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History Of Viet Nam

The Emperor Nhân Tông’s Monastic Life

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

by Lê Mạnh Thát

As various attempts to keep peace and improve the people’s living in the postwar period were proceeding, the Emperor Nhân Tông decided to hand over the imperial throne to his son Trần Anh Tông in the 3rd month of Quý Tỵ (1293). In the year that followed, i.e., the 7th month of Giáp Ngọ (1294), on an excursion in the Vũ Lâm Valley he made up his mind to be ordained a Buddhist monk. The Complete History of Đại Việt says, “The Emperor-Father then was going on a cruise in a cave in Vũ Lâm. The mouth of the cave was narrow and he was seated in a small boat. The Queen-Mother Tuyên Từ, who was sitting at the rear of the boat, told Văn Túc Vương to move to the bow and had only an oarsman employed. Later, when the Emperor-Father was about to leave [the citadel] for his ordination, he summoned Văn Túc to the Dưỡng Đức House in the Thánh Từ Palace to take part in a feast of seafood…”[1]

Thus, the Emperor’s ordination was formally held in the year Giáp Ngọ (1294). In the Imperial Condensed History of Đại Việt, however, it is dated the 6th month of Ất Mùi (1295), that is, after his fighting expedition to Laos: “After his return from Laos, the Emperor-Father was ordained at the Vũ Lâm Palace but then went back to the Capital.”[2] In so recording, the work definitely connotes that the Emperor would not have taken any more military actions after his ordination. As it will be seen below, however, even when he already became a monk, Nhân Tông went on to have activities for the sake of the country. And he was, too, often consulted by imperial officials for crucial decisions of the court. Before his arrival in Champa as a messenger, for instance, Đoàn Nhữ Hài is said to have waited nearly a day to meet with Nhân Tông at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple on Mount Chí Linh. Accordingly, the fact that the Emperor was ordained on Mount Vũ Lâm certainly took place in 1294, as in the words of the Complete History of Đại Việt.

Vũ Lâm is a beautiful valley in what is now Ninh Bình Province.[3] On the east is the Ngô Đồng River, and on the other sides are limestone mountains. There remains today a shrine named Thái Vi built by the Emperor Nhân Tông’s order for worshiping his grandfather the Emperor Thái Tông, his father the Emperor Thánh Tông, and his mother the Queen Hiếu Từ, which may be precisely recognized in terms of inscriptions on the three stone tablets preserved inside the shrine.

The first tablet titled Tu Tạo Thái Vi Cung Thần Từ Thạch Bi (Stone Tablet [Recording] the Restoration of the Thái Vi Sacred Shrine) and engraved on the 10th of the 3rd month of Vĩnh Thịnh the Tenth (1715) was erected by the villagers, their chiefs, and local functionaries of the two villages Trung and Cật of Ô Lâm when the shrine was in time of repair. The tablet runs, “In the autumn, the 8th month, of Giáp Ngọ (1715), having seen the magnificently precious shrine handed down by the preceding reign to be in such badly ruined condition, [the local inhabitants] made a decision to restore it (…)

The Thái Vi Precious Shrine,
An ancient relic from the days
Of sacred ancestors in the Trần dynasty,
Who were, for generations, interested in Dhyāna,
Keeping the nation’s security,
Protecting the people…

The second tablet of the same title records the merits of those who contributed to the restoration of the shrine. It was erected six months later of the same year and by the same people. These two tablets are engraved on the front and back only. But the third is engraved on its four sides, the three sides of which record merits and the other titled Tu Lý Thái Vi Điện Bi Ký (Stone Inscription of the Restoration of the Thái Vi Shrine) records the date of construction of the shrine, that is, the years between 1273 and 1278 of Era name Bảo Phù of the Trần house, and those of its restorations in the years of Quang Hưng, Kỷ Sửu (1598), and of Bảo Đại, Bính Dần (1926). This tablet was engraved in the latter restoration.

From the inscription dated Bảo Đại, Bính Dần it is known that the shrine was built in the year Bảo Phù. That is to say, before mounting the throne in the 10th month of Bảo Phù, Mậu Dần (1278) the Emperor Nhân Tông had learned of Vũ Lâm. Then, in the war of 1278 when he was commanding the South Army to halt T’o-huan’s troops from the north and So-tu’s troops from the south, he might have chosen that valley to be his headquarters where he could hold swift and urgent conferences with prominent generals Trần Quốc Tuấn, Trần Quang Khải, and so on. Being situated in the midst of Hoa Lư, Vũ Lâm was naturally a remarkably strategic position. Further, the landscape there has a fantastically attractive beauty as is described in one of his poems:

The splendid bridge is horizontally reflected on the stream,
Beyond which comes the ray from the sun in the evening sky.
Quietly in the endless mountains red leaves are falling;
Like in a dream are the wet clouds and the bell from afar.

Tuệ Trung and the Emperor Nhân Tông

Thus, Vũ Lâm was definitely chosen by the Emperor to be the place where his ordination would take place. Yet we do not know how the ordination was held and by whom it was ritually conducted. From the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, however, it is known that Nhân Tông was “capable of penetrating into the essentials of Dhyāna doctrine under Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ. Therefore, he treated the latter as his master.” Accordingly, he who transmitted the mind-seal to him was none other than Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ, who had formerly liberated the capital Thăng Long from the Yuan occupation in the war of 1285 and had ostensibly negotiated with the enemy at the base of Vạn Kiếp in our army’s plan of counteroffensives in the war of 1288.

As has been said before, the Emperor Nhân Tông received an education of various branches of his time and, according to his family’s tradition, came in contact with the Buddhist teaching very early in his life. In spite of this, he professed in a poem that he did not so early experience Buddhism profoundly:

Form-Emptiness was incomprehensible for me at such an early age.
Spring came and my mind was among a variety of flowers.
Now that I have realized the ‘face’ of Spring,
From the meditation seat I can contemplate falling flowers.

On Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ’s death, the Emperor Nhân Tông himself composed a biography of his master and, simultaneously, his uncle, in which he accounted for his experience of enlightenment:

Formerly, when I was going into mourning at my Queen-Mother Nguyên Thánh’s death, I once visited Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ and was given two records of Hsüeh-tou and Yeh-hsüan. Rather doubtful of his secular way of living, I pretended to ask him, “How is it possible for those who have had the habit of eating meat and drinking wine not to be exerted by the effect of such unwholesome actions?” “Suppose somebody who does not know the king to be passing by his back has thrown something at him, would he be frightened in that case? Should the king get angry at him? [Certainly it does not matter anything at all] because the two facts have nothing to do with each other,” he explained. Then, he read two stanzas to express it:

All saṃskāras[4] are impermanent.
Faults proceed from doubt alone.
Nothing has arisen so far;
Neither seeds nor sprouts are.

And again,

In our everyday perception of all things,
They arise just from our mind.
Both things and mind have not truly existed.
Nowhere is no-pāramitā.[5]

Whereby I could comprehend his implications, so asking, “Though it is so, how should we act as faults and merits have been definitely distinguished [in the sūtras]?” He went on with his instruction in another stanza:

Eating grass and eating meat,
That depends on beings’ consciousness.
All kinds of grass grow when spring comes.
What may be called faults and merits?

“If so, what is the use of observing Brahmacarya[6] strictly?” I asked. He smiled without saying. At my repeated question, he read two more stanzas:

Observing precepts and cultivating patience,
That is to gain no merits but faults.
To realize merits and faults are all of śūnyatā,[7]
Do not observe precepts nor cultivate patience.

And again,

Like a man who is climbing a tree,
Thus seeking for danger from safety;
If not climbing the tree,
Why must he be concerned with moon and wind?

Then he instructed me secretly, “Do not tell those who are not worthy.”

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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