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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


Nowadays, I am living in a time some hundreds of years later than his. Yet, when thinking of unraveling some suspicions caused by false rumors of the world, why is it not possible for me to come to an openly fair judgment as to the Master in terms of his very biography and verses? According to his biography, he was a native of the Vạn Tải village in Vũ Ninh of Bắc Giang Water Route. His home was on the southeast of the Ngọc Hoàng Temple. His first ancestor Lý Ôn Hoàng was an official in the reign of Lý Thần Tông. The descendant of the sixth generation named Quang Dụ worked as a chuyển vận sứ under the Trần dynasty. Quang Dụ had four sons, the youngest of whom was called Tuệ Tổ. The Master was the latter’s grandson. His mother gave birth to him after bearing him nearly twelve months. As a young baby, he appeared to be strangely intelligent and thus named Tải Đạo.[6] At the age of nine, he was already versed in literature. When he was twenty-one years old, he passed the Đại Y examination. He had many achievements in receiving foreign messengers. He used to accompany the King to the Vĩnh Nghiêm Temple in Phượng Nhãn District, where upon hearing Pháp Loa’s discourse one day, he attained enlightenment. Thereafter, he submitted a memorial to the King, asking to be ordained a Buddhist monk. He was granted the monastic title Huyền Quang and appointed to be the abbot of the Hoa Yên Temple on Mount Yên Tử, where he instructed more than a thousand disciples. The Textbook with the annotation by him was commented by Emperor Nhân Tông that “if the book has been supervised by Huyền Quang, not a word may be added to or omitted from it.” In such high esteem was he held by contemporaries.

His verses consist of the Ngọc Tiên, the Trích Diễm, the Việt Âm, in which there are the sentences like “nhất lãnh thuế y [kinh tuế hàn]” ([surviving the cold of winter] only with a light fur coat), “bán gian thạch thất” (half of the stone chamber), “đức bạc thường tàm kế tổ đăng” (shame at such little merit as to transmit the Patriarch's lamp), “dĩ thị thành thiền tâm nhất phiến; cung thanh tức tức vị thùy đa” (in meditation my mind has become one-pointed; for whom are the crickets making such laments?), and so on. The characteristics of mountain, forest, mist, evening sunshine are manifest in his wording, through which it may be assumed that he is a very plain and simple man. How would words of nonsense as falsely rumored by the world be able to proceed form such a man?

If it were asked by some that “the Master should give up that pure way of living, should he not?,” let me answer with “should not”. As to a monk of such highly pure conducts, it is hard to coin that he could not have led a righteous life or he could not help thinking about such as marriage. As his life has been so obviously known, the matter that a “tray of garlic” might be turned into a “tray of vegetarian food” becomes nonsense at once. If calmly and frankly considered, it may be said that “though the Trần king gave orders for testing the Master many times, the latter did not break his pure precepts. How could he, as being the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna school, exchange his honor for an act as such?

This comment is made by Chánh Tiến Sỹ Đốc Trấn Ngô Thì Sỹ, with the title Ngọ Phong Công, in the Tả Thanh Oai village of Thanh Oai district in the year of Tân Mùi, Cảnh Hưng, under the Lê dynasty (1751).

From the two endnotes of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, it is clearly known that the True Record of the Patriarchal House Tính Quảng and Ngô Thời Nhiệm copied in their True Record of the Three Patriarchs is the text that was brought home from China by Tô Xuyên Hầu Lê Quang Bí in 1569, and later read by Trình Xuyên Hầu Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1491-1580) so that a writing titled Giải Trào was written as to it by the latter. Thereafter, it was copied and provided with an annex by Ngô Thời Nhiệm’s father, namely, Ngô Thì Sỹ. Based upon Sỹ’s comment, the compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs may be supposedly to have been carried out as follows: First, Ngô Thời Nhiệm might read his father’s copy of the True Record of the Patriarchal House where Huyền Quang is recorded to have been granted the posthumous title “Trúc Lâm Thiền Sư Đệ Tam Đại, Đặc Phong Tự Pháp Huyền Quang Tôn Giả” (Venerable Huyền Quang, Dhyāna Master of the Trúc Lâm Third Generation, Specifically Bestowed to Be the Dharma-Successor). From this, it might occur to Ngô Thời Nhiệm that he could compose a work named the True Record of the Three Patriarchs. Thereafter, he would discuss it with Tính Quảng, who might be the master of and grant the monastic name Hải Lượng to him if their monastic names were extracted from one and the same gātha representing the line of transmission of the Chi-Pan T'u-k'ung school of the Lin-chi lineage:

Trí tuệ thanh tịnh
Đạo đức viên minh
Chân như tính hải
Tịch chiếu phổ thông
Tâm nguyên quảng tục
Bản giác xương long
Năng nhân thánh quả
Thường diễn khoan hoằng
Duy truyền pháp ấn
Chứng ngộ hội dung
Kiên trì giới hạnh
Vĩnh thiệu tổ tông.

Then, following their discussion, a plan might be drawn up, that is, to cite the biography of Nhân Tông in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, that of Pháp Loa on his memorial tablet at the Thanh Mai Temple and what concerns Huyền Quang in the True Record of the Patriarchal House, to which some fragments of the three patriarchs’ writings preserved somewhere in the temples under the title Thiền Đạo Yếu Học (Study of the Essentials of Dhyana Doctrine) were added, to constitute the True Record of the Three Patriarchs.

Since the True Record of the Three Patriarchs was published, these three patriarchs’ lives and careers were widely known and further confirmed by another work titled Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine, whose earliest edition was in Cảnh Thìn the Third (1795). In the foreword of this work, its author Ngô Thời Nhiệm presented the biographies of the first three patriarchs Nhân Tông, Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang of the Trúc Lâm school. The rest was an autobiography of the author himself under the heading “Trúc Lâm Đệ Tứ Tôn” (The Trúc Lâm’s Fourth Honored-One). If tracing from the Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine back to the year 1765, when the True Record of the Three Patriarchs was for the first time published, we can see that such a hypothesis as to the compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs is not quite unreasonable and that Ngô Thời Nhiệm’s supposed participation in the compilation of the work is not without any ground. Indeed, not only did he contribute to the literature of Vietnamese Buddhism but also helped throw light on a number of masters of the Trúc Lâm school such as Hải Âu Vũ Trinh (1726-1823), Hải Hòa Nguyễn Đăng Sở, Hải Huyền Ngô Thì Hành, Hải Điền Nguyễn Hữu Đàm, and so on, who were the great intellectuals of the time, originating from the noble class in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In reality, owing to their influence and prestige that the notion of the Trúc Lâm Three Patriarchs has become popularly admitted. However, it is the popularity of this notion that has lent encouragement to some distorted view of the historical development of this school.

In effect, with the exception of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, nowhere has Huyền Quang been considered “the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of the Trúc Lâm School.” As has been said above, this is the reverend title that the Emperor Minh Tông, before his death, employed to designate Master Kim Sơn. Accordingly, the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school must be Kim Sơn and not Huyền Quang. Earlier, we have suggested and proved in terms of documentary evidence that Kim Sơn may have composed the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden, a history of Dhyāna Buddhism in Vietnam, subsequent to the Chiếu Đối Bản of Thông Biền (?-1134), the Chiếu Đối Lục of Biện Tài, and the Nam Tông Tự Pháp Đồ (Chart of Dharma-Successors of the Southern School) of Thường Chiếu. As to the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, its composer is not known today; yet, from its content as well as style we may postulate that the author is none other than Kim Sơn. In addition, the Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Bản Hạnh may have been composed by him, too.

Thus it may be said that in the middle of the fourteenth century a great movement of studying the history of Vietnamese Buddhism broke out widely. And Kim Sơn, as being an outstanding Dhyāna master under the reign of Minh Tông, must have conducted the task of compiling the afore-said history books. It is, however, unfortunate that we have not yet acquired any new information on this master so far, except for what is preserved in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints. Nevertheless, we may be sure that the Trúc Lâm school continued to exercise its strong influence on the court as well as the people until around the year 1358 at least. In all probability, the inscription of the Chronicle on the memorial tablet in front of the Viên Thông stūpa of Pháp Loa could be carried out by Kim Sơn himself. The sole question posed here is why it could not be engraved and erected at Pháp Loa’s stūpa until 1362. Was there probably something wrong for the tablet to be made in memory of him during the Emperor Minh Tông’s lifetime?

Whatever happened, Kim Sơn must have lived on for some more years after Minh Tông’s death. However, due to the latter’s successors who were only interested in sensual pleasures as Dụ Tông or who was so timid and hesitant as Nghệ Tông, the magnificent energy of Đông A gradually died out so that “the lamps of transmission” by various outstanding Dhyāna masters were no longer recorded. This points out that such people of great prestige and high reputation as Kim Sơn passed away under the reign of Dụ Tông. Straightly stated, Master Kim Sơn might die between the years 1365-1370; and from this it may be speculated that he might be born at some time around the year 1300 so that he could be an immediate disciple of Pháp Loa’s before the latter’s death in 1330.

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

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