By Summer Nguyen
Brought to Vietnam as early as the first century A.D. by Indian missionaries, Buddhism has remained a dominant religion throughout the country (Anh 1993, 98). Vietnamese Buddhism has traces of Chinese Mahāyāna, as well as Theravāda influences entering via Cambodia. Mahāyāna Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that focuses on compassion and wisdom, flourished until the French occupation in the 19th century (Anh 1993, 110-114). Today, most Buddhists in Vietnam follow Mahāyāna Buddhism practices, but its influence is strongest in the north.
In northern Vietnam, Hanoi has been an important center for Mahāyāna Buddhism, with thousands of historical pagodas and temples that attract locals as well as millions of tourists each year. One of the most significant Buddhist institutions with connection to medicine is the Lý Quốc Sư Pagoda. Built in 1131, it is dedicated to the monk Nguyễn Chí Thành (also known as Minh Không). Nguyễn Chí Thành was born in 1066 in Ninh Binh province during the Lý Dynasty (10th-12th centuries). He began his training to become a monk at age 11 and was taught by a well-known Buddhist monk skilled in healing (Vietnam Online).
In 1138, Nguyễn Chí Thành cured King Lý Thánh Tông of a disease deemed incurable by other doctors. The king later gave him the title Lý Quốc Sư 李國師, “Great Teacher of the Lý Nation,” and built him a residential quarter next to the Báo Thiên Pagoda. There, Lý Quốc Sư preached Buddhist sutras, and taught medicine and even bronze casting (he is often referred to as a “patron saint” of the bronze casting craft) (Vietnam Online). After Lý Quốc Sư’s death in 1141, the king Lý Anh Tông converted his residential quarter into a pagoda to honor both him and the Buddha. Today, many pagodas throughout Vietnam feature both Buddha and Lý Quốc Sư (Tran 2020).
The pagoda contains many historical cultural artifacts today, such as the bell of Tu Chung, a statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara at the top of a stone pillar in front of the courtyard, and a statue of Lý Quốc Sư. In 1954, the pagoda was renovated after being destroyed during the French colonial period. The pagoda was fully restored in 2000 with the support of local authorities and Buddhist contributors. The pagoda remains an important religious center within Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
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- Anh, Nguyễn Thế. 1993. “Buddhism and Vietnamese Society throughout History.” South East Asia Research 1(1): 98–114.
- Lý Triều Quốc Sư Pagoda, “History of Lý Triều Quốc Sư Pagoda, Hanoi.” Temple pamphlet, 2021.
- Monnais, Laurence, C. Michele Thompson, and Ayo Wahlberg. 2012. Southern Medicine for Southern People: Vietnamese Medicine in the Making. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- Tran, Rachel. 2020. “Ly Quoc Su Pagoda,” Vietnam Discovery Travel, February 22, 2020, https://vietnamdiscovery.com/hanoi/attractions/ly-quoc-su-pagoda/
- Vietnam Online, n.d. “Ly Quoc Su Pagoda.” Accessed June 8, 2021, https://www.vietnamonline.com/attraction/ly-quoc-su-pagoda.html