The Quynh Lam pagoda and the integration of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucius thoughts under the Ly and Tran (XIth-XVIthc.)
Nguyen Hue Chi
Quynh Lam pagoda was a Buddhist center of primordial importance during the Golden Age of Vietnamese Buddhism under the royal dynasties of the Ly (1010-1225) and the Tran (1225-1400). The study of its development will help us to better understand not only the nature of Vietnamese Buddhism but also the phenomenon of acculturation which took place there in an ideological climate that allowed the mixture of three doctrines imported into Vietnam: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. These three currents, often doctrinally contradictory, have nevertheless created the common cultural values of the nation, in particular Buddhism and Taoism, even though under the Chinese occupation (until the Xth century) the rulers always relied on Confucianism as their mainstay.
Obviously, in their capacity as Buddhist centres, all pagodas must in the first place give precedence to Buddhist elements in this acculturation. But the dogma just as the propagation of Buddhism does not aim to segregation and constraint but rather at integration, which explains the harmonious convergence of the three regions under the Ly and the Tran, an endemic tendency which, generally speaking, is not subject to exterior pressure from any social force in the interest of a given faction.
This does not mean that we should underestimate an important factor working in favour of this cultural integration: the policy of the Ly and Tran dynasties. By open-door policy, we don’t mean the tolerance practiced by a certain king who authorized his subjects to opt for Confucianism or Taoism. We want rather to refer to a thought which was common to several dynasties, a thought stemming from the capacity and perspicacity of the State leaders to set out the course of history and to materialize it through court decisions. Thanks to this spirit, one has been able to unite the people, stabilize society and bring together the various ideologies.Under the Ly, the kings, while practicing Buddhism, continued to pay homage to Taoism and the old popular beliefs, for instance, to the cult of the genies of the mountain. The court had Taoist pagodas and temples and other temples built, established and hierarchy of the bonzes and granted titles to Taoist priests, and diplomas to all kinds of popular genies.
The meeting between Bonze Giac Hai, the Taoist priest Thong Huyen and the Buddhist king Ly Nhan Tong has inspired a legend and a poem composed by the king himself:
Giac Hai, his heart as immense as the sea
Thong Huyen, miraculous doctrine
Miracle and mutation
A Buddha and an Immortal.
Neither should we overlook the fact that it is the dynasty of the Ly (1010-1225) itself which has laid down the bases of Confucianism. The construction of the Temple of Literature in 1070 and of the National College of the Children of the Nation, our first university, in 1075, spells out the Confucian will to set up a more articulated administrative machine. For their part, the Tran (1225-1400) worked for a unified Buddhist organization of the Court in the villages, perfected the contests of Confucian scholars and prepared the training of an intellectual elite versed in the three doctrines and capable of assuming political, social and spiritual responsibilities. What is the aim of the Tran dynasty in launching contests marked with the seal of the Three Religion? Doubtless, they were not intended for the Buddhist religious priests who had nothing to do with the knowledge of Taoist and Confucian dogmas. Rather that was intended to direct officials of the Court who needed general knowledge which would help them to settle civil and religious affairs where elements of all the three religions are intermingled.
King Tran Thai Tong (1218-1277), in his Preface to the Guideline of the Thien (Zen) Sect, already allied Buddhism to Confucianism: "I said to myself: Buddha does not divide the North from the South, one can find it everywhere through asceticism. Perspicacity and ignorance reside in man, one can always accede to it through illumination. That is why, the means to guide the masses of ignorant men, the path which shows the causes of birth and death, will boil down to the great faith in Buddha.To institute norms for the posterity, set out models for the future, this responsibility rests with immortals and saints (of Confucianism). That is why the Sixth Patriarch said: "There is no difference of any kind between the Great Saints (Confucian) and the Great Masters (Buddhist). Thus, the great teaching of our Buddha has been transmitted to humans thanks to the Immortals and Saints. It is only natural that I tae upon myself the responsibility of immortal and saints and the dogmas of Buddha."A grand-child of Tran Thai Tong, Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), entered monkhood and became the first patriarch of the Thien Sect of Truc Lam at Yen Tu some time after his victory against the Mongol invaders. He did not forget to train a Confucian heir in the person of Tran Anh Tong, admonishing him vehemently in connection with his drunkenness in 1299. He exalted the high Confucian virtues of the high mandarins while orientating them toward Buddhist life as laymen.
To inculcate the three religions at the same time, persuasion and not coercion should be used. King Tran Anh Tong (1293-1320) did not react against Pham Mai whom he invited to follow him on the religious path.
The great mandarin Tran Thi Kien even stressed the possibility for the Confucian scholars to practice Buddhism at their own homes without isolating themselves from the world:
"There is no need of deep retreat into the forest. Veritable asceticism could well be practised right at one’s home."Thanks to this long and painstaking preparation, under the reign of Tran Minh Tong (1214-1357) a crop of talented and dynamic Confucian scholars emerged as a social orientation group The Dai Viet Su Ky toan thu (Complete History of the Dai Viet) in fact mentioned a "plethora of talents". The erudite Le Quy Don pays homage to this policy in these words: "Because the Tran practised a policy of tolerance and not of coercion with regard to the scholars, a policy full of courtesy and regard, the personalities in the country all had a spirit of independence, generosity, nobility, solidity. They came out of the vulgar shone in the annals." Let us come back to this history of the Quynh Lam pagoda. There is in Dai Viet Su Ky toan thu a detail that often escapes the attention of an ill - advised reader. Under the reign of Tran Minh Tong, this temple had a prestigious curator famous of his anti-Buddhism.
The title Giam tu (director of the pagoda) is reserved only for those pagodas which belong to the State. One doesn’t know for what reason Truong Han Sieu, a thorough Confucian, was nominated to this post, obviously not with the intention to place it under official control because Quynh Lam is one of the rare pagodas enjoying the favour of the royal court. Either this nomination did not rake into account the spiritual tendencies of Truong Han Sieu or it was actually intended by the Court which tried to break the Confucian intransigence of the scholar.In any case, in his last years, Truong Han Sieu seemed to have changed his concept of life:
The floating life differs from today to yesterday
One should have some leisure to perceive the mistakes of the past.
The breaking of close ties which bound each ideological system and the ideological evolution from monism to pluralism made it possible to integrate the three religions under the Ly and the Tran at all echelons and in all domains. The Quynh Lam monastery participated in this cultural phenomenon.
The study of the cultural integration of Quynh Lam cannot be based solely on the direct documents which had already been for the most part destroyed by centuries of, such as vestiges of the cult, the sutras, the inscriptions on steal, statues and decorative motif. The indirect method is therefore necessary: we have to follow the traces left by the personages who characterized the history of Quynh Lam.
The first bonze to come to Quynh Lam is Khong Lo. He did not figure in the official register of the dynasty of the Ly, but he commanded great popular esteem. He was credited with the first construction of Quynh Lam. The inscription on the stele in front of the courtyard - though re-engraved - is a testimony. It says that Khong Lo had ordered the molding of a statue of Di Lac (Maitrea) 6 truong 6 thuoc high. The Thien Uyen tap anh (froligeium of the Zen Garden) classes Khong Lo in the 9th grade of the Vo Ngon Thong sect. The folklore credits him with numerous magic exploits and associates him to another name, that of Bonze Nguyen Minh Khong who cured King Ly than Tong from a hallucination (the king believed himself to be a tiger). Maybe this is a symbol of two tendencies in the same Khong Lo: Thien (Zen) and Tantrism. The supernatural power which the people attributed to him may have drawn its source from the old autochthonous beliefs of the Viet. It is very likely that the Buddhist festival of Quynh Lam had a lready existed even before the epoch of Khong Lo. They assumed some forms of ancient popular festival, in particular the cult of Fecundity so common among the rice-growing population. Nguyen Minh Khong or Khong Lo also associated to the legend according to which this monk might have brought back from China an immense sack full of copper with which the bells of Quynh Lam were molded.
The more of less fabulous personage of Khong Lo - Nguyen Minh Khong has thus crystallized a whole oral literature and numerous popular customs which show that the festivals of Quynh lam have inherited the local folklore patrimony.
The second patriarch of the Thien (Zen) Sect of Truc Lam, Bonze Phap Loa, showed himself to be a great organizer after he took charge of Quynh Lam pagoda. He made of it a "State pagoda" (Quoc tu), the growing scale and abundant property of which attracted the aristocracy especially under the reign of Tran Anh Tong and Tran Minh Tong. Quynh Lam was endowed with another building, the "Thien institute" (Thien Vien), where researches on the thien were conducted, hence the name of Quynh Lam Institute (Vien Quynh Lam). From then on, Quynh Lam radiated further through its activities in the propagation of the Thien doctrine: training of bonzes, observance of rites, printing of the Tripitaka, sessions to explain the sutras, commentaries on the dogmas…It is quite probable that these explanations and commentaries were made in a more lively and less scholastic manner in the same way as had been done in the Chinese pagodas of ancient China: The Thien institute standardized the festivals and popular festivals and traditions so that they would not deviate from the Buddhist faith. It paved the way of reforms, undertaking a judicious mixture of scholastic dogmas and popular beliefs.According to documents still available, Phap Loa was specially trained by Truc Lam Dieu Ngu to become the principal preacher of the Truc Lam Congregation. In his dealing with disciples of different batches, he knew how to vary his tone in his address to each category of interlocutors. He used a simple language to go directly to the common sense of his novices. Thus, when touching upon the question of how to choose friends and whom to associate with, he distinguished four categories of vicious bonzes and four categories of friends (adherents of Hinayana - broad knowledge of the sutras - those who advise us against what is useless , - those who help us to surmount difficulties and mishaps). However, Phap Loa used quite another language when he elaborated on the high spheres of dogma. He handled with ease such abstractions and concepts as "being and nothingness", apparent and real body. He even did not hesitate to coin new terms which by their own popularity, helped to achieve a sudden illumination.Whatever the language he used, from the most simple to the most didactic, never did Phap Loa stray away from the solid position of the Thien of the Tran epoch, a position characterized by commitment", flexibility in the method of thinking, absence of rigorism in asceticism. Phap Loa recommended the religious not to neglect their duties toward their parents as recommended by the sutra on filial piety, that is not to separate the temporal from the spiritual. He enjoined them to look into themselves, to train themselves and to determine the prajna concerning themselves. He recommended them to seize the essential of the doctrine, not to imitate the appearances: "I have seen persons who style themselves religious while they have gathered just few scraps of knowledge. What religion are they adept at? Ancient sages have said: "There are some who, after eating a few vegetables claim they have observed abstinence according to the authentic religion."Phap Loa said: "Consider the example of the buffalo which cannot become Buddha even though it is fed on grass only."By dint of his intelligent and tireless efforts, Phap Loa has laid a second layer of cultural sediment at Quynh Lam.
Quynh Lam has distinguished itself by its monastery, its Buddhist institute and also by its temple of Emral Grotto (Bich Dong Am), site of the famous poetry club, Bich Dong, directed by the prince Tran Quang Trieu.
Together with his wife, Princess Thuong Tran, Tran Quang Trieu in 1317 made a donation in kind of 4,000 strings of coins (according to Tam To thuc luc) totaling 40,000 coins according to an inscription on the stelec in the pagoda. In 1324, he coated 300 "mau" of ricefield to Gia Lam, 1,000 "mau" to An Long (An Luu) and more than 1000 serfs (according to Tam to thuc luc). Today we know only four members of the Bich Dong club: Nguyen Suong, Nguyen Uc, Nguyen Trung Ngan and Tran Quang Trieu. Confucian scholars, they are lay religious people rather than genuine monks.Their poetry has in common the disdain for honors. Tran Quang Trieu expressed his indifference to this vain allurement:
The blue waves of the torrent mount
To the chilly clouds, the sound of oars is heard,
For me, the ivory bamboo fishing rods of Dong Giang
Are more important than the allure of royal honours.
In his answer, Nguyen Uc seems to plead for the "reluctant mandarins":Since one cannot refuse the tunic of the sheep
One resigns oneself to leave a name to posterity.
One question may be asked: why is it that at the apogee of the Tran dynasty, a whole club of poetry turned its back to royal honours? Is it because Tran Quang Trieu, though himself a high dignitary of the dynasty and descended from the elder vine of the Tran, was feeling some complex toward the junior branch which was actually holding power, hence a note or skepticism that may be detected inmost of his poems? Or the clear-sighted intellectuals, such as those in the Bich Dong Poetry Club, have had a foreboding of the incoming internal conflict and the decline of the regime?
The poem "Regrets of the past at Trang An" by Tran Quang Trieu might be construed as the presage of a bleak future:The mounts and rivers are always there, where is the old country?
On the hill, the cypress tree withers under the oblique sunrays
The royal splendor of one epoch is lost under the grass
The prairie butter flies dispute drops of close rain.
This nostalgia for a past royal glory also inspires a poem by Nguyen Uc entitled On a boat mooted beside the Ung Phong pavilion (Welcome to the Wind).
So, retirement from public life which was deteriorating was a healthy trend and worthy attitude of the scholars of the Bich Dong Club who were characterized by another trait: the love for nature. Like other poems on nature of their time, theirs are disguised by a lively realist painting, free of all rigid conventions. Here is one written during a travel:
The mountain paths are slippery
Blended to the clouds on the heights is a plume of smoke
Sailboats are lost in wind and rain.
The pagoda on a peak welcomes the sunset rays
Mulberry and ramie ate green on the earth
Mandarines and haddocks are red in the sky
The swinging cab evokes nostalgia
Sadness weighs on the homecoming road.
And here is the description of Gia Lam pagoda:
My ardor for honors has cooled
My paces take me to the pagoda of Thien
Spring is coming to an end, fragile are the flowers
The cicadas sing in the deep forest
The rain has stopped and the sky turns blue
In the limpid pond the ivory loon reflects its rays
The visitor returns, the bonze speaks little
The pine flowers fall, a sweet perfume spreads.
That seems to come straight from the poetry of the Tang dynasty when poetry and painting are only one. The "self" of the poet, sometimes still troubled by human concerns, often is diluted in the universe.Though strongly influenced by the Thien, the Bich Dong Club remains distinguishable by its Confucian concepts which attach it more or less to the affairs of the ephemeral world.
Clouds drift as the days pass,
Cypress trees are green beside the altar
The heart is like a chilly pond under moonlight
The nocturnal rain drops tears of flowers.
Below the pagoda grass traces a path
Among the pine trees cranes remember the music and songs of yesteryears
In the immensity of the sky and the sea
How to relive the dream before the lamp of that night?
Sometimes, the poets are distressed thinking of the "people" as is the case with Nguyen Suong during a sojourn in Bich Dong when he learned that Tran Quang Trieu, who had been made prime minister, died:The wind chills the stone pillars, the crane has returned to the country of Immortal
Thatched houses veiled by clouds, the dragon sleeps
One’s entrails are torn thinking of the people
The sound of the bell from Quynh Lam shivers in the glacial moonlight.The people serve as yardstick to gauge man, actions and even nature. Thus, the sight of the Bach Dang river recalls the brilliant victory of the people against the Mongol invaders:
Graves of the enemy are like fleecy clouds against a verdant background
Sea waves roar, rocks climb to the sky
Who can fully evaluate this magnificent exploit
Achieved partly by mounts and rivers, partly by man
In such poems, the Buddhist Thien gives way to the commitment of the Confucian scholar. This wavering between the two inspirations is actually the originality of the Bich Dong Literature Club.
* * *
The integration of three cultures, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian, often contradictory, has created the Quynh Lam culture which lasted many centuries during one the most brilliant periods of our history. There are not enough documents for us to depict the social ambiance of such an epoch. Without fearing to err, one can nevertheless imagine, like Professor Dang Thai Mai, that the feudal society had then witnessed days of peace and concord much more agreeable than during the subsequent periods. Thanks to the openness of mind and ideological tolerance, the spiritual life and mutual trust have doubtless prevailed in the whole country.
In the XVth century, following the victory of the Le Loi against the Chinese Ming occupationists and especially from the regime of Le Thanh Tong, Confucianism gradually gained the ground, breeding an ideological pluralism well entrenched in the sub-conscience of the Vietnamese community. The long and silent dispute among the three religions which, however, have never ceased to coexist, thus began at Quynh Lam as in other pagodas. In actuality, the real fight was between Confucianism and Buddhist, because Buddhism and Taoism were quite loyal partners. The proof is that in the pagoda, the altar of the Buddhas is always installed beside an altar dedicated to the Taoist cult of the Holy Mother (Mau).
The dispute between Buddhism and Confucianism reflected the conflict between two concepts of life, such a conflict could also be seen even at the level of the masses of population. The ordinary folks like the Buddhist festivals at Quynh Lam because they offered them so many occasions to amuse themselves freely, to taste the profane pleasures inherited from their distant ancestors. Confucian orthodoxy, for its part, did not want these collective effusions of feelings that might trouble the feudal order and hierarchy, especially it did not want to grant too much freedom tow women whose rule is to stay at home. A popular song of the Quynh Lam region dated from nobody when reflects this conflict. The proponent of Buddhism expresses the desire of the woman:
Quynh Lam possesses sonorous stone plaques and bronze bells
To go and amuse oneself there, one shall pay with the wealth of one’s husband.The Confucian party retorts:
Sweetheart, the wealth of your husband is countless
You will go and amuse yourself at Quynh Lam after paying your debts.
The ideological monopoly in favor of Confucianism did not solve the problem. On the contrary it only helped to rein in a harmoniously structured thought.
NGUYEN HUE CHI Literature Institute --------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Vietnamese Studies, No. 2 - 1993, Hanoi, Vietnam.
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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
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.
This article is a comment and not a critique of the "Vietnam Buddhism" website. It will point out some inaccurate information in the context in hope to share with the authors some accurate facts to clarify the ill-information related to the history of Buddhism in Vietnam that contained in that web.
Nguyện đem công đức này, trang nghiêm Phật Tịnh Độ, trên đền bốn ơn nặng, dưới cứu khổ ba đường, nếu có người thấy nghe, đều phát lòng Bồ Đề, hết một báo thân này, sinh qua cõi Cực Lạc.
May the Merit and virtue,accrued from this work, adorn the Buddhas pureland, Repay the four great kindnesses above, andrelieve the suffering of those on the three paths below, may those who see or hear of these efforts generates Bodhi Mind, spend their lives devoted to the Buddha Dharma, the Land of Ultimate Bliss.