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A Brief Biography of Buddhist Nuns in Vietnam
in the Twentieth Century and Their Contributions
Bhikkhuni Tuong Lien

I. Introduction

Under French rule from 1860 to the beginning of World war II, Catholicism was encouraged in Vietnam, while all Buddhist activities in public were restricted. Constructing new Viharas were not allowed, and the number of monks and nuns were limited. In the 1930s, many Buddhist associations were launched in the Northern, Central, and Southern regions for reform of Buddhism.

In keeping with the great restoration of Vietnamese Buddhism, the decision to develop the national culture was taken in the first half of the twentieth Century. The Romanized Vietnamese language became an excellent means linking the old and new generations. Under French domination, the people of the three regions (North, South and Central) always had their sense of responsibility for the nation. At the same time with the resistance to French and the Buddhist renaissance, some Buddhist associations and magazines were founded as follows:

In the North: "Pha^.t Gia'o Ba('c Ky`" (Buddhist Association of North-Vietnam) was founded in 1934 and "Dduo^'c Tue^." (The Torch of Wisdom) magazine was published in 1935.

In Central Vietnam: "An Nam Pha^.t Ho.c" (Buddhist Association of South-Vietnam) in was founded in 1932 and "Vie^n A^m" (The Voice of Perfection) magazine was published in 1933.

In the South: "Nam Ky` Nghie^n Cu+'u Pha^.t Ho.c" (Research Association of Buddhist Studies of South-Vietnam) was founded in 1932 and "Tu+` Bi A^m" (The Voice of Mettaa) magazine was published in 1933.

The above three associations were formed in the three regions initiating the development of other associations and magazines all over the country. The Vietnamese have been able to emulate and parallel all the achievements of the monks and have been thus offered equal status as members of the Sangha. After having devoted their lives to the Dhamma, sacrificing worldly pursuits and material comforts, they struggled to raise their voice, to find sympathetic support, and respond to any encouraging words with great enthusiasm to prove that the nuns could also become spiritual leaders. Vietnamese nuns in this period also significantly contributed to the above movements, and we are now going to examine the their activities in turn.

II. The nuns belonging to the Mahayana tradition

The Vietnamese nuns’ practice was primarily that of Mahayana and was very scattered. Gradually, they formed the Order of Nuns and practised propagation of the Buddha's teachings together. It is clearly in Vietnamese Buddhist history that up until the early 20th Century, the sangha of nuns had an organised structure. It does not surprise us why the percentage of the Mahayana nuns is higher than those of Theravada and Mendicant traditions. Now, there are 9,985 Mahayana nuns out of the total of 11,185 nuns in the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

1. In the North, one of the eminent nuns was the nun Dam Soan who was born at Cu Da village (Ha Dong). She left her family for the Son Mon Trung Hau Vihara (Phuc Yen) when she was quite young. In 1928 she contributed to the construction of the Dieu Vien Vihara (Thua Thien). In 1950 she was invited to manage all activities of the nuns at Van Ho Vihara. In 1952 she was invited to deliver lectures at the Duoc Su Vihara (Gia Dinh). Under her encouragement, one fundamental Buddhist course for nuns was held at that Viraha. She stayed there for the 3 months of Vassana after this course was formed. Then she returned to the Duc Vien Vihara (Hanoi) and died in Bac Ninh in 1969. Her disciple, Dam Dau was regarded as the most famous nun of the Van Ho Vihara.

According to a stele set up in the Vien Minh Vihara, we can discover the names of some nuns, notably, Dam Kien, Dam Chat, Dam Nghia, Dam Hinh, Dam Thuan. Dam Kien was the founder of this Vihara and Dam Thu also reconstructed it in 1930. In the North, the first Vihara of nuns, organised as the Buddhist institute was the Bo De Vihara led by Bhikkhuni Thanh Hanh.

The Van Ho Vihara was the second to the above, which was formed by Master To Lien in 1949. Besides this, there were some other big Viharas for nuns as follows: (i) To Dinh Son Mon in Hang Than street (Hanoi) has attracted hundreds of nuns in the Vassana every year; (ii) Son Mon Am (Ha Dong) and Son Mon Trung Hau (Phuc Yen), both also produced many famous nuns who propagated the Dhamma every corners of the country.

2. In the Central, some eminent nuns[1] are accounted as follows:

(i) Bhikkhuni Dien Truong (Ho Dac)

Dien Truong was in the vanguard of the nuns in the Central Vietnam. She was born in 1863 at An Truyen village (Thua Thien) and entered the nunhood at Tu Hieu Vihara in 1898 under Master Hai Thieu’s support. She rebuilt the Pho Quang Vihara in order to form the nun Vihara. Then she constructed another one called the Truc Lam Vihara, which became the place of the renaissance of Buddhism.

After that, at Tay Thien she formed the nun Vihara gathering some famous nuns, such as Chon Huong, Dieu Huong, Giac Hai who played an important role in the leadership of the Order of Nuns. In the cross-legged posture she died on the Birthday of the Buddha in 1952, at the age of 64. The Master Vien Thanh praised her with the following verse:

Oh great, the female master!
The liberated and outstanding one,
Who abandoned worldly fame and prosperity
To look for the happiness of dhyana practice
The eight rules are observed
The vegetarianism is strictly followed
The ocean of troubles is exhausted
The bell rings to awaken the lay people
Her sea of compassion saves those with hatred
Her merit looks like a sandal-wood forest
Cool as the moon of wisdom
On the mattress she sat in peace
She attained the fruit of non-arising and non-ceasing
Those words are the sound of the spring
that body is like the blue mountain
In the past there is nothing arising
In the present there is nothing ever ceasing
The other shore she stepped on
The lotus petal is sending out a pure and wonderful fragrance.

(ii) Bhikkhuni Dieu Huong (Nguyen Thi Kieu)

She was born in 1884 at Da Le village (Thua Thien) and became a wife of the King Thanh Thai. After the King was set into exile and her daughter died, she entered the nunhood at Tuong Van Vihara in 1915. In 1925 she became the director of Dieu Vien Vihara (Huong Thuy). In 1932 she stayed at Tu Dam Vihara and managed all activities of nuns there. From 1934 to 1971 she resided at Dieu Duc Vihara as a Buddhist dignitary and died at the age of 88. Among her noted disciples wereThe Yen, The Thanh, The Quan, The Tin, The Thuyen, who took on many important Buddhist affairs in the Order of Nuns. Besides, those enthusiastically in social relief work especially at Dieu Vien Vihara were Vien Minh, The Quan, The Thanh and Cat Tuong.

(iii) Bhikkhuni Dieu Khong (Ho Thi Hanh)

She was born in 1905 at An Tuyen village (Thua Thien) and entered the nunhood at Truc Lam Vihara in 1933. Before becoming a nun she canvassed for many Buddhist affairs as follows:

(a) The construction of the Dieu Vien Vihara which was regarded as the first Buddhist nunnery in Hue.

(b) The formation of the Tinh Lac orphanage in Huong Thuy.

She always supported the nuns living at Tu Dam Vihara until this Vihara became the premises of "An Nam Phat Hoc" association. She also devoted her writings to Buddhist disciplines and vinaya. Now she is the chief nun in the Central Vietnam and has been living at Hong An Vihara.

3. In The South, there were many basic Buddhist courses for nuns organised. The first course at Giac Hoa Vihara (Bac Lieu) was held in 1927, the second at Hai An Vihara (Ba Queo) in 1936, the third at Phat Hoc Duong Luong Xuyen (Tra Vinh) in 1936, the fourth at Vinh Buu Vihara (Ben Tre) in 1936, the fifth at Van An Vihara (Sa Dec) in 1939, the sixth at Kim Son Vihara (Phu Nhuan) in 1939, and the seventh at Tu Quang Vihara (Sa Dec) in 1950.

And there were also many nuns’ Viharas founded such as: Tang Gia (Khanh Hoi), Chanh Giac (Gia Dinh) in 1946; Duoc Su (Gia Dinh) in 1936 and this Vihara became the office of the nuns’ order in 1954; Tu Nghiem (Cho Lon) in 1959, after that the nun Order’s office was moved from Duoc Su to this Vihara and became the main office for nuns.

The following are short biographies of some eminent nuns.[2]

(i) Bhikkhuni Dieu Tinh.

She was not only the founder of the first nun Vihara called Hai An in Ho Chi Minh City but also the first torch of the nuns in South Vietnam. Nowadays, her tower has remained on the right side of this Vihara. She contributed noticeably to the education of the Mahayana nuns in the South. Ven. Phi Lai, who was her master, belonged to the fortieth generation of the Lam Te sect. She was born in 1910 at Go Cong district (Tien Giang), entered the nunhood at the age of 15 and died on first July 1942, at the age of 33.

In forming many Buddhist courses for nuns at Viharas, she raised the question of equal footing for women as men have. In 1933, she wrote an research article contributing to Tu Bi Am magazine (N27in calling upon the nun's spirit of the practice and propagation of the Dhamma.

(ii) Bhikkhuni Nhu Thanh (Nguyen Thi Thao)

She was born in 1910, at Tay Nhon village (Thu Duc). At the age of 22, she left the family for the Giac Hoang Vihara (Ba Diem). She did not flinch from hardships going everywhere in order to teach the Dhamma to the Vietnamese nuns. Lay great stress on education, she served as the head of Buddhist institute at Hue Lam Vihara (HCM. City) in 1947, and established the primary Kieu Dam school in 1952, for promotion of literacy free of cost.

In 1956, she was the first nun who proposed the formation of the Order of Nuns in South Vietnam. All members in the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha unanimously supported her proposal to establish the nuns’ council and to form the Vietnamese Nuns’ Order in which she was elected as the head of its administration. From 1972 to 1975 she was the chief of the nuns in the Mahayana tradition and had the responsibility of consolidating the nuns’ spirit in harmony and unity.

Besides her unique activities she also authored and translated as many as 28 Buddhist books, such as: "Luoc Giai Kinh Hoa Nghiem," (A Commentary of Avata"msaka Suutra), "Thien Tong Cuong Yeu" (A Manual of Zen Buddhism), "Duy Thuc Hoc" (A Study of Vij~naptimaatravaada), "Thien Tong" (On Zen), "Tinh Do Tong" (On Pure Land Buddhism), "Phat Phap Giao Ly" (Fundamental Teachings of the Buddha), and two books of poems, namely, "Hoa Thien" (The Flowers of Zen) and "Hoa Dao" (The Flowers of Dhamma), etc. The following verse illustrates her teaching:

With regard to cardinal virtues, the mind and behaviour should be cultivated,
Paying homage to the wise man, the character should be purified,
Wordly things should be abandoned soon,
Righteousness and the restoration of lofty purity should be undertaken.

(iii) Bhikkhuni Chi Kien (Dang Thi Muoi)

In 1913 she was born in Sa Dec. Under the monk Hue Quang’s guidance, she entered the nunhood at Tu An Vihara (My Tho) in 1928. She founded two nun Viharas in Sa Dec: Tap Thanh in 1940 and Tu Quang in 1950. In 1965 she became the director of the Buddhist Academy for Nuns at Tu Nghiem Vihara. In 1975 she succeeded Bhikkhuni Nhu Thanh in the position of chief nun. She also contributed many articles to some famous Buddhist magazines such as: Hoa Sen (The Lotus), Hoang Phap (Propagation of Buddhadhamma), Hoa Dam (Flower of Happiness). One of her verses reads as follows:

The Zen practitioner goes, seeing the mountain leisurely,
His mind is set free, the path is immensely wide.
The mountain is high with stones resting on stones,
The forest is deep with trees standing in lines and rows.
The silver stream shines on the shore of enlightenment.
The blue sky reflects the mystery light,
Form and emptiness are gone to an end,
The two extremes are dropped; there is no middle.

(iv) Bhikkhuni Dieu Ninh (Vuong Thi Kien)

She was born in 1914 in Tra Vinh, left the family to enter Thanh Xuan Vihara (Chau Doc) in 1930 and became Ven. Nhu Nhien’s disciple. In 1940 she stayed at Vinh Buu Vihara (Ben Tre) as a Buddhist dignitary. In 1957 she undertook the position of the Repute Director and managed all activities of the nuns at Duoc Su Vihara. She devoted her life to social work. She was the head of a group, providing relief to flood victims, and she herself carried rice and salt to the flood stricken area of Chau Doc. In 1972 she organised the Hue Quang nursery school to make fund for her social relief work in Chau Doc. In 1974, she became the Director of the Duoc Su Vihara.

Nowadays, most of the Vietnamese nuns practice in the Mahayana tradition and dress in gray or brown robes, similar to those of the Chinese nun Sangha. The number of Vietnamese nuns is increasing to nearly ten thousand.

II. The nuns belonging to the Theravada traditon

In the Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, women are not allowed to be admitted in the. Although neither Sramanerikas nor Bhikkhunis are accepted, the form of nuns is however existed in the Sangha. They are called "Tu nu" in Vietnam and "Maeji" in Thailand, Dasasil matas (ten-precept nuns) in Sri Lanka, Anagarikas (Homeless Ones) or Thilashin (Possessors of morality) in Burma, … These "Tu nu" should follow some rituals as follows:

(i) Shaving the head.

(ii) Undertaking the 8 precepts of training to refrain from: killing living beings; taking what is not given; wrong conduct in sexual pleasures; false speech; intoxicants, (such as distilled and fermented things, which are a cause for carelessness); food except at the right time; dancing, singing, music and seeing entertainment; also wearing jewelry, using perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics; a soft bed large enough for two.[3]

(iii) Wearing white robe, except pink robe in Burma.

(iv) Living in the Vihara or staying at home, no obligatory compulsion.

(v) Observing a ceremony for becoming "Tu nu" are very simple (they take the vow keeping the 8 precepts before the monks).

(vi) Living in a separate areas at a Bhikkhu Vihara, under the guidance of the Bhikkhu Sangha because they have not yet built separate nunneries.

The first Vietnamese "Tu nu" was Dieu Dan who was born in 1920 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia), became "Tu nu" in 1945 and died in 1990. She came forward herself with great enthusiasm to become a nun within the Theravada tradition. Although she did not receive ordination as a Sramanerika or a Bhikkhuni, she paved the path of renunciation, came to be appreciated and many Vietnamese women started giving up worldly life for the religious life.

In Vietnam, there are about 200 "Tu nu" living in some of Bhikkhu Viharas, which can be grouped geographically as follows:

- In Ho Chi Minh City: Buu Quang Vihara, Buu Long Vihara, Tu Quang Vihara, Giac Quang Vihara, Nguyen Thuy Vihara, Nam Tong Vihara, and Sieu Ly Vihara.

- In Bien Hoa: Phuoc Son Vihara.

- In Ho Nai: Y Son Vihara.

- In Vinh Long: Sieu Ly Vihara.

In short, the tradition of "Tu nu" has been developed mainly at Ho Chi Minh City, the South-East and the South-West Vietnam. They have not yet become a systematic organisation and separate nunneries, but rather live primarily in the Bhikkhu Viharas. They have received only 8 precepts and are considered as an advanced laywoman. Yet, they are not actually the laity, rather a midway between the Order and the laywoman, and a double standard is applied to them. Karma Lekshe Tsomo expressed her regret about the situation of nuns in the Theraveda tradition as follows:

In Sri Lanka the historical chronicles Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, written in the fourth century AD, refer to many thousands of Bhikkhunis, enumerating seventy-two by name and describing their achievements, attainments, and powers. The Mahavamsa says that eighteen thousand Bhikkhus and fourteen thousand Bhikkhunis attained Arahantship during the ceremony of laying the foundation for the great reliquary Thupa. Unfortunately, with the loss of Bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada countries, the communal protection necessary for pursuing religious goals was lost to women."[4]

III. The nuns belonging to the Mendicant tradition.

The Vietnamese Mendicant Sangha, especially appeared in South Vietnam and founded by Master Minh Dang Quang in 1946. Both monks and nuns of this tradition wear yellow robes and walk for almsbowl, resembling the Theravada tradition, observing pure vegetarianism like that of Mahayana tradition. The first female disciples of Master Minh Dang Quang were Huynh Lien, Bach Lien and Thanh Lien who contributed noticeably in the formation of the Order of Mendicant Nuns. Bhikkhunis Huynh Lien, Bach Lien and Thanh Lien were ordained in 1947 at Linh Buu Vihara under Minh Dang Quang’s guidance.

1. Bhikkhuni Huynh Lien (Nguyen Thi Tru)

She, the chief nun of the Vietnamese Mendicant Nuns’ Order, was born at Phu My village, Tien Giang province. With her innate intelligence, strong will and effort in practising the Dhamma, Huynh Lien was delegated by her Master to lead all nuns of his Mendicant Order. It is possible to say that during the period of 40 years (from 1947 to 1987) she devoted her whole life to propagation of the Dhamma, as showing her gratitude to the Buddha.

She is always aspired to be a ship to protect and help women, and took the following vow:

I vow to be repeatedly incarnated in the form of a woman,
for many miserable women in this world.
It is very easy to lead them in the same sex.
Although I know it will be very hard.

She built "Ngoc Phuong," the central Vihara of the Mendicant Nuns’ Order at Ho Chi Minh City (1958). There are now more than 100 nun Viharas in the South and the Central Vietnam consisting more than 1,000 nuns.

Her great loving heart and boundless compassion were extended to all human beings. She took part in many social relief works, forming orphanages, establishing schools, visiting hospitals and prisons etc. The Nhat Chi Mai Orphanary was the central charitable institution of the Mendicant nuns besides many branches in some provinces.

Between 1963 and 1975, she led the Mendicant nuns contributing to many movements of preserving Buddhism, protecting peace, seeking for equal rights for women. After 1975, she held some important positions in the Vietnamese Government, and enthusiastically helped anyone who came to ask for the same. She was respected by all classes of the society.[5]

She realised that the quality of nuns would improve in relation to the educational opportunities offered to them. She always supported and urged all the nuns to raise the cultural standard and improve their knowledge in the Pali Tipitaka. At Ngoc Phuong Vihara she formed many courses of Dhamma, Pali, English, Chinese, literature, painting, which gathered many young nuns from all Mendicant nun Viharas.

Being not only a writer but also a poetess, she composed many works of prose and verses as follows: "Kinh Tam Bao," "Kinh Xung Tung Tam Bao and Ke Trich Luc." Apart form these she also authored about 2,000 poems.

2. Bhikkhuni Bach Lien (Vo Thi Hien)

She, the second nun in the Mendicant nun Order, was born in 1923 at Phu My village (My Tho). In 1947, she entered the nunhood at Linh Buu Vihara and became Minh Dang Quang’s disciple. Soon after that she left for Central Vietnam to fulfil the responsibility of propagating Mendicant doctrines and accepted many people as her disciples. Together they changed the waste-land to build many Viharas.

It was very difficult and hard to work in such a mountainous region, but they succeeded and in turn each Vihara formed by nuns were weak in structure but strong in spirit. She also contributed to many social relief works and founded some orphanages. She became an eminent nun who practised the rules strictly and purely. After the chief nun Huynh Lien died, she was succeeded to the head of the Mendicant Nuns’ Order. Having fulfilled her function, she recently died on twenty-sixth December 1996 and her funeral took place at Ngoc Phuong Vihara.

Besides there were other prominent nuns such as, Thanh Lien, Kim Lien, Ngan Lien, Tri Lien, Quang Lien, Chon Lien, Tang Lien, and thousands of nuns who continued the way paved by their leading Nuns.

IV. Conclusion

Nowadays, many Vietnamese nuns have become great teachers who deliver the Dhamma to young nuns as well as lay people, thereby becoming highly respected and extremely influential. There have been many nuns undertaking many important Buddhist works and duties contributing enthusiastically to the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

Although their traditions are different, all the Mahayana, Theravada and Mendicant nuns practice the Dhamma and perfect the function of the Buddha’s daughters propagating the latter's teachings in order to bring calmness and welfare to Vietnamese society. In earlier times, the spiritual practices of the Order, such as their upholding the Vinaya and living an example of renunciation, was considered as their main contribution to the society. In today society, the Buddhist nuns in Vietnam take part in the fields of education, culture, social work, as well.

They clearly realize that today’s world is a world rich in all kinds of advanced knowledge. They therefore focus not only on the study of the Dhamma but also on improving their knowledge on modern sciences in order to catch up the various trends of the entire world. They aim at perfecting their responsibility in leading the laity to the calm and happy life, as what have been done by the monks. They altogether with their counterparts have made significant contributions to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism in the modern time.

Notes and References

[1] Nguyen Lang, Viet Nam Phat Giao Su Luan (A Critical History of Buddhism in Vietnam), Vol. II.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Khantipalo, Calm and Insight, p.6

[4] Karma Lekshe Tsomo, p.88

[5] Huynh Lien’s Disciples, the Summary Record of the Chief Nun T.N. Huynh Lien. Social Science Publishing House: HCM. City, 1994, p.15.

 


Updated: 3-3-2000

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