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History Of Viet Nam

The Emperor Nhân Tông and the Trúc Lâm School

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

by Lê Mạnh Thát

According to various historical materials of Vietnam, the Emperor Nhân Tông is recognized to be the founder of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna School, which flourished for a long time in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. In spite of this, it has been generally assumed, at least since the latter half of the eighteenth century when Tính Quảng and Hải Lượng could collect enough materials for their compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, that this school could survive only three generations and, more particularly, that subsequent to the first three patriarchs of these generations no one could be regarded as their outstanding dharma-successor. As a consequence, it has again and again been claimed by some historical researchers in Vietnam that a glorious period of Buddhism, which naturally includes the Trúc Lâm school, came to an end altogether at the passing away of the last of these patriarchs. In reality, after the Third Patriarch Huyền Quang’s death in 1334, Buddhism went on to develop well with many prominent figures in this Dhyāna lineage as will be discussed below. Accordingly, the question as to the Emperor Nhân Tông’s relation with the Trúc Lâm school would not need dealing with in the present study. On account of some misunderstandings as just mentioned, however, a rather brief elucidation of it should be presented here.

In one of the preceding chapters we have discussed some problems of Nhân Tông’s thought, particularly of what he has formulated in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way”:

Achieved in the midst of worldly life,
That merit is increasingly admired.
Unfruitful cultivation in the mountains
Is nothing but a vain attempt.

And we have, too, considered it to be the central thought of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna doctrine. In this connection, is it truly satisfactory to maintain that the Trúc Lâm school should be attributed to some Dhyāna masters alone, especially the monastic ones, as has been claimed in most of the studies on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism hitherto? In effect, a history of this school was once compiled without any differentiation of its being either monastic or lay lineage, as what Ngô Thời Nhiệm advanced in an introduction to his Trúc Lâm Tông Chỉ Nguyên Thanh (Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine). Unfortunately, the approach he applied in his works has not been popularly adopted, let alone the fact that it is sometimes regarded as not reflecting properly Buddhist tradition in Vietnam or even as nothing other than some distortion.

In spite of this, Thời Nhiệm’s position in his study on this school should not be considered quite groundless, especially when we have evidently seen that the period in which the Emperor was leading a monastic life was not devoid of various political and military activities. That is to say, as being a Dhyāna master, he was enthusiastically engaged in receiving a Chinese delegation, boosting the relationship between Vietnam and Champa and the extension of the country’s territory in the south, and directly commanding the campaign of putting down the Laotian Army’s havoc in the northwestern borderland. His monastic life, therefore, can by no means be regarded as a secluded renunciation from the world as has been generally viewed and described. On the contrary, it is a life fraught with earthly affairs intimately related to the country as well as the people. Accordingly, it is not quite unreasonable and groundless for any presentation of the “activities of the Three Patriarchs” in the direction Ngô Thời Nhiệm has set forth.

Thus it may be said that this is a precise approach even though it has not been popularly admitted and developed owing to some distorted views on the part of the Buddhist clergy as well as of the circle of historical researchers. They have usually maintained that to become a Buddhist monk is to renounce the world altogether so as to concentrate all efforts, physical and mental, on the practice of Buddhist teachings. If it were the case, how could it occur that Princess Huyền Trân was married to the Cham king and the two districts Ô and Lý were annexed to the map of Đại Việt, and that Nhân Tông could dissuade the Emperor Anh Tông from appointing so many officials and bestowing so many titles in the latter’s court? Indeed, at a glimpse of Nhân Tông’s life as a Dhyāna master, we can see straightly that he never desisted from national affairs or gave up his concern with the activities of imperial court under the leadership of the Emperor Anh Tông.

However, since those days it has been insisted in the Buddhist clergy that after he had been formally ordained a Buddhist monk, Nhân Tông “gave up the throne to enter the monastery where, as a result of his earnest devotion to the Way of Dhyāna, he could eventually penetrate into its essentials,” as is remarked by Diệu Trạm in a preface to the re-edition of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs in Thành Thái the Ninth (1897). This remark has later been cited repeatedly in history books, according to which the Emperor is assumed to have mustered up all his efforts for the Way. Some say, “Shortly after his victory over the enemy, Nhân Tông handed over the throne to Anh Tông to seek a serene life in the practice [of Buddhism] and became the First Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school. He breathed his last at the Ngọa Vân Temple on the quiet Yên Tử mountain when he was just fifty-one years old.” Not only do they think that Nhân Tông could have renounced the world to seek a serene life, but they also say: “He wanted to get rid of daily troubles in society in order to seek after the mysterious principle that controls human life.”[1]

Such immature remarks are evidently neither satisfactory nor in accord with historical facts related to the Emperor’s life as recorded in the Complete History of Đại Việt and the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints. Furthermore, if analyzing his transmitting the patriarchal office to Pháp Loa in terms of what is recorded on the latter’s memorial tablet and later cited in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, we can find a startlingly remarkable incident that has never occurred in the history of Buddhism in both China and Vietnam before. The inscription tells us in the first place:

In the 5th month Điều Ngự[2] moved to a temple on the peak of Mount Ngọa Vân. On the 15th day, having told all of his students to go out of the hall after the poṣadha service, he transmitted a mind-gātha to the Master [Pháp Loa] and handed down the robe and begging bowl to him, telling him to preserve them carefully. On the 1st of the 1st month of Mậu Thân, Hưng Long the Sixteenth (1308), the Master, following his instruction, undertook the abbot’s office to succeed the dharma-lineage in the Cam Lộ Hall of the Siêu Loại Temple. In order to ‘open the hall’ and perform the ceremony of transmission […], the King had the preceding patriarchs’ name-tablets placed [on the altar], greatly ritual music played, and incense burned. Then, he personally led the Master to the patriarchal altar for prostration. After eating gruel, he ordered ritual music to be played and the dharma-drum to be beaten while all the people began to gather in the dharma-hall. Anh Tông then came to the temple, too. After the positions for visitors and hosts were formally divided, the King Anh Tông, as being a great patron of Buddhism, took the visitor’s place inside the hall while the Highest Minister and other courtiers stood in the yard. Then, Điều Ngự sat down in the dharma-seat to deliver a sermon. After the sermon, he left the seat and helped the Master into it. Keeping his hands folded, palm to palm, Điều Ngự stood in front of the Master and interviewed him. The Master bowed to Điều Ngự, received the dharma-robe and put it on. Điều Ngự stood aside and then sat down on the cane bed to hear the Master preaching. Thereafter, he appointed the Master to be the abbot of the Siêu Loại Temple on Mount Yên Tử, who would thus be [the patriarch] of the second generation of the Trúc Lâm lineage. Besides, in order to encourage the study of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature, he transferred [to the Master] a hundred cases of non-Buddhist books and twenty cases of the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

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