Buddhism in Vietnam

Thay Pagoda


Thay Pagoda, also known as Ca and Thien Phuc Tu Pagoda, is situated at the foot of Sai Son Mountain, in Quoc Oai District, in Ha Tay Province, 30km southwest of Hanoi.


The pagoda was built in the 11th century during the reign of Ly Nhan Tong King. At first, it was a small pagoda managed by Priest Tu Dao Hanh. The pagoda was initially built according to Sino-Vietnamese character Tam - this character is formed by 3 hyphens parallel to each other. The pagoda therefore consists of 3 sections: Ha Pagoda, Trung Pagoda, and Thuong Pagoda.

<< Thay Pagoda

What To See

The outer part, Ha Pagoda, is a place for offerings and ceremonies; the middle part, Trung Pagoda, is a place for worship of Buddha; and finally, the inner part is a place for worship of Priest Tu Dao Hanh. An automated sandalwood statue of Tu Dao Hanh that stands and sits is located in a red lacquered shrine trimmed with gold and covered with a curtain.

In front of the pagoda is Long Tri pond, in the middle of which is a stage called Thuy Dinh, where water puppet performances are held. Nhat Tien and Nguyen Tien bridges, built by doctor Phung Khac Khoan in 1602, are located on each side of the stage.
Interesting sites can be visited in the surroundings of the pagoda. For example, Phat Tich and Cac Co caves are located not too far behind the pagoda. A hole in the dome of Cac Co cave lets one see outside the cave.

The Thay Pagoda Festival

The Thay Pagoda festival is actually a joint festival of four villages (Thuy Khe, Da Phuc, Khanh Tan and Sai Khe). Though the whole area has many pagodas, the festival is held mainly in Thay Pagoda, which comprises three buildings: ante-chamber, Buddha's Building and Building of the Genius.

It is said that Tu Dao Hanh led a religious life and died in this very pagoda. At the end of his life, he sat in meditation for several months without food and drink and died in the process. Thereafter, the people put his withered corpse in the Building of the Genius for the purpose of worship.

The Ming invaders, who ruled over Vietnam from 1407 to 1427, took Tu Dao Hanh's corpse to a mount and burned it. Thereafter, the local population collected his ashes and mingled them with soil in order to make a statue for worship. From then on, the mount was called the Burning Mount.

The festival is held every year from the 5th to the 7th of the 3rd lunar month with the main celebration on the 7th. The festival comprised of many ceremonies: giving a bath to Tu Dao Hanh's statue, presenting incense sticks, tablets escorting procession, popular opera (cheo), chess games, water puppet show, recital of the feats of Tu Dao Hanh and more.

The two most noteworthy events and distinctive features of the festival are the procession of the tablets and the water puppet show.

The procession of the tablets takes place on March 7, in which all the four villages - Thuy Khe, Da Phuc, Sai Khe and Khanh Tan - take part.

The local population believes that Tu Dao Hanh first learned supernatural powers and became a genius, and at a later time, embraced Buddhism. Therefore at the start of the procession, his tablets must be wrapped in a piece of yellow cloth (the colour of the robes worn by priests endowed with supernatural powers), and, on the return trip, the same tablets should be wrapped in the brown frock of a Buddhist monk. In the course of the procession, Buddhist nuns walk while recounting the feats of Tu Dao Hanh, first in learning supernatural magic and then in leading a religious Buddhist life.

The procession proceeds at a very slow pace, and usually comes back to the pagoda late at night. This timing is considered as propitious as it is the time when night takes over from day, when darkness and night come into contact with each other.

The order of the procession also has variations with specific significance. At the start of the procession, the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the Red Horse of Thuy Khe village must come first, then follows the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the White Horse of Da Phue village, then the tablet of the respective Spirit Protectors of Sai Khe and Khanh Tan villages, and at the end comes the tablet of Tu Dao Hanh. The tablet of the Spirit Protector of each village is carried by people of the village concerned, while that of Tu Dao Hanh is carried by four people appointed by the four villages.

During the return trip, the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the White Horse of Da Phuc village must come first, to be followed by the tablet of the Spirit Protector and the Red Horse of Thuy Khe village, while the order with respect to the remaining components of the procession remains unchanged.

The above change in the precedence of the Red and White horses is connected with a specific legend: when Tu Dao Hanh promised to reincarnate himself as the offspring of Sung Hien Hau (younger brother of King Ly Nhan Tong), he told Sung Hien Hau: "When your wife is giving birth, you must notify me immediately so that I can perform the due rites." As agreed, on that day, Sung Hien Hau ordered some horsemen to rush to the Pagoda for this purpose. The Red Horse reached the pagoda first and brought in the news, while on the return trip the White Horse outstripped the former and came home first.

The second noteworthy event is the water puppet show, a traditional cultural activity related to wet paddy cultivation in the Red River Delta. This activity comprises two basic components: puppets and water. The puppets are products of traditional popular wood sculptures and lacquer painting.

The place for the puppet performance is a lake or a part of the river. With its fluid nature and reflections, water can mirror efficiently the numerous changes in the colour of the sky, the mountains, trees and leaves and give a mythical air to the performance.

The artists must usually stay inside the water and direct the movement of the puppets through sticks and strings connected. Several festivals in various places do have water puppet shows but they are performed by professional groups coming from other localities and in improvised stages. But the Thay Pagoda has a fixed and specialised stage - the Thuy Dinh in the middle of the Long Tri Lake mentioned above.

The whole expanse of water is 15 metres long from the house up to the bank of the lake. This is much larger than the stage provided in other places, usually having a maximum length of 4 metres. The water puppet shows reflect either productive activities - paddy cultivation, duck breeding, fishing, cloth weaving, etc - or games such as wrestling, unicorn dance or historical tales. Some shows are from folk or classical theatrical plays.

The skits performed by the water puppets are usually short, and silent (except for some occasional introductory remarks, and accompanying music, either folk or classical), but they reflect distinctly the life of the population and their struggle against natural calamities and foreign invasions, for national development and defence. The water puppets art, with the rich imagination and dexterity of the performers, fills the spectators with surprise and pleasure. The founder of the water puppet show is none other than Monk Tu Dao Hanh.

The Thay Pagoda festival is attractive to many because of the myth surrounding Monk Tu Dao Hanh and his feats, the beautiful scenery and the water puppet show. And a romantic dimension must also be added, as the labyrinth of caves and paths in the mountain are ideal for hide-and-seek games.

This is Reflected in an Old Saying:

The Thay Pagoda area has the "Cac Co" cave
Young bachelors often remember it with nostalgia.

Visit also Tay Phuong Pagoda

Eight km away from Thay pagoda is the Thay Phuong pagoda, sited on the hilltop. There are 239 laterite steps uphill to the pagoda, and from this height opens a wonderful aerial view of the surrounded fields, laterite mountains and villages. Most of the structure was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th century and has a big significance of classic architecture. 

Almost the tiles, wooden relieves, rafters are preserved well with their traditional ornaments like lotus-shape, marguerites, banyan leaves, dragon, tiger which are quite popular to Vietnamese decoration style. Inside the pagoda are 75 famous jackwood Arhat statues, which are considered the best of the plastic arts and sculpture of Vietnam. The statues either describe different legends of Buddha and his disciples, or express the meditation and will of the people to release themselves from ordinary pains and reach the enlightenment. Both Thay and Tay Phuong pagodas are easy to reach and suitable for either visit by bus or biking tours.