The Origin of Vietnam-India Cultural Exchange (A Case Study of Dot Son Pagoda, Cap Tien Commune, Tien Lang District, Hai Phong) Part 1


The Origin of Vietnam-India Cultural Exchange (A Case Study of Dot Son Pagoda, Cap Tien Commune, Tien Lang District, Hai Phong) Part 1

The Origin of Vietnam-India Cultural Exchange

(A Case Study of Dot Son Pagoda, Cap Tien Commune, Tien Lang District, Hai Phong)

Assoc. Prof. Ph.D. Le Van Toan*


When discussing cultural values of a specific place or region, it is necessary to examine and analyze the region or place and related areas in many aspects: natural geography, history, especially people – the central factor creating cultural values of places and regions. Using this approach, discussion on cultural values of Cau Lau Buddhist center with Dot Son Pagoda, Cap Tien commune, Tien Lang district, Hai Phong province as a focal point, should explain the research gaps as follows: 1/ When did the propagation of Dhamma happen? 2/ When was Buddhism first introduced into Vietnam and what was the first place in Vietnam receiving Buddhism; 3/ The historical and cultural values of Dot Son Pagoda, Cap Tien commune, Tien Lang district, Hai Phong province and some suggestions.

In this research paper, I will discuss the previous and current findings related to the topic.

1. About the date of Dhamma Propagation (Dharma Pracāra in Sanskrit )

The emperor of Maurya Empire (273-232 BC) was Ashoka the Great. He was the first King of ancient India supporting the development and spread of Buddhism. He ordered to build many stone steles recording Buddhist events about the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the book series Buddhism and the Stream of Vietnamese history1, superior Buddhist monk Thich Duc Nhuan wrote that: “… 218 years after the death of Buddha, the holy king Ashoka wholeheartedly propagated the Dharma and did three great things:

(1) Convening the Third Buddhist Council;

(2) Building Buddhist temples and monasteries;

(3) Establishing Dhamma missions.

With the strong support of Emperor Ashoka and the presiding of the Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa, after The Third Buddhist council was convened, it was decided that nine Sangha missions were sent out to propagate the Dharma inside and outside India. The eighth mission, led by two monks Sona and Uttara, went to Suvarnabhumi (Golden land), including Myanmar, Indochina countries, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Therefore, it can be said that in the Ashokan period, nine Sangha missions were set up in about the II and III centuries BC.

2. The date and place of Buddhism’s introduction into Vietnam

As for the date, in the Ashokan period, these missions were sent to South East Asia - the final period of Dong Son culture or the end of Hung king period and the beginning of An Duong Vuơng King period. When was Buddhism introduced into Vietnam? It is really difficult to have an exact answer.

From Vietnamese folk tales, we can see that the story of Tam Cam tells that the Buddha appears many times to help good girl Tam; the story of Trau Cau ends with the reincarnation into trees and stone; the story of The Neu tree and Buddhist robe – The robe of Buddha, v.v. show that over a long period in the history, Vietnamese people have deeply understood the doctrines of the law of cause and effect, reincarnation (Karma and Samsara of Buddhism), the philosophy about the suffering (Four Noble Truths - duḥkha) and The Noble Eightfold Path (Ariyamaggani), which gradually and naturally come into the minds of ancient Vietnamese people.

Based on historical documents, many scholars believe that Buddhism was introduced into Vietnam in two ways, the sea lane in the South and the road in the North. As Vietnam’s territory runs along the coast of East Sea, traveling by sea lane is more convenient and Buddhism was directly spread from India to the South of Vietnam at the much earlier time than in the North.

A book entitled Đạo giáo nguyên lưu  (a book was written in Chinese characters about Buddhism in Vietnam) by Zen monk An Thien (the XIX century) has one chapter about “Hung king Pham Tang” specifically discussing Buddhism in Hung king period, which had close relations with Buddhism in the period of Ashoka the Great.

In book The History of Vietnamese Buddhism – From the beginning period to the time of Ly Nam De King, Zen monk Le Manh That wrote: “Buddhism took root in Vietnam since the Hung king period, the first Buddhist teacher is monk Phat Quang and the first Vietnamese Buddhist layman is Chu Dong Tu”2. When discussing the book Linh Nam Chich Quai (Selection of Strange Tales in Linh Nam), both authors Vu Quynh and Kieu Phu argued that Chu Dong Tu is the progenitor of Vietnamese Buddhism. He was born in Chu Xa village, Van Duc commune, which is currently Gia Lam District, Ha Noi3.

According the book Selection of Strange Tales in Linh Nam4, Tien Dung, the princess of the 18th Hung King, and Chu Dong Tu met a rich merchant owning ship and said: “If you spend 1 tael of gold and take a boat to the sea to buy precious items, you will earn a profit of one tael of gold in the next year”. There was an island called Quynh Vien in the sea (or Quynh Vi in some books). The merchant and Chu Dong Tu sailed the boat to the island to get fresh water. In this island, there were a small temple and a monk named Phat Quang (or Nguong Quang in some books). Dong Tu was given sermons and Buddhist ritual instruments by Phat Quang - “the stick and the conical leaf hat” - and the monk said that “these things are the keys to all mystical powers”. According to Dong Hong Hoan and Trinh Minh Hien in Ne Le Castle – Do Son in Ashokan period, Quynh Vien or Quynh mountain in the book Selection of Strange Tales in Linh Nam is Mau mountain (or Ngoc mountain, Thap mountain in Ne Le, Do Son district, Hai Phong province)… The story about Chu Dong Tu learning Buddhism in Ne Le – Do Son and saving the life of Ba Da’s son in Minh Lien village is totally logical according to the legends, history, and geography of Do Son in terms of describing rivers, river branches, worship places… Hang Pagoda in Do Son district and Ba Da Temple.

The book Collection of Outstanding Figures of the Zen Garden5 records the answers of National Monk Thong Bien (Tri Khong) to Empress Mother Linh Nhan or Imperial Concubine Y Lan about the history of Vietnamese Buddhist lineages. After that, Tri Khong also quoted the saying of Chinese monk Tan Tian when the Emperor Gaozu of Sui (581-604)6 asked Tan Tian about building a Buddhist temple in Giao Chau and assigned venerable monks to propagate Buddhism there… The monk said: “The land of Giao Chau was connecting to Tianzhu. When Buddhism was first introduced to Jiangdong, there were up to 20 Buddhist temples built in Luy Lau (Lien Lau) with more than 500 monks and 15 Buddhist scriptures were translated there. This means that Buddhism was introduced to Giao Chau before it reached our nation (China)”. At that time, there were some famous monks such as Mahajivaka (Mo Luo Qi Yu), Kang Senghui, Zhi Jiang Liang and Mou Bo living there”. Based on this evidence, scholar Tran Van Giap suggested the hypothesis: “On the ways to Guangzhou, Indian merchant ships stopped in Giao Chau to trade goods. Monks also traveled with the crews to cure diseases and perform religious rites during their journeys. When arriving in Giao Chau, monks gave medical treatment and sermons to local people”7. After that, in their related research works, Zen monks including Thich Mat The, Thich Nhất Hạnh, Lê Mạnh Thát and scholar Hoang Xuan Han agreed with the hypothesis suggested by scholar Tran Van Giap. Notably, Zen monks Nguyen Lang (Thich Nhat Hanh)8, Le Mạnh That9 and scholar Bui Van Nguyen clearly pointed out that the spread of Buddhism from the South, through the sea lane to Giao Chau (Jiaozhou) happened earlier than that from the North, through the road. This is because traveling by sea is faster, safer and more convenient than by road. Scholar Bui Van Nguyen also suggested the hypothesis about two paths of obtaining Buddhist scriptures in the past: 1/From Dau Pagoda (Luy Lau, Bac Ninh province) through Ninh Binh or Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa to Xamneua – Laos. From Xamneua to Ceylon - India. This is the path of obtaining Buddhist scriptures through the old Giao Chi (Jiaozhi) district. 2/ From Hương Tich Pagoda – Nghe Tinh to Linh Cam through Na Phe – Laos. From Laos to Ceylon - India. This is the path of obtaining Buddhist scriptures through the old Cuu Chan district10. At that time, Giao Chau was a large Buddhist center and its capital was Luy Lau (currently Thuan Thanh district, Bac Ninh province). From Luy Lau center, Buddhism spread to Pengcheng center, and then Luoyang center in China. This means that Luy Lau Buddhist center was established before the Buddhist centers of Pengcheng and Luoyang. Therefore, this Buddhist center played the mediating role in Buddhism propagation. If Indian and South Asian monks wanted to go to China, they had to visit Luy Lau for sometimes to learn Han Chinese language  (Hanyu); and Chinese monks wanted to study in India had to visit Luy Lau to learn Sanskrit. At that time, Luy Lau was a famous center for translating Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Han language and propagating Buddhism.

Based on the book the Collection of Outstanding Figures of the Zen Garden, authors Tran Van Giap, Thich Mat The, Hoang Xuan Han, and Henri Maspéro and P. Pelliot argued that Mou Bo (the II century), Kang Senghui (the III century), Mahajivaka (Mo Luo Qi Yu - the III century) and Zhi Jiang Liang (the III century) were the first four Buddhist missionary monks in Vietnam. According to documents about the history of Buddhism, Mou Bo and Kang Senghui were foreigners in Vietnam but they lived, became monks, wrote books and translated Buddhist scriptures in Vietnam. This means that at that time, Buddhism already spread, developed and became popular in Vietnam, so the two monks could take refuge, receive precepts and study Buddhism in Giao Chau. When writing about the preface and annotations for Buddhist scriptures, Kang Senghui discussed Zen and Vipassana bhavana. After that, he also propagated Zen doctrine to Jianye, the capital city of Eastern Wu, China, in the second year of Chiwu (the year 247 AD).

Therefore, according to historical documents, it can be said that:

- Buddhism was directly introduced from India to Vietnam through sea lanes as early as the Ashokan period (in the III and II centuries BC), which coincided with Hung King period in Vietnam history.

- The place where Buddhism was first introduced to Vietnam in Hung King period was Do Son, Hai Phong. According to historical, geological and archaeological documents, Do Son, Hai Phong was a part of Duong Truyen land in Hung king period, and then Giao Chi (Jiaozhi) district (later renamed Giao Chau – Jiaozhou) in Han Dynasty, and Haidong in Jin Dynasty, Xinan district in Ming Dynasty, and Kinh Mon district in Le Quang Thuan period. Archaeological relics found in districts of Kien An, Thuy Nguyen, Tien Lang, An Lao, Hai Phong province, showed that this land covered 9 mountains in Do Son which sticks out into the sea, creating a rich cultural and archaeological values in Hai Phong in prehistoric times. Sediments of Dong Son culture showed the remarkable traits of sea culture of the kingdoms of Van Lang and Au Lac in Hung King period.

- Buddhism was directly propagated from India to Do Son, Hai Phong, Vietnam through sea lane before arriving China. Do Son, Hai Phong was a bustling trade center of Vietnam in the Hung King period. From there, it was very convenient for people to go along the Thai Binh river or use the route passing through the mouth of Van Uc river (using Elephant mountain as boundary marker) to reach land or from the sea, go through the mouth of Bach Dang river to reach Luy Lau Castle, Ke Cho and Pho Hien. This was also the path used by Chu Dong Tu to spread Buddhism from Do Son, Hai Phong to Pho Hien, Ke Cho, Thang Long, Luy Lau, Bac Ninh that lays the foundation for the establishment of Luy Lau Buddhist capital and spreading Buddism from Luy Lau to Pengcheng, Luoyang, China. This fact was not only confirmed by Chinese monk Tan Tian with the Emperor Gaozu of Sui (581-604) but also admitted by Chinese scholars in the XX century, including Hu Shih and Feng Youlan, in their research works11. (Part 2)

* Senior lecturer, the Centre for Indian Studies, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of  Politics.

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