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Buddhism as a Contribution to Peace in Vietnam


Cao xuan Pho

I. The Concept of Peace

In Vietnam since early times, peace has been largely conceived of as peace in one’s mind, peace towards one’s fellows, and peace with nature. Those aspects of peace are greatly influenced by Buddhism. Each social stratum has its own approach to the serenity of mind through Buddhism. The intelligentsia practised Zen (dhyana) firstly through Zen masters coming from India1 and later from China2 to ultimately establish their own Zen sect in the thirteenth century called the Thien Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest Zen Sect).3 They abided by the teachings of Buddha:

Those who practise meditation steadfastly,

Always strong in determination and perseverance,

The wise ones enjoy nibbana,

Safe from any bondage, the highest

Dhammapada, 234


. . . He does not cleave to sense-desires,

Cool he is, and without germs to a new life,

All clinging are cut down,

Pains in the heart are overcome,

Serene and calm, he leads a life of happiness,

And his mind has attained peace and calmness

Samyutta Nikaya, I, 2635

Learned Buddhist scholars enjoyed great influence on the daily life of the common people. Through them the commoners could have an understanding of the gist of Buddha’s teach-ings on His attitude towards other religions and antagonistic doctrines, His love and com-passion for the world, and on fundamental topics of daily life such as dispute and harmony, anger and gentleness, harmfulness and harmlessness, hatred and friendliness, killing and respect for life, etc. Among many teachings they were most impressed by such words as:

One should take oneself as one’s own refuge,

Because there is no other refuge,

By a self well tamed and restrained,

One obtains a refuge that is very difficult to obtain

Dhammapada, 1606


By oneself, evil deed is done,

By oneself, one is defiled,

By oneself, evil deed is not done,

By oneself, one becomes purified.

Purity and impurity are done by oneself,

No one can purify another

Dhammapada, 1657

They were fully aware of the value of self-reliance on the way of deliverance to obtain fundamental peace, that in one’s mind. They had an insight into the expression of Buddhism, that to be born as human is the most advantageous status for every living being, as it is only he who may realize the Four Holy Truths and practise the Eightfold Holy Path to deliverance. It is the human, rather than any deity or other supra-human force, who determines his own happiness, his own destiny. They understood the statement by Buddha: ‘Over is Sky, under is Earth, only the Self is exclusive.’

Peace in one’s mind lays the foundations of peace in the community and the world, as was expounded by Buddha:

Oh Bhikkhu, you should go forth for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the advantage, for the welfare, for the happiness of the deities and human beings. . . . Oh Bhikkhu, teach the Dhamma, that is good at the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end, with meaning and with form. Reveal the holy life that is completely and entirely pure. Samyutta, I, 1288

That is the work to be done by the Samgha. As for common people, they try their best to exercise the Four Cardinal Virtues put forth by Buddhism to maintain and expand harmony and peace in their community. These are loving-kindness (metta); compassion (karuna); happiness (piti); sacrifice (upekkha) under the disinterested and altruistic spirit. People understand metta as bringing happiness and tranquillity to others; karuna as relieving suffering and danger to others; piti as being happy with the achievements — material and mental — of others; upekkha as being ready to give up personal belongings, including body, wealth and happiness for the benefit of others; disinterested as acting fairly, not being influenced by personal advantage; and altruistic as being forgiving towards those who sincerely show repentance after having been led astray.

These virtues have had a strong impact on the minds of the Vietnamese people and together with Confucianism have shaped their behaviour. If Buddhism provided the Vietnamese people with a good-natured heart, Confucianism provided them with wisdom translated into the sense of order, discipline and responsibility. Two major contributions of Confucianism to traditional Vietnamese society are the materialization and institutionalization of benevolence as advocated by Buddhism into regulations and laws; and defining the responsibility and duty of each individual towards himself and the community in which he is living, including family, village, and the country, out of the concept of the Five Constant Virtues (Ngu Thuong). They are humanity (Nhan), righteousness (Nghia), rites (Le), wisdom (Tri), and trust (Tin); the first three have been set great store by.

Humanity is conceived of as benevolence and charity. Righteousness means that speaking and acting should be in accordance with the conscience, in line with the right way. He who can respond to these two criteria is worthy of being human. It was written in the Book of Changes: ‘Yin and Yang are the principle of Sky, Rigid (Hard) and Flexible (Soft) are the principles of Earth, Humanity and Righteousness are the principles of Humanity.’ Rites are regulations, discipline, order in society and respect towards these institutions. Rites were set up to ensure the maintenance of Humanity and Righteousness. Obviously, these five Confucian virtues complement the four Buddhist virtues for the peaceful behaviour of the Vietnamese people, especially the sense of tolerance and benevolence towards their fellows. Buddhism and Confucianism constituted the basis of Vietnamese people’s individual and social behaviour in every circumstance, especially in peace-making and peace-keeping.

II. Buddhist Experience

The Buddhist contribution to peace in Vietnam could be seen through various aspects prevailing in four major instances:

1. In times when people suffered the atrocities of foreign domination, aggression and wars. At those junctures, Buddhism was closely connected with national independence, which was considered indispensable to a socio-political environment for peace. Without national independence there is neither freedom nor happiness, which are seen as two major factors of the peaceful life. Buddhism then came up as a mental support to the striving for peace of the Vietnamese people. It served as a means for rallying people against the tyranny of oppressors by its basic tenets of democracy, self-reliance and self-deliverance as happened in the sixth century when an insurrection against Chinese domination burst forth under the leadership of a leader who named himself Ly Phat Tu (Ly the son of Buddha) versus Thien Tu (son of Heaven), the appellation of the Emperor of China.

In and after resistance wars against aggressors, the typical Buddhist sense of humanism and forgiveness has been extended to war prisoners. They were treated with humanity, as was shown during the wars against the French colonialists and the American imperialists in the second half of this century. They were provided with food and means of transport to return home, as were Chinese war prisoners in the fifteenth century.9 The Vietnamese people considered them victims and dupes of their ruling circles; and such an act was just aiming at maintaining peace between nations.

2. In times when people could live in peace to rebuild their country after disastrous wars, Buddhism served as a means for relieving people’s sufferings caused by wars and natural calamities out of its spirit of mutual help, its sense of tolerance and benevolence. This tolerance policy prevailed in eleventh to early thirteenth centuries under the Ly dynasty, and was expressed through edicts of exemption from reducing taxes, declaring amnesty and reduction of sentences. A very compassionate word of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong (eleventh century) has been recorded in the Annals: ‘My affection for my daughter [princess] is the same as for the common people to whom I assume the role of parents. They are guilty due to their lack of knowledge. I am full of pity for them. From now on, howsoever serious or light a guilt may be, the sentence should be reduced.’10

It was by practising the benevolence policy that the Tran Dynasty (thirteenth to fifteenth century) could raise the living standards of the people and ensure stability by defeating the Mongolian invaders. Especially in the era of the Democratic Republic, such great events as the Dien Bien Phu victory (1954) or National Reunification (1975) could have not happened if the people could not exercise their freedom, democracy, equality in specific conditions of war under a national spirit imbued with the Buddhist sense of self-reliance and benevolence.

3. Nowadays Vietnam is practising renovation and developing the market economy in the situation of peace and stability inside the country and the boom of the information revolution over the world. Stability is the basic condition for healthy and sustainable development. Social stability requires, first, the stability in each person, or in other words the peace in one’s mind. The Vietnamese people always keep cheerfully in mind the philosophy: keeping still to cope with changes. Still does not mean motionless, immobile or frozen, but rather a state of equilibrium and harmony. Equilibrium implies inner motion of each element sharing the structure. And the harmony of something is the way in which the parts of it are combined into a suitable and desirable arrangement. Equilibrium and harmony bring about force, just as the practising of Buddha’s teachings gives us peace in our minds.

By the practice of this philosophy the Vietnamese people could overcome many historical vicissitudes. Now, in the market economy, there are many negative aspects, especially the ‘superstition’ of money and supra-consumerism, and the endangering of Vietnamese ethical values. The question is how to combat them successfully. Administrative measures to tackle this problem are necessary but not radical. That requires rather the enhancement of the spiritual life, or in other words equilibrium between material and spiritual life. At this juncture Buddhism, combined with Confucianism, is playing a significant role in Vietnam. Buddhism in fact does not deny the material life, rather it preaches the ethical and spiritual life by encouraging good deeds and shunning evil actions which are deeply rooted in the selfish cravings of human beings. It is indeed somewhat unrealistic to destroy thoroughly the selfish craving in human behaviour. It would be better to tame and restrain it, first in oneself, and further to behave as such towards others as is taught by Buddha:

You should do to yourself

What you have instructed others to do.

Well tamed yourself, you should tame others.

Truly difficult indeed, is self tamed.

Dhammapada, 15911


Thinking of his own benefits, he does harm to others.

When other do harm to him in return,

Being harmed, he harms others.

Such is what the fool thinks,

When his wicked actions do not mature.

Samyutta Nikaya, 10312

Vietnam is a latecomer on the way of industrialization and modernization. However, this could be advantageous as the country could draw experience from the success as well as failure of other more advanced countries in the reducing of negative aspects of the market economy. The most appropriate approach should be relying on traditional culture, in which ethical values of religion are salient features. In the case of Vietnam, these are Buddhistic combined with Confucian ones. Actually, there is a Government Committee for Religious Affairs to regulate the activities of various religions for the benefit of the many; an Institute for Buddhist Study, in the framework of the Vietnam Buddhist Congregation with its various periodicals to deepen Buddhist knowledge and popularize Buddha’s teachings, especially on ethical values and peace. Noteworthy are a good many humanitarian societies operating in the Buddhist spirit of benevolence and under the motto ‘untorn leaves protect and help torn leaves’, aiming at relieving the pain and suffering of the disadvantaged. Many central and local funds initiated by Buddhist monks and named ‘funds for eradicating starvation and reducing poverty’ were raised and responded to warmly by people from various social strata. Now Buddhist monks and laymen are among the most fervent humanitarian activists.

4. In foreign relations. In the course of history Vietnam has had two aspects of foreign relations: peaceful and conflicting. In these two, Buddhism had made contributions to positive solutions. No great matter is to be commented on the first issue, as Buddhism is a champion of peace — peace in one’s mind and peace among humankind. As far as conflict is concerned, some remarks need to be made in this context as it is related to peace.

Among the commandments of Buddhism, the first deals with non-killing. That is to ensure peace and harmony between humans. Non-killing is the antagonist of killing. As the act of killing, like every act of a human, is generated from the mind, the question is how to generate a good thought rather than an evil one in one’s mind. That could be achieved through Right Meditation, one stage in the Eightfold Path. So, an act could be asserted as good or evil only when it is considered from its motivation. There is no room here for the concept of ‘the end justifies the means’. An act is good if it is done for the benefit of others or to help others. On the other hand, Buddhism preaches that the origin of evil acts lies in one’s selfish craving.

That is the concept of peace and war of the Vietnamese people. They had to face repeated invasions by enemy forces. They had to safeguard their Fatherland by every means available, including killing aggressors, for the sake of peace for their country and their fellows. While practising Buddhism, the Vietnamese leaders and people had to undertake resistance wars to fight against aggressors, wars waged by those people excited by so much selfish craving. And, as always, after such wars, wherein they always came out victorious, the Vietnamese leaders resumed their policy of good relations with those states who were once invaders. Even some of them, such as Emperor Ly Thai Tong (eleventh century), Emperors Tran Thai Tong and Tran Nhan Tong (thirteenth century), had cast off their monastic dress to put on armour and lead the whole people to defeat the Chinese and Mongolian invaders. Especially Emperor Tran Nhan Tong, after his sound victory over the Mongolian troops, re-took his monastic dress and went into the forest to found the national Buddhist Sect of Zen, the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Zen Sect. Deeply imbued with the sense of Buddhist benevolence and tolerance, the vast majority of Vietnamese always support the state policy of good relations with foreign countries. Nobody other than the Viet people, who suffered great hardships caused by wars, eagerly wish for peace and stability of society and peace and good relations with other countries in order to improve their living standards, their quality of life.


Buddhism in Vietnam is becoming a factor in traditional and national culture. It is so combined with Confucianism that it is hard to define it explicitly. Buddhism is so closely connected with national consciousness that one cannot understand it thoroughly unless it is seen in the context of national history. It has made significant contributions to the maintaining and preserving of peace and stability for Vietnamese society during periods of peace as well as war. Now, when Vietnam is practising renovation and the market economy and the open-door policy, Buddhism is proving indispensable, especially for the maintenance and improvement of ethical values of restraint and to reduce socially negative aspects. Its sense of benevolence and tolerance is of great support to peaceful coexistence and friendly relations between various countries.


1. The Indian monks Mahajivaka and Kalacharya(?) came to Giao Chau (Vietnam) between 168 and 189 ad. These two monks were quite popular among the local people for their powers (abinna), especially the power of calling rain for peasants to cultivate their rice fields.

Another monk, named K’ang-san-hui (transcripted from Chinese), originated from Sogdiane. His parents came to India, then settled in Giao Chau (third century ad), where the monk was born. He devoted himself to Buddhist studies and was strongly influenced by the Middle Discourse (Madhyamika) of Nagarjuna. Noticeable among many sutras he had translated from Sanskrit to Chinese is the Astasahasrika, a discourse on the Madhyamika.

In 580, Vinitaruci, an Indian Zen master, came to Giao Chau and founded the first Zen sect in Vietnam, laying emphasis on meditation. This sect existed until the second decade of the thirteenth century. The most prominent representative is Tu Dao Hanh (?—1117).

2. Vo Ngon Thong (Enlightened without Speech), a Chinese Zen master, came to Vietnam in the early ninth century and founded the second Zen sect in Vietnam, influenced strongly by Chinese Zen, laying emphasis on sudden enlightenment. It lasted until the early thirteenth century.

3. Founded by King Tran Nhan Tong in the early thirteenth century, emphasizing sunyata and Absolute Truth in Heart. It is a mediator between Sudden Enlightenment and Gradual Enlightenment.

4. Quoted from Bhikkhu Thich Minh Chau, Some Teachings of Lord Buddha on Peace, Harmony and Human Dignity, Vietnam Buddhist Congregation, Ho Chi Minh City, 1984, p.154.

5. Ibid., p.125.

6. Ibid., p.166.

7. Ibid., p.142.

8. Ibid., p. 20.

9. The Complete History of Dai Viet (Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu), T.II. Social Sciences Publishing House, Hanoi, 1985, pp. 281-83. Before the ending of the resistance war against the Chinese expeditionary force in 1427, Emperor Le Thai To ordered governors of the provinces of Bac Giang and Lang Giang to repair bridges and roads, afford boats to those Chinese war prisoners and surrenders — about 30,000 persons — returning home. And right after the war, prisoners and surrenders were provided with 500 boats, 20,000 horses and sufficient food for their withdrawal.

10. Ibid., T.I., p.165.

11. B. Thich Minh Chau, Some Teachings . . . , p.169.

12. Ibid., p. 68.

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