Vietnamese, Buddhist Influences on Literature in

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Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese from 111 b.c.e. to the tenth century c.e. As a result, classical Chinese was the official language of Vietnam until around the middle of the nineteenth century. During the Trần dynasty (1225–1400) in medieval Vietnam there were sporadic efforts to create a system of demotic script (Nôm) to be used for transcribing vernacular Vietnamese. However, this script was based on Chinese radicals and phonetics and required fluency in classical Chinese, so it was never able to replace classical Chinese.

Vietnam came into contact with European countries, particularly France, in the seventeenth century. Within three centuries, and after various modifications, Vietnamese was written exclusively in the Roman alphabet, partly as a result of the work of Catholic missionaries. This romanized Vietnamese was referred to as quốc ngũ (national language) and it became the official language of the country in the middle of the nineteenth century.

From the thirteenth century c.e., when the first Buddhist writings were composed, to the early twentieth century, most Buddhist literature in Vietnam was in classical Chinese, although a number of texts contain chapters, glosses, or afterwords in Nôm. There were also some writings entirely in Nôm, but these works did not gain as wide a circulation as those written in Chinese.

Magazines and newspapers in quốc ngũ, were first published in Vietnam as early as 1865, but most of these early quốc ngũ, periodicals were published by the government and advanced particular political and propagandistic agendas. Buddhist literature in quốc ngũ, did not appear until the 1920s; it was inspired by motivations to modernize Buddhism and to make it more appealing to the general populace. It was a time when classical Chinese studies was on the wane and educated Vietnamese Buddhists, both clerical and lay, believed that the use of quốc ngũ, would help people through the transitional period.

Magazines and periodicals

The Pháp Âm (Sounds of Dharma) and Phật Hóa Thanh Niên (Buddhist Teachings for the Youth) were the first two Buddhist magazines published in quốc ngũ, in the 1920s. In the 1930s, three more magazines, the Tù,Bi Âm (Sounds of Compassion), the Viên Âm (Sounds of Perfection), and the Đuốc Tuệ (Torch of Wisdom), were launched by the three associations of Buddhist studies in Saigon, Hue, and Hanoi, the major cities in the three parts of Vietnam. The articles in these magazines covered topics beyond the boundary of Buddhist doctrines and practices to address issues such as Buddhism and society, Buddhism and science, and Buddhism and modernization. This pattern continued in subsequent decades and reached a high point between 1954 and 1975. For example, T? T?ởng (Thought), a journal published by Vạn Hạnh Buddhist University in Saigon in the late 1960s, was a pioneering effort in the comparative studies of Buddhism and continental philosophy.


Vernacular Buddhist literature in the form of books can be divided into two categories: books on a variety of topics on Buddhism and translations, mostly from Chinese, of Buddhist texts. Around 1932 in Saigon, the lay Buddhist scholar Đoàn Trung Còn founded a publishing house named Phật Học Tùng Thu, (Buddhist Publications), which published a number of books covering a wide range of Buddhist topics. In 1940 the Phật Học Tùng Thu, began publishing books aimed at a young audience. Some of the most prolific authors in this period, such as the monk Thi?n Chiễu, aimed at explaining Buddhism from a modern perspective to a new generation of intellectuals with a Western education. In sum, the majority of Vietnamese books on Buddhism were written with a view to making Buddhism accessible to the general populace. They range from Buddhist catechism to instructions on niệm Phật (contemplating the name of Amitābha Buddha, nenbutsu).

Translations of Buddhist texts

Most Buddhist literature in quốc ngũ, consists of translations of Buddhist texts from Chinese. Quốc ngũ, translations of Buddhist texts began in the 1920s with the translation of the Guiyuan zhizhi (Returning to the Sources), a Chinese text on the practice of Pure Land Buddhism. During the 1930s the Phật Học Tùng Thu, published translations of the major Mahāyāna sūtras and philosophical treatises such as the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra), the Amitābha Sūtra, the Liuzu tan jing (Platform Sūtra), the Diamond SŪtra, and the Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixinlun). This effort continued in subsequent decades, and eventually other principal Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras, the Ratnakuṭa-sūtra, and the Śuraṅgama–sūtra, were also translated into Vietnamese. In the 1970s the monk Thích Minh Châu, then rector of Vạn Hạnh Buddhist University, translated the Pāli nikāyas into quốc ngũ, Given the fact that Vietnamese Buddhism is predominantly Mahāyāna, Minh Châu's work was a remarkable contribution to the country's Buddhist literature. Since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, there have been massive reprints of Buddhists texts, mostly quốc ngũ, translations by Vietnamese Buddhists living overseas.

The most important vernacular Buddhist works in Vietnamese, however, are manuals for daily chanting and occasional rituals. These manuals vary from one temple to another, but they contain almost the same materials: complete or partial quốc ngũ, translations or transliterations of the Buddhist texts that are used in daily and special rituals and observances.

In sum, Buddhist literature in quốc ngũ, includes an array of writings on a variety of topics covering basic Buddhist teachings and practices, together with translations of the major Buddhist sūtras. Most were published for practical religious use and to address the immediate needs of Vietnamese Buddhists. Occasionally, books on aspects of Buddhist philosophy or translations of philosophical treatises are published. For instance, there are quốc ngũ, translations of some principal treatises of the Madhyamaka and YogĀcĀra schools (the two major philosophical schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism), but these are intended more for personal intellectual gratification than as part of a larger systematic program of sectarian learning or practice.

See also:Pure Land Buddhism; Ritual; Vietnam


Nguyễn Khắc Kham. So,-thảo mục-lục thutịch về Phật-Giáo Viêt-Nam (A Bibliography on Vietnamese Buddhism). Saigon, Vietnam: Ministry of National Education, 1963.

Nguyễn Lang. Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử, Luận (Essays on History of Vietnamese Buddhism). Hanoi, Vietnam: Literature Publishing House, 2000.

Phạm Thề Ngũ. Việt Nam Văn Học Sử Giản U,ó,c Tân Biên (A New Concise History of Vietnamese Literature), Vol. 1. Saigon, Vietnam: Quốc Học Tùng Thu,, 1961–1965.

Tran, Van Giap. Contribution à l'Etude des Livres Annamites conservés à l'Ecole Francaise d'Extrême-Orient. Tokyo: La Societe Internationale du Bouddhisme au Japon, 1943.

Trần Hống Liên, Phật Giáo Nam Bộ Từ, Thề Kỷ 17 đền 1975 (Buddhism in the South: From 17th Century to 1975). Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Phố Hố Chí Minh City Publishing House, 1996.

Cuong Tu Nguyen

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