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. Turning to look back over the brush down the mountain, I feel the Noble Teacher’s eyes gazing in wonder behind me. How many times did he and his attendant overlook this splendor of the rolling blue mountains in the distance and the now miniature valley far 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 as peace gently replaces my fatigue.

Turning my gaze back to the path we have 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 am slightly startled upon realizing that these 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 along the entire path 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 chao co”, I say with my best Vietnamese accent. 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 silently wonder. This holy mountain must be in their bones, its rivers coursing through their blood, its pine roots woven into their muscle fibers, and its earthen strength pressed into 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 or distant village countrysides. Every time I begin to race forward, my feet gently push into the ground, reminding me to enjoy every step, knowing this journey will not 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 on the mountain, the Noble Teacher traveled the country, offering teachings to other monastics and the public, and establishing temples and meditation centers throughout the country. 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 finally to a plateau, bright green plumeria leaves sway gently over various grey stupas. On each side of the central stupa, a small fish pond surrounded by a walking path and small trees welcomes and refreshes the weary guests. This is the first pagoda, where the retired king and Noble Teacher’s relics are buried. 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. I take in the solemn yet beautifully adorned monument for several minutes, touch the earth before his dedication, and continue on.

The second stage up the mountain is much steeper than the first. Each step up the staircase is a push, as we climb another 2,000 feet from the pagoda below. At this stage, a small cohort of Vietnamese pilgrims start to silently bond together as we aspire to collectively mount this vertical pure land and home of our ancestors. A misty fog rises with us, lightening and lifting our spirits up the staircase into this shrouded heavenly mountain. Our view of the fleeting valley and bucolic fields below disappear, reappear, and disappear again until at last we felt completely alone on the mountain.

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 onto the last steps of level 2. At last, we made it to base of the pristine mountain peaks!, I excitedly think to myself. Seemingly out of nowhere, a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha King sitting in full lotus awkwardly manifests before my eyes. Famished and ready for a break, I take a sweet potato from a vendor for about 40 cents, and briefly contemplate the massive icon plopped on top of this holy mountain. 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 dude just didn’t seem properly seated up there to me. The statue is actually made in copper, and weighs over 138 tons, the biggest such statue in Vietnam. I was more fascinated by the engineering feat of hauling up there than anything else. With fresh tuber energy, and the peaks not far away, I walked past Mr. Golden Buddha King and 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 revolution 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 Vietnam. This lineage includes 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 his daughter who ordained as a nun all visited him from time to time. Nearby lotus ponds, surrounded by purple bamboo thickets growing between the rocky surfaces decorate the peak. What a magical setting to meditate and drink tea with family and friends!

Finding my own path up the rocky creviced peak, I step and skip from stone to slab, weaving 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 an endless source of 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 like waves into the foggy distance, and savor the end of my ascension. Thousands of feet higher than where I started this morning, a sense of lightness and freedom settles. The river of worries, drama, and excitement in the world down below seems so distant, unable to reach or tempt us way up here. Perched on a rock outcrop away from the crowds, I breathe gently with the swaying bamboo thickets and Noble Teacher’s presence by my side. Suddenly, in that moment, I realize the depth of my Zen tradition’s formal name – The Bamboo Forest School of Zen. The simple essence of the teachings shines through in the flickering bamboo leaves against the cool mountain fresh air. No frills, no big pagodas, no golden statues. Just a bamboo forest for our classroom, a pine rooted path as our temple walkway, a cup of tea is our holy teaching. Intimately in touch with the simple and profound gifts of the mountain is enough to fill our mind with awe and love.

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 in peace, and the heart of the Viet people dwelled 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.


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

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