The Buddhist Pantheon in Vietnam
Tran Van Giap
Buddhism is a predominant religion in Vietnam. While in this country Buddhism is no longer a state religion, ninety per cent of Vietnamese remain Buddhists. Pagodas abound here from the Gate of Nam Quan to the Cape of Ca Mau.
But one should agree first with the meaning of the word pagoda. The Western people have this tiresome habit of using this term to indicate any temple in the Far East. The New Illustrated Petit LAROUSSE gives it the sense of "chapelle"! That is an error capable of creating confusion. A typical example is that of the famous Quan Thanh temple. This is a very ancient monument built on the bank of Hanoi’s Great Lake, in one of the most picturesque sites of Vietnam’s capital city. It is dedicated to the cult of a great Taoist genius who legend is obscure enough. One finds there a magnificent statute of genius, in sheened bronze. The French, at the time of establishing French Protectorate in this country (1884), have given this temple a name since then consecrated, "the Pagoda of the Brand Buddha". In fact, the word pagoda should only serve to designate a building consecrated in the cult of Buddha. It is in this sense that the Vietnamese understand that word. If one also finds in pagodas the statues of Bodhisattva and certain other gods and geniuses that is not surprising at all, because a Bodhisattva is almost a Buddha, and these gods and geniuses except a few that I would indicate later - are those Buddhist gods and geniuses who had made the wish of serving religion; it is thus natural that they have their place in the "Buddhist pantheon".Another remark is necessary: Buddhist practiced in Vietnam, as well as in China and Japan, is Buddhism of "Great Vehicle" which recognise, outside the historic Buddha Sakyamuni, numerous other Buddhas and Bodhisattva and Buddhist gods and geniuses while "primitive Buddhism" practiced above all in Ceylon, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, only recognises one Buddha, Sakyamuni, the founder of the religion.Besides, Vietnamese Buddhists, like most of their Chinese and Japanese co-religious, claim to be of "Tinh Do" sect. This expression means "pure land" by opposition to impure land of sufferings and pains where we are. Those who, by their virtues and from their wishes, are reborn in one of those pure lands, are definitely assured of their eventual Deliverance and become finally Buddhas.Save it however to imagine that there is here some resemblance with the "paradise" of the Christians. As a matter of fact, this pure land of the Buddhists is only a stage on the road of supreme deliverance while the paradise as it is conceived by Christians seems to be the purposes for disciples of Christ. Each pure land has its own Buddha and he who presides at the pure land named "All Bliss" (Cuc Lac) so much sought by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists is not Sakyamuni but AMITAYS (or AMITABHA Buddha). Amitayus means Infinite Longevity and Amitabha Infinite Light. It is Sakyamuni himself who has said in sutra Amitabha (Kinh A-Di-Da) well known to Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists and in which a detailed and very interesting description of that marvelous country of "All Bliss" is found.This explains the preeminence of Amitabha Buddha in Vietnamese pagodas. His statue is always the most imposing of all.
These preceding remarks will help us in better seizing the symbolic sense of statues and of principles which preside in their disposition in pagodas of Vietnam.
This disposition is not settled by any known text but here is in general how statues are placed.
A) Buddhas in general
First, in all pagodas, at the far end of the main sanctuary and high up near the roof, on the same row, three statues sitting on lotus flowers, of medium size, all similar, represent the whole of present, past and future Buddhas (Tuong Tam The).
This group of three similar statues has another significance. They symbolize the Three Bodies of Each Buddha. The First Body is Mystical Body or Body of the Law, Primordial Principle, Unique and universal where are issued the Second Body of Sympathy and the Third Body, Body of Phantasmagoria. This is the matter of Doctrine of Three Bodies, or Trikaya, as I said above.
B) Amitayus (or Amitabha) Buddha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthanaprata Bodhisattva
At the second rank, three statues: one sitting in the middle being the largest, that of Amitayus (or Amitabha) the Buddha who presides at the pure land "All Bliss" we just spoke about, having on his left and standing, a statue of Bodhisattva Mahasthanaprata, also standing and of the same size.Amitayus (or Amitabha) Buddha (A Di Da Phat) is the Buddha reigning at the land of "All Bliss", a Western country located at some billion of million of miles from here and which is the most famous of pure lands, the most infatuated by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists of "Tinh Do" great sect. Amitabha Buddhas, when he was only a monk, had promised in one of his famous "Forty-eight great oaths" that when becoming Buddha, he would lead the souls towards the land of "All Bliss" on conditions that they should perfectly be virtuous and send out themselves with absolute fervor the wish of being reborn in this country.Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Quan The Am Bo Tat) and Mahasthanaprata Bodhisattva (Dai The Chi Bo Tat) are so to speak the two "Assistants" who helped Amitabha in his great cause of Deliverance of souls.Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva! One would not say of Buddhism without evoking this admirable figure of Bodhisattva which is Avalokitesvara, one of two remarkable creations of "Great Vehicle" Buddhism. Bodhisattva is the most famous and most popular in the Buddhist world. He is the symbol of Charity, Compassion and Love in what is purest most beautiful, greatest, highest, deepest and most moving…By exerting his auditory faculty during thousands of million of years, this Bodhisattva has come to hear the least sigh of smallest beings, the least sound of the world. He "hears" all thinking which is formed in the mind of mortals even before they express it. In case of danger, suffice it to call him by name of just to think of him with all fervor of our soul that he would immediately come to our rescue. This is why people call him Quan The Am (abridged: Quan Am) "Kuan-Yin" in Chinese.Spirited with an immense and equal compassion for all beings, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva manifests himself in most diverse forms: man, woman, child, monk, woman-monk, king, prince, princes, dragon, tiger etc. and he orders all geniuses who start rain and thunder, storms and typhoons, all this uniquely to save poor mortals plunged in the "Sea of sufferings" (from the sutra "Lotus of the Good Law", Kinh Dieu Phap Lien Hoa). This gives us an idea of the Great Mercy of Buddha. The poverty in language of men and the meaning of words would never be able to express the whole Buddhist pity.The second "Assistant" of Amitabha is Bodhisattva Mahasthanaprata, a name which means "All Might" (Dai The Chi Bo Tat). What is particularly remarkable in this Bodhisattva is that he reached saintliness by the way of "Niem Phat Tam Muoi", a form of yoga which consists in thinking ceaselessly of Buddha without ever relaxing and to conform strictly to teachings of Buddha, and this practice must be pushed to the supreme degree of perfection. It is Bodhisattva Mahasthanaprat himself who has revealed this method before Sakyamuni when he asked all Bodhisattva of showing each of their way to reaching the target. According to sutra Surangama (Kinh thu Lang Nghiem) Mahasthanaprata declared he had learned this yoga from a very ancient Buddha who was the twelfth of a line of Buddhas the first of whom existed since an incalculable number of centuries, a number comparable to that of sand grains which roll under the Ganges river.Mahasthanaprata had made the oath of assisting those souls desiring to be reborn in the land of "All Bliss" of Amitabha; this is why his place is appointed to be beside this Buddha.The statues of Amitabha Buddha, of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and of Mahasthanaprata Bodhisattva (this Buddhist Trinity if it can be so expressed) are inseparable in almost all pagodas in Vietnam. This group of three statues is called Tuong Di Da Tam Ton.
At the third row, three statues: one sitting in the middle, that of Sakyamuni (Thich Ca Mau Ni) the Founder of the Religion, having on his left a statue of Manjucri Bodhisattva (Van Thu Bo Tat or Man Thu That Loi or again abridged Van Thu) and on his right one of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Pha Hien or Pho Hien Bo Tat).
Manjucri is represented either standing on a big lotus flower, or sitting on the back of green lion, Samatabhadra also standing on a big lotus flower or sitting on a kneeled white elephant. The lion, king of animals, represents a great force of intelligence of which Manjucri is the symbol and the white elephant the pure and solid Truth of which Samantabhadra Bodhisattva is the guardian.
In certain pagodas, the statue of Sakyamuni represents this Buddha holding in hand a lotus flower and having on his left Maha Kacyapa (Dai Ca Diep) and on his right Ananda (A Nam Da or A Nan or again Ai Nan), two of his greatest disciples at the time of living Sakyamuni. These two Great Followers are figured under the features of two of monks, the one old Maha Kacyapa, and the other young, conforming to Buddhist tradition.
D) Statue of Nine Dragons
On the fourth row and in the middle, there is a statue called "Tuong Cuu Long" (Statue of Nine Dragons). People still call it "Tuong Thich Ca so sinh" (Statue of new-born Sakyamuni).This is a small statue representing Sakyamuni surrounded by nine dragons. Buddhist books relate that during the birth of Sakyamuni, nine dragons came down from the sky, spitting water to bathe him while Bodhisattvas and celestial gods started singing and praying to feast him among melodious sounds of celestial music in a great procession of parasols and multi-colored banners. Sakyamuni then made seven steps forward, the left hand raised to the sky and the right hand pointing to the earth while pronouncing these words: "In the sky and on earth "ME" along is THE VERY HIGH:. That is only a legend - I hasten to say it - and that "ME" is the famous word which, since centuries, has produced most diverse interpretations, provoking philosophical controversies on the theory of "non ego" (anatta).It is after this legend that this historic Buddha statue is made under form of a new-born, standing, the left hand raised to the sky and the right hand pointing to the earth, statue surrounded by nien dragons circling among the clouds and Bodhisattvas, gods and celestial musicians.
On the left of "New-born Sakyamuni statue" one finds this Buddhist god of De Thich (god-king of 33 skies) and on the right that of another Buddhist god Dai Pham Thien Vuong, (the Buddhist Brahma). They are two great guardians and protectors of Buddhist religion.Such are the main statues and such is the way they are arranged in the main sanctuary of most pagodas.
In big pagodas, one also finds statues of four Buddhist gods who preside over four cardinal points. These four statues are placed on two rows, the last ones from the far end and the closest from the platform where believers kneel and bow down during the sacrifice.
In certain pagodas, these four gods are replaced by four Bodhisattvas represented under the form of celestial geniuses. They are: Bodhisattva Ai holding in hand an arrow, Bodhisattva Sach holding a rope, Bodhisattva Ngu holding a tongue and Bodhisattva Quyen with fists on the breast.
Beside, one can see in some other pagodas statues of eight Bodhisattvas named Kim Cuong whose presence is signaled in all solemn sessions of predication of Sakyamuni and often mentioned in Buddhist books. Kim Cuong means diamond, this to allude to the invincible force of those Bodhisattvas who strike hard and who are the terror for evil spirits. There must be of these giants to effectively protect the believers. They are guardians of the Religion. The eight "Kim Cuong" as well as four Bodhisattvas Ai, Sach, Ngu and Quyen are precisely those who have made long years the vow of bringing their invincible force at the service of Buddhism and Buddhists.
In general way, for the sake of meaning, statues must a arranged as it is described above.Buddhas being Perfect Beings definitively relieved from all attachment to the impure land, their statues are placed in the far end and all high up.
Amitabha being the Great Savior of souls and Sakyamuni historic Buddha, the Great Master of gods and men, the statues of these two Buddhas, have their place as it should be in the central part of the sanctuary.
The Bodhisattvas and Great Disciples of Sakyamuni being so called "Immediate Collaborators" are naturally placed by the sides of the Grand Master.As for geniuses and Buddhist gods who put their power and authority on men at the service of Religion, they have their statues on the last rows from the end, which is near men to exert on them their salvation action.
E) Other Ways of Arranging Statues in the Main Sanctuary
In certain pagodas, either by ignorance or for reasons of convenience, or again for the motives we don’t know, one does not always arrange statues according to indicated order.In general, there are in all pagodas the three statues of Tam The from the first row and the statue of Amitabha Buddha on the second rank. But from the third row on, one can see different arrangements as follows.
1. One the third row, to put the statue of Master Bodhisattva (Di Lac Bo Tat) at the place of the three statues of Sakyamuni, Manjucri and Smantabhadra Bodhisattva.
Maitreya is the future Buddha. He will be the first Buddha successor of Sakyamuni in this world as soon as mission of the latter would eventually end…which means within some 8, 108,000 years.He is represented always in the form of a big chubby man, sitting on a large lotus flower, breast naked, the face with a smile stretching from ear to ear, and a glad and satisfied look. Folks call him commonly - and a little irreverently "Mousieur Sans Souci" - "One Vo Lo". People explains this attitude of Maitreya by relying on Buddhist books which assure us that this Bodhisattva, come to the supreme degree of saintliness and having his place reserved among Buddhas, is glad to find himself relieved definitively of all concern and finally free from all subjection to eventualities of temporal existence.Sometime, one puts by sides of Maitreya two statues on the left of a Bodhisattva named Phap Hoa Lam, on the right a statue of Dai Dieu Tuong Bodhisattva, by analogy to the group of Da Tam Ton which comprises as we have seen Amitabha Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprata.
One finds in certain pagodas Sakyamuni represented under the form of a monk thinned by fast and hardships, having but bones and skin, and this to recall an episode of his ascetic life on Mount Tuyet Son (Himalaya). This statue of Sakyamuni is commonly called "Statue Tuyet Son". Right under is placed the statue of his future successor Maitreya "Monsieur Sans Souci" with naked breat we just talked about. The contrast is striking, and this made it that the two statues are picturesuely - and a little irreverently - called one "the Mister who deprived himself of food to wear cloth" and the other, (the Mister who deprived himself of cloth to feed".2. Another process consists in placing - always on the third row - only the statue of Maitreya but right under that of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in front of the "Statue of Nine Dragons".This statue of Avalokitesvara represents a Bodhisattva having a great number of arms (in general four, eight, twelve or twenty four) as allusion to the omnipotence of that Grand Bodhisattva who has a thousand eyes and a thousand arms, which means he sees all and can do all. This statue is well known and very popular in Vietnam. People call it the "Statue of thousand eyes and arms (Tuong Thien Thu Thien Nhan) Avalokitesvara is easily recognizable under this form. 3. In some pagodas, one wrongly replaces the two statues of Buddhist gods De Thich and Dai Pham Thien Vuong by three statues of Taoist geniuses placed before the "Statue of Nine Dragons": they are those of Ngoc Hoang (the Taoist Brahma) and Nam Tao (Genius who presides over birth) and Bac Dau (Genius who presides over Death). The unfortunate presence of these Taoist geniuses in the Buddhist pantheon is ascribable to a regrettable ignorance of the dogmas of Buddhism.4. Another process consists in placing at the end, on the left and on the right and a little back of the main sanctuary, a statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and another of Mahasthanaprata Bodhisattva, or a statue of Manjucri Bodhisattva and another of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (who presides over Hell) and a guardian genius of the pagoda called Tho Than or Tho Dia Than or Duc Chua or Duc Ong.
Here, Avalokitesvara is again represented either under the form of a lone woman - that is a statue of Phat Da Dieu Thien either under the form of a woman holding a child in her arms - that is the statue of Quan Am Tong Tu or Quan Am Thi Kinh. Thi Kinh is proper noun of woman. There is a very moving and popular legend around this time, a legend which no one in Vietnam ignores and merits to be recalled briefly here.
Once upon a time, there was a very virtuous and beautiful young woman named Thi Kinh. Her husband, a young man named Thien Si, was very jealous, to the point that one day, by some insignificant misunderstanding, he suspected her of infidelity. The unfortunate innocent put up with her fate but tired of this world, she dedicated to Buddha. She had her hair cut and made herself…not a bronze, knowing too well what horrible crimes her beauty would make men commit - but a monk, thanks to an appropriate disguise. Unfortunately, a woman of easy virtue named Thi Mau who frequented the pagoda, was passionately enamored to the young monk, and by trying to get attached to "him", she calumniated "him" by throwing in "his" arms a baby he was not father. The young disguised monk was then chased from the pagoda, beaten and vilified by the crowd and hardly punished according to the severe laws of the time.Thi Kinh, bruised in her flesh but stronger than ever in her soul since given herself to Buddha, felt an immense pity for the blindness of men. To kill herself to put an end of her sufferings? No, she immediately chased that idea, and in a magnificent surge of supreme sacrifice, she accepted the baby, cherished him and brought him up on hard work and deprivation, living alone in disgrace and shame, until the day when she died, overwhelmed by so much sufferings and finally arrived at the end of her martyrdom.
It was only then that her old torturers noticed of their error. For the young monk was a woman! The "father" of the baby was a woman! Finally Thi Kinh was understood. She was rendered justice, and people made her a Bodhisattva. As Avalokitesvara is a symbol of Charity and Compassion and it is capable of showing itself under diverse form, people were naturally brought to think that Thi Kinh is no one else but Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in person.It is after this belief that he is dedicated with a statue representing a woman carrying a child in her arm and having at her sides a parrot, who is one else but Thien Si, the jealous husband, metamorphosed into a bird in the process of their rebirth.
5. Finally, in some rare pagodas, people add below the "Statue of Nine Dragons" a statue of Sakyamuni representing this Buddha at the time he went into Nirvana, lying on the left side with the head resting on the left arm curled up: that is the "Statue of Nat Ban".II. PERISTYLE
In the adjoining room of the main sanctuary, - sort of peristyle officiated (Nha Bai Duong), one can find in general:
A) Two Great Statues of Warriors Either Standing or Sitting on the Back of a Hieratic Animal Similar to a Lion (Con Sau)
They are two Buddhist geniuses, guardians of the religion (Ho Phap) the one called Khuyen Thien (who encourages Goodness and Charity), the other Trung Ac (who punishes the villains). People call them commonly Ong Thien (Mister Charitable) and Ong Ac (Mister Wicked). "Mister Charitable: has a nice look and white face on with breathes benevolence in spite of his tall body and his armours. "Mister Wicked" on the contrary has a red face and a terrible look. The mothers never missed to show him to trembling children every time they go to pagoda. In fact, this Buddhist genius is not wicked at all. He is only just, though terrible. According to sutra Nirvana (Kinh Nat Ban) he was formerly a King in flesh and bones who, disgusted at the bad conduct and arrogance of the monks of his time, had punished them severely and since then had made the oath of dealing ruthlessly against all evil spirits whatever they are and particularly against the saboteurs of Religion.B) Statue of Genius Guardian of the Pagoda
This Buddhist genius is indifferently Tho Than, or Tho Dia Than or Duc Chua or Duc Ong. His statue represents him under the form of a civil Mandarin. He has an eye on all that exists and on all that happens in the pagoda. He is responsible of all properties furnitures and building of the pagoda. The criminals have a particular fear of him, and it is extremely rare, in normal time, that thefts happen in places consecrated to the cult of Buddha.
C) Statue "Thanh Hien" (Saint)It is generally a simple statue of Bodhisattva which has nothing remarkable. No distinctive sign allows one to say that it is such or such Bodhisattva. People indicate him as either Samantabhadra, or Ksutigarbha. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva is the guardian of Truth, Ksutigarbha presides over Hell.
Sometimes, people place a statue of Ksutigarbha on one side and of Avalokitesvara on the other. In this case, the altar of the genius guardian of the pagoda is displaced to another corner of the peristyle or elsewhere.
D) In both lateral parts on the left and right of the main sanctuary, and if the place is large enough, people put the statues of ten gods of the Hell (Thap Dien Diem Vuong).
They are so to say the Presidents of ten tribunals before which the head are judged as soon as they come down to the Hell. These Buddhist gods are represented under the form of Kings. They are reputable as implacable Judges, but the most righteous they are: there, good souls are assured of never being victims of justice errors.
III LATERAL OUTBUILDINGS
A) The Arahats
Big pagodas have lateral outbuildings (Nha Hanh Lang) in which there is a great number of Statues of Arahats (A La Han or abridged La Han).
An arahat is so to speak a Saint. He is less than a Buddha in the eyes of "Great Vehicle" Buddhism, but for the "Lesser Vehicle" he is an accomplished and immortal Saint (bat sinh bat diet) who has nothing more to learn (vo hoc) and worthy of receiving gifts and homage from gods and men (Ung cung -Ung thu cung dang).The number of these Arahat statues varies according to pagodas. Sometimes there are sixteen, sometimes there are eighteen. Each Arahat is represented in a different attitude, but they are all thoughtful. Some have a very expressive face. This multitude and diversity has produced, in the Vietnamese language, the current expression of bay la liet nhu La Han (or simply bay nhu La Han) often used to indicate the display of things in disordered and disparate aspect.
B) Tortures of the Hell
In lateral outbuildings of big pagodas, one sometimes finds groups of small statues the whole of which constitutes what is called in Vietnamese "Mat Dong": those are tortures abstained by the villains once they come down to Hell. One can see there Judges at severe look, terrifying tortures at buffalo or horse head, horrible torturing instruments and finally torture victims (men and women) agonizing or vainly struggling in fire, iron and blood.There is no child in Vietnam who, accompanying mother to the pagoda, does not ask to see the "Mat Dong". Even adults are seriously interested too.IV HOUSES OF THE MONKS
Behind the central building and lateral outbuildings (when they exist) one finds in all pagodas another outbuilding comprising sometimes many large enough compartments where monks live in - or bronzes if it is a feminine community. That is the Tang Duong, more commonly called Nha To or Nha Hau.
In one of these compartments, there is an altar dedicated to the cult of deceased "Buddhist Popes". The most famous of them, worshipped in most pagodas, is Bodhidharma (To Bo De Dat Ma or briefly To Dat Ma), considered as being the first in China, Vietnam and Japan. That is the twenty-eighth "Buddhist Pope" of India, the first being Maha Kacyapa (Dai Ca Diep). His statue, easily recognizable, represents him in the features of a Hindu in tanned complexion and wearing a beard.
* *Thus is, in general, the disposition of statues in Vietnam pagodas.
It proceeds, however, from the principles conforming to the dogmas of "Great Vehicle" Buddhism.Let no one be surprised that there are in the pagodas the statues of Ngoc Hoang, Nam Tao, and Bac Dau, the others already mentioned and related at the beginning of this study are all god and Buddhist geniuses. The question here is "Great Vehicle" Buddhism. The "Great Vehicle" Buddhism recognizes the existence of all gods and devils. But only honoured are those gods and Buddhist geniuses who, by their beneficial wishes, deserve a rendered cult. Nevertheless, there is no cultural building specially consecrated to them. If they have their place in the surroundings of Buddhas and Bodhisattva, the main cult in pagodas always remains that of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.If one now examines the philosophical side of the question, it would be good to recall here the theory of "Karma". A sutra of "Great Vehicle" which could be usefully studied is sutra Ksutigarbha (Kinh Dia Tang) in which one finds a detailed description of Hell and above all - what is much more interesting - an explanation of the existence of gods and devils by the effect of "Karma" (Nghiep Cam).So tackled, I owe to the truth of recognizing that in Vietnam a deplorable custom is established, which consists in transplanting on the cult of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas a degenerated Taoist cult, that all informed Buddhists, whether they are Vietnamese or foreigners, fully complain. One would find almost all pagodas statues of geniuses which have nothing in common with Buddhism. People call these geniuses "Chu Vi". They have their alters in the "Nha Hau" (Back House).I have no intention of combating such and such religion, but it seems to me that "Freedom of conscience" does not mean "Nonsense" or "chaos". Let the followers of certain debased Taoists put the states of "Ong Hoang", "Ba Chua", "Cac Co", "Cac Cau" in such pantheon they please, but not in the Buddhist pantheon. They must have no place in the pagoda.It is true that most proselytes of this extra-Buddhist cult are to be recruited among the feminine class. Whatever it is, it is eminently wished, in my sense, that our Vietnamese Buddhists return to a healthier conception of Buddhist cult.
Source: Vietnamese Studies, No 2 - 1993, Hanoi, Vietnam
Computer typesetting: Lydia Quang Nhu