of Vietnamese philosophy, as a scientific discipline, did not emerge until
recently. Today, it is presented
here and there in books on the history of Vietnamese philosophical thinking,
for example, by Nguyễn Đăng Thục (7 volumes) ,
by the Institute of Philosophy (2 volumes), and by Prof. Trần Văn
Giàu (3 volumes) . This does not include books, papers and
articles in research texts and journals, more or less, directly and indirectly,
related to the subject. In general, study of the history of Vietnamese philosophical thinking has been on
the rise; and many historical periods and issues have been studied rather
however, there has yet to be published a book on Vietnamese philosophy or a history of Vietnamese philosophical thought.
before the introduction of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, there was a tradition
of literature, history, philosophy and religion. These were inseparable from each other.
There was no philosophy as an independent scientific discipline, rather there
was thought or philosophical doctrines in books on literature, history or
religion. The basic issues in
philosophy in Vietnam, if examined via the angle of the Marxist philosophical
standpoint, are in fact rather mediocre.
However, when one considers that there existed in Vietnam in earlier times
the hiền "wise," hiền
triết "thinkers," and minh
triết "sages," 
one can see that to assert that Vietnam did not have philosophers, would be to use
modern criteria to identify or assess people of the past. Vietnam was itself
placed between two civilizations with monumental philosophical systems—India and China—and was perhaps influenced by these two
giant traditions in metaphysics 
(i.e. ontology and cosmology). The question became: how to use these traditions
creatively under our specific conditions?
But this question does not adequately reflect the Vietnamese situation. The philosophical doctrines of King Trần
Thái Tông ,
the thinking about lý khí
"principle and elements" of Lê Quý Đôn ,
about nhân nghĩa "humanity and justice" of Nguyễn Trãi ,
etc. have already demonstrated my point.
In this paper, first, we will present,
in broad strokes, the formative and developmental process of Vietnamese
philosophical thought before 1858, 
before the introduction of western philosophy. During this period, Vietnamese history can be divided into
four major periods:
- The pre-historical period lasting from the time of Hồng Bàng Clan to the end of
the Triệu's reign ,
or until 110 B.C.
- The period of Northern domination, from 110 B.C. to 938 A.D.
- The period of restoration and building of an independent nation, from 939 to theend of the 14th Century.
- The period of stability, prosperity and crisis of Vietnamese feudalism, from 1400 to 1858.
The socio-political development and the spiritual culture of the first two periods created conditions for the formation and development of the national philosophical thought—Vietnamese philosophy—in the later historical periods.
- I. The bases for the formation and characteristics of Vietnamese philosophical thought
a/ The social base. As a superstructure, in general, philosophy was defined by the infrastructure of the material base and social conditions. What, then, was the social base ofVietnam?
Today, there are competing points of view about the distinction between periods in Vietnamese society. In A Course in Vietnamese History , the authors hold that the Văn Lang era of the Hùng Kings (700–258B.C.) and of An Dương Vương (257–208 B.C.)  was the period of transition from a primitive society to a society of early class division of the Asian mode of production. According to Prof. Phan Huy Lê, from the period of the Hùng Kings and An Dương Vương on, our country entered into an era of initial class division with the specific socio-economic structure of the Orient, which we tentatively call the Asian mode of production. On the foundation of this mode of production, the feudal relations of production gradually formed, and led to the establishment of feudalism in approximately the 15th Century. Thus, in Vietnam, there was no slavery. Hồng Phong believes that Vietnamese society was still in the Asian mode of production before the 15th Century. According to Prof. Trần Quốc Vượng, before the 19th Century, Vietnamese society was still a traditional small-scale agrarian society within the context of an Asian mode of production. If this is the case, Vietnam did not pass through feudalism. From the above debates alone, we can theorize that Vietnamese society was a society of abnormal development
At the end of the Red River civilization, on the basis of the fully flowering Đông Sơn culture, the state of Văn Lang was born, albeit in a primitive state, with the primitive community composition that had not yet ended. If it developed normally, that country would have followed the law of class division, labor division, and private ownership. However, as these developmental processes were about to take place, the 秦 Ch'in Dynasty, followed by the 漢 Hán Dynasty, invaded Vietnam and placed it under their subjugation and domination for over 1,000 years. As a purely primitive community, which would have been broken up naturally in the transition, the state of Văn Lang was forced to coalesce and consolidate to gather forces against aggression and assimilation.
After the victory on Bạch Đằng River, which ended the 1,000 years of Northern domination, for a short time, the country was embroiled in a war between the 12 feudal lords. King Đinh Tiên Hoàng unified the country, but again immediately, Lê Đại Hành had to build an army to fight the 宋 Sung. From then on, none of the successive Lý, Trần and Hồ Dynasties could avoid waging wars of resistance against aggression. It was hoped that after the resistance against the 明 Ming armies, the country would enjoy a prolonged peace. However, only 90 years later, Vietnam was faced with the 南北朝 South-North Dynasty war, followed by the divisive civil war of the Trịnh and Nguyễn feudal loards. The Tây Sơn had just begun, only to be replaced by the Nguyễn Dynasty. The country was united by the Nguyễn for half a century before the French fired their first cannon shot to begin their aggression [against Vietnam].
When there are wars, there is no development in the normal sense. Productivity, science and technology are stunted.
The abnormal development of Vietnamese society was also manifested in its socio-economic fabric. In broad strokes, Vietnamese society was an agrarian society with a village regime, which offered each of these tiny units an isolated and separate existence. This type of village was organized in the manner of a self-supplied and self-sufficient family, bounded by the enslavement and shackles of age-old rules, which encased human minds in a narrow frame, and sometimes turned human beings into docile tools of superstition. These villages, from a bird's-eye view, were like independent oases, like a piece of an annelid worm, each piece being able to stay alive after being cut up. It was also thanks to this characteristic, in many periods, especially during the Northern domination, when the country was occupied but the villages remained free, that the country would eventually achieve freedom. According to Karl Marx,this type of commune or village was a solid base for an Oriental dictatorship; and this traditional society, passive, balanced,and unchanged, lasted from utterly ancient times to the early years of the 19th Century. Karl Marx used the concept "Immobile," "Calm" to describe Oriental society, Vietnam included. In his letter to Frederick Engels on June 2, 1853, he wrote: "The nonexistence of private property in land is the basis of all Oriental phenomena." In the reply to him on June 6, 1853, Frederick Engels emphasized: "The lack of private land ownership is actually the key to fully understand the Orient." From this characteristic, Karl Marx coined the concept "Asian mode of production."
Therefore, the core of the Asian mode of production, in the final analysis, is the lack of private land ownership. "All land under the sky, none is not the Emperor's; from land to sea coast, nobody is not his subject." (Book of Poetry ). With such an Asian mode of production, Vietnamese society was always faced with new fabric mixed with old ones, new economic forms entertwined with old ones. The transition from the Trần to the Lê Dynasty was considered a historic turn from a regime of feudal land with serfs to a regime of relations betweeen landlord and serfs. However, there were exceptions to this broad generalization. In reality, small land owners already existed during the Lý and Trần Dynasties, and slave labor regime still continued to exist during the Lê Dynasty. Prof. Trần Đình Hượu theorizes that the Asian mode of production only led to reform but not revolution. With the right to rent but not to own, it should be easier for Oriental countries to advance to socialism than to capitalism.
b/ Characteristics of Vietnamese philosophy. From differences in social bases and modes of production, philosophy in Vietnam has the followingcharacteristics:
- If western philosophy is usually associated with scientific achievement, especially in the natural sciences, Indian philosophy with religion, Chinese philosophy with politics and ethics, Vietnamese philosophy is associated with the building and defense of the country. When contemplating that reality, Vietnamese philosophy chiefly directs itself towards the issues of human life and humanity, the central idea of which is patriotism.
- If western philosophy has the dominant tendency to go from world outlook to the outlook on human life (from ontology to epistemology and logics), Vietnamese philosophy has the dominant tendency to move from outlook on human life to world outlook. In Vietnam, the central and primary problem is the problem of being human and humanity (outlook on human life), based on which thinkers sought explanations, and laid down foundations for these issues (world outlook). This tendency was bound by the Asian mode of production in Vietnam.
- Vietnamese philosophical thinking was an expression of and a reflection of the outlook on human life and the world of its national community. It was elaborated from simple and naïve ideas about human life and the cosmos onto the level of theory. However, because of the above-mentioned dominant tendency, it lacked a scrupulous and systematic character, and more often than not, it adapted the contents of concepts from imported foreign doctrines to justify the building and defense of the country.
- Because of the above-mentioned dominant tendency, the basic problems of philosophy, i.e. the relationship of objects and consciousness, received little attention within Vietnamese philosophy. The conflict between materialism and idealism did not permeate all practical problems.
However in general, the religious idealist tendency tended to be more dominant than the atheist materialist tendency.
If western philosophy tends towards materialism and to be outward looking, Vietnamese philosophy tends towards idealism and and to be inward looking. If western philosophy tends to use the external to explain the internal, Vietnamese philosophy tends to use the internal to explain the external, such as in the style of poet Nguyễn Du: "when a person is sad, when is the scenery ever cheerful." 
If dialectics in western philosophy tends towards contradictions, dialectics in Vietnamese philosophy tends towards unity. If motion and change in western philosophy heightens in a helix manner, then motion and change in Vietnamese philosophy proceeds in a circle, or in a cyclical manner.
In short, there are two salient features that were always present throughout Vietnamese social history: the building and the defense of the fatherland. These two contending processes were closely connected, complementing each other, and inseparable. And this characteristic, together with Karl Marx's concept of Asian mode of production analyzed above, defines the characteristics of Vietnamese philosophical history.
- II. A sketch of the economy, society and the world outlook of the Vietnamese in the ancient period.
The stone age, extending from a few million years to a few thousand years ago, marked a change from hunting and gathering to animal husbandry and cultivation. From available archaological data, we find that the ancient Vietnamese began to have a concept of symmetry and classification (as in the Sơn Vi culture), and a belief in the world beyond, in which the dead continued to work (evidenced by working tools laid by the dead in the Sơn Vi culture). The Hoà Bình inhabitants knew how to choose their dwelling locations, knew how to use sulfur to tattoo their bodies, and knew rhythm, and symbols to create records. According to Prof. Hà Văn Tấn, this is the formative process of counting and categorization of quantity, from which numbers came to life separated from the objects counted (an abstraction from specific objects). At the end of the Neolithic age (3,000 years B.C.) with rice cultivation, the Vietnamese had the notion of circles, rotations, were conscious of rhythm and symmetry, and had the concepts of time and universe (the round suns, the S-shape and half of number 8 on Bắc Sơn ceramics). They worshipped natural powers such as rain and wind, and the sun had become their god.
About 4,000 years ago (or about 2,000 B.C.) the Vietnamese were already in the bronze age (a tin and copper alloy), i.e. the pre-Đông Sơn age. During the Đông Sơn age, the tin and bronze techniques advanced with the appearance of bronze drums.
If the pre-Đông Sơn culture dated from 2,000 B.C. to 700 B.C. stretched along the Red River valley, the Đông Sơn culture from 700 B.C. to 100 A.D. marked the formation of the nation of Văn Lang under the Hùng Kings. Đông Sơn was the period of formation of the first core of the nation. During this period, the Vietnamese had very keen observations of the outside world, which they recreated and depicted rather realistically and skillfully (through earthen terra-cotta sculptures of cows, chickens,...). One is surprised at the very symmetrical, artful, fine textured and beautiful jewelry. The Đông Sơn people mastered rhythms, followed symmetry meticulously, and had knowledge of different forms of symmetry. This shows their high level of abstraction. With the bronze drums, we also observe their thinking, observations, and geometric calculations (they had the knowledge of dividing a circle into six equal portions, and the knowledge of the relationship between the circle's radius and circumference). Thus, they had a perception of geometry and accuracy.
On a few pieces of pottery (the Phùng Nguyên pottery included) the design and decoration expressed a cosmological model of three realms—heaven, human and earth—in which there were continuous and endless changes of seasons and vegetation, manifested by the connected and repeated helix lines. Here a symbolic representation appeared with conventional symbols—a new development of abstract thinking.
Through myths we also see the fourth realm, the underwater world. Thus, tứ phủ [四府] "four realms" came into being.
In the bronze drums, we observe a high level of knowledge of metallurgy, and manufacture of bronze and iron objects. When recreating the real world, they did not pay attention to the details of the described objects, they only paid attention to their basic properties, and represented them with symbolic, stylized but very lively sketches.
The French archaologist Madeleine Colani believes that the multi-pointed star covering theface of the bronze drums is the sun, while the people, birds, and deer on the drum circling around the sun counter-clockwise coincide with the way the earth circles around the sun. The outermost rim of the Ngọc Lũ drum has 336 smaller circles corresponding to a one year period of the moon circling around the sun. It is possible that the bronze drums show that the Đông Sơn inhabitants might have had their own calendar, necessary for agriculture and navigation. According to Bùi Huy Hồng, during the Hùng period the night had 5 hours, and the day had 5 hours. Each hour was subdivided into 10 units.
The boats on the frame of the drum could be a farewell ceremony for the soul of the dead, or perhaps a festival praying for a bumper crop—a typical ritual of the agricultural inhabitants. And perhaps, other agricultural rituals such as competitive singing, boat racing, and kite flying, might have started in this period.
In the Đông Sơn period, according to Hà Văn Tấn, there was a dualistic unity (or dualistic division) of dryness and wetness, fire and water, Sun and Moon, bird and snake, high and low, etc. According to [Éveline] Porée-Maspéro, culture, customs, mythology, bronze drums,... here manifest the dualistic unity, dualistic competition, and dualistic reconciliation between opposites.
The Vietnamese conception of the world is most typically represented in the story of the chưng square and dầy round cakes. The ancient Vietnamese held that heaven was round and the earth square. Roundness was creativity, squareness was the universe. Thus, there is a folk saying: mẹ tròn con vuông "mother round, child square," or trăm năm tính cuộc vuông tròn "for the cause of a hundred years, we calculate a round and square plan." From an overview, Vietnamese philosophy of the pre-historic or early periods was rather simple, rustic and primitive.
- III. The development of Vietnamese philosophical thinking through the period of struggles against Northern domination.
The Northern domination period stretched from the dependence on the 漢 Hán Dynasty (110 B.C.) (some scholars believe that it began with the occupation of the state of Âu Lạc under An Dương Vương by Triệu Đà in 207 B.C.), until 939 when Ngô Quyền won independence. However, before Ngô Quyền there was Dương Đình Nghệ, and the father and son of Khúc Hạo rose up when the 唐 T'ang Dynasty fell (906), and the 南北朝 North-South conflict occurred [907-938]. Thus, when one considers the Northern domination as a period, we need to cite three rather important events: The 漢 Hán period (293 years), the 五代 Five Generations (314 years)  and the 隋唐 Sui-T'ang Dynasties (304 years).
The salient characteristic of this period was that our people lost the country, became dependent and enslaved, our country became a district of the North [China]; and our people lived in hardship, in anger and in shame. The salient contradiction was the struggle between our people and the aggressors, between the Hán assimilation and anti-Hán tendencies. Depending on stages, forces and positions of each side, the contradiction at times intensified or decreased.
Analysing the Northern domination period, some scholars believe that because Vietnam was far from China, the land roads were tortuous, and the weather inclement, the local authorities representing the Northern dynasties existed more times than not only in name but not in deed, and did not have any real power.
In terms of theory, the Northern domination period was when the three religions (Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism) came into Vietnam, with Buddhism being the most prominent. If Confucianism and Taoism came into Vietnam with the horse hooves of the aggressors, Buddhism came into Vietnam mainly by sea routes, directly from India. Some scholars believe that the Buddhist center in Luy Lâu [羸樓] came into being earlier than Buddhist centers of 彭城 P'eng-ch'eng [Bành Thành] 洛陽 Lo-yang [Lạc Dương] in China. The early Buddhist work 理惑論 Lý hoặc luận "Treatise on erroneous ideology,"  the first Buddhist book of China, according to many scholars, was written by 牟子 Mou-tzu [Mâu Tử] in the northern part of Vietnam. The later Vietnamese Buddhist tendencies, i.e. Zen, folk Buddhism,... grew out of ideas from this early period (the 2nd-3rd Centuries). In 580, a zen sect of 毗尼多流支 Vinītaruci [Tì Ni Đa Lưu Chi] appeared, and in 820 the 無言通 Vô Ngôn Thông "Speechless Enlightenment" came into being .
In the Treatise on erroneous ideology, when deconstructing the Great Hán viewpoint, Mou-tzu posited that Hán land might not be the center of heaven and earth (Hán địa vị tất địa tất vi thiên trung dã – the Hán land might not be the center of either the earth or heaven).
Mou-tzu equally described Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as the 道 Way [đạo]. Đạo did not become elegant because of praise, nor become low because of denunciation, it was as immense as heaven, as deep as the ocean, it has no name, it cannot be described. The nature of đạo is that when at home one may worship parents, when being the leader of a country one may rule over citizens, and when being an individual one may improve oneself. Đạo is the way leading to 無爲 wu wei [vô vi] "do nothing; no action."  Thus, according to Mou-tzu, "no action" of Taoism is the essence of đạo and of the three teachings.
In Buddhism,"no action" is close to nothingness, mindlessness, and close to the miraculous profundity. In Taoism, "no action" is doing nothing but doing everything, living seamlessly in accordance with nature. In Confucianism, "no action" is innocence, simplicity, straighforwardness. In order to achieve this essence "no action" (a common home) each teaching followed a separate path and arrived at different gates: Buddhism uses alm giving and abstention; Taoism uses less and less of 德 đức "virtue" ; Confucianism uses humanity and justice to safeguard the essence. Different persons with different constitutions reached their goals by different paths.
Each teaching had its distinct scope and functioning: Confucianism improved matters
of life, Buddhism and Taoism concentrated on reaching "no action". Thus, Confucianism tends toward
worldly matters, Buddhism and Taoism tend towards parting with
worldly matters. Even so, they did not oppose each other, rather they
complemented each other; among them, Buddhism was valued highest. This was also a first ever massive
synthesis, a blending, commingling and conflict among Confucianism, Buddhism
and Taoism on Vietnamese soil.
commingling of the three teachings and the local beliefs, the core of which was
patriotism, formed the world outlook and the outlook on human life of the
Vietnamese during the Northern domination period.
patriotic consciousness and the national community consciousness were
manifested through the myth of đồng bào
"compatriots" (in Vietnamese, coming out of the same
bag [womb])  from Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ; and the myth of Kinh Dương
Vương. The latter is a
story of the Vietnamese and Hán people having the same ancestor—i.e. 炎帝
Viêm Đế with 神農 Thần Nông family line,
which was not intended to mean that the Hán was low, nor the Viet, barbarians.
consciousness was at its highest with Lý Bí.
After chasing away the 梁 Liang [Lương]
army, he called himself Nam Đế [Southern King], named the country
Vạn Xuân, and built the capital in Long Biên. Naming the country Vạn Xuân meant that he had a plan
for the eternal security of the country, from which to establish a
determination to safeguard a permanent, independent country.
The prism of
patriotism and community consciouness 
induced changes in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. For example, the Buddha in this period had to save the
people from hardship and suffering by participating in the fight against
drought (the Buddha Mother Man Nương [曼娘]),
by unseating greedy and cruel officials (in the thinking of Mou-tzu and 康僧會
K'ang Seng Hui [Khương Tăng Hội]), and by denouncing the
Northern invaders with the viewpoint "if one sows evil, one reaps evil, if one
sows the wind, one reaps storms." The earliest Buddha in Giao châu was a god possessing magic to encourage
the good and discourage the bad. After facing a crisis in the 6th Century with six letters [sic], the Buddha, from being a god in the clouds, was
brought down into the human heart by the two zen sects, Vinītaruci and
Speechless Enlightenment, with the idea that the heart was the Buddha, the
Buddha did not reside outside the heart, and outside the heart the Buddha did
not exist. From some angles, one
may say that the transformation of Buddhism during the Northern domination
period was a transformation from objective idealism to subjective
idealism. This reflects one
historical reality: if one rose up to liberate the people, one could not put
one's hope on an outside supernatural force, but one had to develop the
existing inner strength of the people and of each individual. Thus, history shows that although the Northern
domination might last about a thousand years, the Vietnamese were not
First of all,
as analyzed above, the Vietnamese people always had a community consciousness
and patriotism, at time simmering inside, at times overflowing, but
intensifying over time. Thus, sooner or later the Vietnamese people would
surely take back their independence.
Vietnamese had an indigenous culture developed from the era of the Hùng
Kings. On the other hand, during
the Northern domination, in order to find balance against the Chinese culture
represented by Confucianism, the Vietnamese in the ancient time exalted the
Indian culture represented by Buddhism. It was not a coincidence that Buddhism during the Northern domination
period was richly imbued with the colors of Indian Buddhism. This fact seems to indicate that in the
early days of building and defending the country, by design or by coincidence,
the Vietnamese ancestors learned how to fight against the cultural assimilation
of the Hán clans, by means of praising another culture as great as the
Chinese—the Indian culture, represented by Indian Buddhism. Thanks to this counterbalance the
indigenous culture was protected, strengthened and progressed according to its
own natural development. Not only
that, it was able to absorb selectively other humane cultural values to enrich
itself. And precisely
because of this it set the tone for the praise of Buddhism in the later periods
of the Đinh, Lê, Lý and Trần Dynasties.
- IV. Vietnamese philosophical
thinking during the period of the restoration of independence and nation
building (10th – 14th Centuries).
10th (939) to the end of the 14th Century (1399) was the period of restoration
and country building, which spanned five different dynasties: the Ngô,
Đinh, Lê, Lý and Trần, among which the
Lý–Trần period (1010 – 1399) was the most
important. This was the period
when different tendencies of Vietnamese philosophical thought took shape and
developed, side by side with feats of arms in the defense and building of the
economic sphere, the state paid special attention to agricultural
production. This attention was
manifested in the building and administration of water control works (the Cơ Xá
dyke during the Lý Dynasty), accelerated cultivation of barren land for
agriculture, in the official field  plowing ceremonies by the king in each first lunar month, and in the policy of
"housing the army in the agriculture"  ... Since then, agriculture has advanced
and with it, handicrafts (weaving, adobe, ceramics, metallurgy, bell
casting,...). The exchange of goods
in the country and foreign trade were pushed ahead through crowded water and
land transportation routes.
Land for cultivation, in the
final analysis, belonged to the state headed by the king. Below that, there were also farm manors
and feudal estates  of the aristocrats and lands of the temples. Arable land ownership existed since the beginning of the
Lý Dynasty and expanded widely at the end of the Trần Dynasty.
formation, there was a stratum of aristocrats and officials, and heading the
state was the king, a stratum of monks, peasants, farm serfs 
and servants  in farm manors and feudal estates; there were handicraftsmen and traders; land owners
and Confucianist mandarins increasing in number at the end of the Trần
Dynasty. All these classes might
have at times and in places been in conflict with each other, but they had a
common duty to defend and build the country. It was precisely this duty to save the country which brought
the opposing classes together to fight against a common enemy and win glorious
feats of arms. However, when the
aggressors had been chased away, the ruling class began to enjoy themselves in
excess, the society withered, the contradiction between the ruling and the
ruled surfaced with the peasant uprisings at the end of the Lý Dynasty
and at the end of the Trần Dynasty.
The Lý Dynasty established the Temple of Literature 
in 1070, and the first examination called minh kinh bác học "understanding of the books and breadth of
scholarship"  in 1075 and established the Imperial Academy . The Lý–Trần
Dynasties organized successive examinations to select the literati. As a result, there was a split among
the ruling circle at the end of the Trần Dynasty: the aristocracy and the
appointees of the kings, against the stratum of officials and Confucianists. Together with the development of
private land ownership, the position of the land owning stratum rose and
became more advantageous. The birth of the intellectual labor stratum was an important factor in the
formation and development of the philosophy and thinking of the nation.
Lý–Trần period, literature, arts, chèo popular theater, tuồng
classical theater , architecture and sculpture all advanced.
1. Vietnamese patriotism (10th – 16th Centuries)
victories of our military and people over the Northern aggressive armies (Ngô
Quyền smashed the 南漢 Nam Hán army, Lê Hoàn
defeated the 宋 Sung army, the Lý dynasty actively fought the 宋
Sung army on their own territory when they were preparing to invade our
country, and especially three times the Trần Dynasty defeated the 元
Yuan [Nguyên] army) breathed new life into the patriotic consciousness, and
heralded a new emergence of community consciousness and national pride. This fact was shown in the first
declaration of independence of our country, i.e. the poem Nam quốc
sơn hà . Here the problem of independence and
sovereignty was formally declared in the manner of tempered steel.
Before that, in 1054 after his
coronation, King Lý Thánh Tông gave our country the title Đại
Việt. If in 968 Đinh Bộ Lĩnh took the throne with the
title Đại Thắng Minh Hoàng Đế, named the country
Đại Cồ Việt, and built the capital in Hoa Lư 
(and the next year, annointed his first son as Nam Việt Vương [南越王, the Southern Viet King]), then in 1054, when Lý Nhật Tông was crowned Emperor, he changed the
country name to Đại Việt, and built the capital in Thăng
This was indeed a long process in the path of self assertion. During this reign, after
22 years in 1076, the first declaration of independence was born, asserting
that our country has a king (Nam đế 南帝]) equal to the Northern Emperor. The rights to independence, self determination and equality between countries were sacred and inviolable,
self-evident and undisputable. Any
enemy who violates our independence and self determination will not be able to
avoid shameful defeat.
南國山河南帝居 Nam quốc sơn hà nam đế cư,
截然定分在天書 Tiệt nhiên định phận tại thiên thư.
如何逆虜來侵犯 Như hà nghịch lỗ lai xâm phạm,
汝等行看取敗虚 Nhữ đẳng hành khan thủ bại hư.
["The mountains and rivers of the Southern country are ruled by the southern emperor,
This is clearly written in the book of heaven.
If the lawless barbarians dare come to invade,
You will be surely be smashed to smithereens."]
Trần Dynasty, the idea of longevity (Vạn Xuân [萬春]) for the rivers and
mountains, the land and the water of Đại Việt became more and
precisely the national pride and patriotism that created the glorious victories
in the face of the Sung and Yuan armies.
And these victories over the Sung and Yuan Dynasties excited people, and
helped lift the national pride and patriotism of Đại Việt onto
a higher ground.
precisely that spirit which gave birth to the Thảo Đường [草堂] "Grass Hall" Zen sect ofthe Lý period and the Trúc Lâm [竹林]
"Bamboo Forest" Zen sect of the Trần period, it also gave birth to the Nôm script and the use of the Southern medicine to treat people. The formation of the Trúc Lâm Yên
Tử [竹林安子] Zen sect "Bamboo Forest of Yên
Tử Mountain" was the result of, and the logical necessity for the
continuation and the completion of the reverberating feats of arms at the
Chương Dương shore, the Hàm Tử gate, and the
Bạch Đằng River.
pride, the will to independence, the will to self reliance and patriotism were
also manifested in the clear-minded thought of the great kings of the
Lý–Trần period. From 1267 on, Confucian mandarins began to take over state power.
The ruling circle began to split into
two camps: the aristocrats, king's appointees and the king supported Buddhism,
and the bureaucratic elite (hành khiển [行譴]) following Northern [Chinese] laws and rites,
with Confucian backgrounds, supported Confucianism. Confronted with an
increasing tension, King Trần Minh Tông said: "Our state has its own
rules, the South differs from the North, if we listen to the scheme of the
clean-faced [Confucian] pupils who are looking for ways to promote their own
careers, there will be chaos."  He criticized the Confucianists, and being a Buddhist, he also criticized the
radical Buddhists. Patriotism was closely bound to loving the people, and the Lý and Trần Dynasties
considered the "people's will" and "people's heart" as the foundation of all
national policies. In his Chiếu dời đô "Royal Order to Move the Capital" [遷都詔] King Lý
Công Uẩn asserted: "To adhere to the mandate of heaven above, and to
respond to the will of the people below, we change when it is convenient, to
make the national destiny long living and our customs prosper." Trần
Quốc Tuấn promoted the policy of khoan thư sức
dân "sparing people's resources" to further sâu gốc bền rễ
"deepen the roots, solidify the foundation" as the supreme strategy to defend
the country. The "love for the people" policy was also manifested in the distribution of rice and reduction of
taxes when crops failed. That was not only love of the people but also respect for the people and fostering of
the people's strength. This was also demonstrated at the Diên Hồng congress of elders and the Bình Than
military congress  during the Trần period.
Patriotism was also demonstrated in the heartfelt spirit of the heroes of the Lý–Trần period. Trần Quốc Tuấn said in front of the King "Your Highness may want to cut my head off first before we surrender." Trần Bình Trọng was captured but he stood upright and shouted at the enemy: "I'd rather be a ghost of the Southern country, than being King of the Northern land."
Being patriotic means to adopt the will of the people as one's own will and aspiration (Dĩ thiên hạ chi dục vi dục, dĩ thiên hạ chi tâm vi tâm) . That was also the thinking of a King, a Zen monk and a Buddhist, Trần Thái Tông. One may surmise from this that the patriotism of the Lý–Trần period had a deep Buddhist influence and character. This is also true of the formation and development of philosophical thinking in this historical period, which is different from patriotism in Vietnam in later periods.
2. Vietnamese Buddhist philosophical thinking (10th – 14th Centuries).
The Buddhist philosophy of the 10th–14th Centuries focused on two problems: bản thể [本體] "essence" and the path back to the essence.
a. Bản thể luận [本體論] "Ontology".
The Vinītaruci Zen sect  had a series of ontological concepts [本體] such as thể [體] "being," diệu bản [妙本] "meta-ontological being," chân tính [眞性] "true self," chân thân [眞身] "true body" , pháp tính [法性] "essence of dharma" , hư vô [虚無] "emptiness," tâm ấn [心印] "heart of dharma"
, etc. Essence has no birth, no end, no gain and no loss. The essence and the phenomena are like water and waves.
"Chân thân thành vạn tượng [眞身成萬象]
Vạn tượng tức chân thân [萬象卽眞身]."
"The true body becomes millions of phenomena
Millions of phenomena are none other than the true body."
In addition to the above concepts, the Vô Ngôn Thông [無言通] sect used the following concepts to refer to essence: tâm [心] "heart," chân như [眞如] "true as-is" , Phật tính [佛性] "Buddhahood," pháp thân [法身] "dharma being" , and hư
không [虚空] "void." According to this sect, thể ư tự nhiên [體於自然] "being [is] at its naturalness." Every object had this essence. Essence and phenomena were unemerged and undivided:
"Sắc thân dữ diệu thể [色身與妙體]
Bất hợp bất phân ly [不合不分離] ."
"The worldly body and meta-essence,
are mutually un-emerging and mutually undividing."
According to them, nhất thiết chư pháp giai tòng tâm sinh [一切諸法皆從心生] "all dharmas came into being from the heart." This is idealism in its true meaning. This viewpoint influences the entire Vietnamese Buddhism during the Lý–Trần period and even beyond. Inheriting and elaborating the above concepts, King Trần Thái Tông put forward the concepts Không [空] "Emptiness" and Hư [虚] "Void." In Khoá Hư Lục [課虚錄] "Lessons on Emptiness," he held that "because emptiness
 sparks illusions, illusions generate senses, senses come from true emptiness, thus illusions depend on nothingness, emptiness initiates illusions, illusions generate all beings."
Chúng sinh ảo cấu, tòng vọng nhi sinh [衆生幻勾 從妄而生] "All born beings are illusorily formed, and rely on illusion to come into being." Specifically he stated: "Things that arise from thought, and come together by chance, shaped by the five ignorances, form illusorily into a look, and there appear falsely as figures." Niệm [念] "thought" here is exactly hành [行] "act," and nghiệp [業] "fate." As such, the goal of his philosophy is to eradicate niệm [念] "thought," i.e. thuỷ vô niệm, thuỷ vô sinh [始無念 始無生] "originally no thought, originally no being born."
In King Trần Thái Tông's thinking, the essence was also bát nhã thiện căn [般若善根] "good source prajñā," bồ đề giác tính [菩提覺性] "enlightened bodhi," bản lai diện mục [本來面目] "face and eye at the source." Everybody had these, but lost them through greed, temper, and want.
Tuệ Trung Thượng Sĩ (1230-1291)  used the concept bản thể [本體] "essence" and believed that bản thể như nhiên tự không tịnh [本體如然自空淨] "essence is in nature from emptiness serenity." Thus, the serene essence from emptiness exists in nature like nature, forever natural, without gain or loss. He also said bản thểnhư như chỉ tự nhiên [本體如如 只自然] "the essence in its natural self is natural," that is, essence is natural as such, and does not need help from anything else to be so.
If King Trần Thái Tông used the concept bản lai diện mục [本來面目] "face and eye at the source," Tuệ Trung used nương sinh diện [娘生面] ("face of mother"). Essence was the starting point, the root (mô lai tị [?無来汜]). One could not use trí [智] "mind" to know the essence, neither thức [識] "perception" to understand essence. In Trần Thái Tông one finds the concepts vọng [妄] illusions arisen from không [空] nothing, vô minh [無明] "ignorance," and niệm [念] "thought," but in Tuệ Trung, one finds that from không (vô) [空 (無)] "emptiness" arose huyễn hoá [眩化>] (ảo hoá [幻化], vô minh [無明]) "fancification" which split into dualistic vision.
"Thân tông vô tướng bản lai không [身宗無相本來空]
Huyễn hoá phân sai thành nhị kiến [眩化分差成二見]"
"Being without form comes from emptiness at the beginning
Fancification splits into dualistic vision."
The appearance of ignorance was also the appearance of dualistic vision, the existence of dualistic vision was caused by ignorance, and the elimination of dualistic vision dissipated ignorance. Thus, the duty of King Trần Thái Tông was to eliminate niệm [念] "thought," and in the case of Tuệ Trung was to lose dualistic vision (vong nhị kiến, [亡忘二見]).
To signify essence, Trần Nhân Tông used the concept bản [本] "base, root, foundation" because khuây bản [亏本] (forget the root) caused one to seek Bụt [侼] "buddhahood;" while Bụt remained at home, there was no need to look any further. The concepts about essence above give us an impression that it exists everywhere (omnipresence), but when it came to King Trần Nhân Tông, we have an impression that it only exists inside human beings. And bản [本] "root" is also tâm [心] "heart," lòng  "soul," Phật [佛] "Buddha," the treasure inside each person which s/he does not realize. The Buddha and Tịnh Độ [淨土] "Good Earth" are the clear soul. If King Trần Thái Tông used bồ đề giác tính [菩提覺性] "Bodhi essence perception," King Trần Nhân Tông used tính sáng (giác tính [覺性]) "clear perception" as opposed to vô minh [無明] "ignorance." He called for the return to một lòng (nhất tâm, one soul). He believed that simply because one selected and differentiated, this caused myriads of threads and knots. Here, we can see that differentiation and selection are the same as dualistic visions of Tuệ Trung. Thus, the thought was the same, but the use of language in King Thái Tông was more polished, and in Tuệ Trung more powerful and passionate, and in King Nhân Tông more realistic and mature.
b. The path back to essence.
In order to return to the essence, according to the Vinītaruci sect, one needed to turn the head inside, not get involved in the existence vs. non-existence duality; but according to the Vô Ngôn Thông Zen sect, one needed hội đắc [會得] "internal realization" of chân như [真如] "true vision," to achieve tâm không [心空] "empty heart," and hư vô tâm [虚無心] "heart of emptiness." Of course, first and foremost, one trained to maintain a moral discipline, what Buddhism called giữ giới "maintaining abstinence." After giới [戒] "abstinence" was định [定] "contemplation, focus." One could not achieve định, the highest level of concentration of spirit, thinking, if the body and the soul were not pure. When the mind was in hot pursuit of desire, want, greed, and selfishness, when the soul was burning with desire, when the heart was in a fog and blurred, one could not have a truly objective, faithful, precise and correct perception of objects and phenomena. Thus, giới [戒] "abstinence"  (moral discipline) was a necessary condition for the concentration of the mind (định [定]). And only when one achieved concentration of the mind, could one achieve wisdom. Only when one achieved wisdom one could return and merge with essence, or enlightenment or salvation. Thus, giới [戒] "abstinence," định [定] "contemplation" , tuệ [慧] "wisdom"  in Buddhism had a close relationship with each other, complemented each other, and served as a step for each other on the path of salvation.
King Trần Thái Tông called for a return to the native land, if the heart committed self-indulgence, it would be drowned in hell [sic]; one needed to get the light back and reflect, to hồi quang phản chiếu [囘光返照] "turn the light inward;" one needed to biện tâm [辯心] "be eloquent in inner truth argumentation" in order to kiến tính [見性] "see the essence." In order to return to the essence, King Trần Thái Tông proposed a system of practice called Lục thì sám hối khoá nghi tự [六時懺悔課宜序] "A series of all-day disciplinary lessons in acknowledgement," dividing a full day and night into six sessions, each session for sám hối [懺悔] "acknowledgement" of one organ, day after day, month after month; eventually the practice turned the heart of the practitioners into a void – the essence that did not manifest itself in each person. In order to return to one's essence, Thượng sĩ used the method of losing the dualistic vision, abandoning everything (phá chấp [破執], "destroying attachments") and from then, one enjoyed a life of self-contentment and existence (phóng cuồng [放狂] "release the wild"). The return to the essence, to King Trần Nhân Tông, meant to arrive at one mind, one heart, and eliminating ignorance (giữ tính sáng, "keeping the essence bright").
Generally speaking, the Buddhist philosophy (of the 10th–14th Centuries), and especially during the Trần period, was indeed an idealist philosophy.
- V. Vietnamese philosophical thinking from the 15th Century to 1858.
1 The Late Lê period.
After defeating the 明 Ming army, Lê Lợi proclaimed himself king. A new bureaucratic land owning stratum came into being, and the military-field-against-trade policy was implemented. The socio-economy was chiefly agriculture–countryside– village. Unlike the Trần period, meritorious officials during the Late Lê period were appointed to a function but did not receive any title or grant of land; Confucianists occupied a large percentage of the administrative offices, leading to the development of a bureaucracy.
The necessity to bring Confucianism into supremacy put Buddhism on the decline, and it was routed to the countryside and villages. During the Late Lê period, Confucianism influenced almost all aspects ofthe society and the royal court, first and foremost in the educational system from the localities to the royal court. King Lê Thánh Tông ordered the building of doctoral steles in the Imperial Academy. During the Late Lê period, Confucianism was the leading ideology. The grassroot level had "piety" on the horizontal axis, and "loyalty" to the King on the vertical axis, to bind, associate, adjust, and glue every member in the society tightly together. The Confucianist thinking of the Late Lê period influenced [the society] in the moral, behavioral, and literary spheres, but was very limited in philosophical and theoretical spheres. The victory of the Lam Sơn uprising helped to bring the human and national issues to the dominant position again. To illustrate this point, we will examine a prominent thinker Nguyễn Trãi (through his masterpieces, for example, Quân trung từ mệnh tập, Ðại cáo bình Ngô, Ức Trai thi tập, Quốc âm thi tập, Dư địa chí ).
The concepts of nation and nationality in Nguyễn Trãi's works were elevated to an important level when he asserted that quốc [國] "nation" was to be defined in terms of territory, culture, fine customs and history.
On territory, he asserted that from time immemorial, Giao chỉ was not a part of China's territory, and was outside the borders of China. He pointed out: "The country of An Nam in the old days was occupied by China beginning from the Ch'in and Hán. And moreover, heaven had separated the South from the North by high mountains and wide rivers, with the borders clearly marked."
In culture, he said, even though the country of An Nam was far from Ngũ Lĩnh (五嶺 southern China) it was well known for poetry and prose, and its talents were frequently recognized.
The literary tradition and fine customs were totally different from those of the Chinese, from the teeth to the hairdos, to the costumes, to the customs of marriage, funerals, tết ceremonies, memorials, festivals, and overall way of life. He wrote: "People in the country are not allowed to copy the language and costumes of the countries of Ngô, Champa, Laos, Siam, and Chân Lạp to confuse the national customs" (Dư địa chí).
Our national history was heroic in many successive dynasties with our own kings and famous heroes. Ours was an independent country. Whoever violated ourcountry, sooner or later would reap defeat.
"Xét nước Đại Việt ta
Thật là một nước văn hiến
Bờ cõi sông núi đã riêng
Phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác
Trải Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần nối đời dựng nước
Cùng Hán, Đường, Tống, Nguyên mỗi đàng làm đế một phương
Tuy mạnh yếu có lúc khác nhau
Mà hào kiệt không bao giờ thiếu".
our country Đại Việt has long since been
truly a land of ancient culture
With its own rivers and mountains, ways and customs,
different from those of the North.
The Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần dynasties successively built up our independence
and stood as equals of the Han, T'ang, Sung and Yuan.
Each beingking of their own realm.
We had known both days of greatness and times of decline
but we never lacked heroes."
This is a clear and rather perfected concept from Nguyễn Trãi—of a nation and a country, and of sovereignty being equal to the North. This is a heroic declaration of independence of our nation in the 15th Century.
The problem of human beings in the thinking of Nguyễn Trãi centered around the concepts of humanity and justice and the đạo of being human.
Humanity and justice according to him was a strategy and a policy for national salvation and nation building during the resistance against foreign invasion as well as in time of peace. "A humanist uses weakness to control the powerful, and the just uses the few to fight against the many." "Uphold great justice to overcome barbarity, and uphold perfect humanity to challenge brute force." On a higher ground, humanity and justice became the basis for policies, standards of behavior and solutions to problems. They were a methodology for all thought and action. "The đạo of generals is to use humanity and justice as the foundation, and intelligence and courage as wealth;" "To plan great deeds one needs humanity and justice as the foundation, and to gain great exploits one must put humanity and justice first." (Letter in reply to General Phương Chính).
The concept of humanity and justice was also demonstrated in the amnesty given to surrendering [enemy] troops to eradicate the source of future wars, and to leave an eternally kind image in their mind. The concept of humanity and justice was also manifested in the denunciation of war and the love for peace: "Weapons are tools of brutality, fighting is a dangerous act, the saints and sages only use them when they have no other choice."
His concept of humanity and justice was also manifested in the concept of "the people as the foundation": "To lift or overturn the boat is the act of the people," "the people are like water," "satifying our will while leaving others with resentment surely leads to anger for a hundred years." From these, Dân tâm [民心] "people's heart" has turned into the basis for his humanism.
Thus Nguyễn Trãi's concept of humanity and justice had reached a high form of humanism.
This form of humanism was based on several of his materialist ideas, such as "Hungry and frozen to the bone will not make a person think of civility" (Tấu cầu phong – Request for Ordination), or "One meal without food, father and son lose their love for each other" (Another letter to Vương Thông), which made them more realistic, active and wholesome. Thanks to this, he professed that after chasing away the enemy, half of the troops were sent home to tend their rice fields.
To be human to him was to excel as the model of a perfect man, a hero, a great man, who had three virtues: humanity, intelligence and courage.
His đạo of being human was developed from that of Confucianism, but it differs from the latter in that his loyalty was not a loyalty to one dynasty, to one king, but loyalty to the country, and his humanity was not a universal love but the love directed to the poor and the suffering, the love of the people, and the salvation of the people. Thus, he expanded the đạo of being human of Confucianism to the need to defend and build the country at that time.
He found the causal relations between objects and phenomena, especially when analyzing their causes. "Being blessed or cursed has its cause seeded long before, not just one day." He said: "Observe the action, analyze the causes of such action, where did the joy come from. Thus, the human heart being sincere or fake cannot hide [from others] one bit." (Another letter to Vương Thông, and Sơn Thọ).
He had already discovered and resolved the complex relationship between the tiny and the large, between the near and the far, between the immediate gain and the long-term gain, when he said: "One should not grab the small item but hurt the great cause, not see the near but forget the far." (Lam sơn thực lục [藍山實錄] "Collection of actual events in Lam Sơn"). Objects, phenomena, and human beings always changed (mệnh không thường – fate is ephemeral), life's work was complex (trời khó khăn – heaven is difficult), that's why one must think of the difficulties to plan the easy. The cause was hard to succeed and easy to fail at, thus, we must be careful from the start, and be vigilant as we proceed. "One must watch for the unrest which might have been caused by feeling restful. One must predict the arrogance which may have been caused by luxury." If needed, one had to "think about defending the country when it is not in danger." "One must be careful first to plan for later, and do a big job from the small ones."
Between subjective (human heart, human will, people's will, human strength, people's strength) and objective (heaven's law, heaven's fate, heaven's strength, heaven's heart – the objective historical trend, trend of an era) there are dialectical relations. "In harmony with the heaven's heart above. In harmony with the human heart below." Between those two, though expressed in a mystical manner, he began to see the latter as having the basis to define the former. "It is necessary to win heaven's heart in order to be in harmony with the human heart." When one has understood thoroughly the latter, one must assess one's own ability, evaluate one's own strength, and from there, improve one's dynamism to achieve one's goal. For example, King Lê Lợi was able to build the country because of "knowing the others and knowing ourselves, weak or strong," "from heaven we know our opportunity, but we must also have intelligence to succeed" (Prose on Chí Linh Mountain). This in essence contradicted the idealism of the Confucianist mystical heaven's mandate.
It was precisely the correct analysis of the objective and subjective relations which helped him to discover and identify opportunities. Opportunity was when there was an advantageous objective situation to help human subjective acts to achieve unexpected success. He called on "Opportunity! Opportunity! We really should not let it pass." From the understanding of opportunity, opportunity may then turn into thông biến [通變] "transformative passage." That was what was valuable in a righteous person. On the other hand, one must succeed in building subjective forces to be able to catch opportunities, meaning to create thế [勢] "situational potential," because if one had opportunity without potential, one actually watched it pass by. "Catching opportunity and possessing potential, we can turn loss into life, small into big; if we lose opportunities and have no potential, we can turn strength into weakness, and weakness into danger. These changes could occur in a blink of an eye." Thus, "the valuable virtue of a hero is his understanding of opportunity and potential to understand change."
From the analysis of opportunity and potential, objective and subjective situations, he advanced the method of using the small number to overcome the many, using the weak to fight against the strong, and he was successful. This proves that his thinking and argumentation at that time were completely correct, and it became a meaningful theory for later times.
2 The Mạc period (1527-1592)
In 1527, Mạc Đăng Dung overthrew the Lê Dynasty and established the Mạc royal court. In the official history of Vietnam, the Mạc Dynasty was not considered an official imperial court. The Mạc Dynasty advanced a few measures and policies to build the country. During the Mạc period, there arose many thinkers such as Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Nguyễn Dư and Phùng Khắc Khoan, but the most prominent was Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1492-1585).
His worldview. Heaven to him was the natural world, not a king of heaven with human attributes. Human beings were a part of the natural world, and there was a unity between heaven and humans, heaven and humans had contacts with each other and were compatible with each other (thiên nhân tương dữ hiệu tương phù). Human beings and the cosmos were born naturally, all beings were alike (vạn vật đồng). Here, he did not see the characteristics of human beings and society, and confounded the natural law with social law, which led to the mystical viewpoint of fate.
The progression of nature was termed by him as the đạo of heaven, according to the law that the 周易 I ching put forth. Objects were born, and developed, and the development motion was in the objects themselves. However, the development here was a cyclic development, going and then back, that was the normal logic of lý "principle" (tuần hoàn vãng phục lý chi thường). Transformation motion was a form of development, and a condition for an object to turn into another object. However, he did not see the conditions of transformation motion, especially the transformation motion of the opposite properties. He only knew odds and evens, full then less full, round then warped, etc. The concept of development was packed in lý and can be summed up in the 太極圖 T'ai ch'i diagram.
The development of society and human beings was named by him as the đạo of human beings according to the law of cycle, shrinking and stretching, gaining and losing,... Not accepting the role and actions of human beings, he attributed everything to fate, influenced by heaven (gaining or losing and everything else, nothing was not determined by heaven). That was a mystical idealism reflecting the inability to act in the face of the events of the time.
Even human character was given by heaven, human nature was inherently good, and if human nature was not good, it was because it was engulfed by desire. In order to return to the good, one did not need to look further, one only needs to look inside. Without the law of heaven, it would be difficult for human beings to avoid barbarity. In fact, these are the viewpoints of Mencious and Zhu Xi .
The content of the đạo of human beings were 忠正 trung chính "loyal and righteous," that is, 善 thiện "good" and 仁 nhân "humane."
The societal model, to him, was the era of 堯舜 Yao Shun 唐虞 Tang Yu . He opposed wars, and praised the 王道 Vương đạo "Benevolent Way" (rule by virtues using humanity and justice to move people, rather than bind them with 三綱 tam cương "three bonds" and 五常 ngũ thường "five common virtues," , that is the way of a Confucianist scholar living near the people). He said: "From days of old, a humane act is invincible, there is no need to insist on the war path." Humanity and justice to him meant to care for people's life, and to maintain peace for the country. "From days of old, the country has to consider the people as the foundation, one must know that to gain the country means basically to win the heart of the people" (cổ lai quốc dĩ dân vi bản, đắc quốc ưng tri tại đắc dân ). "One would rather lose thousands of gold pieces but never loses a human heart (thất thiên kim vật thất nhân tâm ).
According to him, the đạo of being humanmeans to follow the Confucian 綱常 cương thường "social duties" (三綱 tam cương, and 五常 ngũ thường). However, the reality of the society and of the Mạc royal court, king and officials included, forced him to find a different way of being human. He advanced the concept of 忠滨 trung tân "faithful shore": 忠 trung "faithful" means to stand in the middle without tilting to either side while keeping the good intact. 忠 trung does not just mean to be loyal to the king, but also to be pious to parents, be harmonious between brothers and sisters, be in peace between husband and wife, be trustful between friends, without greed for unjust material gain, be happy with good deeds, be generous and tolerant with others, and extremely honest with everybody. 滨 tân  means the shore: knowing exactly where to dock is the main shore, and not knowing a worthy place to dock is landing on the illusory shore. These ideas were very different from those of the Confucianists and of the feudal ethics.
In his denial of the human subjective dynamic creativity, he advised people to abandon the struggle, saying that living 以和爲貴dĩ hoà vi quý "in peace with others is precious." Making clumsiness poetic and skillfulness undesirable, he professed to live 安分 an phận "contentedly in one's place" according to one's fate.
In general, there were dialectical elements in his thinking but it was deeply colored in idealist shades.
3. The Trịnh – Nguyễn civil conflicts (Lê Middle Renaissance).
a. Lê Quý Đôn (1726 - 1784) 
His major works include Quốc sử tục biên [A Contiuation of the National History], Đại Việt thông sử [General History of Đại Việt], Phủ biên tạp lục [Monograph on Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam Provinces], Quần thư khảo biện [Research and Interpretation of the Books], Xuân thu lược luận [General Comments on the Book of Xuân Thu], Bắc sử thông lục [Report on a Mission to China], Toàn Việt thi lục [A Complete Collection of Việt Poetry], Vân đài loại ngữ [Various Texts Written on Going Through My Library], Kiến văn tiểu lục [Short Collection of Things Seen and Heard], Thư kinh diễn nghĩa [Explanations of the Book of Annals], Dịch kinh phủ thuyết [Commentaries on the Book of Change], Hoàng Việt Văn Hải, Quế Đường thi tập [Collection of Poetry of Quế Đường], etc.
The contribution of Lê Quý Đôn was not only represented in collections, research and commentaries, but also in his thinking.
— On the origin and nature of objects. He held that khí [氣] "element" created every being: the sun, the moon, the stars, the cosmos, emptiness, thunder claps, storms, etc. Thus, his philosophical position has a materialist character.
— On epistemology, according to him, lý [理] "principle" and khí [氣] "element" were not opposites. Moreover, lý was a property of khí, lý was a part of khí, and each object had a lý. Lý was the rule for existence and development of objects. According to him, "the existence of objects implies the existence of rules," "to get to the bottom of lý was to know well." Thus, to know objects meant to know their lý, and their rules (meaning the law of the development of objects).
— Evaluation of people, according to him, meant to evaluate skills and ethics. To evaluate a person meant to rely on his/her smallest behaviors, but to work with a person meant to rely on his/her major virtues.
His limitation was that he believed in fortune telling and divine retribution which helped the talented to decide the development of history...
— He was conscious of building an advanced thinking and culture with a national character. Using this thinking, he tried to build a national pride and respect, and promoted love for the people and country of Vietnam.
— In summary, he was an encyclopedic scholar displaying a conscious attempt to absorb the knowledge of human kind. He had in his thinking elements of a rustic materialism.
b. Lê Hữu Trác (1720 - 1791) 
Lê Hữu Trác has the title Hải Thượng Lãn Ông "The Idler of Hải Thượng." His work includes Hải Thượng y tông tâm lĩnh "The essential guide to Hải thượng medical school."
According to him, the body determined the mind, and the mind was dependent on the body. Thinking and emotions had their roots in a living body. He said: "七情 thất tình "the seven emotions" (惊 sadness, 喜 cheerfulness, 樂 joy, 怒 anger, 愛 love, 惡 hatred, 欲 desire) are invisible, but come into being from the visible." On the other hand, the mind also affected the body; an extreme mental state might create illness in the body. "Extreme joy ill-affects the heart, and creates an unquiet mind, and an irregular pulse."
Abandoning the viewpoint of heaven's destiny, he believed that "human efforts may be able to change the destiny of heaven," the strong 陽 yang would give birth to many sons, the rising of 陰 yin would give birth to many daughters. According to him, different weather, different climates, different times, different body constitutions would require different treatments. Thus, there exists a creative adaptation of great thinking.
In general, his thinking has materialist and dialectical elements, but was modeled after 陰陽 yin yang and 五行 ngũ hành "five elements."
c. Ngô Thì Nhậm (1746 - 1803) [吳時任]
His works include Nhị thập thất sử toát yếu, Bút hải tùng đàm, Hoàng hoa đồ phả, Hàn các anh hoa, Kim mã hành dư, Xuân thu quản kiếm, Trúc Lâm tông chỉ nguyên thanh, etc.
— In Ngô Thì Nhậm, the world was both unified and diversified. Each realm had a central object and others circling around it (in heaven, the sun was the center around which circled the moon, the stars, the cloud, and the wind; in the human realm, the King was the center around whom were the feudals and the people). It was unified because "the numbers of heaven start from integer one, the principle of yin yang begins with one ring (太極 thái cực, 'universe'), number 'one' is where the creator hides the infinities, and the saints hold the inexhaustibles." "The cosmos coaleses at number one, where the odds merge into strings, the principle and the numbers of heaven and earth, yin and yang are all there."
— Every object or phenomenon had opposites, such as thể [體] "form" and dụng [用] "use," dispersal and congregation, difference and similarity, hardness and softness, etc. One existed without the existence of the other. They were opposites but being together, they could not eliminate each other, they were the raison d'être of each other. "Hardness can quickly be broken, softness lasts long, even though the tongue and the teeth do not fight each other to determine which one is stronger or weaker."
— Viewpoint on the mandate of heaven . "Thriving or declining, long or short, the destiny is set by heaven, human efforts cannot create them." Thus, it was the intervention of the external force which human beings could not resist. However, "the law of heaven is at the human heart" (天理在人心 thiên lý tại nhân tâm).
— Viewpoint on time. Thời [時] "Time; Timing" had an important role in the fate of a dynasty. However, "time" was in a continuous flow of changes with which đạo [道] "the way" had to change to harmonize. "Đạo changes, Time transforms" thus human beings had to change with time, and together with time transform, in order to be free. Specifically, he held that different situations required different responses. He said to 鄧陳常 Đặng Trần Thường "Encountering such a situation, one must respond accordingly."
— Adopting the idea of "the people are the foundation of the country" (民爲邦本 dân vi bang bản), he considered the people as the center of the universe, and the people's heart was the center of the heaven-human relationship. "Heaven watches, heaven listens because of the people. The people's heart at peace causes the will of heaven to change;" "the country at peace wins the heart of the people;" "the heart of the people at peace ... causes peace elements to gather;" "The feeling of peace among the people will be sympathetic with peaceful responses from heaven above, without a need for planning, good crops also arrive." (Kim mã hành dư).
In order to win the heart of the people, in essence the people must be allowed to be leisurely, "content," "satisfied," and "pleased."
He was patriotic. "My humble life has long been dedicated to the country," "I am lucky to be born in the Southern country." When he joined the Tây Sơn Uprising, he offered a lot of progressive thinking, however, he gradually became colored with Buddhism.
4. Philosophical thinking of the Nguyễn era.
In this section, we limit ourselves to the philosophical thinking of the Nguyễn Dynasty before the French colonialists' occupation (1802–1858), before the invasion of western thought.
In this case, only King Minh Mệnh (1791–1840) and his thinking were totally within this time frame.
The philosophical thinking of King Minh Mệnh was recorded in Minh Mệnh chính yếu [明命政要] " Essentials of King Minh Mệnh's policy." He barely mentioned his worldview in this work but expanded his views on human conditions, in which the concept of the people and the đạo of being human were most prominent.
He held that "the people are the foundation of the country," thus one must "love what people love, and hate what people hate;" "a politician cannot go against the will of the people." In another passage, he said: "The king treats the people like a father treats his young child, he thinks of a warm coat when it is not yet cold, he thinks of food when the child is not yet hungry, rather than waiting until the child cries for food."
"Corrupted officials are parasites of the people, because of whom crimes break out," "To eliminate evils to bring peace to the people is the first task of politics."
The King reminded us, if something benefit the people, one should go ahead and act andthere is no violation of any law in this action.
On the đạo of being human, in 1834 he promulgated a 10-point teaching. According to him, using people was like a skilled carpenter used wood, just because one piece of wood was defective, the carpenter did not abandon the entire tree trunk; to evaluate and promote a person one must rely on his/her words and actions, not on one's personal feeling.
Some general sketches of the worldview and view on human life of the Nguyễn Dynasty before 1858.
— The concept of mệnh [命] "fate" and thiên mệnh [天命] "heavenss mandate." The will of heaven was called mệnh [命] "mandate" and thiên mệnh [天命] "heaven's mandate." Heaven was a predetermined course of events, one might want it but could not create it, and human power could not change it.
Ngẫm hay muôn sự tại trời
Trời kia đã bắt làm người có thân
Bắt phong trần phải phong trần
Cho thanh cao mới được phần thanh cao.
"In the final contemplation, everything was decided by heaven
Heaven had decided for human beings to have a body
For human beings to roll in dust, so one rolls in dust
For human beings to be elevated, so one becomes elevated"
The mandate of heaven was like a mountain crushing human beings. Human beings had been trying to shake it off but could not avoid this mandate.
The mandate of heaven was like a political weapon; the king was given the mandate of heaven to rule over the people. On the other hand, fate also had a tranquillizer effect on the suffering mass of people—everybody pointed to fate for their happiness or suffering, for their joy or sadness, gain or loss, ascension or decline,...
Thus, what was trời  "heaven"? According to King Tự Đức, Trời was just lý [理] "principle" and khí [氣] "elements." Trời was pure elements, and lý was aimed at birth, transformation, and changes in all objects. On the other hand, he considered trời "heaven" a dignified father.
Nguyễn Đức Đạt considered tâm [心] "heart" was trời  "heaven," and he seemed inclined towards subjective idealism. Like Đổng Trọng Thư, he believed that between heaven and human beings there was a sympathetic link (天人相感 thiên nhân tương cảm). King Tự Đức asserted: the đạo of heaven and the design of human beings were not so far from each other. From then on, the Nguyễn Dynasty on many occasions organized cầu đảo [求倒] prayers for change to have rain during a drought, or to have sunshine during the rain or a flood.
The theory of heaven-human being mutually sympathetic together with the theory of heaven's mandate and fate, were universally believed not only among the upper class and royal court, but also among the lower class and among the general population, and they appeared in stories, poetry and prose. This was clearly manifested in the poetic story of Nhị độ mai [二度梅] "Apricot Flowers Twice in Bloom." Among the population, the custom of cầu đảo "prayers for inverse change," prayers to heaven, and offerings to the stars were popular. A result of these customs was the let-go tendency, "Waiting and watching for the way the creator machine turns." From time to time rebellious thought appeared – of the type "From days of old, there have been many cases where the design of man overcomes that of heaven," but this voice was extremely weak.
According to Prof. Trần Văn Giàu, the country in the 19th Century, everywhere, from the royal court to the ordinary people, in the Confucianist stratum, from the books to the customs, Vietnam saw the influence of the theory of yin-yang, five elements and the eight diagrams of I Ching [陰陽 五行 八卦]. Poet Nguyễn Đính Chiểu wrote:
Ví dù tạo hoá mấy lò
Hóa công mấy thợ (thì muôn vật đều gốc ở) một pho ngũ hành.
No matter how many casts the creator has
No matter how many craftsmen the creator owns, (all objects are simply formed by) one block of five elements.
Nguyễn Trường Tộ went further and considered 水 thuỷ "water" (North – China) 滅 diệt (dominates) 火 hoả "fire" (South – Vietnam), while 金 Kim "metal" (West – France) 滅 diệt (protectorates) 木 mộc "wood" (East – Vietnam). The rule of yin-yang and Five Elements [陰陽 五行] said so. Western science did not have yin-yang and five elements, therefore, people at that time did not believe in them.
King Tự Đức considered the creative elements of all objects were lý [理] "principle" and khí [氣] "element." Khí "element" was yin and yang, and lý "principle" was đạo [道] "the way." Things that took shape were khí, and those that did not have shape were đạo. But đạo without khí could not visualize itself in anything. And khí without đạo could not withstand.
According to Bùi Dương Lịch, everything came into being and into existence from the circulation of khí "element." The existence of smart or dumb people was because of the absorption of clean or foul khí; birth or death were only the concentration or dispersal of khí.
Side by side with the human world, there was a world of souls. Life was a composition of elements, souls, spirits; thác là thể phách, còn là tinh anh "death comes to the body and spirit, what remains is your essence." The king, officials, intellectuals and plain people believed in this equally. All writers alike, including poet Nguyễn Du and poet Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, wrote elegies to the dead.
— Outlook on life of the Nguyễn Dynasty.
The Ngũ luân [五倫] "five morals," the center of which were tam cương [三綱] "three bonds" and ngũ thường [五常] "five common virtues," were the foundation of morality of the Nguyễn Dynasty, while loyalty [to the king] and piety [to the parents] were the two most important virtues of the five morals.
Generally speaking, the worldview and life outlook of the Nguyễn Dynasty, especially of the high stratum of king, officials, and intellectuals were those of Confucianism, which were applied, improvised, and localized in the Vietnamese society in the first half of the 19th Century.
The limitations of Vietnamese philosophical thinking up until the first half of the 19th Century were those of Vietnamese traditional ideology. The importing of Marxism-Leninism into the country has ushered in a new period in the history of thinking in general, and philosophical thinking in particular in Vietnam.
Reference of the translator
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- Lão Tử: Đạo đức kinh [老子 道德經], translated and commented into Vietnamese by Thu Giang Nguyễn Duy Cần. Hanoi: Literature Publishing House. Reprint.
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Hà Nội. 4 volumes. Digitized version by the Institute of Hán Nôm Research of the Nguyễn Dynasty reprint as Quốc tử giám tàng bản.
- [VSCM] Đặng Xuân Bảng. 2000.
- 越 史 綱 目 節 要 Việt sử cương mục tiết yếu [The essential Vietnamese history]. Viện Nghiên cứu Hán Nôm. Social Sciences Publishing House. Hà Nội.
- Vũ Ngọc Khánh, Chief editor. 1993.
- Từ điển Văn hoá Việt Nam: Phần Nhân vật chí [A dictionary of the Vietnamese Culture]. Culture and Information Publishing House. Hà Nội.
- Phạm Văn Sơn. 1960.
- Việt sử toàn thư (từ thượng cổ đến hiện đại) [A complete history of Vietnam (from ancient times to the present)]. First printing at Thư Lâm Ấn thư quán, reprinted by Đại Nam (California, US).
- Nguyễn Hùng Hậu. 2002.
- Đại cương triết học Phật giáo Việt Nam [Vietnamese Buddhist philosophy], Volume 2: Từ khởi nguyên đến thế kỷ XIV [From the origin to the 14th Century]. Hanoi: Institute of Philosophy, Social Sciences Publishing House.
||The translator cannot find original sources for many books and references cited in this paper. Attempt to reconstruct the intended meaning of the author is put in Translator's Endnotes. The translator thanks Merle Ratner and SophieQuinn-Judge for their invaluable comments.
||Nguyễn Đăng Thục (1908-1999), among his works are included Triết học Đông phương nhập môn "Introduction to Oriental philosophy" (1958), Lịch sử triết học Đông phương "History of Oriental philosophy" (5 volumes, 1956-1962), Tư tưởng Việt Nam "Vietnamese thought" (1964), Lịch sử tư tưởng Việt Nam "History of Vietnamese thought" (4 volumes, 1967-1970), Thiền học Việt Nam "Vietnamese Zen Buddhism" (1967),...
||Trần Văn Giàu (1921-2006), his works include Triết học phổ thông "General philosophy," Biện chứng pháp "On dialectics," Vũ trụ quan "On cosmology," Duy vật lịch sử "On historical materialism," Sự phát triển của tư tưởng Việt Nam thế kỷ 19 đến Cách mạng Tháng Tám "The development of Vietnamese thought from the 19th Century to the August Revolution," ... His most important work is Lịch sử Việt Nam "A Vietnamese history" in 5 volumes (1956-1957).
||hiền 賢 "virtuous; wise," hiền triết 賢哲 "thinkers," and minh triết 明哲 "sages."
||形而上学 hình nhi thượng học, comparable to metaphysics, as opposed to 形而下学 hình nhi hạ học.
||陳太宗 Trần Thái Tông.
||理 lý "principle," and 氣 khí "element," by 黎貴惇 Lê Quý Đôn.
||仁 nhân "humanity," 義 nghĩa "justice" by 阮豸 Nguyễn Trãi.
||The Vietnamese original has "1958." It may be "1858."
||鴻龐氏 Hồng Bàng thị "Hồng Bàng Clan;" 趙 Triệu Dynasty.
||Lịch sử Việt Nam by Prof. Phan Huy Lê.
||文郎 Văn Lang, 雄王 Hùng Vương, 安楊王 蜀泮 An Dương Vương Thục Phán.
||普天之下 莫非王土 率土之濱 莫非王臣 Phổ thiên chi hạ, mạc phi vương thổ, suất thổ chi tân, mạc phi vương thần (詩經 小雅 北山 Book of Poetry) "All lands under Heaven belong to the emperor, all people under Heaven are subjects of the emperor."
||阮悠 Nguyễn Du, The Tale of Kiều [嬌].
||五代十国 Five dynasties and ten kingdoms in China, 907-960.
||lý hoặc 理惑, cf.ĐTC 2:194, errors or ignorance in one's ideal or vision. See also Vietnamese Buddhism, a spring-board in the Eastern Asia during the early centuries A.D., by Ven. Dr. Thích Tâm Đức, Vietnam Buddhist University.
||http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/禅宗 東南亞各國也受到了禪宗的影響。越南禪宗最早為滅喜禪派，為從三祖僧璨受禪法之天竺三藏毗尼多流支 （ Vinitaruci ，又譯 "滅喜"）所創。後又有中國無言通禪派（觀壁派）、雲門宗、曹洞宗禪派等傳至越南。
||According to Nguyễn Duy Cần, "do no action" means to "act according to đạo."
||道生之 德畜之 物形之 勢成之, đạo sinh chi đức súc chi vật hình chi thế thành chi (Tao te ching, Chapter 51) "Đạo gives birth, Virtue raises, Matter shapes, Situation forms." 玄德 huyền đức "Absolute Virtue" is mentioned in Chapter 65, 知此兩者 亦稽式、 常知稽式是謂玄德 tri thử lưỡng giả diệc khể thức, thường tri khể thức, thị vị huyền đức "knowing those two things [rule the country by wisdom and rule the country not by wisdom], one can build a model and rules, we call knowing the model and rules absolute virtue."
||同 đồng "same, similar," 胞 bào "womb, placenta, fetal membrane."
||Consciousness can either be ý thức or tư tưởng depending on the context.
||tịch điền 籍田 "official/registered field."
||ngụ binh ư nông 寓兵於農, literally, "housing the army in agriculture (in the farm)."
||田庄 điền trang "farm manor" and 寀邑 thái ấp "feudal estate."
||nông nô, "serf."
||nô tỳ, "bond servant" without pay, usually women.
||文廟 Văn Miếu "Temple of Literature."
||明經博學 minh kinh bác học "well-learnedship of the sage books, and broad scholarship."
||國子監 Quốc tử giám "Imperial Academy" for bureaucrats, royalty and elite.
|| chèo popular theater, 傱 tuồng classical theater.
||南國山河 Nam quốc sơn hà "The mountains and rivers of the southern country" -- the title of the poem comes from its first 4 ideograms. See the entire poem in Section IV.
||丁部領 Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, 大勝明皇帝 Đại thắng minh hoàng đế, 大瞿越 Đại Cồ Việt, 華閭洞 Hoa Lư Động.
||Chương Dương 璋楊渡 shore, the Hàm Tử 咸子関 gate, and the Bạch Đằng 白籐江 river.
||Ðại Việt sử ký toàn thư. Hanoi: Social Sciences Publishing House, Volume 2, p. 138.
||國策 quốc sách "national strategy/policy."
||Diên Hồng 延洪 elders' congress in 1284 and the Bình Than 平灘 military congress in 1282, ĐVSKTT 5:41b& 44b.
||以天下之欲爲欲、 以天下之心爲心 Dĩ thiên hạ chi dục vi dục, dĩ thiên hạ chi tâm vi tâm "Adopt the want of the people as your own want, adopt the heart of the people as your own heart."
||Also spelled as chơn thân (ĐTC1:400), the body of Buddha, as opposed to hoá thân (his magic transformed body), or also pháp thân, an ever existing body.
||Also spelled pháp tánh (ĐTC 2:586).
||ĐTC3:68-69, tâm ấn, an imprint in the heart, the transfer of Buddha's heart from a master to a disciple; a secretive transfer in a Buddhist sect from one mind to another; the essence of a Buddhist sect. It is synonymous to 佛印 phật ấn "imprint of the Buddha."
||眞如, chân như, true to self, without illusion, ĐTC 1:397.
||Skr. dharmakaya, Fr. corps d'essence, dharma body. Cf. ĐTC 2:593.
||There is a translation of không as sūnyāta—but Nguyễn Đăng Thục translated 課虚錄 khoá hư lục as "Lessons on sūnyatā" in Vietnamese Humanism, Philosophy of East and West, vol. 9 (1959) 129-143. University of Hawaii Press.
||慧中上士, Tuệ Trung Thượng Sĩ's real name was Trần Tung, and was appointed to the title Hưng Ninh Vương, and was appointed the commander in chief against the Yuan Mongolian army in the last two battles in 1285 and 1287-1288, and won many important battles. He followed the Buddhist teachings but was not a bikhu.
||Skr. prātimokṣa, śīla "rule; prohibit; virtue."
||Skr. dhyāna, samadhi, samatha "meditation, contemplation."
||Skr. prajñā "wisdom, science." 慧 tuệ has a Buddhist pronunciation, huệ.
||軍中詞命集 Quân trung từ mệnh tập [Writings for the Army], 平吳大告 Ðại cáo bình Ngô [Proclamation on the Victory over the Ngô], 抑齋詩集 Ức Trai thi tập [Collection of Poems of Ức Trai], 國音詩集 Quốc âm thi tập [Collection of Poems in National Language], 輿地誌 Dư địa chí [Geographic records], etc.
||孟子 Mencius, SV. Mạnh Tử, and 朱熹 Zhu Xi, SV. Chu Hy.
||唐虞 T'ang Yu, SV. Đường Ngu, the halcyon days of Emperor Yao and Shun.
||三綱 tam cương, lit. "three ropes" (the bonds between 君臣 king-subject, 父子 father-child, 夫妻 husband-wife) and 五常 ngũ thường "five common virtues," (仁義禮智信, humanity, righteousness, civility, wisdom, and trustfullness).
||古來國以民爲本、 得國應知在得民人, cổ lai quốc dĩ dân vi bản, đắc quốc ưng tri tại đắc dân.
||失千金勿失人心, thất thiên kim vật thất nhân tâm.
||綱常 cương thường, see 三綱 tam cương and 五常 ngũ thường above.
||滨 tân "shore, beach, river bank" is also spelled 濱.
||黎貴惇 Lê Quý Đôn, 見聞小録 Kiến văn tiểu lục [Short Collection of Things Seen and Heard], 芸臺類語 Vân đài loại ngữ [Various Texts Written on Going Through My Library], etc. Cf. [VL 292]
||黎有卓海上懒翁 Lê Hữu Trác, Hải thượng Lãn Ông, 海上醫宗心領 Hải thượng y tông tâm lĩnh "The essential guide to the Hải thượng medical school." Hải Thượng is a combination of two first ideograms of his native province (Hải Dương) and district (Thượng Hồng) or Ban Thượng (his mother's village) [VL 299].