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A bout a Website named
“Vietnam Buddhism”
Comment by Da Le

 

By a chance, I have read a website, entitled “Vietnam Buddhism” (by Suzanne Brown and Laura Clark)” (1) and found some inaccurate information related to Vietnamese history, especially history of Buddhism in Vietnam. Tracing the source, I knew that that website belonged to the Department of Asian Studies of Pacific University, Oregon State, and was written by two undergrad students as a research for a history course (2). Since this is an academic research, the readers supposedly to get from it as much accurate information as possible in order to enrich their knowledge, otherwise it may lead people to the confusing and misunderstanding of the subject, and at the end, causing damage to the reputation of  that institute.

This article is a comment and not a critique of the “Vietnam Buddhism” website. It will point out some inaccurate information in the context in hope to share with the authors some accurate facts to clarify the ill-information related to the history of Buddhism in Vietnam that contained in that web.

 

1. About Vietnamese Buddhism:  Environment, Timing and “Norm”

The authors wrote:

“The classical period of Buddhism in South East Asia was from the 11th to the 15th century.”

 At the beginning of the article “Buddhism in Vietnam”, the authors placed Vietnamese Buddhist into the environment of  Southeast Asia Buddhism  and limited their study within 11th  to 15th   century, named it as  “The classical period of Buddhism in South East Asia”. How does Vietnamese Buddhism fit into this anthropographic area and the chosen time period, would be a big question that we need to focus on.

First, Southeast Asia is not a principal nest to nurture Buddhism in Asia. Five countries in this region -Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines-  are not influenced by Buddhism at all, thus we can not claim that “Buddhism played a significant role in the definition of the classical South East Asian states “.  So, it does not make sense to place Vietnamese Buddhist into this area unless it serves the purposes of teaching some history courses that related to the Viet nam War as authors mentioned earlier in the Introduction, “look at some of the impacts of the American conflict in Vietnam “ in “hope that it addresses some of the general questions that educators and students have about the Buddhist side of the conflict”. However, as everybody knew, US ‘s direct involvement in Vietnam War just expanding to the Indochina region (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), not all of Southeast Asia countries. Therefore, the authors might have mistaken in distinguishing between the Indochina and Southeast Asia or know nothing about there is a  geopolitical region named Indochina.

            Moreover, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are three countries strongly influenced by Buddhism; study Vietnamese Buddhism within that framework may be more reasonable than the whole Southeast Asia region.

The authors then  set a timing boundary for Southeast Asia Buddhist, from 11th to 15th century- and named it as “The classical period of Buddhism in South East Asia”. The readers, even a devout Buddhist, may have a hard time to understand  what does it means by “The classical period of  Buddhism in Southeast Asia”, from which sources that divide Buddhist history in this area into different periods like that, and why did the authors  just limit the timing boundary within 11th to 15th century to study?

To say this “classical period” had a “norm” such as “had homogeneity of form and institutional orthodoxy, as well as helped to formulate kingship” didn’t give the readers any impression about that particular period, in fact, those characteristics are not only Southeast Asian Buddhism ‘s characteristics but may apply for all religions including Roman Catholic, Muslim, etc... in any place, at all times, especially under feudalism. Obviously, any religion must have  “homogeneity of form and institutional orthodoxy” in order to survive and develop.

In theory, religion doesn’t participate in any political activities, but in the realty, from the past up to now, religion always finds the way to exercise its influences onto the current government and vice versa. Under feudalism, the King has absolute power to his subjects, if religion didn’t find the way to gain the support from the Royal Court, it may be persecuted and can not survive. In predominant Buddhist countries, there has been a good relationship between the Sangha, and a king. The Shangha advises the King,  guides him in the Dhamma , and supports him in his administration of the state. In return, the King provides protection for the Shangha, ensuring optimum conditions for the pursuit of the Buddhist way. We would find exactly the same pattern in Christian countries as well as Muslim countries. The above “norm”, therefore, is not the special characteristics of a historical period from 11th to 15th  century, especially for Buddhism.

To place the Vietnamese Buddhism into that timing boundary, the authors might think that Buddhism in VietNam just began active only since 11th century, after Vietnam gaining independence from Chinese. If so, it’s not correct. Many Chinese historical sources as old as from Han Dynasty Archives, many Chinese and Vietnamese scholars who worked on Vietnamese Buddhist history, all agreed that Buddhism was developed in Vietnam as early as 3rd century B.C., even before China. Some well known, respected Vietnamese Buddhist scholars including Dr. Le Manh That in “Vietnamese Buddhist History”, The Most Venerable Thich Duc Nhuan in “Buddhism in Vietnamese History Mainstream”, ... all claimed in their published studies that Buddhism came to Vietnam directly from India. We may take closed look at this topic later.

 

Ideas Contradict themself within one paragraph

The authors wrote:

“Vietnam, however, is different from the "norm" of the traditional South East Asian period of Classical Buddhism, since it was strongly impacted by the Chinese.”

At first, the authors set a “norm” for Southeast Asia Buddhism and later disclaimed that Buddhism in Vietnam didn’t belong to that “norm”, because “it was strongly impacted by the Chinese”. Though, the authors didn’t give us the clear picture of Buddhism in Vietnam, but based on authors’ logic, this sentence implied that Buddhism in both China and Vietnam has no “homogeneity of form and institutional orthodoxy, as well as helped to formulate kingship”. If so, what does Buddhism in China and Vietnam look-alike?  Are they not belonged to any Buddhist tradition but  a gallimaufry stuffs which doesn’t follow exactly what the Buddha taught?

To have the answer,  one can see clearly from Buddhist history that both Chinese and Vietnam had been sharing the same characteristics or a “ norm” as author may call it. They all pay homage to the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Shangha. The homogeneity of form of Buddhism may be represented well by the Shangha as recognized by Paul Williams, a Western scholar: “What unifying element there is in Buddhism, Mahayana and non-Mahayana, is provided by the monks and their adherence to the monastic rule.” (Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, London: Routledge, 1989, 4).

In Vietnam, from the past up to present day, the Shangha is always well organized and unique because it has been governed by Vinaya and moral precepts. The fate of Vietnamese Shangha may be up or down sometimes in history depends upon the fate of the country, but basically it followed exactly the rules that Buddha taught in Vinaya. For example, to become a Buddhist monk, one must go through a sectarian school, usually located in Buddhist temples around the country accordingly to which Buddhist sect they belong to: Zen, Pure Land, or Esoteric ... school. He must study very hard in a discipline way about basic Sutras, Vinaya and practice meditation. At first, he is called a Samanera -a Novice Monk- when he receives his ordination. He supposes to observe Ten Samanera Precepts with certain disciplinary codes for leading a monastic life until he receives his higher ordination, Upasampada, to become a Bhikkhu. The ordain protocols thus remained unchanged up to present day. Moreover, the rituals that  performed in Buddhist temples, the sutras that Buddhists recite on different occasions such as celebration of particular events, pay respect to the death, etc... considered as universal and the context did not change much through times.

Was Buddhism in this period helped to formulate kingship? The answer is Yes.

History showed that Buddhism had played an important role in shaping the country of China as well as Vietnam.  In Vietnam, under the Dinh, Le, Ly, and Tran Dynasties, the relationship between the Sangha, and Royal Court was always smooth. Buddhist Church had produced many talent monks, scholars as well as public administrators to form a backbone of country's intellectual class at that time. The Shangha, thus made the significant contributions to the founding and protecting of the country. They worked closely with the current government to build Vietnam from a young nation to become a strong, and civilized state. In return, the Royal Court of those dynasties treated Shangha with grateful and respect . The Kings, most of them also were devout Buddhists, had employed the supporting policies toward Buddhism. Though, they did not declare Buddhism as a national religion but the Kingdom’s officialdom did have position called State Monk who was selected from special examinations to help the King to look after the Buddhist affairs. Those monks were actually state officials who working as a mandarin for the Royal Court. Besides that, the King named some highly respected, good reputation monks as Master of State and asked them to live in pagodas as close to the capital as possible  so that whenever needed, he can visit them to seek the advises. 

 

So, one may see that Vietnam is not different from the “norm” that the authors have set.

 

2. Misrepresent the History of Buddhist Development

 

The authors wrote:

“Buddhism, in this time period, tended to follow the Theravada tradition.”

The author claimed that “Buddhism, in this time period, (from 11th to 15th century) tended to follow the Theravada tradition.”

To examine this claim, one should have basic knowledge about the history of Buddhist development, the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. Rev. Mahathera Piyadassi, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular, well known Buddhist scholar monks give us a brief history of Theravada, Mahayana in his recent publish as follows:

“In the 3rd Century B.C., after the Buddha’s passing away, during Emperor Asoka’s regime, the Third Council was held to discuss and recite both the Dhamma and the Vinaya. The Teachings approved and accepted by the monks of this Council became known as Theravada -the Teachings of the Elders.  After this Third Council, Emperor Asoka's son, the Arahat Maha Mahinda, who came to Sri Lanka, brought with him the Tipitaka or the Buddhist Canon, the texts with the commentaries that were recited at the Third Council. The texts were written in Magadhi (Pali), the language spoken by the Buddha.

The first mention of the terms Mahayana and Hinayana is found in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) (1st Century B.C. - 1st Century A.C.)

The term Mahayana was clearly defined and designated about the 2nd Century A.C. and Nagarjuna, the great exponent of Mahayana, developed the Mahayana philosophy emphasizing the importance of Sunyata -everything is Void (see his Madhyamika-karika). Later came Asanga,Vasubandhu, etc... stalwart supporters of Mahayana who enriched the Mahayana literature. So it was about 700 years after the passing away of the Buddha that the two terms Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced.

The ill-informed refer to Theravada as Hinayana, they do not know what they are talking about. When Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by Ven. Mahinda in the 3rd Century B.C., there were no yanas. The Hinayana sect developed in India and has nothing to do Theravada Buddhism. The Theravada was not involved in either the schools of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) or Hinayana (the Low Vehicle). Theravada exists independent of any yana.

In 1950 when the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) was inaugurated in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the members of the WFB from both the East and the  West unanimously decided to drop the contemptuously used term “Hinayana “ when referring to Theravada Buddhism existing today.

Mahayana and Theravada are the two great Buddhist schools in existence in the world today. Mahayana spread to the Far East -to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia. Theravada spread throughout Southeast Asia -Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Campuchia, Laos,...”

(Rev. Mahathera Piyadassi, “The Spectrum of Buddhism,” Reprinted by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taiwan ROC, June 1966, 427.)

Thus, looking into Buddhist history, we may see that both traditions were developed at the same time accordingly to which country adopt them first, so we can’t jump to the conclusion that “Buddhism, in this time period, tended to follow the Theravada tradition.”

 

3. Misrepresent Buddhist Ethics

3.1 In comparison with Confucianism:

The authors wrote:

“Buddhists were all equal whereas Confucians existed primarily in the five relationships. Buddhism offered the people a Way out of Confucianism's confining restrictions.”

In comparison between Confucianism and Buddhism on social relations, the authors said “Confucians existed primarily in the five relationships” which are “Husband to Wife, Father to son, Elder brother to younger brother, Emperor to subject, and the relationship amongst friends” while “Buddhists were all equal”.

 

We knew that the social relations is not only but one way to define the morality of one society. To say “Buddhists were all equal”, the authors misrepresented that Buddhism has no social norms for any relationship: father equals to son, elder equals to younger, emperor equals to subjects, etc... and thus, Buddhism seems pay no respect to any moral values.

To draw that conclusion, the author might not  understand the concept of “Equalities” in Buddhism. From the Buddha teaching, not only men but all living things are born equally, that means, they all have the same Buddha nature, have the abilities to reach the Enlightenment, and attain the Buddhahood. Therefore, Buddha denied the existing of caste system and the discrimination because of social classes as he said “There were no social classes when men‘s tear are all salty”. Thus, “Equality” in Buddhism does not mean “all equal” in social relations. In contrary, Buddha, in many discourses, advised men how best to act for their own happiness and for the benefits of others, how to behave in social relationships. That’s morality. That‘s Buddhist ethics. Because morality is one of the most important aspect of living and the need for ethics arises from the fact that man is not perfect by nature, therefore, he need to train himself to be good.

A Western scholar, Nelson Foster, gave us a clear picture of Buddhist morality:

“It is clear from the Pali text, apocryphal or not, that early Buddhism was aware of itself as a force for social good. Shakyamuni appears in the Pali sutras as a peacemaker, provides guidelines for good rulership, criticizes India’s caste system, emphasizes   morality as the foundation of practice, and so forth”.

(Nelson Foster, “To enter the Marketplace,” in Fred Eppsteiner, ed., The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, rev.ed. -Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988-, 49.)

And the “Sigala-Sutra” shows us the good example of Buddha’s teaching regarding social relations:

In obeying and observing the last instructions given to him by his dying father, a young man named Sigala used to worship the six cardinal points of the heavens: East, South, West, North, Nadir and Zenith.  The Buddha taught him that in the noble disciple of his teaching, the six directions were different: East means parents; South means teachers; West means wife and children; North means friends, relatives and neighbors; Nadir means servants, workers or employees; Zenith means religious masters.

The Buddha told Singala to worship these six directions by performing duties towards them in which he explained as follows:

First: Parents are sacred to their children. The Buddha says: “Parents are called Brahma”, which is the highest and most sacred conception in India thought. Therefore, in good Buddhist families at the present time, children literally worship their parents everyday, morning and evening. A noble disciple have to perform certain duties towards their parents such as they should look after their parents in their old age; should do whatever they have to do on their behalf; should maintain the honour of the family and continue the family tradition; should protect the wealth earned by their parents; and perform their funeral rites after their death.

Parents in return, have certain responsibilities towards their children: They should keep them away from evil courses; should encourage them to do the good things, should give them good education and skills; should marry them into good families; and should hand over property to them at the right time.

Second: The relation between teacher and student. Student should stand in respect to salute his teacher ; should attend to his needs if any; should study hard and pay attention to learn the skills.

Teacher in return should train and shape his student properly, should give them fine education and skills; should praise him to his friends for good work; and should try to secure employment for him when he graduates.

Third: The relation between husband and wife. Love between husband and wife is considered almost religious or sacred. The Buddha used term “sacred family life” to indicate this relationship. In summary, wives and husbands should be faithful, respectful and devoted to each other. They should perform certain duties towards each other in their daily lives.

Husband should respect his wife, love her and be faithful to her; should give her the appropriate authority to perform; and should give her jewelry too.

Wife in return, should supervise  and look after household affairs; should entertain guests and relatives, should love and be faithful to her husband; should protect well his property; and should be energetic and clever at all activities.

Fourth: The relation between friends.

They should be hospitable and charitable to each other; should speak pleasantly and agreeably, should work for each other’s welfare, should work together without cheating.

They, therefore, help to protect and maintain friend’s property if he is wasting; should give them the shelter whenever he is in dangerous situation, should not forsake each other in difficulty; and should respect friend family’s tradition.

Fifth: The relation between employer and employee.

The employer  has several obligations towards his employee: work should be assigned according to employee’s ability; provide them adequate  wages and medical needs, share with them fine food and sometimes, give them leave with pay.

Employee in his return, should be diligent and not lazy, honest and obedient, should be satisfied with what employer gives, should be earnest in his work and should do whatever he can to bring good reputation to his employer.

Six: The relation between the religious master and the laity.

Lay people should always s have compassion in their activities, in speaking and thinking; should open the door to invite the master; and should look after the materials needs of the master with love and respect.

In return, the master with loving heart should lead them along the good path away from evil, should teach them the valuable lectures sothat they can live a good lives and the way lead to heaven after passing away.

(Digha-Nikya, vol.  III. 180-93)

 

3.2 In comparison with Taoism

The authors wrote:

“Taoism also played a necessary part in the development of Vietnamese Buddhism. The natural tendency of Taoist philosophy towards meditation and contemplation was a compliment to many of the Buddhist techniques. As a result, many Taoist symbols and meditation tools became mainstreamed into Vietnamese Buddhist thought.”

Although   Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all together coexisted in harmony, there are no special Taoist activities in Vietnam. For Confucianism, there are shrines to worship Confucius  called “Temple of Letters” (Nha Van Mieu) in each administrative district or province and the Confucian Shrine in Hanoi has become  a sacred symbol of Vietnam’s Confucian civilization. Even Confucianism has no clergy, we may consider the mandarin, as well as the Vietnamese-Confucian intellectual class as the Confucius followers  who   applied the code of social and political behavior in helping the king to govern the country.

Taoism does not have any church and clergy at all, thus it was considered as a philosophy, a way of life and not officially recognized as a religion in Vietnam. According to Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, “Tao” meant nothing and nothingness was the essence of Tao. Later, a famous Lao-tzu’s disciple, Chuang-tzu, raised a question about the difference between realty and illusion, and contended that a realty might be an illusion, and vice versa. A famous story that describes his idea was, one day he dreamed of becoming a butterfly fluttering around and when he woke up, he wondered whether he dreamed of becoming a butterfly or the butterfly dreamed of becoming him.

So, for Taoist, if you see life that exists as a big dream, why you have to work so hard for living? The right thing to do is turning your back to the society, go to the remote forest to live an easy way for leisure. The disengaged attitude toward social life of Taoism, at first, looks very different with the socially aggressive engagement of Confucianism but infact in the past, both ways of life are integrated in the life of Vietnamese-Confucian intellectual class. A mandarin, after fulfill his duties with the country, will choose to live for himself in leisure.

Thus Taoism was associated with Confucianism but different from Buddhism both in ideology as well as the attitude toward life.

One may misunderstand when comparing the disengaged attitude of a Taoist as the way renouncing the household life of a Buddhist monk. Both attitudes, infact, are totally different. The Taoist attitude toward life is passive while Buddhist attitude is very positive. Man who leaves everything behind to become a Buddhist monk does not mean that he avoids human society to seek a happy life for himself. He renounces the household life but does not renounce the world because Buddhism, in nature, was not world-rejecting and passive. He is still a member of his society, trying to help the others to relieve suffering and live in happiness.

Moreover, at the very first beginning, Taoist focus mainly on  searching for immortal drugs and later, by the end of First Century BC, Taoist mysticism became more popular by the infusion of augury and prognostication. The thirst for enjoy life forever or to prolong longevity drove Taoist to develop some techniques in making drugs and meditation, but one may see that the way to cultivate mind, the meditation practice ... are very different between Taoism and Buddhism.  Buddhist meditation or Zen was a special technique to train, cultivate mind to reach the Enlightenment which was developed by the Buddha, experienced by himself as well as many Buddhist generations. That technique did not associate with any Taoist technique at all, therefore, no way  to say that “many Taoist symbols and meditation tools became mainstreamed into Vietnamese Buddhist thought”, and there is no evidence in Vietnamese history to show that “Taoism also played a necessary part in the development of Vietnamese Buddhism”.

 

4.   Misrepresent history of Vietnamese Buddhism.

The authors wrote:

“The second wave of Buddhist thought occurred about two hundred years after the common era. This was a style of Buddhism filtered first through China, the Theravada school.

            Of the various forms of Buddhism that developed after the Buddha went into Nirvana, Mahayana became the dominant tradition in East and parts of Southeast Asia that includes China, Tibet, Japan, Mongolia, Korea and Vietnam. No one should make a mistake about that. Because Buddhism in China and Vietnam followed Mahayana tradition, it’s   not right to come up with conclusion that   The second wave of Buddhist thought occurred about two hundred years after the common era. This was a style of Buddhism filtered first through China, the Theravada school”.

But 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. Many well known Vietnamese Buddhist scholars including Dr. Le Manh That in “Vietnamese Buddhist History”, The Most Venerable Thich Duc Nhuan in “Buddhism in Vietnamese History Mainstream”,... all claimed in their published studies that Buddhism came to Vietnam directly from India.

            In summary, 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 Vietnam. 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).             MECU - FO was born  in between the time 165 -170 in TS'ANG-WU and was a 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. In his famous book, "Reason and Doubt" -the first one written at that time about Buddhism, not only in Vietnam but also in  East Asia-, Mecu Fo presented to us a vivid picture of Buddhism in Vietnam at that time. According to his book, there were a lot of  Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese Buddhist monks lived and practised Buddhism in LuyLau. Their activities, rituals and clothing mostly followed  the norms of   Indian Buddhist tradition. There were thousands of  Sutras  that circulated among Buddhist temples, many of them were already translated into Chinese language.

It’s no doubt that Vietnam was strongly impacted by China, a big neighbor which has highly civilization and rich culture, that explained why Buddhism in Vietnam followed Mahayana tradition.

But how the Theravada tradition was introduced to Vietnam?

Back to 17th century, the southern part of present Vietnam from Quang Nam province was occupied by two kingdoms, Champa and Cambodia (Khmer). Begin with Nguyen Hoang, the founder of Nguyen Dynasty, the Vietnamese started a movement that Vietnam's history calls "Southern Forward Campaign" aiming at expanding Vietnam‘s territory to the South. Then under the reign of King Nguyen Phuc Chu (1691-1725), Vietnamese accomplished the first phase of "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, a country strongly influenced by Theravada tradition, in 1698. Since then, Theravada has become a new factor of Buddhism in Vietnam and people refer this new tradition as NAM -TONG (Southern Tradition) to distinguish with the old tradition, BAC-TONG (Northern Tradition or Mahayana). But Theravada at that time was active only in some Khmer ghettos -a community of Khmer minority groups-, mostly in SocTrang and TraVinh provinces. The Vietnamese who followed Mahayana tradition did not pay attention too much about Theravada, and considered it as “Khmer Buddhist”.

Theravada just gained a big boost in Vietnam in three decades of the twentieth century, from 1920s to 1940s. Two pioneers who got credit of spreading Theravada Buddhism into Vietnam would be Mr. NGUYEN VAN HIEU and a veterinary doctor named LE VAN GIANG, who worked for French colonial government in Phnompenh, Cambodia. Dr. Giang later decided to ordain and became one of few Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist monks at that time whose Dharma name is Venerable HO-TONG.

Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist gradually developed to become a part of Vietnamese Buddhist and the first Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist temple, BUU QUANG, was established in 1938 in THU DUC, the vicinity of Saigon, under the management of Mr. Nguyen Van Hieu.

On May 14, 1957, Mr. Hieu formed the Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist Federation as an organization which  represents the interest of Theravada Buddhist  in Vietnam. Then on December 18, 1957, the Vietnamese Theravada Buddhist Sangha Congregation (VTBSC - Giao Hoi Tang Gia Nguyen Thuy Vietnam) was formally established and recognized by the Diem government, with Venerable Ho-Tong as its first President. VTBSC later joined the Vietnamese Buddhist movement struggle against  Diem regime in 1963 and  became a member of Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church when it was found in 1964.

Thus Theravada Buddhism  came to Vietnam from Cambodia, not from China or India. It had been active in southern part of Vietnam -not the whole country- just few decades ago therefore, it’s not correct to say  the two step development of Mahayana and Theravada schools throughout the country”, and thus make a serious mistake to conclusion that “These two schools not only reflect differences in doctrine and basic theology, but also two different cultural influences: India and China.

With those mistakes, the authors already misrepresented the  Buddhist history in general as well as the history of development of Buddhism in Vietnam to the readers, caused them misunderstanding and confusing on some basic knowledge about Buddhism.

 

5. Misrepresent Vietnamese History

5.1. The role of Vietnamese Buddhist in a struggle against Diem regime.

The authors wrote:

“With Buddhism, when a country was dominated by a colonial power, nationalist movements grew out of and identified with a religious context. An example of this is the 1960 Buddhist protests, in which the Buddhist monks immolated themselves in fire.”

As   a Vietnamese Buddhist, one may be happy with what the authors say nicely about Vietnamese Buddhism at some points such as “with Buddhism, when a country was dominated by a colonial power, nationalist movements grew out of and identified with a religious context.”. But, here we are dealing with an academic issue, therefore we don’t examine and judge history by emotion, but by the analytical methods that based on the facts, the accurate information. Therefore, everything should be judged fairly.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the above judgment but the example that authors use to clarify their opinion goes to the awful way: “An example of this is the 1960 Buddhist protests, in which the Buddhist monks immolated themselves in fire.”

This example, somehow identified that US was a dominant  colonial power  and admitted that the Vietnam War, obviously was an US invasion, trying to dominate Vietnam. Based on authors’ point of view and the example, the war therefore couldn’t be justified. The Vietnam War wasn’t  a “Noble War” as former president Reagan declared, and the American blood that spilled over Vietnam soil was for nothing.

The readers may raise the question: Is this the official point of view of Asian Studies Department of Pacific University - with Dr. Barlow as its chairman- toward Vietnam War?

Right or wrong, this point of view will create a controversial issue.

 American soldiers who fought for that war, the veterans and their relatives, the families of KIA and MIA,... may considered it as a traitor’s view.

For   South Vietnamese people who fought along side with US in that war, especially more than million Vietnamese overseas who resettled in the US as political refugees, that point of view is not acceptable. It made them look ugly as the mercenaries for a puppet government!

But this article supposes not to dig in deeply into the Vietnam War topic, let’s back to the role of Vietnamese Buddhist in a struggle against Diem regime. After asserted that “the 1960 Buddhist protests” was a nationalist movement, the authors  said:  “After the removal of Deim and his brother Nhu, the United Buddhist Association, which was under the leadership of Thich Tri Quang and Thich Thien Minh, remained politically active.”

This would be ill-information.

First, there is no “1960 Buddhist protests” in Vietnamese Buddhist history. The Buddhist struggle movement against Diem regime just broke out on May 8, 1963, while the Buddhists in Hue -a Buddhist stronghold- prepared to celebrate the Buddha's Birthday. At first, they protested the discrimination from the central government that prohibited them to display the International Buddhist Flag. While thousands of Buddhists gathering at a local radio station in Hue, the government dispatched five armored cars to the scene to disperse them 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.

Second, the Buddhist movement in Vietnam was the contribution of different Buddhist sects and organizations, Buddhist intellectual as well as working class... To judge or view that movement and later, the Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Church (UVBC), one can not focus on some figures such as Rev. Thien Minh and Rev. Tri Quang. The authors merely influenced by Frances Fitgerald’s view in his book, “Fire in the Lake”, or it’s only source that they gained knowledge about Buddhism in Vietnam. The authors might not know that, one of  the leaders of that movement whom they just honored above, Rev. Tri Quang, on the darkest time of the struggle, the night of August 20, 1963, escaped the assault of Diem regime by taking refuge in the US Embassy in Saigon where by authors’ definition would be the real “enemy” of the Buddhist nationalist movement. So, it doesn’t make sense if a bright leader of the nationalist struggle went to the enemy asking for protection to save his head! By that action, we may fall into two hypothesis: The Buddhist movement is not a nationalist movement or Rev. Tri Quang is not a nationalist. Either hypothesis would be contradicted to what authors have claimed.

And finally, the UVBC may be very upset because authors considered them as a political organization rather than a religious organization when said it “remained politically active” after the fall of Diem regime in 1963. Someone -Buddhist monks or laymen- might take advantage of this organization to build a political base for their own interest, but the UVBC itselft, as far as I knew, was not a political organization.

 

5.2. About Caodaism

In this website, the readers may find another ill-information related to history of religion in Vietnam. In a short article introducing Caodaism in Vietnam, authors wrote: “Respected saints of the Cao Dai include: Joan of Arc, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and Lenin.”

It’s a incredible mistake when said Caodaist worship Lenin!

This fact is totally fabricated and would cause a big damage to the reputation of  Caodaism. First, there is no reason for a religion to worship a political figure, especially that person is one of the big founders of Communism. Second, this information would be interpreted that Caodaism is a pro-Communist religion, in fact, it’s not.

In the contemporary Vietnamese history, Caodaism was known as a nationalist movement. Caodaists supported Prince Cuong De, who sought Japanese support his struggle to liberate Vietnam from French colonial.  To reach their goal, Caodaists employed both political struggle as well as military means. The Caodaist militia had been formed which was active mainly in the Eastern part of South Vietnam. They fought both the French as well as the Communist. Therefore when Communist took over the government in 1945,  they tried to wipe them out of political stage by force. Suffer heavy loss from Communist attacks, Caodaist had no choice but to cooperate with the French to survive and later, after Saigon government was established in 1954, Caodaist militia was assimilated into Republic South Vietnam Army.

Thus,   it’s not reasonable to say that Caodaist worship Lenin because as everybody knew, the French colonial government in Vietnam be÷ore 1954 and later, the Saigon Government (from 1954-1975) were fierce anti-Communist governments, how can they let the Caodaist freely worship a top leader of Communism -father of Communist Revolution in former Soviet Union- in South Vietnam? The truth is so clear that we  don’t need to prove by any evidence. This ill-information would be considered as a defamation and would cause a big uproar among Caodaist communities overseas!

 

6.   Some Suggestions

As mentioned early, the purpose of this article is to clarify some ill-information related to Vietnamese history, especially history of Buddhism in Vietnam. First of all, we believe that the web was created in goodwill and we are very appreciate about authors and Asian Studies Department of Pacific University’s efforts to expose to the readers some positive information about Vietnamese Buddhism . However, since the website went to public under the domain name “Vietnam Buddhism”, and carried some incorrect information that may misrepresent the Vietnamese Buddhism,  as a member belonged to that community, we need to make some comments.

Before to do that, I have also made contact to the author of that website, Ms. Susan Brown, and got a very positive response from her. In her email wrote to me, she agreed that, “I c0-wrote that page well over 5 years ago as an undergrad, with another student. I am sure you are correct that there are unclear portions of the page, and your input would be helpful. There are many things I wish I could change myself, but since I am no longer a student I am unable to upload changes” (3), (See the attached Email).

So, I understood that an undergrad research can’t be perfect and the staff ‘s lacking of Vietnamese expertise may contribute to that problem, therefore, it would be a great benefit to the public as well as for the reputation of Pacific University, the place supposedly to give people the rightful knowledge, who are responsible for that website should make the correct changes.

Here are some suggestions:

1.       The Asian Studies Dept. of Pacific University may keep it as it is if they want to but it’s better publish it under different domain name rather than “Vietnamese Buddhism”. The new name should be made clear to the readers that it belong to the Pacific University sothat readers don’t  mistaken the identity of the website,

or

2.       The author of the “Vietname Buddhism” website admitted that “there are unclear portions of the page” so, the appropriate thing to do is to rewrite that article or correct the inaccurate information that I already mentioned above. The author, Ms. Suzan Brown, may be happy to do that as she mentioned in her response email to me: “ There are many things I wish I could change myself.”

 

Da Le

Note:

(1) http://www.saomai.org/~binhp/vn-buddhism/

(2) http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/vb/index.htm

 (3)The authors email. 

Subj:       Re: (no subject)
Date:                 7/24/2001 2:02:39 PM Pacific Daylight Time
From:                 suzannembrown@yahoo.com (Suzanne Brown)
To:                 LeCongDa@aol.com

Thank you for your comments.  I co-wrote that page well over 5 years ago as an undergrad, with another student. I am sure you are correct that there are unclear portions of the page, and your input would be helpful. There are many things I wish I could change myself, but since I am no longer a student I am unable to upload changes.   But please, forward it to the folks at Pacific University who can make the changes.

Thank you again for your respectful attention.

Suzanne

 


Updated: 22-8-2001

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