Vietnamese Zen

Lineage Diagrams Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect Vietnamese Zen Masters
Vietnamese Zen At The Late 20th Century

  • The presence of Buddhism in Vietnam

    Buddhism was transmitted to Vietnam at the end of the second century and in the beginning of the third century by masters Khuong Tang Hoi and Mau Bac. Until the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, other lineages appeared such as Vinitaruci and Wu Yen Tong. The existence of these lineages had made Buddhism more dominant. In the tenth and eleventh centuries (after Dinh, Le, Ly, and Tran dynasties), Vietnam became independent. Buddhism had been a great contribution to the formation of Vietnam and the religious learning.

  • The bonding between Buddhism and Vietnamese people

    1. The glorious era of Vietnamese people and Buddhism

      After the victories over Chinese invasions and Vietnamese uprisings, Ngo Quyen announced King in 939 A. D. Vietnam officially became independent since that time. In 968, Dinh Bo Linh vanquished the Twelve Warlords and united the country. He became king in the same year. During his era, Zen master Ngo Chan Luu was appointed as Khuon Viet national advisor. Thus, Buddhism began its involvement in politics.

      We should realize the important role and contribution of the national advisor in the preservation and civilization of the country. We just won independence, therefore, there was a need for improvement in literature, politics, culture, etcRealizing this issue, the Zen masters had a responsibility to make contribution to the building of the nation and to lead our people to the brilliant success. This is reason that Buddhism existed in politics.

      Dinh dynasty lost power to Le dynasty in 986 A.D. The Sung dynasty of China assigned ambassador Ly Giac to visit Vietnam. To lessen the arrogance of Chinese emperor and to elevate their respect to Vietnamese people, King Le Dai Hanh assigned Master Do Thuan, disguised as a ferryman, to ride the ambassador across the river and Khuon Viet advisor would greet him at the palace. While sitting on the boat, Ly Giac noticed a pair of geese floating on the river. His poetic mind was inspired so he recited two verses:

      A pair of geese side by side
      Looking up to the skyline

      Rowing, the Master rejoined:

      White feathers expose in the deep blue sea
      In green waves, their red feet paddle

      The ambassador was surprised to the quick rejoinder of the talented ferryman. At the palace, he was welcomed courteously by Khuong Viet advisor. This had elevated his respect. Before his departure, ambassador Ly Giac made a poem for King Le Dai Hanh as an expression of his respect. Meantime, Khuong Viet Nation advisor also made a farewell poem as a rejoinder.

      We could say that from this point on, Chinese people had unspokenly giving more respect to Vietnamese literature. These diplomatic events were initiated by all Zen masters.

      The Le dynasty ended and followed by Ly dynasty. The person who made a great contribution to the prosperity of Ly dynasty and Vietnamese people during this era (1010-1225) is Zen Master Van Hanh. He was the person who proposed the idea of moving the capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long and became the advisor of king Ly Thai To. In the presence, Thang Long still is an important location of the nation. The civilization and prosperity of this era were much contributed by Master Van Hanh. We can see his ability and virtue through the following praising paean that King Ly Nhan Ton wrote:

      His knowledge of three periods was profound
      His words were like prophecy
      Co Phap, where hometown was
      Aspired to build the nation

      In his research of the civilization of Vietnam, writer Le Van Sieu praised: "There should be no doubt. The architect, whose perception is broad and profound, should be Master Van HanhHe had made Le dynasty more important. He never missed his Buddhist practices, but meanwhile, he had utilized his talent for the nation. He had liberated from the finical practicing rules of Buddhism. He must have realized that the most effective way of influencing people with Buddhism is by influencing the government. He did not follow Kung Tzu's footsteps by carrying a scripture and wandering everywhere in the country without employment. He also did not follow other scholars who preferred to sit in the tent to teach students the Way. And he did not do sitting meditation in stillness like Bodhisattvas. He engaged in the society with the only goal: propagate Buddhism through politics. " (Excerpt from "Van Minh Viet nam" of Le Van Sieu, page 77)

      In Mr. Le Quan's opinion, the civilization of this dynasty was far more advanced than Chinese civilization at the time. This advancement was made by Zen master Van Hanh. He also wrote:

      "From the union of the quintessence of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional perceptions, he had created a new unique ideology.

      1. Although Taoism and Confucianism came from China, all Chinese scholars and even Kao Bi (a talented scholar) had not applied their concepts in the living. Only Master Van Hanh could do it. He did it by influencing the people's mind using the idea of materialism. This had revealed a new road of advancement.

      2. Those poets such as Ching Yi, Chu I, etcwrote many books. However, they emphasized too much on the concept and became pessimistic about the culture (sometimes they eagerly opposed each other). But Zen master Van Hanh had realized and utilized the relation of the genesis of mind, genesis of energy, and genesis of materials to produce the universal harmony. Why did I say that? It's because Master Van Hanh didn't have to write any book, but concentrated on the establishment. The establishment was based on certain materials to depict its meaning. A book could be read by only one person at a time, but the meaning of establishment could be known forever by millions of people. He constructed the city hidden with an intention. That means that he already discerned fully the power of material factors, the mind, and energy when they correlate with each other. Besides, he understood well the way to guide the King, imperial officials, and Vietnamese people based the idea of Lao Tzu (Taoism).

      3. Buddhism had been propagated in China for years and the scriptures are uncountable. However, they could only translate them, but not fully discern the concept.

      From the same propagation of Buddhism, in Vietnam, Zen master Van Hanh had made it more effective by building a lotus pond with a wooden pagoda on a stone pillar in the middle so that the King could see the symbol of Buddhism in every moment of the day. " (Excerpt from "Van Minh Viet Nam", written by Le Van Sieu, p. 81-82)

      There are more complements from other people. However, I don't want you to be satiated with too much of it.

      As the time progressed, each emperor of Ly dynasty took the thrown. All of them were true Buddhists, who understood profoundly Buddhism and were assisted by Zen masters. Thus, their ruling was based on the morality and principle of Buddhism. Let hear this saying from King Ly Thanh Ton to the people during a cold winter: "Living in the palace with provided heat from the chimneys and fur coats, I still feel the coldness; much less for those people in jail cells who are suffered, hungry, and clothless. Their criminal status is not yet determined. If they die because of this coldness, is it true that we would unintentionally kill innocent people? I sympathized for them!" Then, he ordered his men to make sure they were warm with blankets and treated with 2 meals per day. He distributed out to the people half of the tax collection of that year (Translated by Nguyen Dang Thuc - V.S.L. II, p. 101). The existence of Buddhism had developed many virtuous and glorious kings. This also brought the prosperity and peace to Vietnamese people. This is considered to be the golden era of Vietnam.

      At the end of Ly dynasty, the Tran dynasty followed the tradition. Buddhism was still the main religion. All kings had profound understanding of Buddhism. After bequeathing his thrown to his son, King Tran Nhan Ton ordained to become the First Patriarch of Truc Lam sect. Tran dynasty reigned for 2 centuries (1225 1400). Vietnam was known as a strong nation by defeating Mongolian invasions from the north. These glorious victories had gained high respect from the world.

      From the king to citizens, everyone was devoted in Buddhism. Confucians called it superstition. But they never knew the people's belief in Buddhism was the cause for Dien Hong congregation, where people set their mind to fight the enemy. We can't say that Buddhism was not an influence to the morale of the people. We can listen to this historical memo of Le Quat, a Confucian, at Phuoc Hau temple talking about Buddhism:

      "How could Buddhism influence people in such a way that it's profound and prolong? From monarchs to typical people, everyone is generous with their spending on anything that relates to Buddhism. Today, if they could make donation to build a temple, they're quite delighted. It's like they have a voucher for a money return. Thus, at everywhere, people voluntarily believe and follow. At any residential area, there is a Buddhist temple. If it's ruined, they remodel it. If it's collapsed, they build a new one. The bell or gong towers are also built. They build it so easily and their belief is quite strong. I started reading at small age and studied the history and present, therefore, my religious knowledge is not bad. But I still can't made anyone trust me. From the north to the south that I traveled, I have rarely seen learning centers. I feel embarrassed by these Buddhist followers. This is the reason that I write this memo."

      Le Quat was a student of Chu Van An, who was an official during the reign of king Tran Minh Ton. He was upset when seeing the reverence of people in Buddhism. Thus, he wrote this memo. This memo has reflected the wide spread of Buddhism in Vietnam during Tran dynasty. Everywhere was covered with the Buddhist glow.

      All together, Buddhism existed in politics for 5 centuries. It had made a good contribution in the formation and defense of the nation. Not only it helped our emperors and officials become bright leaders, it helped our people progress in the moral civilization. In addition to the understanding of the concept of liberation, they understood profoundly the way of structuring the society to bring the real happiness to the people. Therefore, they were always responsible for any cultural or learning matters. The flourishment and power of Vietnam in this era were based on the prosperity of Buddhism.

    2. The elimination of Buddhism from government

      Based on the concept of impermanence, if prosperity exists, the diminishing exists. Buddhism is not excluded from this common rule. During his reign, king Ly Nhan Ton liked to give examinations to elect elite scholars. His goal was to elevate Vietnamese culture. The first examination took place in 1097. The first place was Zen master Vien Thong. He later was promoted to national advisor. Confucianism and Taoism had a chance to advance and the idea of unifying the three religions had grown. Until Tran dynasty, it extremely prospered.

      At the end of Tran dynasty, the idea of examinations had fully formed and many Confucians had been elected as officials. Thus, Confucianism grew stronger in politics. They believed that Buddhism was not good enough to build a stronger nation, therefore, all Zen masters were eliminated from the government. Some of the Buddhist leaders, who could not hold their positions, had to resign. Especially, from posterior Ly dynasty (1428), Confucians solely gained the power in politics. Buddhism had been mistreated. To minimize the chance of Buddhist participation, they opened a few examinations. Mr. Dao Duy An wrote:

      "From half of Tran dynasty to the era of Chu Van An, Confucianism defeated Buddhism. These two dynasties had strict rules to Buddhist practitioners and Taoists. Even though Le dynasty created examinations for religious practitioners, it also was a way to eliminate them. Confucius study was quite reverent by the Le and Nguyen emperors." (Written by Dao Duy Anh, "Viet nam Van Hoa", p. 237)

      Thus, we have seen clearly that during the prosperity of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were also been respected. But when Confucianism prospered, Buddhism was mistreated. Despite of this irony, Buddhism had a chance to get closer to the people in rural areas and build hidden power among them. This made it become the religion of Vietnamese people and they were not accused of being the traitors of Vietnam.

      Those monks, who had resigned, left the city to rural areas to live with farmers. By adapting to their simple lifestyle, Buddhism gradually became less profound, but more of a typical belief. The Buddhist monastics should know how to diagnose people's ailments, prescribe medications, predict good or bad days...even make talisman to clear evils...

      From the end of Le dynasty to Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam was shook by the enemy's invasions and internal uprisings. The worst was that the nation was divided in half, ruled by Trinh and Nguyen. The distress of the nation was also the distress of Vietnamese Buddhism. Shortly after the nation united in 1802 by Gia Long, Vietnam was conquered by French. Again, Vietnam became dependent to westerners.

      During the French domination, Chinese language was replaced by French language. Confucians were eliminated from politics. Frenchmen took a lead in government, while Confucians returned home to teach, diagnose people's ailments, or predict good or bad days...In their spare time, they stopped by the temples for a cup of lotus tea and to chat with the monks.

      Even though the nation had undergone ups and downs, the spirit of Vietnamese people still lives. The elimination of Buddhism from the government didn't diminish its existed dharmas in the heart of the people. When the chance comes, the people's mind will rise so as the vitality of Buddhist dharmas.

    3. The early reestablishment of Buddhism

      After many dark years, Vietnamese people revolutionized to destroy the domination of French (in 1945) and gained the independence. The nation again was divided in half. The tribulation had always scattered on this dear homeland. Though, the revolutionary mind of the people was like the uprising waves that could not be contained. This was the time Buddhism began its reestablishment. Unfortunate, it was suppressed by Ngo's family, which caused the despairing incident in 1963. Despite these hindrances, Buddhism still revived like a squall that could take everything with it. Because Buddhism is already lived in the people's heart, it could burst strongly once it's provoked. We believe that Buddhism is a part of people's life therefore, the advancement of the people and Buddhism are the same. In the future, when our nation is in peace, Buddhism would also be prosperous because of the close relationship between Buddhism and Vietnamese people in their mind from the past to present.

This segment is a translated version of chapter 1 of the book "Phat Giao Voi Dan Toc" (Buddhism and Vietnamese People), written by Master Thich Thanh Tu in the mid 60's.