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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


According to the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh (Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden), the dialogues in such a pattern came into existence in the time of Master Pháp Hiền (? - 626) and remarkably popular in the time of Master Viên Chiếu (999–1090) when the latter composed the Tham Đồ Hiển Quyết, which has been completely preserved so far. The work consists in analyzing the ‘công án’ for the practitioners of Dhyāna to grasp their meaning. For instance, the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden records one of the first phrases like this:

“What is the meaning of Buddhas and [Confucian] sages?” asked a monk.

“The chrysanthemum blooms under the hedgerow in the autumn; the bird sings on the branch early in the spring,” the master said.

From the question-answer above, it may be interpreted that the relation between Buddhism and Confucianism is likened to that of a chrysanthemum, which blooms in September, and the bird singing in the early spring. That is to say, Buddhism and Confucianism have their respective tasks that are to be implemented according to their own circumstances.

The language of Dhyāna, therefore, has its own semantic structure that can only be comprehended and grasped by the people involved. This structure is at times interpreted as a device to awaken and give rise to some potential capacity of getting enlightened inherent in each being. The language of Dhyāna, however, is not always confined within its semantic or grammatical structure. In effect, it often goes beyond the verbal language to embrace even such bodily actions as gazing, shouting, striking, etc., that is, the body language. In the above-cited dialogue the language of the latter type is known to have been applied by Nhân Tông when he shouted and struck the monk. Today, we cannot know how many people could comprehend his teaching and how many people got truly awakened through his instruction in the discourse just mentioned. Yet, the point is that they were after all capable of gaining some understanding of the Buddhist teaching.

Here a question may be raised as to whether such a way of preaching may be influenced by that from China. Naturally, as a cultural movement Dhyāna, or Ch’an(-na) as transliterated in Chinese, has inevitably absorbed various factors during its development. For that reason, even in the history of its development in China, Dhyāna has really undergone some changes through the ages. This is evidently proved by the dialogues of Hui-neng and I-hsuan recorded in the Ching-te ch’uan-teng-lu (Record of the Transmission of the Lamp in the Ching-te Period). In the time of Hui-neng, a Dhyāna discourse in the form of question-answer is usually rather comprehensible; that is to say, a reply is to be found in exact accordance with the meaning conveyed in the question. It has, however, become quite a different style in I-hsuan’s time, when shouting and striking began to make their appearance in the language of Dhyāna.

In Vietnam, Dhyāna has developed in quite a different course. It came into being to set forth some solution to a problem of thought; that is, “why cannot the Buddha be seen during one’s practice of his teaching?”, which was put up in the middle of the fifth century C.E.[44] Factually, it is for answering that question that Dhyāna of Vietnam made its way. Thus, together with the appearance of Dhyāna a new concept was produced in Vietnam with regard to the Buddha. Not only is the Buddha conceived as a historical one or a certain being outside of us but he further becomes ‘something’ inseparable from our nature. In this connection, to practice the Buddha’s teaching is to make possible the manifestation of this ‘Buddha’ within ourselves. From such a starting-point, Dhyāna of Vietnam has inevitably been exerted by some impact of concrete requirements of Vietnam. If in the course of its development, Dhyāna of Vietnam is found to have had some similar or even identical features with the other traditions of Dhyāna, they should be regarded as an utterly natural demonstration of the same universality and humanitarianism of a particular tradition of Buddhism in the Far East.

The just-cited preaching of Dhyāna at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple by the end of Giáp Thìn may in some measure supply us with a view of Buddhist activities of our people as well as of the Emperor Nhân Tông himself. Besides, the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, a record composed by Tính Quảng and Ngô Thì Nhiệm and based upon historical documents of the Trần dynasty, gives us another discourse by the Emperor. It was held at the Kỳ Lân Hall on the 9th of the leap 1st month of Bính Ngọ (1306) and recounted by the True Record of the Three Patriarchs as follows:

On the 9th of the leap 1st month of Bính Ngọ, the Most Venerable Trúc Lâm came to the Kỳ Lân Hall to open the preaching. Pointing at the Dharma-seat, he said, “This is the cane bed, the precious Seat of Golden Lion; yet, it is impossible to determine the words of the Buddhas and the Patriarchs in such a narrow seat.” Then, burning incense, he uttered his prayer:

“This incense, which can produce sweet-scented smoke and pleasant atmosphere, is composed of the five attributes of the Dharma-kāya and offered marvelously to the ten directions. May the heat arising from the incensory grant fortune to the ten directions, consecrate the nine temples, prolong the King’s life and consolidate the heavenly throne!

“This incense, which is pure at the root and born from a precious seed, is grown up not by tending but by understanding. May the heat arising from the incensory bring about favorable weather, make the country at peace and the people at ease, the Buddha-sun increasingly bright and the wheel of dharma constant in motion!

“This incense, which does not become cooked when toasted nor fire when burned nor open when knocked nor move when pulled, can split the brain into two if smelled and exhaust the pupil if looked at. May the heat from the incensory be dedicated to the Superior Man Vô Nhị and the Great Man Tuệ Trung, whose ‘dharma-rains’ have permeated through subsequent generations!

Thereafter, the Emperor-Father walked to the seat. When he was seated, the head monk struck the board, inviting him to preach. He said, “Venerables, if our presentation is centered on the transcendental truth, we would go wrong when forming a certain idea and false when opening our mouths. In such a case, how should we grasp the truth? How should we master meditation? Is it then possible to base our presentation on the conventional truth?”

Then taking a glance from right to left, he said, “Is it true that no one in the very place has a sufficiently big eye? If he does, not even a hair of his eyebrows is lost. If not, I, a poor monk, find it hard to avoid from moving my mouth and uttering wasteful nonsense. Today, in virtue of you, let me draw out some mixed and blended part. Listen! Listen!

“Look, the Great Way is devoid of anything, neither tying nor binding. The original nature is transparent, neither good nor evil. Due to picking and choosing, numerous ways emerge; owing to a shadow of delusion, everything becomes greatly set apart. Saints and fools are of the same path; no distinction can be found between right and wrong. Remember that faults and merits originally do not exist, that cause and effect are devoid of essence. From the very beginning, nothing is lacking within everybody, all is inherent in everybody. Just like form and shadow, Buddha-nature and Dharma-nature occasionally appear and disappear, neither being attached to nor detached from each other. Obviously, just on the face the nostrils turn down and the eyebrows cross above the eyes; yet it is not easy for you to get an insight into it.

“Thus, seek for the Way that can by no means be sought. Concentrated in only one ‘inch of intestines’[45] are the three thousand Dharma-gates. And from just the source of mind are numerous marvelous functions. What is called the threefold gate of precept, meditation and wisdom is not lacking within yourselves.

“Dharma is nature; Buddha is mind. Not any nature is no Dharma. Not any mind is no Buddha. Mind is Buddha, mind is Dharma; Dharma is essentially no Dharma. Dharma is mind, mind is essentially no mind; mind is Buddha.

“Venerables, time passes so fast, human life is not stable. Eating gruel and eating vegetables, why do you understand nothing about the bowls, the spoons, the chopsticks?”

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

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