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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


The ideology of the Trúc Lâm school founded by the Emperor Nhân Tông thus helped solve a series of issues posed for Buddhism in Vietnam of the time and thereby could meet some requirements that had not been able to be satisfied before by our people. We have seen that it is not by chance that the thought of “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” has been set forth and its content established. Once more, it is obviously evidenced that such an ideology factually proceeds from the actualities of Đại Việt and aims at solving the problems caused by such actualities.

Above, we have mentioned only a number of fundamental problems within the range of current historical materials. We have not dealt with some specific points of Dhyāna teaching such as the principle of rūpa-śūnyatā that was elucidated through a long verse by the Emperor Nhân Tông in his discourse at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple in the late winter of Giáp Thìn (1304). Naturally, this principle was after all spoken of by the Emperor Nhân Tông as something “such-and-such”; that is to say, every practitioner has to get some insight into it by himself through the instructions of his master. Such an experience, as what the Emperor Nhân Tông exposed in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way,” may be attained to by the “adherents of superior capacity in realization” only. However, the most noteworthy point that needs to be emphasized here is that in the lineage of the Trúc Lâm school a practitioner of such capacity as mentioned above does not necessarily pertain to the circle of the state’s officials but he may be in any of various stations of society of the time.

Thus, after Nhân Tông’s time Buddhism in Vietnam has developed in the course of what is presented in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way.” The Buddhist teaching was no longer exclusively left for any single part of society no matter how excellent and superior it may be conventionally considered to be. Buddhism has spread widely among various classes of the masses, just as what was written by Lê Quát in a tablet inscription at the Thiệu Phúc Temple of the Bái Village in Route Bắc Giang in 1270, which was later recorded by Ngô Sỹ Liên in the Complete History of Đại Việt:

The Buddhist followers set forth the doctrine of misfortune-and-fortune to transform the people’s minds, which is firmly hold to by the subsequent generations. From the nobles down to the common people, they never show any shadow of regret about devoting their wealth to Buddhist affairs. If they have an opportunity at present to make offerings to temples and stūpas, they all feel greatly pleased. For they know that from such good deeds they can enjoy their fruits in the future. For that reason, from the Capital to districts and provinces, even in remote hamlets and villages, the people follow [Buddhism] without any need of being persuaded in advance and arouse their belief [in Buddhism] without any need of taking an oath. Wherever the people inhabit, they build a temple that is always restored when ruined, rebuilt when destroyed. The pavilions and towers of bells and drums number as many as a half of the population. Buddhism flourishes so favorably and is held in the highest esteem by the people. As a boy, I ever read the [Confucian] Saints’ sayings, understood them and thereby had much opportunity to apply them to the cultivation of the common people but I have never been able to encourage an entire village to follow the Saints’ teaching. Though I have ever wandered in the mountains and across the rivers and my footsteps have been pressed on almost half of the country’s land, I have never found anything called “the Temple of [Confucianist] Literature” built by local inhabitants. Whereby I myself feel so shameful that the present writing comes as a genuine presentation of my heart.

No doubt, the flourishing state of Buddhism until the end of the fourteenth century when the Trần House began to decline took its root in the ideology of the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way.” Buddhism was not attributed exclusively to its monastic adherents or any of the noble classes and the state’s officials. Buddhism is for every human being. Wherever the people are, there is a Buddhist temple built. And this prosperity has received no less influential contributions from the Emperor Nhân Tông and the doctrine of the Dhyāna school founded by himself. Such is the truth that has been proved through so many stone inscriptions. Nevertheless, some people keep on maintaining that Buddhism could have declined by the end of the Trần dynasty, particularly that after Master Huyền Quang’s death (1254-1334) the “flourishing period [of Buddhism] came to an end.”

In effect, not only did Dhyāna Buddhism of Trúc Lâm refuse to come to its end but it also developed so well as to prepare itself for the undertaking of new tasks related to the country and Buddhism that the history entrusted to it. That is to say, taking advantage of some turmoil in our country of the time the Ming of China carried out again their plot of invading our country. In face of such brutal and barbarian invaders, our people as a whole, from the Buddhist monks like Phạm Ngọc, etc., to the Buddhist laymen like Trần Trùng Quang, Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi, etc., rose up to drive away the enemy with their glorious achievements in the battles of Chi Lăng, Xương Giang, which brought about the independence for the Fatherland and the birth of the Lê dynasty. Undoubtedly, Buddhism of the Trúc Lâm Yên Tử school went on with its mission of serving the Buddha’s teaching and the people of the reigns that followed through the outstanding characters of history such as Master Đạo Khiêm(?-1445), Master Viên Thái (1400-1460), the Highest Graduate Lê Ích Mộc (1459-?), Master Pháp Tính (1470-1550?), Master Thọ Tiên Diễn Khánh (1550-1620?), Master Chân An Tuệ Tĩnh (?-1711), Master Chân Nguyên Tuệ Đăng (1648-1726) and particularly Master Hải Lượng Ngô Thời Nhiệm (1746-1803). And this will be the subject of another study.

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

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