Master Tang Hoi and Us— Statue of Zen Master Tang Hoi, Plum Village France

Master Tang Hoi and Us

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 09, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In late December, 2022, I traveled to Vietnam to be part of an 18-day “In the Footsteps of Thay” pilgrimage, and to explore Vietnam on my own for 12 days. Many Still Water practitioners have asked me to talk about what I saw and learned. This Thursday evening I would like to focus on one thread: our visit to Chua Dau, the oldest Buddhist Temple in Vietnam, and how Tang Hoi, a monk who was trained and taught there, influenced and inspired Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) teaching and practice.

First, some context: at a museum in the city of Thanh Hoa, our group learned about the Dong Son culture that arose around three thousand years ago in the Red River Valley and Delta, which encompasses much of the area that is now Northern Vietnam. The Dong Son were proficient in cultivating rice and casting bronze for tools and articles of everyday life. In time state-like structures arose, led by hereditary rulers who were able to create hydraulic systems for agricultural cultivation and flood protection, manage trade, and prevent attacks and invasions. Between the years 43 and 299, the agriculturally productive Red River Valley area was part of an administrative district called the Jiaozhi Commandery. Although the population was primarily Vietnamese, they were ruled by Chinese dynasties.

Our pilgrimage group drove thirty miles from Hanoi to visit Chua Dau, the oldest Buddhist Temple in Vietnam, built between 187-226 in what was then Luy Lâu, the capital of the Jiaozhi Commandery. Because of its prominent role in the sea trade between India and China, Luy Lâu was often visited by Indian monks and traders, and the area became a regional hub for the study and teaching of Mahayana Buddhism.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, Chua Dau was especially important because Master Tang Hoi, who died in 280, studied and taught there. In 2007, during his second trip home after his exile from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh, explained:

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and his mother a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. (From the Mindfulness Bell, August 2007.)

Thay realized the importance of Master Tang Hoi not while he was in Vietnam, but during his exile. Thay’s extended biography on the Plum Village website explains:

While in Paris, Thầy began teaching Buddhism at the prestigious Sorbonne École Pratique des Hautes Études. As a professor he had access to the extensive Buddhist manuscript collections at the National Library. There, Thầy discovered rare documents detailing the life of Master Tăng Hội … [who] practiced and taught Zen, and was a pioneer in the Mahāyāna tradition, drawing on the meditation texts of early Buddhism, including those emphasizing conscious breathing and mindfulness (the Satipaṭṭhāna and Ānāpānasati sutras).

Knowing the significance of Chua Dau to Thay, I was surprised how the visit to the temple unfolded. It seemed unfrequented, and somewhat neglected. And although there were statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, there were more statues of local deities, Chinese mandarins, and guardian spirits. Our local guides had many stories about the temple and its history, but never mentioned Master Tang Hoi.

I was particularly intrigued by a large yellow-robed wooden statue of a woman towering over the Buddha in the central altar. When I asked who she was, our guides explained that she was a locally important spirit and launched into tangled explanations that even the sisters who were translating could not completely follow. The key elements of their story were that there had been a young woman who became pregnant when a monk walked in front of her. Years later, when her daughter was a child, the monk tapped a tree and the girl merged with it. Centuries after that, the tree fell into the river and an enlightened Chinese mandarin commanded that the tree be pulled from the river and this goddess statue be made.

Later, away from the guides, Sr. Dinh Nghiem provided a larger context for the temple and statue story. She explained to our group that Vietnamese Buddhism continues to coexist with many folk beliefs and practices involving local deities, mother goddesses, ancestral gods, shamans, and animal spirits. In some temples they play a much more prominent role than in others.

In closing, I would like to reflect a little on the different ways we connect to our ancestral histories.

The pilgrimage increased my understanding of how deeply and emotionally Thay experienced his relationships with his blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. Master Tang Hoi was only one of many historical figures who influenced and inspirited him. Because of his fluency in Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese, if there still existed something that a teacher had written, he could read it.

I am especially aware of the quality of Thay’s connection when I compare it to my own life experiences. For several generations my ancestors moved away from homelands, languages, and spiritual traditions and, to some degree, their extended families. Much of the moving away, the disassociating, occurred before I was born, though I have done my own share of breaking loose and exploring new frontiers.

I don’t mean to imply that one way is always good and the other is always bad. It is easy to be locked into traditions, unable to change when conditions change. Although Thay was immersed in Vietnamese culture and history, he was also a spiritual revolutionary. From his teens he had a deep desire to renew Buddhism in Vietnam, to move it away from the sort of superstitions and beliefs we brushed against at Chua Dau. Thay’s openness to the larger world and his desire to revitalize Buddhist practices often put him at odds with traditional teachers and the Buddhist hierarchy.

I am also aware that when life conditions are overtly and dangerously oppressive, as they were for my great grandparents in Eastern Europe, it was an act of courage and self-sacrifice for them to break with ancestral traditions and send their teen-aged children to be with relatives in the U.S., so that they and future generations might have a better life.

In our Dharma sharing, we can reflect on our connections to our own ancestral traditions. When have they influenced and inspired us? When have they, because of their limitations, pushed us to find new sources of support and inspiration?

You are invited to join us.

Below are a few paragraphs from Tang Hoi’s Preface to the Anapananusmriti Sutra.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


From The Preface to the Anapananusmriti Sutra by Tang Hoi, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, from the book Master Tang Hoi

The mind of living beings is afflicted by the intrusion of wrong perceptions that come into it as rivers enter the great ocean. It is like a hungry person who never feels satisfied however much he eats. There is not a single phenomenon, even the subtlest, that is not accepted by the mind. Psychological phenomena enter, leave, and return to the mind as swiftly as a flash of lightning and without interruption.

We cannot see the mind because it has no visible image; we cannot hear the mind because it has no sound. If we go back in time to find it, we do not come across it, because it has no starting point. If we go in pursuit of it, we do not see it, because it does not have a conclusion. This mind is very deep and wonderful. It does not have the smallest mark that could make it visible. Even Brahma, Indra, and the holy ones cannot see clearly the transformation that gives rise to the appearance of the seeds that lie hidden in it, much less ordinary mortals. That is the reason why the mind is called an aggregate. It is like someone who is sowing seeds in the dark. He lifts up a handful of seeds and hundreds of thousands are sown. The person standing alongside him cannot see these seeds being planted, and the sower him self does not know the number of seeds he is planting. When one handful of seeds has been scattered, ten thousand plants could grow up. Similarly, in the time it takes to snap your fingers, nine hundred and sixty recollections can take place in the mind. During one day and one night, thirteen hundred thousand recollections can take place in consciousness and we are not aware of them, just as the person who is planting seeds in the dark. That is why we have to practice attentiveness, binding our mind to our breathing and counting our breaths from one to ten. If the practitioner while counting from one to ten does not forget the count, his mind has begun to have concentration. A small concentration can last for three days and a great concentration for seven days. During this time not a single dispersed thought breaks into the mind of the practitioner. The practitioner sits as still as a corpse. This is called the first meditative concentration.

Meditative concentration is elimination— that is, elimination of the mind that has thirteen hundred thousand unwholesome thoughts, in order to realize eight practices: counting, concentrating, changing, remembering, holding, following, touching, and eliminating. In general these eight practices can be divided into two parts. Following the breathing enables us to concentrate the mind. If we want to follow our breathing easily, we can practice counting our breaths. When the impurities have been destroyed, the mind gradually becomes clear. This is called the second meditative concentration. When you stop counting and place your attention at the end of your nostrils, that is called stopping. If you are successful, then all the impurities of the Three Poisons, the Four Leaks, the Five Hindrances, and the Six Dark Paths are destroyed. At that point the mind is clear and bright, brighter than a precious jewel or the light of the moon.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 09, 2023


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