Quang Minh Thich | FSU Library: Vietnamese Buddhism in America | 3-CHAPTER 1: The Transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam | Part 2

Pho Minh Pagoda Tower | Photo: Chua Viet

A Brief History
of Vietnamese Buddhism

Buddhism had long been introduced to ancient Vietnam directly from India via the sea route, the well-worn commercial thoroughfare between eastern and western Asia as early as 2CE,[1] even before Chinese Buddhism. The introduction of Buddhism into Vietnam can be traced back to the 2nd century BCE under the rule of Hùng Kings, when Indian Buddhist monks arrived and temples were established in ancient Vietnam.[2] Luy-Lâu, the capital of Giao-Châu, ancient Vietnam, which is now in the Bắc-Ninh Province, north of Hanoi, became a prominent Buddhist center with temples built and sutras translated. Giao-Châu, because of its location along the coastal part of the South China Sea, became a frequent stop for trading ships along the sea routes between China and India. As a result, a number of Indian monks came to Giao-Châu and taught Buddhism together with the Sanskrit language. Others arranged to find translators or to learn Han, the ancient Chinese language, before heading to China to introduce Buddhism there.

Among those, Phật-Quang (Buddha Radiance) was the first known Indian Buddhist monk who arrived in Vietnam between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The record also had Chử-Đồng-Tử and his wife, Princess Tiên-Dung, as the first Vietnamese Buddhist followers of Phật Quang. The legendary site where the Indian Master and their first Vietnamese followers met is now identified by the site of Chùa Hang (Cave Temple) at Mount Quỳnh-Viên, Nghệ-An Province.[3]

Also, a stupa, named Tháp A-D\.c Vuong (Asoka Stupa), was built by the local people during the 3rd century BCE at the same site to commemorate the arrival of the Asokan mission to Suvar)abhūmi,[4] led by Sona and Uttara.[5] During the 11th century, King Lý-Thần-Tông, built the Tuong-Long stupa on top of the ruined foundation of that Asokan Stupa. Still in existence, the Tuong-Long Temple has recently been renovated at the same site.[6]

Mahayana Buddhism was the main tradition in ancient Vietnam, with the monastic community, the Sangha, comprised of both monks and nuns as late as the first century CE. The lineage of Vietnamese Buddhist nuns together with the system of village Buddhist temples appeared to be well established long before the official introduction of the nun lineage to China from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) during the sixth century CE. Biographies of several of those early Vietnamese nuns which have been preserved in Buddhist temples indicate that a number of them had been influential nuns at their village temples before becoming female lieutenants under the leadership of the two Female Trung Kings[7] (r. 40-43 CE). The Trung Kings were well-known for their courageous battles against the Chinese invasion during the late period of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).  After the Trung Sister Kings lost the war (43 CE), these nuns retreated to the temple and resumed their duties as nuns again while preserving the Vietnamese independence spirit. One of the nuns was bestowed the honorific title Lady Nirvana (Niết-Bàn Phu-Nhon). Lady Nirvana was wounded in battle and retreated to her native village, which remains to this day and is known as Tiên-La temple in Diên-Hà prefecture, Thái-Bình province. Another nun, named Hoàng Thiều Hoa (3 CE- 40 CE), originally practicing at Phúc Khánh Temple (now the Hiển-Quang village temple in Phú-Thọ Province), left to join the army of the two Trung Sister Kings with her 500 recruits and became one of the leading lieutenants. She returned to her temple after the initial victory and passed away a year later. The honorific title bestowed on her is preserved in temple shrine as “Diệt Bảo Tướng Phật” [The Destroyer of the Vicious Enemies of Buddha].[8] The early establishment of Buddhism in ancient Vietnam, with the complete Sangha of both monks and nuns is also reflected in a Chinese account mentioned by Thiền Uyển Tập Anh ( A Collection of Outstanding Figures in the Meditation Grove). According to the text, when the Chinese Emperor Sui Gaozo (r.580-611) wanted to send a Buddhist mission to Vietnam, the Dharma Master Tanquian (542-607) informed him the following:

The area of Giao-Châu had long been in communication with India. Early on, when the Buddha-Dharma initially came to China but still had not been established, yet in Luy-Lâu more than twenty precious temples were built, more than five hundred monks were ordained, and fifteen volumes of scriptures were translated. Because of this prior connection, there were already monks and nuns such as Khâu-Đà-La [Kshudra], Ma-ha- Kỳ-Vực [Mahajivaka], Khuong-Tăng-Hội [Kang Shenghui], Chi-Cuong-Luong [Kalyanasiva], and Mâu-Tử [Mou Bo] there. In our time, there is Venerable Pháp Hiền, who received the transmission from Vinītaruci, and who is now spreading the school of the Third Patriarch (Shengcan). Pháp Hiền is a Bodhisattva living among humans. He receives disciples and teaches the Dharma at Chúng Thiện Temple, where his congregation numbers over three hundred. Thus, Giao-Châu is no different than China.[9] In terms of the earliest Dharma, out of the fifteen volumes of texts mentioned in the

passage, the three Buddhist scriptures known to be circulating after the initial introduction of Buddhism into ancient Vietnam until the early 3rd century CE were the following:

  1.  Lục Độ Tập Kinh (The Collection of Six Paramitas Sutra)
  2.  Cựu Tạp Thí Dụ Kinh (The Sutra on the Old Miscellaneous Examples).
  3.  An-Ban Thủ Ý Kinh. (Anapanasati Sutra).[10]

These sutras were used in Vietnam by Khuong-Tăng-Hội, a Vietnamese Dharma Master born from Indian (Sogdian) ancestry. He later utilized them to help promote Buddhism in China when he went there in 247 CE. The first sutra, titled Lục Độ Tập Kinh or the Sataparamita-Samgraha Sutra (as might be reconstructed in Sanskrit), had already existed in the ancient Vietnamese language before it was translated into ancient Chinese Han.[11] In the sutra, the Bodhisattva principle practices of the Mahayana path through the Six Paramitas or Perfections (giving, ethical conduct, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom) were elaborated and demonstrated through ninety-one stories divided into eight chapters and accompanied by Buddhist figures featured in various Mahayana sutras and Jataka stories. Thirty-six of these stories can be found in the Pali Jataka. Among those stories, there are also Vietnamese details reflecting the concern to connect the original Indian Buddhist traditions to the popular cultural traditions of Vietnam. At the beginning of the chapter leading to the particular paramita, the definition of such paramita will be elaborated with Mahayana principles. The first paramita of giving is defined in the first chapter of Lục Độ Tập Kinh as follows:

What is the Giving (dana) Paramita? It is love and caring for humans and other beings, being kind to the unrighteous, rejoicing with the sages, supporting the successful ones, assisting all sentient beings, beyond the land and heaven, pervading the rivers and oceans. [It is] giving to sentient beings, feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, clothing those who are cold, bringing coolness to those heated, and giving medications to the sick. Cart, horse, boat, draft, precious things, wife and son, country, and so on, give those to whoever asks for them. Just like Prince Vissantara, who gave to the poor and needy, as parents to their own children, and even getting banishment from his father, the king, was still loving without hatred.[12]

It is significant that under the supporting stories for the paramita of giving (dana), story number 23 of Lục Độ Tập Kinh, a Vietnamese version of the Avadanasataka, is given as the source for the origin of the ancient Vietnamese people.[13] According to the legend, whose exact source is unclear, the Vietnamese came from the Lạc Long Quân (a nagar[14] Lord) and Âu Cơ (a devasi[15]), whose union gave birth to one hundred eggs that hatched into one hundred children, who became the Lạc Việt people, as the Vietnamese were called. Fifty of those children were assigned to live on the highland of the mountainous regions along what is now the Truong-Son mountain range running from North to South Vietnam and became known as “Người Thượng” or the Highland Vietnamese. The other fifty children were assigned to live in the lowland delta along the coastal regions and were known as the “Nguoi Kinh,” the Vietnamese people of the lowland regions. Together, they were the first generation of the ancestors of the Vietnamese people. However, further information about the origin of the legend of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ was unknown for centuries. Nevertheless, this legend has provided the Vietnamese a distinct identity that empowered them to resist being assimilated into the Chinese culture, to repeatedly rise up and fight back against the Chinese invaders, even after almost a thousand years of the Chinese Han occupation (111 BCE-939 CE), and to eventually obtain their sovereignty.

However, recent studies on the Lục-Độ Tập Kinh, which had been translated from ancient Vietnamese to Chinese and was reserved in the Chinese Tripitaka, have reestablished the missing link, connecting the legend to Indian Buddhist culture. In story 23 of Lục-Độ Tập Kinh, the link to the Indian Buddhist tradition was reestablished when “one hundred pieces of flesh of Vadanasataka” was revised to “one hundred eggs born from the queen,” which were placed in a pot floating down the river protected by the seal of Indra. The eggs were saved and hatched into 100 sons, who later grew to be healthy, strong, and exceptionally wise, and later on were reunited with their mother, the queen.[16] The Vietnamese version of the Vadanasataka had been the source for the legend of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ. Furthermore, Lạc Long Quân, being a nagar Lord (the sacred snake figuring prominently in Buddhist texts) is a protector of the Buddha and his Dharma, just like Mucalinda, the sacred nagar King, who coiled around the Buddha to shelter him against the torrential rain during his night of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The story of Mucalinda is portrayed in detail under story number 79 in the chapter of the Paramita of Meditation of Lục-Độ Tập Kinh.[17] Nowadays, visitors to Mahabodhi Temple, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India, can witness the site commemorating this supporting role with an impressive statue of Mucalinda elegantly rising up in the center of a lotus pond while its coiled body and spread hood sheltering the statue of the Buddha sitting in a meditation pose. In addition, the nagar King had been depicted in the Asokavadana as continuing to protect and honor his portion of the relics of the Buddha in his Ramagrama Stupa, in an utmost, sincere, and elaborate manner unmatched and beyond the imagination of Emperor Asoka.[18] Âu Co, the wife of Lạc Long Quân, was a devasi, a goddess of the heavenly realm. In the Buddhist tradition, the devas were the ones who initially besought the Buddha to expound his teachings, or to turn the Dharma Wheel at Sarnath the first time for the benefit of heavenly beings and human beings. Their roles were usually considered to be supporting and promoting the Dharma. Thus, the legendary union of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ produced the protectors and promoters of Buddhism, namely the hundred Vietnamese children hatched from the eggs. In other words, the ancestors of the Vietnamese were the valorous protectors and the promoters of Buddhism. In addition, from a literary perspective, the legendary origin of the Vietnamese people can be traced further back to the motifs of fusion between the sources of the healthy and valorous sons hatched from the bag of flesh (mamsapesi) of the Mahabharata in the Indian Vedic epic and the five hundred eggs of the Buddhist Abhidharmamahavibhasa-Satra.[19]

Moreover, the Lục Độ Tập Kinh also defined clearly the Paramita of Meditation (Dhyana) in the seventh chapter. Meant to be a practical guide for meditation, it is extensively elaborated, in form of a direct commentary instead of a usual Buddhist story. Recently, a version of Lục Độ Tập Kinh, which had long been translated into Han and retained in the Chinese Tripitaka, the Taisho, has been extracted and translated into Vietnamese for the first time together with extensive studies and critical commentaries by Lê Mạnh Thát, a well-educated Vietnamese Buddhist monk and scholar trained at the University of Wisconsin. In order to shed light on the method of meditation in ancient Vietnam of 2000 years ago, a rough translation of the Meditation Paramita instructed by the text is included. Meditation, in the simple style of language, appears to suit the Bodhisattva path. It has four meditative stages, popularly known as the Four Meditations. It is stated as follows:

What is Meditation Paramita? It is making the mind upright again, by concentrative intention focusing on good deeds. Keeping this in mind when defilements and misdeeds arise in mind, then use the good deeds to eliminate them. There are Four Meditations.

The practice of the First Meditation is to eliminate cravings for five unrighteous attractions, namely, the craving for beautiful forms by the eyes which will cause confusion of the heart by lust; similarly, the craving for sound by the ears; fragrance by the noses; tastes by the mouth (tongue); good clothing by the body. One who determines to practice must stay away from those. Also, there are Five Hindrances, namely, greed, anger, dullness, lust, and doubt. Doubt means doubt about whether or not the path (Dharma), the Buddha, and the Sutras exist. Keep contemplating on those, then the mind is clear of all defilements. As the mind is purified, then one will see the reality, obtaining omniscience. Devas, nagars, and evil spirits cannot deceive that one. As an individual, who has ten enemies, after escaping to the distant location and dwelling in the mountain alone, is unknown to anyone and is no longer worried. Thus, one who has eliminated craving and has a pure and calm mind, is accomplishing the practice of the First Meditation.

After attaining practice of the First Meditation, one advances to the Second Meditation. The Second Meditation is like hiding away from the enemy. Though, living in the deep and distant mountain, one is still afraid of the enemies, who are lurking, and must keep oneself sealed away. The practitioner, being distant from those ten craving enemies, is still afraid that the determination to practice can be destroyed. Attaining the Second Meditation, craving, being distant, cannot defile the practitioner. At the level of the First Meditation, the good and bad are constantly in struggle. One must take the good to eliminate the bad. As the bad recedes, the good will advance. At the Second Meditation, the rejoicing heart will calm down, without the need to prevent the bad by using the good.  By thinking of rejoicing and good, the bad will disappear by itself, and so will the ten cravings. Here, the outside conditions will no longer be able to sneak into the mind. As in the case of a lofty mountain, the stream at the peak, without additional entry of any rivers, without rains created by nagars, the water just comes from inside out to the stream, clear and pervasive. Similarly, the good comes out from the mind, the bad cannot enter through the ears, eyes, nose, or mouth. Regulating the mind this way, one heads to the Third Meditation.

At the Third Meditation, keep the thinking stable, the good and bad will not enter.

The mind will be as calm as Mount Sumeru, without letting out the good. Both the good and the bad will disappear and will not be able to sneak back into the mind, as the lotus flower submerging its stems and roots in the water together with the undeveloped flower covered under the water. In practicing the Third Meditation, one is pure like the flower, untouched by the bad. Body and mind are both calm. Regulating the mind that way, one proceeds to the Fourth Meditation.

Here, both of the good and bad are eliminated. The mind does not think of the good or the bad. It is pure and bright like lapis-lazuli; like royal females who bathe and cleanse then apply fragrance and adorn themselves with magnificent dresses and ornaments, and who have clean and fragrant skins. A Bodhisattva, with upright mind, attains the Fourth Meditation. All of the unrighteous and defilements cannot obstruct the mind, as a clean piece of silk will absorb any color of dye; as a potter who forms things from prepared clay that has no sandy fragments can make all kinds of things; as a goldsmith, after purifying and heating genuine gold, can make as many unique and skillful styles as desired.

A Bodhisattva, with a purified mind who obtains those Four Meditations can be free according to personal wish, can levitate and fly with ease, can walk on water, can make the body disappear, can change into numerous manifestations, can enter and exist without obstruction, can be free from gain and loss, can touch the sun and the moon, can make the earth and heaven tremble, can see and hear throughout so that there are no places that cannot be seen and heard. With a pure mind, one can see clearly and obtain sarvajna (all wisdom) about the emergence of the earth and heaven together with the changes of beings in the ten directions. Likewise one knows the thoughts of the past, the occurrences of the future, the consciousness of beings subjected to rebirth in the realms of devas (gods), human beings, those cast down to Mount Sumeru [Hell], hungry ghosts, and animals, including their punishment after exhausting their merits and their merits regained after paying with their punishment. There is no place in which that one cannot visit. After obtaining the Four Meditations, if one wishes to attain the Srotapana [stream entry], Sakrdagamin [one-returner], Anagamin [non-return], Arhat, Solitary Buddha, or the righteous wisdom of the enlightened and unsurpassed Buddhas, then one will get that. From those who had obtained the five unobtrusive powers of the Tathagata [the Buddha], they all have the Four Meditations as foundations. Likewise everything is produced from the earth. Without the earth to support them, these beings are not able to stand.[20]

Several examples concerning the results of the Four Meditations mentioned in the passage can be traced back to those given by the Buddha in the Samaññaphala Sutta (The Fruits of The Sramana Life) from the Dīgha Nikāya of the Pali Tripitaka.[21] Nevertheless, the above passage of Lục Độ Tập Kinh directly mentions Bodhisattva, the prototype figure of the Mahayana path, as the typical type of practitioner. Moreover, this meditation practice is a type of meditation on emptiness (sunyata) which aims to obtain the mind without duality, as being proposed by the Prajñāpāramitā texts, the foundational texts of the Mahayana traditions. Thus, the meditation practice of the Mahayana path had been introduced into ancient Vietnam at an early period.

The second sutra of the three initial texts known in ancient Vietnam, Cựu Tạp Thí Dụ Kinh (The Sutra on the Old Miscellaneous Examples), prominently promotes Bodhisattva practices by employing various Buddhist stories. Story 59 of the text even has Manjusri Bodhisattva successfully expounding the Dharma to the obstinate people and eventually being able to inspire them to visit the Buddha for further Dharma. The whole scenario aimed to praise Manjusri Bodhisattva and his marvelous capability to spread the Dharma extensively and effectively, a task beyond the imagination of Mahakasyapa, Ananda, and other Arhats.[22] Together, the stories of the text, sixty-one in number, function similar to the stories promoting Mahayana Buddhist practices of the first text, the Lục Độ Tập Kinh.

Mahayana Buddhist meditation, however, was not the only meditation practice of the time. The third text, the Anapanasati Sutra, a sutra on Theravada meditation mentioned in both Theravada and Mahayana Tripitakas and translated into Chinese in 148 CE by An Shih-kao, was also in use in ancient Vietnam. Until the present time, this particular text remains the foundational and the most popular manual for Theravada meditation. It offers the Buddha’s direct and lucid instructions to the Buddhist monks of his time, a step-by-step guide on how to meditate using the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, namely the body, the sensation, the mind, and the object of the mind. This type of meditation can be practiced while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. In general, one begins by sitting in the lotus or half-lotus position and counting the breaths that come in and go out of one’s own nose. The text was known and practiced in ancient Vietnam after Khuong Tăng Hội, an Indian-Vietnamese monk who went to China to promote Buddhism in 247 CE, added his commentaries to it using Mahayana principles: “the Great Vehicle of the Buddhas intended to liberate sentient beings.”[23] As a result, Theravada meditation instructed by the Anapanasati Sutra had been used in conjunction with Mahayana principles. Together, these three initial texts, Lục Độ Tập Kinh (The Collection of Six Paramitas Sutra), Cựu Tạp Thí Dụ Kinh (The Sutra on the Old Miscellaneous Examples), and the Anapanasati Sutra, unified to promote Mahayana Buddhist practices, especially Mahayana meditation, after Buddhism was initially introduced to ancient Vietnam.

These three texts were fundamental in introducing Buddhism to Vietnam and in promoting a Vietnamese identity that led to the overthrow of the Chinese. They have continued to be instrumental in the development of Engaged Buddhism of Thích Nhất Hạnh and the transmission of Vietnamese Buddhism to America. This recent development of the tradition will be elaborated in a later chapter.

After those initial sutras, Buddhist scriptures continued to be introduced to ancient Vietnam. However, the Tripitaka translated from Sanskrit into Han, the classical Chinese scriptural language, was brought to Vietnam for the first time in 1009, twenty-six years after its first printing in China in 983. At the time, even though Vietnam had obtained its sovereignty, Han had become the official language of the Vietnamese court. It was the result of the Chinese policy of Sinicization for about a thousand years, especially its intensification after suppressing the revolt of the Trung Sisters in 43 CE. King Lê Long Đỉnh (r. 1005-1009) of the Early Lê Dynasty (980-1009) took advantage of the favorable diplomatic relationship with the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1126) to send envoys to China in 1007, and obtained a copy of the Tripitaka.[24] The second time the Tripitaka was brought to Vietnam in 1021, under the request of King Lý Thái Tổ (r. 1009-1028), the initial king of the Lý Dynasty (1009-1225). At the time, Buddhism became the religion of the land. The Tripitaka was brought to Vietnam the third time in 1034 under the patronage of King Lý Thái Tông (r. 1028-1054). Though the Chinese Tripitaka had been copied in Vietnam for use, the kings of the Trần Dynasty (1225-1398) also patronized the making of the Vietnamese version of the Tripitaka. They accomplished the first woodblock print version of the Tripitaka in Vietnam in 1319, after 24 years of preparing the wooden blocks. In this version, they edited out certain less popular texts and added a number of Vietnamese Buddhist texts authorized by the leading Buddhist masters of the Trúc Lâm Zen Lineage.[25] Unfortunately, this Vietnamese version of the Tripitaka was confiscated and taken to China with other texts and was burnt to ashes during the Ming invasion in 1400. Again, the Vietnamese Buddhists subsequently brought in the Chinese Tripitaka for use. As late as 1975, Vietnamese monks continued to bring in the modern version of the Chinese Tripitaka for use in Buddhist temples, where Han remained the classical scriptural language. This modern version, popularly known as the Taisho, has 100 volumes and is still written in Han characters.

Accompanying the introduction of the initial Buddhist sutras to ancient Vietnam, there were early prominent Buddhist monks whose activities had made Buddhism a meaningful and beneficial tradition to the Vietnamese people. After the initial introduction of Buddhism to ancient Vietnam by the Indian monk Phật Quang, other Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks known for spreading Buddhism were Khâu-Đà-La (Ksudra), Ma-Ha-Kỳ-Vực (Marajivaka),

Mâu-Tử (Mou-Tzu), Khuong-Tăng-Hội and Chi Cuong-Luong-Tiếp (Kalyanasiva). Ksudra and Marajivaka, who were known for miraculous powers like taming wild beasts and creating rains, came to Giao-Châu between 187-226, during the time of the Chinese occupation, and after the Trung Sisters had lost the war to the Chinese Han in 43 CE. Ksudra, through his association with the Vietnamese upasaka Tu Định and his daughter, Man Nuong, was linked to the emergence of Pháp-Vân Temple with the statues of the four Buddhas, namely Pháp-Vân (Dharma Cloud), Pháp-Vũ (Dharma Wind), Pháp-Lôi (Dharma Thunder), and Pháp-Điện (Dharma Lightening). Four centuries later, with the arrival of Tỳ-Ni-Đa Lưu-Chi (Vinǁtaruci), Pháp Vân Temple became the center of the Vinǁtaruci Zen School. Unlike Ksudra, Marajivaka declined Tu-Định’s invitation to remain in Giao-Châu. He later went to China. His activities were not reported, except that he left for Loyang, China, approximately 306 CE, and later returned to India when rebellions broke out in China. Mou-Tzu (160-230), a Confucian immigrant scholar, came to ancient Vietnam from China. Mou-Tzu learned Buddhism in Giao- Châu from 183-194 and wrote “Mou-tzu Li-huo-lun” (Mou-Tzu on the Settling of Doubts), the first piece of Buddhist analytical literature written in Han, in order to defend Buddhism against the criticism from the Taoists and Confucians. His text was widely used in Buddhist studies in ancient China and Japan. Mou-Tzu was one of the masters of Khuong Tăng Hội, who had translated several Vietnamese Buddhist sutras to Chinese.[26] Khuong Tăng Hội (d. 280 CE) went to promote Buddhism in China in 247 CE and was known in Chinese as Kang Senghui. While in China he also translated and wrote commentaries on several sutras, including the first three initial Buddhist sutras of ancient Vietnam discussed previously. By the time of Khuong Tăng Hội, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam had functioned well according to the Buddhist Vinaya (Disciplinary rules). The required preceptors, including the three Leading Preceptors and seven additional Witnessing Preceptors, had been fully presented at Khuong Tăng Hội’s High Ordination.  In 247 CE Khuong Tăng Hội went to Shien-yeh (modern Nanking), China, where  he translated sutras, wrote commentaries, and compiled various Buddhist works before his death in 280 CE. After Khuong Tăng Hội, Kalyanasiva, an Indo-Scythian monk, translated the Saddharmasamadhi Sutra, while staying in Vietnam from 255 to 257 CE.

Inspired by the initial introduction of Buddhism from Indian masters, Vietnamese monks also traveled to India, the original land of Buddhism, during the seventh century to seek further Buddhist Dharma and practices. I-Tsing (634-713), the second famous Chinese pilgrim monk of the Tang Dynasty after Hsuan-Tsang (600-664), informed us about the six Vietnamese monks who traveled to India and Ceylon. They were Vận Kỳ, Khuy Xung, Giai Thoát Thiên, Huệ- Diệm, Trí Hành, and Đại Thừa Đăng. Venerable. Vận Kỳ from Giao-Châu, known in Sanskrit as Kalacakra, possessed a good knowledge of Sanskrit. Vận Kỳ took High Ordination with Ven.

Trí Hiền (Jñanabdhra) in Java, Southern Sumatra, Indonesia. He returned to secular life and resided in Srivijaya (modern Palembang, Sumatra). Vận Kỳ, however, continued to cross the South Seas from time to time bringing Buddhist scriptures and teachings back to Giao-Châu and China. He was still alive when I-Tsing visited India (Taisho 2066: 4a22-26). The second monk, Ven. Khuy Xung of Giao Châu, was also known in Sanskrit as Citradeva. He was bright and well versed in Sanskrit. Along with his visits to India, he could even compose songs out of newly acquired Buddhist texts using Sanskrit meters. He traveled to Ceylon and India with his Chinese Zen Master, Ming-Chuan, who died along the way to Bodhgaya from Ceylon. Khuy Xung continued to Bodhgaya to pay homage to the Buddha and the sacred Bodhi tree.

Afterward, he visited Rajagriha, where he suddenly fell ill and remained at the famous Ve)uvana (Bamboo Grove) until he passed away at the age of about thirty (Taisho 2066: 4b1-6). The third monk, Mộc-Xoa Đề-Bà or Mokṣadeva was a native of Giao-Châu.  He sailed across the South Seas in his extensive traveling and visited several countries. Arriving in India, he came to pay homage at Mahabodhi Temple and other sacred Buddhist sites. He remained there until he passed away at the age of about twenty-four (Taisho 2066: 4a27-29). The fourth monk from Giao-Châu, Ven. Huệ Diệm or Prajñaratna, also traveled with his Chinese Zen Master Wu-Hsing to Ceylon and India via Srivijaya in Indonesia. Huệ Diệm stayed in Ceylon and was not mentioned after his Master Wu-Hsing met I-Tsing at Nalanda Monastery (Taiso 2066: 4b7-8).

The next monk of Ái Châu (the present Thanh Hóa Province), Ven. Trí Hành, known in Sanskrit as Prajñadeva, also crossed the sea and reached central India where he proceeded to visit and pay homage at several sacred Buddhist sites. He stayed in the Monastery of Faith (Tín Gia), north of the Ganges, until his death at the age of fifty (Taisho 2066: 4b15-17). The last monk from Ái- Châu was the Zen Master Đại Thừa Đăng (Mahayana-Pradfpa). In his youth, he accompanied his parents to Dvaravati (now West of Thailand) where he embraced the life of a Buddhist household renouncer. He came to China and received higher ordination from the famous pilgrim monk Hsuan-Tsang (600-664) at Tzu-en Monastery. Later, he returned to Giao-Châu and traveled to Ceylon where he paid homage to the Sacred Buddha tooth relics, then continued on to southern and eastern India.  He spent twelve years mastering Sanskrit while doing charity work in Tamralipti, West Bengal.  Among his Sanskrit translations, the Nidana Satra or The Treaties of Primary Causes was well-known. He met and accompanied I-Tsing and Wu-Hsing to Central India where they visited Nalanda Monastery, Mahabodhi Temple of Bodh Gaya, Vaisalf, Kusfnagara, and other sacred Buddhist sites. Đại Thừa Đăng was the one who provided I-Tsing the clothes after I-Tsing was stripped naked and was running for his life from Indian bandits. He resided at the Temple of Nirvana, Kushinagar, and passed away there at the age of sixty (Taiso 2066: 4b18-c14).[27] The sea routes taken by those Vietnamese monks are in the following map.

Through this period, other Vietnamese Buddhist monks also went on pilgrimage to India in search of the Dharma as well as a vision of the Buddha and the sacred Buddhist sites, from time to time, though their names went unrecorded. The practice of making pilgrimages to the birthplace of Buddhism continued by Vietnamese monks down through the centuries, exemplified by the Zen Master Sùng Phạm (d.1087), who visited India during the eleventh century when Indian Buddhism was losing ground to Islamic powers. Sùng Phạm studied there for nine years before returning to be the leading Buddhist master of Pháp Vân Temple. Also, the Zen Master Đạo Hạnh (d.1116) of Vietnam reached the northern region of Burma within the second half of the eleventh century. At the time, Esoteric Buddhism still flourished in East India, including Bengal, under eminent Buddhist figures, including Tilopa and Atfsa, who became legendary in Tibetan Buddhism. Đạo Hạnh brought back the teaching of Avalokitesvara’s Great Compassion Dharani, which continues to enrich Vietnamese Buddhist practices until the present day.[28]

Figure 2. Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhist pilgrims during the seventh century. | Source E. Zurcher, Buddhism.

Figure 3. Nam-Viet as of 211 BC and the formation of Vietnam (939-1780).
Source Le Thanh Khoi, Le Viet-Nam: Histoire et Civilization, in Vietnam’s Will to Live by Hellen B. Lamb.

Together with the introduction of Buddhism to Vietnam through the initial Buddhist texts, the prominent Indian monks, and the Vietnamese pilgrim monks eventually brought the presence of three major traditions of Buddhist practice, namely, Mantra, Pure Land, and Meditation. The Tradition of Mantra (Mantrayana) employs mantras, the Buddhist verbal formulas, in the practice of the protection (tranam) of the mind (manas). The mantra, charged with potency through its own verbal sounds, is activated during recitation to generate extraordinary power for protection and other types of beneficial effects. In general, the tantric texts instructed various methods of performing mantras and other related rituals both in transparent language or in coded language. The Buddhist tradition dealing primarily with mantras and tantric texts goes under the tradition of Mantrayana, a part of Mahayana Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, and Vairayana are other popular names for the same tradition.

The next tradition of Pure Land provides a way to gain rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha for further Buddhist practices until reaching Buddhahood. The recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha and the visualization of this Buddha and his Pure Land are principle methods for obtaining rebirth in that pure realm. These methods also result in consciousness dying so that the consciousness, departing the physical body at death, will be directed toward the Pure Land of Amitabha.

Finally, the Meditation (Dhyana) Tradition, known as “Thiền-na” in Vietnam and as “Zen” in Japan and the West, offers methods to calm the mind so that the deep levels of concentration, called dhyanic stages, and the ultimate purposes of purifying and transforming the mind into the Buddha mind can be accomplished. The standard methods of meditation, especially in the Theravada tradition, are calm meditation and insight meditation. Calm meditation is performed in stable sitting positions with legs crossed while being mindful of breathing. Insight meditation employs the concentrated mind to penetrate the impermanence underlying all phenomena or existences. In addition, being mindful in daily activities or focusing on challenging Buddhist issues (koans) is also used in meditation. These Mahayana meditation methods aim to purify the mind from being defiled by conventional discrimination and to reach equanimity together with the wisdom of emptiness.

These three major Buddhist traditions, however, had long been combined together in practice in Vietnam. Unified in practice, they formed the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition that continues to the present day. In order to understand the evolution of Vietnamese Buddhist practice from its origin, I will briefly focus on the history, the major principles, the methods employed by each of those three major traditions. In addition, the later introduction of Theravada Buddhist tradition to Vietnam during the 1930s will be discussed.


[1] Keith Taylor remarks that “As early as A.D. 2, it is recorded that a certain kingdom of Huang Chih, located ‘south of Nhật Nam’ [The southernmost region of Giao-Chau], sent rhinoceroses to the Han court. According to one theory, Huang Chih was Kāñcī, near Conjēveram in South India. Oc-Eo, an archeological site on the lower Me-Kong in what is now southern Vietnam, has yielded abundant evidence of contact with the West. In addition to numerous items of Indian origin, Roman coins have been found. One of these bears the effigy of Antoninus Pius (138-61). The generals of Antoninus Pius’s successor, Marcus Aurelius (161-80), conquered part of Mesopotamia in 162-65. This apparently stimulated contact with the trade routes leading east, for in 166 a group of merchants claiming to be ambassadors of Marcus Aurelius arrived in Chiao-Chih [Giao-Chau] by sea on their way to the Han court.” (Taylor 59-60). Also see Georges Coedes, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, p. 17; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 24; and Upendra Thakur, Indian Missionaries in the Land of Gold, p. 85.
[2] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 26; and Keith Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam, p. 82.
[3] See Đức Nhuận, Đạo Phật & Dòng Sử Việt, p.18; and Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 26.
[4] According to  Indian Missionaries in the Land of Gold  written by Upendra Thakur, Suvar)abhǞmi (The Land of Gold) is a region not exactly located either in Burma or in Siam , but signifying broadly what is now known as Southeast Asia, comprising Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Malay Archipelago (Java, Sumatra, Bali, and Bornia, now parts of Indonesia), pp. 4-5. In Some Aspects of Asian History and Culture, Thakur elaborates further that “The kingdom of Laos, popularly known as ‘the land of the million elephants and of the white parasol,’ Burma, Thailand (Siam), Cambodia (Kambuja deja), Vietnam (CampƩ: Tokin, Annam, Cochin-China), and the Malaysia Peninsular were known as Suvarṇabhūmi in early times, and about two thousand and five hundred years ago, when the Laotians came to settle in one of these regions, they named their capital as Muong Xieng Tong (the City of Gold) as the land is said to have been quite rich in gold. Not only Laos, but the whole of the Malay Archipelago was rich in precious commodities in ancient times,” p. 6.
[5] Mahanama-sthavira, Thera. The Mahavamsa:The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, p. 151.
[6] See Đức Nhuận, Đạo Phật & Dòng Sử Việt, p.18.
[7] The Female Trung Kings (Trung Nu Vuong) are Trưng Trắc and her younger sister Trưng Nhị. They are the Vietnamese heroines who rose up to become leaders of the Vietnamese after Trung Trắc’s husband, Thi Sách, one of the Lạc-Việt lords, was killed by the Han. They were victorious over Tô Định (Su-Ting), the vicious Han prefect in Giao-Chau, took over sixty-five fortresses, and forced the Chinese Han out of ancient Vietnam from 40 C.E. to 43 C.E., until they lost the war to Ma-Yuan (13 B.C.E.- 14 C.E.), a Han General, in 43 C.E. (Lê Văn Hưu et al. 21; Lê Mạnh Thát 1999: I 79- 91; Oscar 28; Taylor 37-38) The famous national female high school “Trung Vuong” in Saigon before 1975 was inspired by their heroic names, as honorifically regarded by the Vietnamese.
[8] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 26.
[9] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 203-204; Nguyễn Tú Cuong, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 129, and Thích Thanh Từ, Thiền Sư Việt Nam, p. 134.
[10] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 318.
[11] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 425; and Upendra Thakur, Indian Missionaries in the Land of Gold, p. 88.
[12] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 543-544.
[13] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 489.
[14] Nagar is a sacred snake being frequently mentioned in Buddhist scriptures. The nagar is regarded as the dragon in East Asian context.
[15] Devasi is the goddess, a female being of the heavenly realm.
[16] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 621.
[17] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 779.
[18] See James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, p.69; Li Rongxi, The Biographical Scripture of King Asoka, p. 19; Thomas Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels In India, vol. 2, p. 20; and John S. Strong, The Legend of King ASHoka, p. 112.
[19] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 494.
[20] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 761-763.
[21] See Maurice Walshe, “Smaññaphala sutta:The Fruits of The Homeless Life,” The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, pp. 102-105.
[22] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 146.
[23] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 307.
[24] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, pp. 520-521.
[25] According to Nguyen Lang’s Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Luận, vol. 1, in December 1319, Buddhist monks and the laity donated blood to print the Tripitaka of 5,000 volumes to be stored at Quỳnh Lâm Temple, the national headquarters of the Trúc Lâm Zen Lineage established in 1317. Master Pháp Loa, the Second Patriarch of the lineage, invited people to give blood for the printing after twenty-four years of preparing the wooden blocks beginning in 1295, including a three-year interruption due to the passing away of Master Trúc Lâm, the First Patriarch and also the father of King Trần Anh Tông, who patronized the project by having hundreds of artisans to scribe and carve those wooden blocks ( pp. 338-339). At present, Quỳnh Lâm Temple, rebuilt in much smaller scale after being burnt down during wars and looted of valuable treasures, including that set of first Vietnamese Tripitaka, still has statues dedicated to the Masters Trúc Lâm, Pháp Loa, and even Huyền Quang, the Third Patriarch. In its former glory, the temple stood lofty with one hundred-and-three compartments and especially with an imposing bronze Maitreya Buddha statue more than fifteen feet tall in a compartment with a row of front wooden pillars, each with a girth larger than the stretching arms of two persons. At present, the stone plinths in lotus shape, .77 meter in diameter, scattered around, are the old remains of those pillars. See Trần Mạnh Thường, Đình Chùa Lăng Tdm Nổi Tiếng Việt Nam, pp. 595-596, and Hà Văn Tfin et al., Trung Tâm Phật Giáo Quỳnh Lâm, pp. 19-20, 22, 43.
[26] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Tổng Tập Văn Học Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 317.
[27] For specific references about the Sanskrit names and places concerning these six Vietnamese monks see Latika Lahari, Chinese Monks In India by I-Ching, pp. 38-42; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, pp. 144- 192; Nguyễn Lang, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Luận, vol. 1, pp. 106-109; Upendra Tharkur, Indian Missionaries in the Land of Gold, pp. 98-102; and Trần Văn Giáp, Le Bouddhisme en Annam, pp. 224-227.
[28] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, pp. 355, 365; Nguyễn Lang, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Luận, vol. 1, p.132, and Alaka Chattopadhayaya, Atiśa and Tibet, pp.1-3.

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