The Two Buddhist Literary Tendencies
of Vietnam’s Middle Ages
Tran Thi Bang Thanh
Is there a literary current of Buddhist inspiration specifically Vietnamese? What are the criteria to differentiate them from the other currents? There has not been unanimity of views on this question among Vietnamese researchers although they agreed that a section of Vietnamese literature, particularly under the Ly and Tran (Xth - XIVth century), has a distinctly Buddhist imprint.
We can detect in this section two tendencies: on the one hand words of theological inspiration which directly deal with question of dogma, philosophy, religious practice, and on the other, works whose most profound concepts and dogmas are expressed in the form of suggestions, personal impressions or poetic meditations.
Intended for different audiences, these two tendencies are distinguished by their contents, their style, their artistic canons and even the periods of their blossoming.
The first tendency made its appearance and blossomed quite early, from the XIth to XIIIth century, under the Ly (XIth - XIIIth century). The authors expressed their doctrinal viewpoints by discussing mostly the concept of the universe. Let’s mention the couples of antianemic concepts - being and nothingness, perceptible and non-perceptible, real and illusion, of relations between Buddha and living beings, Buddha and oneself, man and his origin, the inevitable cycle of birth, illness, old age and death. These works initiate the faithful to the truth conducive to Enlightenment. They can also express the faith and joy of an enlightened person. Refusion lyrical impressions, their authors use a concise style and metaphors intended for the intellect but helping to transcend the established concepts in order to open to the cite the immanent reality and attain Enlightenment. We can cite on this score two goths (Ke) as examples. The goethe of Queen Y Lan about the perceptible - non-perceptible dogma reads:"When one is no longer concerned with these sac khong
One becomes one with the being in oneself."King Tran Nhan Tong, First Patriarch of the Thien Sect (Zen) of Truc Lam, shows the vanity of those who take for real the being and non-being:
"The concepts "being and non-being"
Make man unhappy
If one succeeds in cutting their ties
"Being" and "non-being" are one and the same."*
Following the Ly - Tran period (XIth - XIVth century) the Buddhist literature reached its apogee and began to decline in the XVth century. The literary scene was dominated by the Confucian ideal for three hundred years. But in the XVIIth century, the latter had again try to integrate with Buddhism and Taoism. The proponents of the Tam Giao Dong Nguyen (the three religions having the same origin) reproach the shortsighted Confucians for nurturing separatist tendencies and all those, who while styling themselves champions of one of the three doctrines, seek to discredit the two others by using quibblings. However, in those days, there were few works dealing more or less directly with Buddhist theology. The most remarkable are written by the scholars of the Ngo family: Ngo Thi Si discussed the three religions, Ngo Thi Nhiem commented on Vien Giac (Perfect Enlightenment) in his Dai Chan vien giac thanh). According to Nguyen Lang, this treatise is an "original synthesis of Confucianism and Buddhism". There Ngo Thi Nhiem has crossed the separatist barrier of despise to arrive at the awareness that "life is important and that the tue giac (Buddhist sense of awareness) is part of life. In fact, the exposes take the form of Thien - questions - and - answers, each chapter assuming a form of its own niem (reminiscent), sati in Sanskrit, tung (recital), ke (summarized poem) (goethe in Sanskrit).The Truc lam tong chi nguyen thanh can be considered the mots profound Buddhist philosophic treatise of Vietnam’s Middle Ages.*
The second Buddhist literary tendency began very early. The most ancient author known as far is Doan Van Kham under the Ly dynasty. Unlike some other authors of the same epoch (Ly Ngoc Kieu, Van Tri Bat, Nguyen Tuan) who accepted the natural cycle of "birth, old age, illness and death" with a serene resignation, Doan Van Kham feels a gap between the intellectual perception of this dogma and the suffering caused by death. After the death of his two friends, the bonzes Quang Tri and Chan Khong, the pagoda appears deserted to him:"The courtyard flooded with moonlight, birds in distress
The stupas no longer bears letters, the graves are indifferent."He invokes the dogma "perceptible - non-perceptible" to find some solace:"Don’t mourn any more the departure of your companions of faith
The mounts and waters in front of the pagoda are real images."King Tran Thai Tong, too, steeps in this theme. His two treatises Pho thuyet sac than (…) and Pho thuyet tu son (…) deserts on man in his capacity as object of observation in the mass of Chung (comprising living beings and roving souls). To help the faithful to engage in the path of Enlightenment, he analyses the illusions of which the human being is victim, the apparent body, the horrible putrefaction’s during it decomposition, the nothingness of all life. "A bag of pus and blood", "fetid skin", "fecal matter" a "skull as naked as a pus basin", "a puppet", such is the human being. In spite of all its ugliness, the author speaks with great compassion of the cemetery where mortals lie: "The grave is abandoned in the desert mountains then thousand miles away. The rosy face crowned with the blue hair of yester-years becomes green ash mixed with white bones. The rain of tears water the Earth under lugubrious clouds. The wind of grief passes, Moonlight becomes less bright, night wears on, troubled by the weeping and laments of demons and mournful plaints of the spirits. With the passage of the years, the graves are destroyed and trampled by buffaloes and horses. Fireflies cast their dismal light on green grasses, the crickets emit intermittent plaints under the branches of populars in cemeteries. The commemorative stelac half covered with moss and lichen make room for path formed under the steps of herdsmen and woodcutters. It does not matter whether in their life time they were eminent men of letters of beauties capable of causing the fall of citadels, none can follow another road."The aim of Tran Thai Tong is to preach the severity of the soul by demonstrating the vanity of Life. But in doing so he cannot repress his feelings of pity for human suffering caused by birth, illness, old age and death. Life on earth is truly exile:
"Man is an eternal victor who travels in the world of dust,
Each day takes him tens of thousands of miles farther from his native country."But neither does death bring peace:
"Provisionally, there is no dust at the skyline
The moon spreads its light on the immense river, the night wears on."This note of anguish about the destiny of the individual which is voiced against the author’s will, marks Tran Thai Tong out of the Thien (Zen) poets of his time. He is the precursor of a new inspiration which was to take shape definitively in the XVIIth century.*
Historians of literature consider the period from the XVIIth to XIXth century to be one marked with a profound humanism. One reason for this phenomenon might be found in the Buddhist thought with its conceptions of the world and life. All the great authors of that time espoused this tendency. Many popular love novels (Phan Tran, The West Pavilion, Tu Thuc…) make the pagoda the site of their stories. In other works, the pain of being a human being is felt through the Buddhist concept so being and nothingness, karma, psyche…Let’s mention in this regard two great typical poets: Nguyen Gia Thieu and Nguyen Du.In his Plaints of an Odalisque (Cung Oan Ngam Khuc), Nguyen Gia Thieu stresses the idea that man is only a top turning at the will of the Creator:
"The top obeys the movement decided by Heaven,
The human being gambols like a vague silhouette walking in the night."Life with all its brilliant cortege of riches and honors is only:
"Flotsam in a sea of suffering, a water lentil floating on the river of illusion
A boat of illusion rolling on a torrent."That is a predestined suffering:
"No wonder that right at one’s birth
Already one open’s one’s mouth to cry.
From infancy till the age of white hair
How many times one feels the anguish of birth and death!"Nguyen Gia Thieu does not conceive death as a return to the eternal in the Buddhist sense as Tran Thai Tong and Doan Van Kham did. He feels an immense void:
"What remains of one hundred years of a human life?
A small mound covered with grass…"The Buddhist concept "being - non-being" of Nguyen Gia Thieu is tainted with Confucianism and Taoism, perceived through the experiences of his own life with is successes and failures. Far from attaining philosophical indifference, the artists in him in sensible to the suffering and smallness of man. He understands the evidence of human desires. Buddhism is against anger, but he accepts the revolt of the Odalisque who "wanted to break by kicking the door of the Gynaeeeum with walls plastered with pepper pods".Adopting for himself the name of an adept of Thien (Nhu Y Thien) Nguyen Gia Thieu basically was not a real monk until this end of his life.
The same is true with the greatest poet of Vietnam, Nguyen Du. The latter has read the sutra of Diamond (…) a thousand times and adopted the don ngo (?). Nevertheless, he has never steeped his works in the Buddhist doctrine. His famous "Appeal to the roving Souls" (Van te thap loai chung sinh) sends with these verses:"To all the Misericord of Buddha shall being salvation
Don’t be afraid of the malefices of the being and nothingness."All this funeral oration speaks only of the one thousand and one sufferings of the human beings. The horde of roving souls who listen to the sermon of Buddha content themselves with begging for some compassion. None is stirred by this ardor of the faithful as under the Ly and Tran, or of the members of the Truc Lam club who question the preacher about any points in the doctrine on which they do not agree.
Even in the heroine Kieu, with such an intelligence, could not find salvation in the pagoda after acquainting herself with the secrets of Karma and the Buddhist psyche. Rather, she takes refuge in the pagoda to forge the despairs and bitterness of life:
"But I have confided my life to this temple lost in the clouds,
I shall live only with trees and flowers
Salt and vegetables, I am made for the tastes of a contemplative life,
In my heart the fire of passion has died out
Why should I plunge again in the world of dust?
Why should I leave things half done?I have given myself to religion. I’ll stay in it till the end." Of course, one could not ask a heroine governed by the logic of the novel to be an "enlightened". However, Nguyen Du, the author, himself a Confucian who is also stepped in the Buddhist doctrine, is still worried by the hazards of this world:"I don’t know three hundred years from now
Who will still remember To Nhu?
(Doc Tieu Thanh Ky).In the XVIIIth century, only one literary work, the Popular Tale of the Goddess Quan Am Thi Kinh, seems to have dealt with Buddhism as a doctrine of salvation, not as a refuge against human despairs and deceptions:
"In the world of permanence, how miraculous the doctrine of Buddha is!
May filial piety remain in one’s heart and humanity be our only concern,
With filial piety, one saves one’s parents
With humanity one frees oneself from the cycle of transmigration."In spite of its unconcealed religious intentions the story is more explicit in sympathizing with the suffering of the human being, more particularly of woman. Thi Kinh, the heroine of the story, is married to a student. One evening, as her husband dozes off, she takes a knife with intent to cut her hair that grows the wrong way. The man, waking with a start, believes that his wife wants to kill him. Repudiated by her husband, Thi Kinh disguises herself as a man and enters religious life in a pagoda. Thi Mau, a light-of-love, falls in love with the woman in disguise who naturally refuses her courtship. Out of vengeance she sleeps with a man servant, gives birth to a child who she said is fathered by Thi Kinh. Unable to defend herself from this set-up charge, Thi Kinh suffers all the unjust flaying by public opinion. However, the object of her asceticism is aimed at fulfilling her social obligations rather than achieving the Buddhist emancipation of the being. Thus, she does not commit suicide to protest against injustice but chooses to pray to Buddha for the peace of her will. She accepts to bring up the child against her will. The happy end of the story is quite conventional: Thi Kinh is made a Quan Am goddess at her death, her husband is transformed into a fortune-telling parrot and her parents enter into Nirvana with her.
Generally speaking our authors in the XVIIth century are more inclined to meditate on the destiny of individuals, especially talented and virtuous individuals whom society generally dislikes. Their Buddhist inspiration belongs to the second tendency, it is manifested not through treatises or of life with its multiple mishaps and sufferings. Thus, on the whole, the philosophical side of the works withstand the test of time and live among the popular masses.
Source: Vietnamese Studies, No 2 - 1992, Hanoi, Vietnam
Computer typesetting: Lydia Quang Nhu