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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


This proves that Trần Thánh Tông was deeply inspired by what Li-kao expressed in his verse. Concerning the latter, though he was a Buddhist layman, he wrote several accounts condemning the ordination of Buddhist monks, the building of great temples and the casting of big statues of Buddha for the reason that such affairs could not bring about any merits at all but the exhaustion of national resources. As to the ordination of Buddhist monks, he says: “Buddhist followers do not raise silk-worms but obtain abundant clothes; nor do they plow fields but gain a great deal of food and drinks; they live idly but are served by hundreds of thousands of people. Based upon these facts alone, it may be known that numerous people are cold and starving…” As to the building of temples and casting of statues, arguing that such works were more expensive than the building of the A-fang Palace, he put up the question: “Is it not dependent on the people’s resources that these affairs are being carried out?”

Such words by Li-kao as cited above may be found again in some comments by Lê Văn Hưu (1230-?) on the Emperor Lý Thái Tổ’s task of ordaining Buddhist monks and building temples, which is recorded by Ngô Sỹ Liên in the Complete History of Đại Việt:

For only two years since Lý Thái Tổ’s enthronement, though temples for both ancestors and spirits of land and grain were not yet built, he ordered [Buddhist] temples in the Routes to be rebuilt and more than a thousand people in the capital ordained as Buddhist monks. These cost the nation too much wealth and labor. Wealth does not rain from the Heaven; nor is labor granted by gods. So, is it not that all was taken from the people’s ‘blood and fat’? In thus doing, may it be called collecting merits? As a lord who is initiating an imperial career, one must lead an economical life for fear that the subsequent generations would follow a lazy and luxurious lifestyle. Yet, Thái Tổ left such a way of living that the succeeding generations could not be blamed at all for their own affairs of building excessively high stūpas, erecting carved marble pillars, casting statues of Buddha and building much more splendid temples than the King’s palace. Is it not for that reason that many of the common people hurt their own bodies, changed their clothing, abandoned their careers, renounced their relatives to become monks? As a consequence, more than half of the population were monks and temples were built everywhere across the country.

Reading Lê Văn Hưu’s comment, one often has the impression that this is a criticism of Buddhism, particularly Buddhism in the Lý dynasty, from the Confucianist standpoint. And, in reality, this is also a typical comment found in most of the books written about Lê Văn Hưu. Nevertheless, it is an utterly false comment which has proceeded from some premature research in the Buddhist ideology of the Trần period. Those who have read Li-kao’s works can see on the spot that both Lê Văn Hưu’s thought and his wording are extracted from the works of the former. Accordingly, in the Trần’s time there were at least two authors of our country who were deeply influenced by Li-kao’s ideology of Buddhism, that is, the Emperor Thánh Tông and Lê Văn Hưu, let alone his impact on a verse of Master Không Lộ (?-1119), which is usually known as the “Ngôn Hoài.”

It should be borne in mind that Lê Văn Hưu composed the Đại Việt Sử Ký (History of Đại Việt) by the order and direction of the Emperor Thánh Tông, as in the words of the Complete History of Đại Việt: “In the spring, the 1st month, of Nhâm Thìn (1272) Academic Scholar and Editor of National History Lê Văn Hưu, by the imperial order, finished compiling the History of Đại Việt, consisting of 30 volumes dealing with the time of the Emperor Triệu Vũ up to that of Lý Chiêu Hoàng. When the work was submitted to the King, he issued a decree of rewarding.” Thus, the History of Đại Việt is a formal history of the State of Đại Việt, or rather, the state ruled by the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông; that is to say, it has naturally to reflect the views and positions of the contemporary state. Therefore, we are not surprised at all at the fact that Li-kao’s thought and wording flourish within the works of Trần Thánh Tông and Lê Văn Hưu.

Naturally, it was not in the time of Trần Thánh Tông that the matter concerning so many temples built and so many monks ordained began to be dealt with as a serious problem that needed to be unraveled. Just by the end of the Lý period, that is, in the early years of the thirteenth century, Đàm Dĩ Mông set forth, in an extremely crude parlance, a proposal that Buddhist monks should be dismissed, which is recorded in the Đại Việt Sử Lược (An Abridged History of Đại Việt) as follows: “Today, the Buddhist clergy and their servants have covered more than half of the population. They gather in groups and associations, considering themselves to be so-called ‘masters’ and ‘disciples,’ living together and doing a lot of unwholesome things, such as openly eating meat and drinking wine just in the sacred places, committing sexual intercourse just in the Halls of Meditation and the pure institutes. [To belie their evils] they hide themselves by day and appear by night just like a pack of foxes or rats. It has become such a bad habit for them that their actions have spoiled not only the monastic living but also the secular one. This will become worse and worse unless it must be immediately prohibited.”

Just in his works, the Emperor Trần Thái Tông, too, mentions the situation that “though when going to the temple they have opportunity to approach the Buddha and sūtras, they never have a glance at them for a moment. In the shrine as well as in the Saṃgha’s dwelling-place they, girls and boys, gather only to flirt with each other, desiring sensuous pleasures without any concern about the sacred Dharma-Guardians or Dragon-Spirits, in the presence of whom they never bow themselves but only concentrate their mind on pleasures,” and “the sacred texts and commentaries are competitively obtained not only by lay people but also by monks. They attack each other, criticize the Elders, and scold even their parents. The ‘grass’ of patience has withered within them; the ‘fire’ of poison has flared up within them. Their words hurt things and animals; their utterances harm human beings, without any perception of loving-kindness and compassion, any observation of precepts and monastic rules. Though living behind the Gate of Śūnyatā, they fail to get an insight into the principle of selflessness.”

Such was the circumstance of Buddhist monks and their temples and monasteries under the reign of Trần Thái Tông. For that reason, in his Phổ Khuyến Phát Bồ Đề Tâm (An Open Exhortation of Arousing the Bodhi-Mind), he set forth the principle that “without asking about great or small capability [of realizing Buddhist teaching], dividing lay from monastic practitioners, or being concerned about monks or laymen, the point is in that one must get an insight into one’s mind. One should not attach oneself to forms of male and female because there is originally none such called ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Those who have no knowledge [of Buddhist teachings] divide the teachings into the three ones; yet, those who have been awakened can master only one and the same term ‘mind’.” It was from such a principle that Trần Thánh Tông and Lê Văn Hưu considered the task of building temples and stūpas to be “exploiting the ‘blood’ and ‘fat’ of the masses” and Buddhist monks only to be those “who hurt their bodies, changed their clothes, abandoned their careers, renounced their relatives.”

Grown up and trained in such a cultural tradition of his family, it was natural for the Emperor Nhân Tông that he had necessarily and urgently to set forth some solution for the benefit of both the people and Buddhism. And it was at this point that the role of Tuệ Trung Trần Quốc Tung became extremely crucial. In a passage written down about his experience of enlightenment through a dialogue between him and the former, his master, in 1287, the Emperor Nhân Tông posed a very normal and practical question that “How is it possible for those who have had the habit of eating meat and drinking wine not to be exerted by the effect of such unwholesome actions?” This is an actuality that we can meet not only in Đại Việt in the Emperor Nhân Tông’s time but further at any place and at any time on earth, as to which the solution from Tuệ Trung’s standpoint is very simple; that is, not to consider it a serious matter. For the actions of eating meat and drinking wine convey within themselves nothing so called ‘fault’ or ‘merit’, as in Tuệ Trung’s words:

Eating grass and eating meat,
That depends on beings’ consciousness.
All kinds of grass grow when spring comes.
What may be called faults and merits?

When composing the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” later, the Emperor Nhân Tông expressed again the same view in a much easier-to-understand manner:

How joyful it is,
A worldly life in accord with the Way!
Sleeping when tired, eating when hungry;
Stop seeking for treasure originally inherent.
As no mind arises in the presence of things,
Not any question on Dhyāna is required then.

Now it is evident from the Emperor’s view that Buddhism is Life, without any distinctions between them. For what does Buddhism mean if not merely a process in quest of the truth? And as being the truth, it surely does not lie within Buddhist teachings but right in the heart of living. In other words, just as what is graphically indicated in the Vajracchedikā-sūtra, which is regarded as the central text of Buddhism in the Trần dynasty, so the Buddhist teaching is essentially likened to a finger pointing to the moon or a raft carrying its practitioners to the other side of the river. In this connection, even the Buddhist teaching must be abandoned for any possible realization of its essential significance. Further, the text also emphasizes the thought of “all dharmas are buddha-dharmas.” Consequently, we should not be surprised at all at the Emperor Nhân Tông’s view as exposed in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way.”

The long verse composed by him about the idea that some pleasure in the Way of Dhyāna may be attained to just in worldly life is formally titled the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” and consists of ten short sections. In the bibliography written by An Thiền in the beginning of the 19th century and recorded in the Đạo Giáo Nguyên Lục, therefore, the verse is called “Trần Triều Thập Hội Lục” (Record of the “Ten Sections” in the Trần Dynasty). Just in the opening lines of the first section, the Emperor determines what the categories of life and way therein imply:

Though settling in the city,
The way of living I take is of forest and mountain.

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

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