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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 it, it is obvious that Nguyễn Trãi lived together with Master Đạo Khiêm at the Tư Phúc Temple on the Côn mountain and, under the latter’s instruction, he studied many different subjects including Dhyāna Buddhism of the most transcendent type, that is, Supreme Dhyāna doctrine. The poem was written when Nguyễn Trãi was already in his old age. At that time the independence of the country was restored and Lê Lợi ascended the throne, but Nguyễn Trãi could not yet leave the court for his retirement on Mount Côn between 1435-1442.

Nguyễn Trãi was born in 1380. And he was already in his old age when he saw his master again around 1345. Thereupon, it may be assumed that the Dhyāna Master may have been born fifteen years at least earlier than Nguyễn Trãi so as to be old enough to instruct Nguyễn Trãi for more than ten years when the latter was living at his maternal grandfather Trần Nguyên Đán’s on Mount Côn, that is, between 1386 and 1400. For prior to the year 1400 Nguyễn Trãi had attended and passed the first examination in the reign of Hồ. In other words, Đạo Khiêm must have been born around 1370 and could have continued to settle on Mount Côn after the tragic law case in 1442. His date, therefore, may fall between 1370-1445.

In the time of Đạo Khiêm, there was another Dhyāna master named Viên Thái, who translated the Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Bản Hạnh written in Chinese by Master Kim Sơn into the Nôm language. Though the date of this master has not been determined so far, from his way of word-for-word translation as well as his wording we may postulate that he could not live later than the year 1550. Moreover, since the Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Bản Hạnh was, too, paraphrased in verse by Pháp Tính, it has been assumed that as being translated in prose Viên Thái’s translation certainly had to appear earlier than the translation in verse supposedly made by Pháp Tính, who lived between 1470-1550. Otherwise stated, Master Viên Thái must have lived before that date.[8]

In addition, there is an extant Nôm translation of the text Phật Thuyết Đại Báo Phụ Mẫu Ân Trọng, which may be dated around the first half of the fifteenth century in terms of an analysis of its following internal evidences. The first is about its avoiding the use of a character after which the Emperor Lê Thái Tổ was named owing to contemporary regulations concerning the names of the Emperor and other members of his family. This indicates that the translation could be put into circulation until this regulation was no longer in effect in 1469. So the translation and printing of its original had to be carried out between 1428-1469. The second is that the Nôm translation of the latter text is also worked on in the method of word-for-word translation, and its style and wording are somewhat similar to those of the translation of the former text. In this connection, it may be assumed that these two translations could originate from one and the same translator, that is, Viên Thái. Thereupon, the date of this master must fall between 1400-1460.

Subsequent to Viên Thái is Master Hương Chân Pháp Tính (1470-1550?). He is the compiler of the most ancient Chinese-Nôm dictionary known today as the Chỉ Nam Học Âm Giải Nghĩa. Besides, he may possibly have paraphrased the Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Bản Hạnh Ngữ Lục in a specific Vietnamese style of verse known as lục bát. Like most of Dhyāna masters of the Trúc Lâm school, before leading a monastic life Pháp Tính ever passed the national examination and thus worked as an imperial official as in his own words:

In my prime youth I have passed the examination;
Now that I have been old, I decide to follow the Buddha’s path.

Just like his First Patriarch Nhân Tông, Pháp Tính, even though he already lived a monastic life, did not abandon any of his services to the people. In face of the masses’ difficulties in using the complex structure of the Nôm script at the time, he attempted to invent a much more simple way of transcribing the national speech, which would be easier for the public to read and write. Further, he strongly rejected the opinion that the Nôm script was nothing other than a vulgar language, not able to convey the sages’ saying. In the words of Pháp Tính:

The spoken Nôm language may be allegedly considered vulgar;
Yet, as a written language, it can convey the sages’ sayings.
Now I have its script divided into major and secondary characters
And widely popularized so that illiterate people can master it.
Formerly so many compound characters were created
That people of little education found it hard to read them.
Today simplified characters should be introduced
So that the people can read and understand them easily.

As a consequence, a great movement of applying the Nôm script to composing and recording in various fields of study grew up and flourished well due to Pháp Tính’s achievement in the field of linguistics. A great number of Vietnamese authors began to employ the Nôm language in place of the Chinese language in their works, such as Thọ Tiên Diễn Khánh (1550-1620?) in his Nam Hải Quan Âm Phật Sự Tích Ca, Minh Châu Hương Hải in his more than twenty works of which the four complete ones have been preserved, Chân Nguyên, Như Trừng, Như Thị, Tính Quảng, Hải Lượng, Hải Âu, Hải Hòa, Hải Huyền, An Thiền, and so on. Most particularly, Chân An Tuệ Tĩnh (?-1711) did not only maintain “the usage of traditional medicine for the Vietnamese,” which had been studied and applied by himself, but also announced his scientific work in the Nôm language. These authors professed themselves to be members of the Trúc Lâm school in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and actually made great contributions not only to Vietnamese Buddhism but also to the Vietnamese people in the common cause of building the country.

Thus, after Huyền Quang’s death in 1334, the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna school, which was continuously succeeded by the outstanding figures who contributed a great deal to the country in many different fields, should not and cannot be considered "to have flourished for a short time" as falsely assumed by many people hitherto. Of course, such a mistake has taken its root deep in the past when Tính Quảng and Ngô Thời Nhiệm accomplished their compilation under the title True Record of the Three Patriarchs in 1765, and particularly when Ngô Thời Nhiệm introduced his writing Tam Tổ Hành Trạng (Activities of the Three Patriarchs), which was included in an edition of his Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine. Nevertheless, in the middle of the nineteenth century An Thiền, in his Đại Nam Thiền Uyển Kế Đăng Lược Lục printed around the year 1858, recorded a list of twenty-three Dhyāna masters who consecutively undertook the patriarchal office of the Trúc Lâm Monastery on Mount Yên tử:

1.      Patriarch Hiện Quang
2.      National Teacher Viên Chứng
3.      National Teacher Đại Đăng
4.      Patriarch Tiêu Dao
5.      Patriarch Huệ Tuệ
6.      Patriarch Nhân Tông
7.      Patriarch Pháp Loa
8.      Patriarch Huyền Quang
9.      National Teacher An Tâm
10.  National Teacher Phù Vân (with the title Tĩnh Lự)
11.  National Teacher Vô Trước
12.  National Teacher Quốc Nhất
13.  Patriarch Viên Minh
14.  Patriarch Đạo Huệ
15.  Patriarch Viên Ngộ
16.  National Teacher Tổng Trì
17.  National Teacher Khuê Thám
18.  National Teacher Sơn Đằng
19.  Great Master Hương Sơn
20.  Great Master Trí Dung
21.  Patriarch Tuệ Quang
22.  Patriarch Chân Trú
23.  Great Master Vô Phiền.

Later, some have adopted the list and named it “Yên tử tradition”[9] but not studied whether it has any historical value. Thereafter, some have cited it and claimed that “its authenticity is doubtful” and “the chronological order of the generations therein appears unreliable.”[10] In spite of this they all admit that the generations prior to Nhân Tông are available for reference. For, in the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden Master Huyền Quang (?-1221) is recorded to have ever settled on Mount Yên tử. And in the preface to A Manual of Dhyāna Teaching, the Emperor Trần Thái Tông said that, on his arrival at Mount Yên Tử in 1236, he had met “the National Teacher, a Great Śramaṇa of Trúc Lâm,” who is named National Teacher Phù Vân in the Complete History of Đại Việt. Besides, the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, the Thiền Tông Bản Hạnh and the Đại Nam Thiền Uyển Kế Đăng Lục, all record that the Emepror Trần Thái Tông met National Teacher Viên Chứng. Furthermore, since the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden mentions a disciple of Dhyāna Master Hiện Quang known as Đạo Viên, the latter is generally identified with Viên Chứng.

Suppose the names Viên Chứng and Đạo Viên would both refer to National Teacher Phù Vân, we may be assured that Viên Chứng lived until around the year 1278. For, according to the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, when Trần Thái Tông was about to die, his son, the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông, “gave the order for the two National Masters Phù Vân and Đại Đăng to expound the transcendental teaching” to him but he did not allow. For that reason, if Đại Đăng did succeed Phù Vân to be the abbot of the Yên tử Monastery, the fact would be dated from the year 1278 on, if not much later.

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

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