Đạo Phật Khất Sĩ
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A Brief Survey of the Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam

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Abstract

Researchers might probably feel baffled at an abnormal and undesirable lack of information about the Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition (SBMTV)[1] while they are working on Buddhism in Vietnam or Vietnam Buddhist Sangha which has been officially formed by unifying supposedly all the Buddhists in Vietnam in 1982 including SBMTV’s practitioners who are certainly among its most distinctive members[2]. Why distinctive? Because SBMTV is officially and repeatedly considered as an exclusively-transmitting sect of Vietnam Buddhism[3] and at other places in recent Buddhist literature as an inner-originating tradition of Vietnam Buddhism[4]. That means that the SBMTV with its own form and distinctive style of practice originated or came into being inside the Vietnam territory per se. In other words, the SBMTV has never been introduced to Vietnam by any great masters from outside, let’s presummably say, such as from China, Cambodia, or India as had ever been likely in the past. This paper is an attempt at providing some basic information to address the abnormal and baffling lack as above mentioned. It will explore the following headings: The historical background, Patriarch Minh Đăng Quang the founder and what was founded, the founder patriarch’s missing and what he left behind especially The Truth as his magnum opus. And, lastly, the SBMTV today that cultivates a sense of harmony, among other distinctive practices, as the essential virtue for the prosperity of Buddhist Sangha.

The historical background

The first half of nineteenth century witnessed the unbearable sufferings around the world which was being deadly destructed and severely devastated during the world war II. In that period of time South Vietnam was under the military control of Japanese facists who had just overthrown the French colonists and came to power and was in no time going to be replaced by the recently overthrown French colonists. The Resistance War of the Vietnamese people against the French broke out one more time and it is not easy to overstate how miserable the Vietnamese lives were especially under such a multi-layer devastating pressure of that situation. A tiny safety and a little bit of well-being, if any, available for the Vietnamese people was pulled out from under their feet. The life-threatening and even the kill of ostensible crossfire overtly or covertly took place anywhere at any time. Their world was being collapsed and crushed, whatever it might be, material, emotional, or psychological.

Patriarch Minh Đăng Quang the founder and what was founded

Among the keenest eye-witnesses of the above situation was Minh Đăng Quang who was born in 1923, grew up being matured and engaged in a search for the way to heal. To be miracle or not does not matter, at the age of twenty one he claimed his enlightenment while sitting meditation on the mountain top at Mũi Nai - Hà Tiên, in a kind of religious trance, looking out ecstatically over the far-away gushes of wave on the surface of the unrest ocean. One year later, he started receiving householders as his disciples, a number of them became ordained homeless practitioners. He has undertaken the career of, as he overtly declared, “Transmitting the Sakyamuni Right Dharma – Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam”.

Within the period of 9 years of the active life of Minh Đăng Quang, the spiritual enterprise of healing he initiated with great determination and hard working based on his enlightened vision of Transmitting the Sakyamuni Right Dharma got a solid footing on the soil of South Vietnam in no time. A newborn body of practitioners has been formed with his early disciples - monks, nuns, and laypeople. Viharas have been designed and constructed. There were almost all and every factors of a religious identity or denomination along with its functions and activities that have been planed, scheduled and carried out quite successfully. All this was resulted in the formation of a new version of Buddhism which are originally combinative, syncratic and renovative, if not revolutionary, in character. That is he attempted to go back to the original Buddhism which he meant the ideally perfect congregation led by the Sakyamuni Buddha himself. All the teachings and interpretations in that period of time should be pristine. Hence, Minh Đăng Quang named this version “Nối truyền Thích ca Chánh pháp – Đạo Phật Khất Sĩ Việt Nam” that can be rendered into English as “Transmitting the Sakyamuni Right Dharma – Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam”. It is safe to say that the major part of his dream and his vision in some aspects has been coming true. What Minh Đăng Quang started and worked on with every single bit of his time and energy for solely nine years 1945 – 1954 has been now developing into the full-fledged lineage that is named The Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam (SBMTV), a founding member of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha[5].

The founder patriarch’s missing and what he left behind especially The Truth as his magnum opus.

The early 1954 witnessed the missing of Minh Đăng Quang. The mishap took place while he was on the way from Sa Đéc to Cần Thơ. An armed group from the provincial controlling power took him and his entourage away. Those who had been arrested were all released later except the master. Since then no hearsay about his whereabouts has been reliable or validated. The first of February became the annual commemoration day that the practitioners of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition as a whole gather together, performing the rituals, doing meaningful activities in memory of the missing of their most beloved and most respected Minh Đăng Quang the founder patriarch.

Nine years from 1945 to 1954 is not an extremely long time for the amount of work that Minh Đăng Quang has turned out. He went missing, what he left behind were a congregation of more than hundred ordained members including Bhikkhus or male practitioners as well as Bhikhunis or female practitioners, and thousands of lay people[6] who were practicing five Buddhist precepts under his guidance. In respect of convenient facilities and places for practicing together, he built no less than 20 viharas, approximately, each year more than two viharas came into being. Their locations are scattering around the southern provinces such as Mỹ Tho, Vĩnh Long, Cần Thơ, Đồng Tháp, Trà Vinh, Long An, Tây Ninh, Sóc Trăng.

The age of twenty-one is usually the age of college-going, the age of twenty-two is usually the age of struggling for graduation. The usuality does not apply to the case of Minh Đăng Quang at the age of twenty-one and twenty-two. With the very limited years of schooling under the restriction policy on education as had been set and dictated by foreign authority, and with little assess to sources of reference and information at that time, what Minh Đăng Quang has turned out in the field of literature is simply incredible in terms of critical thinking and creative writing.

The Chơn Lý or the The Truth is the tittle of the book written by Minh Đăng Quang who was among the productive and charismatic of the Buddhist mystic figures in South Vietnam in the first half of 20th century. The word mystic here refers to kind of person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the absolute, in the case of Minh Đăng Quang, to obtain consequently enlightenment and insightful vision. Minh Đăng Quang’s mishap and missing in the early 1954 has left behind incredible and invaluable treasures, physical and non-physical. All of his is so terifically great and simply appreciated that he has been enshrined on altars in several hundreds viharas[7] mostly in Vietnam, a number of them in the United States, Europe, Laos and Australia. Amongwhat he left behind is The Truth which can be said to be his own canonical piece of literature. So great The Truth is though, it is not easy to understate the conditions and facilities for writing it[8] as they had been dictated by the war-torn country of Vietnam around the end of the World War II as mentioned in the historial background above. The Truth in its early version is the collection of 69 pieces of writing which are mostly analytic and interpretive, characteristically shedding light on the seemingly right notions or ostensibly correct understandings. The first topic is A Cosmic Vision; the last, The Guidelines for Novices III. The latest version of The Truth has only 60 writings, the remaining 9 writings or essays were moved to a separate volume that is entittled The Disciplinary of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition[9].

SBMTV today

During Minh Đăng Quang’s nine years of working as the founder of SBMTV, the net of twenty viharas and the congregation of hundred practitioners had come into being. A counting in 1975 told us that the numbers was increasing up to 250 and 1,500 respectively. In 2013 the numbers came up to 1,000 of viharas and more than 2,000 practitioners[10]. The above cut-and-dry numbers say little about what has been happening out there in reality. Generation after generation, the members of SBMTV have been dedicating their time, energy at the best, and even their lives for the survival, sustainability and growing of their lineage throughout the ever-changing circumstances in history.

The year 1982 witnessed the unification of the Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam into the nation-wide umbrella Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). Since then, it has had a new identity, that is, The Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam (SBMTV), and has become the third of the three sects that the VBS consists in. The process of conglomeration has been well enough that almost all the activities of SBMTV are part of VBS including the matters such as admission to the order, ordinations, rainy retreat. The Supreme Patriarch Council of VBS, the Executive Council of VBS, the 13 departments and institute of VBS, the VBS of metropolitan cities, the provincial and local VBS, almost all have been participated contributively by members of SBMTV. The harmony among different traditions of Buddhist practitioners in general are usually said like the mixture of milk and water. Members of SBMTV should cultivate a sense of harmony and unification because each and every Buddhist practitioner should be and really is just as an individual wave in the vast ocean of sangha. That is, in this particular case, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. The practitioners of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition of Vietnam have been inheriting the sense of harmony from the ancient Buddhist texts. Among which there is the one that says, “Now, monks, at such time as the monks dwell in harmony, courteous, without quarrelling, like milk and water mixed, looking on each other with the eye of affection, at such time they beget much merit: at such time, monks, they dwell in the Braman-way: that is to say, in one who is delighted in the heart’s release by sympathy there is born joyousness. The body of the joyous one is calmed. He whose body is calmed feels happiness. The mind of the happy man is balanced.”[11]

 


[1] Hệ phái Phật giáo Khất sĩ in Vietnamese.

[2] When making a survey of Buddhim in Japan, information about Zen which has been an exclusive part of Japanese Buddhism is normally most available for researchers who are surveying. When making a survey of Buddhism in Tibet , information about Tibetan Vajrayana as the Tibetan distinguishing features is overwhelmingly abundant. In the same way, Chan as a distinctive part of Chinese Buddhism has been well informed and documented. The Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy, more or less distinctive though, is an odd case of being extremely scarce of data and information.

[3] Hệ phái Phật giáo Biệt truyền in Vietnamese.

[4] Phật giáo Nội sinh in Vietnamese.

[5] Thành viên sáng lập của Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Việt Nam in Vietnamese.

[6] Nguyễn Quốc Tuấn, his paper titled Some Notes about History and Characteristics of the Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition in Vietnam (Vài Nét Về Lịch Sử Và Đặc Điểm Của Hệ Phái Khất Sĩ Việt Nam), posted in the book The Sect of Buddhist Mendicancy Tradition - The Process of Coming into Being, Developing and Converging, published by Hong Duc Publishing House, Hanoi 2016, pp. 755.

[7] A number of them are named after him, such as Minh Đăng Quang Vihara, Minh Đăng Quang Meditation Center. Two of them are tittled Pháp viện Minh Đăng Quang or Minh Đăng Quang Institute of Dharma.

[8] The hard-surface couch of less than two square metter with a so-called table of less than half a square meter on it. On the table are a notebook and a ball-pen. All is covered by a mosquito net and lighted by a tiny petroleum lamp put inside.

[9] Luật Nghi Khất Sĩ in Vietnamese.

[10] The official numbers are 3,054 members and 541 viharas.

The Council of Executives, Record of The VIIth Nationwide Congress of Buddhist Representatives, term of office 2012 – 2017, Religion Publishing House, Hanoi 2013, p. 29  

[11] Gradual Sayings trans. F.L.Woodward, M.A. Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1995, pp. 222-3.

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