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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


The Avataṃsaka and the thought therein thus have become not only the new source of thought for Buddhism in the times of Lý and Trần but also a popular theory for the leaders of Đại Việt in their view of their own country and society in relation with others of the time, from which they could reach their culminating point, that is, the birth of the Trúc Lâm school, in building a peaceful and prosperous Đại Việt. Today, it is generally agreed that in the history of our country there has never been any dynasty that maintains the view of “being close to the people” as the Trần dynasty, especially the Emperors Thái Tông, Thánh Tông and Nhân Tông. We can see obviously that this view truly originates from the philosophical system of the Avataṃsaka developed within the age-old tradition of the country. Further, it may be said that never before in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism has the Avataṃsaka been so fully and effectively interpreted as in the time of the Emperor Nhân Tông and later on, that is, since the Trúc Lâm school's appearance on the arena of the nation.

In 1330 Pháp Loa died. In the last moments of his life there was the presence of Huyền Quang, who was then already so old, nearly twice older than Pháp Loa. Therefore, it is obvious that the Trúc Lâm school could not be attributed to these three patriarchs alone in spite that they have been generally known as the only three patriarchs of this school, especially when Tính Quảng and Ngô Thời Nhiệm collected some fragmentary materials to compile a book on the three patriarchs of the Trúc Lâm school under the title True Record of the Three Patriarchs. For, besides Huyền Quang who died in 1334, i.e., only four years later than the Second Patriarch’s death, there were other immediate disciples of the latter such as Cảnh Huy, Cảnh Ngung, Huệ Chúc and, most particularly, Kim Sơn.

Dhyāna Master Kim Sơn was not only considered by the Emperor Anh Tông to be the master who “possessed the ‘bones and marrow’ of Phổ Huệ,” as in the words of the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, but further bestowed by him to be Trúc Lâm Tam Đại Thiền Tổ (The Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of Trúc Lâm School) shortly before his death in 1358. The Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints gives us the following account:

“When he was about to pass away, the King presented a gātha to Kim Sơn, saying: ‘Whatever serious sickness I am suffering, I, your disciple, would like to send [this gātha] to Your Holiness the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of Trúc Lâm School. I have been sick for a week, lying by night and taking medicine by day. I have not eaten a grain of rice but chewed every grain. If being asked what taste it is like, I would reply with ‘no taste’. Let me present my gātha:

Taking medicine for curing illness.
Without illness, no medicine is needed.
Now is rice without grain
That is all chewed by a person without mouth.
In addition, he wrote a letter to invite Kim Sơn to the Động Tiên hall to examine him.”

Accordingly, the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school was Kim Sơn and not Huyền Quang. Of the extant materials, with the exception of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, none describes the latter as The Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation but only as dharma-successor, that is, succeeding the dharma-lineage of Pháp Loa. It should be noticed that the chronicle of Pháp Loa's activities made in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs designates him as Trúc Lâm Đệ Nhị Đại (of the Second Generation of TrúcLâmSchool). Consequently, that the Emperor Minh Tông called Master Kim Sơn the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of TrúcLâmSchool formally confirmed the latter to be the official successor of the Trúc Lâm school, at least until 1358 when the Emperor died. In this connection, after Huyền Quang’s death in 1334 the Trúc Lâm school went on with its strong development under the auspices of the Trần house.

The presentation of the historical development of the Trúc Lâm school through the three Patriarchs Nhân Tông, Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang may be considered a distinctive creation of Vietnamese Buddhism in the eighteenth century, when Tính Quảng and his pupil Ngô Thời Nhiệm compiled the True Record of the Three Patriarchs based on many different materials. Studying this record, we see that the biography of Nhân Tông is originally cited from the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, except for an annex at the end of the record extracted from the Quốc Sử (National History) concerning the fact that Master Trí Thông burned his arm on Emperor Nhân Tông’s ordination and vowed to serve at the latter’s stūpa in Yên Tử, and that the biography of Pháp Loa is a copy of his own oneengraved on the tablet of the Viên Thông stūpa in the year of Đại Trị, Nhâm Dần (1362), which remains today at the Thanh Mai Temple on Mount Tam Bản in what is now Hoàng Hoa Thám Village, Chí Linh District, Hải Dương Province.

As to the biography of Huyền Quang, it is cited from the Tổ Gia Thực Lục (True Record of the Patriarchal House). This record has a rather strange history. When the Ming of China took control of our country in the years 1407-1428, they collected all of our country’s writings and brought them to Chin-lêng, among which is the True Record of the Patriarchal House. This may be proved through a note at the end of the record:

This True Record of the Patriarchal House was brought to China by Shang-shu Huang-fu around the year Hsuan-te (1426-1435). For many years since then, [he] often dreamed a monk who asked him to return the record to its native country. Since his descendants did not yet have the opportunity to do so, they built a temple in their village for venerating it. Whatever prayer they had in front of the altar on which the Record was placed was effectively responded to; so they called the temple The Temple of Annan Dhyāna Master Huyền Quang. Around the year Chia-hsin (1522-1558), Tô Xuyên Hầu went to the Great Ming’s court as a messenger and did not return until nineteen years later. At his departure on returning home, he was seen off by Huang Chêng-tsu, a fourth-generation descendant of Huang-fu, who again dreamed the monk with his request for the returning of the Record. Huang Chêng-tsu then handed the Record to Tô Xuyên Hầu, telling him about the worshiping of it in the Ming country. When Trình Tuyên Hầu welcomed the messenger's return, he brought the Record home. Later, he composed a writing titled Giải Trào Văn about it.

Apart from the note just translated, at the end of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs printed in Thành Thái the Ninth, there is a comment by Ngô Thì Sỹ under the title Huyền Quang Hạnh Giải and noted to be an extract from the Ngô Gia Văn Phái:

As to the same action undertaken by different people if somebody has done it in a different manner, he would be doubted. Among many different words about the same fact, if somebody could confirm his own one, he would be trusted. Further, it is not quite scarce for people in the world to make their statements in an unreasonable and groundless manner. Therefore, if something has been written down, it must be elaborately examined.

Master Huyền Quang lived in the Trần’s time. He cultivated the [Buddha’s] Path at the Hoa Yên Temple on Mount Yên Tử and was granted the title The Third Patriarch of Trúc Lâm School. As far as his practice of śīla and samādhi is concerned, there is no documentary evidence preserved today. It has been rumored, however, by some discursive people that the Master had been the Honors Graduate [in a đình examination] before “taking refuge in Buddhism.” One day, being doubtful of his monastic life [The King] Anh Tông gave the order for a concubine to test his purity. The concubine then could take [from the Master] the amount of pure gold granted [to him] earlier by the King. At this, some verses and stories have been composed to record this incident so that the Master’s genuine practice of the Way can by no means be definitively determined.

Recently, in a writing of the style ‘hạnh’ [as to the Master], Mr. Nguyễn of the Cổ Đô village[5] has omitted some unnecessary part [of the biography of the Master] and pointed out the fact that the latter did give up wealth altogether and could eventually attain enlightenment. As for some alleged abuse on his violation of precepts, its authenticity has not yet been satisfactorily clarified.

Conventionally considered, female beauty is generally of most interest inside the Citadel. May it then be only because of some uncertainty that one could devote that which one loves most to testing somebody one does not trust? That a woman with her face beautified with pink powder appeared lonely in the long range of green mountains must be unequivocally considered to be something truly unreliable. Suppose [a certain woman had] appeared [with some charming words toward the Master], the Master, who was at the meditation seat in the midst of a serene temple late in the night, would be ready to respond with some instructions of the appearance of Buddha Maitreya in the future. For the chatter of a woman is not what a Master needs to be concerned with. If the Master, as being a monk of pure conduct, had been all of a sudden contaminated on his ears by some human voice, would he not have been able to act as a man of the State of Lu? Would he not have been able to overwhelm it? Further, were there not a place in the vast meditation forest for a woman to stay overnight? If the graceful beauty of flowers early in the spring were not able to move the heart of a man on his first entering [the garden], how could he take pains to walk about in the corridor only to look at it, particularly as he had made so many efforts to purify his mind? Would the Master not have been able to follow Liu Hsia-hue’s good example even though he, whose heart has been so cooled as ash, might have lost his precaution due to some unmindfulness one morning? Naturally, the Master was not interested in gold; ... Even though compassion is the very virtue of a monk, would he have been willing to give up his honor to some groundless abuse?

Consequently, it might happen that, being charmed in the first place by some graceful voice the Master allowed her to stay. Then, in face of such a beauty he had some talk with her so that he, because of being joyful at her cunning words, finally decided to entrust all the gold to her. Only with such matters it would be hard for him to prove his untainted mind. As a consequence, the more we try to protect the Master, the more he would be misunderstood.

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

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