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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 ideal when compared with Nhân Tông’s definition of personality of a Vietnamese Buddhist, however, seems rather narrow and verbose. For, as being a man who has made a decision of “righteously serving his lord and respectfully obeying his father,” he is certainly no longer affected by wealth, poverty or authority. The content of the category of Great Man in the Emperor Nhân Tông’s thought, therefore, proves to be much more intrinsic, extensive and comprehensive. This may be considered to be a typical case where some Chinese terms that denote originally some conceptions of Confucianism convey quite a different meaning at our ancestors’ disposal. Formerly, we have attempted to analyze Nguyễn Trãi’s thought of humaneness and uprightness, which is often attributed by some Vietnamese researchers to Confucianism, and have come to quite different conclusions.

The ideal type of Vietnamese Buddhists, therefore, has been for the first time conceived within a highly practical content. Not only are they expected to be “keeping nature-precepts pure and making form-precepts perfect” to become Adorning Bodhisattvas, but also they have to make attempts at “righteously serving lord and respectfully obeying father” to become “Great Men of loyalty and filial piety.” This may be said to be an ideal personality not only of Vietnamese Buddhists but also of the Vietnamese people as a whole. In effect, it should not be forgotten that those who brought about the most glorious achievements for the nation in the Emperor Nhân Tông’s time were for the most part Buddhist adherents, from the supreme leaders in the central government such as Trần Hưng Đạo, Trần Quang Khải down to the villagers such as Lê Công Mạnh and his relatives. As being Adorning Bodhisattvas, they led an ideal way of living in which they incessantly made efforts of purifying their personality within the framework of disciplinary rules. On the other hand, as being great men of loyalty and piety, they did not fail to fulfill their duties to their Fatherland, their ancestors and their own families:

Remembering Saints’ gratitude, loving parents,
Respecting Masters, studying the Teaching,
Admiring the Gautama, refraining from ‘the sweet,’
Observing precepts, becoming vegetarians.

(Section 7)

In accord with such a guiding principle of living, they were always willing to act for the welfare of society:

Making bridges and ferries, building temples and stūpas,
That is the cultivation of the teaching on external ornamentation;
Aspiring after sympathy-equanimity, versed in pity-compassion,
That is the mastering of the sūtra on internal tranquility.

(Section 8)

After the two wars imposed by the enemy upon our people in 1285 and 1288, a great number of infrastructures in our country, especially the system of bridges and ferries, were mostly destroyed due to strategic requirements of our Army as well as merciless destruction by the enemy. In his mission to our country in the year Nhâm Thìn (1292), however, the Assistant-Messenger Ch’en-fu, watching the bridges across the splendid river in the capital Thăng Long, could not help expressing his surprise: “sixty miles far from the House of Messengers is the An Hóa Bridge, a mile from which is the Thanh Hóa Bridge. On this bridge is a house of nineteen apartments,” as has been said before. The entire country of Đại Việt was thus an immense construction site after war, where the people labored earnestly to reconstruct their country after many miserable years of war and losses.

It was the image of such enthusiastically laboring people that touched the eyes of the country’s leader and made strong impressions on his mind. For that reason, when composing the“Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” he did not forget to mention the building of bridges and ferries, the restoration of temples and stūpas for the purpose of making the country more and more beautiful, which has since then been regarded as an indispensable duty of Vietnamese Buddhists to their Fatherland. It was thanks to such valuable tradition that the Vietnamese Fatherland, after the terrible aftermath of war, did become a Buddha-land, which the honors graduate Huyền Quang Lý Tải Đạo expressed in the verse “A Depiction of the Vân Yên Temple”:

How magnificent it is,
Not less splendid than the Buddha-land in the West;
And no part in the South can be compared with it.
The VulturePeakMountain, who has brought it here?
The scenery of Fei-lai, why does it appear, too?
How free it is to enter the realm of Saints,
How pleasant it is to get rid of secular mind.

Such was the sight of the Vietnamese country at the time. Consequently, the people were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect it and reconstruct it to be a Buddha-land for themselves as well as for their subsequent generations. Even though the Vietnamese Buddhists might consider the construction of temples to be “exploiting the ‘blood and fat’ of the people,” they were not so partial to deny or oppose such a spiritual achievement. In all probability the Vietnamese Buddhists’ leaders of the time could recognize Buddhist temples as a spiritual foundation for maintaining and consolidating the existence of the country. For instance, Phạm Sư Mạnh, an excellent student of Chu Văn An (1292-1371), wrote about the Báo Thiên Stūpa in the following lines:

To protect the imperial capital from the East and West
Is the soaring top of the magnificent stūpa.
Like a column supporting the sky, it keeps the country safe
Like a club erected on the ground, it survives the wear of time.

And nearly two hundred years later, the Emperor Lê Thánh Tông depicted the Trấn Quốc Temple in the same line of thought:

Standing between Heaven and Earth,
It helps consolidate the Imperial Capital.
With the reputation widely known throughout the country
The TrấnQuốcTemple in Tây Hồ is.

Accordingly, the Emperor Nhân Tông still called for everyone not only to “make bridges and ferries” but further to “build temples and stūpas,” and appreciated the role of Buddhist temples in cultural and social life of the people, as in his own words:

Deserted mountains and wild forests
Are where hermits lead their free living;
Secluded pagodas and tranquil temples
Are where ascetics spend their days of non-action.

Indeed, whatever happened, a temple in a certain autumn evening may have evoked within them some inexpressible sensations, which the Emperor Nhân Tông himself ever experienced:

The old temple looks gloomy in the autumn mist.
A fishing boat is floating slowly in the first sounds of the evening bell.
Over the clear water and quiet mountains the white sea-gulls are flying.
The wind subsides, the clouds are moving leisurely over a few trees of red leaves.

Nevertheless, though making bridges and ferries, building temples and stūpas, the Vietnamese Buddhists in the reign of the Emperor Nhân Tông did not forget their major task of seeking after enlightenment just in their secular lives:

To attain Buddhahood,
It would take much effort to discipline mind;
To seek for gold,
It would take much time to filter sand.

There are, however, many ways for Buddhist followers to attain enlightenment. They may follow Master Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan’s way of cutting down the cat, Tzu-hu Li-tsung’s warning of his dog, and so on.

Old Wang’s cutting down the cat,

Master Hu’s warning of the dog,
Instructing …

(Section 9)

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

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