yen Tu

Hue Gia: Power and Tolerance

Along with the day’s pace was an arrogant, demanding sun shining intensely all over the vast highlands. The blue sky was gradually blanched of color by the bright light, to which the magnificent mountains were exposing themselves so plainly that the few remaining drops of dew on the leaves of grass soon lost their sparkling radiance. There was not a shadow of hope for a pleasant day in such a hot season, and everything appeared to make no other choice than standing unmoved in the increasing sunshine. Yet, on the summit of a high mountain the modest pagoda seemed to ignore the overpowering presence of the fierce sun. In the grounds around it and along the stone path winding down to the bamboo grove below, the heavy-trunked pines gave a freshness that softened the first fevers of the morning, which were being slowly driven away by the gentle breeze from the sea, leaving an open space for multiple fragrances permeating from a variety of wild flowers. Here and there, merely some cries of monkeys and gibbons echoed occasionally through the forests afar.

It was in the quiet and peaceful shade of these old pines that early in a summer morning of the year 1237 the small pagoda witnessed a historical encounter between its lean, humble owner and a young man coming from the imperial capital. The encounter was historical not because the monk was a national master and the man the emperor of the country, but because the dialogue that was taking place between them could change the destiny of an entire dynasty in the history of Vietnam. For the emperor’s unexpected arrival had not been intended for any consultation with the monk on national affairs but for his own determination of renunciation, a great renunciation just like what his Great Teacher Gautama Śākyamuni had done in India more than one thousand years before. Indeed, the young man was Thái Tông, the first emperor of the Trần Dynasty (1226–1400), and the monk was none other than National Master Phù Vân, the second patriarch of the Yên Tử Dhyāna sect of Vietnam.[1]Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, pp. 9b5-10b4. Cf. Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam III, 2002, pp. 672-675.

Ascending the throne at the very early age of eight (1226), Thái Tông might be one of the few youngest kings of the East who had fortunately spent their childhood and youth safely and peacefully in the court. Devotedly supported and assisted by his father Trần Thừa in the first years of his reign and later by one of his father’s cousins Trần Thủ Độ in governing the country, he had enough time to qualify himself maturely for his supreme position. Without being occupied with the complicated affairs of the court and menial chores of his daily life, he was totally absorbed in his studies of various subjects, among which Buddhist philosophy and Confucian sociology were the most important as they were traditionally considered the firm foundation of a king’s successful rule of a country according to the standards of the time. It was not very difficult for Thái Tông to meet these qualifications as he had very soon proved to be a reliable and trustworthy ruler. Under the personal instruction of royal tutors his capacity was gradually developed, his character well improved and his dignity excellently built. Everything fared favorably for a good ruler-to-be and the members of the court could feel pleased at the thought that a new imperial period no less glorious than the previous one, the Lý Dynasty (1009-1226), would be approaching in the history of the country. Indeed, his great efforts had created great confidence among his subjects, and his young but mature personality had won him great respect from them; but, at he same time, this seemed to blind them to what was actually occurring in the innermost of the young king, who was getting increasingly doubtful of the conventional values of a worldly life, even such a life of much wealth and power as that of an emperor. Along with his early mastering of the current Oriental systems, particularly Buddhist thought, was created in his mind a view not only of the bright side of life but also of its gloomy one. Year after year, his reflections on the prosperity and the decadence of the preceding dynasties, on the grim realities of an earthly life and the peaceful salvation of a noble life, on the transitory nature of worldly phenomena gradually threw into the shade many desires and ambitions normally found in a king for power and sovereignty. In 1230 his beloved mother passed away, and four years later followed his father’s death. These mournful events had left a vacuum within himself that the faithful affection of his young wife Queen Chiêu Thánh, the last descendant of the Lý Dynasty who had handed over imperial power to him,[2]Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, op. cit., p. 1a3-b4 seemed unable to fill.

In Thái Tông’s youth this might be the darkest and most depressive period when he was almost completely disappointed in facing the misfortunes of life. As stated explicitly in the preface to one of his works later, the king was known to have undergone a serious psychic crisis he had never encountered before. The death of his parents not only deprived him of intimate support in the early years of his career as a ruler but also underscored further his primary realization of the meaningless existence of human beings. The more he prolonged his life on the throne, the more definitely he was aware of the fact that the court was really not suitable for a type of men like him. What he was longing for was not power, fame and wealth—the delusive manifestations of happiness from his own view at least—but absolute peace or perfect freedom that would be able to be attained through the Path the Buddha offered in the teachings he had learned very early in his life. The young king began thinking more often of some salvation beyond the limitations of such a complex life in the palace. And the image of one of his old friends, who was leading a monastic life on Mount Yên Tử, began arising in his mind not merely as a peaceful memory in the childhood but frequently as a never-ending obsession of some blissful salvation beyond the reach of his supreme position. Thus, the aspiration for a path of liberation gradually grew into an irresistibly vigorous impulse within himself and the vision of the court losing its young trustworthy ruler seemed then to be inevitable; yet, he had to await and await patiently until he arrived at the age of nineteen when he found it ripe enough for him to make such a vital decision. Then, early in a summer morning the whole citadel was shocked at the terrible news that the young emperor had left the court without a word.

In the preface, written as a brief autobiography, to his Thiền Tông Chỉ Nam (A Manual of Dhyāna Teaching) Thái Tông said:

In the third night of the fourth month of the year Bính Thân, that is, the fifth year of the Thiên Ứng Chính Bình Reign, after disguising myself as a common civilian, I left the palace, telling the servants that I would like to go out surveying the people’s opinions, investigating their needs so as to know exactly every difficulty of [an emperor’s] task. There were then only seven or eight servants accompanying me. At the last hour of the day I silently set out, riding on a horse. Not until had we all crossed the river and traveled eastward, I decided to tell them the truth. They were so amazed that they all dropped their tears. Early in the following morning, we arrived at the ferry on the Đại Than River at Mount Phả Lại. Fearing that I might be recognized, I crossed the river, hiding my face behind the sleeve. That night, we stayed at the Giác Hạnh Pagoda to prepare for the next day’s travel. Crossing the dangerous mountains and deep streams, the horse was so exhausted that I had to leave it and went on walking slowly, holding on to the rock slopes. At the first hour of the afternoon, we reached the slope of Mount Yên Tử. The next morning we ascended the peak, meeting with His Holiness the National Master, the Great Śramaṇa of the Trúc Lâm sect. His Holiness the National Master was delighted to see me. Modestly he said, “I, an old frail monk, have long retreated into the deserted mountains, eating bitter vegetables, tasting nuts, roaming in the forests, drinking water of the streams. My mind is like a floating cloud, coming here with the wind. Now, leaving the throne for poverty in the mountains, what are you longing for in the very place, Your Majesty?”.

Hearing those words, I replied with two lines of tears flowing down my face, “My parents died early when I was still young, leaving me alone without any support above the people. Further, upon reflecting on the impermanence of the preceding reigns, arising and then perishing, I arrive at this mountain with an aspiration for nothing but becoming Buddha.”

“There’s no Buddha in the mountains,” said the Master. “Buddha is just within your mind. It’s knowledge arising from pure mind that is true Buddha. Now, Your Majesty, if you realize this pure mind, you would become Buddha immediately without taking pains to seek outside.”

In the preface mentioned above, no further discussion was made by the author about the master’s reply; however, anyone who has been familiar with Mahāyāna teaching, especially with the ideal of Bodhisattva, can easily recognize the fact that, by his brief interpretation of the true meaning of the term ‘Buddha’, the master himself was trying to draw the young king out of the dilemma he had long been trapped in. To the former, the sudden appearance of the latter on the mountain in the early morning was not an ordinary event. If he failed to encourage the king to return to the throne, the country would inevitably fall into a disastrous turmoil due to his absence in the court. The monk, therefore, knew that whatever suggestion made by him would exert its influence not only on the king himself but also on the whole people under his rule; on the other hand, he understood that it would not be easy for him to break down the king’s determination with merely some superficial advice based on such conventional conceptions as duty, responsibility, and so on, of a king in relation to his nation, his people. For certainly such a determination by the king was not a temporary inspiration evoked by some novelty of a particular style of life; but it was the serious aspiration of a person who had made up his mind to abandon completely all conventional values of the world upon gaining some deep insight into the illusory aspect of life. At the age of nineteen, the king was so full-fledged that he could gain for himself what he wanted; yet, he resolved to leave everything for the noblest way of living that he assumed to give some meaning to his existence on earth. Referring again to his statement in the passage above, we can be definitely aware of this resolution, and we may wonder if his determination was a certain corollary of what he had grasped from the Buddha’s exhortation recorded in the Vajracchedikā-sūtra, one of the major Mahāyāna texts he had learned very early in his life, in which a practitioner on the Path of Bodhisattva is taught to view a conditioned thing as a dream, a bubble, a drop of dew, a lightning flash, and so on.[3]tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvasyāya budbudam / svapnaṃ ca vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭvya saṃskṛtam // (Vajracchedikā, 32)

More acutely than anyone else was the monk aware that he had to try his best to prevent the coming disaster of the country, not by persuading the king to return to his imperial throne, but by instructing him to reform his dharma-throne that had been somewhat distorted by himself with some one-sided view of the Buddhist teaching he had learned. Also he was aware that he might fail to remove the determination of renunciation out of the king’s mind, but he would be capable of putting it in its right direction, or rather, to make it firmer and more proper in a manner that would be beneficial to the king himself as well as the country. And the history proved evidently that he had been successful. Interestingly enough, what he had utilized skillfully to remind the king of the essential implication of the term buddha was, too, derived from the text mentioned above. The climax of the dilemma the latter could not break through was in his assumption that it would be quite appropriate for him to cultivate the path to enlightenment or attain ultimate liberation by separating himself from the world. It is a rather misleading common idea that has long been formed upon a false concept that, as a pious Buddhist practitioner, one should and must follow the Buddha’s example exactly in every possible aspect. Just as the Buddha himself, for instance, renounced the world for his seeking a path to liberate all sentient beings out of suffering, so does a Buddhist practitioner have to seek for himself a path leading to the same aim. One forgets that after his attainment of perfect enlightenment the Buddha presented various paths of liberation to human beings of various capacities in order that what a practitioner needs is not to seek a new path but to select the most suitable one for his or her capacity. Thus, a Buddhist practitioner is absolutely free to choose his path and, at once, totally responsible for his decision to follow the Buddha’s teachings. There would be neither any blame laid by him for his own failure on Buddhism nor any claim made by him to his own possession of some noble achievement from it. Everything is totally up to him on the path he has freely chosen. Therefore, the concept mentioned above is not only seemingly misconstruing for those who want to seek some salvation in practicing Buddhist teachings but also quite deceptive for those who want to have some true understanding of apparently paradoxical actions performed by Buddhist devotees, monks and laymen, particularly in the countries of Eastern Asia. The path leading to ultimate liberation or perfect enlightenment that has been generally cultivated and developed in Vietnam for ages is the Path of Bodhisattva, in which nirvāṇa, the state of ultimate liberation that many Buddhists suppose to enter, and saṃsāra, the sate of suffering that they desire to escape from, are considered merely the two sides of the same continuum of human conditions. Otherwise stated, a Buddhist practitioner’s path towards perfect enlightenment cannot be realized unless the process of cultivating it is carried out right in the midst of the world. Of course, in Buddhism such a path supposed to be followed by a Bodhisattva is in essence not so apparently smooth and comfortable as that cultivated by a Śrāvaka. For the entire process of attaining ultimate liberation by the former cannot be separated from the community in which he exists. Consequently, the whole of his living, including his firm aspiration for perfect enlightenment or his great vow to become Buddha or even his worldly needs of a down-to-earth life, is inevitably identified with that of the people and the country. Hence, the self-evident fact that anyone who has made up his mind to follow this Path can visualize obviously is that in so far as there remain suffering beings in the community of which he is an integral part, there will not be any expectation of rest and comfort during his living as a Bodhisattva, except for some inner progress achieved in purifying his mind. Doctrinally considered, various levels of the path of a Bodhisattva can be conceived by a reader of Buddhist literature not only in Mahāyāna texts but also in the Pāli canon, in Jātakas for instance. Yet, in practice, some identification of a Bodhisattva’s practice with that of a Śrāvaka may mislead the reader into some partial knowledge of Buddhism as a whole. The former path is regulated by its own laws and rules, let alone its means, methods, ideal and aim, especially its functions in a secular life. However, since all the paths set forth in Buddhism have the same “flavor”, namely, that of liberation, various differences between them are sometimes neglected by some preachers and translators when they see that some doctrinal differentiations exposed in details would not be practical and necessary for Buddhist followers, particularly for those who have been elaborately instructed to cultivate a particular path. In the Smaller Amitābha-Sūtra, for instance, there is an expression, among several others, referring to the appearance of Amitābha Buddha with Śrāvakas and Bodhisattvas before a dying Buddhist devotee who has piously practiced the recitation of this Buddha’s name “so ’mitāyus tathāgataḥ śrāvakasaṃghaparivṛto bodhisatt-vagaṇapuraskṛtaḥ purataḥ sthāsyati” (Amitāyus Tathāgata surrounded with the order of Śrāvakas and accompanied by the group of Bodhisattvas will stand in front [of that dying person]). This sentence was later translated by Kumārajīva into Chinese as “阿 彌 陀 佛 與 諸 聖 眾 現 在 其 前”[4]T12n0366_p0347b13. (Amitābha Buddha together with the body of saints appears in front of him [or her]) where the expressions Śrāvakasaṃgha and Bodhisattvagaṇa were simplified into one, whereas it is widely known that the two Bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta always accompany Amitābha Buddha in such a trip.

For a Buddhist practitioner in a particular path of Buddhism, therefore, it may be really unnecessary to master all of the Buddha’s teachings as his aim is not to acquire knowledge but to cultivate some teaching as a means of attaining liberation. Yet, in some case such a rather simple way of interpreting Buddhist teachings may be apt to conduce to some confusion about what Buddhism as a whole should be, a confusion that may cause a practitioner to go away from the correct path and a reader to form a false idea of some particular aspects of Buddhism. In reality, this might be more or less the pitfall in which Thái Tông had fallen since his initial efforts of studying and practicing Buddhism, especially the Dhyāna teaching. Indeed, in another passage concerning his mother’s death, the king wrote,

Furthermore, through some initial knowledge acquired just in my childhood when I was studying under a Dhyāna master, my mind became calm without a trace of worry. Being a little purified, I began to focus my mind on the inner teaching, consulting the texts of dhyāna, modestly seeking for masters, and being piously devoted to the Path. Though I had raised my mind towards the Path, my opportunity did not come yet. When I was just thirteen years old,[5]Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., p. 666. my mother passed away. I felt as if my heart were breaking up with blood and tears. Taking the ground as bed, the straw as mat, I abandoned everything worthy of thinking about, except for my great sorrow.

Obviously, the above passage gives us some definite information concerning two significant facts of the king’s life before his renunciation. The first is that the primary aim of his studying and practicing Buddhist teaching was to attain a calm or pure mind; that is to say, a mind is not tainted with various kinds of defilement and affliction of a secular life. The second is that he was extremely sensitive to the gloomy side of life. In reality, these two are the mutually dependent aspects of the same character that can be easily recognized in any devoted Buddhist initiates. Only those who are sensitive to the ephemeral phenomena of life can raise some concern about the true meaning of human existence and then aspire for some liberation from it; and only those who frequently occupy themselves with an aspiration for true happiness can, in turn, be easily affected by the delusive values of life.

Such might be the case of Thái Tông. His extremely sensitive character to the impermanence of life enabled him to be absorbed deeply in his reflections on its meaning; yet, it was his earnest frequent contemplation of its true meaning that, in turn, urged him to seek a way not to transform it but to escape from it, particularly when the way he chose was what he had been instructed very early in his life. Here again we may wonder if Thái Tông’s gloomy view of life and hence his determination of renouncing it for the noble path in Buddhism could proceed from his own interpretation of the term ‘pure mind’ described in a Chinese version of Vajracchedikā-sūtra, a text that was very essential to him. In this text, while expounding to Subhūti how a Bodhisattva should raise his mind, the Buddha declared, “tasmāt tarhi subhūti bodhisattvenaṃ mahāsattvena evam apratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyaṃ yan na ka cit pratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyam/ na rūpapratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyaṃ na śabdagandharasaspraṣtavyadharma-pratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyam//” (Therefore, Subhūti, such an unlimited mind should then be raised by a Bodhisattva Mahāsattva; the mind fixed on nowhere should be raised. The mind not fixed on a form should be raised; the mind not fixed on a sound, an odor, a taste, a tangible thing, a mind-object should be raised.) This statement was then translated by Kumārajīva into Chinese as “是 故 修 菩 提 諸 菩 薩 麼 訶 薩 應 如 是 生 清 淨 心 不 應 住 色 生 心不 應 住 聲 香 味 觸 法 生 心 應 無 所 住 而 生 其 心”[6]T08n0235_p0749c20. (Therefore, Subhūti, a Bodhisattva Mahāsattva should raise pure mind like that; [he] should not raise mind fixed on a form, should not raise mind fixed on a sound, an odor, a taste, a tangible thing, a mind-object. He should raise mind fixed on nowhere.) where the Sanskrit phrase apratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam was rhetorically interpreted as ‘pure mind’. Certainly, in the context of the sūtra the Chinese expression 清 淨 心 (pure mind) cannot imply some mind that is commonly understood to be purified by means of abandoning evil thoughts and producing good ones. For Kumārajīva, who has been well known as an expert translator of Mahāyāna texts, translated the following verbal adjectives pratiṣṭthita as 住 (being fixed on, attached to, supported by) in the remaining part of the same statement. This shows evidently that in his translation the term ‘pure’ does include all the possible implications of the Sanskrit equivalent apratiṣṭhita, unrestrained, unlimited, unsupported, not fixed on, not based on, not attached to, and so on. Thus, for a proper understanding of the pure mind initially raised in a Bodhisattva, some partial knowledge of the pure mind commonly interpreted in the path of Śrāvaka alone would not be sufficient. In the major texts of Mahāyāna teaching, Vajracchedikā in particular, mind does not mean thought, idea, perception, conception, and the like when it refers to the aspiration for attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all beings (bodhicitta). If mind were thought, it would be quite impossible to teach a Buddhist practitioner to raise something within himself like an “unsupported thought” or a “thought unsupported by sights, sounds, etc.” because a thought can never be formed without a certain corresponding object, at least within the conditions of a being in the World of Desire (kāmadhātu), whether this object is conceived as a descriptive or a real one. In Buddhism, a thought cannot arise without its object, physical or mental; there is never an ‘independent’ thought but always a thought about something. In this connection, the term ‘pure’ is ordinarily interpreted as being opposed to ‘impure’, that is to say, a pure thought is a good one and an impure thought an evil one, for example. It follows then that with such a definition of ‘pure mind’ a Buddhist practitioner would naturally tend to select the path that is meant for restraining himself from the world to facilitate his practice of purifying his mind of all kinds of defilement and affliction produced at all times by a secular life. It was, therefore, not surprising at all that the decision of abandoning the throne made by Thái Tông was the best solution when he was so intensely shocked by his parents’ death and so heavily burdened with the exhausting responsibilities of a sovereign. The mind that had partly been “purified” and “without a trace of worry” through his primary efforts of studying and practicing Buddhist teachings very early in his life was easily broken down by merely a few of grim realities of the world. Eventually, the initial aspiration that he had developed for “becoming Buddha” would only be an illusion for him unless he decided to leave the court for a tranquil solitary life in the mountains.

It was due to his very deep understanding of the king’s mind that National Master Phù Vân had not given any advice as to the king’s return to the throne. Instead, he employed a much subtler and more effective measure. The crucial motivation that was controlling the whole mental life of Thái Tông was his aspiration for perfect enlightenment, or rather, his vow to become Buddha as he had confessed it above. Once such a vow had been made, nothing could prevent him from realizing it, except that he was someway awakened to conceive that the goal he was aiming at would be attained nowhere but right in the midst of the world. The national master saw this point and he made a decisive effort to open for the king an escape from his dilemma. Through his elucidation of the meaning of ‘Buddha’ and ‘pure mind’, the master convinced the king that the ‘buddha’ he was longing for was the very ‘pure mind’ that he had misconceived so far and that this pure mind would not be found in the mountains, that is, anywhere outside. Indeed, the second statement made later by the master before the king’s return to the capital and reported bluntly in the preface mentioned above seemed to be merely a repetition of the first one in another form of wording:

As a leader of a nation, you should take the people’s minds to be your own, take the people’s concerns to be your own. Now, they are expecting you to return, how can you refuse it? There is only one thing you shouldn’t forget, that is, paying attention to the Scriptures.”

From a popular standpoint, the above statement of the master may be considered to be representing some traditional political viewpoint of the East. From a deep standpoint, it is the very ideal of a Bodhisattva in the midst of the world. Here we are once more reminded of the spirit of Vajracchedikā-sūtra conveyed in the master’s statement. The pure mind is the mind that transcends both impure and pure thoughts. It is not stirred up by any ideas of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa because it is not supported by any of the objects that are essentially descriptions in the process of consciousness. In other words, it is not characterized by anything within the reach of human beings’ perception. It, therefore, arises from nowhere. Consequently, such a mind that cannot be identified with some pure mind to be defined as being rid of impure thoughts may be realized not by abandoning impure thoughts and developing pure ones, but merely by personal experience of a practitioner through various skillful means along the path of Bodhisattva. It is the ‘pure mind’ that Kumārajīva resorted to in his interestingly colorful translation of the expression apratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam in Vajracchedikā-sūtra. It is named ‘pure’ because there is not any better way of describing it in the parlance of human beings, just like the term śūnyatā used by Nāgārjuna to indicate the ultimate reality. Otherwise stated, the mind that is not limited in and distorted by the operation of consciousness and its indispensable object is the ‘pure mind’ or ‘empty mind’; and since it is empty, it is the full mind. For the simplest truth is that what is empty can hold most.

For the rule of a country to be successful, that is, bringing happiness for its people, a king must know what the people are really longing for. In order to penetrate into what they are longing for, he must take their longing to be his own; and in thus doing, he must not let his selfish thoughts cover their common longing, that is, making his mind thoroughly ‘empty’. Obviously, the most essential principle of selflessness in Buddhism was doubly employed by the master as a fatal blow at the king’s abiding attachment to some “I-ness” hidden behind his aspiration for some individual liberation, which normally arises in those who remain to be blind to the true meaning of ultimate liberation in Buddhism. It was his own desire for a “pure mind” that had limited his pure mind; it was his aspiration for an outside ‘Buddha’ that was covering the true ‘Buddha’ within himself; similarly, it was his own longing for individual liberation that was hindering him from understanding with his people, for whom he had to bring true happiness as one of a Bodhisattva’s vows as well as a king’s mission. Certainly, the master’s statement had created some transformation in the king’s mind, which was evidenced by the latter’s deeds in the remaining years of his life on the throne.

Nowadays, not any historical account is found as to how long Thái Tông had stayed on Mount Yên Tử before he decided to return to the citadel. And besides the two statements quoted above of the national master and reported in the preface to Thiền Tông Chỉ Nam , Thái Tông referred nothing more to the talk of him and the master during his short staying on the mountain. Yet, the fact that he mentioned merely the two statements above obviously shows that what he had received from the instruction of the national master in his few days’ staying on Mount Yên Tử had a decisive influence not only on his understanding of the essentials of Buddhist teaching but also on his entire career as a ‘bodhisattva-king’ in the first reign of the Trần Dynasty. Indeed, a glimpse of all that Thái Tông achieved in the history of Vietnam easily shows that the consistent and coherent performance of the ideal of Bodhisattva was applied as the bedrock of his mission of developing and defending his country and his people.

After returning to the court, with the earnest assistance of his subjects Thái Tông began to carry out three pivotal policies for the purpose of bringing about happiness for the people. The first was aimed at consolidating the state’s machinery, which served as the major foundation of economic development and social stability; the second was to boost the economy, which was then based on agriculture; and the third was aimed at protecting the nation’s territory and ownership.[7]Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., pp. 688-710. In order to accomplish these policies, the king carried out a series of measures that covered all the aspects of society.

Educationally, following the three examinations held with his father’s and Trần Thủ Độ’s assistance in the years 1227, 1232, and 1236, Thái Tông continued to have the others organized in 1239, and later in 1247 and 1256 to select competent officials. Through this measure, he did strengthen the state’s machinery, not by giving power to it through his partial employment of only those who were assumed to be loyal to him, but by equipping it with a force of well-qualified officials. In addition to these, another examination of candidates for ‘doctorate’ was held every seven years for the purpose of boosting and stabilizing education and examination across the country.[8]Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam III, p. 689.

Economically, owing to the fact that Vietnam was at that time an agricultural country, Thái Tông carried out the measure of digging irrigation canals and building dams for preventing flooding. Besides this, the army force was utilized to help the peasantry with their cultivating and harvesting. It was through these measures that the people did not suffer any famines, even in the years of war and natural disasters.

Militarily, in order to prepare for an inevitable war against the northern invaders, that is, the Yuan army, and a possible war against the southern invaders, the Cham army, Thái Tông started an elaborate plan of recruiting and training soldiers throughout the country. This army force was either posted at the capital or moved across the country to help with agriculture.

Concerning society, Thái Tông applied all possible measures to preserve social order and secure peaceful living of all classes in society. A careful study of his achievements during his reign indicates explicitly that all the policies performed by him were based on a common principle, that is, the mutual dependence of all classes in society, in which not any class was assumed to be a public tool for serving a particular one, even the leading class. Through the fulfillment of the educational, economic and military measures mentioned above, he had gathered the force of all classes in society to serve for one and the same purpose, that is, strengthening the country in every aspect to improve the people’s conditions of living and prepare for a resistant war in the coming years. The common people were aided by the army in production and by the Confucian intellectuals and the Buddhist clergy in preserving social order. As being officials and moral advisors, their task was not only to instruct the common people to live righteously in accordance with the state’s laws and moral rules but also participate directly in every community-development project. In addition to the laws already established in the preceding dynasty, the king issued several new laws concerning business, punishment, compensation of people’s land used by the state in the plan of irrigation, and so on. Furthermore, the king himself wrote and published his teachings of a moral way of living by indicating the harmful effects of personal and social evils and the constructive value of morality in social welfare. Generally speaking, the most remarkable feature in Thái Tông’s art of ruling was that the prosperity of the whole nation depended completely on the sense of responsibility of each member in the community in which the king was always the first to set the example. It was due to his power and tolerance that the king had gathered all the forces of the country to defeat the Yuan army in the fierce battles in January of 1258. The fact that such a powerful army as the Yuan invaders, who had frightened and occupied many countries in Western and Eastern Asia and the Middle East, could not occupy the imperial capital Thăng Long (present-day Hà Nội) more than twelve days[9]Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., p. 707. shows how powerfully Thái Tông had devoted himself to the cause of developing and defending his country.

After the war he immediately transferred imperial power to his son Trần Thánh Tông for the purpose of initiating the latter into the supreme mission of an emperor and concentrating his remaining energy on consolidating the moral foundation of the people’s living. In addition to helping the new king with some initial experience of managing national affairs, he spent most of his time writing and publishing moral teachings to the public. From his view, war was never a proper resolution of a king in the mission of building a country, even though it was a resistant war. For, besides the loss of energies of the country, the most terrible consequence was its destruction of the people’s human character. In wartime, patriotism was normally provoked in the people’s minds as a mental force to create solidarity among the classes of society; yet patriotism alone was not sufficient. To defeat enemies, particularly a powerful enemy like Mongolian invaders, political, military and even psychological maneuvers had to be applied to secure a final victory and excite the people’ hatred and vengeance towards the enemy, and, in some case, even towards their own countrymen who were thought to be supporting the enemy. It was such evil mental states hidden by the ideal of patriotism as well as various forms of desperation created by fears of death and starvation in wartime that would spoil not only the people’s energy but also their humanity in building the country in the post-war period. Thái Tông knew clearly that the victory of his people over the northern invaders in Đông Bộ Đầu[10]Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, pp. 22a3-23b4 was only the beginning of a series of battles in the following years and the deterioration of his people’s morality in such a long war would be inevitable. To prepare for the serious situation that the country was to encounter, therefore, Thái Tông, on the one hand, immediately trained his son to be a qualified ruler in the new period by transferring the power to him. On the other hand, he made his final efforts of consolidating social stability through the plan of preserving the people’s morality. These moves by Thái Tông were clearly justified by his successors’ leadership in the later wars against the enemies from the north and the south and by a well-developed Vietnam in the post-war periods. With the help of the Buddhist clergy, particularly National Master Phù Vân, Thái Tông completed his series of writings dealing with righteous conducts of common citizens and with the help of the Confucian intellectuals he had these moral rules propagated widely in the people. Through his existent works,[11]Lê Mạnh Thát, Toàn Tập Trần Thái Tông, to appear. it gets increasingly clear that Thái Tông poured his final energy into cultural activities, which might be the most favorite task of him, whose single initial concern had been totally orientated towards a noble life in tranquility and enlightenment. Indeed, in addition to many writings dealing with the subject-matters mentioned above, Thái Tông was the first Vietnamese Buddhist to create a new tendency in the Dhyāna sect of Vietnam by his suggestion of the practice of repentance in the living of Vietnamese Buddhists. Whether it was a natural growth out of an application of moral teachings in war-time or not, Thái Tông’s contribution to Buddhist literature and practice in Vietnam has really been a unique remarkable fact in the history of Buddhist development in Vietnam.

The first eleven years’ preparation (1226-1237) by Thái Tông for the rule, the twenty-one years’ working as an actual emperor on the throne (1237-1258), and the twenty years’ service as an advisor (1258-1278) to his son Trần Thánh Tông and as a shining exemplar to his people were a long period of hardship which was firmly based upon the great vows of a Bodhisattva. In deed, for the benefit of the people the king endured patiently and voluntarily every affliction caused to himself by his mission as the leader of a nation. Nevertheless, no matter how extremely insufferable or how honorably rewarding they might be, war and victory, peace and glory, love and hostility, marriage and suffering, sovereignty and humility, liberation and attachment, and so on, all passed by the king’s reincarnation in the modest Vietnamese country as a dream, a bubble, a lightning flash, or more interestingly, “the shadow of a flying swan reflected in the river” as expressed romantically in a poem by Hương Hải, a Vietnamese Dhyāna Master.[12]Mật Thể, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Lược, Minh Đức, Huế, 1960, p.181: Nhạn quá trường không,            (Across the sky the swan flew, Ảnh trầm hàn … Continue reading

As it has been said before, it is obviously evident that the guiding inspiration of the king’s deeds is the ideal of Bodhisattva based on the spirit of Vajracchedikā-sūtra in that he willingly forsook himself for the benefit of his country and his people. It is, however, interesting enough for those who prefer an appreciation of his whole career from a purely political view to recognize that Thái Tông should be considered a nationalist rather than a Buddhist, at least in the light of his application of all the doctrines he had at his time to serving his country and his people. This appears to be untrue for the simple reason that the truth has been concealed by the fact that his devotional study in Buddhist teaching throughout his life and many of his works on Buddhism later, especially Dhyāna teaching, which have hitherto been dealt with by most of Vietnamese historians as representing his major character, are apt to lead readers to visualizing Thái Tông as a Buddhist layman in the pattern of the Buddha’s first sermons in the Deer Park. If this is evidenced, it may provide a reader of Vietnamese history with much more proper evaluation not only of Thái Tông’s deeds but also of the role of Buddhism and its followers throughout the history of Vietnam.

The most remarkable impression for a careful reader of the history of Vietnam, whether he is a Buddhist or not, is that Thái Tông did not exhaust the energies of his country and his people with any –ism, even with that called Buddhism. Strictly considered, he was not a Buddhist supporter in the ordinary sense of the term.  For in Thái Tông’s hand every doctrine, if it may be so called, whether it is from inside Vietnam or anywhere outside it, was all adapted to the service of his country and people.

If it is the case, a question is naturally faced here “What is then the doctrinal pattern in which all the policies he carried out during his reign were molded?” The answer is evidently clear that he did not apply any definite doctrine to developing and defending his country and his people. Also this sounds paradoxical when Thái Tông reported definitely in the preface to his Thiền Tông Chỉ Nam that he had later grasped the true meaning of the teaching “yan na ka cit pratiṣṭhitaṃ cittam utpādayitavyam”, which has been interpreted by some Vietnamese historians, and even by the author of this writing, as the guiding principle of all his activities. Yes, it is true. Yet, the verse quoted above from the Vajracchedikā-sūtra is not an –ism. It is in essence used to destroy all doctrines, or more technically, “to cut the most deeply-rooted attachment” just as the title of the sūtra implies, but it is not a doctrine that is meant for being opposed to and used to destroy other doctrines. It is not anything that would be studied, systematized and then applied to some situation as some guiding principle in politics. In Buddhist terminology, it is a ‘skillful means’ (upāya-kauśalya) proceeding from the Buddha’s perfect wisdom and merely utilized by a Bodhisattva, who has abandoned any sense of “I-ness” during his long process of saving countless suffering beings and attaining perfect enlightenment.

It is with this skillful means that Thái Tông, instead of destroying his country through some blind and fanatical belief in Buddhism or Confucianism, succeeded in building Vietnam a powerful country in both peace-time and war-time. Unlike China’s Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty who wanted to gain merits merely for himself through his efforts of building pagodas and enlarging the Buddhist clergy, or, Cambodia’s Jayavarman VII and Ceylon’s Prakrama Bahu I who utilized their respective nations’ resources to make Buddhism a state religion, Thái Tông did get rid of all concerns about himself to “take the populace’s concerns to be his own” only. He paid an equal attention to all members in his community whether they were the common people, the Confucian intellectuals or Buddhist monks. He did not set up a swarm of “monks” as a political support for his regime to suppress other non-Buddhist organizations; he did not gather Buddhist monks around him to consolidate his court. He did not utilize the common people as a public tool to serve his “Buddhist regime” and his loyal Buddhist subjects. Nor did he use Buddhism as a slogan to eliminate Confucianism, which was well known for its influence in the circle of intellectuals in Vietnam of the time. Though he knew clearly that Confucian supporters had always been gaining much support from the contemporary Chinese government, he did employ them, not as an adjunct of his foreign policy, but as a constructive force in developing and defending the country.

In the same preface to Thiền Tông Chỉ Nam, he wrote:

I often tell myself that Buddhahood, which is beyond any differentiation of southern and northern [people], can be attained by those who practice [the Path]; [true] nature, which is characterized by either wisdom or foolishness, can be realized through enlightenment. Hence, the means of teaching the fool, the shortcut to indicate [the meaning of] Birth-and-Death, these are the great teachings of our Buddha. Yet, to lay down the rules for the coming generations, to make the patterns for the future ones, these are the important responsibilities of [Confucian] sages. . . . Thus, it is not  possible for me to consider the sages’ responsibilities not to be my own, and the Buddha’s teaching not to be my own.

It is evidently clear that Thái Tông not only mastered thoroughly the current doctrinal systems in order to apply them effectively to his practical situation but also had a deep understanding with his people’s expectations. Since the first Vietnamese Buddhist layman Chử Đồng Tử and his wife, after studying the Buddha’s Dharma under Monk Phật Quang between the third and the second centuries B.C.E,[13]Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam I, 1999, pp. 13-26. started their first propagation of Buddhism in Vietnam, which is now found in the classic Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái through the symbolic descriptions of a Dharma-hat for protecting the common people’s living and of a Dharma-stick for supporting them, and later Confucianism was introduced into Vietnam, these two systems have been incorporated into Vietnam’s traditional culture and ceaselessly adapted, refined and developed so skillfully and creatively by the Vietnamese for centuries that they have shaped the unique culture of Vietnam, in which it is now really difficult to find their original forms from India and China respectively. They have become the indispensable factors in the cause of building and developing the Vietnamese country. As a successor to the preceding dynasties, Thái Tông knew this fact very well. These foreign systems have long become the living energy of his country and his people and existed as the inseparable components of Vietnam’s cultural continuity that has undergone numerous challenges through centuries. Therefore, what Thái Tông needed to do was not to seek for any exotic doctrines but to select from his country’s traditional culture what would be most suitable for the line of development of his country. This may be considered one of the proper moves of a leader of a country due to the fact that a people’s traditional culture always reflects exactly their needs and wishes. Any policy that is based upon such popular needs and wishes will certainly be in accordance with the populace and receive absolute support from them. It was on this principle that Thái Tông was successful in gathering all the major forces of his people in his plan of developing and defending the country.

Ever since he was taught by the national master to abandon his greatest attachment to a renunciation of the world for becoming a Buddha, the dogmatic teachings, fixed doctrines, personal aspirations for individual salvation that the king had grasped early in his life were totally stripped of their partial, restrictive and superficial features in his great efforts to carry out absolutely the most fundamental principle of the Buddha’ teaching on selflessness. The sovereign power that have ever blinded countless emperors in the world and led them into innumerable destructive actions done for other and sometimes their own countries and peoples turned into a skillful means in Thái Tông’s hand to handle the whole destiny of a country. His physical body was seated on the imperial throne but his mind was all the time on the dharma-throne. What constantly occupied his mind was neither happiness for himself nor for his royal family but the welfare of the whole people. In some aspect it may be said that it was the inseparable relation between him and his people’s living that formed his personality as a perfect emperor in the history of Vietnam.

It is not possible in the present short writing to enumerate all the achievements in Thái Tông’s career as a bodhisattva-leader of a glorious period in the history of Vietnam. Nevertheless, for the Vietnamese who have miserably experienced how terribly the effects of war and ignorance have been destroying the energies of their country, and who have been sincerely concerned about the destiny of a country where they were born and grown up as human beings in the true sense of the term, Thái Tông’s personality and some aspects of his career mentioned above certainly leave in their minds a picture of a glorious and peaceful period of the Vietnamese people in their history of developing and defending the motherland, even though this period be gradually turning into a legendary story right on their homeland today.


1 Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, pp. 9b5-10b4. Cf. Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam III, 2002, pp. 672-675.
2 Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, op. cit., p. 1a3-b4
3 tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvasyāya budbudam / svapnaṃ ca vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭvya saṃskṛtam // (Vajracchedikā, 32
4 T12n0366_p0347b13.
5 Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., p. 666.
6 T08n0235_p0749c20.
7 Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., pp. 688-710.
8 Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam III, p. 689.
9 Lê Mạnh Thát, op. cit., p. 707.
10 Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư V, pp. 22a3-23b4
11 Lê Mạnh Thát, Toàn Tập Trần Thái Tông, to appear.
12 Mật Thể, Việt Nam Phật Giáo Sử Lược, Minh Đức, Huế, 1960, p.181:

Nhạn quá trường không,            (Across the sky the swan flew,
Ảnh trầm hàn thủy.                     Itself reflected in the cold river.
Nhạn vô di tích chi ý,                  It had no idea of leaving its trace;
Thủy vô lưu ảnh chi tâm.            nor did the water intend to hold its shadow.)

13 Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam I, 1999, pp. 13-26.

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