I often read and hear people say that the intermixture of, and equal respect for, the “three teachings” (tam giáo 三教) is something that defined Vietnamese society in the past. And when people talk about this, they often use terms like “the Three Teachings are of the same source” (tam giáo đồng nguyên 三教同源), as if this is an expression that Vietnamese have known and believed for centuries.

This is not the case. And I have been trying to figure out why this belief is so widespread today.

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While it is true that as “outside observers” we can look at the past and identify elements of the three teachings in people’s lives, this does not mean that they thought that they were equally respecting the three teachings.

Instead, until the twentieth century the three teachings usually existed in some degree of a hierarchical relationship with each other. In their daily lives, people might have “employed” elements from the three teachings in ways that look “equal” to us today, but when they wrote about the three teachings, they usually revealed a kind of anxiety.

You can see this very clearly in the morality books (thiện thư 善書) that were popular in the nineteenth century. The following comments from a preface to a book called the Precious Book for Creating Good Fortune (Tạo phúc bao thư 造福寳書) from 1884 demonstrates this point nicely:

“The texts of Nho [‘Confucian scholars’] speak of meaning and principle [nghĩa lý]. If one is not wise and enlightened, one cannot understand meaning and principle. Đạo [‘Daoists] and Sakya [Thích, i.e. ‘Buddhists’] speak of calamities and blessings [họa phúc]. Calamities and blessings can be comprehended by even the ignorant and coarse. Among students there are few that are wise and enlightened, but many that are ignorant and coarse. Teaching them about meaning and principle will just pass by their ears, and they will act without restraint. It is thus better to provide them with examples of calamities and blessings, for they will then know perfectly well what to fear.”

儒書言義理。義理非高明不能知。道釋言禍福。禍福則愚魯皆可曉。子弟高明少,愚魯多。曉之以義理,而過耳輒忘。不若喩之以禍福,而怵然知懼也。

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This author is revealing a sense of anxiety. He identifies himself as a Nho [“Confucian”] and knows that as such a person he should not get involved with things that are Đạo or Thích [“Daoist” and “Buddhist”]. He therefore tries to justify what he is doing by pointing out that Đạo and Thích ideas are good for teaching “the ignorant and coarse.”

On the one hand, we can see that this is an example of someone believing that “the Three Teachings are of the same source” because he believes that Đạo and Thích teachings can also transform people for the better.

However, he clearly does not really respect Đạo and Thích teachings. And in the historical record, one can find many examples like this one. Indeed, before the twentieth century, ideas like this were the norm.

So how did this change?

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I think the Cao Đài religion played a big role. The idea that Cao Đài is building on a long tradition of equal respect for the three teachings is central to that religion.

Here again, I suspect that originally there was probably a sense of anxiety that was behind the promotion of this idea. As a new religion, Cao Đài needed to legitimize itself, so by promoting the idea that it is the heir to a long tradition of “religious syncretism and tolerance,” it gained legitimacy for itself, something that it did not necessarily have when it first began.

Further, the fact that Confucianism lost its institutional position in the twentieth century, also means that voices like the one in the preface above, became fewer and fewer, and that also enabled the Cao Đài view of the historical role of the three teachings to gain more acceptance.

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Then finally there is the role of nationalism. The three teachings also exist in that big country to the north of Vietnam, and modern Vietnamese nationalism needs to find special “Vietnamese characteristics” in the heritage it shares with its northern neighbor.

One way to do this is to say that “Vietnamese” society was characterized by the idea that “the Three Teachings are of the same source,” and to imply that in that place in the north, “Confucianism” dominated.

Once again, the impulse behind saying this comes from a sense of anxiety.

Anxiety plays a very big role in our lives, and it always has. It’s one of those things, however, that I think many historians have found “embarrassing” and have chosen not to talk about it. When you look at the past, however, it is easy to find.