by Prof. Lê Mạnh Thát


According to various historical materials of Vietnam, the Emperor Nhân Tông is recognized to be the founder of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna School, which flourished for a long time in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. In spite of this, it has been generally assumed, at least since the latter half of the eighteenth century when Tính Quảng and Hải Lượng could collect enough materials for their compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, that this school could survive only three generations and, more particularly, that subsequent to the first three patriarchs of these generations no one could be regarded as their outstanding dharma-successor. As a consequence, it has again and again been claimed by some historical researchers in Vietnam that a glorious period of Buddhism, which naturally includes the Trúc Lâm school, came to an end altogether at the passing away of the last of these patriarchs. In reality, after the Third Patriarch Huyền Quang’s death in 1334, Buddhism went on to develop well with many prominent figures in this Dhyāna lineage as will be discussed below. Accordingly, the question as to the Emperor Nhân Tông’s relation with the Trúc Lâm school would not need dealing with in the present study. On account of some misunderstandings as just mentioned, however, a rather brief elucidation of it should be presented here.

In one of the preceding chapters we have discussed some problems of Nhân Tông’s thought, particularly of what he has formulated in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way”:

Achieved in the midst of worldly life,

That merit is increasingly admired.

Unfruitful cultivation in the mountains

Is nothing but a vain attempt.

And we have, too, considered it to be the central thought of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna doctrine. In this connection, is it truly satisfactory to maintain that the Trúc Lâm school should be attributed to some Dhyāna masters alone, especially the monastic ones, as has been claimed in most of the studies on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism hitherto? In effect, a history of this school was once compiled without any differentiation of its being either monastic or lay lineage, as what Ngô Thời Nhiệm advanced in an introduction to his Trúc Lâm Tông Chỉ Nguyên Thanh (Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine). Unfortunately, the approach he applied in his works has not been popularly adopted, let alone the fact that it is sometimes regarded as not reflecting properly Buddhist tradition in Vietnam or even as nothing other than some distortion.

In spite of this, Thời Nhiệm’s position in his study on this school should not be considered quite groundless, especially when we have evidently seen that the period in which the Emperor was leading a monastic life was not devoid of various political and military activities. That is to say, as being a Dhyāna master, he was enthusiastically engaged in receiving a Chinese delegation, boosting the relationship between Vietnam and Champa and the extension of the country’s territory in the south, and directly commanding the campaign of putting down the Laotian Army’s havoc in the northwestern borderland. His monastic life, therefore, can by no means be regarded as a secluded renunciation from the world as has been generally viewed and described. On the contrary, it is a life fraught with earthly affairs intimately related to the country as well as the people. Accordingly, it is not quite unreasonable and groundless for any presentation of the “activities of the Three Patriarchs” in the direction Ngô Thời Nhiệm has set forth.

Thus it may be said that this is a precise approach even though it has not been popularly admitted and developed owing to some distorted views on the part of the Buddhist clergy as well as of the circle of historical researchers. They have usually maintained that to become a Buddhist monk is to renounce the world altogether so as to concentrate all efforts, physical and mental, on the practice of Buddhist teachings. If it were the case, how could it occur that Princess Huyền Trân was married to the Cham king and the two districts Ô and Lý were annexed to the map of Đại Việt, and that Nhân Tông could dissuade the Emperor Anh Tông from appointing so many officials and bestowing so many titles in the latter’s court? Indeed, at a glimpse of Nhân Tông’s life as a Dhyāna master, we can see straightly that he never desisted from national affairs or gave up his concern with the activities of imperial court under the leadership of the Emperor Anh Tông.

However, since those days it has been insisted in the Buddhist clergy that after he had been formally ordained a Buddhist monk, Nhân Tông “gave up the throne to enter the monastery where, as a result of his earnest devotion to the Way of Dhyāna, he could eventually penetrate into its essentials,” as is remarked by Diệu Trạm in a preface to the re-edition of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs in Thành Thái the Ninth (1897). This remark has later been cited repeatedly in history books, according to which the Emperor is assumed to have mustered up all his efforts for the Way. Some say, “Shortly after his victory over the enemy, Nhân Tông handed over the throne to Anh Tông to seek a serene life in the practice [of Buddhism] and became the First Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school. He breathed his last at the Ngọa Vân Temple on the quiet Yên Tử mountain when he was just fifty-one years old.” Not only do they think that Nhân Tông could have renounced the world to seek a serene life, but they also say: “He wanted to get rid of daily troubles in society in order to seek after the mysterious principle that controls human life.” [1]

Such immature remarks are evidently neither satisfactory nor in accord with historical facts related to the Emperor’s life as recorded in the Complete History of Đại Việt and the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints. Furthermore, if analyzing his transmitting the patriarchal office to Pháp Loa in terms of what is recorded on the latter’s memorial tablet and later cited in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, we can find a startlingly remarkable incident that has never occurred in the history of Buddhism in both China and Vietnam before. The inscription tells us in the first place:

In the 5th month Điều Ngự[2]  moved to a temple on the peak of Mount Ngọa Vân. On the 15th day, having told all of his students to go out of the hall after the poṣadha service, he transmitted a mind-gātha to the Master [Pháp Loa] and handed down the robe and begging bowl to him, telling him to preserve them carefully. On the 1st of the 1st month of Mậu Thân, Hưng Long the Sixteenth (1308), the Master, following his instruction, undertook the abbot’s office to succeed the dharma-lineage in the Cam Lộ Hall of the Siêu Loại Temple. In order to ‘open the hall’ and perform the ceremony of transmission […], the King had the preceding patriarchs’ name-tablets placed [on the altar], greatly ritual music played, and incense burned. Then, he personally led the Master to the patriarchal altar for prostration. After eating gruel, he ordered ritual music to be played and the dharma-drum to be beaten while all the people began to gather in the dharma-hall. Anh Tông then came to the temple, too. After the positions for visitors and hosts were formally divided, the King Anh Tông, as being a great patron of Buddhism, took the visitor’s place inside the hall while the Highest Minister and other courtiers stood in the yard. Then, Điều Ngự sat down in the dharma-seat to deliver a sermon. After the sermon, he left the seat and helped the Master into it. Keeping his hands folded, palm to palm, Điều Ngự stood in front of the Master and interviewed him. The Master bowed to Điều Ngự, received the dharma-robe and put it on. Điều Ngự stood aside and then sat down on the cane bed to hear the Master preaching. Thereafter, he appointed the Master to be the abbot of the Siêu Loại Temple on Mount Yên Tử, who would thus be [the patriarch] of the second generation of the Trúc Lâm lineage. Besides, in order to encourage the study of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature, he transferred [to the Master] a hundred cases of non-Buddhist books and twenty cases of the Chinese Buddhist Canon.

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.

In other words, the Emperor wished his successor not to be set off the track he had ever tread on enthusiastically and successfully. The years in which he was leading a monastic life were fraught with activities for the benefit of the country as well as Buddhism; and he hoped Pháp Loa would be able to achieve an active way of living as such. Yet, during the remaining twenty-two years of his life, Pháp Loa could devote his life to purely Buddhist activities only. Today, no documentary evidence is found as to his engagement in secular affairs. Is it due to his utterly one-sided activities that more than thirty years after his death the stone tablet in memory of him could be engraved and erected, i.e., in Nhâm Dần, Đại Trí the Fifth (1362)?

According to the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints and the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, the relationship between Pháp Loa and the Emperor Anh Tông is said to have been very friendly. The Complete History of Đại Việt, however, says that in the last days of his life Anh Tông refused to meet Pháp Loa. Concerning the latter’s death in 1330, the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints tells us that when Pháp Loa was sick, the Emperor Anh Tông came and saw him; and when he died, the Emperor conferred a dharma-title on him and wrote a funeral lament in memory of him. In addition, at the Emperor’s request Huyền Quang transcribed the discourses as well as the life story of Pháp Loa for printing, to which the Emperor himself wrote the preface. This proves that Pháp Loa exercised a great influence upon Anh Tông; yet we do not know why his memorial tablet was not made until the latter’s death.

Whatever happened, the Trúc Lâm school founded by the Emperor Nhân Tông eventually had its successor. Since the time when he was officially handed down the robe and begging bowl until his death in 1330, Pháp Loa concentrated all his efforts upon Buddhist affairs: instructing Buddhists, monastic and lay, to “take refuge in the Triple Gem” and “observe precepts,” establishing the Quỳnh Lâm Temple, the Tư Phúc Temple and more than twenty other temples, and particularly conducting the task of copying and printing the Buddhist Canon. He is the author of at least nine works: Tham Thiền Kỷ Yếu, Kim Cương Tràng Đà La Ni Kinh Khoa Chú, Niết Bàn Đại Kinh Khoa Sớ, Pháp Hoa Kinh Khoa Sớ, Lăng Già Tứ Quyển Khoa Sớ, Bát Nhã Tâm Kinh Khoa Sớ, Hưng Vương Hộ Quốc Nghi Quỹ, Pháp Sự Khoa Văn and Độ Môn Trợ Thành Tập. He also occupied himself with preaching the Buddhist teaching, especially the Avatasaka-sūtra, in many different dharma-halls of the country.

It may be said that the last point just mentioned of Pháp Loa's activities is the most striking one with regard to the characteristics of the Trúc Lâm school. For it points out, in the first place, that this school does not maintain the transmission of Buddhism outside sūtras; nor does it consist in making use of kung-an or hua-tou. On the contrary, the study and interpretation of sūtras are centered on so as to be a pivotal factor in the process of practicing Dhyāna Buddhism. In some aspects, this is rather similar to Hui-neng’s Ch’an doctrine, in which sūtra is still emphasized and interpreted in the course of Ch’an Buddhism. However, whereas Hui-neng was interested in the Lotus Sūtra or the Nirvāṇa-sūtra, it is quite different in the case of the Trúc Lâm school where its First Patriarch, the Emperor Nhân Tông, took the Avatasaka-sūtra to be the guiding thought. Let us read the following gātha of the Emperor before his death, the first four lines of which are extracted from the Avatasaka-sūtra:

All dharmas do not arise.

All dharmas do not pass away.

If able to understand as such,

The Buddhas are always present.

What is the use of “going” and “coming”?

Secondly, the content of the Avatasaka deals with the truth-seeking process of each human being, typified by the pilgrimage undertaken by young Sudhana to visit fifty-three worthies, Buddhist and secular. These visits are described to have taken place in various forms, from the most secular one of love between boys and girls to the transcendent state of perfect insight into the mutually unobstructed interpenetration of all things. Thus, it is not by chance that this sūtra became so popular by the time the Trúc Lâm school came into being in Vietnam. In reality, its popularity genuinely made possible the manifestation of the thought in the “Worldly Life with Joy in the Way” and helped develop it into a guiding thought in the activities of Vietnamese Buddhism.

It must be said that the thought of the Avataṃsaka spread rather popularly in the time of Master Thường Chiếu (?-1203), who maintained that Buddhism should not be separated from the world.  In the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden, to answer the question “What is the meaning of ‘Dharma-body is present everywhere’?” posed by a Dhyāna student, Thường Chiếu cited two passages from the Chapter “The Appearance of the Tathāgata” in the Avatasaka (80 volumes) translated into Chinese by Sikṣānanda.[4]  It should be remembered that Thường Chiếu is the master of Thông Thiền (?-1228). And the latter, according to theLược Dẫn Thiền Phái Đồ (Chart of Dhyāna Lineage) in the Recorded Sayings of Thượng Sỹ, is the founder of the Trúc Lâm lineage, which may be presented as follows:

Thông Thiền

Tức Lự

Ứng Thuận

Tiêu Dao

Tuệ Trung

the Emperor Nhân Tông

Pháp Loa

Huyền Quang

It may be said that the thought of the Avatasaka is of a doctrinal system, according to which a thing can exist only through its correlation with others. Otherwise stated, there may never be anything so called 'existence independent of others'. Consequently, it is natural that, under the influence of such a doctrine, Thường Chiếu could do nothing but putting all activities of his life, or rather, of Buddhism into a fixed system on the historical background of his time. It is therefore not surprising at all that Thường Chiếu set forth the view of “not being separated from the world” in his reply to the question of Thần Nghi (?-1216) “Is your way of living the same as others'?”. Just in the Pháp Vân and Kiến Sơ Dhyāna lineages by the end of the Lý dynasty there appeared some lay Dhyāna masters, particularly Thông Thiền of the Kiến Sơ school. As has been cited above, according to the Chart of Dhyāna LineageThông Thiền is considered to have founded the Trúc Lâm lineage of Yên Tử. He himself was a layman. So was Ứng Thuận. And this is obviously the result of strong impact exerted by the Avataṃsaka. Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ also referred to this sūtra in his poems. In the “Thị Chúng,” for example, he dealt with the study and practice of Buddhism following Sudhana’s example in the latter’s encounters with his predecessors:

The world is attached to falsehood, not truth.

Yet either falsehood or truth is of worldly mind.

So as to go to the other side,

Study elaborately Sudhana’s visits to his predecessors.

It is based upon the thought of the Avatasaka that such antithetic categories of mankind’s thought as being and non-being, false and true, right and wrong, and so on, have been once for all solved. What is called being or non-being can exist only in some relation. There is truly neither absolute being nor non-being. In the light of the Avataṃsaka, being and non-being are merely the two sides of the same reality. They do not exclude each other. What is so called “being” may exist only in its relation with what is so called “non-being”, and vice-versa. For that reason, in his preaching at the Sùng Nghiêm Temple in the 12th month of Giáp Thìn (1304) the Emperor Nhân Tông states that, because of one’s ignorance of such a mutual relation between being and non-being, one can see only the finger pointing to the moon but not the moon itself, just as the one who sits under the tree to await a rabbit instead of chasing it or the one who looks for his horse on a map instead of searching its traces on the ground:

Non-being and being,

Neither is absolutely being or non-being,

Just like searching one’s sword by marking on the boat;

Or searching one’s horse on the map.

Being and non-being,

Neither exists apart from each other,

Just like making a hat of snow, shoes of flowers;

Or sitting under a tree to await the rabbit.

Being and non-being,

Today and in the old days alike,

If clinging to the finger so as not to see the moon,

That is to be drowned on the ground.

The Avataṃsaka and the thought therein thus have become not only the new source of thought for Buddhism in the times of Lý and Trần but also a popular theory for the leaders of Đại Việt in their view of their own country and society in relation with others of the time, from which they could reach their culminating point, that is, the birth of the Trúc Lâm school, in building a peaceful and prosperous Đại Việt. Today, it is generally agreed that in the history of our country there has never been any dynasty that maintains the view of “being close to the people” as the Trần dynasty, especially the Emperors Thái Tông, Thánh Tông and Nhân Tông. We can see obviously that this view truly originates from the philosophical system of the Avataṃsaka developed within the age-old tradition of the country. Further, it may be said that never before in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism has the Avataṃsaka been so fully and effectively interpreted as in the time of the Emperor Nhân Tông and later on, that is, since the Trúc Lâm school's appearance on the arena of the nation.

In 1330 Pháp Loa died. In the last moments of his life there was the presence of Huyền Quang, who was then already so old, nearly twice older than Pháp Loa. Therefore, it is obvious that the Trúc Lâm school could not be attributed to these three patriarchs alone in spite that they have been generally known as the only three patriarchs of this school, especially when Tính Quảng and Ngô Thời Nhiệm collected some fragmentary materials to compile a book on the three patriarchs of the Trúc Lâm school under the titleTrue Record of the Three Patriarchs. For, besides Huyền Quang who died in 1334, i.e., only four years later than the Second Patriarch’s death, there were other immediate disciples of the latter such as Cảnh Huy, Cảnh Ngung, Huệ Chúc and, most particularly, Kim Sơn.

Dhyāna Master Kim Sơn was not only considered by the Emperor Anh Tông to be the master who “possessed the ‘bones and marrow’ of Phổ Huệ,” as in the words of the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, but further bestowed by him to beTrúc Lâm Tam Đại Thiền Tổ (The Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of Trúc Lâm School) shortly before his death in 1358. The Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints gives us the following account:

“When he was about to pass away, the King presented a gātha to Kim Sơn, saying: ‘Whatever serious sickness I am suffering, I, your disciple, would like to send [this gātha] to Your Holiness the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of Trúc Lâm School. I have been sick for a week, lying by night and taking medicine by day. I have not eaten a grain of rice but chewed every grain. If being asked what taste it is like, I would reply with ‘no taste’. Let me present my gātha:

Taking medicine for curing illness.

Without illness, no medicine is needed.

Now is rice without grain

That is all chewed by a person without mouth.

In addition, he wrote a letter to invite Kim Sơn to the Động Tiên hall to examine him.”

Accordingly, the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school was Kim Sơn and not Huyền Quang. Of the extant materials, with the exception of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, none describes the latter as The Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation but only as dharma-successor, that is, succeeding the dharma-lineage of Pháp Loa. It should be noticed that the chronicle of Pháp Loa's activities made in the True Record of the Three Patriarchs designates him as Trúc Lâm Đệ Nhị Đại (of the Second Generation of Trúc Lâm School). Consequently, that the Emperor Minh Tông called Master Kim Sơn the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of Trúc Lâm School formally confirmed the latter to be the official successor of the Trúc Lâm school, at least until 1358 when the Emperor died. In this connection, after Huyền Quang’s death in 1334 the Trúc Lâm school went on with its strong development under the auspices of the Trần house.

The presentation of the historical development of the Trúc Lâm school through the three Patriarchs Nhân Tông, Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang may be considered a distinctive creation of Vietnamese Buddhism in the eighteenth century, when Tính Quảng and his pupil Ngô Thời Nhiệm compiled the True Record of the Three Patriarchs based on many different materials. Studying this record, we see that the biography of Nhân Tông is originally cited from the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, except for an annex at the end of the record extracted from the Quốc Sử (National History) concerning the fact that Master Trí Thông burned his arm on Emperor Nhân Tông’s ordination and vowed to serve at the latter’s stūpa in Yên Tử, and that the biography of Pháp Loa is a copy of his own one engraved on the tablet of the Viên Thông stūpa in the year of Đại Trị, Nhâm Dần (1362), which remains today at the Thanh Mai Temple on Mount Tam Bản in what is now Hoàng Hoa Thám Village, Chí Linh District, Hải Dương Province.

As to the biography of Huyền Quang, it is cited from the Tổ Gia Thực Lục (True Record of the Patriarchal House). This record has a rather strange history. When the Ming of China took control of our country in the years 1407-1428, they collected all of our country’s writings and brought them to Chin-lêng, among which is the True Record of the Patriarchal House. This may be proved through a note at the end of the record:

This True Record of the Patriarchal House was brought to China by Shang-shu Huang-fu around the year Hsuan-te (1426-1435). For many years since then, [he] often dreamed a monk who asked him to return the record to its native country. Since his descendants did not yet have the opportunity to do so, they built a temple in their village for venerating it. Whatever prayer they had in front of the altar on which the Record was placed was effectively responded to; so they called the temple The Temple of Annan Dhyāna Master Huyền Quang. Around the year Chia-hsin (1522-1558), Tô Xuyên Hầu went to the Great Ming’s court as a messenger and did not return until nineteen years later. At his departure on returning home, he was seen off by Huang Chêng-tsu, a fourth-generation descendant of Huang-fu, who again dreamed the monk with his request for the returning of the Record. Huang Chêng-tsu then handed the Record to Tô Xuyên Hầu, telling him about the worshiping of it in the Ming country. When Trình Tuyên Hầu welcomed the messenger's return, he brought the Record home. Later, he composed a writing titled Giải Trào Văn about it.

Apart from the note just translated, at the end of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs printed in Thành Thái the Ninth, there is a comment by Ngô Thì Sỹ under the title Huyền Quang Hạnh Giải and noted to be an extract from the Ngô Gia Văn Phái:

As to the same action undertaken by different people if somebody has done it in a different manner, he would be doubted. Among many different words about the same fact, if somebody could confirm his own one, he would be trusted. Further, it is not quite scarce for people in the world to make their statements in an unreasonable and groundless manner. Therefore, if something has been written down, it must be elaborately examined.

Master Huyền Quang lived in the Trần’s time. He cultivated the [Buddha’s] Path at the Hoa Yên Temple on Mount Yên Tử and was granted the title The Third Patriarch of Trúc Lâm School. As far as his practice of śīla and samādhi is concerned, there is no documentary evidence preserved today. It has been rumored, however, by some discursive people that the Master had been the Honors Graduate [in a đình examination] before “taking refuge in Buddhism.” One day, being doubtful of his monastic life [The King] Anh Tông gave the order for a concubine to test his purity. The concubine then could take [from the Master] the amount of pure gold granted [to him] earlier by the King. At this, some verses and stories have been composed to record this incident so that the Master’s genuine practice of the Way can by no means be definitively determined.

Recently, in a writing of the style ‘hạnh’ [as to the Master], Mr. Nguyễn of the Cổ Đô village [5]  has omitted some unnecessary part [of the biography of the Master] and pointed out the fact that the latter did give up wealth altogether and could eventually attain enlightenment. As for some alleged abuse on his violation of precepts, its authenticity has not yet been satisfactorily clarified.

Conventionally considered, female beauty is generally of most interest inside the Citadel. May it then be only because of some uncertainty that one could devote that which one loves most to testing somebody one does not trust? That a woman with her face beautified with pink powder appeared lonely in the long range of green mountains must be unequivocally considered to be something truly unreliable. Suppose [a certain woman had] appeared [with some charming words toward the Master], the Master, who was at the meditation seat in the midst of a serene temple late in the night, would be ready to respond with some instructions of the appearance of Buddha Maitreya in the future. For the chatter of a woman is not what a Master needs to be concerned with. If the Master, as being a monk of pure conduct, had been all of a sudden contaminated on his ears by some human voice, would he not have been able to act as a man of the State of Lu? Would he not have been able to overwhelm it? Further, were there not a place in the vast meditation forest for a woman to stay overnight? If the graceful beauty of flowers early in the spring were not able to move the heart of a man on his first entering [the garden], how could he take pains to walk about in the corridor only to look at it, particularly as he had made so many efforts to purify his mind? Would the Master not have been able to follow Liu Hsia-hue’s good example even though he, whose heart has been so cooled as ash, might have lost his precaution due to some unmindfulness one morning? Naturally, the Master was not interested in gold; ... Even though compassion is the very virtue of a monk, would he have been willing to give up his honor to some groundless abuse?

Consequently, it might happen that, being charmed in the first place by some graceful voice the Master allowed her to stay. Then, in face of such a beauty he had some talk with her so that he, because of being joyful at her cunning words, finally decided to entrust all the gold to her. Only with such matters it would be hard for him to prove his untainted mind. As a consequence, the more we try to protect the Master, the more he would be misunderstood.

Nowadays, I am living in a time some hundreds of years later than his. Yet, when thinking of unraveling some suspicions caused by false rumors of the world, why is it not possible for me to come to an openly fair judgment as to the Master in terms of his very biography and verses? According to his biography, he was a native of the Vạn Tải village in Vũ Ninh of Bắc Giang Water Route. His home was on the southeast of the Ngọc Hoàng Temple. His first ancestor Lý Ôn Hoàng was an official in the reign of Lý Thần Tông. The descendant of the sixth generation named Quang Dụ worked as a chuyển vận sứ under the Trần dynasty. Quang Dụ had four sons, the youngest of whom was called Tuệ Tổ. The Master was the latter’s grandson. His mother gave birth to him after bearing him nearly twelve months. As a young baby, he appeared to be strangely intelligent and thus named Tải Đạo.[6]  At the age of nine, he was already versed in literature. When he was twenty-one years old, he passed the Đại Y examination. He had many achievements in receiving foreign messengers. He used to accompany the King to the Vĩnh Nghiêm Temple in Phượng Nhãn District, where upon hearing Pháp Loa’s discourse one day, he attained enlightenment. Thereafter, he submitted a memorial to the King, asking to be ordained a Buddhist monk. He was granted the monastic title Huyền Quang and appointed to be the abbot of the Hoa Yên Temple on Mount Yên Tử, where he instructed more than a thousand disciples. The Textbook with the annotation by him was commented by Emperor Nhân Tông that “if the book has been supervised by Huyền Quang, not a word may be added to or omitted from it.” In such high esteem was he held by contemporaries.

His verses consist of the Ngọc Tiên, the Trích Diễm, the Việt Âm, in which there are the sentences like “nhất lãnh thuế y [kinh tuế hàn]” ([surviving the cold of winter] only with a light fur coat), “bán gian thạch thất” (half of the stone chamber), “đức bạc thường tàm kế tổ đăng” (shame at such little merit as to transmit the Patriarch's lamp), “dĩ thị thành thiền tâm nhất phiến; cung thanh tức tức vị thùy đa” (in meditation my mind has become one-pointed; for whom are the crickets making such laments?), and so on. The characteristics of mountain, forest, mist, evening sunshine are manifest in his wording, through which it may be assumed that he is a very plain and simple man. How would words of nonsense as falsely rumored by the world be able to proceed form such a man?

If it were asked by some that “the Master should give up that pure way of living, should he not?,” let me answer with “should not”. As to a monk of such highly pure conducts, it is hard to coin that he could not have led a righteous life or he could not help thinking about such as marriage. As his life has been so obviously known, the matter that a “tray of garlic” might be turned into a “tray of vegetarian food” becomes nonsense at once. If calmly and frankly considered, it may be said that “though the Trần king gave orders for testing the Master many times, the latter did not break his pure precepts. How could he, as being the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm Dhyāna school, exchange his honor for an act as such?

This comment is made by Chánh Tiến Sỹ Đốc Trấn Ngô Thì Sỹ, with the title Ngọ Phong Công, in the Tả Thanh Oai village of Thanh Oai district in the year of Tân Mùi, Cảnh Hưng, under the Lê dynasty (1751).

From the two endnotes of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, it is clearly known that the True Record of the Patriarchal House Tính Quảng and Ngô Thời Nhiệm copied in their True Record of the Three Patriarchs is the text that was brought home from China by Tô Xuyên Hầu Lê Quang Bí in 1569, and later read by Trình Xuyên Hầu Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1491-1580) so that a writing titled Giải Trào was written as to it by the latter. Thereafter, it was copied and provided with an annex by Ngô Thời Nhiệm’s father, namely, Ngô Thì Sỹ. Based upon Sỹ’s comment, the compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs may be supposedly to have been carried out as follows: First, Ngô Thời Nhiệm might read his father’s copy of the True Record of the Patriarchal House where Huyền Quang is recorded to have been granted the posthumous title “Trúc Lâm Thiền Sư Đệ Tam Đại, Đặc Phong Tự Pháp Huyền Quang Tôn Giả” (Venerable Huyền Quang, Dhyāna Master of the Trúc Lâm Third Generation, Specifically Bestowed to Be the Dharma-Successor). From this, it might occur to Ngô Thời Nhiệm that he could compose a work named the True Record of the Three Patriarchs. Thereafter, he would discuss it with Tính Quảng, who might be the master of and grant the monastic name Hải Lượng to him if their monastic names were extracted from one and the same gātha representing the line of transmission of the Chi-Pan T'u-k'ung school of the Lin-chi lineage:

Trí tuệ thanh tịnh

Đạo đức viên minh

Chân như tính hải

Tịch chiếu phổ thông

Tâm nguyên quảng tục

Bản giác xương long

Năng nhân thánh quả

Thường diễn khoan hoằng

Duy truyền pháp ấn

Chứng ngộ hội dung

Kiên trì giới hạnh

Vĩnh thiệu tổ tông.

Then, following their discussion, a plan might be drawn up, that is, to cite the biography of Nhân Tông in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, that of Pháp Loa on his memorial tablet at the Thanh Mai Temple and what concerns Huyền Quang in the True Record of the Patriarchal House, to which some fragments of the three patriarchs’ writings preserved somewhere in the temples under the title Thiền Đạo Yếu Học (Study of the Essentials of Dhyana Doctrine) were added, to constitute the True Record of the Three Patriarchs.

Since the True Record of the Three Patriarchs was published, these three patriarchs’ lives and careers were widely known and further confirmed by another work titled Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine, whose earliest edition was in Cảnh Thìn the Third (1795). In the foreword of this work, its author Ngô Thời Nhiệm presented the biographies of the first three patriarchs Nhân Tông, Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang of the Trúc Lâm school. The rest was an autobiography of the author himself under the heading “Trúc Lâm Đệ Tứ Tôn” (The Trúc Lâm’s Fourth Honored-One). If tracing from the Fundamental Principles of Trúc Lâm Doctrine back to the year 1765, when the True Record of the Three Patriarchs was for the first time published, we can see that such a hypothesis as to the compilation of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs is not quite unreasonable and that Ngô Thời Nhiệm’s supposed participation in the compilation of the work is not without any ground. Indeed, not only did he contribute to the literature of Vietnamese Buddhism but also helped throw light on a number of masters of the Trúc Lâm school such as Hải Âu Vũ Trinh (1726-1823), Hải Hòa Nguyễn Đăng Sở, Hải Huyền Ngô Thì Hành, Hải Điền Nguyễn Hữu Đàm, and so on, who were the great intellectuals of the time, originating from the noble class in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In reality, owing to their influence and prestige that the notion of the Trúc Lâm Three Patriarchs has become popularly admitted. However, it is the popularity of this notion that has lent encouragement to some distorted view of the historical development of this school.

In effect, with the exception of the True Record of the Three Patriarchs, nowhere has Huyền Quang been considered “the Dhyāna Patriarch of the Third Generation of the Trúc Lâm School.” As has been said above, this is the reverend title that the Emperor Minh Tông, before his death, employed to designate Master Kim Sơn. Accordingly, the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm school must be Kim Sơn and not Huyền Quang. Earlier, we have suggested and proved in terms of documentary evidence that Kim Sơn may have composed the Collected Prominent Figures of Dhyāna Garden, a history of Dhyāna Buddhism in Vietnam, subsequent to the Chiếu Đối Bản of Thông Biền (?-1134), the Chiếu Đối Lục of Biện Tài, and the Nam Tông Tự Pháp Đồ(Chart of Dharma-Successors of the Southern School) of Thường Chiếu. As to the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints, its composer is not known today; yet, from its content as well as style we may postulate that the author is none other than Kim Sơn. In addition, the Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật Bản Hạnh may have been composed by him, too.

Thus it may be said that in the middle of the fourteenth century a great movement of studying the history of Vietnamese Buddhism broke out widely. And Kim Sơn, as being an outstanding Dhyāna master under the reign of Minh Tông, must have conducted the task of compiling the afore-said history books. It is, however, unfortunate that we have not yet acquired any new information on this master so far, except for what is preserved in the Recorded Sayings as the Lamps of the Saints. Nevertheless, we may be sure that the Trúc Lâm school continued to exercise its strong influence on the court as well as the people until around the year 1358 at least. In all probability, the inscription of the Chronicle on the memorial tablet in front of the Viên Thông stūpa of Pháp Loa could be carried out by Kim Sơn himself. The sole question posed here is why it could not be engraved and erected at Pháp Loa’s stūpa until 1362. Was there probably something wrong for the tablet to be made in memory of him during the Emperor Minh Tông’s lifetime?

Whatever happened, Kim Sơn must have lived on for some more years after Minh Tông’s death. However, due to the latter’s successors who were only interested in sensual pleasures as Dụ Tông or who was so timid and hesitant as Nghệ Tông, the magnificent energy of Đông A gradually died out so that “the lamps of transmission” by various outstanding Dhyāna masters were no longer recorded. This points out that such people of great prestige and high reputation as Kim Sơn passed away under the reign of Dụ Tông. Straightly stated, Master Kim Sơn might die between the years 1365-1370; and from this it may be speculated that he might be born at some time around the year 1300 so that he could be an immediate disciple of Pháp Loa’s before the latter’s death in 1330.

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.

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 theCollected 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 theCollected 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.

From the list above, subsequent to Đại Đăng is Patriarch Tiêu Dao, who is certainly not a disciple of the former. For, in theChart of Dhyāna Lineage of the Recorded Sayings of Thượng Sỹ Tiêu Dao is recorded to have been a pupil of Layman Ứng Thuận. And Tiêu Dao must have died prior to the year 1291 when Tuệ Trung died. For, among the remaining forty-nine poems of Tuệ Trung there are four poems related to Tiêu Dao, that is, "Vấn Phúc Đường Đại Sư Tật," "Thượng Phúc Đường Tiêu Dao Thiền Sư," "Phúc Đường Cảnh Vật," and "Điếu Tiên Sư" ("A Funeral Lament to the Old Master"). Accordingly, the last poem points out evidently that Tiêu Dao had to die before the year 1291 so that Tuệ Trung could write the verse in memory of his master on his death.

Succeeding Tiêu Dao of the Yên tử Monastery is Patriarch Huệ Tuệ. But, who is Huệ Tuệ? Among the disciples of Tiêu Dao recorded in the Chart of Dhyāna Lineage, no one was named as such. However, based upon the way of identification of Đạo Viên with Viên Chứng, it is possible to identify Huệ Tuệ with Tuệ Trung though the latter was himself the celebrated General Hưng Ninh Vương Trần Quốc Tung. In addition, according to the list above the successor of Huệ Tuệ is none other than Điều Ngự Trần Nhân Tông himself. So, is it possible that Tuệ Trung ever took charge of the Yên tử Monastery? The life story of Tuệ Trung written by Emperor Nhân Tông in the Recorded Sayings of Thượng Sỹ tells us that the Emperor Trần Thánh Tông honored Tuệ Trung to be his monastic brother. If so, it is obviously possible that Tuệ Trung undertook the abbot’s office of the Yên tử Monastery. And that the Emperor Nhân Tông succeeded Tuệ Trung to undertake the same office is not surprising at all although the latter died four years earlier than the ordination of the former. For the Emperor Nhân Tông was actually confirmed by Tuệ Trung to have attained enlightenment ever since 1278 as in his own words in the account just mentioned. Subsequent to Nhân Tông were Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang.

Such is what about the first eight patriarchs as enumerated in the list above, including Pháp Loa and Huyền Quang, whose dates and biographies are quite definitely known. As far as the remaining fifteen ones are concerned, the fact that some of them bore the same monastic names has given rise to some doubt as to the authenticity of the whole list. National Teacher Quốc Nhất, the Patriarch of the twelfth generation, for instance, has the same name as a disciple of Master Ứng Thuận; and Great Master Hương Sơn, the Nineteenth Patriarch, has the same name as a disciple of Nhân Tông. Naturally, Hương Sơn as being a disciple of Nhân Tông’s could by no means be regarded as the nineteenth successor of the Yên Tử tradition.

In reality, the fact that some masters bear the same names should not be so surprising as to raise any doubts at all since it is quite ordinary in the history of Buddhism of a country as well as between some countries. In the history of Chinese Buddhism, for instance, a Buddhist master in the Chin dynasty and another in the Wei dynasty, which came into being more than one hundred years later than the former, are both named Hui-yuan. In our country there are also many cases as such. For instance, Dhyāna Master Mãn Giác (1052-1096) in the Lý dynasty and a master of the same name in the reign of Lê Trung Hưng, who transmitted monastic rules to Chân Nguyên Tuệ Đăng (1647-1726); and Minh Châu Hương Hải of the seventeenth century and another master no less well-known than him, who are even of the same native locality, Nghệ An. For that reason, it is not necessary to have doubts as to such cases, especially when those who have the same names do not belong to the same period.

In addition, when the first eight patriarchs in the list above have been proved to be reliable, we may attempt to study the last one. This is the case of Dhyāna Master Vô Phiền, whose date has not been definitely determined so far. Based upon the twenty-second patriarch who is known as Chân Trụ, however, it may be assured that he was Master Minh Nguyệt Chân Trụ, the first master of Master Chân Nguyên Tuệ Đăng. Though Chân Nguyên did not record the date of Chân Tru’s death, we know that the former entered the monastery at the age of 19, that is, in 1665. Thus Chân Trụ must have lived until around the year 1665 at least. Further, according to Chân Nguyên, soon after transmitting dharma to him, Chân Trụ passed away; and the former then had to undertake Bhikṣu precepts under Minh Lương Mãn Giác’s transmission. In this connection, Chân Trụ must have lived between 1600-1670.

As a consequence, the presence of Chân Trụ may prove the authenticity of the list above. And the Yên Tử tradition did flourish on from the time of Hiện Quang up to Vô Phiền, that is, from 1200 to 1700. A question may be raised here as to why An Thiền did not record any more Dhyāna masters prior to himself, that is, the period between 1700 and 1850. The reason is simple that he recorded their names in another place. To the  Ngự Chế Thiền Điển Thống Yếu Kế Đăng Lục by Như Sơn, An Thiền added the list of the generations succeeding Chân Nguyên, including the Dhyāna Masters Như Trừng, Tính Huyền, Hải Quýnh, Tịch Truyền, Chiếu Khoan and Phổ Tịnh though they did not directly take charge of the Yên tử Monastery.

Accordingly, the Trúc Lâm lineage beginning with the Emperor Nhân Tông has exercised great influence upon the history of country and of Buddhism and it has been continuously succeeded just so far. This is a Dhyāna school that is not only founded by a Vietnamese but also has many remarkable achievements in doctrine and practice so that it has been capable of fulfilling various requirements of development in the history of our country. For that reason, in order to unravel many historical and ideological problems in relation to this school, a certain study on it should be made on a far larger scale. What we have taken up so far is only an outline of it drawn up by chance in our discussion about the Emperor Nhân Tông’s contributions to the history of country and Buddhism. It is unequivocally necessary to make a more intensive study in the future since without it there will surely be no hope of correcting a great deal of false views currently made as to the history and doctrine of this school.

Translation by Đạo Sinh

[1] Trần Lê Sáng, Tìm hiểu văn phú thời kỳ Trần-Hồ in Tuyển Tập 40 năm tạp chí Văn Học, 1960-1999, Tập 2, Tp. Hồ Chí Minh: Nxb. Tp. Hồ Chí Minh, 1999, pp.231-232. [LMT]

[2]  Skt., damya-sārathi, a guide of those who have to be restrained.

[3]  Lit., “the Sun”

[4]  Lê Mạnh Thát, Nghiên cứu về Thiền Uyển Tập Anh, Nxb. Tp. Hồ Chí Minh, 1999, pp.239, 481-482. [LMT]

[5]  By "Mr Nguyễn of the Cổ Đô village," the author refers to Nguyễn Bá Lân (1701-1785), a native of the Cổ Đô village, Tiên Phong district, former Sơn Tây province. He received the highest degree (tiến sỹ) in the 1731 examination and worked as Thượng Thư with the title Lễ Trạch Hầu. Well-versed in verses in the Nôm language, he was the author of Ngã Ba Hạc PhúGiai Cảnh Hứng Tình Phú, and Vịnh Sử Thi Quyển. His writing on Huyền Quang has not yet been found. [LMT]

[6]  Lit., "Conveying the Teaching."

[7]  Đặng Thái Mai, Mấy điều tâm đắc về một thời đại văn học in Thơ Văn Lý Trần I, Hà Nội: Nxb. KHXH, 1977, p.42. [LMT]

[8]  Lê Mạnh Thát, Viên Thái Thiền Sư Toàn Tập, Sài gòn: Tu Thư Vạn ạnh 77

[9]  Nguyễn Lang, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Luận, Sài gòn: Lá Bối, 1974, pp.397-398. [LMT]

[10]  Viện Triết Học, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, Hà nội: Nxb. KHXH, 1991, p.224. [LMT]


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