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The History of Buddhism in Vietnam
15/06/2012 05:28 (GMT+7)
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Part Three. Buddhism from the Later Le to Tay Son Dynasties (from 15th to 18th Century)

CHAPTER XII

BUDDHISM IN THE PERIOD OF PEASANT INSURRECTIONS

(IN THE LATTER HALF OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY)

 

TOWARDS THE FUSION OF CONFUCIANISM AND BUDDHISM: NGO THI NHAM AND TRUC LAM TON CHI NGUYEN THANH

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 himself.

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 transcendent duality."

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 short poem:

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 historical era.

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.

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 necessarily limited.

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