Dear Still Water Friends,
In 1942, when Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) was sixteen, he began monastic training at Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue. Japanese control and then occupation during the world war caused many hardships for Tu Hieu and for all of Vietnam, especially the Great Famine of 1945 when an estimated 600,000 to 2,000,000 Vietnamese died. Thay’s Extended Biography notes:
Stepping out of the temple [Thay] saw bodies out in the streets of those who had died of hunger, and witnessed trucks carrying away dozens of corpses.When the French returned to reclaim Vietnam in 1945, the violence only increased. Although many young monks were tempted by the Marxist pamphlets’ call to arms, Thầy was convinced that Buddhism, if updated and restored to its core teachings and practices, could truly help relieve suffering in society, and offer a nonviolent path to peace, prosperity, and independence from colonizing powers, just as it had during the renowned Ly and Tran dynasties in medieval Vietnam.
On January 16th, my “In the Footsteps of Thay” Pilgrimage group traveled to Yen Tu Mountain, seventy miles east of Hanoi, to learn more about the emperors that so inspired Thay.
The first three Tran Dynasty emperors especially impressed me because they were effective military leaders, compassionate rulers, supportive mentors to their sons, and fully committed Buddhist practitioners.
Trần Thái Tông, the first emperor of the Trần dynasty, became an emperor in 1226, when he was eight years old. His thirty-three-year rule brought prosperity to Dai Viet (a monarchy centered around present- day Hanoi). After successfully defending against the First Mongol invasion, he abdicated in 1258, when he was forty years old, in favor of his son. As the “Retired Emperor” he studied Zen Buddhism as a lay person and wrote several books, including a Zen manual, Instructions on Emptiness.
Trần Thánh Tông, became the second Emperor of the Tran Dynasty when he was eighteen. Working with his father, he created reforms and rebuild war-torn Dai Viet. Only one year after his own father died in 1277, Trần Thánh Tông, then thirty-eight, abdicated, in favor of his son, who was twenty. As Retired Emperor, he assisted his son in defending Dai Viet during the Second and Third Mongol invasions. He was also a scholar of Zen Buddhism and composed poems and verses on meditation.
After the decisive defeat of the Mongols armies, Trần Nhân Tông, the third Emperor of the Tran Dynasty, focused on rebuilding his country and reducing the burden on the poor. When he was thirty-two, he abdicated in favor of his son, Trần Anh Tông, who was then seventeen. He had wanted for years to devote himself to spiritual awakening and shortly after becoming the Retired Emperor he left the palace to practice Buddhism on Yen Tu Mountain, ordaining as a monk in 1295.
In the preface to his historical novel Hermitage Among the Clouds, Thay writes about Trần Nhân Tông:
[He] abdicated his throne to become a monk and live in the little hermitage “Sleeping Clouds” on Mount Yen Tu. He was known as the “Noble Teacher of Bamboo Forest” and was the founder of the “Bamboo Forest School of Zen Meditation.”
Before becoming a monk … he ruled as king over the land of Viet. He repelled the invading Mongol army at the end of the thirteenth century. From the day he was ordained a monk, he lived an ascetic life—wearing coarse cloth, sleeping under a roof of leaves, and going everywhere barefoot. Even as a monk, he continued his work to establish justice and morality in the culture of his people. He travelled to the land of Cham in hopes of establishing a foundation of lasting friendship and peace between the two countries.
Knowing the end of his life was near, several days before he died Trần Nhân Tông inscribed a poem on a temple wall:
Life’s length is one breath,
Moonlight on ocean waves.
Why worry about Mara’s realm?
My Buddha land is the springtime sky.
Our group’s time on Yen Tu Mountain was divided between two very different environments. We stayed overnight and ate most of our meals in a recently built resort complex created to have a flavor of a twelfth century Vietnamese monastery or town. The complex included a five-star hotel for “royalty” and modest rooms in the “town” with four bunk beds for the “villagers” (including our group). The town, and especially the five-star hotel, were meticulously crafted, even down to the door latches, and luxurious in an over-the-top way. The primary designer of the complex, an American based in Thailand, usually works on upscale hotels, resorts, and palaces. Although there were many gorgeous landscaped views and lovely architectural details, the overall effect felt to me discordant with the natural simplicity of Yen Tu Mountain and the Bamboo Forest School founded by Trần Nhân Tông.
The other environment was Yen Tu mountain: ragged, wild, and full of Buddhist and Taoist temples, hermitages, and sacred spots. We climbed Yen Tu on January 17th, with the temperatures around 50 degrees and a bitting wind. A few monastics and lay practitioners climbed up the mountain in about two and a half hours entirely on stone stairs and heavily rooted paths. The rest of us accepted the assistance of gondolas on two segments. Even then, the way up was still arduous. The Fitbit of a practitioner who took the gondolas indicated he had walked eighty-two flights of stairs.
After I had written about Trần Nhân Tông and Yen Tu Mountain on my travel blog, a friend asked how was that applicable today? What sort of reforms or strategies might such enlightened rulers advocate? My sense is that it is not about reforms or strategies, but about leaders nourishing in themselves and others an underlying orientation or aspiration to be loving, compassionate, and fully awake. If that perspective is present in many, then positive changes will occur. Thay said something very similar in a Dharma talk on September 14, 2011:
In Buddhism we speak of the three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. But when we look at the Sangha, the third Jewel, we see that it contains the two other Jewels. A good Sangha, a good community is made of people who practice mindfulness, concentration and insight. …
So in a Sangha, in the body of the Sangha, because we have a good Sanghakaya (Sanghabody), there are many cells. Each of us is a cell of the Sangha. And each of us can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight. And if every one of us practices properly then the collective energy produced by the Sangha will be very powerful.
I think that we can save this planet, reduce violence, and end war with that kind of energy. No matter how talented our political leaders are, if they do not have that kind of energy, they cannot help. … Martin Luther King saw that very well. He was devoted to Sangha building. He talked about the Sangha as a beloved community. Unfortunately he was assassinated and could not continue the work of Sangha building. We should continue his work because Sangha building is very crucial. It is by the work of Sangha building that we can create the kind of power, the kind of energy that helps us to deal with the enormous difficulties we are now facing.
This Thursday, after our meditation, I will tell more stories about my pilgrimage and we will share our reflections on enlightened kings, Yen Tu Mountain, and the importance of creating beloved communities.
You are invited to join us.