Emperor Ly Thai-To, founder of the Ly dynasty (1O1O-1225), was of obscure origins. According to legend, he was fathered by a genie who violated his mother as she was on her way to the Tieu Son pagoda in the village of Co Phap (province of Bac Ninh). Being pregnant and unmarried, the woman was forced to leave her native village and for three years wandered about the country before reaching the pagoda of Ung Tam, where she entrusted her child to the care of the Superior, a bonze named Ly Khanh Van. In the version that follows, however, the mother gives birth and dies at the gates of the pagoda.
One night, Ly Khanh Van, Superior of the Ung Tam pagoda dreamed that a genie had appeared to him in his sleep.
"His Majesty the Emperor is waiting at your gates," said the genie. "Go forth and receive him."
When the Superior awakened in the early hours of the morning, he recalled the dream and went to the gates of the pagoda to investigate. There he found the body of a young woman who was already dead; at her side lay a newborn male child. The Superior gave the woman a decent burial and himself took charge of the child, whom he named Ly Cong Uan, adopting him as his own son.
As soon as the lines of the orphan's hands had formed, it was seen that they vaguely resembled the characters son ha (mountains and rivers) and xa tac (Genie of the Earth and Genie of the Harvests), which, taken together meant "empire".
Early in life, Ly Cong Uan showed that he was endowed with extraordinary intelligence. At six years of age he could read the prayer books as well as any bonze. But he was also somewhat mischievous and one day removed the fillings from the rice cakes destined for the altars and ate them. The Guardian Genie of the pagoda appeared in a dream to the Superior and told him about his adopted son's misbehavior. When Ly Khanh Van awoke, he verified the facts related in the dream and severely reprimanded the young rogue.
"But who told you about my misdeed, master?" he asked.
"The Guardian Genie, of course," was the reply.
Ly Cong Uan became very angry at the Genie and on the back of his statue wrote the following threat: "You are sentenced to exile at a distance of 3,000 leagues."
That night the Genie again appeared to the Superior in a dream.
"His Majesty the Emperor has just banished me from the pagoda," he said. "Farewell!"
On awakening the Superior examined the Genie's statue and discovered the judgment written on the back. In vain he tried to erase it. Then he sent for his son, who erased it easily, using only his spittle.
When Ly Cong Uan reached the age of nine, the Superior realized that he was incapable of teaching him further. Accordingly, he was enrolled in the school conducted by Van Hanh, a bonze who had the reputation of being the most learned scholar of his time. Under the tutelage of this wise master, Ly Cong Uan progressed rapidly, not only in theology but also in Confucian philosophy and military science.
One day, for having committed another of his pranks, the young student was ordered by his master to remain kneeling throughout the night. At the imposition of this punishment he improvised the following lines:
"In the deep night I dare not stretch my legs For fear of upsetting mountains and rivers (the empire)."
When he read these bold lines, Van Hanh knew that his disciple had the stuff of which kings are made.
In recognition of his vast knowledge, Ly Cong Uan was named a court mandarin. When, at the age of twenty-three, Emperor Le Trung Tong was assassinated by his brother Le Long Dinh, Ly Cong Uan was the only person who had the courage to remain with the dead monarch and to weep over his body. Impressed by such loyalty, Le Long Dinh, who had succeeded his brother on the throne, respected him greatly and even entrusted him with the command of his personal guard.
In 1009, with the death of Le Long Dinh (known as Ngoa Trieu – "the Reclining Emperor"), the Le dynasty came to an end and in the following year Ly Cong Uan was unanimously acclaimed emperor by the other court mandarins. His old tutor contributed to the preparation for his former disciple's succession by spreading prophecies among the people of a coming change of dynasty. On ascending the throne he took the reign name of Ly Thai-To.
In the seventh month of the first year of his reign (1010), Ly Thai-To moved the capital from Hoa Lu to La Thanh. On reaching the latter city, he saw in a dream a golden dragon rising in the air; therefore he changed the name of his future capital to Thang Long (Ascending Dragon). Today it is called Hanoi.
Since Ly Thai-To was a fervent Buddhist, the bonzes enjoyed many privileges during his reign. For example, in 1O18, public funds were used for the manufacture of their bells. Later, he sent an embassy to China to look for authentic Buddhist prayer books.
Ly Thai-To ruled for nineteen years and died in the year 1028 at the age of fifty-five.