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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


In other words, the Emperor wished his successor not to be set off the track he had ever tread on enthusiastically and successfully. The years in which he was leading a monastic life were fraught with activities for the benefit of the country as well as Buddhism; and he hoped Pháp Loa would be able to achieve an active way of living as such. Yet, during the remaining twenty-two years of his life, Pháp Loa could devote his life to purely Buddhist activities only. Today, no documentary evidence is found as to his engagement in secular affairs. Is it due to his utterly one-sided activities that more than thirty years after his death the stone tablet in memory of him could be engraved and erected, i.e., in Nhâm Dần, Đại Trí the Fifth (1362)?

According to the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints and the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, the relationship between Pháp Loa and the Emperor Anh Tông is said to have been very friendly. The Complete History of Đại Việt, however, says that in the last days of his life Anh Tông refused to meet Pháp Loa. Concerning the latter’s death in 1330, the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints tells us that when Pháp Loa was sick, the Emperor Anh Tông came and saw him; and when he died, the Emperor conferred a dharma-title on him and wrote a funeral lament in memory of him. In addition, at the Emperor’s request Huyền Quang transcribed the discourses as well as the life story of Pháp Loa for printing, to which the Emperor himself wrote the preface. This proves that Pháp Loa exercised a great influence upon Anh Tông; yet we do not know why his memorial tablet was not made until the latter’s death.

Whatever happened, the Trúc Lâm school founded by the Emperor Nhân Tông eventually had its successor. Since the time when he was officially handed down the robe and begging bowl until his death in 1330, Pháp Loa concentrated all his efforts upon Buddhist affairs: instructing Buddhists, monastic and lay, to “take refuge in the Triple Gem” and “observe precepts,” establishing the Quỳnh Lâm Temple, the Tư Phúc Temple and more than twenty other temples, and particularly conducting the task of copying and printing the Buddhist Canon. He is the author of at least nine works: Tham Thiền Kỷ Yếu, Kim Cương Tràng Đà La Ni Kinh Khoa Chú, Niết Bàn Đại Kinh Khoa Sớ, Pháp Hoa Kinh Khoa Sớ, Lăng Già Tứ Quyển Khoa Sớ, Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh Khoa Sớ, Hưng Vương Hộ Quốc Nghi Quỹ, Pháp Sự Khoa Văn and Độ Môn Trợ Thành Tập. He also occupied himself with preaching the Buddhist teaching, especially the Avatasaka-sūtra, in many different dharma-halls of the country.

It may be said that the last point just mentioned of Pháp Loa's activities is the most striking one with regard to the characteristics of the Trúc Lâm school. For it points out, in the first place, that this school does not maintain the transmission of Buddhism outside sūtras; nor does it consist in making use of kung-an or hua-tou. On the contrary, the study and interpretation of sūtras are centered on so as to be a pivotal factor in the process of practicing Dhyāna Buddhism. In some aspects, this is rather similar to Hui-neng’s Ch’an doctrine, in which sūtra is still emphasized and interpreted in the course of Ch’an Buddhism. However, whereas Hui-neng was interested in the Lotus Sūtra or the Nirvāṇa-sūtra, it is quite different in the case of the Trúc Lâm school where its First Patriarch, the Emperor Nhân Tông, took the Avatasaka-sūtra to be the guiding thought. Let us read the following gātha of the Emperor before his death, the first four lines of which are extracted from the

All dharmas do not arise.
All dharmas do not pass away.
If able to understand as such,
The Buddhas are always present.
What is the use of “going” and “coming”?

Secondly, the content of the Avatasaka deals with the truth-seeking process of each human being, typified by the pilgrimage undertaken by young Sudhana to visit fifty-three worthies, Buddhist and secular. These visits are described to have taken place in various forms, from the most secular one of love between boys and girls to the transcendent state of perfect insight into the mutually unobstructed interpenetration of all things. Thus, it is not by chance that this sūtra became so popular by the time the Trúc Lâm school came into being in Vietnam. In reality, its popularity genuinely made possible the manifestation of the thought in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” and helped develop it into a guiding thought in the activities of Vietnamese Buddhism.

It must be said that the thought of the Avataṃsaka spread rather popularly in the time of Master Thường Chiếu (?-1203), who maintained that Buddhism should not be separated from the world.  In the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden, to answer the question “What is the meaning of ‘Dharma-body is present everywhere’?” posed by a Dhyāna student, Thường Chiếu cited two passages from the Chapter “The Appearance of the Tathāgata” in the Avatasaka (80 volumes) translated into Chinese by Sikṣānanda.[4] It should be remembered that Thường Chiếu is the master of Thông Thiền (?-1228). And the latter, according to the Lược Dẫn Thiền Phái Đồ (Chart of Dhyāna Lineage) in the Recorded Sayings of Thượng Sỹ, is the founder of the Trúc Lâm lineage, which may be presented as follows:

Thông Thiền

Tức Lự

Ứng Thuận

Tiêu Dao

Tuệ Trung

the Emperor Nhân Tông

Pháp Loa

Huyền Quang

It may be said that the thought of the Avatasaka is of a doctrinal system, according to which a thing can exist only through its correlation with others. Otherwise stated, there may never be anything so called 'existence independent of others'. Consequently, it is natural that, under the influence of such a doctrine, Thường Chiếu could do nothing but putting all activities of his life, or rather, of Buddhism into a fixed system on the historical background of his time. It is therefore not surprising at all that Thường Chiếu set forth the view of “not being separated from the world” in his reply to the question of Thần Nghi (?-1216) “Is your way of living the same as others'?”. Just in the Pháp Vân and Kiến Sơ Dhyāna lineages by the end of the Lý dynasty there appeared some lay Dhyāna masters, particularly Thông Thiền of the Kiến Sơ school. As has been cited above, according to the Chart of Dhyāna Lineage Thông Thiền is considered to have founded the Trúc Lâm lineage of Yên Tử. He himself was a layman. So was Ứng Thuận. And this is obviously the result of strong impact exerted by the Avataṃsaka. Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ also referred to this sūtra in his poems. In the “Thị Chúng,” for example, he dealt with the study and practice of Buddhism following Sudhana’s example in the latter’s encounters with his predecessors:

The world is attached to falsehood, not truth.
Yet either falsehood or truth is of worldly mind.
So as to go to the other side,
Study elaborately Sudhana’s visits to his predecessors.

It is based upon the thought of the Avatasaka that such antithetic categories of mankind’s thought as being and non-being, false and true, right and wrong, and so on, have been once for all solved. What is called being or non-being can exist only in some relation. There is truly neither absolute being nor non-being. In the light of the Avataṃsaka, being and non-being are merely the two sides of the same reality. They do not exclude each other. What is so called “being” may exist only in its relation with what is so called “non-being”, and vice-versa. For that reason, in his preaching at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple in the 12th month of Giáp Thìn (1304) the Emperor Nhân Tông states that, because of one’s ignorance of such a mutual relation between being and non-being, one can see only the finger pointing to the moon but not the moon itself, just as the one who sits under the tree to await a rabbit instead of chasing it or the one who looks for his horse on a map instead of searching its traces on the ground:

Non-being and being,
Neither is absolutely being or non-being,
Just like searching one’s sword by marking on the boat;
Or searching one’s horse on the map.
Being and non-being,
Neither exists apart from each other,
Just like making a hat of snow, shoes of flowers;
Or sitting under a tree to await the rabbit.
Being and non-being,
Today and in the old days alike,
If clinging to the finger so as not to see the moon,
That is to be drowned on the ground.

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

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