Kien So Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam | AHA

Quang Minh Thich | FSU Library: Vietnamese Buddhism in America | 3-CHAPTER 1: The Transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam | Part 5

The Meditation Tradition

of Vietnamese Buddhism


Following the initial introduction of Buddhism by the Indian masters directly from India, the Meditation Tradition in Vietnam marked its own distinction with many well-established schools. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, Meditation (dhyana) or Zen in Japan and the West, does not mean sitting meditation as a sole method for enlightenment. Rather, meditation is used by the meditation master to help with the concentration and purification the mind by combining it with various Tantric and Pure Land practices. Henceforth, the popular concept of Zen and Zen master will signify that particular Vietnamese feature of meditation. In terms of lineage, four main schools of meditation in ancient Vietnam were recorded, namely the Vinftaruci School, the Vô Ngôn Thông School, the Thảo Đường School, and the Trúc Lâm School. The Vinftaruci School was established in 580 by the Indian master Vinftaruci (d. 594) when he came to Pháp Vân Temple of Luy Lâu. The School spread through eighteen successive generations and ended in the thirteenth century with the Ven. Y-Son (d. 1216). The Vô Ngôn Thông School was established by the Chinese Master Vô Ngôn Thông (d.826) when he came to Kiến So Temple in 820. It continued for seventeen generations and ended in late thirteenth century with Tuệ Trung (1230-1291) and several others. The Thảo Đường School was established by the Chinese Master Thảo Đường when he was brought to Vietnam from Champa by King Lý Thánh Tông in 1069. The School was predominantly led by lay Buddhist masters who were kings and royal officials. It ended in early thirteen century after continuing for six generations. The Trúc Lâm School was established by King Trần Nhân Tông (1258-1308) of Vietnam, the third king of the Trần Dynasty, after he abdicated the throne to his son and found the Buddhist headquarters at Mount Yên Tử in 1299. These Meditation schools supported the ruling dynasties in various spheres of life and merged with one another as the Vietnamese ruling dynasties shifted successively from the Đinh (968-980) to the Early Lê (980-1009), to the Lý (1009-1225), to the Trần (1225-1398), and then to the Later Lê (1428-1788).

1. The Vinītaruci Thiền (Zen) School of Vietnam was predominantly Indian in characteristics. As previously indicated, the tradition of Vietnamese meditation has been established in Luy Lâu since the time of Khương Tăng Hội during the third century CE. The practices of the Vietnamese Zen tradition originated from the instructions of the first Vietnamese Buddhist texts, namely the Lục Độ Tập Kinh and the Anapanasati Sutra. When Vinftaruci (d.594) arrived in Vietnam in 580 after a few years of sojourn in China, the ancient tradition of Vietnamese meditation continued to be instructed by the Zen Master Quán Duyên, the abbot at Pháp Vân Temple. Vinftaruci brought his own meditation which he had already practiced in India. Seeking to benefit the people, Vinftaruci joined together his methods and the Vietnamese meditative practices. As a result, the Vinftaruci Zen Lineage emerged from the union and grew into a prominent Vietnamese Zen tradition, as shown in Figu.


Figure 14. The genealogical lineage of the Vinītaruci Zen School.

While Vinītaruci was certified by the Third Chinese Ch’an Patriarch Seng-ts’an (d. 606) when they briefly met in China in 574, his meditative instructions originated from his former Indian training and from the Sanskrit sutras brought by him. As certification of authentic meditation, Vinītaruci did not pass down the robe and begging bowl of the Buddha, a standard Chinese Zen transmission until the later time of Hui-neng (638-713). Rather, he transmitted the Mind-Seal method passed to him from the Chinese Patriarch Seng-ts’an. It is a certification which passing from the mind of the master to directly to the mind of the disciple without using the scriptures.  In the transmission, Zen dialogues were utilized to measure the realization and the accomplishment of the disciple. Those dialogues might be drawn from both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, known as công án, popularly known as koans in Japan and in the West. Intended to be a riddle, the koans cannot be answered by normal intellectual reasoning. The non- scriptural source of the Zen dialogues was evident in the Zen dialogues when Vinītaruci transmitted the Mind-Seal to Pháp Hiền (d. 626), a disciple of Quán Duyên at Pháp Vân Temple:

When Vinītaruci first came from Guangzhou and lodged at Pháp Vân Temple and met Pháp Hiền, he looked at him over carefully and said, “What is your name?” Pháp Hiền said, “What is your name, Master?” Vinītaruci said, “You do not have a name?” Pháp Hiền said, “Of course, I am not without a name. But how can you understand it?” Vinītaruci scolded him, saying, “What is the use of understanding?” Pháp Hiền was abruptly awakened and bowed down.[1]

The more scripturally related issues concerning Zen dialogues were equally puzzling. It is observable from the dialogue testing Thanh Biện (d. 686), the fourth generation of the Vinītaruci Zen School, who had devoted to chanting the Diamond Sutra for eight years without understanding the reasons why it was called “The mother of all Buddhas.” After the normal explanation that the Buddhas of past, present, and future and their perfect enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksambodhi), too, all come from this sutra, the master posed the challenge:

“Who speaks the Sutra?” Thanh Biện said, “Isn’t it the Tathagata who speaks it?” Huệ Nghiêm said, “It is said in the sutra that ‘if anyone says that the Tathagata has said something he is slandering the Buddha.’ Such a person cannot understand the meaning of my teaching. Contemplate well on this. If someone says that this sutra is not spoken by the Buddha, that person is slandering the sutra. But if someone insists that it is the Buddha who speaks, then that person is slandering the Buddha. What do you think about this? Speak quickly! Speak quickly!”  Thanh Biện was about to open his mouth when Huệ Nghiêm suddenly struck him on the mouth with his whisk. Thanh Biện was abruptly awakened and bowed down.[2]

Since then, the transmission of the Mind-Seal, utilizing Zen dialogues and koans, became the standard in Vietnamese Zen tradition. All four Vietnamese Zen schools used it as certification.

In his method of meditation, Vinftaruci drew instructions directly from Buddhist scriptures, especially the Sanskrit sutras brought from India and translated by him upon his arrival. As a continuation and expansion of the early tradition of meditation from the time of Khương Tăng Hội, Vinftaruci also taught meditation and Bodhisattva practices together, employing sutras associated with the prajñaparamita scriptures which were popular in Indian Mahayana Buddhism during his time. His principal texts translated from Sanskrit were the Gayāssirsa Sūtra, the Sūtra on the Differentiation of Karmic Reward, and the Vaipulyadhāranī Sūtra. According to the Gayāssirsa Sūtra, meditation, in principle, should have a focus on the concept of bodhi (enlightenment). Afterward, a practitioner can progress to several methods to obtain bodhi. Rather than defining bodhi as being enlightened or becoming a Buddha, the Gayāssirsa Sūtra defines bodhi as formless, an enlightenment resulting from penetrating the prajñaparamita teachings on non-duality and non-attachment. Instead of seeking a Buddha or enlightenment, one should strive to perceive all the phenomena in an enlightened mode, namely the formless mode of non-duality and non-attachment, including non-attachment to emptiness, and thereby bring oneself to realize enlightenment. In practice, one should first generate compassion through cultivating bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, in order to benefit sentient beings. Then one must concentrate thinking on practices, without deviation, and must abide in virtues. The essential practices are the six paramitas, being skillful in meditative contemplation, and being constantly mindful of the Bodhisattva vows without forgetfulness.

Being properly mindful of bodhi will solidify faith. A skillful meditation will terminate sufferings. The ten contemplations for practicing skillful meditations are (1) contemplate on the emptiness of the body (senses) internally, (2) contemplate on the emptiness of external elements (objects of senses), (3) contemplate on the emptiness of both internal and external things, (4) contemplate on all types of wisdom in order to prevent attachment, (5) contemplate on the skillful means of the path being practiced in order to prevent attachment, (6) contemplate on various levels of noble attainments in order to eliminate attachment, (7) contemplate on obtaining tranquility after a long effort without getting attachment, (8) abide in prajñaparamita without getting attached, (9) deliver Dharma discourses to benefit sentient beings without getting attached, and (10) contemplate on sentient beings in order to generate compassion without getting attached.[3]

In addition, other elements for standard Buddhist meditation, including those proposed by Khương Tăng Hội, were also used. The objects of contemplation are the skandhas, the contacts through all senses, the sensory categories, the twelve links of dependent origination, the stream of transmigration of birth and death, as well as forms both good and bad. However, these meditative contemplations must be approached under the light of emptiness or the recognition that all are skillful means and illusory. As a result, one should abide at the non-abided place, in non-attachment, in emptiness, and in the formlessness of all phenomena.

Nevertheless, skillful means can become harmful, like a double-edged sword, when improperly used. One might become attached to emptiness itself and neglect that without a true realization of emptiness, karmic results would manifest themselves. As a warning, Vinītaruci translated the Sūtra on the Differentiation of Karmic Reward, clarifying the karmic results of various actions. Even though the text no longer exists, its focus is still clear from the title. As a further caution, Vinītaruci introduced the Vaipulyadharanī Sūtra. In addition to promoting the practices of bodhicitta and the six paramitas, the text provides two lasting innovations in Vietnamese meditations, namely the unification of Buddha Dharma and the focus on purification through repentance. According to the text, actions with the negative intention to slander other Dharma masters will result in grave karmic consequences. They will prevent one from seeing a Buddha, from generating bodhicitta, and from obtaining dharanis and samadhis, because slandering the Dharma masters destroys the bodhicitta of others, closing the entrance to liberation on them. As a demonstration, Sakyamuni Buddha recounted his long suffering in Hell and subsequently in animal realm in his former life as Bhikkhu Dharma, who slandered the renowned Dharma master Pure Life, a former incarnation of Amitabha Buddha. The instructions specifically warn against those who do not understand that the Buddha taught his Dharma as expedient means, adapted to the capabilities of listeners. Denouncing a virtuous master is slander. It will result in a birth in Hell for thousands of years, and in poverty afterward, to make the following claims:

The Buddha taught these Dharmas to the Sravakas (Voice-hearers). Thus, the Bodhisattvas should not study them nor listen to and accept them. Those are not the correct Dharmas. Also, they should not learn the Dharma of the Solitary Buddhas… The Dharmas practiced by the Bodhisattvas, the Voice hearers should not be listened nor accepted. Also, it should be likewise for the Dharmas of the Solitary Buddhas… This should be learned by the Bodhisattvas. That should not be learned by the Bodhisattvas.[4]

In order to avoid the mistake of slandering the Dharma and the Dharma masters, the meditator should respect and tolerate all dharmas. They are the expedient means of the Buddha, intending to help sentient beings according to their individual circumstances. Thus, a meditator should study and use the Dharma suitable to individual cases. This toleration toward all dharmas provides the foundation for Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism to embrace and practice the suitable Theravada scriptures. Later, during the seventh century, as seen in the Zen dialogues concerning the Master Thanh Biện, the fourth generation of the Vinftaruci Zen School, the introduction of the Diamond Sutra also fortified further the element of unifying Dharma.

Drawing on the wisdom of the emptiness of the prajñaparamita, which promotes non- attachment, the sutra points out that “all dharmas are the Buddha Dharma.”[5] Also, it instructs that the Dharma taught by the Buddha functions like a draft. The Dharma takes people to the shore of liberation and must be discarded after reaching the shore. Understanding the function of the Dharma, one can skillfully use other teachings, which are not the Dharma, without obsession or attachment. This principle of detachment underlying the respect and toleration toward all dharmas had allowed the leading figures of the Vinītaruci Zen Lineage to embrace various Tantric and Pure Land teachings as a means to enlightenment. They even mastered the arts of prophecy and geomancy in order to render unselfish services to the public. Several of them held the highest religious position as National Preceptors from one dynasty to the next. Together with the renowned masters from other contemporary Zen lineages, they engaged actively in all national affairs. Also, they helped to maintain and protect Vietnam from frequent Chinese invasions. Most renowned among them was the accomplished Zen Master Pháp Thuận (915-990), the tenth generation of the lineage. Pháp Thuận served for years in preparing diplomatic documentations, deciding political and foreign policies for King Lê Đại Hành (980-1005). At one point, he even disguised himself as a ferryman in order to use his literary talent to skillfully receive the Chinese envoy. Despite his substantial contributions, Pháp Thuận declined all royal rewards when the country was at peace. The tradition also included in its seventeenth generation the eminent Bhiksuni Master Diệu Nhân (1041-1113). In addition to being the abbess of the Huong Hai Convent and an expert adept among the Buddhist nuns of her time, renowned for her mastery concerning the profound tenets of the Diamond Sutras and the Vimalakirti Sutra, she also attained the true samadhi from her practice of the Vinaya and Zen.[6] The most exemplary one was the Zen Master Vạn Hạnh (d.1025), the beloved master of Vietnamese Buddhism, who emerged from the twelfth generation of the Vinītaruci Zen School. While none of the royal awards bestowed upon him was remarked in great details throughout history and even his year of birth was not recognized, it was Vạn Hạnh who raised, educated, advised, and helped Lý Công Uẩn (1010-1225) to begin the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), the great Buddhist dynasty of Vietnam. Furthermore, being accomplished in Dharani Samadhi and even in geomancy, every word spoken by Vạn Hạnh became prophetic. He devoted his life to benefit the people by advancing the country with various improvements in all internal and external matters. As National Preceptor, he was instrumental in the strategic relocation of the capital of ancient Vietnam in 1010 to Thăng-Long, which is now Hanoi, the present capital of Vietnam.[7] The significance of the move can be comprehended as one looks into the implications of relocating the U.S. capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. in 1800.[8] His famous gāthā at the point of passing away continues to inspire the Vietnamese Buddhists in the direction of detachment:

The body, as lightning, exists and again is gone,

Myriad of things, flourish in Spring and in the Fall is bare.

Realizing rise and fall liberates from fears,

Just a dew on the blade of grass is growth and decline.[9]

In the early 1960s, during the modern period of Buddhist revival in Vietnam, his legendary name was bestowed on the first Vietnamese Buddhist University, Vạn-Hạnh University in Saigon.

Most of the present monastic leading figures of Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, both in Vietnam and abroad, have been trained at this Buddhist University. During the ancient period of embracing all dharmas, the Buddhist teachings inspired King Lý Thánh Tông to establish the Báo Thiên Stupa in 1056. Altogether, the Báo Thiên Stupa, the Quy Điền bell, the Quỳnh Lâm Buddha statue, and the Phổ Minh cauldron, became the renowned four great vessels of Vietnam.[10] In an effort to unify all dharmas accompanied by the spirit of detachment, King Lý Nhân Tông (1072-1127), a devout Buddhist king, established the Văn Miếu (the Temple of Literature) in 1070 in order to dedicate to Confucius and to educate the royal princes. In 1076, he also built the Qu6c Tử Giám, the first Vietnamese university, in order to educate his mandarins in Confucianism when he deemed it beneficial to the country and the people of Vietnam.

In addition to the instructions on unifying all dhramas, the Vaipulyadhāranī Sūtra offers to those who had already committed slander, the method to purify misdeeds through repentance. According to the text, the Buddha announced to Manjusri Bodhisattva that making repentance during the six divisions of day and night was the method, saying, “ In the former seven years, within the six divisions of time, day and night, I had to repent all of the grave misdeeds created by body, speech (mouth) and mind. Since then, I attained purification.”[11] Based on this instruction, repentance grew to become a strong emphasis in Vietnamese meditation. This feature of repentance became the second innovation of the Vietnamese Zen tradition. The Zen Master Pháp Thuận (925-990) wrote the Bodhisattva Name Repentance Liturgy.  His disciple, the Zen Master Mahamaya concentrated on repentance together with his recitation of the Great Compassion Mind Dharani and eventually obtained the Dharani Samadhi in 1014. King Trần Thái Tông (1218-1277), who was also a Zen master, composed the Lục Thời Sám Hối Khoa Nghi (The Liturgy for Repentance in Six Divisions of Time) for the purification of six senses in meditation. His text still exists and was brought back to use in certain Zen temples in Vietnam at the end of the twentieth century.


[1] Nguyễn Tú Cương, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 166.
[2] Nguyễn Tú Cương, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 167.
[3] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, pp. 744-745.
[4] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 752.
[5] See Thích Huệ Hưng, Kim Cang Giảng Lục, p. 73; Thích Đức Niệm, Kinh Kim Cang Bát Nhã Giảng Luận, pp. 121, 164.
[6] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, p. 476; Nguyễn Tú Cương, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p.197.
[7] 68 See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 596 and Thích Minh Tuệ, Lược Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, p.167. For general information about Vạn Hạnh see Nguyễn Tú Cương, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 175.
[8] See William M. Maury, Washington D.C. Past & Present: The Guide to the Nation’s Capital, pp. 39,57.
[9] For other translations of the gāthā, see Nguyễn Tú Cuong, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 176.
[10] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, p. 27.
[11] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 2, p. 769.

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