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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


Subsequent to Kim Sơn's time, the Trúc Lâm school could certainly go on to develop well. For, even at Mount Côn where Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang had the Tư Phúc Temple built, there were some poet-monks who often visited Trần Nguyên Đán for the purpose of enriching their wording, as is mentioned in a poem of his:

As a state official I have worked for ten years.
Reading poems while walking with a stick under the pines,
I see no visitor coming in the dust raised by horses;
Only poet-monks often knock the door for words.
As I can no longer take care of the people,
May it be time for me to retire home soon?
If waiting for the accomplishment of my career,
This old body then would rest under a burial-mound.

In addition, Phạm Nhân Khanh, who is recorded in the Recorded Sayings of as the Lamps of the Saints to have brought the Emperor Minh Tông’s letter to Huyền Quang some time before 1334, spoke of the National Master Lãm Sơn in a poem composed after he saw the master off the capital:

After some days' absence from the mountain, he hurried back.
For he felt more peaceful in his lonely life there.
In the pine-house the tea smelled so sweet when prepared;
In the crane-stream the cups were cleaned with so much water.
The virtues of Dhyāna spread by him prevailed for thousands of years;
The values of poetry displayed by him overwhelmed everything else.
Retiring to the secluded peak covered in clouds,
He quietly gave dharma-rains to purify the world.

The most interesting event is that as the Cham Army under the command of Chế Bồng Nga attacked the capital Thăng Long for many times, an army composed of Buddhist monks was organized and commanded by Dhyāna Master Đại Than, whose secular name and dharma-title are unknown. In the Complete History of Đại Việt, it is said that “in the 3rd month (of Tân Dậu, Xương Phù the Fifth, 1381) the National Master Đại Than was ordered to collect strong monks across the country, even those who were living in the mountains and had no monkish certificates, so as to serve for a time in the fighting expedition to Champa.” On this occasion Phạm Nhân Khanh wrote a poem to praise Master Đại Than and his Monastic Army:

Dhyāna General Đại Than was like a tiger in the Dhyāna forest.
His strength could conquer tens of thousands of soldiers.
Holding the sacred flag uprightly, he smoothed out the enemy’s rampart.
Driving the sword of wisdom lightly, he destroyed the brutal troops.
With the wind was his mantra recited for protection of the army.
In the air was his mandala drawn for destruction of the enemy.
Immediately submitted to the kings were his quick achievements,
Which truly constituted a picture of Lăng Yên by the National Teacher.

It may be said that this is the first and only time in the history of our country Buddhist monks have served as soldiers in the battle-fields. No doubt, this may be considered to be some echo or shadow of the voice or image of the renowned lay masters in the battle-fields of the 1285 and 1288 wars, such as Tuệ Trung, who, together with his brother Trần Hưng Đạo, commanded an army to liberate the capital Thăng Long in the spring of 1285. Thus, the fact that the number of monks in 1381 was large enough to be organized into an army under the command of Master Đại Than points out that the Trúc Lâm school was truly in its flourishing state by the end of the fourteenth century.

In reality, besides Master Đại Than’s monastic army, an uprising which occurred in Quốc Oai was, too, led by a Dhyāna master, namely, Phạm Sư Ôn, as recorded in the Complete History of Đại Việt. This master must have been of the Trúc Lâm school since, according to the Chart of Dhyāna Lineage, the Dhyāna schools of Vietnam, with the exception of the Trúc Lâm, declined early in the fourteenth century. By the end of this century, as a result of many ceremonies of transmitting monastic precepts held by Pháp Loa the Buddhist clergy, which numbered approximately fifteen thousand by 1329, could supply all the temples throughout the country with monks and nuns. Accordingly, it is rather easy to determine Phạm Sư Ôn's membership in the Trúc Lâm school. Yet, he has not been properly recognized so far, let alone the fact that some have blamed him for leading an uprising against the court. In effect, Pham Sư Ôn’s action was simply a positive manifestation of Trúc Lâm Dhyāna Buddhism on the principle of “righteously serving one’s lord, respectfully obeying one’s father.” Just as Đại Than undertook the organization and command of the Monks’ Army for the purpose of saving the country, so Pham Sư Ôn took the leadership of the uprising for the sake of the suffering people. This is a characteristic of Buddhism in Vietnam. It has never been bound up absolutely with any dynasty even though that dynasty might be by all means supported or led by Buddhism. Instead, it is linked only with the welfare of the nation and the masses. In the 1360’s the Trần dynasty’s court led by Dụ Tông got so badly corruptive that they did not only fail to take care of the people’s living but also showed indifferent to their sufferings. In face of that perilous situation of the country, a part of Vietnamese Buddhists did not demonstrate their attitudes in such a negative manner as of Chu Văn An, who did nothing but retiring home after his suggestions for reforming the court had been refuted by the Emperor at the time. Instead, they made a positive decision of taking weapons and siding with the masses in their struggle for vital reforms within the court and urgent improvements of the masses’ living condition. It must be said that this is a typical attitude of Vietnamese Buddhists that the spirit of the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” has helped to produce.

No doubt, a question may be raised by some as to whether such an attitude would truly reflect the essentials of the Buddhist teaching. And, from their own subjective reflections some then will make a reply on the spot that there is nothing to do with Buddhism in such an action, just as what was formerly stated recklessly by a Vietnamese writer: “The sole fact that [Buddhist] monks participated in politics or wrote verses is, in my opinion, neither in accord with the essential teaching of Śākya[muni], nor with such a doctrine of absolute nihilism.”[7] From such a statement, we cannot know upon what sūtra its author’s opinion has been based or whether it is merely a deluded reflection of his own ideas as to Buddhist monks that has been transformed into groundless, nonsense statements. For the past hundred years a number of critical studies on Buddhism have been made by prominent scholars in the world where many problems have been put forward, among which is the most important question as to what the Buddha taught. Many circles of scholars on Buddhism have been founded to find out an answer to that question, the most prominent of which are those of England and Germany, France and Belgium, and Russia. In spite of this, there still remain some who claim that they could grasp “the essential teaching of the Śākya[muni]” so as to utter vague and groundless statements concerning Buddhism as mentioned above. Consequently, it is not easy at all to speak of the Buddhist teaching as many people have thought. Since the old days the study on the Buddhist teaching has ever been formulated that “if based on sūtras literally, any interpretation of the Three-Period Buddhas’ teaching will be misleading; on the other hand, if not based upon even a single word of them, that will be identical with false doctrines.”

Whatever it may be, there have been few cases in which the Buddhist clergy had to be engaged in military actions with regard to imperial courts in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. If any, it was due to certain extremely urgent situations where they could not do anything else for the welfare of the people. Indeed, in the history of Vietnam Buddhism has played a much more extensive role, that is, fulfilling its cultural mission of assisting the masses to develop their good customs and abandon their bad ones so as to gain better and better living, both spiritual and material. It is with such a role that Buddhism has been able to make a strong impression on the Vietnamese people throughout their history. Even by the end of the fourteenth century that role of Buddhism went on to manifest itself distinctively. This may be proved through some of Buddhist devotees’ achievements.

First, Nguyễn Trãi, a national hero of the Vietnamese people, ever received his own education from a Dhyāna master for more than ten years, that is, Master Đạo Khiêm. In a poem whose inspiration was drawn from his reunion with the master the former said,

I remember being under your instruction for more than ten years;
Now this is the chance for us to spend overnight together.
Pleased that we are able to put aside secular affairs
So as to seek again the atmosphere of our former talks on the rock.
Tomorrow morning you will have to return to Linh Phố;
I know not when we can hear again the stream on Mount Côn.
Be not amazed at my “crazy” words when I am so old.
At your departure, I am still in the course of Supreme Dhyāna.

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

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