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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


Though being composed nearly a hundred years following the reign of the Emperor Nhân Tông, the An-nan chih-yüan deals with the situation that “the population of Giao Chỉ increased so rapidly that land was not enough for them to cultivate.” And earlier, that is, in the year 1266, the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông allowed the nobles to gather the needy throughout the country who would be employed as servants to cultivate and establish plantations in the waste areas along the coast, as is recorded in the Complete History of Đại Việt: “In the winter, the 10th month, (of Bính Dần, 1260), the King (Trần Thánh Tông) issued the decree that nobles, princesses and their husbands, and concubines might employ those servants who were poor and homeless to cultivate waste land for plantations. It was since then that the nobles actually possessed their own plantations.”

Such a large-scaled cultivation of waste land around the year 1266 shows some pressure caused by the increase of population of Đại Việt in her course of development. It may be said that the increase of population did occur in the reign of Lý Thánh Tông when three districts Địa Lý, Ma Linh and Bố Chính were officially annexed to the map of Đại Việt at the same time of the foundation of the Thảo Đường Dhyāna school. Indeed, the birth of this school was aimed at assisting and meeting the needs of the afore-said annexation. After fifty years at peace under the reigns of Lý Thái Tổ (r.1010-1028) and Lý Thái Tông (r.1028-1054), the population of our country increased to such a point that the land already cultivated had reached its limits. For that reason, it then was inevitable that a fighting expedition had to be initiated, the culminating point of which was the annexation of the three above-mentioned districts.

Nevertheless, when the annexation of these districts was accomplished, there naturally accrued an issue that the population should be somehow increased to meet some fruitful cultivation of the land just annexed. In reality, just around the year 1266 the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông had been aware of some pressure of such an increase of population. Therefore, it is not surprising for us at all that only forty years later the Emperor Nhân Tông had two districts Ô Mã and Việt Lý annexed to our country. The latter annexation could once more slow down the increase of population of Đại Việt at the time. Yet, on behalf of the need of cultivation in the new land and that of maintaining security therein to some extent, the problem of population arose again. Since then, just like the Thảo Đường school, the Trúc Lâm school came into being as a support for the task of increasing the population of the time.

We will see how mightily this Dhyāna school, parallel with the common cause of southward advance, has exercised its strong influence upon the Vietnamese people. In the history of examination in Vietnam, Trúc Lâm is the only Dhyāna school whose doctrine was employed as a topic in the examination called đình under the reign of Early Lê. For instance, in the topic of the so-called examination organized in the year of Cảnh Thống, Nhâm Tuất (1502) which consists of forty-seven questions in total, the one numbered 15 reads as follows: “What teaching have Điều Ngự and Huyền Quang preached so that they can eventually become the Buddha and the Patriarch?”. And the answer of a candidate named Lê Ích Mộc (1459- ?) is as follows: “If based upon the previous time, it may be said that under the Trần dynasty the Venerables Tiêu Diêu, Tuệ Trung, Điều Ngự, Huyền Quang realized the supreme teaching so that they were capable of penetrating into the Realm of Amitābha and exposing the essentials of Dhyāna teaching, which is all that they have handed down. It is, therefore, quite natural that those of subsequent generations who can comprehend the principle of non-arising are all able to attain to Nirvāṇa and become Buddhas, Patriarchs.” As a consequence, it is due to his answering the topic in such a manner that Lê Ích Mộc was selected to be the honors graduate of that examination.

Thus the doctrine of the Trúc Lâm school became a major subject of the contemporary curriculum and actually received much concern from the kings of the Early Lê dynasty. Viewed from the aspect of the task of extending the southern boundary of the country, this is easily comprehensible. As has been said above, the Trúc Lâm school came into being mainly for the purpose of assisting and satisfying the requirements of the Emperor Nhân Tông’s policy of marching southward. Yet, as the increase of population was more and more necessarily demanded in the reign of Early Lê when the consecutive fighting expeditions, the culminating point of which was the boundary posts erected by the Emperor Lê Thánh Tông’s order on Mount Đá Bia in Phú Yên Province in the south of the Fatherland in 1470, were being launched, the thought of the Trúc Lâm school was again applied to the new policy of the nation, that is, an increase in population for the cultivation of the land just annexed to the country.

Accordingly, subsequent to the policy of the people’s great solidarity for the defense of the country, the thought of the Trúc Lâm school as a basis of the people’s common cause of marching southward was another contribution of the Emperor Nhân Tông to the history of thought in Vietnam. As has been said, the thought of this school originates from the Thảo Đường school founded by the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông. Hence, it may be said that the former is the succeeding, or rather, higher development of the latter, if not its embodiment. The single regret is that all the documents concerning the Thảo Đường school, with the exception of a single text listing the lineage of this school which is recorded at the end of the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh (Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden), are lost. As a consequence, any discussions as to this school are for the most part speculations which are apt to produce some groundless and, sometimes, false comments.

In spite of this, with a glimpse at the list of Dhyāna masters pertaining to this school, from the first patriarch, namely, the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông to the last one called Imperial Assistant Phạm Đẳng, we can see that in each of its five consecutive generations there always exist some lay Dhyāna masters who are mostly the State’s officials, that is, kings and ministers. In some generations, lay masters are in the vast majority. For instance, the fifth generation consists of four masters, among whom three masters are the Emperor Lý Cao Tông, Nguyễn Thức and Phạm Đẳng. Thus, the most remarkable point of this list is that most of Dhyāna masters are laymen; that is to say, the Thảo Đường school is a secular one chiefly serving those who are living among the common people of the country.

Another point concerning this secular school is that its masters are mostly kings and imperial officials. Besides the emperors Lý Thánh Tông, Lý Anh Tông and Lý Cao Tông, the rest are recorded in full of their names and ranks, the highest of which is thái phó and the lowest is xướng nhi quản giáp, a position founded by Lý Thái Tổ’s order in 1025. Thus, suffice it to say that it is due to its own characteristic as that of a social class that the Thảo Đường school had to be transformed into the Trúc Lâm school because a Dhyāna school cannot survive unless it comes into the world not for the sake of any individual class of society. This may be all that has limited the attraction of the Thảo Đường school toward the masses. Once separated from the masses, it could by no means exist. Therefore, it is natural that in order to preserve its continuity it has to transform itself into a new school, that is, Trúc Lâm Yên Tử.

Generally considered, the Trúc Lâm school thus originates from the Thảo Đường school. Nevertheless, for its development to be achieved to the full, not only did the former adopt all the good of the past but it also had to muster all the strength of its present age. In the afore-said discourse dated the 9th of the 1st month of Bính Ngọ (1306), the Emperor Nhân Tông expressed his thanks to Vô Nhị Thượng Nhân and Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ that “the water of dharma-rains delivered by them has permeated through the subsequent generations.” Vô Nhị Thượng Nhân is none other than the Emperor Thánh Tông as revealed by the Thánh Đăng Ngữ Lục. And Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ is Tuệ Trung Trần Quốc Tung, who confirmed the Emperor Nhân Tông’s realization of Dhyāna teaching as in the latter’s statement recorded in the Thượng Sỹ Hành Trạng.

As being Nhân Tông’s father, the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông must have exercised some decisive influence upon the birth and growth of thought of the former. Thus, what is the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông’s thought? Again, the works of the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông such as the Văn Tập, the Thiền Tông Liễu Ngộ Ca, the Chí Giá Minh, the Phóng Ngư andthe Cừu Tập are lost. From the Thánh Đăng Ngữ Lục, the Việt Âm Thi Tập, the Toàn Việt Thi Lục, and so on, however, we can extract some remarks on his thought as follows:

First, in Trần Thánh Tông’s works is Li-kao’s thought of Dhyāna often found. The first verse of the former written down in the Thánh Đăng Ngữ Lục, for instance, reads:

For more than forty years my mind has escaped
Out of numerous gates of prisons.
In moving I am now like an empty cave full of violent wind;
In resting I am like a quiet lake in the bright moonlight.
This phrase with its five marvelous meanings has been mastered;
And that way with the ten words I have penetrated in.
Someone has asked me what new thing I could obtain:
The clouds in the blue sky and the water in the vessel.

Of it the last line in Chinese original is “雲 在 青 天 水 在 瓶”, which is originally one line of a quatrain written and dedicated by Li-kao (772-841) to Master Yao-shan Wei-yen (751-834):

練 得 身 形 似 鶴 形
千 株 松 下 兩 含 經
我 來 問 道 無 餘 説
雲 在 青 天 水 在 瓶

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

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