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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


From what is narrated in the inscription above, we may be aware of the following noteworthy points. First, in the 5th month of Hưng Long the Fifteenth (1307) Pháp Loa was called to the Ngọa Vân Temple on Mount Kỳ Đặc to receive the robe and begging bowl as well as a gātha. The gātha is lost today so we cannot know what it conveys. However, seven months later, that is, on the first day of the New Year Mậu Thân, Hưng Long the Sixteenth (1308), Nhân Tông had his transmission of robe-and-bowl formalized in the Cam Lộ Hall of the Siêu Loại Temple in present-day Bắc Ninh Province in the presence of the Emperor Anh Tông and the Highest Minister Trần Quốc Trấn. Secondly, after the ceremony of transmission and the discourse of Pháp Loa, Nhân Tông handed down to him twenty cases of Buddhist texts in addition to one hundred cases of non-Buddhist books and exhorted him to “encourage the study of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature.”

Based upon the act of handing down “non-Buddhist books” alone, it may be unequivocally stated that this represents an ideal Buddhist personality that Nhân Tông implies in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way”:

Keeping mind-precepts pure, making form-precepts perfect,
That is an Adorning Bodhisattva, internally and externally.
Righteously serving one’s lord, respectfully obeying one’s father,
That is a Great Man of loyalty and filial piety.

In this connection it is evident that the personality of a Bodhisattva and that of a Great Man must be combined with each other to produce a Buddhist personality according to the tradition of the Trúc Lâm school. Thus, to study Buddhism does not exclude non-Buddhist knowledge of all kinds; and non-Buddhist subjects in turn embrace the studies of Buddhism. Naturally, such a concept of education has existed in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism since the old days, in the time of Mâu Tử (160-220?) and Khương Tăng Hội (?-280) at least. And even after the Emperor Nhân Tông’s time, it was continuously and mightily maintained by such outstanding figures as Master Hương Chân Pháp Tính (1470-1550?), Master Minh Châu Hương Hải (1628-1715) and, particularly, Master Hải Lượng Ngô Thời Nhiệm (1746-1803), and so forth. The ideal Buddhist in the view of the Trúc Lâm school is thus quite different from that of the Ch’an school of China.

Generally considered, before being handed down the robe and begging bowl, Pháp Loa went through an interview, which is apparently likened to that of any Ch’an monks in Chinese monasteries, as recorded in the inscription on his memorial tablet and cited later in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs:

One day, when the Master returned from the place of Tín Giác for an interview, Điều Ngự, who then was preaching [on Dhyāna], set forth the stanza “Thái Dương Ô Kê”.[3] [Upon hearing it,] the Master seemed to be partly awakened. Being aware of this, Điều Ngự told him to stay with him. One night, having presented to Điều Ngự a stanza of his own, which was then crossed out on the spot with only a stroke by Điều Ngự, the Master entreated his instructions four times. After being told that he had to undertake [the quest for the truth] by himself, he retired to his room, extremely puzzled. At midnight, seeing by chance the dropping wick after burning, he got instantaneously awakened. Afterwards, he presented the view of what he was awakened at to Điều Ngự and the latter showed greatly pleased. Since then, the Master vowed to cultivate the Twelve Ascetic Practices.

The process of seeking after enlightenment carried out by the Trúc Lâm school thus appears in some aspects to be equivalent to that of a Ch’an monk in China and even of a Dhyāna monk in Vietnam prior to Nhân Tông’s time. Furthermore, from his discourses at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple in Hưng Long the Seventh (1299) cited in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, and in the Kỳ Lân Hall of the same temple written down in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, it may be assumed that some features of the manner of preaching on Dhyāna in Nhân Tông’s time are seemingly identical with those in the monasteries of China and of Vietnam in the earlier times, which has been generally discussed above in the Cheng-te chuan-teng-lu (Record of the Transmission of the Lamp in the Cheng-te Period) or in the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh (Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden).

However, from the ceremony of transmission held on the 1st of the 1st month of Mậu Thân (1308), we discover quite a different manner of transmitting Buddhism. The fact that Nhân Tông handed down to Pháp Loa a hundred cases of non-Buddhist works as well as twenty cases of Buddhist texts copied in blood, accompanied with his exhortation for the latter “to encourage the study of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature” does not only reflect the educational standpoint of the Emperor and Buddhism in Vietnam. It further demonstrates the view that “the Buddha’s teachings should be handed down to the world by means of Confucianist intellectuals,” which was maintained by the Emperor Trần Thái Tông in a preface to his Thiền Tông Chỉ Nam (A Manual of Dhyāna Teaching). And this view was undoubtedly set forth by the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông when he gave orders for the foundation of both the Thảo Đường Dhyāna school and the first university of Đại Việt, which was represented through the building of Văn Miếu (the Temple of [Confucianist] Literature) in 1070 and then of Quốc Tử Giám (the Imperial Academy of Learning).

Such a type of ideal Buddhists must have possessed a good all-round education in which no knowledge would be viewed as absolutely foreign to Buddhist teachings. Indeed, it is quite absurd to claim that to study Confucian doctrine is to refute Buddhism or even to place oneself in opposition to Buddhism as has been groundlessly assumed hitherto. Confucianism has never had a predominant position in the Vietnamese history, much less an exclusively top position. It may be said that each Confucianist intellectual was a Buddhist aspirant even though strict criticisms, which mostly originated from those who had gone through Confucianist examinations, were at times made as to a certain form of Buddhism for several different reasons. And this incident has its own reason; that is to say, Confucianism has existed in Vietnam within the pattern of Buddhism.

When the Emperor Thái Tông stated that “the Buddha’s teaching should be handed down to the world by means of Confucianist intellectuals,” his statement, which did not proceed by chance from a certain monk or intellectual but from an emperor, a national leader, would undoubtedly be taken as the guiding principle of the cultural and educational policy of his government. Consequently, the imperial court’s policy on Confucianism in the Trần dynasty would be to make use of Confucianism as a device for the sake of Buddhism. It is only with such a precise and comprehensive vision that one can recognize that the period under the Early Lê dynasty can by no means be regarded as of “the exclusive predominance of Confucianism.” Why were there the đình examinations held with such a number of questions related to Buddhism, especially to the doctrine of Trúc Lâm school, as those of the 1502 examination in which the highest graduate was Lê Ích Mộc (1459-?)? Fortunately, it is thanks to the preservation of examination topics in question that we can today know something of education and examination under the Early Lê dynasty and thus reject some false ideas of the so-called “exclusive predominance of Confucianism”.

The educational tradition of Vietnam has since then been that of general education. That is to say, studying Confucianism is to serve the benefits outside Confucianism, or rather, those of the people and Buddhism. This is the point usually neglected in some writings on the history of education and examination of Vietnam so far. Maybe their authors have forgotten that the establishment of the Temple of Literature in 1069-1070 was actually carried out by order of a Buddhist Emperor who was simultaneously the founder of the Thảo Đường Dhyāna school, too. This fact alone is able to show how the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông dealt with Confucianism in his time. Accordingly, despite that not any document has been preserved as to the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông’s policy just mentioned, we are certainly convinced that in so doing he must have initiated what was later proclaimed by the Emperor Trần Thái Tông that “the Buddha’s teaching should be handed down to the world by means of Confucianist intellectuals.”

In this connection it is not surprising at all when the inscription cited above reads that "Nhân Tông handed down a large number of books, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, to Pháp Loa and exhorted him to encourage the study of both traditions." This, however, does not mean that the former would be somehow inclined to the growth of the Trúc Lâm school alone. As has been said before, he did insist that “mind-precepts” and “form-precepts” were of an “Adorning Bodhisattva”. “Mind-precepts” or “nature-precepts” is a short form of the phrase “the precepts of Bodhi-mind,” or rather, “the precepts of Bodhisattva,” which are of a characteristic type applied to both monastic and lay Buddhist practitioners.

The stress on mind-precepts, therefore, represents the Emperor’s view of non-differentiation between monastic and lay practice. Indeed, had he maintained that to live a monastic life would be to renounce the world, he might not have handed down to Pháp Loa so many books of non-Buddhist history and literature. For, what is the use of handing down books of secular history and literature if one is never concerned with worldly life where everyone is always making their greatest efforts to seek some position under the sun? And it then would be too strange for us to understand why Pháp Loa, as being a monk, did receive them. Yet it should be kept in mind that by the time Pháp Loa received the robe and begging bowl to succeed the Trúc Lâm lineage, he was still very young, just at the age of 24.

In his young age Pháp Loa may have received a rather basic education but not acquired all the sciences of his time. Though there was then no such an “outbreak” of information as in our modern age, various branches of learning were certainly well developed and hence a rather rich amount of knowledge. As a result of the popular technique of printing in woodblocks in China and in our country several years earlier, for instance, a series of publications was publicly produced. For that reason it is quite natural for us to think that Nhân Tông’s decision to transmit what has been mentioned above to Pháp Loa would be aimed at demonstrating his own ambition; that is to say, he expected Pháp Loa to have enough Buddhist and non-Buddhist knowledge to fulfill his mission as an ideal Buddhist, but not as a narrow-minded successor who would occupy himself only with nothing but samādhi, preaching on sūtras or some other monastic affairs.

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

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