Vietnam in transition: reflections on Change (5)

The spiritual dimensions
of change


With modernisation, commerce and migration, come other worldviews imported through Christianity since late 19C and other ideologies such as Communism and Liberalism since mid 20C, followed by Globalism in early 21C. The change brought upon the Vietnamese society through different historical contexts had significantly disrupted the thousand-year-old traditions of the agro-based cultures of the East. However, in modern times, Vietnamese people are not conscious of the boundaries between these three philosophical concepts on the changes in their way of celebration and worshipping, nor are they aware of the change in their way of interacting with family members, colleagues or neighbours in their everyday life.

What is remarkable about this transformation is the desire for a peaceful co-existence despite the ideological schism that shook the intelligentsia of the pre-war period. According to Dao Duy Anh, the Entre-Deux-guerres Vietnamese society was composed of three trends:

(1) The New School (Phai Tan-Hoc) represented by Truong Vinh Ky, Nguyen Van Vinh, Nguyen Hien Le adopts the modernisation process by a complete renovation of the educational system according to the French model;

(2) In particular, the Old School (Phai Thu Cuu) represented by Phan Khoi, Phan Boi Chau and Tran Trong Kim has greatly influenced many generations of artists, songwriters, educators and politicians alike; and In between,

(3) The Midway School (Phai Trung Dung) represented the majority, the relativists who adopted a Midway philosophy, typical of the Three-Religion tradition.

Taoism: Values and Practices

Indeed the principal characteristic of Vietnamese people is the love for harmony by compromising one’s beliefs to suit the majority’s opinion in conflictual confrontation. Therefore, adopting the Tam-Giao or 3-Religion tradition, combining the wisdom of Zen-Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, is a position most Vietnamese would take in times of change.

What is the Taoist way of life for Vietnamese?

Tao (Đạo in Vietnamese) is an ancient concept introduced in the early days of civilisation and is part of the gems of Eastern philosophies. Taoist sages built their attitudes on the idea of Tao as an absolute, essential, without form or name, mysterious, and indescribable Truth. According to the Taoist concept, people can achieve a perfect life without excessive effort, stress and anxiety.

Since ancient times, Taoists adopted to live in harmony with the Tao or the Way (Đạo in Vietnamese), they integrated into their celebration rituals that drew cosmological concepts of Yin-yang principles. They interpreted phenomena that affected their lives according to the I Ching Book of Change (Kinh Dịch) to cultivate themselves following the alternating cycles of nature.

In practice, the Taoist philosophy can be manifest in the form of feng-shui or geomancy for a harmonious balance between the positive and negative energy for healthy living and longevity, including zen meditation practice combined with Buddhist mantra for clarity of the mind and positive thinking.  Tao practices in the cult of deities are similar to the Vietnamese ancestral worship celebrations that combine paying respect to Buddha as well as self-cultivation on moral and ethical behavior and showing gratitude to spiritual mentors and living in harmony between siblings. Through kinship relations and the love of the land and being responsible for the welfare of family members and relatives are the ethics equivalent to patriotism. These values are taught in the Confucian codes of conduct and family rules which are abundant in the Vietnamese literature. In particular, Ly van Phuc’s “Nhi Thap Tu Hieu” (The story of twenty-four obedient sons), a manual inspired by Chinese teachings on filial piety, was widely used as a classic textbook for education for many generations of Vietnamese.

In essence, Taoism differs from Confucianism by not emphasizing rigid rituals and social order but it still shares Confucian teachings in achieving “perfection” by becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the Universe called Tao or the ‘right’ way. Similarly, Vietnamese modes of celebration such as keeping a vegetarian diet or other spiritual practices according to the cycles of the moon (lunar calendar) in praying to Buddha, and paying respect to the deceased parents and relatives are considered an ethical conduct. In the Vietnamese vocabulary and daily prayer, the God Creator is referred to as “Ông Trời” or the Universe. And as the Creator is omnipresent and can watch (or punish), all our actions must follow the ethical principles of good behavior (thiện) and avoid unethical conduct (ác), based on the Buddhist karmic principles.

Confucian Virtues: Values and Practices

Confucian and Han-Viet education were present in Vietnam until the beginning of 20C. Therefore, the question here is not about why Vietnamese need to study classic Chinese Literature but rather how much Confucianism has influenced the education system in Vietnam for over a thousand years.

With the conversion to Western education, the Old School protagonists or traditionalists were not trying to oppose the new system. Still, they criticised a too abrupt change in rejecting old values and traditions and abandoning the practice of Confucian values such as filial piety, loyalty, integrity and benevolence. In doing so, they have contributed significantly to preserving the harmony of society and families in times of transition.

Phan Khoi[1] (1887-1959) was born in a mandarin family and received his education in Han studies and bilingual education in French-Vietnamese. Both a writer and a political activist, his contribution to several journals such as Dang Co Tung Bao, Nam Phong Tap Chi, Luc Tinh Tan Van, Than Chung to name a few, cost him jail time during the French colonial period. The same fate happened again due to his engagement with the Nhan Van Giai Pham movement for a free press. He remains a role model for his political engagement for education and academic freedom.

Born during the same historical period, Tran Trong Kim[2] is also remembered as the reference in preserving traditional values and integrating them into modern education. His contribution to moral education for Vietnamese primary schools remains his most significant legacy. Respecting the tradition of “tiên học lễ, hậu học văn”, meaning one should learn to respect first before one learns how to write, the values-based education model that incorporated modernity and ethical values was the top priority of his cabinet policy for education in the new Vietnam. A generation later in early 21C, Tran Duc Huynh’s Introduction to Moral and Ethics Literature followed his path and introduced ideas from foreign scholars such as Fouquet, Cuvillier, Meynard, Huisman, Pascal, etc. So, the millennial generation Vietnamese students who are preparing to enter university in modern times is now following the footsteps of our predecessors after almost a century later.

Buddhism: Values and Practices

Buddhism is perceived as a philosophy because of its open mindset and high tolerance for other schools of thought. To many Vietnamese, Buddhism is also a religion as it has its religious rituals and dogma and has been practiced by the majority of the people under different forms of worship.

Among the classics on Buddhist practice in Vietnam, Dao Duy Anh’s work once more showed his profound knowledge of the Buddhist mind. His Introduction to Zen Studies in China and Vietnam is a very valuable source for research on Buddhist practices during the Middle-Age days of Vietnam. Through his translation of King Tran Thai Tong’s Buddhist book Khóa Hư Lục, he very accurately assessed the influence of Zen Buddhism on great authors of classical Vietnamese literature such as Nguyen Trai, Ngo Thi Nham, and Nguyen Du. (Trần Thái Tông, Đào Duy Anh (trad.), Khóa Hư Lục, NXB Khoa Học Xã Hội, 1974)

Another classic work on Buddhist practices in Vietnam is written by Tran Trong Kim. In the preface of Buddhism in Three Speeches published by Tan-Viet Publishing, the author reminds readers of the profound influence of the Tam Giao tradition on Vietnamese spiritual life. While Taoism preaches non-violence, Buddhism teaches us to avoid suffering by distancing from all possible sources of suffering caused by the senses and the emotion arisen thereof that leads to positive or negative reactions. The positive emotion is defined as “thien” or constructive, whereas the negative emotion is defined as “ac” or destructive, which leads to “suffering” or un-satisfaction.

One of the main characteristics of Buddhism that attract a lot of followers is its interpretation of ‘change’ as the impermanence of life. Not accepting this fundamental concept will lead to suffering arising from deception, disappointment, and despair when a change occurs in your life, such as the separation of your beloved ones, a downturn in your social status, a loss of material benefits, feelings of insecurity, etc. The Dalai Lama named these feelings destructive emotions.

Therefore, Buddhism encourages cultivating oneself to be immune to the ‘change’ when it occurs. Through the practice of meditation, one can stabilize one’s mind, and through observing rituals such as a diet for a certain period in the year, being vegetarian or vegan, practicing the five precepts, such as “do not kill”, “do not lie”, “do not steal”, “do not indulge in immoral practice”, and “do not abuse harmful substance” according to the eightfold path rules (or Bat Chanh Dao) will help to stabilize one’s temperament. Zen meditation practice combined with mantra – a form of prayer –  is part of the exercise that helps to create awareness of the fluctuations of your emotional states. Deeper philosophical concepts of these emotional fluctuations are analysed in terms of chemical reactions of yin-yang elements (according to Taoist interpretations) or hormonal reactions according to modern psycho-analysis methods.

As Buddhist practices vary per region and per culture, they are not equally practiced in the same manner in each part of the same location. Therefore, the practice that was imported through the Silk Trade Routes by Buddhist monks and traders has more characteristics of Southern Buddhism, as compared to the influence through Chinese translated scriptures that came by way of literary education. The Buddhist impact also changed depending on the political decision of certain kings who made Buddhism the national religion, or some others who chose Confucianism as the way of governance. 

As a philosophy, Buddhism is integrated into the studies of Philosophy and Religion in some curricula, especially for the training of monks. The University of Van Hanh is currently the reference for such training. Unlike Thailand or Burma where the influence of Buddhism is still very visible, Vietnamese monks and nuns are administered by the State and have to earn a living in society, but continue to practice their faith in the Pagodas or temples. Most are regarded as spiritual mentors and loved for their exemplary conduct in life. Temples (or Pagoda) are sacred places where people of all walks of life could just come in and receive free food and shelter when they are in trouble. The pagoda is also a place for worship of the dead and assures the role of social assistance or conflict resolution between parties or people in distress.

With its thousand-year history in the heart of Vietnamese people, Buddhism still occupies an important place in Vietnamese arts and literature. As Vietnamese people are now scattered all over the world, it would be impossible to assess the full impact of Buddhism on the Vietnamese thinking. However, some research works may help to Have a deeper understanding of Buddhism and its influence in Vietnam. Ven. Mat The’s ‘Short History of Buddhism in Vietnam’ (Vietnam Phat Giao Su Luoc (1943) is a good introduction that gives a systemic understanding of Buddhism early history in Vietnam.


If Tao is the way of life in Eastern societies, Confucian values and Zen Buddhist practices are part of the legacy that remains in the mind of modern Vietnamese today. Looking back on the impact that Eastern philosophies have on the philosophy of education that has accompanied Vietnam’s modernisation process, the values of 3-Religion tradition are most visible in literature, arts and music that characterize the Vietnamese spirit and soul until today.

Revisiting the legacy of pre-war educators such as Dao Duy Anh and Tran Trong Kim that marked the generations of the post-colonial period reminds us of the huge impact that education can bring to the transformation of a whole society and the advancement of humanity.

[1] Source: Phan Khoi (1887-1959), p.245, Tu Dien Van Hoc, p. 23 Phe Binh Cao Luan.

[2] Một Cơn Gió Bụi. Kiến Văn Lục, NXB Vĩnh Sơn 1969; Luận Đề Trần Trọng Kim 1882-1953, NXB Bạn Trẻ 1960; Quan Niệm Về Cuộc Nhân Sinh, NXB Trung Bắc Tân Văn 1938. Other references: Ha Dang Viet, Mạn đàm về chữ “Nho – 儒” trong các tranh luận về Nho giáo, Nho học xưa nay,

To be continued ./.


Published by Anita H.

Expert in Intercultural Communication, navigating between 4 cultures and 5 languages which I use daily for work and leisure. Author of blogs on wordpress and blogspot on SBI Training Solutions Projects: vietnamhoc, yourvietnamexpert, yourvietbooks,

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