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Worldwide Locations

Religion in Vietnam

A World of Gods and Spirits

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

A World of Gods and Spirits


Buddhism: Compassion and Salvation

What helped soften the arbitrary and sometimes brutal character of this early despotic rule was the influence of Buddhism.

Already in the second century, Hanoi was known as a center of Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhism emphasized mental and physical self-discipline and proper conduct, instead of the painstaking acquisition of doctrinal knowledge. Sudden, rather than gradual, enlightenment was the ultimate goal. This orientation left Vietnamese Buddhism open to the influence of religious Taoism and of magic. The Vietnamese of the 10th century could be devout Buddhists without relinquishing any of their animist beliefs.

Still, as a Buddhist monk, one had to have a modicum of learning in order, to read the Buddhist scriptures. Aside from the Confucian scholars, temporarily out of favor because their loyalties were suspect, the Buddhist priesthood was the only other source of literate people. They could thus be called upon to assist the powerful but uneducated ruler and his equally uneducated courtiers. To the early kings, always fearful of being deposed by rival clans, the fact that monks severed all family ties as a prerequisite for entering the religious life could only come as a relief. Monks were educated, they did not covet the throne, and gave advice when wanted. No wonder the Vietnamese kings turned to them.

As the kings consolidated their hold over the country, they used Buddhism as a symbolic representation both of the royal presence and of national integration. In the 11th century, a king ordered that temples be built in every village. Close to 1,000 were thus erected. When another king gave two of his daughters away in marriage to chiefs of highlands tribes, he also decreed that temples be built so that he could be accommodated there when visiting his daughters. These temples were to be more than hostels; they were to serve as reminders of the reach of the king and as means of extending court culture into the highlands. In one famous case a royal concubine, who had disposed of the rightful queen and all her 70 ladies-in-waiting by entombing them alive, was seized by remorse later on in life and built 100 temples throughout the land to expiate her sins. Like the medieval European nobility, Vietnamese aristocrats tried to gain absolution for their misdeeds by becoming patrons of religion -- sponsoring monks, building temples, and endowing them with lands and lavish gifts.

With the consolidation of royal power, the disadvantages of relying on Buddhism for political purposes became more apparent. The most obvious shortcoming of Buddhism was its essentially other-worldly orientation. Buddhism was fundamentally uninterested in the here and now, which is the chief concern of politics. How then, could monks play an active role in politics? Their role was made possible through an ingenious interpretation of the Buddhist notion of salvation.

In the countries of Southeast Asia where Theravada Buddhism is practiced, salvation is the non-transferable reward of an individual's efforts to achieve Buddhahood. But Vietnamese Buddhism, as in East Asia, belonged to the Mahayana stream which allowed for collective as opposed to purely individual salvation. In Mahayana Buddhism is the notion of bodhisattvas, beings who have already achieved salvation. But just as they are about to enter nirvana, they look back upon the world and are moved by compassion for the sufferings of mankind so that, instead of entering nirvana, they descend again into the world to work for the salvation of mankind. One Buddhist text states that it is the duty of bodhisattvas to assist the ruler of a country by becoming his advisors. When taking an active interest in political matters, Vietnamese monks could draw inspiration from this Buddhist scripture. Under the influence of monks, rulers tempered harshness with compassion, issuing amnesties to criminals on royal occasions and at Buddhist festivals. But some monks became involved in military affairs as well, and for that, there was no scriptural justification.

But valued though the monks were as advisors, they still could not compensate for the inherent deficiencies of Buddhism as a state religion. For although the salvation doctrine of the Vietnamese Buddhists rationalized social commitment and political activism, it provided no real guidance for the exercise of power, nor for its delegation. And despite its apolitical orientation, which so attracted the rulers, it could unwittingly undermine the authority of the throne. When monks distributed grain to needy peasants, they competed with the state and its representatives for legitimacy in their eyes. The very notion of compassion in politics came under attack. Confucian scholars argued that amnesties made nonsense of the law, for they introduced into its application an element of arbitrariness. And in pardoning an enemy of the state and letting him go free not just once, but several times, a Buddhist king of the 11th century had subordinated the interests of the state to the dictates of religion, an unforgivable breach of his duty.

The size and power of the clergy became a source of concern. The sheer number of monks made the priesthood a cohesive force, capable of influencing the course of events. For example, Ly Cong Uan, the founder of the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) came to the throne with the support of the Buddhist clergy. As he had been raised in a monastery, the monks reasoned that he would pursue much more sympathetic policies towards them than the king whom he replaced. Indeed, the Ly dynasty was an era of unmatched prosperity for Vietnamese Buddhism.

When entering a monastery, monks and nuns disavowed society's claims on them, including the claims of blood ties. The common expression for the act of joining a monastery was "to leave the world." Monks and nuns thus proclaimed themselves to be outside the realm of the king's subjects, outside the reach of his laws, and to be ruled by a power higher than the king. The only laws they would live by were the laws of the monkhood or vinaya. In China, these claims had attracted the censoriousness of rulers and Confucian scholars, and criticism turned into persecution. In the early days of independence, no Vietnamese scholar felt strong enough yet to attack Buddhism head on, and the rulers were both too devout and too dependent on the monks to resent their claims. But by the end of the 12th century, efforts to curb both the size and the power of the clergy were underway.

The example of Ly Cong Uan reveals that for poor Vietnamese, one path to mobility ran through monasteries, where some education could be gained. Not all who joined monasteries, however, did so in order to receive an education, or out of religious commitment to seeking salvation in the afterlife. Economic considerations played an enormous role. For in renouncing the claims of society, monks also rejected the financial burdens of being a common subject of the king. Indeed, one Confucian scholar thundered in 1198 that there were as many tax-exempt monks as there were ordinary taxpayers. Monks avoided corvee labor and military service as well. So did the slaves, serfs and tenant families employed on the estates belonging to Buddhist temples. The origins of the temple slaves lie in Indian Buddhism, which forbade monks to engage in manual labor in order to use all their available time in purely religious activities. Thanks to constant donations from devout kings, nobles and commoners, the temples were lavishly decorated with gold, precious stones and metals, which, Confucian scholars of the day pointed out, could have been better used to fabricate agricultural implements and weapons, or simply used as currency. Furthermore, neither the very extensive lands attached to the temples, nor their products could be taxed.

According to these scholars, one proof that people did not enter monasteries out of sincere religious commitment was how ignorant of the Buddhist scriptures the average monks were. In response, Vietnamese kings instituted regular exams. Those who failed were defrocked and returned to the ranks of tax-paying commoners. That scholars could attack Buddhism with such vigor was a sign that Confucianism was in the ascendancy. Buddhism remained an important influence both among common people and among members of the court, but never again after the 13th century would it play an important political role.