One topic about the Vietnamese past that I find is poorly understood is the issue of the “Three Teachings” (Tam giáo) of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.

I just did a Google search for “tam giáo Việt Nam” and randomly chose one of the pages that came up. It was a university web page that contained an essay that had been copied from an academic journal, and this is how it began:

“Researchers have acknowledged that our nation originally established a democratic spirit and began to live at ease from the time that the Three Teachings entered Vietnam. Our forefathers knew to open the doors themselves and to accept the essence of that thought system, to choose, and to absorb and transform [it] into something of our own, that accords with our conditions and living environment, and which serves us.”

(Các nhà nghiên cứu đã thừa nhận dân tộc ta vốn có tinh thần dân chủ và sống phóng khoáng nên từ khi Tam giáo vào Việt Nam, cha ông ta đã biết tự mở cửa đón nhận những tinh hoa của hệ tư tưởng ấy, chọn lọc, dung hợp và biến chúng thành cái của mình, phù hợp với điều kiện và hoàn cảnh sống của mình, phục vụ cho mình.)

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These comments are similar to many others that I have read. The ideas here are based on several problematic assumptions: 1) that there were three distinct bodies of thought (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism), 2) that these three distinct bodies of thought existed outside of Vietnam first and then had to “enter” (vào), 3) that there was a coherent “nation” (dân tộc) that existed at that time and that people at that time made choices for the benefit of the nation, and 4) that the form that the Three Teachings took in Vietnam was somehow distinct.

The teachings that we call Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism developed over the centuries in East Asia in interaction with each other. As a result, Buddhists monks in East Asia encouraged children to be filial just as much as Confucian scholars did, as this concept came to be upheld by everyone as an essential moral value.

While it is perhaps acceptable to say that the main developments in the history of Confucian thought occurred within the boundaries of “China,” in at least the first millennium AD the Red River Delta was part of a larger Buddhist and Daoist world, and therefore, it is difficult to say that those teachings “entered Vietnam” when “Vietnam” was part of the world where they developed.

Meanwhile, the idea that people can “choose” (chọn lọc) aspects of cultural traditions (and reject others) is a modern myth. This has been said about the ruling elite in Meiji Japan and the monarchy in nineteenth-century Siam. However, I have yet to see anyone provide any evidence that demonstrates this process. What, for instance, did any of these people choose, and what did they reject? And who exactly did the choosing, and how do we know this?

Then there is the issue of the form that the Three Teachings took in Vietnam. Was it really distinct? In other words, is it correct to call it “ours”? Or was it similar to the form that the Three Teachings took in other places?

The best place to seek an answer to these questions is in historical sources that actually show us the intermixture of the Three Teachings.

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Morality books (thiện thư 善書) are a great source for this. The term “morality books” refers to a genre of texts that became popular in “China” during the period of the Song Dynasty. They were texts that were supposedly revealed by spirits (and contacting spirits was something that “Daoists” did), and they encouraged people to follow “Confucian” moral virtues, but they used the logic of karmic retribution/reward (因果報應, 祸福報應, etc.) in encouraging people to do so (“If you do good things, good things will happen to you”).

However, there was an important distinction that was made in morality books about the role of karmic retribution/reward in these books, and that distinction was pointed out by both Chinese and Vietnamese scholars. One Vietnamese scholar who talked about this issue was a man by the name of Đăng Hy Long, a man who wrote a preface to a collection of (Chinese) morality books that was published in Vietnam in 1884, called the Precious Book for Creating Good Fortune (Tạo phúc bao thư 造福寶書).

In his preface, Đăng Hy Long explained that the idea of retribution/reward that one finds discussed in morality books was distinct from that found in the writings of Daoists and Buddhists. As was the case throughout those parts of Asia that employed classical Chinese at that time, Đăng Hy Long did not use terms which were the exact equivalents of terms such as “Buddhism,” “Daoism” and “Confucianism” that are used in vernacular languages today. Instead, he referred to the “Dao” (Đạo 道) and “Sakya” (Thích釋) “clans” (thị 氏), as well as to “Scholars” (Nho giả 儒者), terms which had different connotations (or what we could call a different semantic range), but which nonetheless referred to three basic repertoires of ideas and practices.

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Ths is what Đăng Hy Long wrote:

“Talk of calamity, good fortune and retribution/reward emerged first among the Dao and Sakya[muni] clans. [Confucian] scholars did not venerate [these ideas]. However the Classic of Changes [i.e., Yijing 易經] states that ‘Those who accumulate good deeds will have much to rejoice, whereas those who accumulate evil deeds will encounter many calamities.’ The Classic of Documents [i.e., Shangshu 尚書] states that ‘On those who do good are sent down a hundred blessings, and on those who do evil are sent down a hundred calamities.’ This is what the texts of [Confucian] scholars say about retribution/reward.

What the texts of [Confucian] scholars thus say about retribution is that people should recognize goodness as that which they should carry out. When they make efforts to carry out good deeds, Heaven responds by granting good fortune. It is not the case that they first desire good fortune and then carry out good deeds, or that they first fear calamity and then do not engage in evil acts.”

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Đăng Hy Long argues here that what we would today call the Three Teachings of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism all talk about a similar issue – reward/retribution. However, he clearly thinks that the Confucian approach to this issue is superior, and that Confucian scholars are morally superior to the people who follow other teachings.

Why is this the case? Because, according to Đăng Hy Long, Confucian scholars do good because it is the right thing to do, whereas Buddhists and Daoists first think of something that will bring benefit to them, and then they carry out the acts of goodness necessary to be rewarded with the desired benefit.

In other words, from the perspective of Đăng Hy Long, Buddhists and Daoists are calculating, whereas Confucian scholars are simply morally upright.

This is one view of the Three Teachings. In Buddhist texts one can find a different view, one that emphasizes the superiority of Buddhism. What these views show, however, is that the Three Teachings did not blend into some harmonious whole. Instead, while there were ideas that were shared by everyone in society – such as the importance of filial piety and the concept of reward/retribution – people still differentiated themselves from others, and thought that their own approach to the shared aspects of society were superior.

Such an approach to life is very common. Indeed, thinking that one’s self is better than one’s neighbors or other people in society is a very common human trait. Most people throughout history have not made choices for “our nation,” but instead, have repeatedly emphasized their own perceived self-importance.

When one looks at the Three Teachings through that perspective, we obtain a different picture of the past, but one which is much more closely reflected in the historical record, and which is likely much closer to reality that much of what has been written to date.