Page Six
August 31 - September 12, 1974

Traditional Vietnam

mixing politics and religion
buddha1 (112K)
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Vietnamese thought declares "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend". And this thought had its full expression in the religion of traditional Vietnam, the local animistic beliefs being distilled into a blend of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

Buddhism was introduced from India by sea and from China by road as early as the second century AD. Thien (Zen) became by far the most important sect of the predominant Mahayana Buddhism.

Thien does not recognise any dogma or belief that would hold back man's progress in acquiring knowledge or in daily life … For Thien the techniques of right eating and drinking, of right breathing and right concentration and meditation, are far more vital than mere beliefs (The Lotus in the Sea of Fire).

The introduction of Chinese characters to Vietnam only directly benefited the Zen Masters, who learnt them in order to read the Buddhist Scriptures (Tripitaka). The monks became the most learned men in the country and read books on medicine, astrology and politics.

By the tenth century Chinese characters were used in official court literature and a century later King Ly Thane Ton built institutes for the teaching of Chinese characters and Confucianism. The development of Confucianism sprang from the institution of competitive examinations in the Confucian classics for the selection of mandarins, "The fathers of the people". All men of landowning families could sit for these exams. Soon the emperor and his hierarchy of scholar-officials took the place of both Church and State in traditional Vietnamese society.

The monarch of the Tran Dynasty realised that while Buddhism contained a powerful inner life, Confucianism had a political philosophy and a code of ethics which was necessary for the development of the kingdom. So formal education rested on the study of the Confucian texts, the works of the Master Confucius and later commentaries, which were the subject matter of the examinations that were the only means of progress through the ranks of the bureaucracy. Thus the "disinterested learning" of the Buddhists became the hobbyhorse of the clergy who yielded to Confucianism both control of formal education and influence in national politics. Confucianism flourished until the nineteenth century when it was abandoned in favour of a Western educational system instigated by the French.

Taoism was introduced into Vietnam in a similar fashion to Confucianism. By this time it had degenerated into a mystical teaching incorporating magic and alchemy. It had no clergy, schools or systems and was expressed only in the thoughts and actions of educated Buddhists and Confucians.


The sphere of Confucianism was the external order of society; the inner life of the individual was left to the other religions. The Vietnamese illustrate this through the story of the great king/monk Tran Thai-Tong (1228-58):

Wishing to escape the complexities of court politics and the heavy responsibilities of government, he left his palace one night early in his reign, and went secretly to the hills to become a pupil of the Zen Master, Truc-Lam.

But the aged monk advised him, "Buddha is not in the mountains, Buddha is in the heart of man. When your mind is calm and clear, Buddha appears". Summoned back to the capital, Thai-Tong returned to become both a Confucian monarch and a patron of the Buddhism of the Bamboo Forest.

Tran Thai-Tong eventually became a Zen Master and explained his ruling policy in his book, Thien Tong Chi Nam (Guide to Zen):

The sixth Patriarch said, "There exists no difference between Buddha and the Saint Confucius". This shows that the doctrine of Buddha needs Confucianism for its perpetuation in the future.

In one aspect the Vietnamese empire was a ritual state whose function was to preside over the sacred order of nature and society, in the belief that when men act according to universal moral order, virtue prevails; when they assert themselves against it, there is chaos. The continued harmony of the universe depended on regular sacrifices to Heaven. Therefore there must be an Emperor, and as the Son of Heaven he must be obeyed as the highest of all human beings. The Emperor was endowed with the responsibility of maintaining the harmonious balance of yin and yang, the two related forces of the universe. The Kingdom as a whole was protected by the ancestral spirits of the imperial dynasty, in whose honour many elaborate temples were constructed. People came to regard Confucius or Lao-Tzu or the innumerable manifestations of the Buddha as spirits of a very high order.

For the educated Confucian the supreme position was reserved for Heaven, whose Way was the highest possible way of virtue. Heaven transcended all conflicts and activity and was the source of infinite harmony, uniting in itself both the positive and negative elements of the universe. Man's duty was to fulfil his position in society and accept contradictions as only being resolved by Heaven.

Although there was no philosophical reason for the state religion, Confucianism, to find itself incompatible with the personal religions of Taoism and Buddhism, politically this was not always so. For instance, the Nguyen court attempted to initiate Chinese bureaucratic procedures of religious control "to prevent the emergence of ecclesiastical institutions powerful enough to rival the imperial institutional structure". In nineteenth century Vietnam a man could not become a Buddhist ecclesiastic unless he received an "ordination certificate" from the Board of Rites in Hue.


Rebel movements of Buddhist monks or Taoist masters were often led by men claiming supernatural powers. Such men had the best chance of convincing their followers that the "Will of Heaven" was on their side; and to go against the Will of Heaven was to act against the whole moral order of the universe.

The Confucian examination system meant there were always some men who had more education than responsibility. Many who had aspired to be high officials found themselves in the lesser positions of village schoolmasters: Sons of mandarins often could not attain the same level of scholarship as their fathers nor rise to a similar rank. They compensated for this by running the affairs of a clan or a village or by joining small religious sects where an ambitious individual might rise to a position of some importance. The small sects often operated as secret societies which could rapidly combine under an able leader. They were a constant threat to positions of power in the system and were persecuted periodically because of this.

The Confucian system of government in Vietnam had the same basic weakness as all systems of government II existed only as an external system with high standards and ideals. What was lacking was an interns system of government within each individual which would enable each person to act willingly for the harmonious functioning of society.

The Masters Confucius, Buddha and Lao-Tzu, according to the scriptures written after them, were actually revealing a practical method of self-control which made men selfless independent of their capacity to absorb intellectual knowledge. This experience of spiritual Knowledge was lost in Vietnamese religion. Confucius did not gain virtue by studying ("Heaven begat the virtue that is in me"). Without the Way (Tao) which gave one true government of mind and state, government consisted entirely of rites and rituals. Confucius said:

If it is really possible to govern countries by ritual and yielding, there is no more to be said. But if it is not really possible, of what use is ritual?


Hans Yog Prakash (the Soul's Union with Light) was written by Guru Maharaj Ji's father, Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, who was the Perfect Master of his time. It glorifies spiritual Knowledge and emphasises the importance of the Perfect Master on the path of devotion. Below are some extracts:

One can only have Knowledge of the soul by means of experience. This experience comes from the Knowledge of the Satguru. Thus one should not dismiss this Truth by means of arguments, for by the grace of the Guru, the self can easily be realised. The Satguru is outstanding, He is the Knower of the self, for only He who knows the Truth can reveal it.

I was going to follow my mind's guidance into the ditch, but Guru Maharaj Ji caught my hand. He showed me the abode of the Lord, and even better, He took me with Him.

When Satguru is pleased with me, and speaks even one word, a cloud of love snowers upon me, and I am soaked through and through.