Vietnamese society in the late eighteenth century was
characterized by fierce struggle and rapid transformation. Both the
pace and degree of these changes exceeded that of any other historical
era. Soldiers launched a major revolt in the palace of the Trinh lord.
Tay Son troops routed the Nguyen regime in the south and the Trinh in
the north. Chinese Qing troops invaded northern Vietnam and were swiftly
defeated. King Quang Trung died suddenly; the Tay Son regime faltered
and was vanquished by the armies of Nguyen Anh.
These sudden and unexpected events occurred too
rapidly for people to adequately assess their origins or causes.
Confucian scholars were likewise puzzled and disturbed. In the face of
the violent and unpredictable realities of the era, conventional
Confucian concepts of virtue, filial piety, peace, prosperity, and
saintliness seemed irrelevant. Scholars began to question whether
Confucian dogma had outlived its usefulness. Facing this imminent
ideological crisis, the majority of scholars admirably chose to remain
active. They did not sit idly by, nor did they simply attempt to protect
themselves and their positions or attempt to escape in some way from
their responsibilities. Although their reputations came under attack,
concerned scholars from this period such as Ngo Thi Si, Le Quy Don, Ngo
Thi Nham, Tran Van Ky and Nguyen Gia Phan tirelessly searched for ways
to meet the new demands of the era. But events unfolded differently than
they had hoped and the faith they had held in the correctness of their
collective actions and ideas was slowly undermined. They remained
divided and confused.
Given this situation, scholars could not continue to
inflexibly follow their old beliefs. Instead, they reexamined their own
history in hopes of discovering old answers to their new problems. As
effective solutions were not immediately apparent, they decided to
reassess the heritage bequeathed to them from preceding historical
periods. One outcome of this search was a deeper understanding of how
Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism had historically coexisted in Vietnam
and how state policies recognizing the role and validity of all three
religions in Vietnam’s political ideological system had produced
positive effects especially during the Ly and Tran period. Based on such
historical evidence, they argued that the State should again support
both Buddhism and Taoism, along with Confucianism. Moreover, to develop a
new ideology and a series of policies capable of solving society’s
current problems, they argued that two conditions had to be met. First,
the relative importance of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism had to be
naturally maintained in accordance with the older Vietnamese worldview.
And second, a new policy, one more concrete and explicit than older
religious policies, and one which unambiguously supported the
co-existence of all three creeds, had to be enacted.
The idea that "the three religions shared a single
origin" which had existed for many centuries, once again grew in
prominence and popularity. Different scholars expressed and explained
this sentiment in different ways, based on their own knowledge,
intellect, and experience. The case of the scholar Ngo Thi Nham provides
one interesting example. Ngo Thi Nham was born October 25, 1746 at Ta
Thanh Oai village (also called To village at the time), in what was then
the Son Nam administrative division (now Dai Thanh commune, Thuong Tin
district, Ha Son Binh province). His pen name was Hy Doan, and he often
used the further alias Dat Hien. His family boasted a long tradition of
scholarship and bureaucratic service. His father, Ngo Thi Si (1726-1786)
was an eminent Confucian scholar of the eighteenth century. At the age
of 30, Ngo Thi Nham successfully earned his doctorate degree and
received consecutive appointments as mandarin of the Kinh Bac and Thai
Nguyen administrative divisions. He was later assigned to a high post in
the Dong Cac Royal Library. In 1786, Nguyen Hue (also known as Quang
Trung) first led his Tay Son insurgent troops to the northern part of
the country. At that time, Ngo Thi Nham was holding an influential
position on the Le Chieu Thong court’s board of civil affairs. During
Nguyen Hue’s reign, Ngo Thi Nham continued to hold high office. He was
first councilor to the board of public works, served as minister on a
special military advisory board and acted as Nguyen Hue’s special envoy
to the Chinese Qing court.
A man of vast learning and erudition, Ngo Thi Nham
proposed many effective policies and proved an astute and skillful
political operator. His acumen can be seen in the sudden decision he
made lo abandon the corrupt (and doomed) Le-Trinh clique and present his
services instead to the future national hero Nguyen Hue. Moreover he is
widely credited with masterminding Nguyen Hue’s resistance to a massive
Chinese invasion; his strategy consisting of ordering the initial
withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops beyond Tam Diep to protect them
against the initial Qing onslaught, thus creating the subsequent
conditions for a resoundingly victorious counter-attack in 1789.
Thereafter he was to engineer a particularly effective foreign policy
strategy towards the Qing. Because of this string of successes, Ngo Thi
Nham was highly decorated and respected by Nguyen Hue.
Ngo Thi Nham was one of a small handful of scholars
from this period who wrote a considerable number of valuable works.
Examples of these include Hai Dong Chi Luoc (1771), Thanh Trieu Hoi Giam (1783), Xuan Thu Quan Kien (1786-1792), Bang Giao Hao Thoai (1789-1800), Han Cac Anh Hoa (1789-1801), and Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh
(1796-1802). This final work, dealing specifically with Buddhism, was
written at a time when the Tay Son court had grown weak. Quang Toan, who
succeeded to the throne after Quang Trung’s death, adopted a cooler and
more distant posture towards Ngo Thi Nham and his proposals. The new
king transferred him to a relatively unimportant position in charge of
projects to revise the national history, and care for a Confucian temple
in the northern wing of the citadel.
Evidence suggests that by this time, Ngo Thi Nham was
already favorably inclined towards Buddhism. With several colleagues
and close friends, he opened an institute for Thien (Ch’an) (Zen)
(Dhyana} studies at his private home in the Bich Cau district of the
capital: Here, Ngo Thi Nham organized lively discussions on Buddhism in
general and on the Truc Lam Ch’an sect in particular. The work Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh (also called Truc Lam Dai Chan Vien Giac Thanh or Nhi Thap Tu Thanh)
expresses the opinions of many people including Ngo Thi Nham, followed
by commentary and discussion between himself and his friends. In all,
the book contains 24 sections, each section consisting of a single
"thanh". A "thanh" is a spoken canto which expresses a religious tenet.
24 "thanh" represent simultaneously the 24 religious tenets of mankind
which correspond to the 24 natural humors (elements); and simultaneously
expresses the 24 natural laws of the universe.
The book is divided into three parts. The first one
is a preface written by Phan Huy Ich. Second is the main part consisting
of the 24 sections. And third is a summary of the main idea of each
thanh" composed by Hai Dien (Nguen Huu Dam). Each "thanh" in the main
part is divided into three sub-sections: an introduction written by Hai
Luong (Ngo Thi Hoanh), a statement of the "thanh’s" vital idea composed
by Bonze superior Hai Huyen (Ngo Thi Nham), and an annotation by Bonze
Hai Au (Vu Trinh) and Bonze Hai Hoa (Nguyen Dang So) providing
additional explanation and commentary on the text.
The book’s contents suggest that the main objective
of the authors was to promote a novel religion with traditions
originating in the doctrine and practices of the Truc Lam Ch’an sect.
Ngo Thi Nham selected the Truc Lam Ch’an sect because he felt that those
who had been involved with this sect possessed views on life, karma,
and national consciousness similar to those held by his friends and
Ngo Thi Nham believed, for instance, that King Tran
Nhan Tong, the first ancestor of the Truc Lam Ch’an sect, by leading a
resistance war against the Mongols, displayed a spirit similar to his
own when he led the Tay Son troops in resistance against the Qing
invasion. He saw further parallels in the scholastic accomplishments of
the ancestors of the Truc Lam sect (the second and third generation
monks Phap Loa and Huyen Quang for example) and the rigorous Confucian
training which he and colleagues had undergone. A connection was also
drawn between the creative impulse motivating the founders of the
original Truc Lam and that of those spearheading the development of the
new sect. Ngo Thi Nham thought that by following the Truc Lam Ch’an
sect, he and his comrades would be able to put their ideas into practice
and enhance their positions.
The aim of Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh
was to combine Confucianism and Ch’an Buddhism. According to Ngo Thi
Nham, both doctrines were equally vital for human spiritual life. He
felt that Confucianism and Ch’an Buddhism only differed in their degree
of usefulness in different circumstances but in terms of basic
principles, they were ultimately similar. As the Bronze Hai Hoa stated,
"Our masters behave towards other people according to Confucian tenets
and enter the monkhood according to Ch’an Buddhist tenets. Our Master is
not only comfortable with this way of life but he embraces its
Despite Ngo Thi Nham’s stated objective and claims
for the parity of Confucianism and Ch’an Buddhism, it must be ultimately
recognized that the ideology of Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh
is overwhelmingly Confucian. This Confucian slant can be seen in a
variety of areas. For example, the Buddhist concepts of "Khong Thanh"
(self-understanding) and "Ngo Thanh" (the demonstration of one’s
self-understanding) are explained through the Confucian concepts "ly"
(reason) and "duc" (passion). The qualities ideally possessed by a good
Buddhist, "minh tam" (pure soul) and "kien tinh" (great knowledge) are
likened to "chinh tam" (good heart) and "thanh tinh" (right action),
those ideally possessed by a good Confucian. Moreover, good Buddhists
and good Confucians are both expected to display a strange mixture of
erudition and reserve. In his discussion of "Thien", a sect defined by a
devotee’s understanding and way of concentrating different Buddhist
ideals within himself, Ngo Thi Nham curiously likens it to "thien vi",
the Confucian concept of royal succession set out by the Chinese
Emperors Yao and Shun. The discussion of Buddhist belief in
metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul) through six worlds is
compared to the cyclical Confucian concept of time circulating through
days, weeks, and years. Ngo Thi Nham situated the origins of Sakyamuni’s
ideas with the Chinese Emperor Di Shun, despite the fact that it is
unlikely that Sakyamuni knew even the location of China during his
lifetime. Explaining why the Vietnamese King Tran Nhan Tong fled the
royal palace to pursue a religious life on Yen Tu mountain, Ngo Thi Nham
holds that the King was motivated by a kind of Confucian vigilance in
the face of aggression by the Northern empire.
In short, all issues discussed in his work are
explained in terms of Confucian concepts. Ngo Thi Nham’s fundamental
commitment to Confucianism is succinctly expressed in the following
Why I should become a spirit
Is not to become a Buddha
Only but to study the Book of Odes and Book of History
In order to avoid a wrong religious way
(Phu Thien Thai)
It could be argued that Ngo Thi Nham’s almost
complete reliance on Confucian concepts to explain Buddhist ideas
reflects an inadequate knowledge of Buddhism. This however, is unlikely.
A scholar of Ngo Thi Nham’s erudition would certainly have had no
problems understanding the philosophical tenets of Buddhism. Moreover,
Buddhist texts were readily available in Vietnam at that time and good
conditions existed for Buddhist scholarship. What is more likely is that
Ngo Thi Nham consciously wrote in this way, in order to infuse a dose
of Confucian pragmatism into the loftier and more philosophical
Buddhism, thus offering (what he would have considered) more practical
guidance to his readership during what was a particularly chaotic
If we abandon a restrictive analysis predicated on
the belief that every idea within an ideological system must belong to
(or be consistent with) one and only one religious doctrine and
committed to simply elucidating the doctrinal ancestry of each idea,
then we can perhaps reach a clearer understanding of the ideology of Ngo
Thi Nham, his colleagues and disciples. We can evaluate his social
consciousness, his position on questions concerning the existence of the
body and the soul’s dependence on that body, and his views on the
nature on human passion. An examination of Ngo Thi Nham’s treatment of
these issues will shed light on the positive aspects of his ideology.
Instead of seeing his varied ideas as originating from one or another
religious doctrine (Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism), Ngo Thi Nham’s
ideology should be understood as the product of his slightly unorthodox
interpretation of all three. A similar ideological approach can be found
in Ngo Thi Nham’s other works and has come to represent a common thread
running through his life and ideas.
But for a work claiming both to capture the essential
character of Buddhism and to faithfully follow the Truc Lam Yen Tu
sect, the Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh is ultimately
unsuccessful. Although Ngo Thi Nham was considered by his disciples and
himself as the fourth great ancestor of the Truc Lam sect, his ideology
and actions had nothing in common with the three preceding Truc Lam
generations. Compared with King Tran Nhan Tong (the first great
ancestor), for example, Ngo Thi Nham lacked a proper attitude of denial
or the ability to transcend the artificial worldly opposition of right
and wrong, good and bad. Unlike Phap Loa (the second great ancestor), he
was unable to conceive of a spirit of nothingness or of absolute
freedom. Unlike Huyen Quang (the third great ancestor), he lacked the
temperament to escape real life through religious devotion. Outside of a
handful of his friends and students, no one (from that time up to the
present) has recognized him as a true ancestor of the sect. That even
his family did not accept his self-proclaimed relationship with the
sect, is evidenced by the fact that the Truc Lam Tong Chi Nguyen Thanh is not even mentioned in Ngo Gia Van Phai, an extensive annotated bibliography of works by the Ngo family, produced by the clan itself.
It may be said that Ngo Thi Nham’s flirtation with
Buddhism simply represents an unusual but ultimately insignificant
phenomenon in the national history. On the other hand, it seems that the
interest which Ngo Thi Nham and his disciples showed in Buddhism
reflected a search for new theories capable of explaining society’s
current predicament, suggesting a new and necessary public attitude, and
pointing the correct direction towards which society should move.
However, subjective and objective factors rendered him incapable of
creating a theory appropriate for or acceptable to the society. Although
the ancient theories of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism were
different, they were generally supportive of each other. Yet still, any
of the three was incapable of completely replacing one or all of the
others. Thus Ngo Thi Nham’s attempt to replace Buddhism and Taoism with
Confucianism in the end must be considered as a failed experiment.
A NEW DEVELOPMENT: BONZE SUPERIOR TOAN NHAT AND THE TALE OF HUA SU
The Tay Son Rebellion broke out like a whirlwind. It
swept away all the obstacles which the reactionary feudal system had
placed in the way of the liberation of the life-force of the nation. The
Tay Son Rebellion represented the rising of peasant forces bent on
asserting their own and their nation’s right to exist and put an end to
the 200-year civil war between the Trinh and Nguyen. It also overthrew
the unjust and absurd social structure which had existed up until then.
During this important period, the Tay Son troops
entered marketplaces in broad daylight and seized money from the rich to
give to the poor. They destroyed temples and pagodas, forced the monks
to take up arms, and melted down bells and statues to make guns and
bullets. Their penchant for violence grew from their ardor and
enthusiasm. They bravely faced dangerous situations and met all demands
placed upon them by the nation. Upon hearing that Ton Si Nghi, the
Chinese General, was approaching Thang Long (Hanoi), Ngo Van So chided
his kinsman Ngo Thi Nham: "Can you compose a poem which will drive away
the enemy troops? If not, then I must take up arms". Not only were
Confucian mandarins denigrated, but antiquated beliefs were denounced.
The Tay Son were not afraid of ghosts, spirits, or other supernatural
forces and tried to rid the public of their belief in these
superstitions. For example, to convince people that the reputedly
haunted Ghost Canal held nothing to fear, they burned a coffin and shot a
cannon towards the bushes alongside the river. The well-known statement
or the Governor General of Nghe An under the Tay Son regime: "Dogs are
more useful than deities", provides a further example of the Tay Son
fearless posture toward the supernatural. (Magazine Dai Truong, "The history of the civil war in Vietnam from 1771 to 1802", Saigon,1973).
Despite its antipathy for popular superstitions, the
Tay Son was prepared to tolerate practices based on complex but
problematic cultural beliefs because they had originated in ancient
traditions. It was a similar pragmatism and flexibility which allowed
Nguyen Hue to recruit and work with officials from the old regime such
as Ngo Thi Nham, Phan Huy Ich, and Nguyen Thiep. The Tay Son revolution
comprised military, cultural and diplomatic victories and brought pride
and glory to the Vietnamese nation. King Quang Trung’s varied
achievements were directly related to his skill at enlisting the
sympathy and support of talented people including the Buddhist dignitary
Toan Nhat was an important monk, writer, and poet
from the Tay Son era who, up until now, has received inadequate
attention in the official history of Vietnamese Buddhism. He was also a
progressive thinker who expressed the ideas and sentiments of the
popular majority. In his story, "The Tale of Hua Su," Toan Nhat
presented a series of extremely bold ideas including novel conceptions
of labor, labor value, struggle, humanitarianism, and anti-royalism (See
Le Manh That, Toan Nhat Thien Su, Institute of Buddhist Studies, Ho Chi Minh City, 1979).
Than Nhat’s real given name, clan name, native place,
and date of entry into the monkhood remain unknown. What little
information that exists about his life can be found in his book Tam Giao Nguyen Luu Ky (Records On the Origins of the Three Religions.):
I once was a student of Confucius.
From the age of twelve to thirty
I followed a handful of teachers
But none could show me the path to enlightenment.
Then I became conscious of Buddhist law and doctrine
And I took monastic vows at the age of thirty.
According to Tu Quang Tu Sa Mon Phap Chuyen Luat Truyen
it is recorded that Toan Nhat was one of twenty-eight disciples of the
Bonze Superior Dieu Nghiem. Based on this text, Dieu Nghiem was born in
1726 and died in 1798 at the age of 73. If Toan Nhat entered the
monkhood at the age of thirty and became an accomplished monk at the age
of 43, these events must have occurred before the death of Dieu Nghiem.
Thus, Toan Nhat must have been born between 1750 and 1755.
While Toan Nhat’s motive for entering the monkhood
remains obscure, a poem he penned for use by Buddhist nuns suggests that
he previously had served in the Tay Son militia:
Before entering the monkhood
I already possessed faith in Buddha.
Now that I follow the way, my belief is unchanged
Only thoughts of the material world prompt me to serve illusory beliefs.
If I continue under my present karma, passion will take me;
Thus, I must abandon military life
And enter the monkhood.
Another poem relates that after the collapse of the Tay Son, Toan Nhat went through a particularly difficult period:
Entering the monkhood, my destiny remains impoverished and troubled.
My heart longs for religious study, but I have no place
To work or worship, no place to live.
His descriptions of religious life are bitter:
Rice is to be collected here and there.
Short of food, l haven’t enough to eat.
Clothes are donated by kind people
And patched up when they become too ragged.
Sitting against a pillar like a washed-up fortune-teller
Preaching religion to beggars,
Sleeping on the beds of friendly merchants,
And striving to convert market thieves to Buddhism.
Although his life was unhappy, Toan Nhat appears to
have exerted an important influence on the minds of the people. A
contemporary of Toan Nhat, the high-ranking bonze Tam Thien praised him
in the following poem:
Acting for the common good,
Avoiding errors of discipline and behavior;
A man with loyalty and righteousness
Can easily become a Buddha.
Toan Nhat may have died in 1832. Toan Nhat’s written works (as far as we know) include the following:
- Hua Su Truyen Van (The Tale of Hua Su)
-Tam Giao Nguyen Luu Ky (Records The Origins of the Three Religions)
- Tong Vuong Truyen (The Story of the Song Emperor)
- Luc To Truyen Dien Ca (The Chronicle in Verse of the Six Ancestors)
-Bat Nha Dao Quoc Am Van (The Prajna Doctrine Transcribed in National Language)
- Xuat Gia Toi Lac Tinh The Tu Hanh Van
- Tham Thien Van (Entry into Meditation)
- Thien Co Yeu Ngu Van (A Writing on Important Elements of Buddhism)
- Hoan Tinh Tran Tam Khuyen Tu Tinh Do Van
- Xuat Gia Van
- Gioi Hanh Dong Tu
- Trung Khuyen Than So Quyen Thuoc Phu
- Khuyen Tu Hanh Quoc Ngu Phu
- Tho Ba Vai
- Pha Tho Bat Tong Van
- Van Dua Cay Bap
- Sa Di Oai Nghi Tang Chu Giai Nguy Tu Tieu Thien
- Thuy Sam Bat
- Nhan Qua Kinh Bat
- Vo Luong Nghia Kinh, Hau Bat
This list is preliminary and incomplete and does not
include other texts which Toan Nhat may have written. Moreover, Toan
Nhat composed approximately thirty poems in Vietnamese demotic script
and fourteen in classical Chinese which are not included in this list.
Among Toan Nhat’s extensive works, "The Tale of Hua Su"
is the most typical and thoroughly expressive of Toan Nhat’s
ideological outlook. Its theme is profoundly reflective of the age in
which it was produced, and sheds light on the nature of popular
reactions to the great crises of the age. Through the solutions to
social problems which Toan Nhat offers in "The Tale of Hua Su," we can see the progressive elements of his ideology. The "Tale of Hua Su" is a long poem composed of 4486 lines, which may be subdivided into the following parts:
Part 1: The origin and purpose of "The Tale of Hua Su" (lines 1 to 100).
Part 2: The life and achievements of Hua Su (lines 101 to 2534). The second part includes the following events:
1. The origin of Hua Su’s family line and his entry into the monkhood (lines 101 to 560).
2. His master’s death - Hua Su’s journey to Tu Khoi pagoda (lines 561 to 648).
3. Hua Su’s false arrest and banishment to Hell (lines 649 to 1858).
4. Hua Su’s return to life and search for Thanh Son (lines 1859 to 2294).
5. The Journey of Hua Su and Thanh Son to the West where they become Arhats (lines 2295 to 2534).
Part 3: Thanh Son’s return to life to give
relief to the poor and to save mankind from unhappiness (lines 2535 to
4086). This part comprises the following events:
1. Thanh Son’s return to worldly life and meeting with Dong Van (lines 2535 to 2716).
2. Dong Van entry into the monkhood (lines 2717 to 3496).
3. The Trieu Tan troops invade the Viet country and
Dong Van commands the Viet army to fight off the enemy attack (lines
3497 to 3924).
4. Victory over the aggressors. The king and his closest subject enter the monkhood (lines 3925 to 4086).
Part 4: Final evaluation of each character in the story (lines 4087 to 4486). Besides dealing with themes reflecting Buddhist ideas, "The Tale of Hua Su"
introduces three important non-religious themes for the first time in
the history of Vietnamese literature and ideas. The first theme is
anti-royalism. He saw the master as more important than the king and the
parents. Toan Nhat expresses this idea through the voice of the King of
Hell as he presides over a court of judgment:
Whose sin is as Hoan Tu Anh’s?
Carrying on naturally after killing his own father
But beginning to fear for his afterlife
He looks toward Buddha and prays.
Xa Vuong killed his father the King,
Renewed faith in the Buddha could bring pardon.
But the crime of betraying one’s teacher
Is pardoned neither by Buddha nor by ourselves.
Thereafter, Hua Su stood up and asked the King of Hell:
Our gratitude is vast.
First the king then father then teacher.
A subject disobeys his king.
A bad son murders his father.
How to pardon such sins?
Why does the Buddha forgive such cruelties?
If a student is ungrateful towards his teacher,
Neither Buddha nor the King of Hell will exonerate him.
Thus the teacher is more revered than the king and the father.
I do not understand your explanation.
Through the answer of the King of Hell, "The Tale of Hua Su" reasoned as follows:
Without the help of a teacher
How can anything be accomplished?
Indifference towards one’s teacher
Will be severely punished in Hell.
Respect must be paid;
Student to teacher, subject to king, son to father.
How can a son without a teacher
Become a good man,
Or follow a virtuous and humane tradition?
He will instead follow an evil road.
How can one love such a son?
But if the son has a good teacher,
He will grow to be learned,
Become a great official
And make his king and parents proud.
Along these same lines, another section of "The Tale of Hua Su"
brazenly asserts, "The teacher is more highly revered than the king or
the father". Here for the first and only time in Ancient Vietnamese
literary history (and in the history of Vietnamese feudalism) do we find
a work which dares to commit both filial impiety and lese-majesty
through a direct challenge to the conventional feudal social order. Toan
Nhat’s assault on the rigid hierarchy which Confucianism had bequeathed
to the feudal regime was perhaps grounded in and supported by
ideologically related popular sentiments such as that found in the
following proverb: "Lacking a teacher, acclaim is impossible."
The second significant theme in "The Tale of Hua Su"
concerns a new conception of labor. Toan Nhat rightly suggests that
only through labor can people develop the ability to recognize the truth
and cultivate the quality of mercy. Through "The tale of Hua Su," Toan Nhat praises labor and includes it as an important prerequisite for sainthood. Dong Van smiles and says:
If joy now then misery later, if misery now then joy later;
Chau Cong and his disciple sat high atop the golden lotus throne,
Although in the past, they worked the fields.
Mr. and Mrs. Dao reached an equally high position,
Although in the past they gathered and sold firewood.
Because Buddha honors such people,
I need not worry any more.
According to this poem, it was the laborers, farmers,
vegetable growers and woodcutters who either became Buddha or were held
up for special praise by Buddha. Thus for Toan Nhat, labor comprises
both the foundation of human ethics and the source of human dignity as
expressed in the virtues of the Buddha.
The third theme found in "The Tale of Hua Su"
concerns the relationship between compassion and struggle. It is often
said that Buddhism is compassionate, but this compassion must be
reinforced with intelligence and strength in order to be realized in
practice: Compassion cannot be cowardly. Nor should a spirit of
compassion prompt one to ignore the distinction between right and wrong
or indifferently condone all actions. In "The Tale of Hua Su," Toan Nhat expresses this idea in the following way:
We cannot ignore cruelty in our midst,
Rather, we are obliged to resist it.
Force serves a purpose in our lives.
There’s no shame in using our strength.
In extraordinary circumstances,
We needn’t strictly follow the way.
Helping the nation and saving the people,
Is also work for the monkhood.
On the question of whether a good Buddhist may
violate taboos against killing in service to the nation, Toan Nhat
(through the character Mat Hanh) says the following:
Upon hearing the theory of compassion,
Mat Hanh says that Buddhist doctrine can be used in many ways.
Hell awaits those who
Kill with evil intentions.
But killing to help the nation, people, and king
Should not be avoided.
Buddhist law encourages its adherents
To respond flexibly to all situations.
The Bonzes Do Trung and An Phong
Preached for peace from within army ranks.
Quy Ton killed a snake with a good heart
As has been dearly recorded.
Using these well-known examples from antiquity, "The Tale of Hua Su"
makes a case for justifying the use of violence. Toan Nhat contended
that people from that time who had participated in long periods of
struggle tended to support this position.
Buddhism cannot avoid a desire to save the nation
Especially when the country is poor and the people dying.
As the well-known proverb states,
Kill one cat to save millions of mice.
I beg you to remember the ancient gratitude.
We must now strive to help the country and save the people.
Toan Nhat’s life spanned an extremely dangerous
period in Vietnamese history. Rival reactionary feudal forces within the
country struggled against each other and inflicted great suffering on
the population. At the same time, foreign feudal forces perpetrated
schemes against our country. There is no doubt that the writing of Toan
Nhat, a monk deeply concerned with the plight of his people and nation,
bears the imprint of these troubled times.
The existence of the three important themes found in "The Tale of Hua Su"
as noted above suggests that Toan Nhat was a particularly progressive
thinker of his time. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the
development of his thinking on these matters was relatively rudimentary
and failed to bring out their most positive aspects. This is due to the
fact that the world-view of Toan Nhat was overwhelmingly grounded in the
Vietnamese idea "Tam giao dong nguyen" (the belief that Buddhism,
Taoism, and Confucianism have the same origin.) Throughout the period in
which Chinese scholarship held sway, the fusion of religions
represented by "Tam giao dong nguyen" dominated the ideas of Vietnamese
thinkers. Because of objective conditions such as mode and relations of
production, the backwardness of agriculture, and the feudal structure of
society, the progressive character of Toan Nhat’s thought was