From King of Vietnam to Zen Master (Part 2)

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

(Part 2)

April 2019 

Having finished another incline and panting again with exhaustion, I stop to breathe at a narrow clearing in the forest. ‘This is the hike of a lifetime, so why not enjoy it?’, I remind myself. I turn to look back over the brush down the mountain and feel the Noble Teacher’s eyes gazing in wonder behind me. How many times did he and his attendant overlook the splendor of the rolling blue mountains in the distance and the now miniature valley way down below? I feel the brightness of awe in his eyes as he silently asks, “How could this miracle be so real?” I breathe with this sense of wonder until peace fully replaces my fatigue.

Turning my gaze back to the path we’ve been climbing, a forest hallway of upright pines narrowly cascades down the hillside. I stop to lean against the trunk of a pine, and caress the smooth polished surface of its roots which rise above the earth up to my knees. I’m slightly startled upon realizing that they are the living descendants of the pines the Noble Teacher planted on Yen Tu mountain centuries ago. As the stories tell, he placed baby pines not only up the mountain, but all the way to the royal capital. Wherever he went, the Noble Teacher walked barefoot or on reed sandals, leaned on his bamboo staff, and carried no more than his wooden begging bowl.

Step by step, up the great hidden mountain

While stopping for another break, I watch two older Vietnamese women step barefoot up the stone and earthen path. “How do they climb with such vigor and vitality at their age?”, I ponder with admiration. “Xin Chau co”. We exchange smiles as fellow pilgrims, and their eyes perk open as if to acknowledge our contrasting east and west origins. I am reminded that I am a

guest on this mountain, the only hiker with European ancestral roots I’ve seen so far on the path. “How many generations of their ancestors have been walking this mountain year after year, century after century?” I wonder. This holy mountain must be in their bones, its rivers coursing through their blood, its spiritual faith woven into their muscle fibers, and its strength pressed down to the soles of their feet. Without hesitation, I take off my Chaco sandals and feel the cool stone under my warm feet. The mountain becomes more alive at each sensation of sand grains, pebbles, roots, and hard stone under my feet. I press my soles into the earth with all of my attention, as if the Noble Teacher were walking with my own feet. I surrender them to the joy and faith he must have felt while wandering barefoot across the same forests. Every time I start to race forward, my feet gently push into the ground, reminding me to enjoy every step, knowing this journey won’t last forever.

Beautiful steps or ugly steps, light steps or heavy steps… these concepts exist only in our mind.

The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

After 10 years of diligent practice, the Noble Teacher traveled the country, offering teachings to other monastics and the public, and establishing temples and meditation centers. Everywhere he went, people gathered to hear his talks. He counseled both rich and poor, encouraging them to practice the 10 virtuous deeds. They trusted his words, but were most moved simply by watching the gentle power of his presence, his rare noble bearing transformed into profound humility and grace.

Climbing to a plateau, bright green plumeria leaves sway gently over various grey stupas. On each side of a central stupa, a small fish pond surrounded by a walking path and small trees refreshes the weary guests. This is the first pagoda, where the retired king and Noble Teacher’s relics are buried. I take in the solemn yet beautifully adorned monument for several minutes, touch the earth before his dedication, and continue on.

I find it difficult to see the Noble Teacher in a pagoda or where his relics are buried. The foot polished stone steps, hovering mist, and screeching cicadas throughout the forest contain his presence more than anywhere else. The second stage up the mountain was much steeper than the first. Each step up the staircase was a push, as we climbed over 2,000 feet from the pagoda below. From this stage, a small cohort of Vietnamese pilgrims and myself had silently bonded together in our hike as if we mounted this vertical climb. A misty fog rose with us, as the valley below appeared and disappeared in shrouded mist as we glanced towards the bucolic fields below.

More steps, or less steps… it doesn’t matter. Peace is always every step.

After a strenuous and sweaty effort, even with many breaks, we finally climb over the last steps of level 2, where a gigantic golden Buddha statue sits in full lotus. Famished, I take a sweet potato from a vendor for about 40 cents, and briefly contemplate the massive statue. Here we were met by throngs of other visitors who took a gondola up from the bottom to visit the statue and perhaps walk the rest of the way to the peak. After walking amidst such natural beauty for the last few hours, this ginormous golden symbol just didn’t seem properly placed up there to me. I was more fascinated by the engineering feat of getting him seated up there than anything else. With fresh tuber energy, and the peaks not far away, I continued on.

Because people revered King Nhan Trong so greatly, the country was swept away by his teachings and dedication to monastic life. After his ordination, the Viet Kingdom underwent a spiritual as 15,000 monastics ordained in Vietnam in the following three decades. During his lifetime and afterwards, people referred to him with different names – the Great Ascetic Monk, The Buddha Enlightened King, and the Noble Bamboo Forest Teacher, as he established a new school of Zen in Vietnam, the Bamboo Forest School of Zen (Truc Lam Thien lineage). This is the only Zen school that was founded in Vietnam, as the other Zen lineages originated in China and subsequently flowed into China. This lineage included great Zen masters from Huyen Quang in the 14 century, to Lieu Quan in the 18th century, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition today.

I have arrived, I am home.

On a large stone slab at the peak of Yen Tu, the Noble Teacher meditated and drank tea, either alone or with the company of his closest disciples and family. His sons, the king and prince, as well as daughter who ordained as a nun visited him from time to time. Nearby lotus ponds, surrounded by purple bamboo thickets growing between the rocky surface decorate the peak.

Finding my own path up the rocky creviced peak, I step and skip from stone to slab, and weav around bamboo patches with renewed enthusiasm to my weary limbs. I approach an old, gorgeously carved shrine, whose wooden refuge is filled with incessant prayers, sandalwood fragrance, and tropical fruits from Vietnamese pilgrims. I find a quiet place nearby to listen to the wind’s cool refreshing notes, soak in the 360 view of blue mountains rolling into waves of fog in the distance, and savor the end of ascension. Thousands of feet higher than where I started this morning, a sense of lightness and freedom settles. The river of worries, dramas, and excitement in the world down below seems so distant, unable to reach us up here. Perched on a rock outcrop away from the crowds, I breathe with the presence of the Noble Teacher by my side.

Looking out to the west, the royal capital of Hanoi housed the new king centuries ago. But it was the Noble Teacher who the people loved and admired the most. He prevented foreign invaders and protected the country’s borders; later, he brought reconciliation and peace with the Cham people, an enemy to the Viet kingdom in the South. Seated here on the mountain top, meditating serenely on a stone slab among flowering bamboo, he dwelled, and the heart of the Viet people was with him.


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


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