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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


Life is “city” and the Way is “forest and mountain.” Though living as a man amidst the busy city with numerous secular affairs undertaken, his way of treating everything remains as pure as that of forest and mountain. This point directly reflects the view of “without asking about great or small capability [of realizing Buddhist teaching], dividing lay from monastic practitioners” advanced by Trần Thái Tông. It has so far been rather popular for everyone to understand that by “great capability” it means that though settling in the midst of a city, a practitioner is still capable of keeping his mind pure; and by “small capability” it means that the practitioner has to settle in the mountains to discipline himself effectively. Thus, Buddhist followers in the Trần dynasty, depending upon their own social stations and their own capacity, demonstrate accordingly their way of living right in the midst of the world. As a consequence, for enlightenment to be attained to, they simply make their attempts at

Abandoning ideas of I-ness and Other-ness,
There appears  the true character of “diamond”;
Eliminating all greed and anger,
Then comes the marvelous nature of Perfect Enlightenment.

(Section 2)

Hence, it is quite obvious that there is no place for one’s efforts to get awakened other than where one is living. If the Emperor Thái Tông, while being on the throne, was once told by the National Teacher Phù Vân that “There is no Buddha in the mountains; Buddha is just within one’s mind; the mind that is pure and understanding is true Buddha,” then the Emperor Nhân Tông, when composing the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way,” agreed that

The illuminating nature is not moved by wealth and desire,
Not because of settling on MountCánh Diều in Yên Tử;
The still mindfulness is not stirred by sound and sight,
Not due to sitting in the SạnTemple on MountĐông.

(Section 3)

Actually, it is not because one has practiced Buddhist teachings on Mount Cánh Diều in Yên Tử or in the Sạn Temple on Mount Đông that one may eventually get awakened. These places are at most where one may enjoy the beauty of nature to nurture spirit as what Huyền Quang expresses in his “A Depiction of the Vân Yên Temple”:

Sitting on the Vân Tiêu peak,
‘Riding’ on MountCánh Diều,
MountĐông looks like a mound of green gold,
And the EastSea like the mouth of an oyster.

Enlightenment is thus to be attained right in the world. It should not be sought for in the mountains. Nevertheless, the Emperor Nhân Tông did not go so far as to deny the benefit of a life there. For many times he himself spent his days in the wilderness such as Yên Tử, Vũ Lâm. In the “Song of the Realization of the Way” he describes that way of living as follows:

Content with life in poverty,
I have sought a place to train myself.
Secluded in the high mountains,
Hiding in the wilderness,
Where joyfully the gibbons
Make friends with me.
In deserted forests and mountains
I let go of mind and body.

Thus the most important thing is not where to live, in the mountains or in the city, but how to get awakened to the truth. We have seen that enlightenment may be attained at any place, particularly just in a life fraught with worldly affairs. It is in secular life that the merit of enlightenment is to be doubly prized. For a country in essence is a community where always exist various social duties and mutual responsibilities. No one can exist outside society. For that reason, the Emperor praises and appreciates efforts to attain enlightenment made just in such a life full of defilements and mutual relations, of which his personality is an typical example:

Achieved in the midst of the world,
That merit is increasingly admired;
An unsuccessful cultivation in the mountains
Is nothing but a vain attempt.

(Section 3)

In reality, the Emperor attained enlightenment in the busiest days of his life when he was urgently preparing for the war waged by Kublai Khan upon our country in the summer of 1287. Further, his enlightenment came right after his mother passed away. Among unfortunate changes and grim realities of life, however, the Emperor could be aware of the value of what is usually termed tranquility and insight in Buddhism, just as in his own words:

The ten thousand actions calmed and my being at ease;
Already for half a day I have let go of mind and body.

(Section 1)

Accordingly, as one reaches the state of “the ten thousand actions calmed,” one’s being then can be at all times found in calmness. Enlightenment is not separated from human beings and the Buddha exists just within everyone of us. Still in the Emperor’s words, if one leads a life of virtue, uprightness, and humaneness based upon disciplinary rules and generosity, one is a Buddha Śākyamuni, a Buddha Maitreya:

Cultivating humaneness and uprightness, accumulating virtues,
That is undoubtedly Śākya’s conducts;
Observing precepts, uprooting greed,
That is surely Maitreya’s personality.

(Section 4)

Thus it should not be thought that there are only the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and the future Buddha Maitreya. A Buddhist follower in the time of Nhân Tông is aware that he can live as these Buddhas if, besides humaneness, uprightness, and virtue, he is leading a simple life:

Whether robes and blankets are patched or tattered,
They help me survive the cold of winter.
Whether rice and gruel are plain or somewhat rotten,
They help me overcome everyday hunger.

(Section 5)

Reading these lines, we are reminded of the Emperor’s journey to Hải Đông for an urgent conference with Trần Hưng Đạo after the base of Nội Bàng was completely broken down by the enemy. He left the capital and traveled all day without any food until he was served a meal with rice of bad quality by a soldier named Trần Lai. The Vietnamese Buddhists, even though a king, have lived such simple lives. But they are always depicted as

Keeping nature-precepts pure, making form-precepts perfect,
To be, internally and externally, an Adorning Bodhisattva;
Righteously serving one’s lord, respectfully obeying one’s father,
That is a Great Man of loyalty and filial piety.

(Section 6)

Consequently, a Vietnamese Buddhist in the Trần dynasty represents the ideal of both an Adorning Bodhisattva and a Great Man of loyalty and filial piety. The former, of course, refers to a great category of Buddhism and the latter a great one of Confucianism. Nevertheless, reading up on Great Man as described in Confucianist texts, we may recognize the Emperor Nhân Tông’s contribution in this doctrinal aspect. In the second section of Chapter “T’êng Wen-kung,” for instance, Mencius formulates a Great Man to be the one who “cannot be blinded by wealth, changed by poverty, and overcome by authority.”

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

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