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History Of Viet Nam

Some Problems of Nhân Tông’s Thought

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

by Lê Mạnh Thát

The Emperor Nhân Tông made extremely magnificent achievements that were totally dedicated to our country and Buddhism. It is, therefore, quite natural for us to raise the question as to how his life and activities were directed and what thought his personality was actually influenced by.

Nowadays, all of his works mentioned in the Thánh Đăng Ngữ Lục such as the Thiền Lâm Thiết Chủy Ngữ Lục, the Thiền Lâm Thiết Chủy Hậu Lục, the Đại Hương Hải Ấn Thi Tập, the Tăng Già Toái Sự and the Thạch Thất Mỵ Ngữ are lost. What has been preserved so far consists of only some discourses and writings in verse and prose written down somewhere in the Thánh Đăng Ngữ Lục, the Việt Âm Thi Tập, the Thiền Tông Bản Hạnh, the Tam Tổ Thực Lục, etc., and in some Chinese works like the Tien-nan hsin-chi, the Ch’en Kang-chung shih-chi, etc. For that reason, it is truly not easy to make a thorough study of his thought today.

From what has just been referred to, however, we may determine some problems that the Emperor is believed to have concerned himself with. Undoubtedly, Buddhism is in the first place all that the Emperor became highly interested in so early in his life. Yet, when he was officially entrusted with the responsibility for governing the country, particularly in a period full of turmoil and hardship as has been said in the preceding chapters, what was given the highest priority in all of his activities is naturally not only Buddhism but further the protection of the country’s territory, the independence of the Fatherland, and the security of the people. Consequently, it is not too difficult for us to come to an immediate conclusion that the Emperor must have occupied himself with various issues concerning social, political, diplomatic and military circumstances of the country at the time. His major task was inevitably to set forth by all means some general strategy that might help first gain a decisive victory in the struggle against the enemy and then bring about a peaceful and prosperous Đại Việt in the postwar period. This is obviously evidenced through the wars of defense in 1285 and 1288 and the subsequent development and improvement of the people’s living. What then is the general strategy implemented by him to direct these two wars of resistance in the first place? The answer is natural that it was his great attempts at mobilizing the potential strength of the nation that made possible such a glorious victory for the people. Yet, what is the nation’s potential strength and how is it mobilized?

As a matter of fact, the nation’s potential strength is unquestionably inherent within all the people’s patriotism, irrespective of ages, religions, social classes, national races whatsoever they pertain to. It is through such a general guiding principle that we can today recognize that in the armed forces commanded by the Emperor Nhân Tông to fight against Mongol-Yüan invaders there could always exist various types of people: some being born of imperial family such as Trần Quang Khải, Trần Hưng Đạo, Trần Quốc Tung, etc.; some coming from the masses such as Phạm Ngũ Lão, Nguyễn Khoái, etc.; some ever working as servants such as Yết Kiêu, Dã Tượng; some of very young age such as Trần Quốc Toản beside some of very old age such as the elders in the Assembly of Diên Hồng with their unanimous shout “fight”; some belonging to minority groups such as Hà Đặc, Hà Chương; some being foreign ascetics such as Hứa Tông Đạo; even some ever serving as generals in the enemy’s army such as Trương Hiển, etc. For such various social classes to have been gathered, any policy could hardly be effectively carried out without some great solidarity as the primary basis for it.

Such great solidarity, however, may be achieved only when the common people of the country and their leaders have the same privilege to protect and the same objective to struggle for. This may be obviously revealed through a Proclamation sent by Trần Hưng Đạo to all officers and soldiers of the army, where he spoke in the name of the Emperor Nhân Tông:

Under my command, you have all had golden opportunity to partake in military activities for a long time. Those having no uniforms have been provided with; those having no food have been given. Those of low ranks have been promoted, of little emolument given bonuses. Those serving on water have been supplied with ships, on land supplied with horses. In fighting, we have all faced the same dangers; and in retreat, we have all enjoyed pleasures together. We are not inferior at all to Kung-chien’s treatment of his generals and servants or Wu-Lang’s treatment of his assistants, are we?

Yet, at present, though seeing our Lord be insulted, you do not show any anxiety at all; though suffering national humiliation, you do not feel a trace of shame. As being generals of the Imperial Court, you cannot arouse a bit of anger when serving the barbarians, nor can you get angry at hearing the music from the banquets for the enemy’s messengers.

On the other hand, some of you have been crazy on cock-fighting, and some on gambling. Some have been interested in tending their fields and gardens to serve their homes. Some have been attached to their wives and children for their selfish satisfaction. Some have been occupied with their own material possessions without any reflection on national and military affairs. Some have been fond of hunting without any practice of military arts. Some have sought pleasure in drinking good wine, and some in singing nonsense. Provided the Tatars penetrate [into our country], is it then possible for the spurs of your cocks to pierce the enemy’s armors, for your tricks in gambling to be used as military tactics, for your fields and gardens to ransom your beloved bodies, for your wives and children to undertake national affairs, for your wealth to be in exchange for the enemy’s heads, for your hounds to drive the invaders away, for your good wine to make the enemy deadly drunk, for your good singing to make them deaf?

How miserable it then would be that our King and the subjects were all captured. Not only is my own hamlet lost but your emoluments also belong to the others. Not only is my family driven away but your wives and children are also taken. Not only is our ancestors’ land trampled, but your parents’ graves are also dug out. Not only do I suffer humiliation that would exist in this very life and perhaps remain tainted for hundreds of years later, but also you cannot avoid being looked down as defeated generals. Would it then be possible for you to enjoy yourselves at will?

From the above proclamation Trần Hưng Đạo pointed out the common privilege between the leaders and the common people of the country, which may be viewed as the indispensable basis of national solidarity. All the people are aware that they have the same privilege to share and thus have to work together to protect it. The protection of one’s privilege is the condition and premise for the existence of the others’. It is in this dialectical relation of privilege that the sense that the same country and the same community need to be loved and protected comes into existence. And, in reality, to love one’s country is nothing other than to love one’s family, one’s ancestral graves, one’s space and place where one is living. It may be said that Trần Hưng Đạo has, for the first time, elucidated the factors of patriotism, which are expressed in such objective and intelligible terms of his literature.

Indeed, it is from such a view that the Emperor Nhân Tông, in his preparation for the two wars as well as his making of peace in the postwar period, attempted to take a series of political, economic and cultural measures for the sake of the people’s great solidarity, which may be proved through his administrative policy as well as his personal life. As has been said before, to ensure a peaceful life for the people, the Emperor had various measures taken for developing agriculture, commerce, industry and handicraft simultaneously. And for social relations to be improved, he attempted to solve the issues concerning criminals and conflicts among the people. To help them understand the policies that were inseparably related to their daily living, he had all imperial decrees announced not only in Chinese but further in Vietnamese, the everyday speech of the Đại Việt people at the time.

Nevertheless, with all the policies carried out above, the Emperor could perform only part of his role as an ideal political leader that the Buddhist teaching under the reign of Lý helped produce earlier, which may be justified through a writing by the Great Master Giác Tính Hải Chiếu about the renowned Buddhist General Lý Thường Kiệt:

Internally, his mind is mild and brilliant; externally, his appearance is plain and humane. He never gives up his efforts to reform old customs. Because of his work always performed economically and his instructions for the people always given temperately, he has been able to become a solid support for them. So generously does he always try his best to help the people that they all hold him in the greatest respect. He makes use of his vigorous strength to eliminate the enemy. He bases himself on his own brilliant mind to judge cases so that prisons are never overcrowded. Knowing that food is the Heaven of all the people and agriculture is the root of the State, he never neglects any cultivation of land. He is talented but not proud. Even the old in the countryside can receive his care and nurture so frequently that their lives are always at ease. His principles as such may be said to have been the basis of ruling the people, the art of allaying the people, from which may accrue all good things.

On the part of the Emperor Nhân Tông, not being satisfied merely with the carrying-out of national policies he went so far as to apply such principles of great solidarity even to his everyday life. The Complete History of Đại Việt has told us that “the King often went out. On the way, seeing servants of the nobles he, calling them by name, asked ‘Where are your masters?’ and, simultaneously, forbade his escorts to drive them away. On his return to the palace, he called in his subjects, saying, ‘In ordinary days, my courtiers are always found around me; but only those people, [that is, the nobles’ servants,] present themselves when the country falls into misfortune.’ Thus spoke the king since he had been deeply moved by their loyalty and assistance through his terrible times.”

The fact above proves that the Emperor appreciated not only gifted leaders pertaining to the upper class but also the common people of the lowest class such as the servants just mentioned. Though they might have possessed neither good education nor enough wealth to serve for the country in time of misfortune, they could devote a great deal and, sometimes, even their own lives to the common cause of defending the Fatherland.

Such an appreciation by the Emperor seems to have been laid on the same basis as Trần Hưng Đạo’s remark on Yết Kiêu, a servant of his, in the battle of Nội Bàng in the 1285 war: “It is due to its six strong bones supporting wings that the Great Bird can fly high. Without them, it remains merely an ordinary bird.” In the history of our country the reign of the Emperor Nhân Tông may be the only period when the consistency of a leader’s political and sensational concern about his people in war as well as in peace has been so coherently and evidently manifested. A proof among others is that those servants who had devoted themselves to the two wars of defense continued to receive special care from him even in the postwar period. It may be due to his concern, which should be considered to have taken root deep within his nature, that he was frequently occupied with the issues in relation to the two regions Ô Mã and Việt Lý of Champa, not only in the aspect of security but also in that of economy.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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