The Two Stages of Life
Written by Zen Master Thich Thanh Tu
Translated by Tu Tam Hoang
Today, I will expound the paean “Enjoy The Way in Life, written by the First Patriarch of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect.
For years, I have intended to renovate this sect. When I established Truc Lam monastery in Da-Lat, I planned to name it “Truc Lam Yen Tu.” But I was hesitant because of its geographic area. It was inappropriate to name it so when it actually located in Lam Dong (in South Viet Nam). Therefore, I only named it “Truc Lam.”
People perceive the name differently when they hear its name. It’s because during the Buddha’s time, there was a monastery at Truc Lam (Bamboo Grove) in Maghadha. Thus, not only “Truc Lam” exists in Viet Nam, but also in India. You might think this “Truc Lam Monastery” gets it name from either Inia or Viet Nam. But it’s actually from Truc Lam Zen sect at Phung Hoang mountain (Viet Nam). Recently, a college student wrote ea graduate essay titled as “Truc Lam Vietnamese Zen Sect at Phung Hoang Mountain.” His paper was accepted by his professors. He also sent a copy of his essay to me.
Even though its called “Truc Lam,” most people understand that we follow the principle of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect. Therefore, people who practice Zen from my teaching should have a good understanding of the principle of Truc Lam yen Tu sect.
The first thing that we should know is the patriarchs of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect: Their practicing methods and goals. Secondly, we should remember by heart all of their writings that was written from the Tran Dynasty to the post dynasties. Knowing these, we could help Zen learners or college researchers in their Buddhist research and study about Tran dynasty. If we are not sure about our practicing method and the patriarch’s writings, how could we help them? This is a big defection. Therefore, to cover this defection, I would like all monks and nuns from all monasteries to study Buddhist documentations, paean, poems, and other publications from Tran dynasty. This most recent publication is “Tam To Truc Lam” (The Three Patriarchs of Truc Lam Zen Sect). We must learn by heart all documentations that we are required to remember. Besides, we’ve been blessed to visit Yen Tu mountain and establish Truc Lam Yen Tu monastery. If our children know nothing about Yen Tu, it’s an unforgivable miss. Therefore, I will explain carefully the principle that we are following. Many ancestors had already followed and practiced it. Today, we practice the same method. As monastics, you need to understand clearly the effect of the practice and its benefit to Buddhism and the people.
Today, I talk about our First Patriarch of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen sect. Kinh Tran Nhan Tong. History indicated that at young age, he studied with High official Tue Trung. On the day of his enthronement, he said good by to his master and asked, “What is the principle of Zen?” High Official Tue Trung replied, “Return to yourself and observe is your duty. Can’t attain from outside.” This is the key question for his self-practice and teaching other people. As the results, he became the first patriarch and it’s the start of Truc Lam Zen sect.
Born in 1258 (XIII century), he was a son of Kinh Tran Thanh Tong. At the age of 21, he became Kinh (1279). In his reign, Vietnam was invaded by Mongols. As a King and a profound Buddhist practitioner, he was caught with a question “The enemy has come, what should we do?”
Everyone is aware that the Buddha had taught laymen to abide the five percepts. The first one is “No killing.” The fighting violates this rule. Killing one life could cost a big payback, much less of numerous lives. This transgression would result a descendant in hell forever. This is a big dilemma for the King.
The history indicated that there was no choice other than fighting the enemy to save Vietnamese people. When facing such the phenomenal enemy force, it takes great strength and courage to practice compassion. In this difficult situation, he came up with a unique idea. He gathered all military officials at Binh Than Harbor (later called Binh Thanh convention). He asked, “The enemy is so mighty. Should we fight or negotiate?” Everyone shouted, “Fight!” His men wanted to fight. So as a King, he should fulfill their will.
Although accepted their response, the King was still skeptical about the people’s reaction. Therefore, he gathered all elders at Dien Hong to listen to their opinions. This was the “Dien Hong” convention. When everyone appeared, he asked the same question. Everyone shouts, “Fight!” That was it. He immediately started up te defense force to execute their will on fighting the enemy.
Buddhist disciplines stated that preset karma is unchangeable when I tis committed by these three factors: body, speech, and mind. In other words, these three parts work together to develop an unchangeable preset karma. If the mind is not part of the act, the body and speech could not develop a preset karma. So, this type of karma is changeable. In this situation, the idea of fighting the enemy was from the people and military officials, not his.
The mind is the main factor to create transgression. He never wanted war or bloodshed. But, to save Vietnamese people, he hasto fight. Though, only his body and speech committed the act. Besides, he did not initiate it. Even though many people were killed and wounded, his karma was changeable. It could diminish if he truly repented.
Knowing this, we could empathize with him. Knowing the Buddhist percepts and practicing method, he still had to lead his men to fight the enemy. He couldn’t avoid the transgression. However, it was only committed by the body and speech. His mind was innocent. In feudal time, the King gave orders to his men and people as he wished. In this case, he took an opposite, then took the action. Thus, in our feudal reigns, only Tran dynasty respected the freedom and people’s opinions.
How could such freedom and respect exist? It exists because the King was afraid of transgression. If he planned for the fight, then the transgression was his. But because it was his men’s and people’s will, he was responsible for the act of the body and speech. Therefore, all transgression prior to his renunciation were vanished after years of practice. He later attains enlightenment and became a patriarch. This is a critical matter. If we don’t know this well, we won’t be able to explain to the people when they ask about the violation of “no killing” of the King. This is the issue that I would like you to understand thoroughly.
In his reign (1279-1293), Vietnam encountered with two Mongolian invasions. In both wars, he commanded his men and people to fight the enemy. The country was in peace until 1293, he bequeathed his throne to his son, Prince Tran Anh Tong. But because he concerned about this son’s premature leadership, he decided to stay in the palace and acted as an advisor to his son (called “Advisor King”). Six years later (1298), he renounced his position to become a monk because of his confidence in his son’s ruling ability.
After renunciation, he fully concentrated on practice and never left the mountain. Until 1304, he began the traveling to other laces for teachings. Enlightened after five long years of practice, he wrote a piece called “Dac Thu Lam Tuyen Thanh Dao Ca” (The Attainment Paean). Then, he left the mountain to pursue teaching. In 1308, he passed away at the age of 51.
This overview helps us know where and when he was so it’s easier for you to follow my lectures. We can understand his writing and realize their true value. If we don’t have a good grasp of the history, then our knowledge is incomplete. Also, because Truc Lam Yen Tu monastery is re-establishing, the monks and nuns should know well the principle of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect. Truc Lam monastery at Da Lat is now the secondary location because Truc Lam monastery at Yen Tu mountain has become the primary one.
From my recent meeting at Quang Ninh, I was informed that in 1992, the number of visitors to Yen Tu mountain was at least 20,000. But up to 2001, the number increased to 200,000. Yen Tu is just a typical mountain. Why did so many people visit it? There should be a reason!
The reason is Zen master Hien Quang, the first person who attained realization at this mountain and also his successor, Zen master Dao Vien (Vien Chung). Sometimes, he was known as “Phu Van” (Drifting clouds). Lived in the mountain, his mind was like drifting clouds. That’s why people gave him the title of “Phu Van”. Later, King Tran Thai Tong appointed him as a National Advisor. One time, King Tran Thai Tong visited the master and expressed his interest in ordainment. His successor (the third generation) Zen master Dai Dang also attained enlightenment. He was a National Advisor and also the master of King Tran Thanh Tong. The next generations were the first patriarch. Truc Lam Dau Da, the second patriarch Phap Loa, and the third patriarch Huyen Quang.
So, through six generation, all Zen masters had practiced and attained realization at Yen Tu mountain. Since then, anyone who respectfully wanted to learn or practice Buddhism, would travel to Yen Tu mountain. I remember this folk song:
Although one’s determined to renounce,
Can’t fulfill until arrive at Yen Tu mountain.
People visit Yen Tu mountain because of their desire to practice besides of their respect to its holiness. If we build a typical temple at this site instead of a Zen monastery, it’s like having a body with no mind. Zen monastery retains all publication of Tran dynasty and have monks who practice the principle of the patriarchs. This is the mind. A body with no mind is like a dead body.
In the past, I had read a book that was written by sir Ngo Thoi Nham, who lived from the end of Ly dynasty to Nguyen dynasty. There is one segment that I disagree. He said, “The First Patriarch practiced at Yen Tu mountain with an intention of monitoring the northern enemy.” He implied that the patriarch was there for spying, not for practicing. Base on that comment, some scholars later had inaccurate views about the First Patriarch. I didn’t feel much happy with that statement, but yet haven’t had an evidence to prove. When time came at the end of 2001, I visited Ngoa Van temple at Yen Tu mountain and realized that Mr. Nham’s view was inaccurate and dishonored to the patriarch.
The patriarch began his ordained life at Yen Tu mountain. But because the monarchs kept disturbing him within their frequent visits, he decided to move to Ngoa Van Temple. At this location, no vehicle could travel up hill other than bare feet. Therefore, he was able to practice for 5 years an attain realization. He then wrote paean “Dac Phu Lam Tuyen Thanh Dao Ca” (The Attainment Paean). Later, he left the temple to do the teaching. It’s so obvious!
Mr. Nham’s comment unintentionally damage the patriarch’s reputation. He commented that the patriarch was tangled between the practicing life and mortal life. But in fact, the patriarch had made a clear distinction between two lives and determined to live each life considerably. As a monarch, he did his best to lead the nation. He devoted his effort for his country and people. Once he renounced, he devoted his effort to the practicing life. Once example is the preferred to travel by foot than vehicles. The path to Yen Tu was wide and easier for traveling; Therefore, it’s crowded with many vehicles. The patriarch then moved to Ngoa Van Temple to practice seclusion. The path here was quire narrow, which allowed only one individual to travel at a time. Indeed, he could not use any type of commute. This shows his commitment and determination. When he practiced, he was determined to attain the Way. Irreversibility was unacceptable.
Through his writings, we could see that his intention and actions were truthful. IT was not a hear saying. It’s common that people tend to believe what they hear without making an effort to witness the site for the truth. That’s why there were many injustice victims, who wasn’t exonerated. I endured all troubles to get to the place to prove that I was not mistaken about the First Patriarch.
From basic classes to intermediate classes, I kept wondering if Sakyamuni was real. Is it true of what have been said in the Buddhist scriptures and history? I was uncertain and would like to visit the holy place to proof it. I was blessed to be able to tag along with a group of venerable to India. I visited Bamboo Grove monastery and witnessed the bamboo forest. Then, I climbed Grdhrakuta mountain to visit the chambers of Buddha and patriarch Ananda. Only the basement remained. I prostrated to these two chambers and also to the new Bodhi trees that were sprouted from the one that existed since the Buddha’s time. People built thick walls around to protect them. Meantime provided visitors a place to prostrate. Next, I visited the Deer Park and Sala forest, where Buddha entered extinction. By witnessing the site, I then believed that the history of the Buddha was real. He was a typical human like us, who practiced and attained enlightenment. There are evidences to prove it.
After returning to Vietnam, I desired to visit Japan. It’s because I noticed many people, who were interested in Zen and went to Japan to learn it. At the time, I thought that among the countries that followed Mahayana principle, Japan was the best place to attract that many people. I wanted to visit this country to verify it. Later I had an opportunity to go and met a few maters, who had visited Vietnam sometimes in the past. Among them where master Thien Dinh and a Japanese monk. I was invited to a big buffet restaurant, where none of the foods was vegetarian. It was hard for me to pick the right food. Finally, I picked a dish with rice, salad and a few dried shrimps on the top. When I got back to my table, I took out all the shrimps, I only ate rice with salad.
While eating, the Japanese monk as master Thien Dinh, “Is master Thich Thanh Tu allowed to get married?”. Master Thien Dinh replied, “No. After renunciation, no one can get married.” The Japanese monk response with a smile, “I will get married in three months.” I was shocked as I couldn’t believe that a monk, in his Buddhist gown, could think it’s a typical matter. Actually, this matter is not a new to Japanese people. During Meiji era, many Japanese people practice Buddhism, especially young adults. Because the Emperor would like to have an advanced society, he ordered young men to practice Buddhism in their young age until 30 years old. Then, they could renounce the practicing life to get married. Nowadays, everybody followed the same tradition, except a few monks who continue the practicing life in seclusion. Thus, most abbots at the temples wear regular outfits and hats (shirts, pants, suits, etc…). It’s difficult to salute. Catching my puzzling look, some gave me their business card. It said on the cards that they were the abbots of such and such temples. So, Japanese monks don’t eat vegetarian foods and allowed to get married. Where is the intention of practicing for emancipation? Since then, I lost interest in Japan and would never come back.
Buddhism in Sri-Lanka was more disciplined, but too conservative. One time, I was there with a group of Vietnamese venerable. We visited Reverend Narada and his temple. Each meal, Buddhist served foods to the monks by putting the dishes on their head while kneeling. The monks then moved the dishes to the table. Buddhist had to take off their shoes before entering the shrine. Then they walked with their knees into the shrine. If they saw a monk on a street, they prostrated immediately regardless of the dirt. Such conservatism is hard for the people to accept.
I also thought that Buddhist tradition in China would be acceptable since Chinese Buddhism was related to Vietnamese Buddhism. When I was there, I witnessed people walking everywhere with their shoes on and even when they bowed at the Buddha. The monks ate with their followers at the same table. if they wanted more foods, they picked the foods from other tables. They talked while eating. It was so noisy and undisciplined. I couldn’t tolerate it.
Back to Vietnam, I realize that the condition was relatively better. The masters and followers abide the rules, but not too conservatively. Also, they are organized and disciplined. They eat and rest in silence. They take off their shoes when worshipping Buddha and try to preserve the serenity and solemnity of the temple. It’s the true reflection of Buddhist monastics. We could say that Vietnamese monastics have a moderate life. More conformity would make them become conservative, while more freedom would make them become loose. We should avoid these two conditions. Relatively speaking, Vietnamese is an easiest place to practice.
Thus, we need to be wise. Make sure that we don’t make mistake when we practice or speak. Realization what we hear from other people before we speak because we can’t take the words back. That’s why I’m practical in whatever I do or say. I have evidence to back me up instead of just a hear-saying.
All above is the reason that we should learn and understand thoroughly all documentations from Tran dynasty. Now, I start my lecture on “Enjoy The Way In Life” (Cu Tran Lac Dao Phu). Which was written in Nomatic language by King Tran Nhan Ton.
Completed book typing section “Introduction”
Sent date: February 24-2019