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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


Indeed, after so dating the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints devotes more than six pages to Nhân Tông’s discourses at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple:
In the beginning of his discourse at the hall, the Emperor-Father mounted the platform, burning incense to show gratitude [to the Buddhas and the Patriarchs]. Thereafter, the head monk struck a board to invite him to the seat. The Emperor-Father said, “On behalf of a great deed Buddha Śākyamuni appeared in the world. For forty-nine years he moved his lips but not a word was ever spoken. As to me, present here in this seat in front of you all, what may I say?” He sat down for a moment on the dhyāna-bed, then saying,

The cuckoos are singing away in the bright moonlight;
Let not the spring pass so idly.

With a slap given [on the bed], he said, “Nothing at all; go out! go out!”
Of the discourse above only a passage is cited here to show partly how its procedure and content started and proceeded. We may be sure that in each of the beginning of the discourse, which is termed “opening the hall”[40] in the original text, there must have been an announcement for all the students to attend. When they were all present, the Dharma-master mounted the platform, burned incense for showing gratitude to the Buddhas and Patriarchs, and went to the seat. There, the organizer and conductor of the assembly, who is called the “head monk”[41] in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, struck a board as the signal for beginning the discourse and invited the master to start preaching.

In accordance with Dhyāna tradition, the Emperor Nhân Tông’s opening words at the discourse by the end of winter in Giáp Thìn (1304) were to remind the audience of the fact that the World-Honored One spoke nothing in his forty-nine years’ preaching on earth. Then, he concluded that even an Enlightened One could not say anything about the ultimate truth, much less anyone like him. It was after those opening words that he could sit down on the dhyāna-bed and began his discourse with an exhortation that everyone should not let time pass at leisure, just like what the World-Honored One had exhorted his immediate disciples before his parinirvāṇa: “Vayadhammā samkhārā appamādena sampādethāti” (All composed things are impermanent; strive on with diligence.) Thereafter, his preaching turned into a Dhyāna dialogue of master-and-student. It may be said that such dialogues have represented a particular feature of the preaching of Buddhist teachings in Vietnam in the old days. A student raised the questions to which the master would accordingly give his answers. It may be said that this was the first discourse recorded in full in the history of Buddhism in Vietnam that could provide us with an example of the activity of preaching Buddhism in our country in the thirteenth century, if not earlier. An intensive study of it may help us acquire some rather proper knowledge of the activity just mentioned. There were at least three students who had posed their questions in the discourse just cited. And the following is the dialogue between the first student and the Emperor Nhân Tông:

The monk asked, “What is Buddha?”
The master said, “Understanding as before is not possible.”
The monk asked, “What is Dharma?”
The master said, “Understanding as before is not possible.”
The monk asked, “What does it mean after all?”
The master said,
The ‘eight words’[42] have all been openly spoken;
Nothing left for me to demonstrate to you.
The monk asked, “What is Saṃgha?”
The master said, “Understanding as before is not possible.”
The monk asked, “What does it mean after all?”
The master said,
The ‘eight words’ have all been openly spoken;
Nothing left for me to demonstrate to you.
The monk asked: “What is the task that helps go upwards?”
The master said: “Keeping the stick up to tease the sun and the moon.”
The monk asked: “What is the use of setting forth an old ‘công án’[43] ?”
The master said: “Once repeated, once renewed.”
The monk asked: “What is the meaning of ‘the special transmission outside the teaching’?”
The master said: “The frog fails to leap out of the peck.”
The monk asked: “What about leaping out but then submerging?”
The master said: “That depends on the length of its jumping in mud or sand.”
The monk asked: “What about failing to leap out?”
The master said: “What does that blind man see?”
The monk said: “What are you playing tricks for, master?”

The master uttered a sigh. The monk stood thinking. The master hit him. He was about to pose another question when the master shouted. So did the monk.

“What then do you mean when shouting at me again and again?” asked the master.

The monk thought over it. The master shouted again, “Where is the cunning fox that has just come?”

The monk bowed and went out.

A full translation of the dialogue is produced here to present partly the style and content of Nhân Tông’s discourse at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple by the end of winter in Giáp Thìn (1304). Its theme explicitly deals with the three precious ones, i.e., Buddha, dharma, saṃgha, the way of enlightenment, and the ‘transmission outside the orthodox teaching’. And just in the style of Dhyāna teaching, the answers appear by no means to correspond with the student’s questions, which are to be grasped by the people involved only. That is because the language of Dhyāna has its own characteristics, requiring that the listener has to possess some level of knowledge, some resolution of penetrating into the matter in question in a certain way. Though making use of the same words as the everyday language, its structure is quite different from the latter.

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

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