attention to the inexorable Karma-ist reactions, by extolling
interior peace promised to «those who root out passion from their lives, by
putting men on their guard against evil reincarnations if they do evil.» All
this may seem very commonplace; but what it asks and no more is simple minds for
whom all religions appear to have been founded.
In Vietnam, Buddhist influence is not limited to the
realm of Art, Letters and Philosophy. It inspires the theatre, serves as a basis
for certain good, customs, inspires stories and legends, provides suggestions
for popular songs and proverbs. If Buddhism is the source at which intellectuals
quench their thirst it is also the breast which suckles spirits enamoured of
spirituality; it is in its school of wisdom that passion-troubled spirits
awaken; it is the Enlightenment of its illustrious founder that Vietnam is
learning to find herself, to know herself; finally it is under the roofs of her
monasteries that her devotees meditate devoutly and her unfortunates seek
Because Buddhism is so intimately bound up with the
Vietnamese citizens, existence and daily life it has become a vital necessity.
It was a forein religion.
It is a national religion.
NHỮNG ĐÓNG GÓP CỦA PHẬT GIÁO CHO NỀN:
MỸ NGHỆ, VĂN CHƯƠNG VÀ TRIẾT HỌC Ở VIỆT NAM
Từ Trung Hoa Phật giáo được truyền sang Việt Nam lối cuối
thế kỷ thứ hai, nghĩa là cách nay trên một ngàn bảy trăm năm, sau Khổng giáo.
Bốn trăm năm sau, liền khi Việt Nam chấm dứt quyền đô hộ của người Tàu, Phật
giáo bắt đầu phát triển mạnh, nhờ sức hộ trợ của các quốc vương, và từ đó tiếp
tục bành trướng không gián đoạn luôn cả về hai mặt rộng và sâu, dầu rằng đã phải
có một đôi khi gặp sự tranh chấp đố kỵ cũa Khổng giáo và Lão giáo. Trải qua một
khoảng thời gian lịch sử khá lâu, từ năm 968 đến 1314, Phật giáo còn được nâng
cao lên đến hàng quốc giáo. Dưới hai triều Lý, Trần, nhiều vua đứng ra nêu gương
tu hành tinh tấn, thậm chí có vị đã từ ngôi lánh tục, vào núi tham thiền. Chuyện
nghĩ cũng lạ và giá không bị bắt buộc phải đứng yên trong phạm vi bài thuyết
trình này, có lẽ tôi đã thử nghiên cứu trường hợp của các vị đạo tâm cao cả này
và chắc sẽ có nhiều thú vị.
Như đã nói, Phật giáo thời bấy giờ chiếm một địc vị gần
như độc tôn. Địa vị ấy, đến ngày nay, Phật giáo còn nắm giữ, đành rằng không
phải công khai như thuở xưa, mà trong thâm tâm của một đa số rất quan trọng. Cứ
vào đây mà xét thì dễ đoán biết ảnh hưởng của Phật giáo lớn lao như thế nào ở
trên đất Việt và những gì quí báu mà Phật giáo đã cống hiến cho việc xây dựng
nền luân lý và đạo đức của một dân tộc hiền hòa, chất phác, hình như sinh ra là
để nghing đón đạo Từ bi.
Chính dưới nét đậm Từ bi này của con người đức Phật mà
giáo lý của ngài được người dân Việt hiểu biết và tán thán. Các nghệ sĩ, hiền
triết, văn nhân thời xưa, không ai là không nhuần thấm đạo Từ bi; đến nay vẫn
còn đông số người trong ba giới này tiếp tục chịu ảnh hưởng gương xả thân cứu
đời của Phật tổ.
Một tác giả Tây phương, khi vẽ lại con đường lịch sử của
nền Triết học Trung hoa, có viết: "Phật giáo là ảnh hưởng ngoại quốc đầu tiên đã
thúc đẩy mạnh bước tiến triển của dân tộc Trung hoa trên phương diện tâm lý, nhờ
đó chẳng những tôn giáo mà các ngành khác của nền văn minh trong nước đều được
phục sinh, vun bón và phát đạt đến cực độ. Bất luận ai, dầu là người chưa từng
hiểu biết đời sống tinh thần của dân Trung hoa đi nữa, chỉ một liếc mắt qua
những công trình tuyệt tác của nghề nặn tượng cũng nhận rằng nền mỹ nghệ xứ này
đã bắt nguồn thâm sâu ở tinh hoa Phật giáo, cho đến nỗi khi Phật giáo đạt đến
mức tối huy hoàng, thì mỹ nghệ cũng theo đà mà đơm hoa kết quả sum mậu lạ
thường".1 Chúbng tôi tưởng lời nghiệm xét của tác giả có thể chuyển sang nguyên
vẹn cho việt Nam, khỏi sửa đổi một điều nào, đối với khoa kiến trúc, điêu khắc
và hội họa. Những chùa chiền, tranh tượng còn sót sau những tang thương do thời
gian và chiến tranh gây ra, cũng như những công trình khảo cổ trước năm 1945,
đều chứng tỏ ảnh hưởng to tát của Phật giáo trong địa hạt này.
Giáo sư Paul Mus cho rằng trongng về một vài phương diện,
nhà nghệ sĩ thường gần các thiện tín hơn là nhà tu sĩ để diễn đạt những gì họ
quí chuộng và lo nghĩ hàng ngày. Điều ấy hẳn đã vậy, nhưng ở Việt Nam, vai tuồng
đó, nhà nghệ sĩ hình như đã nhường lại cho nhà văn sĩ, nhứt là thi sĩ, và những
thi sĩ này cũng là những bậc triết gia xuất sắc. Sở dĩ như thế là vì dầu biết
thích ngắm những cái dáng mỹ miều, những màu sắc cân đối, người Việt vẫn chỉ cảm
xúc thật sự trong những rung động của âm thanh. Tại sao thế? Thật khó mà giải
thích. Xu hướng đó làm cho người Việt rất mê thích ca nhạc, chẳng những lối nhạc
của đờn sáo mà thôi, mà còn và nhứt là lối nhạc không kém du dương và uyển
chuyển của câu thi lời phú. Vì vậy, chúng tôi thiết nghĩ, muốn biết nước Việt đã
hưởng được những lợi lạc gì sau mười bảy thế kỷ quy y Phật pháp, cần phải hướng
sự tìm tòi về nẻo văn chương hơn là về nẻo mỹ nghệ. Sách vỡ mới thật là kho tàng
của tư tưởng. Và cũng không cần moi tìm ở đâu nữa, vì trong Văn chương đã có sẵn
Triết học, bằng cớ là ít có một áng văn hay nào mà trong đó không lồng một vài
triết lý hay luân lý.
Đến đây, cần phải đi lùi lại thế kỷ thứ sáu, lúc các am
tự vừa là những nơi phát huy ánh sáng của đạo Phật, vừa là lò đào tạo các bực
tao nhân mặc khác. Nên nhớ rằng thời ấy không có trường công, và trong đám thanh
niên ít người học Nho, ngoại trừ nhà Sư. Camn thấy trong giáo pháp Phật đà có
những đạo lý cao siêu, huyền diệu, các tu sĩ, bất mãn với lối khẩu truyền, bèn
cố gắng học Hán tự để tham khảo kinh điển cho đến chỗ tinh vi. Đời này sang đời
khác đã thành một cái lệ, kịp đến khoảng giữa năm 1010 và 1225, dưới triều nhà
Lý, ngoài chốn Thiền môn, thật khó mà tìm một thi sĩ có tài. Thiền môn thật, vì
các văn gia nổi tiếng thời ấy đều là những Thiền sư do các Tổ Thiền tông từ
Trung hoa sang đào luyện. Tuy sâu xa khó hiểu cho đại chúng, văn phẩm của các
ngài không vì lẽ đó mà không làm tăng uy thế của Phật giáo lúc ấy đã lan tràn
gần khắp nơi.
Từ thế kỷ mười lăm, tình thế bị đảo lộn: Nho giáo đã
thắng Phật giáo và được nhà vua tin dùng, ủng hộ. Tuy thất bại chốn triều trung,
Phật giáo vẫn sống vững torng tâm hồn của dân chúng đã được mấy trăm năm giáo
hóa, để rồi nhân phong trào "Tam giáo qui nhứt" ở Tàu mà phục phát một cách mạnh
mẽ như trước. Các Nho gia hình như cũng nhận chịu phong trào ấy, cho nên sau một
lúc do dự, đã cùng các bực tiền bối Trung hoa, cho rằng muốn có một thực học,
cần phải tham bát tam giáo là Nho, Thích, Đạo. Nhờ phong trào ấy, mà phạm vi
hoạt động của văn chương và triết học được nới rộng ra nhiều.
Những tiến bộ về mặt văn chương trong thời kỳ vừa nói
thật đáng kể, nhưng chưa quan trọng bằng những kết quả thâu lượm được ở hai thế
kỷ 17 và 18, sau khi "chữ nôm" được sáng tạo. Còn lúc nào thuận hơn cho việc
truyền bá tư tưởng? Tác giả và độc giả chúng nói một thứ tiếng, tất cả những trở
ngại vì âm thanh bất đồng, vì lối nói xuôi ngược do chữ Nho tạo ra, đều bị chữ
nôm dẹp hết, thành ra sự học hỏi được dễ dàng và mau lẹ hơn một phần nào. Sự
kiện ấy đã giúp rất nhiều cho công cuộc bành trướng phong trào Tam giáo qui
Nay xin xét sơ phong trào này. Trước hết nên ghi rằng,
tuy có sự tin tưởng sai khác giữa ba mối đạo, ở Trung hoa cũng như ở Việt Nam,
chưa hề có một sự cuồng tín đến đổi gây họa đổ máu như ở một vài nơi trên thế
giới. Lại nữa, trong khi tìm hiểu giáo lý của đối phương để dễ chiến thắng, mỗi
đạo có lẽ đã thấy, tuy ngoài có chỗ trái ngược nhau, ba giáo tựu trung vẫn đồng
trên một căn bản. Thí dụ: Nho giáo tin ở quyền thưởng phạt của Trời, nhưng cũng
nhìn nhận trách nhiệm của người. Thế thì giữa thuyết này và luật nghiệp báo, sự
sai khác quá mỏng manh khiến cho đôi bên không thể nào không dung hòa được. Vả
lại, dầu ai nói gì đi nữa, cái thực dụng chủ nghĩa của Nho giáo quá thiên về vật
chất cho nên không làm sao thỏa mãn được những khát khao về mặt thiêng liuêng,
huyền bí là sự khao khát chung của nhân loại. Thật thế, thử hỏi trên thế gian
này, dân tộc nào không tìm tòi xem biết coi cảnh bên kia thế giới là như thế
nào, chết rồi sẽ ra sao, tương lai có những gì, v.v.., toàn là những câu hỏi mà
không sao kiếm được câu trả lời dứt khoát torng giáo lý của họ Khổng. Các văn
gia thi sĩ của Việt Nam chắc không tránh khỏi những thắc mắc vừakể . Thiết nghĩ
có giải thích như thế này mới hiểu được nguyên ủy việc xáo trộn những tư tưởng
rất cách biệt nhau ở chỗ nguồn cội. Đứng về mặt thực hành, phải nhìn nhận rằng
chủ trương Tam giáo qui nhứt rất là hợp lý, vì bề ngoài là hợp mà bề trong có
chia, và chia đây chỉ là chia phạm vi hoạt động và ảnh hưởng thế nào cho cân
xứng với tính cách của mỗi đạo. Đại khái, Nho giáo thì lo về nhân sự, tu tề như
thế nào để đi đến chỗ trị bịnh, còn Phật giáo và Đạo giáo thì lo giải quyết
những vấn đề cao siêu hơn.
Đứng về mặt thuần túy mà xét, sự xáo trộn ba đạo như vừa
nói, thật không phải là một việc đáng mong, nhưng nếu đứng về kết quả mà luận,
thì thấy rằng nhờ có sự xáo trộn đó mà lòng người dường như bớt xao xuyến lo âu,
tánh tình phong tục mới được tốt đẹp, chưa kể cái việc giúp cho quảng đại quần
chúng thâm nhiểm được đôi phần những giáo lý phổ thông mà mỗi đạo cần phải
truyền bá vì sự lợi ích riêng của chính mình.
Khảo cứu tỉ mỉ được những áng thi ca bằng chữa nôm –
chúng tôi không nói đến những văn xuôi, vì thời bấy giờ loại văn này rất ít –
chắc chắn sẽ làm sáng tỏ phương diện lợi lạc của cái mà người bất thức thường
xem như một món "tả bính lù" hay như một tà giáo khó tha thứ. Ở đây chúng tôi
xin phép dẫn Truyện Kim Vân Kiều làm thí dụ. Truyện Kiều là một áng văn vần
tuyệt tác, không tiền khoán hậu, âm thanh tao nhã, thi vận êm đềm, khiến cho
người đọc dễ cảm, huống chi từng hồi lại còn thêm những ý tứ cao siêu đượm nhuần
hương từ bi giác ngộ. Thật không quá đáng mà nói rằng, với bao nhiêu nhân tình
thế thái rất gần với đời sống xã hội thực tế đã được diễn tả thần tình trong đó,
Truyện Kiều có một hiệu lực bằng cả ngàn sách luân lý hay triết học trong công
cuộc chiến đấu để đem thắng lợi về cho Từ bi, Hỷ xả, Thanh cao. Ngay đến thời
bây giờ, dầu xa cách hàng trăm năm và dầu dân trí có hướng về tân học, Truyện
Kiều vẫn còn được kẻ này xem như một quyễn Việt ngữ bách khoa hay như một kinh
văn tôn quí, người khác như một khuôn vàng thước ngọc cho việc xử thế tiếp vật.
Còn đối với tất cả, có thể nói đó là một quyển Phật giáo yếu lược cho hạng sơ cơ
rất là tiện lợi. Được mọi giai cấp xã hội nồng nhiệt đón tiếp, nam thích mà nữ
cũng ưa, Truyện Kiều đã đem đến và còn tiếp tục thức tỉnh về luật nghiệp báo
nghiêm minh, lòng hâm mộ sự an lạc của những tâm hồn vô dục và…. Khuyên bảo mọi
người phải dè dặt, đừng làm thất nhân tổn đức mà phải chịu tái sanh trong đau
khổ. Có người sẽ bảo: như thế thì quá tầm thường, chưa phải là Phật giáo. Vâng,
nhưng những tâm hồn thơ ngây có đòi hỏi nhiều hơn đâu và chính họ mới là những
người đáng để ý, vì hình như tại có họ mới có tôn giáo…
Trước khi chấm dứt bài thuyết trình ngắn ngủi này, xin
nói thêm rằng, cho đến ngày nay, Phật giáo vẫn còn là nguồn cảm hứng cho kịch
giới, nhiều thuần phong mỹ tục đều nhờ Phật giáo mà tồn tại, nhiều truyện xưa
tích cũ chịu ảnh hưởng đạo Phật còn được người trong xứ ứ thích, nhiều ca dao,
cách ngôn còn căn cứ tren6 nền tảng Phật giáo. Nếu Phật giáo là nguồn nước để
giải khát cho hàng trí thức, Phật giáo cũng là giọt sữa để nuôi dưỡng những đạo
tâm nồng nhiệt, là ngọn đuốc soi đường cho kẻ say mê lạc lối, là bờ giác đề cho
người đắm đuối quay về. Cửa Thiền là nơi mà các bực tín tâm đến chiêm ngưỡng mà
cũng là đám vườn xanh giữa bãi sa mạc chờ đón những ai quá khổ vì nóng bức.
Vì thấm nhuần đời sống hằng ngày của dân chúng một cách
mật thiết như thế, đạo Phật hiện nay đã trở thành một nhu cầu tối yếu cho người
dân Việt. Trước kia là một đạo của xứ ngoài, Phật giáo nay là một đạo của dân
Original Text: Le Bouddhisme au Vietnam (in French, English,
Vietnamese), published by q groupe of author’s friends, Xa-loi Pagoda,
E.V. zenker, History of Chinese Philosophy, Translated by G. Le
Page, Payot, Paris, 1932.