- Introduction to
- BUDDHISM IN VIET NAM
When Buddhism spreads to Vietnam, the Dharma, adapting to
the times and the capacities of the people, consists of two traditions, the Northern and
the Southern. The Southern tradition (Theravada) emphasizes everyday practical realities
and swift self-emancipation, leading to the fruits of the Arahats or Pratyeka Buddhas. The
Northern tradition (Mahayana, or Great Vehicle) teaches all-encompassing truths and
stresses the goal of liberating all sentient beings, leading to the complete Enlightenment
of the Tathagatas. With both traditions now existing in Vietnam, we can explain how
Buddhism came to Vietnam.
Intent to give readers the overview of Buddhism in
Vietnam, this article focus mainly on the great times and significant events that have
great impacts on Vietnamese Buddhist history so that one may see clearly how Buddhism has
made great contributions to the founding, and protecting of the country.
I. The beginning of Buddhism in Vietnam
How did the Buddhism come to Vietnam? Many people at first
believe that it came from China. The reason is that China is a big neighbor and Vietnam
was influenced strongly by Chinese politics as well as culture for many centuries.
Actually, it's not true. Buddhism came to Vietnam directly from India.
In the past, Vietnam was very much like the intersection
between India and China (That's why the French call this country as Indochina). At that
time, either walking, or by boat, people made a trip from India to China or vice versa, in
doing so they must cross Vietnam. Viet nam, therefore, was a good place to stop by for
foreign business people as well as Buddhist monks.
Back to 3rd century BC, after King Asoka organized the
Third Council -a Conference to Collect the Dharma- at Pataliputra, India, he sent 9
Buddhist monk delegates overseas. The monks went from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean to
teach Dharma. One of these, lead by Sona and Uttara went to Burma then Indochina,
including Viet Nam. Now, in Haiphong -60miles north east of HaNoi- there is a memorial
tower to commemorate King Asoka that was built by local Vietnamese Buddhists at that time
to express their gratitude to King Asoka. From that evidence, we may come up with
conclusion that Buddhism came to Vietnam as early as 300 years BC, even before China.
Then in 2nd century (168-189), Buddhism in VietNam became
more popular and developed with the contribution of three great Buddhist monks who came
from India: MARAJIVAKA, K'ANG SENG HOUEI, TCHI KIANG LIANG and a local scholar, MECU -FO
(MAU - BAC or MAU - TU in Vietnamese). Because MECU FO played a very important role in
developing the Buddhism in Viet nam, we may want to take a close look at him.
MECU - FO was born in between the time 165 -170 in
TS'ANG-WU. Many Chinese historians now acclaimed that he was Chinese, but in fact he was
Vietnamese or might have been born and raised in a great Chinese-Vietnamese family. To
support that theory , we knew that TS'ANG-WU, now consists of KWANG-TUNG and KWANG-SI
provinces, originally was a part of Vietnam which was invaded and annexed to China under
Han Dynasty, 111 BC. MECU - FO was a talented scholar who understood the philosophies of
both great Chinese philosophers Lao Tseu and Confucius well, so that in any debate, he
easily made the comparison between those Chinese philosophy traditions and Buddhism and
gained the respect among the Chinese scholars at that time. His famous book, "Reason
and Doubt" was considered as the first one written at that time about Buddhism, not
only in Vietnam but also in East Asia.
MECU FO was mandarin. He took advantage of his position to
teach his people about Buddhism. Because of his important contribution, Vietnamese
Buddhists always consider him as a first lay man to help build a Buddhist stronghold in
Southeast Asia, particularly, in Luy Lau, the capital of Vietnam at that time.
- II. The Ly (1010-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) Dynasties:
- The Golden Age of Buddhism
Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG, the founder of Vietnamese
Meditation School, TRUC LAM YEN TU.
For almost 10 centuries, Vietnam was dominated by Chinese.
Under the Chinese cruel rule, Vietnamese people were suffering a lots. The Chinese which
employed the "Sinicization" -the cultural invasion- tried to uproot the
Vietnamese traditions and in the long run, transformed the Vietnamese to become Chinese
and annex Vietnam to be one of its province. Many historians now look back into the past
still wonder how Vietnam can survive and still exist under such aggressive policy. For us,
the answer would be Buddhism. Yes, it's no doubt that Vietnamese people have absorbed the
Buddha teaching for many centuries. Buddhism was very much like a glue to tighten them
together to live in peace and happiness. Strongly believe in Buddha teaching, especially
the universal Law of Cause and Effect, Vietnamese people believe that the evil power
someday would be eroded.
During the Chinese rule, there were many revolt attempts
to liberate the country including the famous one led by TWO SISTERS TRUNG in the early
years of First century. The Buddhist temples -or what we now call the Buddhist
communities-by that time certainly played a key role in those movements. It's easy to
understand why, because that's the common place to gather and mobilize people. That's why
now Vietnamese Buddhist are always proud to say that Buddhism is people's religion.
(What's happened to Vietnam in the past is exactly the same thing like the Tibetan
Buddhist movements to liberate their country from Chinese at the present time).
Finally, in 939 NGO QUYEN, a Vietnamese general, led the
Vietnamese people to fight and win the big battle against the Chinese army on the BACH
DANG river, Vietnam then became an independent state. But from independence to a strong,
healthy country, it took almost one century. For that period, especially under DINH
Dynasty, Vietnamese Buddhists with many excellent monks worked closely with the current
government helping to build the kingdom. In return, the emperor, DINH TIEN HOANG, is a
Buddhist himself, was helping to organize the Shangha and named KHUONG VIET, the highest
ranking monk as his national security adviser. He also named the Most Venerable PHAPTHUAN
as his Secretary of State. This was the first time in Vietnamese history, the emperor
declared Buddhism as a national religion.
The young nation, of course, had to deal with many
problem, domestic as well as foreign matters. But, the critical problem was the pressure
from its big neighbor, China. For that period, Vietnam was always under the threat of
Chinese invasion. The threat became more clearer when the Chinese government (under SONG
Dynasty) in 968 sent a diplomatic delegate to visit Vietnam. Actually, the visiting
delegate carried a spy mission. Its purpose was to estimate how strong the kingdom was, in
order to make the final decision whether or not to launch the attack. To reach the capital
of Viet nam at that time, the delegation must crossed the HONG river and the first
Vietnamese that they met were a ferry-man. During the conversation on the boat, the
Chinese were impressed by that guy. They couldn't believe that in a small country like
Vietnam, even the ferry-man was very smart and educated, who had deep knowledge about
everything, able to discuss with them in any topics, including writing a poem just in
seconds. The ferry-man, one may have guessed, was actually the Most Venerable PHAP THUAN,
Secretary of State in disguise. Later on, when they met the Vietnamese counterpart, led by
the Most Venerable KHUONG VIET, they knew exactly that the country was well prepared,
therefore, it's too risky for them to launch the invasion. The kingdom was safe. That's
the first time in Vietnamese history, we won a diplomatic war against China. Both KHUONG
VIET and PHAP THUAN, the highest ranking monks of the Vietnamese Buddhist -the Sangha-
with their diplomatic skills saved the new independent kingdom from invasion.
More than 30 years later, the Chinese began to build up
the military force on its border with Vietnam. Facing with the near invasion, the country
was in panic. The royal families and the army had no choice but to work together to elect
the good leader to lead the country through that difficult time. LY CONG UAN, the
Commander in Chief of the army, a talent, kind and high moral general was enthroned to
become the new emperor. That's the birth of the LY DYNASTY (1010).
LY CONG UAN was Buddhist, actually a Buddhist monk when he
was young. He was raised by Zen Master VAN HANH in a Buddhist temple since he was 3 years
old. Looking into the political atmosphere at that time, we knew that VAN HANH was not
only his religious master, but also his mentor. Therefore, when becoming an emperor, he
asked The Venerable VAN HANH to become his national advisor. Under his rein, about 300
Buddhist temples were built, and in the capital, the Sangha with his help, was well
organized which had about 1000 excellent monks. Like ASOKA of India, the emperor applied
Buddha teaching into every aspects to govern the country. With full of compassion, the
first thing the Emperor did was to give the order to burn all kinds of fishing nets, to
set free all kind of birds. He also freed all the inmates from the previous dynasty. For
people who felt mistreat by the local government, he allowed them to go to the capital to
see him directly...
Influenced deeply by Buddhism, the next emperor was very
kind too. The killings of animals, especially, cows and buffaloes were forbidden. He once
woke up at midnight in a very cold winter. He saw his lovely daughter was trembling in the
cold, and felt very sorrow, not for his daughter but for his all people. He said,
"Oh! My daughter who has all kind of fine winter clothing was still tremble like
that. How do my people who don't have enough clothing?".
The LY Dynasty lasted more than two centuries. With good
advice from VAN HANH at the very first beginning and many excellent monks later on,
Vietnam rapidly became a strong, and civilized state. This is the first time in history,
under LY dynasty, Vietnam had built the justice system that tend to educate the criminals
rather than punish them. Also this is the first time, Vietnam had its first university
which produced many talented scholars as well as public administrators who working for the
royal government. Under LY dynasty, the military was also very strong. Employed by the
strategy "The best defense is offense", Vietnamese army, the first time in
history, crossed the border and strike two provinces of southern China where the Chinese
was building the logistic systems in preparation to invade Viet Nam. Vietnam won that war.
That's the golden time in Vietnam history, also the golden
time of Buddhism in Viet Nam.
Then came the TRAN dynasty. Like the LY dynasty, all
emperors of TRAN Dynasty were Buddhists who understood the Buddha teaching well. The
Buddhism under TRAN dynasty went to the next stage, the highest level of development. The
first emperor, TRAN THAI TONG (1225-1258) dedicated to being a monk rather than a king.
So, one night, like what Buddha had done more than thousand years ago, he abdicated the
throne, escaped from his family and went into hiding up in the mountain to practice
Buddhism. The next day, the powerful prime minister lead the royal family members and all
the members of the Imperial Court left the capital to look for him. Finally they found him
and asked him to return to the capital to govern his country. The emperor refused. Knowing
that they had no power to persuade him, all the people threatened to commit the suicide.
The emperor had no choice but to return.
At that time, the Mongolian became a super power in the
world stage. By then, half of the world already felt into the Mongolian hands: Central
Asia, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Iran... then China. After dominating China,
Mongolian look into Vietnam. Then 30,000 troops of Mongolian cavalry -very well known at
that time- crossed the border and attacked Vietnam the first time on January 17, 1258.
Emperor TRAN THAI TONG -the one who wanted to be a Buddhist monk - now commanded the
Vietnamese army to fight back. It took about 2 weeks, the Mongolian was defeated.
Angry over the defeat, the Mongolian took the revenge. The
second invasion was well prepared, began on August 1284, with 200,000 strong troops under
the command of a Mongolian prince. This time, the commander of Vietnamese army was Emperor
TRAN NHAN TONG, also a devout Buddhist. The second invasion was not luckier than the first
time. After 6 months that both sides had engaged into the fierce battles, the Mongolian
was defeated and there was only a few thousands survived to back home.
For Mongolian, especially Emperor Koubilai, the defeat was
so unbelievable and unbearable. It's too shameful for the Mongolian empire, therefore,
only two months after the defeat, Koubilai giving the order to mobilize all of his best
units, ready to take the revenge. On December 25, 1287, 500,000 Mongolian troops under the
command of the same Prince, one more time, crossed the border to invade Viet Nam the third
time. Again, Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG led the Vietnamese army to fight back and defeat the
Mongolian. This time it took for only 4 months. Like last time, there were only few
thousands Mongolian survived to comeback. After the third try, the Mongolian quitting the
idea to invade Vietnam. Vietnam then began enjoying the peaceful time for about two
After fulfilling the duties to protect the country and his
people, Emperor TRAN NHAN TONG abdicated the throne to become a monk. He went to the YEN
TU mountain to practice Buddhism. There he founded TRUC LAM (Bamboo Forest) Meditation
School, the first Vietnamese Zen tradition that attracted thousands of followers at that
time. TRAN NHAN TONG used most of his time to go to the country side, giving Buddha
teaching to people. He organized many Buddhist conferences, wrote many books about
Buddhism. After years of teaching, one day he came back to YEN TU mountain and asked his
most senior, favorite student to come to see him. That night, after giving his student
last lesson, he told him: "It's time for me to leave", then went to Nibbana
peacefully. TRAN NHAN TONG was a big name in Vietnamese history as well as Buddhist
Vietnamese people as well as Vietnamese Buddhists enjoyed
the golden time under TRAN Dynasty which prolonged about two centuries. One may recognize
that in this historical period, the country 's intellectual class was mainly consists of
Buddhist monks. It's easy to understand why. Under policy of exterminating Vietnamese
culture, Chinese which dominated Vietnam for almost 10 centuries, had forbid to establish
the local education system in Vietnam. Buddhist temples, therefore, were only places where
people can go to get education. As a result , Buddhist Church had produced many talent
scholars as well as public administrators to form a backbone of country's intellectual
class at that time. That's the fruit of about one thousand years under Chinese
non-educational system policy. The interesting thing was, though Buddhism obviously played
the important role in shaping the country, it had never seek to influence the government
or discriminate the other religions to gain the supremacy. Buddhism, Confucianism, and
Taoism together coexisted in harmony under the LY-TRAN dynasties.
III. BUDDHISM SPREAD INTO THE SOUTH (1558-...)
King Nguyen Phuc Chu (1691-1725), a Bodhisattva in
Precepts, played a big role to prosper Buddhism in the South.
A historical turn in Vietnam's history had began with the
power struggle between the two brothers - Nguyen Hoang and his brother in law, Trinh Kiem-
within a powerful family under the Le dynasty. At that time, the king had no power, the
real power was at Trinh Kiem' hands, acting as country's prime minister. To avoid
persecuting and possible murdering by his brother in-law, Nguyen Hoang left the kingdom
seeking refuge in the South where the territory which Vietnam gained from Champa from Tran
dynasty had not been developing yet. Officially, he came there as the governor of the new
land which was consists of four provinces: Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thuan Hoa (Hue), and
Quang Nam (DaNang). Going with him are loyal followers and whoever wanted to seek the
opportunities to build new lives in the new land. Thus, Nguyen Hoang was considered as a
pioneer of a movement that Vietnam's history call "Southern Forward Campaign"
aiming at expanding Vietnam territory to the South. He later found a Southern kingdom
named DAI VIET -Great Vietnam- and claimed independent to the North that led to a war
between two clans, the "Trinh-Nguyen Civil War" in Vietnamese history, that
prolonged more than two centuries.
Nguyen Hoang was a devout Buddhist. After resettling in
Quang Tri and moving to Hue later, he knew that a new country needs a new spirit so he
relied in Buddhism to boost the country's moral. That's why he build many temples and
promoted some Buddhist monks to the rank of State monks to taking care of religious
affairs. The kingdom at that time, in fact, was in a state of war, facing two enemies at
both ends, Champa in the South and Trinh in the North but Nguyen's dynasty had exempt
young Buddhist monks from draft, that showed how favor of state toward Buddhism. Nguyen
Hoang died in 1613. His son, Nguyen Phuoc Nguyen was enthroned. Nguyen was also a devout
Buddhist and best known in history as a compassionate king who governed the country with
loving and tolerance, that's why people loved him so much and called him "Chua
Sai" -The Monk King.
But until NGUYEN PHUC CHU took power, then Buddhism in
Southern kingdom got a big boost. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU (1691-1725) was enthroned at the
age of seventeen and was a strong devout Buddhist more than any of his predecessors. Not
satisfied with the present condition of Vietnam Buddhism, and upsetting about the Shangha
where many Buddhist monks lacking of Dharma knowledge and not keeping precepts seriously,
though very busy with national defense matters, he set a high priority to improve Shangha.
Therefore, in 1695, he invited a well known Chinese monk of Kwang Tung, China, The Most
Venerable THICH DAI SAN, came to Hue to help him reorganize and upgrade the Shangha. Ven.
DAI SAN arrived in Hue in January of 1696, going with him was a fleet of monks and
followers numbered at about hundred. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU was very happy to see him and
said to him at the first meeting: "Most of monks don't follow the precepts
completely. I will summon all of them here so you may work with them on this matter. Let's
prepare to ordain them all and giving precepts. .. You, Sir, may make a public
announcement about this event which will open on April 1 till Buddha Birthday (April 8) of
this year". After three months working with the King and few Vietnamese state monks,
THICH DAI SAN opened a Grand Bikkhus Ordained in Hue which had more than 1,400 Vietnamese
monks took part. That would be a big mass ordain in Vietnamese Buddhist history,
especially in Vietnam Southern state. Monks over the country had to participate this event
in order to get the Precepts Certificate which carried a King seal that recognizes them as
Buddhist monks, that could exempt them from military draft, public works and paying taxes.
King NGUYEN PHUC CHU, his family, and most of high ranking
public administrators from Royal Court also asked Ven. THICH DAI SAN to be their spiritual
master, and all of them got Bodhisattva in precepts from DAI SAN. Ven. THICH DAI SAN
claimed that he is the 29th patriarch of Chinese TaoTong Zen School and because it's a
great honor for him to have a King as student, he passed the position to King NGUYEN PHUC
CHU as his successor, the 30th patriarch of TaoTong Zen School. King NGUYEN PHUC CHU also
sent his men to China to buy thousand copies of Sutras, Vinaya ... to store in every
temple's libraries. Under his directions, many temples were built or upgraded, such as
Kinh Thien Temple (Quang Binh, 1716), Hoang Giac (Quang Dien, 1721),... and the famous
one, THIEN MU temple, was refurbished in 1714 . The temple had a new big bell which its
lovely sound may reach as far as ten miles away, best known in history as well as
Vietnamese literature as "The Sound of Thien Mu 's Bell". To mark the
celebration of the renovation temple, the King and family vowed to eat vegetarian foods
strictly for one month; also to show his compassionate heart by giving foods, rice, money
for the poor over the country.
Thus, one can see, King NGUYEN PHUC CHU has made a great
contribution in establishing, expanding Buddhism to the South. More than one century, he
and his predecessors have worked hard to prosper Buddhism and unofficially make it to
become the state religion in his king dom. That's we are not wonder why Hue -the capital-
as well as Quang Tri province were considered as the root, the stronghold of Vietnamese
Buddhist from that time up to now which has produced many great, talent monks in the
Vietnamese modern time. We may compare his works with two famous kings in Buddhist
history, King Asoka of India and King TRAN NHAN TONG of Vietnam. Under his rein,
Vietnamese also accomplished the "Southern Forward Campaign", took control over
last piece of land of Champa Kingdom, now Binh Thuan province, in 1692 and began set foot
on Cambodia territory in 1698.
IV. BUDDHISM IN THE CONTEMPORARY TIME
The Buddhist Movement in 1963 and the Birth of Unified
Vietnamese Buddhist Church.
Vietnam had been endured the French colonist for almost a
century, since 1858. During that time, suspicious of potential threats to their power, the
French was pursuing a persecuted policy toward Buddhism by limited the Buddhist clergy and
curbed the construction of temples. Moreover, at the first place, the purpose of the
French invasion was also to spread Christianity into Viet Nam. Therefore, no wonder why
they favored Catholics and discriminated Buddhism. For example, in 1950, the French
colonist government in VietNam issue Decree #10 which imposed a "private" status
on Buddhism. Thus Buddhism now was considered as a club, not a religion, which required to
obtain official permission to conduct any public activities.
There were many movements attempted to liberate the
country. Finally, what we called "The First Vietnam War" -the war between
Vietnam and France- ended in 1954. The Geneva Accord divided Vietnam into two countries,
which put the North under Communists control and the South to the nationalists which was
led by BAO DAI, the last emperor of VietNam. BAO DAI then assigned NGO DINH DIEM, a
Catholic, as his prime minister to form a new government in South Vietnam. NGO DINH DIEM
later overthrew BAO DAI to become the head of state.
President Diem applied exactly the same discrimination
policy of the French toward Buddhism. Decree #10 of French colonist was reinforced. His
older brother, NGO DINH THUC, the most powerful member of the NGO family and also a
Catholic Archbishop, was assigned to Hue, Central of Vietnam, which is considered as a
Buddhist stronghold in Vietnam.
Then on May 8, 1963, while the Buddhists in Hue prepared
to celebrate Buddha's Birthday, one urgent order came from the central government that
prohibited them to display the International Buddhist Flag. Coincidentally, a Vatican
delegate visited Hue at the same time and people believed that archbishop THUC was behind
that order because it irritated him to see the city of Hue -where, over 95% of population
is Buddhist- covered with Buddhist Flags, during the visit of Vatican delegate. This act
of discrimination upset many local Buddhists. Thousands of them then rallied in front of
the local government radio station to listen to the Buddhist leader's address, the formal
conduct to celebrate Buddha 's Birthday that has repeated every year. But this time, they
hoped to hear some explanations regarding the government 's discrimination order too.
Worried that the Buddhist leader might use the broadcasting system to criticize the
government and mobilize his Buddhist followers to take the action, the director of radio
station canceled the address. He then telephoned the local chief army for help. Five
armored cars were dispatched to the scene to disperse the gathering with the result of 9
Buddhists lying dead in blood.
Vietnamese Buddhists had no choice but to stand up to
condemn the killings and struggle for the religious freedom. The movement quickly gained
the momentum and spread rapidly to the whole country. On May 25, 1963, 10 Buddhist
delegates from both traditions in Vietnam held an emergency meeting in Saigon to discuss
the situation. As a result, a "Committee To Protect Buddhism" was formed to lead
the movement. The committee, on behalf of Vietnamese Buddhists, filed 5 - points petition
asking the government to terminate the persecution against Buddhism. Since then, many
rallies, demonstrations, hunger strikes took place everywhere. Then came a big thing: On
June 11, the Most Venerable THICH QUANG DUC was self-immolated on a busy intersection of
Saigon to protest. His last words, a respectful plea to Diem, asking the president to show
"charity and compassion" to all religions. Next morning, a photograph of a
Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who sat calmly on the street, pressed his palm together in
prayer as a sheet of flame covered his orange robe, appeared almost on every newspapers'
front page in the world. The international communities were shaken of that event but not
DIEM regime. Instead Madame NHU, his sister in law, was considered as the First Lady
-because DIEM never got marry- mocked the self-immolation as "barbecue" when
asked by foreign journalists.
In a desperate action to save his power, Diem made a
serious mistake: He ordered his loyal forces attacked all Buddhist temples over the
country on the midnight of August 21, 1963. Thousands of monks, nuns, layman leaders were
arrested. The assault turned the country to a big mess. People poured into streets to
demonstrate against DIEM regime. Many high ranking officials among DIEM loyalists quitting
their posts to protest the violent assaults. Among them were his foreign minister, VU VAN
MAU; the ambassador to the United States, TRAN VAN CHUONG, father of Madame NHU. The
respected figures of Catholics also resigned to raise the voice of dissidents, among them
was father CAO VAN LUAN, rector of HUE university. Many scholars, professors, intellectual
people expressed the same views and followed his path.
Finally, United States -the main supporter of South
Vietnam- was tired of Diem's stubborn, gave the green light to the generals to overthrow
Diem. The coup-d'etat led by Gen. DUONG VAN MINH was successful which toppled Diem regime
on November 1, 1963.
The fall of DIEM regime opened a new chapter to Buddhism
in Vietnam. A Buddhist Conference was held in Saigon on December 31, 1963. Ten delegates
which represent both Buddhist traditions in Vietnam, Mahayana and Therevada, discuss the
way to unify the Buddhists. The five days meeting ended with the birth of " Unified
Vietnamese Buddhist Church" (UVBC), the only organization to represent the Buddhism
in Vietnam at that time.
When Communist North took over the whole country in 1975,
they outlawed the UVBC. [
] In 1981, encouraged and sponsored by state, some high
ranking monks from UVBC departed the old organization and worked with Buddhist monks from
the North to form a new Buddhist organization: Vietnamese Buddhist Church, which is now
recognized by the state and acclaimed to represent the Vietnamese Buddhist interests of
the whole country.
IV. ZEN IN VIET NAM
From Buddha teaching, Buddhism has 84 thousand ways to
attain enlightenment. Zen is one of them. In Buddhist history, the first patriarch of Zen
would be the Elder Mahakasyapa, a great disciple of Buddha. One may remember that when
Buddha was about to enter final nirvana, one day, before the assembly of the Shangha, he
held up a flower. No one in the assembly knew what He meant except the Most Venerable
Mahakasyapa who smiled slightly at him. Buddha knew that only Mahakasyapa who can get true
Dharma from him without scriptural teaching. He became the first patriarch of Zen and from
him, it passed down through twenty-eight generations in India to Bodidharma, who brought
Zen teaching to China.
Zen is considered as the separate transmission of the
mind-source beyond the verbal teachings and for most of people, Zen is a myth. To most
Westerners, Vietnamese Buddhism, especially Vietnamese Zen, has been considered as
continuation of Chinese Zen. It's true if we consider Zen must be come from a traditional
sectarian school with distinctive doctrines, practices... But it's totally wrong if we
think about Zen as a form of meditation in which we learn to understand, to face and live
in the real world then we have the so-called Zen tradition of VietNam. Zen by that
definition has become the art of living, culture... It's very much like when we think
about Japanese Zen, we think about the art of drinking tea...
Back to the golden age of Buddhism in Vietnam, Ly and Tran
dynasties, we have many eminent Zen masters. Traditionally, before passing away, a Zen
master left a poem for their students. It may be in the forms of instructional verse or an
expression of the spiritual understanding, experience and attitudes toward life. The
writing of Buddhist poetry -or Zen poetry- became a familiar practice among Vietnamese Zen
masters which has continued up to modern times. These poems have become very popular and
have been learned by hearts by many generations of Vietnamese Buddhists. Even Vietnamese
Buddhist influenced strongly by Mahayana tradition, Zen in Vietnam has different
characteristic. It showed that Buddhism has adapted well to the cultural atmosphere of a
new country in which it was propagated. It clearly reflected the attitudes of the
Vietnamese people towards life: always optimist and positive.
Let's begin with King TRAN NHAN TONG, the founder and
patriarch of TRUC LAM ZEN School. His famous poem, "Cu Tran Lac Dao" -Living in
this world, enjoying with the Tao(*)" is a good example to show the spirit of
Vietnamese Zen: living in a simple, easy going way, that's Zen.
- Satisfied with your present condition and live, enjoy Tao;
- Eating when hungry, resting when fatigue;
- You already have a great fortune, don't need to seek
- View things with empty mind, that's Zen.
That's TRAN NHAN TONG's message. You just live just that.
You already have a good fortune, so what you need is to return to yourself and working
with your mind. Whenever you view things with empty mind, you are walking into the opened
door of Enlightenment.
TRUC-LAM ZEN of Vietnam was considered as the mature of
Vietnamese Buddhist Thoughts which was cultivated for almost three centuries from Ly to
Tran dynasty. Among the great Buddhist monks from Ly dynasty who may have the last long
impact on the following Vietnamese Buddhist generations were Van Hanh and Man Giac. Let's
examine one of the poem written by Zen master Van Hanh:
- The life span of body is like a lightning, it exists then
disappears in a short moment
- It's like all plants and trees -fresh in the spring but
fading in autumn
- Trust in your destiny, unafraid of raising or falling, ups
- They are like a drop of morning dew on the blade of grass
This poem carries a very simple idea and easy to
understand. You don't need to be scholar or Zen master to understand this, however this
poem displays one of the principal virtues of a Bodisattva, the Buddhist spirit of no-fear
in the face of the impermanence of the phenomenal world. Van Hanh, one of the most beloved
eminent monks in the hearts and mind of Vietnamese Buddhist, before passing away, taught
his disciples the last lesson: Don't be afraid of the constantly changing of the
phenomenal world. Why don't you see yourself as a drop of morning dew? At the present
moment, it 's bright under the sunrise as a diamond. But in the next moment it will
vaporize in to the air or it will disappear onto the ground to complete a transforming.
Your life is just that.
Zen master Man Giac, a respected and popular monk whose
disciples including the Emperor and the Empress, wrote:
- When spring goes, the hundred flowers wither
- when spring comes, the hundred flowers blossom
- Things go on, lives passed before our eyes
- The childhood fades then old age comes someday
- Don't think that as spring ends, all flowers go away
- A plum flower blossomed in my garden last night
Like Van Hanh, in this poem Man Giac refers to the flow of
natural events as emblematic of ultimate realty. Once we realize that the phenomenal world
is impermanent, we will experience no fear at any changing or unstable world.
Today we are living in a stressful world where people have
to work very hard physically and mentally. The keen competition happens every where. The
daily life of one person is full of mental frustration, worries, miseries, anxieties,
tension and fear. Meditation, therefore, is the remedy for many physical and mental
sicknesses. Since we can not withdraw from the society, since we cannot withdraw from the
madding crowd to live in a forest or an ivory tower, we have to find the way to face, to
understand, and to balance our mind with the material world in order to have a peaceful
and happy life. Meditation would be the best answer.
To practice meditation, one must have strong
determination, effort and patient. Some one says practicing meditation is like swimming in
a river against the current. One must not lose the patience. There are many ways to
practice Zen but first of all, we need to have an object to focus, to think deeply in
order to control the jumping mind. A Buddhist may take Buddha or Kwan-Yin image as an
object. A Christian may take Jesus Christ image to think. The old and traditional way is
concentrating on the breath by counting the length of inhaling and exhaling. Whatever the
method may be, if anyone tries to practice meditation, they could control the mind easily
and find the relaxation whenever it's necessary. That means they have a great deal of both
physical and mental health.
Living in the modern world, time is very valuable. People
may be afraid that they don't have time to practice Zen. But unless we want practicing Zen
in order to attain the Enlightenment, we may practice Zen everywhere, at anytime we want.
Then, Vietnamese Zen may offer you something. Let's think about those poems of the great
Vietnamese Zen masters above. We are in the Spring time. Let's think about plum flowers
have blossomed in your garden last night. And think about yourself too, you are a flower
in a wonderful world. The flowers are always smiling...
Note: (*): It's very difficult to translate the concept of
"Tao" into English, but fortunately, the word "Tao" of Eastern
philosophy and its meaning is now getting popular in the West. Many books have been
written using this word as titles, the famous one is "The Tao of Physics", for