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

The Tradition of Mantrayana of Vietnam


From the beginning of the transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam, though Mantrayana had never stood out as a major Buddhist tradition itself, the miraculous power of mantras had been a captivating element. Phật Quang (Buddha Radiance), the first Buddhist monk from India narrated in the legend of “Nhất Dạ Trạch” (One Night Marsh) in Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, came and taught Buddhism to the first Vietnamese couple, Chử Đồng Tử and Tiên Dung. Magical formulas and Dharma discourses, including Buddhist stories, were reported as his methods of transmitting Buddhism to the couple. The most remarkable esoteric transmission was the use of his staff and a hat.  Rather than just ordinary instruments, they were both imbued with miraculous power that could magically create a palace filled with luxuries and could also make the whole palace disappear in a single night without a trace.[1] This trend of miraculous elements associated with the power of mantras appeared with the emergence of the first generation of Buddhist statues established during the second century CE at Pháp Vân temple built by the prefect Shih Hsieh (137-226) in Luy Lâu. The Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Ban Hạnh Ngữ Lục (The record concerning the original activities of the Dharma Cloud Buddha at Cổ Châu) narrated that an Indian monk named Kṣudrā recited sutras and entered a deep stage of meditation for seven days without eating as his routine practices. He could predict drought three years in advance. Using mendicant staff and mantra, Kṣudrā then magically drew water from deep under the ground and even made rain to support the local people during the long drought. Also, he convinced a big forest tree into lending its support in raising a child belonging to his female Buddhist disciple named Man Nuong and bestowed on it that unique power of generating rain when it was carved into the four statues named Pháp Vân, Pháp Vǜ, Pháp Lôi, and Pháp Điện, or Dharma Cloud, Dharma Rain, Dharma Thunder, and Dharma Lightning, respectively. All of them, including Man-Nuong and the child, were venerated and elevated as Buddhas by Shih Hseh and the local people together with the Vietnamese kings of the later centuries as their magical power of making rain prevailed the test of time.[2]

During the early sixth century, in 508, Vinftaruci (d.594) translated the Vaipulyadharani Stutra from Sanskrit. This marked the initial emergence of a tantric text in ancient Vietnam.

The sutra focused on cultivating Bodhicitta and various stages of Bodhisattva practices, including an emphasis on the cultivation of right speech by restraining oneself from slandering others. Employing the tenets of this tantric sutra, Vinftaruci taught meditation at Pháp Vân Temple of Luy Lâu and established the first Vietnamese Zen lineage known as the Vinftaruci Zen School. Later, during the tenth century, the first systematic practice of Mantrayana focusing on a definite mantra in a text titled the Uṣṇīsavijayadharanī emerged under the Đinh Dynasty (968-980). The mantra, in Chinese characters, was carved on hexagonal stone pillars called Bao Tràng or Ratnadhvaja. In 973, Lord Đinh Liễn erected one hundred Ratnadhavajas in order to generate merits to help liberate the spirit of his deceased brother. Liễn established another hundred tantric pillars in 979, aiming to gain a healthy perpetuation of his dynasty.[3] Archeological efforts from 1963 to 1987 have recovered 20 of those stone pillars. Some of their fragments also contained the lines “Namo Prahūtaratna [Tathagata], Namo Surupakaya

Figure 4. Pháp Vân Temple ( Chùa Dâu), Bắc Ninh Province. Photo Trần Mạnh Thường.

Figure 5. The statue of Pháp Vân (Dharma Cloud), with attendants. Photo Võ Văn Tường.

[Tathagata], Namo Vipulakaya [Tathagata],” appearing to be a part of the ritual instruction for performing the dharanī. The Uṣṇīsavijayadh ranī, carved on those pillars, matched the Chinese version translated by Vaijrabodhi (670-741) and Amosghavajra (705-774), who had translated Sanskrit texts and established Esoteric Buddhism in China during the eighth century. The text narrated that Suprati ṭhita, a heavenly king whose heavenly life span was about to end, franticly sought and eventually received this dharanī from the Buddha at Sravati. By reciting it, he was able to remove his negative karmas. In addition, he regained his former heavenly status endowed with a more superior life span and merits.[4] In Vietnam, those pillars eventually fell into decay, indicating the decline in popularity of the text as time went on. The text, however, had been translated into modern Vietnamese by Ven. Thích Thiền Tâm in 1975, and reprinted in the United States in 1985 by Ven. Thích Hai Quang, who brought it along during his perilous escape as one of the boat people.

The most popular and enduring tantric text in the Vietnam Buddhist tradition has been the Great Compassion Mantra, known in Vietnam during the twelfth century. Its complete title is the Great Compassionate Minded Dharani of The Thousand-Arm-and-Thousand-Eye One. The text offers a long mantra or dharanī spoken by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, while he was manifesting himself in an enormous form with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. While an image of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was known in Giao Châu as early as the fifth century because of his golden statue, which miraculously radiated dazzling lights mentioned by the Chinese writer Wang Yen,[5] the tantric practice of reciting mantras connected to him was not found on record at the time. The Great Compassion Mantra brought back to Vietnam from North Burma in the eleventh century by the Zen Master Đạo Hạnh (d.1115) established a textual foundation for the practice and spread of the popularity of Avalokitesvara.

Figure 6. The Bao Tràng or Ratnadhvaja at Hoa Lu, Hà Nam Ninh Province. Photo Võ Văn Tường.

Figure 7. Other Ratnadhvajas, with Chinese inscriptions of the Usnīsavijayadharanī. Photo Hà Văn Tấn.

The mantra, when recited by a sincere heart and concentrated mind accompanied by proper methods of generating a compassionate mind-set and purification, promises the means to pacify the mind, enhance spiritual progress, remove fear, accumulate merits, purify misdeeds, heal diseases, eliminate obstacles, ward off enemies, and lead to an array of other benefits. It is the wish-fulfilling jewel of the tradition. The text also offers various mudras or hand gestures and their respective mantras in order to accommodate individual aspiration. The main mantra, however, can be recited without using mudras or complicated rituals. The Great Compassion Mantra exemplified itself as the most effective mantra through the story of the Zen Master Đạo Hạnh and is frequently recited during the daily chanting sessions in most Vietnamese Mahayana temples at present. An account of Đạo Hạnh illuminates the legacy of The Great Compassion Mantra, as follows:

Once, Từ-Vinh (Đạo-Hạnh’s father) offended the Marquis Diên-Thành. Diên- Thành asked the sorcerer Đại-Điên to use black magic to beat Vinh to death and hurl him into the Tô River. When Vinh’s corpse got to the Quyết-Kiều Bridge, where Diên- Thành’s mansion was located, it suddenly stood up like a living man and pointed [at the mansion]; he remained there the whole day, unmoving. Diên-Thành was scared and rushed word of this to Đại-Điên. Điên came and said, “A monk’s anger should not last overnight!” Even as he spoke, Vinh’s body flowed away with the current.

Đạo-Hạnh thought about avenging his father’s death, but had not come up with any plan. One day, he lay in wait for Đại-Điên to go outside. As Điên appeared, he was about to strike him when suddenly a voice in the air shouted, “Stop! Stop!” Đạo-Hạnh was frightened, dropped his stick, and ran away. He then decided to go to India to learn black magic to fight Đại-Điên. He went only as far as the country of the golden-toothed barbarians (now, Myanmar) where he realized that the road was full of difficulties, so he turned back.

He then went to Mount Từ Son to live in seclusion and devoted himself to chanting the Great Compassionate Mind Dharani daily. One day, after he had recited it 108,000 times, a god appeared before him and said, “I’m your servant, the Celestial King who is the Guardian of the Four Directions. I was moved by your achievement of chanting the sutra, so I came here to place myself at your disposal.” Đạo-Hạnh knew that his magical power was now complete, so he would be able to avenge his father’s death.

He then went to the head of the Quyết-Kiều Bridge and tentatively threw his walking stick into the swift running water. The stick went against the current like a dragon and did not stop until it reached the Tây-Duong Bridge. Đạo-Hạnh was pleased, saying, “Now my magic arts will prevail.”

He went directly to Đại-Điên’s house. Seeing him, Đại-Điên said, “Don’t you remember what happened before?” Đạo-Hạnh looked up to the sky, but it was all quiet, and there was nothing to be seen. Then he chased Đại-Điên and struck him. Đại-Điên became sickened and died.

After this, the enmity he had felt previously melted like snow, and this mundane concern became like cold ashes. Đạo-Hạnh wandered to all monasteries to search sanction [for his enlightenment].35

As a distinctive element, Vietnamese Tantrism in connection with the Zen Master Đạo Hạnh, however, did not favor reincarnation in order to further the lineage system in either the religious or temporal realms, especially when the death of a young child was initially required. Unlike the Tibetan Tulku system, in which an enlightened master normally takes consecutive rebirths and gets recognized in the form of a new child called a Tulku in order to lead the lineage, to maintain the purity of the lineage, including its specialized esoteric teachings, and to continue his Bodhisattva vows of benefiting sentient beings,[6] the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition did not promote a similar practice since its inception. In February of 1112, Giác Hoàng, a three- year-old lad revealed his supernatural power to the royal court, including knowing the activities of the king inside the palace. He was willing to die in order to be reborn as the son of King Lý Nhân Tông who was without heirs. Đạo-Hạnh articulated that such a scheme of utilizing rebirth to continue the secular power at the royal court was “deceiving people’s minds and disturbing the righteous Dharma.”37 Being an accomplished master in mantras, who even left instructions about his future incarnations until he would be completely liberated from cyclic existence, Đạo Hạnh recited mantras onto magic seals and completely blocked Giác Hoàng from the attempt.

His tantric power brought that type of reincarnation to an end. Since then, without a trend of reincarnation similar to that of the Tulku system, Vietnamese Mantrayana went without a heavy concentration on the purity of individual esoteric lineages. Therefore, the tradition did not have[7] See Nguyễn Tú Cuong, Zen In edieval Vietnam, p. 178. to deal with the problems entailed by such practices of reincarnation, like the contesting Tulkus and the associated power struggles. Also, the tradition removed the possibility of forcing young children to die in order to satisfy certain vanities from the authority in spite of the suffering of the family involved.

Figure 8. The Great Compassion Mantra, in Siddham-Sanskrit. Courtesy Chua Boon Tuan.

Figure 9. The Thousand-Arm Avalokiteİvara at Bút Tháp Temple and the statue
of Master Từ Đạo Hạnh in monastic robe at Thiên Phúc Temple. Photos Võ Văn Tường.

In addition to the Great Compassion Mantra, the Sūraṇgama mantra has also shared significant importance in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition since the fourteenth century, when King Trần Nhân Tông (1258-1308) invited the Indian master named B6 Đề Thfit LY (Bodhisrf) to Vietnam to lead the translation of the Sūraṇgama Sūtra. Its significance and popularity flourished when the Zen Master Pháp Loa (1288-1330), the Second Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm Zen School, attained realization from the sūtra. The fame of the sutra expanded further when the Third Patriarch Huyền Quang (1254-1334) continued to deliver lectures on it publicly in 1313 at the major Buddhist temples of the Trúc Lâm Zen Schools, including Báo Ân temple at the capital Thăng Long.[8] The mantra is a part of the Sūraṇgama Sūtra, whose Indian origin can be traced back to Nalanda Monastery. Indeed, the Sikṣa Samuccaya composed by Santideva (687-763) at Nalanda made reference to the Sūraṇgama Sūtra. As a meditation guide, the Sūraṇgama Sūtra discusses twenty-five perfect penetrations as gateways of practice. In practice, it promotes the perfect penetration of hearing faculty introduced by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the one that surpasses all others. Instead of listening to external sounds, one should revert the hearing faculty to be mindful of the self-nature (svabhava). In expounding the essential principles of practicing meditation, the sūtra offers seven perceptions concerning the mind, including an elegant exposition of the illusory, through the illustration of the sky-flower.[9] instructions for meditation, the text elaborates the results of penetrating each of the five skandhas.[10] As an indispensable warning concerning Mahayana meditation, it points out in detail a total of fifty deviant mental states, ten for the penetration of each skandha, revealing dangerous pitfalls to be avoided. In the text, the Buddha also instructs Ananda to recite the mantra in order to enhance meditation and to ward off both internal and external obstacles that might be encountered during meditative stages. As usual, the text also indicates various benefits for reciting the mantra. For intensive practice, the sutra even gives descriptive instructions for constructing the mandala using multiple reflecting mirrors to reflect images of the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, and other Buddhist deities. The whole process of constructing and purifying the mandala, including the traditional Indian way of consecration using cow dung and the offering of milk and clarified butter, is complicated. In addition, memorizing the whole extremely long mantra in Sanskrit sounds intensifies the complication. Because of those difficulties, the mantra is not frequently performed in the lay Buddhist communities where time and preparation are less feasible. Rather, it is more popular in the monastic settings, where longer meditation is performed and has long been the primary mantra for morning chanting.

Figure 10. The Surangama Mantra in Siddham-Sanskrit, see English translation in Appendix C. Photo Minh Quang.

Figure 11. The Zen Masters Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang, the promoters of the Surangama Sutra. Photos Thích Thanh Từ.

From the fourteenth century onward, Vietnamese Buddhists have utilized the įūraṇgama Mantra, the Great Compassion Mantra, together with ten other short mantras. In addition, the Prajñāparāmitā-hṛidhya sutra, popularly known as the Heart Sutra, has also accompanied those mantras. The sutra itself works as a mantra for several reasons. In Mahayana Buddhism, the core teaching of the Prajñāparāmitā on the wisdom of emptiness (sunyata) provides the foundation for the Tantric tradition, including the use of Sanskrit letters as mantra. In a version of the Prajñāparāmitā Sutra, the Buddha teaches Ananda the meanings of various Sanskrit letters and announces that the Sanskrit letter “A” (“A”) is the representation of the whole text, saying, “Ananda, do receive, for the sake of the weal and happiness of all beings, this Perfection of Wisdom [Prajñāparāmitā] is one letter; i.e. ‘A.’”[11] Similarly, in another version, the Buddha instructs Subhuti the same idea, announcing “Know that all dharmas are like space. This is called the Dharani gateway, the precise meaning of letter A.”[12] In another version, the Buddha teaches Avalokiteİvara Bodhisattva “the Prajñāparāmitā in a few words.”[13]  The Heart Sutra, the most abridged version of the Prajñāparāmitā, is indeed short in comparison to other versions of 8,000 lines or 25,000 lines. In addition, the concluding Sanskrit mantra of this sutra, “gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, svaha,” works perfectly as a mantra. In chanting sessions, the Heart Sutra is performed after the main text, right before the dedication.  It aims to generate the wisdom of emptiness, so that the accumulated merits will be dedicated toward all sentient beings without attachment. Altogether, these mantras are frequently combined in yogic recitations in order to pacify and feed the pretas, or the hungry ghosts. At present, it is still the norm in Vietnamese Buddhist temples, both in Vietnam and abroad, that these mantras, as elements of the Mantrayana, are recited either in their distinctive chanted sessions or in conjunction with other popular Buddhist scriptures. In function, the Vietnamese Tantric practices serve as a complement to the practices of Zen and Pure Land, not as an independent tradition.


[1] See Lê Hữu M\.c, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, p. 52; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 20, 26.
[2] The primary source for this tantric perspective is a Han-Viet translation based on the woodblock print version of the “Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Ban Hạnh Ngữ L\.c” in Di Văn Chùa Dâu by Nguyễn Quang H6ng . Other versions of the text are also consulted in comparison. See also Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 138- 144, Lê Hữu M\.c, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, pp. 75-76, and Keith Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam, pp. 82-83.
[3] Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 420.
[4] In China in776, the Chinese authorities had even commanded all of their monks and nuns to chant this dharanf twenty-four times each day and made an accumulative report to the king at the New Year day. The mantra made to Japan by Kukai (774-835), who brought back a version of this text when he returned to Japan in 806 to establish the Japanese tradition of Exoteric Buddhism after learning from Hui-kuo (746-805), the lineage holder after Amosghavajra. See Hà Văn Tfin, Chữ Trên Đá Chữ Trên Dồng Minh Văn và Lịch Sử, pp. 97-98,106 &108; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, pp. 420, 431; and Yoshito Hakeda, Kukai Major Works, p.31.
[5] Vuong Diệm (Wang Yen), who was born in Thái Nguyên, Giao-Châu, and later grew up to be a well-known Chinese writer after his return to China, wrote in his Minh Tường Ký (Ming Hsiang Chi) that at the age of eight he received his golden statue of Avalokitesvara from a virtuous Vietnamese monk named Dharma Master Hiền when he received his five lay Buddhist precepts from this master in Vietnam. See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 537. Also, for Wang Yen and his Minh Hsiang Chi see Ch’ên Shou-yi, Chinese Literature A Historical Introduction, p. 271, and Victor H. Mair, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 171.
[6] See Nik Douglas and Meryl White, Karmapa: The Black Hat Lama of Tibet, pp. 34-36, and also its introduction.
[7] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, pp. 337- 374; Nguyễn Tú Cuong, Zen In Medieval Vietnam, pp. 180-181.
[8] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Trdn Nhân Tôn Toàn Tập, p.11; and Thích Thanh Từ, Thiền Sư Việt Nam, pp.334, 352. Also, in 1318, another Indian master named Ban Đế Đa – Tra Thất  Lợi came to Vietnam to translate the tantric sutra titled Kinh Bạch Tán Cái Thdn Chú (Mahasi Tālapatra Dhāranī). See Hà Văn Tfin et al., Trung Tâm Phật Giao Quỳnh Lâm, p. 21, and Nguyễn Lang, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Luận, vol. 1, pp. 136, 402.
[9] In chapter four of the Sūraṇgama Sūtra, the example of the sky-flower illustrates that there are no real flowers in space, though they might be seen by eyes infected with disease, just as there is no deceptive perception in the enlightened mind which is pure like the nature of space. Other examples, including the refined gold and its ore, are also offered in the sutra (Thích Chơn Giám 262, Phật Học Tòng Thư, VI-VII: 107-108). In The Life of Hiuen-Tsang, Hsuan Tsang (602-664) proudly reported that Nalanda Monastery during his time was mockingly named the monastery of the sky-flower doctrine by some non-Mahayana Buddhist venerables in Orrisa, who were then scolded by King Śīlāditya -rāja for not having met the Mahayana venerables at Nalanda (Beal 159). However, Hsuan-Tsang was in no way claiming that the Sūraṇgama Sūtra was compiled at Nalanda. In Buddhism, illustrious monks have had no problem claiming their own texts. Shantideva’s Bodhicharyāvatāra and Śikshā-samuccaya, delivered publicly under his name when he was at Nalanda, were and are still renowned in Mahayana Buddhist temples. Naming a Buddhist temple after a Buddhist sutra does not mean that the respective sutra has been composed there. Ubiquitously, numerous Mahayana Buddhist temples have the names of Avataṃsaka, Śūraṅgama , Prajñāpāramitā, Sukhāvatī, Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, Great Compassion, and so on. This only means that the sutras or their particular teachings are getting promoted by those individual temples. Samual Beal (1825-1889), seemingly unfamiliar with this aspect of Buddhism, had speculated that the Sūragama Sūtra was written there. See Samuel Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol. 2, p. 110, fn. 55; and Śāntideva, Śikshā-samuccaya, p. 9; Sukumar Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, p. 334; and Thích Minh Canh, Từ Điển Phật Học Huệ Quang, vol. 5, p. 3667.
[10] The five skandhas are form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Altogether they form the physical (form), and the mental parts (the rest of the five skandhas) of an individual.
[11] See Edward Conze, Selected Sayings from The Perfection of Wisdom, p. 125.
[12] See Thích Trí Tịnh, Kinh Đi Bát Nhã, vol. 1, pp. 293.
[13] See Edward Conze, Selected Sayngs from The Perfection of Wisdom, p. 122.

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