State Controlled Buddhism

For years I’ve thought that the Confucian beliefs entered Vietnam as a result of efforts by Le Thanh Tong, second emperor of the Le Dynasty in the fifteenth century. While it is true that he was raised in Chinese courts and learned the tenants of Confucianism, and he later did his part to embrace the philosophy and spread it as not only an administrative tool but a way of life among his people, he was not the only emperor with such aspirations.

Ming Manh, the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, used the ideas of Confucianism, particularly the peasant’s attitudes towards the emperor, as a way to control his country. Not only did he seek to use Confucianism to unite a country divided by internal differences and rebellions, but he used the Sangha as well.

This, perhaps, is one of the more interesting points of what I’m currently studying. Ming Manh and the Nguyen Dynasty–begun at the birth of the nineteenth century–used Mahayana Buddhism to replace the Angkor Theravada Buddhism. Throughout the south of Vietnam, Dai Nam, Ming Manh replaced Buddhist temples of one sect with another, imposing his imperial spirits on the superstitions of the people in the Mekong Valley.

Not only did he harness Buddhism for his own means, but he fostered the animism of the people as something unique to Vietnam, something that was supported and endorsed by the government. More than anyone since Le Thanh Tong, Ming Manh was the emperor who used religion to control the state. Even though much of what he and his father accomplished came from the import of Chinese style, Confucian laws, and the Mandarin state sponsored tests that promised advancement on merit, he still felt it necessary to stamp down on hostile religions and impose his own beliefs in an attempt to unify a divided Vietnam.

One of the reasons I find this interesting is that during my tenure in Laos (where I read extensively) one of the major themes of Laos’ nationalization under Kaysone Phomvihane was his use of the Buddhist Sangha to spread Nationalistic propaganda through the monks to the people. Have other countries outside of Asia used the church in such a way? I don’t know. I do know that I need to reread Benedict Anderson.

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