Buddhism in Vietnam
The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
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Part One. Buddhism’s Entry into Vietnam and Its Practice under Chinese Control (from 1st to 10th Century A.D.)




Situated on the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam is a geographical dot amidst two large countries, the two most ancient civilizations of Asia, and probably of the whole world: India and China. Being near two such large countries and ancient civilizations, Vietnam has naturally been influenced by both. And Vietnam’s acquisition of Buddhism is no exception. Nevertheless, contrary to what has been previously thought, historical evidence indicates Indians first brought Buddhism to Vietnam. Indeed, Indian Buddhist monks likely came to Vietnam first before traveling to southern China.

Vietnam’s geographical position has made it a prime candidate for trade with India. The Indochinese peninsula was formed by several mountain ranges which span from Tibet in the northwest to the sea in the southeast. Among these ranges lie the valleys of big rivers, most importantly the Mae Nam which forms the Thai delta, the Mekong river, and northern Vietnam’s Red and Da Rivers.

Sea routes, including through these waterways, were the most important channels connecting India with Vietnam. India is also a peninsula, albeit like a small continent. Long before the Christian Era, Indian merchants traded with Arabs and Mediterranean countries. Trade was especially brisk with the Roman Empire in gold, pearl, perfumes, silk and sandalwood. In order to source enough merchandize to trade with western markets, Indian traders set out in their boats, taking advantage of the Southwestern monsoon, sailing towards Southeast Asia, to Malaysia, to the Indonesian group of islands, crossing the Malacca Strait into the South China Sea, to Vietnam, China and then Japan. When setting out they took advantage of the Southeastern monsoon. When coming back they had to wait for the Northeastern monsoon the following year.

During a year’s stay, they had enough time to trade and, gradually, deeply influence their host’s production, culture, daily life, and religion. Unconsciously, they took part in the process of Hinduization in Eastern areas. It was an expansionism without occupation - just an expansion of culture, religion and economy. Among the Indian merchants who came and went, some of them stayed and married native wives. They were given recognition and respect by local authorities. This diaspora was the source of the Indian villages on the islands of Perek and Celebes in South China and Malaysia, Cambodia, Champa, and Indonesia. They brought along Indian customs, art and religion (Brahmanism and Buddhism). They engraved religious statements in Sanskrit on stone columns or tablets. It must be remembered that Jataka Buddhist collections told many stories of crossing oceans, and the Hindu Ramayana epic told of areas like Java, Sumatra, and the "golden land" (Suvannabhumi).

On the Malaysian islands, where Indians arrived by sea, Chinese historical materials tell of the gradual progress of Hinduization, beginning from the second century A. D. The stone columns and tablets carved in Sanskrit found here date from no later than the fourth century. In Indonesia, engraved Sanskrit characters of Mulavarman have been found in Kutei, Borneo dating from the beginning of fifth century A. D. Stone tablets carved in Sanskrit by King Pulavarmani have been found in western Java from the middle of the fifth century. But Buddha statues of the Amaravati school, discovered in Sampaga (Celebes), on the Seguntang hill in Palembang (Sumatra), the southern part of Gember province, were much older (See W. Cohn, Buddha in der Kunst des Ostens, Leipzig, 1925, p. 28 and F.M. Schnitger, The Archeology of Hindu Sumatra, Leyde 1937, p. l).

According to Ye Tiao, in Yavadvipa the first Chinese contact with a Hinduized Java occurred as early as 132 A.D. On the basis of the above document, G. Ferrand, in a 1919 issue of Journal Asiatique, stated that "Indonesia’s first contact with Hinduism must have occurred before the Christian Era". Indian navigators were highly active in this region from before the Christian Era. They became even more active in the second and third centuries.

This situation cannot be explained by Brahmanic ideology, a religion condemning relations with foreigners as not being pure. It can only be explained by acknowledging that Brahman ideology was shaken to the roots by the egalitarian ideology of Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, a prominent Buddhist movement in India in the early years of the Christian Era. The Mahayana Buddhism movement not only advocated that all classes were equal, that everybody was equal, but it also emphasized the Bodhisattva’s ideology of sacrificing living creatures, including sacrificing one’s own causes in order to eliminate desire and suffering. Fearless of long and dangerous journeys, difficulties encountered due to languages, customs and habits, Bodhisattvas pursued first and foremost the lofty aim of "chung sinh vo bien the nguyen do," i.e., helping mankind and saving the world without differentiating among nations, among regimes. It was possible to say that Buddhist ideology, especially the Mahayana sect, freed the Indian people, including traders to go anywhere in the world.

Mahayana Buddhism confirmed the protecting role of Buddha and Bodhissattvas towards people who believed in them and repeated their names. Indian sailors and traders often prayed for help from Buddha Dipankara and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A. Foucher in Iconographie Bouddhique writes: The name Dipankara symbolized the names of the islands (dipa and dvipa) and was considered as the Buddha protecting seamen. That is why Indian sailors and traders pray for his help during their voyages. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was well-known all over the Far East as the Buddha with a thousand eyes and a thousand hands who had great benevolence and great power, and could save anybody believing in her and repeating her name in their misfortunes. The fact is that Indian sailors and traders took along Buddha Dipankara statues and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara statues to daily offer prayers and recite their names before certainly influenced the people they visited.

In addition to the various cultural and religious factors above, there are other reasons for the Indian diaspora, for example:

- King Asoka’s invasion of Kalinga on the East Coast of India in the third century B.C. could have pushed people to migrate to foreign countries.

- The Kushan invasion in the early years of the Christian Era probably had the same effect.

- According to G. Coedes, the author of Histoire Ancienne Des Etats Hindouises d’ Exteme Orient, the deep causes of India’s expansion in the early years of the Christian Era were economic and commercial.

Other historical events led to improved commercial links between the Far East and the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander the Great’s eastern campaign, the foundation of Maurya’s dynasty and the following Kaniskha dynasty in India, the occurrence of the Seleucides Empire and especially the Roman Empire in the West. However, increased trade in luxury goods attracted the attention of a number of Latin scholars. (E.H. Warminton, The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India, Cambridge, 1928). These luxury goods included spices, perfumes and aloe wood, which were not found in India but on islands lying off her east coast.

Geographical names in Sanskrit like Takkola (pepper market), Karpura dvipa (camphor island), Narikeladivipa (coconut island) remind us of the areas to which Indian traders came. (Sylvain Levy in Kouen louen and Dripanlara said that Kanakapuri was a "gold town" on the Dvipantara Island. Gold was also sought by Indians, especially in Indonesia where there were many rivers with gold.

Before the Christian Era, India still bought gold in Siberia and followed the route across Bactria. But in about 200 B.C. waves of migration in Central Asia cut off this route. In the first century, India imported gold coins from the Roman Empire, and then melted them down for other purposes. Even today gold coins of this kind can be found in India. Nevertheless, India’s imports of these coins were abruptly stopped when the Roman Emperor stopped the illegal export of gold that was hurting the Roman economy. India soon had to turn to South East Asia and the Far East to acquire the gold needed (R. Sewell, Roman Coins Found in India, 1904, pp. 591-638).

There was thus not only one reason but many for India’s expansion to the East. Depending on differing historical points of view, this or that reason is given priority. The Buddhist belief promoted after Asoka’s dynasty in the year 300 B.C., which abolished prejudices about the purity of Aryans, may also have had an influence.

Following the voyages of sailors and traders were probably the journeys of Buddhist monks to propagate Buddhism. Buddhist monks at that time were often intellectuals who had a broad knowledge. Without them, the influence of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sanskrit literature could not have been thoroughly integrated into Cambodia, Champa, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

According to Chinese historians, the Funan Kingdom in Cambodia was founded in the first century by an Indian Brahmin called Kaundinya. China did not have an official and direct relation to the Funan imperial court. The chief mandarins in Funan are known to have been Indian because in Chinese historical materials their names start with "zhu," the surname previously given to all Indians by the Chinese.

In Cambodia, archaeologists have found four stone tablets carved in Sanskrit. Relations between the Champa kingdom and China began in the years 190-193 A.D. In Quang Nam province the Dong Duong Buddha statue, one of the most beautiful examples belonging to the Indian Amaravati carving school, was found (See V. Rougier, Nouvelles Decouvertes Chames au Quang Nam, Befeo XI, p. 471; and A.K. Coomarasvamy, The History of Indian and Indonesian Art, p. 197). Chinese historical materials also demonstrate that numerous small kingdoms on the Malay peninsula were "Indianized" from the beginning of the second century. Such Indianized kingdoms were obviously suitable areas for further Indian migrations.

More and more Indian people came to overseas areas in the East, mostly by the sea routes mentioned above. But what about overland routes? There were many overland routes, but they were more difficult to travel. First, there were favorable combinations of water and land routes. Instead of sailing through the Straits of Malacca, far away to the south, Indian traders could transport goods through the Isthmus of Kra on the Malay peninsula, then go along easy land routes, to cross from this sea to the other within hours. From Southern India, Indian traders could use quite small boats to cross the narrow waterway between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the one between Aceh and the Nicobars a little further to the South. The second route reached Kedah on the Malay peninsula. At Aceh and Kedah, archaeologists have excavated many ancient objects belonging to Indian civilization. (See H.G. Quaritch Wales, "A Newly Explored Route of Ancient Indian Cultural Expansion," Indian Art and Letters, pp. 1-31).

Traders setting off from Central India could go by the land route crossing the Three Pagodas Pass and sail along the Kamburi River to the Gulf of Thailand. Further to the north, it was possible to get to the Gulf of Thailand by a land route which nowadays connects Moulmein with Tak Rahaeng, a town on a branch of the Mae Nam Wang. There was another route linking the Mae Nam with the Mekong River, crossing Korat, Sitep and the Mun river valleys. It was this route, which led directly to the Bassak region in the midstream of the Mekong River in the Cambodian Kingdom. This kingdom was probably founded by Indian migrants before the Christian Era. In the beginning of this Era, Indian monks might have come to Laos by this route and from there crossed the Truong Son ranges to Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa or Nghe An provinces.

Further to the North was the route connecting India with southern China, crossing Assam, Burma and Yunnan province. This route might have been used since the second century A.D. or even before this time. (See Pelliot, P., Deux Itheraires, Befeo, IV, pp 142-143; and G.H. Luce Pe Maung Tin, "Burma Down to the Fall of Pagan", Burma Research Society, p. 29).

All of the geographical and historical facts above refute the theories that Buddhism first came second hand from China, spreading from India to China and then from China to Vietnam. Granted, nobody denies that there were water and overland routes connecting India and China without crossing Vietnam, most importantly the two land routes through Central Asia. Nobody can also deny the fact that Vietnam was greatly influenced by Chinese Buddhism. According to historical materials, however, Buddhism was introduced directly into Vietnam by Indian monks a very long time before it entered Southern China.

Whether by sea or by land, alone or in groups of two or three people, and sometimes traveling with traders, foreign monks, particularly from India or Central Asia, came to Vietnam to spread Buddhism. Nevertheless, it is not easy to clearly answer the questions: When did the first Buddhist monks come to Vietnam? Where were they from? How many of them came? Foreign monks whose names are mentioned in Vietnamese or Chinese historical materials were probably not those who were the first to set the foundation for Buddhism in Vietnam.

It is known that in 300 B.C. during Emperor Asoka’s reign, after the Third Congress for Compiling Sutras (Ket tap), many Buddhist prosletyzing delegations were sent to West, East and South East Asia. A delegation headed by the two monks Uttara and Sona was sent to Suvannabbumi, the golden land. Historical materials from Burmese Buddhism relate that the two monks came to Burma to propagate Buddhism. Nevertheless, Thai historical materials also indicate the two went to Thailand to spread Buddhism. Did the two go to Vietnam?

Until now, this question has not been settled one way or the other by Chinese and Vietnamese historians. On the basis of one Chinese scholar’s materials, King Asoka’s stupa can be found in Giao Chau (ancient Vietnam) at the Nele ("muddy") wall, affirming that the Nele wall is the present Vietnamese coastal city of Do Son.

South India was the first region which witnessed the appearance of the Mahayanist "Bat Nha" Sutra (Zhi Hui in Chinese, and Prajna in Sanskrit). For example, the Diamond Sutra, well known in Vietnam, is one of the most important Mahayana Sutras in the Prajna collection. On the basis of the collection of Prajna Sutras, the learned Nagarjuna promoted the famous "Middle way" (Madhyamaka), which had a profound influence on Vietnamese Buddhism, as it did on China. An analysis of the Zen (Chan in Chinese) literature of the Zen masters of the first two Zen sects in Vietnam, Vinitaruci and Vo Ngon Thong, shows clearly the deep influence of Prajna ideology. It is quite likely that the Mahayana Prajna was directly transferred from South India to Vietnam through Indonesia and Champa. In China, although the first Prajna sutra was translated by Lokesama during the Han dynasty, by the end of the second century A.D., its influence was not enduring and wide. Only after Kumarajiva came to China at the beginning of the fifth century did the Prajna sutra become widely popular there. (See K. Mukerji, Indian Literature in China and the Far East, p. 92-93).

In Giao Chau at the beginning of the third century the sutra Astasahasrika, translated by Khuong Tang Hoi, was considered the oldest Prajna Sutra (Astasahasrika). The Prajna Sutra Damasahasrika, translated by Lokasema, appeared later by the end of the Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) at the second stage of Prajna Literature (Jaidava Singh, An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy, Delhi, p. 9). The Astasakasrika Sutra is the oldest in the whole of the Prajna Literature. It surely came to Vietnam from Southern India and not China, long before it was translated. In the Buddhist center of Luy Lau, there were monasteries or schools where the Sutra Prajna was taught, including the Sutra Astasahasrika, later translated into Chinese by Khuong Tang Hoi. In addition, the spread of Buddhism in Vietnam continued from the beginning of the common era through the following centuries owing to the contributions of Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, and even Vietnamese monks themselves who had studied Buddhism in India or China. Records show that many Chinese monks followed a Southern route and stopped in Giao Chau before going to India to look for Buddhist teachers. For example Yu Fa Lan, Yu Dao Cui at the beginning of the fourth century and Ming Yuan at the end of the fourth century, Sui Ming, Wu Xing, Tan Run, Zhi Heng, Hui Ning, and Yi Jing in the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries.

Not satisfied with Buddhism in China and the translated Sutras, they wanted to continue their study of Buddhism in India. Their journeys were long and dangerous. Storms, diseases, pirates, and the like threatened their survival. Thus, in order to prepare for their journeys they had to improve upon their physical strength, their knowledge of Sanskrit, astronomy, and the customs and habits of the people at their destination. Giao Chau was a very convenient place for such preparation. When they went and especially when they came back, they talked with monks in Giao Chau about their new knowledge of Buddhism and different Buddhist sects. They deposited there their Sutra books, which they had collected. All of this led to the further spread of Buddhism in Giao Chau.

Some Vietnamese monks also set out to look for Buddhist teachers together with Chinese monks, going "Southward" and "Westward". Sometimes they went by themselves on the trading boats of Indian merchants. Some of their names were Mosadeva, Khuy Xung, Hue Diem, Tri Hanh, and Dai Thang Dang. Before arriving in India, they passed many Buddhist kingdoms in South East Asia and Southern Asia. Some of them reached Southern India, or Western India, or Northern India. Most went because they were not satisfied with the amount of Buddhism that had reached their country via monks from India, China or Central Asia. They also wanted to see with their own eyes what Buddhism was like in India and what society and people with Buddhist beliefs were like there.

They made a great effort to study Buddhism and Indian society. Some of them had a very good command of Buddhism, such as Dai Thang Dang. He could explain the treatise "Duyen Sinh Luan." Many of these monks intended to return to develop Buddhism in their homeland though some died on the way to India or in India. After returning home, they used the knowledge they had acquired to have discussions with monks or Buddhist followers in the region. All of this helped the native people understand more about the Buddha’s belief and brought a specific character to the native Buddhism.

Buddhism continued to spread throughout Vietnam until the late stage of Chinese feudal domination, and even until Vietnam became independent in the tenth century. There were, however, some changes in the introduction routes. The direct Southwestern routes from India were no longer used. New teachings of Buddhism were introduced into Vietnam through Northern routes including the various Chinese Chan sects. For example, the Vinitaruci and Wu Yantong sects of Zen Buddhism were introduced during the late Chinese domination stage. The Cao Tang, Lin Ji and Cao Dong schools were introduced after the tenth century. Because Vietnamese society at that time had features in common with the Chinese, it easily accepted Chinese culture, including its beliefs. At the same time, Hinduism and Islam became more popular in India, while Buddhism declined in popularity. Buddhist missionaries were no longer sent out. Nevertheless, previous Indian missionaries had already left their mark on Vietnam. They were the first and one of the important influences on the development of Buddhism in Vietnam. They and others have helped to build up the features of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam.

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