Tuesday, November 18, 2008



Vietnamese Buddhism (by Ven. Dr. Thich Tam Duc)


Before the end of the 1st millenium BC, there had been a sea route for exchanging commodities between India and China via Indochina or Vietnam. And in the initial contact, Indian traders and Buddhist monks accidentally or intentionally spreading the religion to the devotees or carrying with them some forms of religious activities.

Ven. Dr. Thich Tam Duc
Vietnam Buddhist University
According to the Vietnamese text Lĩnh-nam-trích-quái 嶺南摘怪 (compiled in the 14 th century A.D.), the first Vietnamese Buddhists – Chữ-Đồng-Tử and his wife Tiên-Dung (Hùng-vương 雄王’s princess) – studied Buddha’s teachings (thaumaturgics) from an Indian monk named Phật-Quang 佛光 around mid-3rd or 2nd century BC at mountain Quỳnh-viên in Cửa-sót (now Hà-tĩnh).[1] Some devotees said prayers to the Dipaṅkara 然燈 Buddha or Avalokiteśvara 觀世音 Bodhisattva for their safety and salvation, particularly on boats across heavy seas, taking refuge in Buddha 佛 – Dhamma 法 – Sangha 僧, observing precepts, donating for merits in both this and next life, etc. Such simple religious activities were in accordance with the religious beliefs of the common people in Vietnam [2] particularly during the time of Chinese domination. The story of Tấm Cám 糝敢, one of the most ancient legends, which the Viets liked best, was handed down from generation to generation; it conveyed a content in which Bụt 侼 (Buddha) living nearby the people and possessing magics always helped the good-natured while the evil were always harmed by Trời (Heaven) staying in the sky. The legend obviously contains the Buddhist theory of cause and effect. The simple Buddhist beliefs were also suitable to the local peasants who asserted that souls still remained afer the death of physical bodies as well as suitable to their realization of the circulation of vegetation.
However, in the 2nd centruy AD, in Giao-châu[3] including Luy-lâu[4] started the foundation of Buddhist Sangha, translation of Buddhist Sanskrit sūtras 經, building Buddhist stūpas 塔 and temples, and composing Buddhist texts[5]; for example, the Lý-hoặc-luận 理惑論 was composed by Mâu-Tử 牟子. It is this book which gave information about the situation of Buddhism in Vietnam during the early centuries AD. Kenneth K.S.Ch’en writes:
“The first point we learn from the preface of Mou-tzu is that, in addition to the Buddhist centers in east China and Loyang, there existed a flourishing Buddhist community in south China during the Han dynasty. The origins and early development of this community are shrouded in mystery we do know that Indian traders were already making the trip by sea to ports in China during the Han dynasty. Even merchants from the Roman Empire appear to have participated in this trade, for in 166 an individual who claimed to be an envoy of the Roman ruler An-tun (Marcus Aurelius Antonius) arrived in China by sea. Among the Indian traders undoubtedly were Buddhist converts. Buddhist monks must have been present also, for we find them described in Mou-tzu as shaving their heads, wearing saffron-colored robes, eating one meal a day, controlling the six senses, leaving the household life and abandoning their wives and children. K’ang-Seng-Hui[6], who arrived in Nanking in 247, was said to have been descended from a Sogdian family who had moved to Tonkin[7] for commercial reasons after having lived in India for a number of generations.”[8]
The Lý-hoặc-luận aroused a lot of controversies over date and authenticity. However, according to Kenneth K.S.Ch’en “It is more reasonable to suppose that the treatise, as we have it now, was in process of composition for a long time. The earliest parts of the text very likely were composed during the end of the Han dynasty”,[9] and Paul Pelliot and Hu-Shid dated the Lý-hoặc-luận at the end of the Second century AD.[10]
The Lý-hoặc-luận (Treatise for removing doubtness), which composes of thirty seven pairs of questions and answers, is important not only for the information about Buddhism in Vietnam it gives but also for the distinction it enjoys as the first treatise on Buddhism to be written by a Chinese convert. Due to protecting Buddhism and criticizing the ideas and practices of native cults, superstitions or arguments of the opponents, the text may be said to highlight the superiority of Buddhism to Confucianism and Taoism at the time. At the end of the text the hearers after listening to the author’s explanation about Buddhism requested to be taken refuge in him.
One important thing in the text, in the background of Chinese rule, Mâu-Tử, a representative of Buddhism in Vietnam dared to refuse the sense of self-respect of the Chinese, especially the Confucianists, i.e., China is the centre of Heaven-and-Earth and all other countries are barbarians. In the pairs No. 11, 12 he vindicated the habits and customs of Buddhist monks in Vietnam . For these reasons, it can be said that Buddhism in Vietnam even during the early centuries AD did present its independence from Chinese culture, indirectly affirmed its political role in supporting the natives’ uprisings against the Chinese.
The text not only converted the upper class but also met the need of religious belief of the people with definition about the supernatural power Buddha “Buddha is a wakended, endowed with unlimited supernatural powers, untouched by fire, weapons, impurities, bad luck, able to fly in the air and illuminating when sitting.”[11]
The Lý-hoặc-luận appeared in the late 2nd century AD in which the “Sutra in 42 sections” 四十二章 was mentioned. Thus the latter must appear in the early 2nd century AD and it was translated in Luy-lâu, a spring-board for Buddhism reaching China . Notably, in the list of the earliest Chinese sutras, Tổng-lý-chúng-kinh-mục-lục 總理眾經目錄, compiled by Tao-An 道安 in 374 AD, there were no Lý-hoặc-luận and Sutra in 42 sections. According to Tao-An, all the earliest Chinese sutras were translated in Loyang . Tao-An was a Chinese staying in Loyang and knowing well the circulation of Buddhist sutras in the North; but, he did not hear about the Sutra in 42 sections. This facts proves that this sutra was not generated in the North. Paul Pelliot says this sutra was perhaps generated in the South of the Yangtze 洋子 river,[12] i.e., Luy-lâu. No wonder, it might be reasonbable for some authors to think that the most ancient translated text in China is the Sutra in 42 sections in the 2nd century AD, and they do not know that at that time Luy-lâu was a prosperous Vietnamese Buddhist centre under the Chinese domination.

[1] Lê-Mạnh-Thát, Lịch-sử Phật-giáo Việt-Nam, Tập I, Huế: NXB Thuận-hoá, 1999, pp. 19 – 22.
[2] They believed in animism and worshipped such gods as sun, soil, mountain, river… and reproductive organs or copulation with ceremonies for good crops and fertility. They also worshipped and deified their ancestors and heroes of the nation.
[3] Giao-châu 交州 or Giao-chỉ 交趾 is what now Northern Vietnam . Before BC 179, i.e., before the time of the Chinese domination, Vietnam had two names Văn-lang 文郎 (before BC 208) and Âu-lạc 甌貉(BC 208-179BC) respectively. Văn-lang covered the futile area of the Hồng, Mã and Cả rivers in what now are a part of Quảng-tây 廣西, Quảng-đông 廣東 in China, North Vietnam and North of Central Vietnam. In 207 BC, Triệu-Đà 趙佗, a Chinese posed as a Viet Chiefdom, invaded two prefectures Tượng 象 and Quế-lâm 桂林, a part of the Viets’ territory, making Nam-việt 南越 kingdom. Not long after that Triệu-Đà was defeated by Hán 漢 troops in 111BC. During the Hán, Vietnam was divided into two commanderies: (i) Giao-chỉ in what now include a part of Quảng-tây 廣西, Quảng-đông 廣東 in China and North Vietnam, and (ii) Cửu-chân 九真 in what now is North of Central Vietnam. This southernmost extension of Chinese Empire was designated by the Triệu 趙 and Hán dynasties as Nam-việt 南越 and by the Đường 唐 dynasty (618-906) as An-nam 安南 (Pacifying the South), or, in the current speech of the people living there, Nam-việt and An-nam respectively. Giao-chỉ had a population of 746, 237 people and Cửu-chân 166, 013; so, Vietnam had 912, 250 population at the time (Wales, Archaeological Researches on Ancient India Colonization in Malya, JMBRAS, XIII, 1, 1940).
[4] Luy-lâu 羸樓, an important centre of economy, politics and culture of Vietnam during the Chinese domination. During the Han China there were at least three centres of Buddhism: (i) P’eng-ch’eng 彭城 or the lower Yangtze region in East China, (ii) Lo-yang 洛陽 by the Yellow river, and (iii) Luy-lâu is what now North Vietnam, about 40 km from Modern Hà-Nội. The Luy-lâu centre was primarily started by Indian monks arriving by sea routes. Luy-lâu was one of three ancient towns in Vietnam at the time: Cổ-loa 古螺, Long-biên 龍癃 and Luy-lâu. It located on the banks of the Đậu river, around 5 km from the Đuống river. Particularly in Luy-lâu, people grew mulberry for raising silkworms and producing silk, cloth. Many main land and water routes ran across Luy-lâu: the land routes from Luy-lâu reaching Phả-lại, Đông-triều, Quảng-ninh and Viet-China borders; the water routes running from the Đậu river through either the Đuống, Hồng rivers and finally into the China sea, or the Thái-bình river and into the China sea. With its favourable place, Luy-lâu easily became a busy commercial centre. It was a place of converging and exchange between agricultural products, handicrafts like cloth, pottery, glassware, etc. from the Hồng river basin and forest products like precious wood, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, etc. from the highland regions in the North and West. Luy-lâu was also a place where foreign traders from China, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia came to exchange merchant goods. Concerning the prosperous Luy-lâu centre, Tiền-hán-thư 前漢書 writes: “The land of the Viets situates nearby the sea, gaving a lot of rhinoceros, tortoise-shell, pearl, gold, copper, fruits, likhi. Almost Chinese merchants requented there for doing business and became rich. Phiên-ngu 番禺 is its ruling place.” (Tiền-hán-thư 前漢書, Vol. 28, part II, p. 36). Luy-lâu was also a southernmost political centre of Chinese colonial government. This centre had been probably formed during the reign of Triệu-Đà. After taking Nam-việt ruled by Triệu-Đà, the Han and succeeding dynasties have still retained Luy-lâu as the capital city of Giao-chỉ . In Chinese archives, Luy-lâu is placed the first in the list of ten districts of Giao-chỉ. Luy-lâu was not only a political and economical centre but also a cultural one. As a matter of fact, during the Han domination it is necessary, in some cases, to view this process as the expansion of a culture of language rather than an actual migration. There is no record of any large-scale settlement or immigration, except some individual cases. Taoism and particularly Confucianism were adopted and respected by the ruling class in Giao-chỉ or by new comers fleeing from the North due to the confusion or civil war in China , for example, “A Confucianist scholar named Hoàng-Việp 黃曄 during the time of confusion moved to Cối-kê and then sailed to Giao-chỉ.”(Hậu-hán-thư 後漢書, vol. 67, p. 76). Besides, merchants accompanied by Buddhist monks from India, Central and Southeast Asia also arrived in Luy-lâu for their business. They not only brought goods for exchange but also brought knowledge from their homeland such as medicine, agriculture, astronomy, customs and habits, and religious beliefs. Through their interaction, languages were also developed. Vietnamese, Chinese and Sanskrit were all used in trade and spreading Buddhism. Vietnamese was enriched with the entry of new words from other countries, particularly India , such words as Mít (Jack tree), Nhài (Jasmine), Bụt (Buddha), Bồ-đề (Bodhi), Bồ-tát (Bodhisattva), Tháp (Stūpa), Tăng-già (Saṅgha), etc. Both Han and Sanskrit languages also took good chance to develop. Naturally, Luy-lâu became a converging place of various cultures.
[5] Some historical factors prove that there appeared a fairly developed form of Mahayana Buddhism in Luy-lâu in the late 2nd century AD coming directly from India by sea route: (i) The earliest Chinese translations of the Mahayana texts are those of the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 阿彌陀經, between 148 and 170 AD, of the Śatasāhasrikāprajñā 百千誦般若, between 175 and 220 AD (B. Nanjio, catalogue no. 678). (ii) The Indian vessels visited Southeast Asia to exchange trade goods before the end of the 1st millenium BC. It is probable that the interest in the area intensified after Emperor Vespasian, who succeeded in 69 AD, prohibited the export of gold coinage from the Roman Empire . The seasonal pattern of the prevailing wind, in which northeast winds dominated between November and May, and southwest winds from May to November, meant that the landfall in southeast Asia lasted for some months. Among their passengers were numbered Hindu Brahmans and Buddhist monks. Naturally, following trading affair is cultural expansion which resulted in the Indianized kingdoms in the Indochinese penninsula and in the islands of Indonesia . Coedes writes: “the relations between Indian proper and Father India date back to the prehistoric times,” (G. Coedes, the Indianized States of Southeast Asia, trans. Susan Brown Cowing, Hawai, 1968, p.14). (iii) Monk Đàm Thiên answered the Sui Emperor Wen-di 隋文帝 (603-617): “The region of Giao-châu has routes connected to Thiên-trúc 天竺 ( India ). By the time Buddhism (in China) did not yet become popular in Giang-đông 江東, the region (of Giao-châu) had had already more than twenty stupas in Luy-lâu, five hundred monks and fifteen translated sutras. So, Buddhism was introduced into Nam-việt 南越 before into our state. At that time, such monks as Mārajīvaka 摩羅耆域, Khương-Tăng-Hội 康僧會, Chi-Cương-Lương 支僵良, Mâu-Bác 牟博, etc. have stayed there already.”(Thiền uyển Tập anh 禪畹集英, trans. Ngô-Đức-Thọ and Nguyễn-Thuý-Nga, Hà-nội, 1993, pp. 91-92). (iv) Khương-Tăng-Hội, whose parents were the Sogdians ( Central Asia ) migrating to Giao-châu and doing business, in the early 3rd century AD (200-247) was ordained in Giao-châu, became a well-known Ch’an Master and was well-versed in Sanskrit and Chinese. He translated some sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese, for example, Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñā 八千誦般若 which was one of the most ancient sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. After that, he arrived in Kiến-nghiệp 建業 (Nanking in China) for propagation and was considered as the first Buddhist monk preaching meditation there, and (v) the Tam-quốc-chí 三國志 recording the story of Sĩ-Nhiếp 士燮 mentioned a letter by Viên-Huy sent to Tuân-Húc in 207 AD, which praised Sĩ-Nhiếp for ruling Giao-châu for more than twenty years and “When going or coming he was accompanied with solemn rituals including plenty of horse-carriages, brass brand, scores of the Hồ (Indian monks) burning incense…”
[6] K’ang-Seng-Hui 康僧會 (? – 280) : The person bringing the cultural strength from Vietnam to China was K’ang-Seng-Hui. Hui’s father was a Sogdian, migrated to India, then from India to Giao Châu for trade and he married a Vietnamese girl. From this marriage Hui was born in Giao Châu . When he was aged 15, his parents died; he left home for monkhood life and studied hard under Mâu-tử tutorship. He was well-versed in Sanskrit and Chinese. When staying in Giao Châu and hearing that Buddhism had not been accepted by Giang-đông 江東 government in China, Hui moved to Kiến-nghiệp (Nan-king) in 247 A.D. under the reign of king Ngô-Tôn-Quyền 吳尊權. When Hui performed the magic of Buddha’s relics, the King admired him very much and had a temple erected for worshipping the relics. The name of the temple was Kiến-sơ 建初. After that, Buddhism flourished there. Hui died in 280 A.D. and stayed in China for 25 years (Cao-Tăng-Truyện 高僧傳, a Chinese text, compiled by Huệ-Hạo 惠昊 in 519 A.D. in 14 fasciculi).
[7] Tonkin is Luy-lâu
[8] Kenneth K.S.Ch’en, Buddhism in China, Princeton , 1964, P.38
[9] Ibid, p. 37
[10] Ibid
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