Buddha & Agricultural God

Dear Mr. Ngan,

  1. When I was little, I was often told “Bụt appears.” After I grew up, I realize Bụt is also used to refer to Phật (both words mean Buddha). So why are there two names for the same thing?
  2. Before 1975, in Southern Vietnam, people often talked about the Agricultural God. I used to think it was a type of rice grain. Later, I came to know it’s a god who teaches farmers how to cultivate rice. I am not sure if this is a Chinese or a Vietnamese god.

Nguyễn Minh Chân, Toronto

(Two different words in Vietnamese but both refer to Buddha)
During my childhood, I too often heard or chanted the following verses:

  • As gentle as Bụt
  • Living next to a pagoda, one would call Bụt a brother.
  • When one is with Bụt, one wears a Holy robe, when one is with a Ghost, one wears paper clothing. (Similar to the English expression: Pay a man back with the same coin).
  • Buddha in an in-house pagoda is not as sacred.
  • In the Story of Tấm Cám (Vietnamese version of Cinderella), Bụt always appeared to help Tấm whenever she was badly treated by her stepmother.
  • When Lord Trinh Kiem intented to overthrow the Le dynasty, he sent people to ask First Doctoral Candidate Nguyen Binh Khiem’s thoughts on the matter and was told “If one protects the pagoda that worships Bụt, he can eat the rice cakes inside.” Taking that advice, Trinh Kiem did not dethrone King Le. Instead, he kept the king as a puppet and the Trinh family got a lot of “rice cakes”, meaning that they gained real power.

The word Bụt originated from the phonetic pronunciation of the word the Buddha. The word Phật is also a phonetic pronunciation of the word Buddha but from Cantonese. Phat-da, then, it was shortened to Phật when transformed into Vietnamese.

The slight difference can be explained by the origin of the arrival of Buddhism to Vietnam.

In the first century CE, Indian Buddhist monks came to Vietnam via the sea route. Our country at that time was dominated and renamed Giao Chi District by the Han dynasty. Luy Lau, the capital city of Giao Chi, quickly became an important centre for Buddhism.

According to one story where Chu Dong Tu – a man who learnt the theories of Buddhism from an Indian Buddhist monk – many people thought Buddhism reached Vietnam several centuries BCE because Chu Dong Tu met Princess Tien Dung whose father was King Hung III. This interpretation is vague because Chu Dong Tu is a mythical figure, as well as other characters in the story. The historical fact that Buddhism reached Vietnam in the first century CE is now commonly accepted.

Historians accept the idea due to our mentality of opposing Chinese domination, we warmly welcomed Buddhism culture and intentionally neglected Confucianism culture because Buddhism came to Vietnam peacefully while Confucianism penetrated our cultural through conquering wars. In addition, life under domination at that time was very hard and Buddhism helped people deal with their misfortunes. So it was not surprising that Buddhism was greatly received because it met the needs of people. In a short time, 20 temples were built in Luy Lau city, 500 Buddhist monks were trained and 15 Buddhist books were translated. In the Three Kingdom dynasty, during the time our country was dominated by the Eastern Wu Dynasty, King Wu Sun Quan invited many Buddhist monks from our country to the capital of Wu country to give Buddhist lectures to Sun Quan’s mother named Wu Quo Tai.

The style of Buddhism that came to our country from India was called Hinayana Buddhsim. The word Bụt was frequently used because it had not gone through a phonetic adaption from Cantonese. In the view of the people at that time, Bụt was an all powerful deity appearing everywhere, willing to help people when they prayed especially if they worked in agriculture. So it was important to pray for rain and sun for good cultivating seasons.

Therefore, it can be assumed that idioms and popular verses mentioning Buddha originated from the first centuries CE.

Hundreds of years later, Mahayana Buddhism from China spread and overwhelmed Hinayana Buddhism. Since then, the word Phật was used instead of the word Bụt and Mahayana Buddhism spread quickly in our country, reaching its peak in the Ly and Tran Dynasties. The use of Bụt diminished and was only used in popular folk verses and traditional legends.

One fact should be noted that after the Buddha’s death, his followers often held meetings and argument arose between two sides: the conservative side of the senior monks, who believed in following the principles in the Buddhism doctrine firmly, and the other side who believed in following the principles in a more advanced, tolerant, and temperate way, incorporating many more followers. This side latter called itself Mahayana (meaning a big wheel can carry many people) and called the conservative side Hinayana (meaning a small wheel carrying a small group of people). To avoid the misunderstanding, the international Buddhist conference in Nepal in1956 agreed to replace the word Hinayana Buddhism with the word Theravada Buddhism (Original Buddhism).


Ancient Chinese history is very complicated and therefore it seems hard to believe at time. But before discussing about the Agriculture God, I need to re-mention an old lesson I have written in a past issue. I mention it again because it is a fundamental background which serves as a root discussion point for Vietnam-China cultural origins.

Today we are sure, from trustworthy records, that before the Qin Han dynasty (Qin Shi Huang and Emperor Gaozu of Han), the Bach Viet group was the largest group living in what is now Chinese territory. The Han Dynasty only owned a small area of land along the Huang He River in the North. The Bach Viet people scattered all over long the riversides of the Huang He, in Zhe Jiang, Fu Jian, Guang Dong, Guang Xi, Yun Nan, Gui zhou, down to the North and the Central of Vietnam. The Bach Viet group consisted of many small groups like Dien Viet, Duong Viet, Man Viet, Dong Viet, Nam Viet, Au Viet, Lac Viet…

Chinese History, recorded in many remaining documents, actually started from the Three Dynasty period, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. More cautious historians believe Chinese history didn’t start until the Zhou Dynasty because records prior to this period were vague.

The first King of the Xia dynasty, who founded China was King Wu, or King Da Wu or Xia Wu. He was of Viet origin. The Han group did not even exist until the reign of the Shang and Zhou Dynasty. About 500 years BCE, King Cau Tien of Viet origin (descendant of King Wu of the Xia Dynasty), after conquering the Wu, proclaimed himself King and leader of all the dependant countries of the Zhou. That was the peak period of the Viet group. The Viet was then dominated by the So Dynasty. The Viet King’s offspring gradually weakened and scattered over the Tian Tai and Zhe Jiang areas. They couldn’t unify and surrendered when Qin Shi Huang ascended the throne.

Qin Shi Huang’s defeat triggered the conflict of power between the Han and the So Dynasty. Luu Bang belonged to the Han, he rose to power from a small country in the North. Hang Vo, representing the So, which belonged to the Bach Viet group. Hang Vo and Luu Bang were initially committed to fight together against the Qin but later fought against each other in the last big fight for power. Luu Bang won and founded the Han Dynasty around 200 BCE. From then on, the Han family took control of the Central Highlands area, pushing the Viet group down to the South. Those that stayed were eventually assimilated.

After unifying the country, The Han rewrote history, making up a lot of facts under the King’s request, to enhance their own national pride. They made up legends, declaring the first three kings of China which included: Phuc Hy, Than Nong (the Agriculture God) and Hoang De (King). Phuc Hy invented the He Tu and Luo Shu diagrams and the Ba Gua chart (three important systems of Taoism). Than Nong tasted all the fruits and vegetables of the land, then taught farmers how to cultivate. Hoang De made porridge, rice and passed down the cooking instructions to his people.

They emphasized that Than Nong taught the people how to cultivate rice and Hoang De taught the people how to steam rice because the Chinese did not know how to cultivate rice until they learnt it from the people in South East Asia which included the Viet group from the North. Then they claimed the knowledge was theirs. In other words, when the Bach Viet group were cultivating rice the Chinese were growing millet, buckwheat and various kinds of peas. The square and round shaped sticky rice cake is the symbol of rice, a speciality of the Viet people from the King Hung era which existed few years before the Han Dynasty.

Current updated documents all indicated our country belonged to the earliest groups that were practicing rice cultivation and bronze casting. These skills later expanded down to the South. The Chinese learnt rice cultivation and irrigation from the Viet group and then claimed the knowledge as their own invention. Then they spread this knowledge to the less developed Southern groups. So in a way, it’s accurate to say the Vietnamese culture was influenced by Chinese culture. It’s because Vietnam already became a weak country prior to the Han domination. It was a vicious circle: The Han people first learnt from the Viet people, and when the Han people gained power and the Viet people became weak, the Han group retaught the Viet what they had previously learnt from the Viet group. Rice cultivation is one such example.

Therefore, Than Nong (Agriculture God), (meaning the founder of agriculture or the protecting god of agriculture) was an imaginary figure originated from the South area, perhaps the entire South East Asia, including Vietnam.

Chinese historical records also called Than Nong as Viem De, meaning the king in charge of the hot climate countries. Based on Chinese history, the Viet people in the ancient times considered Hong Bang – the first king of our country – as Viem De or Than Nong’s 4th generation descendant. Perhaps, at that time, our ancestors considered China as something great, plus there were not many available records to look up. So we based our information on Chinese history and accepted the legend that the Viet ancestors originated from the Chinese.

If we based it on Chinese grammar, it should be more appropriate to refer to this figure as Nong Than (not Than Nong), similar to how we refer to Hoa Than (Fire God or Water God). The name Than Nong derives from Vietnamese syntax.

In short, Chinese history recorded from the Three Dynasty period (Ha, Thuong, Zhou) onward were probably more reliable. Before that period, the names of Tam Hoang Ngu De (Three Kings, Five Lords) which included Than Nong were all folklore. Similarly, only Vietnamese history from the King Hung period (about 700 years BCE) onward had proof of reliability. Before that, many names were not trustworthy. People even questioned the name Hung because the Vietnamese groups didn’t have that last name. Some believed Hung was a phonetic representation of the word Khun, the name of the leader of the Bach Viet group at the time. Other people thought the name Hung word derived out of common usage (Hung means a hero) during the time when many small countries often fought to “be a hero and get the power.” The third theory was the word Hung was the word Lac written wrongly due to similar shapes of the two words. Therefore, we should call him King Lac instead of King Hung. This theory sounded quite logical therefore many people seem to agree with it.

In summary, Than Nong both appeared in Chinese history records as well as in Vietnamese historical materials. It didn’t matter where it existed, Vietnam or China, it was not a real figure. It was only invented to commemorate achievements in agriculture.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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