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A King Who Favored Buddhism

(No.2, Vol.9,Apr-May 2019 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)




Hoe Nhai Pagoda, Hang Than Street, Hanoi


Mat Son Pagoda, Thanh Hoa Province.
Photo provided by Prof. Trinh Sinh



The era of Middle Prosperity of Le boasted having the most bizarre king in our history, King Le Than Tong. He was born in 1607, in the two-century-long period of power sharing between the Le and Trinh families. The Trinh Lords had the real power, while Le Kings were only their marionettes. The Trinh Lords decided who among the Le family would be the King. Somehow, as a 13-year-old boy, Le Than Tong became king. Furthermore, the Trinh Lord forced him to marry his (Trinh’s) daughter Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc as his Queen, who was 12 years older than the king and had already four children. The king could but obey. Having denounced burdens of kingship to be secluded royalty, he was enthroned again against his will. In our history, perhaps Le Than Tong was the only person to be king, unwillingly, and even twice at that.
Being “intelligent and erudite, cunning, resourceful and versed in literary, as a good king should be,” as described in historical records, the King nevertheless submitted to the control of the Trinh clan, as he possessed no real power. The courtiers advised against his marriage with too old a wife, but he just clucked his tongue, “Just wanna be done with it.”  His tongue clucking gave him the peace of a caged bird. Not that he never wanted to seize the power of the king, but quickly deferred every time because Lord Trinh Tung was his grandfather on his mother’s side, and his son Lord Trinh Trang was his uncle.
The tangled blood relationships between the King’s clan and the Lords clan helped reinforce the top echelon of power and keep the society stable. For 200 years of the Le-Trinh rule, the Northern border was kept firm, although the Ming Dynasty was at its utmost prosperity and always covetous of Dai Viet.
Le Than Tong only wanted that “the King’s and the Lord’s clans live in harmony, peacefully enjoying heaven’s rewards. That’s the best state of the union. Four times going out to wars, and two times ascending to the throne, is it not remarkable?” commented historian Ngo Si Lien in his “History of Dai Viet.”)
Historians will long debate whether he was wise or weak. The fact is that the Trinh Lords made him king, and then made four of his sons the successive kings. So he also holds the record of fathering more kings than any others in our country’s history.
The king promoted talent, and removed the exam cheaters. According to the records, in the 1623 doctorate exam a man named Nguyen Trat won the honor. But as it was found out that he hired a proxy to earn his previous degree, the king withheld the man’s doctorate degree and the accompanying mandarin position. The 1628 exam yielded several doctors, including Giang Van Minh, later a fabled diplomat. In the 1631 exam, it was reported that candidate Nguyen Van Quang was matriculated below the standard grade, and the king crossed out his name. Doctorate exams were held successfully in 1634, 1637 and 1643 in the same fashion. The talent selection exams under King Le Than Tong were more fair than under many other rulers.
Le Than Tong liked having foreign wives. He had Thai, Chinese, Laos and Muong ones... Notably, he had also a Dutch wife named Orona. That helped the trade with the Dutch flourish. In this period, many Dutch trading ships came to do business in the North. Famous centers such as Pho Hien, Thang Long etc. were bustling with trade, making Dai Viet rich and strong. Whether a political and economic union or just another “tongue clucking” of the King, Queen Orona’s importance was confirmed by the fact that she is one of the six queens and concubines worshipped at Mat Temple in Thanh Hoa.
It is worth mentioning the king’s first queen, Lady Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc. Being the mother of the nation, she had not much of a happy marriage with the king and soon retired to be a Buddhist nun at But Thap Pagoda in Bac Ninh. She authored the “Explanation of Precious Sounds of the Southernmost Land,” considered a Chinese-Vietnamese dictionary and the country’s first encyclopedia.
Le Than Tong favored Buddhism and loved to travel. The “Unified History of Dai Nam” recorded, “King Le Than Tong traveled to Mount Gem Woman at Mat Son Village, Bo Ve Commune, Dong Son District, and ordered the building of Dai Bi Pagoda, also called Mat Son Pagoda, facing Vi Canal. The king also ordered the carving of his statue, which is worshipped by locals till today.”
Besides the statue of King Than Tong, Mat Son Pagoda also houses statues of six of his wives seated around him. The statues are nearly life-sized, made of precious timber, lacquered and gilded. Notably, the statue of Queen Orona has typical Western features such as high and straight nose, opulent face, splendid garments and portly figure. The presence of the Dutch Queen proves that she had truly blended with the Vietnamese and they respected her despite the fact that she was foreign. The King is seated on a triple lotus estrade. His wives are in meditating positions, their hands making mudras. These statues show how Queens and concubines dressed in Le’s court. Queen Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc’s statue, the most beautiful one, was taken away to be placed in the National Museum of Arts and recently ranked a National Treasure.
After abdicating in favor of his son Le Chan Tong, Le Than Tong receded to live in Khan Son Pagoda in the northwest of Thang Long Citadel. Buddhism was prominent, and Buddhist temples sprang up everywhere.
 As Le Hy Tong, Le Than Tong’s youngest son ascended to the throne, Confucianism usurped the dominance over Buddhism and monks were persecuted and had to flee from Thang Long or be decapitated. It was His Reverence Tong Zien, the Second Progenitor of the sect of Tao Dong, who wrote a petition letter to disabuse King Le Hy Tong and restore him to the righteous way. To show his repentance before the Buddha, Le Hy Tong had a statue made of himself kneeling on all fours, with Buddha sitting on his back. This most unique statue is very well preserved and worshipped in the pagoda of Hoe Nhai.


Text by Prof. Trinh Sinh; Photos by Le Bich
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