Climbing Up Zen History in Vietnam

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

April 2019 

Standing next to a creek at the foot of the mountain, I beheld my first glances of the ancient pagodas jetting out of dark forest foliage. Misty clouds enveloped the mountain above, hiding the peaks in mystery. Early the next morning, just after dawn, I planned to follow the ancestral footsteps of those who lived, practiced, and pilgrimaged to this sacred mountain of Yen Tu. In particular, I wished to know more deeply the king who abandoned life in the royal palace to live and train as a Zen monk in the splendor of this mountain. For those practicing in the Plum Village tradition, Yen Tu mountain is the home of our Bamboo Forest School of Zen, and whose soil and stones embodies the unique story our Vietnamese Buddhist lineage.

In the 13th century, the royal prince of Vietnam had a hungering curiosity to learn and practice Zen. Instead of assuming his royal duties, he wished to live in the mountains where ascetic life flourished. The prince would soon become king, and when his father learned of his son’s wishes for renunciation, he pleaded for him not to abandon his country and people at such a time.

Does this story sound familiar? Like Siddhartha, the young prince was determined to walk the true path of awakening. However, he did not leave his worldly concerns and the plight of his people just yet. Instead, at the age of 21, he became king and promised to unite his country to defend against imperialistic forces in the north. Supported by his father’s guidance, the young King Tran Nhan Tong immediately developed a plan to unify and strengthen the country in order to fend off the inevitable invasions of the Mongolian empire.

Down at the foothills, several thousand steps under the cloud shrouded peaks, I crossed a charming pagoda bridge, under which an ancient stream flows. It is said that after the king left the capital to pursue monastic life on Yen Tu, many of his royal attendants drowned themselves in the river to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty. Hence a pagoda was later built there to honor them. Feeling unable to fully grasp such a dramatic display of fidelity, I stopped to breathe and gently ponder the river and entrance to Yen Tu. How overwhelmingly loved this king must have been to the people at such a time. What was it like for them to see their beloved leader walk away from the palace into the mountain caves and thatched roof hermitages?

At the entrance, one saunters up an endless sight of well laid stone steps weaving through the dense forest hillside. After about 15 minutes of heavy breathing and climbing, one crosses the forest floor at a more mellow incline until the path eventually forks in two. Straight ahead lies an embellished stone staircase, a seemingly new edition to this pilgrim route. To the right is an earthy pine rooted path; its ancient yet familiar appearance pulls me closer and eventually upward. Scattered stone steps rise high and lonely above the soil like the last teeth holding on to its earthen gums. Only the rugged pine tree roots which dominate former stone steps provide stability to the washed out soil. While the route grows ever more steep, the barren pine roots feel ever more sturdy for many native and foreign sandals and fingers to take hold.

As unrivaled horsemen and with superior naval forces, the Mongols had already conquered all of China and were rapidly spreading west, even conquering most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was only a matter of time before their insatiable appetite wrapped its claws around the Viet kingdom. The Mongols invaded with huge armies by both land and sea. Under the sophistication and courage of King Tran Nhan Tong and his father, the Viet forces destroyed the Mongols’ superior naval fleet by puncturing the bottoms of their ships with deep sea divers and hidden underwater spears. With minimal losses in the south, they then positioned themselves to impeccably defend the northern border against the fierce horsemen.

Under King Tran Nhan Tong, the country had become safe and protected, and enjoyed a period of peace. Without the hardships of war, the king lessened taxes in order to relieve the poor, and postponed other military campaigns so that the country could recover after two fierce wars, several famines, and other natural disasters. Having fulfilled his royal duties to his people, King Tran Nhan Tong prepared for his deepest aspirations to unfold. After 15 years leading the dynasty, he passed the crown to his first son in 1293, while closely guiding him for the next 6 years. Relieved of the overwhelming burden of ruling the country, he could now dedicate the rest of his life to spiritual awakening, while also serving as the national counselor to his country and son.

Even as I savored the various dark and light green forest rooms up the mountain, beads of sweat coursed down my face at every turn, and my body grappled with the dense jungle humidity. To escape my discomfort, I continuously felt the urge to push through the fatigue, and race upwards to my destination. The habitual tendency to push through and finish felt so familiar to me, and yet there was another force walking up the mountain alongside me. I could hear the soft and firmly planted footsteps of the Noble Teacher steadily following behind me. His steps had gracefully landed on this path countless times, and had infused into the mountainside. As I stop to catch my breath, it was as if he too was pausing to breathe at my side for a short rest. A black butterfly with fluorescent blue spotted wings draws especially near, our reward from the mountain for stopping to enjoy her beauty.

The retired king studied the Dharma in depth with the Eminent Master Tue Trung, who had also been born into the Tran royal family and dedicated half of his life to protecting the country before stepping into monastic life. After 6 years, the former king finally ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1999, and soon made his home in the majestic forests and peaks of Yen Tu Mountain, dedicating himself to mastering the 10 ascetic virtues. Having lived most of his life in a palace embellished with gold and precious gems, he finally discovered true peace as a homeless monk. He wore only a patchwork robe, slept under simple thatched roofs on Mount Yen Tu, and took the medicine and spiritual nourishment of nature’s offerings. After 10 years on the mountain, he had still not built great temples or pagodas, but was content with the simple life of awakening, while finding ways to deeply guide and impact the well-being of the country.

Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher, we may still encounter his his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step into this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.

References:

– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm