Nguyen Tien Doan
In the early 80s, I had the occasion of reading the French version of Zen doctrine by the Japanese professor D.T. Suzuki, a book lent to me by writer Nguyen Huu Dang. A volume of that work, "Satori" catches my attention. I have consulted many French and Vietnamese dictionaries in my possession and acquired a clear enough explanation of that key-word of Buddhism.One day, I was informed from a carpenter in the neighbourhood that a monk of Ho Chi Minh City just came to settle down in the pagoda of Vu Doai village (Vu Thu district) in my Thai Binh province. According to the rumour, this religious Doctor in Buddhism had undertaken studies in several countries. The desire for knowledge took me to seek his lights.
That was in June 1982, while I was undertaking research on the village of Hanh Dung Nghia in Vu Thu which accommodates the fortifications of the hero-gangster Phan Ba Vanh, and on many patriot scholars of the XIXth century.
I arrived early at the pagoda of Vu Doan with the intention of asking the real meaning of "Satori". The small temple is located separately, in a very quiet place. A twisted path covered with grass leads to it. The morning breeze brings the fragrant perfume of betel nut flowers, ngau and almond trees. The moss draws mysterious designs on the tiles on the ground, on the walls and the roof. Next to the ground is an old thatched house with three compartments and two sloping roofs. I pushed my bicycle and waited, intrigued by the deserted atmosphere. A moment later, an old woman came out from the kitchen and asked me:-May I help you Sir?
-Can I meet with the Venerable?
-He is in the pagoda. Please wait a minute.
The Venerable finally presented himself. He is a man of over fifty, calm and nimble, with very clear eyes which seem to read in your soul, with a brown beard recalling that of Bodhidharma. He made me feel quite easy with his natural approach.
-Venerable, you come from the South? - I asked him.
-Just a few days ago, What makes me the honour….? O I read books on Thien (Zen). I meet with a word that I don’t understand well. Would you be kind to…Knowing that I am a researcher in history, the monk smiled and gently said:
-You better consult the libraries. I hurriedly left the South without carrying documents, even forgetting to take my reading glass. My mother and I have only few possessions and a rosary. Excuse me…I insist, a little embarrassed:-It would not take you long, Venerable. I only want to ask you the meaning of just one word.
-"Satori"! In the book by Suzuki on the Zen doctrine.-In what language is it?
-In French. Published in Paris.
-You know Chinese characters?
The monk invited me to sit. He began talking, carried away by the subject. He expressed with ease and conviction of a Nagorika Convinda (Character from "The Way of the White Clouds").He began to evoke the theory of knowledge by K. Marx and Bertrand Russell in which certain approaches meet. That of Buddhism is not very far off but its rationalism and abstraction seems more complex and more varied to me…After having tasted some tea to hear his voice, the monk told me about Eight knowledge’s (Bat Thuc) in the theory of Buddhist knowledge. He gave me in Chinese ideogram the word "Giac" (awareness).According to him, the objective perception concerning outside objects and especially of oneself is very difficult. One can think of the wins over by Lao Tse: "He who knows is clear-sighted, he who wins over oneself is strong". The "Giac" (awareness) must reach a degree of maturation to the point of bringing the subject to the highest point of concentration, which provokes explosion of knowledge, the ngo (prefect knowledge, awakening)…That is the answer to your question. Thus, Thien, Gyo, Ngo or Satori are but one, but they vary according to subjects. In each subject, there should be explosion of knowledge, illumination, to have satori. After the stage of explosion of knowledge, the subject changes entirely, it becomes another one, one can imagine.-I would like, I said, to ask you to explain some more things.
The monk offers me a cigarette, excusing himself of the humidity which has altered it.
-In 1963, I said, when I was in the army, I learned that researcher Tran Dinh Ba had discovered a statue with a foot wearing a mandarin’s boot, the other foot naked, at the Boc pagoda, near Dong Da in Hanoi. He had identified it as Emperor Quang Trung, the victor of Tsing invaders in 1719.The monk followed my remarks with an amusing smile. I continued:
-I conceive some doubt regarding this subject. I have seen statues of this kind in other pagodas. Quang Trung would have been worshipped like someone along the line of Buddhas?
-Your story, he replies, is known among Buddhist circles in South Vietnam during the American occupation in Vietnam. The interpretation is an error. The statue is that of the Indian monk Bodhidharma who went to China at the time of Emperor Luong Vo De, in VIth century…In face of the lukewarm reception by the Emperor of the Luong, he passed over to the Nguy to propagate Buddhist faith. He was the founder of the Thien Sect (Dhyana, Zen). You probably know the two Chinese verses which say how hard is the road to Awakening:Hoan Du, a well of science who only knew the Buddhist way very late in his life,
At the end of quibbles, Emperor Luong Vo had to recognize the truth of sutras.
These are examples of belated Satori.
-Better late than never, I commented.
We all laughed.
The monk carried on:
-Lets go back to the Boc pagoda. After having terminated his apostolic mission, Bodhidharma died. According to legend, people saw him return with a ceremonial boot on one foot, the other foot naked and another shoe hanging on his friar stick. This detail characterizes very much the status of Bodhidharma which figure on the altar of monk patriarchs. That is the case with the Boc pagoda statue.
The explanation makes me smile when I think of fanciful explanations of some researchers who, carried away by their patriotic ardor, believed that Quang Trung has become a democrat Buddha because one of the feet wears no shoe.
I switched to another question:
-Venerable, I said, could I ask you what this magic incantation means: "An ma ni bat minh hong" so valued by all Buddhist sects including that of La To not to say of some followers of Yoga in the South of our country?After having shown a kindly sign on the corners of the lips as if to feel ironical at my greed for knowledge, the monk seriously replied:
-A Frenchman had spent twenty five years of his life to work on the origin and meaning of this incantation formula. For this purpose he had visited India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Buddhist countries of central Asia, even the Himalayas. The fruit of his strenuous labour was a book of a thousand pages. 1000 copies were printed at the author’s charge and freely distributed to most important libraries of the world. This formula has a content so rich that it would be impossible to make a presentation of it this morning. In a word, it is destined to help us realize the serenity of the soul, to relieve our heart and mindful from all trouble, to keep its purity in a polluted social environment. Its fundamental meaning is: "He is in Me, Me in Him"."Him" could designate the ideal, the transcendental God, the Eternity, the Light, the Good…As for "Me", it could be the real Me or the illusory Me, the pre-Me and the post-Me…The integration and disintegration of Him and Me in different places and conjunctures becomes an extraordinary force, capable of dominating permanent or unforeseen obstacles of the mind and matter. Also social or natural obstacles. Leaving the philosophical ground, I approached another subject. I learnt that the Venerable was born in Nam Hai village, Tien Hai district, Thai Binh province and entered religion since childhood. He then left Thai Binh under the French occupation in 1950 to stay in many pagodas of Hanoi and Saigon before going to learn Buddhism during six years in India and visiting several countries.
-Have you met with Suzuki, I asked?
-Yes, I had the occasion of talking about Thien with him. He was very old. He has passed away.
-Have you written or translated?
-I have made a dozen works by myself?
-Do you feel bored now that you lack books for reading?
-No, the books are in nature, in the mind, the cogitation. The Ancients talked about "books with characters" and "books without characters". I now read these.After a conversation of two hours, I left the Buddhist friar, full of respect and admiration for a son of my native province, a province that had given birth to scholars like Le Quy Don and Ky Dong.
I learnt later that this monk was no one else but Venerable Thich Quang Do, ex-General Secretary of the Dharma Institute of South Vietnam.
Source: Vietnamese Studies, No 2 - 1993, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Computer typesetting: Lydia Quang Nhu