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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


And there are many other ways of getting enlightened that the Emperor Nhân Tông presents in the ninth section of the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way,” from Bodhidharma’s time when he met the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty to Dhyāna Master Ling-yün Chih-ch’in who attained enlightenment at the sight of blossoming cherries, and Great Master Hsiang-yen who understood his “original face” at the sound of a pebble striking the bamboo while he was sweeping the ground. However manifold ways or methods of attaining enlightenment might be, they are not so greatly different from each other. For the truth realized in the enlightenment is in essence identical:

It is thus widely known
That, though the patriarchs’ teachings
Are different in many other ways,
They are indeed relatively similar.

(Section 9)

According to the Emperor Nhân Tông, such a worldly life with joy in the Way is a life of Dhyāna in which various ways may be applied to the attainment of enlightenment without being restricted to any fixed practice. Various alternatives thus open up for a practitioner of Dhyāna which may be optionally employed according to his own capacity and circumstance. Yet, what would be attained to at the end of the way is surely the same, that is, the enlightenment realized just in his everyday living whether he experiences it in the mountains or in a city full of secular defilements:

Śūnyatā is once realized;
Life then is in accord with original nature.
Otherwise, that is not because of the Patriarchs’ instructions
But because of our clinging mind.
For those adherents of smaller vehicle who fail to realize the ultinate truth,
The Buddha invented a temporary city in place of the Precious Abode.
But those with high capacity of realizing the truth
Can attain enlightenment whether in the city or in the mountains.

(Section 10)

The reason why there have existed so many different ways of Dhyāna is that each practitioner possesses his own capacities though the truth is always the same. If one cannot yet get awakened, that is because one has not exhausted one’s total mental and physical efforts of cultivating the way, not because the way the Buddhas and the Patriarchs have instructed is not practicable. Just like his preceding Dhyāna masters, the Emperor Nhân Tông was deeply aware of the fact that it is not easy to get awakened to the essentials of Dhyāna. Accordingly, in the “Song of the Realization of the Way” he mentioned the state in which

Regarding the students of the Way,
Though there are a great number of them,
It is factually rare for a bamboo
To be turned into a dragon.

This fact is not surprising at all. A Chinese Ch’an master, Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975), ever said that in cultivating the way of Dhyāna “of ten thousand practitioners only one is successful.” So did the Emperor Nhân Tông himself see that though there were always a great number of practitioners of Dhyāna, only one or two of them could get enlightened. The reason for such a state is pointed out in the “Song of the Realization of the Way”:

Owing to their beclouded mind,
North is mistaken for South.

In such an illustration as by the Emperor Nhân Tông, it sounds just like an answer given by Pháp Minh to the Emperor Lý Miễu’s question nearly a thousand years earlier than Nhân Tông’s time: “occupying oneself with wrong-doing that is expected to be righteous, attaching oneself to the false in the hope of its being the true; in such a state of confusion and hesitation, even though the Buddha would project light that can shake the earth, who can see it?” Obviously, the phrase “owing to their beclouded mind” in the Emperor Nhân Tông’s presentation is the very “state of confusion and hesitation” of those who would like to see the Buddha in the time of Lý Miễu. Once, one is trapped in such a state, it certainly follows that one will be “occupying oneself with wrong-doing that is expected to be righteous, attaching oneself to the false in the hope of its being the true,” or will go northward in stead of southward as having been instructed. In such confused states, to get awakened for a practitioner of Dhyāna remains merely an illusion.

Nevertheless, after enlightenment has been attained to, there would not be any distinction between mountain and city, the Way and the world, a quiet life in the mountains and a busy one in the city. Such is the thought of “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way.” It was created for the purpose of meeting the requirement of reasoning in a new phase of Buddhism when the Vietnamese Buddhists had to accomplish their duties to the country and simultaneously had to supply Buddhism with new energy by making use of its teaching in their fulfillment of national tasks, which was successfully proved and gloriously typified by the personality of the Emperor Nhân Tông.

As we have seen above, having been ordained a Buddhist monk, who was spontaneously content with “wearing kṣaya, sitting behind the paper curtain” and “a pot of egg-fruit, a jar of soy” on Mount Yên Tử, the Emperor never detached himself from national affairs, particularly those concerning Champa. As a consequence, the two districts Ô and Lý became a part of Đại Việt’s territory in this period. It must be said that this is a remarkable achievement in the Emperor Nhân Tông’s life as a Buddhist monk. Never before in the history of our country as well as of other countries has a Buddhist monk been capable of extending his country’s boundary, which was particularly carried out extremely peacefully. According to the disciplinary rules for an ordinary Buddhist living in a monastery, it is generally regulated that he who has led a monastic life must not act as a counselor of marriage. Yet, it was the Great Ascetic Hương Vân who did so and fulfilled it with great success. As a matter of fact, Buddhism in Vietnam, particularly Dhyāna Buddhism, has its own disciplinary rules that are called “Regulations of the Meditation Hall,” as in the title of a work by Master Minh Giác Kỳ Phương (1682-1744), and, for the most part, not related to the ordinary set of rules of other traditions of Buddhism.

Another particular point concerning the Emperor’s act just mentioned is that after his return to Đại Việt from Champa, he encountered a lot of opposition from most of imperial officials, especially from the intellectual circles. Many compositions in verse and prose were made by them to laugh over the Great Ascetic Hương Vân’s action of having his noble and pretty daughter married to a king of Champa who, in their opinion, was merely a barbarian man of inferiority. And such a discriminatory view went on to be held to more than a hundred years later by another intellectual, namely, Ngô Sỹ Liên in his comment on the event in question:

In the old days, to solve the barbarians’ repeated havocs on the borderland the Emperor Kao of the Han dynasty adopted a girl of a common family and married her to Ch’an-wu. Though the marriage to people of another race had ever been laughed over by the preceding Confucians, [the Emperor Kao’s action] might be sympathized with because it was aimed at concluding war and bringing about peace for the people. It was for the same reason that when Hu-han, going for audience at the court of the Han House, had the desire to be a son-in-law of the Emperor Yuan, the latter was content to marry his daughter Wang-hsiang to him. As to Nhân Tông, what did he mean when having his daughter married to the Lord of Champa? If saying that because he did not want to be blamed for breaking his promise that had been made by chance in a journey [to Champa], why did he not have the matter changed? The fact that he handed over the Heavenly Throne to the King [Anh Tông] after entering the monastery could make it possible for the latter to withdraw the promise easily. But why did the Emperor Nhân Tông still keep the promise, instead? If he first had his daughter married to a man of another race and then managed to bring her back again, is it possible for him to be regarded as keeping his promise?

In fact, without such a profound comprehension of Buddhist thought as the Emperor Nhân Tông’s, one may hardly have a view of equanimity as to human beings. Since Mâu Tử’s time, the concept that Buddha-nature is inherent in every sentient being has been grasped by the Vietnamese Buddhists to reject the idea of discrimination maintained by the Great Han and thus the subsequent view falsely held by the circle of Confucians that our Vietnamese people are of barbarian race and their Han people are of Hua-hsia race. Right in the comment by Ngô Sỹ Liên just cited sounds more or less something of such a view of discrimination from the Chinese intellectuals. It is, however, very fortunate for our country that some leaders of our people at that time, who were deeply interested in the thought of indiscrimination in Buddhist teachings such as Văn Túc Vương Trần Đạo Tải and Trần Khắc Chung, were wise enough to side with the Emperor Nhân Tông in his decision of such a political marriage. Eventually, Princess Huyền Trân went to her husband’s home and thereupon the people of Đại Việt possessed further a strip of land of more than two hundred kilometers without costing an arrow or a soldier’s life.

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

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