Saturday, August 22, 2020

Story of Zen master Quảng Nghiêm (1122-1190)

 This is a story about a Vietnamese Zen Master who lived in the 12th century in Vietnam.

By story I mean I am telling you the details of the monk’s life and his teaching from the historical record, "The Excellent Blooms in Zen Garden" (Thiền Uyển Tập Anh = TUTA= 禪苑集英), written sometime around 1337, according to the massive effort of digging historical records and literature by history researcher, Dr. Lê Mạnh Thát in trying to pinpoint the possible author and publication year of that record. So it is the “true” story about the Zen teacher and his realization of Enlightenment with some of my explanation on Zen.


                                                            * *

                                    Zen Fragrance from Tịnh Quả

Tinh Qua pagoda, more than 800 years ago, was honored to welcome a Zen master who realized the Liberation (1), the Wisdom behind that liberation fabulously to come to that district to transmit the dharmas and Zen experience to monks and laymen in that area where cloth weaving and Buddha’s dharma following was well-known.

The loved Master's surname is Nguyen, his Dharma name is Quảng Nghiêm. He was from the district Dan Phụng, near Ha Noi; born in 1122. He was an orphan from an early age. It was with his uncle Bao Nhac that he learned first lessons about Buddhism.
After the teacher-uncle Bao Nhac passed away, he went out in all directions to learn more about Buddhism and Zen, visiting many places of meditation.

One day, listening to Tri Thien teaching the Sayings of Xuedou (Tuyet Dau= 雪竇 ) to the part of Dao Ngo and Tiem Nguyen going to a funeral and having a conversation on Life and Death (2), Quảng Nghiêm suddenly had a moment of enlightenment ( Zen satori), he asked Tri Thien immediately:

“That first line of the koan of the ancients on life and death, does it still have (some) validity?”
Tri Thien :
“Do you recognize the validity ?”
Quang Nghiem:
“What is the truth of “No birth-no death” ?
Tri Thien: “Can only realize it in life-death”
Quang Nghiem: "I then have attained 'No-birth' "(3)
Tri Thien: "You understand it yourself."

Hearing this, Quang Nghiem felt more sure of the meaning of enlightenment in his self, then asked Tri Thien one more:
“How to “keep” this enlightenment ? (4)
Tri Thien :
“Just as before” (5)
Quang Nghiem bowed deep to pay homage.

From then, Master Quang Nghiem became very famous within the Zen community. In an earlier time, he went to Thanh An pagoda in the village of Sieu Loai to 'stand the Zen cane' and teach the dharmas. Later, due to the invitation of Defense minister
Phung Giang Tuong, he came to Tinh Qua pagoda to become the abbot. Here Master Quang Nghiem taught, brightened Zen teachings; monks and students gained many benefits

One day, the best disciple Thường Chiếu brought Kim Cang (Diamond) Sutra and asked :
"The Dharma Tathagata (Như Lai = Buddha) attained, which is real and not-real, what is It ?

Quang Nghiem :
“You should not defame Tathagata as such.”
Thuong Chieu:
“The Venerable master should not defame the sutra as such”
Quang Nghiem: “Who said this sutra? “
Thuong Chieu :
“Venerable Master, please don’t joke with me, isn't this
what the Buddha said?”
Quang Nghiem:
“ If the Buddha said it, why did it say in the sutra: "If someone claims the Tathagata taught the Dhammas, he is defaming the Buddha !" ?

Thuong Chieu could not respond.

Through this very short biography what do we see?

At first are the easy things to recognize: Master Quảng Nghiêm’s family belonged to a family with many connetions to Buddhism; It was much possible that Buddhism had deep roots in his family, with uncles as monks. He was on his way to "find Buddha" and Buddhism at an very early age, after both of his parents had passed away.

First of all, the effect of this leaving to search for Buddhism was to alleviate the pain and suffering of the heart, the loss of his parents. If Buddhism is the way of saving men from sufferings, then in all the sufferings of this world, the suffering of losing both parents is one of the most painful, for a person, especially a young mind. The little boy Nguyen at the time - was probably guided by his uncle to vision : there is a Realm, a vast Road that is both immense and profound, and this road could help Nguyen relieve his own deep pain in the beginning and shed a little angle of light for him to perceive that : in this whole sahà (earth), or other 3000 worlds there are so many examples of Impermanence. Later on, young Nguyen will also recognize how this important road may contain other meanings for his life with his uncle’s teaching, which will give him a lot of advantage on his way to discover more and more with the essence of Buddhism, without the difficulties of other young folks who do not have such an uncle. Those two factors will serve as the solid ground for the steps of young Nguyen on his way to Wisdom.

Days in and days out in learning the sutras ( scriptures), sastras ( discourses), practicing meditation, observing how the stream of consciousness flows; reflecting, contemplating on dharma issues, meditative instructions, sayings of elders and his own uncle until the day the uncle passed away, an emptiness filled in , both as a loss of care, affection, and loss of instructions, young monk Nguyen now felt the need to start looking for another wise elder in Buddhism and Zen to learn and sharpen his own practice and understanding, grasping— especially the “no-entrance” method of Zen, started by the first Zen patriarch in China, Bodhidharma himself:

Outside of the scriptures
This special way of transmitting (Wisdom) does not form words
Teaches directly to Real “Mind” (6)
To realize the Essence to become a Buddha

                               教外別傳   Giáo ngoại biệt truyền
                               不立文字   Bất lập văn tự
                               直指真心   Trực chỉ chân tâm
                               見性成佛   Kiến tính thành Phật

One day, listening to Tri Thien teaching the Sayings of Xuedou (Tuyet Dau= 雪竇 ) to the part of Dao Ngo and Tiem Nguyen going to the funeral and having a conversation on Life and Death, Quảng Nghiêm suddenly had a moment of enlightenment ( Zen satori). The question, the “nghi tình” ( the “always ticking-kicking need/endeavor to settle a Zen koan”) on the dreamful character, make-up of this life suddenly was incredibly shined upon, the answer was within arm's reach. This koan is an old, usual koan in Zen, so I won’t elucidate on it. Let the Zen students work upon it.

The wish to attain , to grasp, to embrace the core understanding of “No-birth” was a mountain-moving force within monk Quảng Nghiêm. It pushed, pulled Quang Nghiem with tempestuous force to , on the Liberating Road.

After seeing/knowing that he had embarked on the correct/right road toward Liberating mind-consciousness in this monumental awakening experience on the meaning of No-birth, Quang Nghiem then asked Trí Thiền how to keep this enlightened moment, this awakening experience and grasping-understanding, Tri Thien told him to “stay the same”, meaning : The awakening, the understanding is encrypted in your heart and mind now, there is no need to change anything. Just go on live, act, go with the flow with the way you normally do every day; walk, stand, lie down, sit the way you always do; read the scriptures, light the pagoda altar’s lamp, strike the beautiful, dear bell as you always do: outwardly, there is no difference at all, but inwardly, a mountainous cascade of false concepts, conception and perception has collapsed with that grasping, understanding. Light has come and shone.

Therefore when Tri Thien answered him “Just as before”. Quang Nghiem understood it right away, and bowed to thank you and paid homage to his teacher. Here I will offer my attempt to explain this moment, this awakening-grasping a little more. In the light of the Absolute Wisdom, there is nothing different between being enlightened and unenlightened— with this physical body, this corporeal realm of daily activities as I have explained above; the difference is in the internal encryption of the heart and mind; the Light will stay there to the end of his life; the experience, the “coded” meaning, its signification will endure. "Outside" in the flowing of the eight consciousnesses, everything stays the same or, appears to stay the same.

A little more on the Glow of that Light in that moment of Enlightenment (Satori) :

By the power of ultra-delicate, seasoned and meticulous meditation, contemplation, this Light burns up thick veils of illusion of the so-called “Real”, “solid” in life, through meditative practices of Samatha, Vipassana, by contemplation, reflection on Voidness. Looking at it with view of loka-saṃvṛti-satya [tục đế= the normal relative view of realism], after leaving hours of jhana, samatha, the consciousness will have different scenes, scenarios, creating, building, but looking at it in the vipassana on “no independent characteristics”, then in ultimate view, they are not different: at two different levels of meditation and observation, and two different slices of time, although they may appear different.

Here the sentence "Ordinary mind has the proper disposition” by Nam Tuyền( 南泉普願= Nanquan Puyuan) would have some parallels. In the regular flow of stream of mind-body activities, there wouldn’t be any (noticeable) differenc. In the ultimate truth of having the same, or equivalent manner/feature/propensity of existence, they are the same. Particularly with the profound insight of the monks through decades of diligently cultivating, practicing Wisdom (Prajna), Jhana, and Sila keeping, how the transformed Alaya consciousness in its activity along other seven consciousnesses will lead them to experience the deeply-enlightened states, and these experiences are hard to say and talk about at different levels.

As a consequence, we see how Quang Nghiem bowed in deep homage to his teacher, Tri Thien for this revelation to the Fantastic See, the fantastic Light experienced—the Light surpassing the false conception, perception about the difference in the worlds represented by “Nirvana” and this Sahà. What needs be noticed here is that teacher Tri Thien was also a fantastic Zen master, whose very cordial manner and excellent way of transmitting Zen thought and experience opened Quang Nghiem’s consciousness to the immense sphere of enlightenment.

In other questions and answers in Master Quang Nghiem's meditation dialogues, people who read, learn and understand Zen well, can also be familiar with and adept to
have a firm understanding of them, if they have studied meditation for years. There are only two special sentences that need "commentary":
Question: “What is the Pure Land scene?
Answer: "Pine tree, autumn tree next to the old graveyard"

According to Zen's speech, style, and preference, among meditators, any answer can be "temporarily" accepted. As long as the teacher is able to evoke the student’s mind to meditate/contemplate the “issues” to see Tánh ( the essence of Prajna-paramita wisdom). Monk Quang Nghiem’s immediate reply here is rather “clear”, too. My suggestion: As Such.

After teaching monks and Buddhists for many years, and the fragrance of Zen had spread over all areas around Tinh Qua, Dan Phung, by 1190, Quang Nghiem was about to leave this ta bà( sahà= earth). Before leaving, he left the following four-lined stanza. the "Excellent Blooms in Zen Garden" records:


                             Ly tịch phương ngôn tịch diệt khứ
                             Sinh vô sinh hậu thuyết vô sinh
                             Nam nhi tự hữu xung thiên chí
                             Hưu hướng Như Lai hành xứ hành
                            ( in Romanized Sino-Vietnamese )


Leaving the dead/immobile meaning of Nirvana, ( I) then said that It had passed through
Existing in “Non-existent” state, then (I ) will speak on No Birth
Men with bold spirit,
(Should) stop going the Buddha’s way. (7)

My elucidation:

The first two verses are two amazing utterances from a master who has realized the True Essence of the samadhi, vipassana on Voidness ( or Emptiness).Normally, realism or naive realism would “see” ( perceive, conceive) Death as IT— namely, the end of a physical body, or sentient beings and the stopping of its mental activity, which in a sense is true. That is the dead, the immobile sense of death. But looking, contemplating, meditating deep, deep into that phenomenon, Buddhist masters, teachers recognize, realize that it is just a phenomenon, an appearance. Death itself has no inherent characteristics, no innate features, it is just a change, a decomposition of the “causes” in the dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) relation. And if, death has no Real "self" (being, entity, unit, form, formation etc.) by itself, what can we conclude ? Master Quang Nghiêm realized this, understood this, grasped this in his most affirming way, therefore : the meaning of Nirvana ( also means Death in Buddhist literature), from that moment changed, it was not a dead Death, not an immobile conception, which had been made up, built with dense, constructed, compacted, fortified false misconception through years and years, centuries after centuries in human history. And he was out of it. That’s the end of “existence under the binding, stressing conceptual force” of an incorrect view of death. Free from misconceived thoughts, conception of the dead, immobile concept of death. On the other hand in the context of understanding the meaning of "Nirvana" as a state of liberation, as breaking free from dead, immoble, framed, pinned-down sense, conceptual framing , that is also what Quang Nghiem tried to speak at.

That leads to the second verse, whose meaning is pretty clear: I am now realizing the No birth-no death meditative significance in wisdom of old masters, in the sutras. I am a “newborn” in the realm of true “No-birth” ; therefore within this experience I pronounce my teaching on No birth-no death.

Take notes:

. a) The starting point and central question, important fact for Monk Quang Nghiem, at least in the first half of his life have to do with Life and Death, and the meaning of them

. b) Life and Death matter, in Buddhist view, is of major importance which should drive one to enquire, meditate deep upon it. That’s why it is called “đại sự nhân duyên” ( a big question, an important fact of causes and links to consider)

. c) For me, that precisely can shed light on the motive, the “force” for those utterances at the end of his life— it could also be what he wanted to leave for future generations to remember him of and his legacy of his main Idea, Realization of Enlightenment in Buddhism.



1. Liberation = Giải thoát. Liberation from all afflictions, sufferings. A final liberation, in the Theravada tradition, means to enter Nibbana ( sa. Nirvana), the ultimate goal without rebirth.

2, Life and Death : Life and Death matter, in Buddhist view, is of major importance which should drive one to enquire, meditate deep upon it

3. Also means “No birth-no death”

4. “keep” this enlightenment : How can I preserve this awakening, understanding, grasping ?

5. Just as before: outwardly, there is no difference.

6. “Real” Mind = 真心. In the biography-hagiography about Bodhidharma, first Zen Patriarch in China, that’s the “motto” of Chinese Zen, in which the Chinese tried to “cut short” the road to enlightenment by “going straight” to the Mind, or Consciousness and its philosophical/meditative contemplation to recognize and realize truth.

7. A strong-willed expression of Master Quang Nghiem to assert his own Buddhist way, most likely, the way to teach the dharmas.




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