THIEN (ZEN) BUDDHISM AND POETRY
Bonze Huyen Quang and the Silent Path of Autumn
Thich Phuoc An
Huyen Quang was 77 years old when he received from the Venerable Phap Loa the mission of directing the Thien sect (Dhyana, Zen) of Truc Lam, thus assuming the title of Third Patriarch. In view of this age and his love for solitude, one could imagine how reluctant he was when he accepted such a charge. Huyen Quang was eager to return to nature as shown in his following poems:
"Given my thin virtue I am ashamed to maintain the flame of the ancestral lamp,
I might displease such renowned bonzes as Han Son and Thap Dac.
I wish that I could follow my friends and return to the desert mountains,
Where thousands of pecks overlap."Why did Phap Loa choose Huyen Quang? There is no denying that the latter is among the erudite Buddhists in his times. After reading the manuscript of Thich khoa giao (Buddhist teaching the compilation of which he assigned to Huyen Quang), King Tran Nhan Tong concluded: "In all the works written or reviewed by Huyen Quang, one could not remove or add a single word."However, besides his religious knowledge and the chief of the Buddhist congregation had also to assume the role of the Master of the Nation (Quoc Su), that is to counsel the king of the Tran on both internal and external affairs. In the Dai Viet (the then name of Vietnam) Buddhism was considered State religion.
This responsibility of Master of the Nation implies "teaching" which Huyen Quang renounced: Huyen Quang has always held that man runs after honors and wealth because he does not know that he is a poor creature subjected to destruction as time passes. The monk wanted that the mortal could liberate himself from his illusions."Honors and wealth, slow-moving clouds which are late to come
Time passes rapidly, tumultuous torrent
Why not take refuge among mountains and forests
The wind blows through the pines, there one tastes a cup of tea."It is because of this spirit of renunciation that made Phap Loa and his colleagues at their retreat at Yen Tu Mount choose Huyen Quang?
King Tran Nhan Tong, founder of the Sect, retired to Yen Tu in 1299. Before that, he had led his people in the victorious resistance against the Mongol invaders (1285- 1288). He was the only sovereign of our country to consult his people on a decision of vital importance for the destiny of the nation: in 1284 he convened a meeting of elderly persons at Dien Hong palace to ask them whether to resist the Mongols or to surrender. Tran Nhan Tong, who was then at the peak of glory and venerated by the nation took an exemplary gesture by retiring from public life.
So, after a quarter of a century during which Buddhism had closely taken part in the affairs of the royal court, was it not high time for Phap Loa and the monarchical community of Yen Tu to stand away from them?
The fact that the bonzes were in close liaison with the aristocracy and that even the aristocracy regularly went to the pagodas did not work for the good of a religion who ultimate goal is the emancipation of each individual by himself before giving himself to the religious life. All historians agree that the nomination of Huyen Quang to head the Truc Lam sect at Yen Tu marked a decline of Vietnamese Buddhism. This remark might be true if one judges things by their appearances. In fact, compared to the earlier periods, the priesthood of Huyen Quang testifies to the lack of dynamism in the material activities: less pagodas were erected, less statutes were molded and less bells cast and more economic autarchy of the monasteries.
Actually, the material development of the Buddhist congregation before Huyen Quang, however profitable it was to the religious cause, had led to the numerous abuses. Not a few people entered monkshood prompted by not so much spiritual conviction as egoistic calculations. The anti-Buddhist Confucian scholar Truong Han Sieu has denounced this social phenomenon: "That is why, half of the quite and picturesque places of the country are occupied by pagodas. Bands of black costumes and yellow costumes (bonzes) converge there. They eat without having to cultivate the soil, dress without having to weave. Many have abandoned their wives or their husbands to follow this path…"Obviously, the scholars trained by Confucian orthodoxy looked askance at Buddhism. Their ideal is to succeed to mandarinal examinations in order to serve their monarch by helping to maintain a strongly stratified order. Their anti-metaphysical rationalism kept them away from the Thien Sect which has nevertheless supplied to the State many counselors who have aided in the founding of the Ly dynasty.
Take for instance the bonze Van Hanh who advised Ly Cong Uan to move the capital from Hoa Lu in the jungle to Thang Long (Hanoi) in the heart of the Red River delta. This choice has brought unprecedented prosperity to the country. However, the freedom of mind and the clear-sightedness of the Thien Buddhism lost more and more ground and finally gave in to Confucianism at the end of the Tran dynasty in the XIVth century.
In any case, the offensive of the Confucian scholars against Buddhism gave a precious warning to the latter: after accomplishing its profane mission of national salvation, Buddhism should step down from the political scene in order no longer to abuse the temporal power in favour of the spiritual power.
Nominated chief of the Truc Lam Sect, Huyen Quang retired to the mountain region of Thanh Mai and Con Son, refusing until his last days to reside in the Quynh Lam and Bao An pagodas as Phap Loa had done, which he might have considered too rich, thanks to the material aid granted by the Tran Court. Would Huyen Quang have wanted to re-orientate the Buddhism of Dai Viet in the direction of poverty and humility which would be more propitious to meditation?
In his mountain retreat, Huyen Quang found a natural setting which helped him to discard all petty calculations: "To keep one’s clumsiness, reject all stategem" (Bao chuyet, vo du sach). He lived a hermit’s life:"Touching the sky the small solitary pagoda is bathed in freshness,
The gate opens on the clouds,
…Birds abound in the bamboo grove
Half of them are friends of the care-free monk."So, alone before the sun which sets down, the old master relishes his internal joy:
"In the brazier the straws burn, no more incense.
I answer my little disciple who puts me questions about the last chapters of the sutras.
I hold in my hands the book of prayer and the flute
Let no one reproach an old bonze like me."The following poem tells of the detachment and internal joy of Huyen Quang:
"Garden and ricefields of ancestor I cultimvate
Trees grow luxuriant around the house
Seen from the window the branches of the cinnamon tree and no troubled by the twitter of birds.
Resting my head on a cushion I pursue my dream throughout my siesta."In another poem, he wrote:
"When I turn back to see the world of dust
My wide open eyes are like veiled by drunkenness."To Huyen Quang, life is full of sufferings but also of beauty. Beauty in the chrysanthemum which
"Each year blossoms with the autumn dew
The light breeze and the mellow moonlight alleviate the painful heart."Beauty of:
"The young girl of sixteen springs who embroiders brocade
The yellow oriole singing in the judas-tree
Falls silent, sharing her first spring agitation
Which causes her needle to stop at the same moment."This poem by an author of the Chinese Song dynasty copied by Huyen Quang in his collection is a clear indicator of his adherence to the dhyanistic concept (Thien). Is it an expression of the sudden illumination of a religious priest, the spiritual turning point from which the dhyanistic monk adopts a new vision of the universe? Freed of all constraint and convention he is flying in a world where every thing is new. Does this first "spring agitation" when the birds falls silent and the needle stops evoke the dhyanistic grace?Many readers are astonished by the profane ideas of this poem. That is because they don’t know that for a Thien Master all beauty is internal and it would be vain to claim an exterior beauty for oneself. If within our own self a multitude of flowers radiate and thousands of butterflies are flitting, the external world will be inundated with flowers and butterflies.During a stroll, Huyen Quang might have seen young girls pick small chrysanthemums to adorn their hair, and this might have inspired this gentle reproach:
"It is a pity that without knowledge of the miraculous secret of flowers
They have picked them shamelessly to adorn their hair."One must not commit vandalism against nature because nature and us are one:
"Man and things are not rivals."To arrive at this frame of mind of universal unity, the bonze has gone through a long and hard asceticism:
"Mindfulness of oneself, of life, of everything
Seated indefinitely in the breeze which refreshes the bed.
The year is drawing to its end, no calendar in the mountain,
The chrysanthemum is blossoming, it is the festival of the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month."In his search for the absolute which leads him to his emancipation and to the end of all suffering, the adept of Thien (Zen) is confronted with the immense void:
"Autumn evening, the wind causes the curtain on the verandah to shiver
The mountain hut nestles against a mass of verdure
My heart emptying on the road of Thien
From whom are these interminable laments of the cricket?"Detached as he is the ascete sensible to the least complaint. He shares even the grief of a captured enemy:
"He would want to write to his dear ones with his own blood,
A solitary swallow is lost in a dark cloud, beyond the border post,
Tonight so many families are sighing under moonlight
Sadness is the same, here and there, very, very far away."The travel to the end of human suffering brings only one solution, that is universal compassion, compassion which gives to the poems of Huyen Quang that inimitable accent made of detachment and human warmth, of the sense of evanescence and of beauty.
THE VENERABLE THICH PHUOC AN
Hai Duc pagoda (Nha Trang)
Source: Vietnamese Studies, No 2 - 1993, Hanoi, Vietnam
Computer typesetting: Lydia Quang Nhu