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The development of Caodong zen school in the Northern region Vietnam in the 17th century

Фам Вам Фыонг – аспирант Института гуманитарных и социальных наук при Ханойском государственном университете (г. Ханой, Вьетнам).

Аннотация: Подчёркивая «идеологию» как важнейшую черту буддизма в целом и вьетнамских дзенских школ в частности, автор проанализирует идеологию и процесс провозглашения вьетнамского буддизма на примере «Дзенской школы Каодонг в Северном Вьетнаме в 17 веке» - одной из самых доминирующих буддийских дзенских школ на севере Вьетнама за всю историю. Посредством этого анализа статья стремится прояснить полное развитие вьетнамского буддизма через различные исторические периоды.

Abstract: To emphasize “ideology” being the most important trait of Buddhism in general, and Vietnamese zen schools in particular, the author analyzed the ideology and the process of promulgating Vietnamese Buddhism through the example of “Caodong zen school in Northern Vietnam during the 17th century” – one of the most dominant Buddhist zen school in the North of Vietnam throughout the history. Through this analysis, the article aimed to clarify the complete development of Vietnamese Buddhism through various historical periods.

Ключевые слова: Буддизм во Вьетнаме, дзен, буддизм, вьетнамская культура.

Keywords: Buddhism in Vietnam, Zen School, Buddhism, vietnamese culture.

Since the 15th century, Confucianism had held a monopoly on Feudal Vietnamese social and political aspect. Its ideologies are introduced to the people by the Dai Viet government in various ways, particularly through education and examinations, with the aids of the flourished Confucian party during the 15th century. However, the weakened government, especially the conflict between various feudal conglomerates, had shaken the belief of the people in the Confucious way of teaching. The decline of the Confucian party, the constant wars, gave rise to Buddhism. Since the 16th century, Buddhism, even though was not as highly regarded among society as the Ly-Tran dynasty, had somehow found its place in society. The rise of Buddhism since the 16th-17th century had its root from within the Dai Viet country. There was also the contribution of new zen schools migrated from China to Feudal Vietnam, including the Caodong school by Venerable Shuiyue and his disciples.

I. The conditions for the transmission and development of Caodong Zen in the Northern region during the 17th century

Regarding the politics, from the beginning of the 16th century, the conflicts and civil wars between various feudal conglomerates took place at an intense rate. Opposition factions gradually formed within the Le dynasty; meanwhile, the constantly growing peasant's uprises had shaken the central government, worsening the conflict between and within the ruling class.

Year 1527, the Le dynasty was usurped by a feudal regime led by Mac Dang Dung, who later on proclaimed himself as the new emperor of the Mạc dynasty. Not long after that, various opposing feudal factions hid behind the call for the revival of the Le dynasty in order to raise war against the current government. “Finally, an old general from the Le dynasty called Nguyen Kim endeavoured to gather force against the Mac dynasty. He occupied Thanh Haa, Nghe An, and established his own regime. This government operated under the name of the “Later Le Restoration”, with the Le emperor acting as a puppet controlled by the Nguyen dynasty. Year 1545, with the death of Nguyen Kim, the throne was left for his son-in-law, Trinh Kiem” [5, p.288].

The conflicts between feudal conglomerates resulted in the division of the country into 2 regions. The government of Mac dynasty ruled over the Northern region known as the Northern Dynasty of Annam, the Trinh lords governed the Southern region from Thanh Hoa province called the Southern Dynasty of Annam. The raging war lasted over half a decade had taken place between the two rival feudal powers. The real victim of the war was none other than the people, who were constantly exploited for resources and manpower by the ruling realms.

Regarding the economy of the Northern Region, the devastating effect of wars combined with the powerlessness of the ruling government resulted in the downfall of the economic system during the 16th-17th centuries. Throughout the course of war between the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Thanh-Nghe Delta was severely damaged, farming fields were abandoned while farmers had to flee for their safety.

Regarding the social aspect, in the beginning of the 17th century, the social conflict in the Northern region developed hellaciously due to the constant wars, the increasing exploitation policies, and the moral breakdown of the ruling class. Heavy taxation also resulted in bankruptcies of farmers, who were then discarded from the workforce and forced into exile.

Regarding the culture and ideology: The government at the time still tried its best to protect the teaching of Confucianism and took it as the standard ideology for society. The feudal class unconditionally absorbed the conservative and subversive idea of the Confucians teaching to constrain and restrict the behavior, the emotional and rational thoughts of the people. Nevertheless, the feudal monarchy in its weaken state had significantly reduced capability to control the people. While still being the dominant ideology among society, Confucianism was no longer as effective and monopolistic as it always had been. Meanwhile, the less popular religions such as Buddhism and Taoism from the 15th century were somewhat improved over these period. In addition, Christianity, a new Western religion, was also introduced to Vietnam through the Capitalism movement.

Therefore, the political, economic, societal, cultural and ideological conditions during the 16th to 17th century had given rise to religions in general and Buddhism in particular. Religions became the place where people put their trust, and found comfort. Caodong, a Buddhist zen school from China, was also migrated to Vietnam in the same period.

II. General ideology of Chinese Caodong school

Caodong school was originated from the teaching of ShitouXiqian, found by Dongshan Liangjie (807 – 869) and his disciple Caoshan Benji. Caodong school along with Guiyang school and Linji school were the three most prosperous schools of Chan Buddhism at the time. A few decades later, Yunmen school and Fayan school were established. Those five schools formed the Five Houses of Chan (or Five Houses of Zen), with Caodong playing a central role along with Linji school; these two schools still exist until these days.

The basic ideology of Caodong school: Five Positions of Ruler and Minister, specially the Five Ranks is the most important and significant ideology of Caodong Zen school. Five Positions of Ruler and Minister is composed of Absolute and Relative Five Ranks, Merit five ranks, Lord and Vassal Five ranks, Bodhisattva five ranks, forming a complete coherent system. Established by Dongshan, the other two types were established by Caoshan. The most special one was The Five Ranks”. [1, p.207-208].

1. The Relative within the Absolute: at this level, the Zen practitioner, even though may acknowledge the basic of the Self, cannot grasp the meaning of the Universal derived from the Self. Regarding the relatedness between the Self and the Non-self, the Non-self is lacking, hence the need for the “from Self to Non-self” reasoning to “reduce the relative to get closer to the absolute”.

2. The Absolute within the Relative: this rank describes the recognition of the Absolute by the practitioner, but still not be able to understand that one needs to get through the Absolute (the Universal, containing the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the Self) to find the body and the mind of the objective Universal. Regarding the relatedness between the self and the non-self, the self is lacking. In this case, the “from Non-self back to Self” reasoning is needed to “reduce the Absolute to get back to the Relative”.

3. Coming from within the Absolute: the “coming from within” means the between of the Relative and the Absolute, the Personal (Self) and the Universal, the zen practitioner at this stage acknowledges the body and the mind, and starts again at the “Self to Non-self”, although not fully complete.

4. Arrival at Mutual Integration: this stage describe the acknowledgement of the Absolute, the body and the mind are still being search with great courage and heightened awareness, getting closer to the complete attainment.

5. Attainment in both Relative and Absolute: “Reach the state described by CaoShan as, according with Causes naturally, not attach to All Existenses, no impurity, no purity, no reality, no phenomenon...So tearching It is the great Merit path, unattachment true sect) [1, p.212].

This is the highest level of enlightenment of Caodong school, the unity of the Self and the Non-self, the Relative and the Absolute.

III. The adoption process of Caodong teaching in the Northern region of Vietnam

Caodong Zen School was introduced to Vietnam since the 17th century in both Northern and Southern regions. In the North, venerable zen master ThủyNguyệt was the one responsible for bringing Caodong teaching from China to Vietnam, "Thuy Nguyet zen master, real name Dang Giap, Buddhist name Thong Giac, was born in 1636 in Thanh Trieu village, Hung Nhan town, Thai Binh province, he practiced asceticism in a pagoda on the HùngLĩnh mountain with two disciples. He learned from Huzhou's zen master YijuZhi Jiao on mount Fenghuang. The 20-year-old Thuy Nguyet spent three years learning in Huzhou after leaving Dai Viet in 1664. Until 1667, he and his two disciples traveled back and stayed at Vọng Lao pagoda, mount An Son, Dong Trieu district, Hai Duong province. During that time, he met and befriended with an eminent Buddhist monk called Tue Nhan, who was practicing Buddhism in Dong Son. Tue Nhan's real name was Mai Tu Phung, he was borned in Duong Mong village, known as To Muong. In Dong Son, he had many disciples and was bestowed the title “Dai thanh Dong Son Tue Nhan Tu Giac Quoc su” by an unknown Le emperor.” [2, p.499].

Thuy Nguyet zen master also practiced religion at Con Son pagoda and Nham Duong pagoda in Ha Long. He died in 1704 at the age of 80,

After 6 years studying and practicing zen, one day, abbot Tri Giac called up Thuy Nguyet and asked:

“Have you seen the emptiness

Monk come to workship, place stanza

Emptiness is by nature full, clear and ordinary

Being clouded by ignorance of the mind

The cloud is then blown away by the wind

The emptiness is illuminated again with the myriad universe

The monk landed his fingers on top of Thuy Nguyet's head and titled him Thong Giac Dao Nam zen master, also composed a stanza

After coming back to Vietnam, Thuy Nguyet had sermonized at many places. The disciple initiated by Thuy Nguyet was Tong Dien, “That afternoon, the monk came back and called up Tong Dien to deliver a stanza:

Pure water pour off life dust

As it is clean and back to the emptiness

Giving you a precious nectar bowl

Pouring grace harmoniously helping thousands people.

Next is the stanza:

Tortuous mountain , drawing water

Flowing water stream, pour nectar

Daisy is blossomed, oriole is singing

Pure water, blue sea wave, with Drowning

Translucent bright moon, sleeping fisherman

Burning emitted sun, skewed cocoon

Zen master told his four practitioners: I am going to go climbing Nham Duong moutain. If I wont return in seven days, you can look for me at the place with fragmence [4, p.427-428].

After the death of Thuy Nguyet zen master, Tong Dien came back to Đong Son and tried to spread the Caodong teaching, increasing the popularity of the school. He died in 1709. The Caodong school found by Thuy Nguyet zen master and inherited by his disciple TongDien was practiced by a vast number of people in the Northern region of Vietnam during the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century.

IV. The impact of Caodongzen school on the history of Vietnamese Northern region during the Warlord era

Caodong and Linjizenschools transmission to the Northern region had breathed the new life to the development of Buddhism. Even though did not fall far from the general ideology of Buddhism, the Buddhist zen ideology was still able to attract Buddhist research and learning from Confucian scholars at the time (many of them had lost hope in the Confucian ideology and the government).

The presence of the two zen schools Caodong and Linji along with the revitalized Truc Lam schools created the premise for the prosperity of Buddhism in the 18th and 19th centuries. They also helped spread and deepen the Buddhist ideology to the society life.

“Morality guidance derived from Buddhism is highly regarded, and pagodas become the real “cultural centrals” that attracted all class of people. One cannot speak of Vietnamese Buddhism without mentioning the complex pagodas system with many architectures of various shapes and sizes. These pagodas not only belong to the monks but also the people. Despite the busy life with many worries, one may neglect anything but festivals at their local temple” [3, p.136-137].

Caodong and Linji schools were adopted by the Northern region of Vietnam in the historical period full of pain, wars, and conflicts, the people were exploited and miserable. Those factors contributed to a stagnated, crisis-ridden society, in which people found their peace in the teaching of Buddhism in order to escape from the brutal reality and perhaps to awaken various aspects of morality hidden deeply under earthly desires; this held true with all class of people, especially the royalty.

Caodong schools during its migration to the North of Vietnam had established a system of temples and pagodas, many of which have become reputable and popular landmarks to these days; namely, Nham Duong pagoda, Hoe Nhai pagoda, Tran Quoc pagoda, etc.

Therefore, Caodong school introduced to the Northern Region had contribute to the revitalization of Buddhism after many centuries of silent. Caodongzen ideology, especially “the Five ranks” had attracted a vast number of people including Confucian scholars in particular. Caodong school in particular and Northern Region Buddhism in general had satisfied the needs for religious guidance of the people. It also helps shape the truth, the good and the beauty of life, build up cultural values that suitable with Vietnamese customs. Caodong school has also provided a group of monks and practitioners who live of Buddhist lifestyle and serve the country.


  1. Nguyen Tue Chan. About Chinese Zen Buddhism. – Da Nang: Da Nang Publisher, 2006. (Nguyễn Tuệ Chân. Tìm hiểu về thiền tông Phật giáo Trung Hoa. – Da Nang: Da Nang Publisher, 2006).
  2. Nguyen Lang. History of Vietnam Buddhism. – Ca Mau: Camau Publishing house, 2012. (Nguyễn Lang. Việt Nam Phật giáo sử luận. – Ca Mau: Nhà xuất bản Cà Mau, 2012).
  3. Nguyen Khac Thuan. Overview of Vietnamese cultural history. Ep. 4. – Hanoi: Times Publishing house, 2012. (Nguyễn Khắc Thuần. Đại cương lịch sử văn hóa Việt Nam. Tập 4. – Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Thời Đại, 2012).
  4. Thich Thanh Tu. Vietnamese Zen masters. – Hanoi: religion Publishing house, 2010. (Thích Thanh Từ. Thiền sư Việt Nam. – Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Tôn giáo, 2010).
  5. Vietnam Social Science Committee. Vietnamese history, volume 1. – Hanoi: Social Science Pub, 1971. (Ủy ban khoa học xã hội Việt Nam. Lịch sử Việt Nam, tập 1. Hanoi: Khoa học xã hội Pub, 1971).

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