by Vo Van Tuong - Huynh Nhu Phuong
Translated by Tran Phuong Lan
If you take the route from the Hoa Binh Area in the centres of Da Lat to the middle of the Prenn Pass, you will turn right and go on about ten kilometres to reach Lake Tuyen Lam (Bamboo Grove) Buddhist Meditation Institute.
From afar on the way around the mountain leading to the pagoda, you can see its bell tower and the roof of its main hall half hidden amidst immense pine woods. Then you either turn right into the asphalted road and enter its side gate after climbing up 61 steps or go strait to Lake Tuyen Lam, where you have to ascend 222 steps to the Triple Gate and the front yard.
The Truc Lam site is located on the Eagle Peak (Phuong Hoang Peak) covering 24 hectares in which the two-hectare building area comprises the Outer Institute and the Inner Institute.
The Inner Institute is subdivided into two separate structures: a monastery and a nunnery. There are two dwelling-houses, a meditation hall, a refectory, a kitchen and a storehouse each. This restricted area, which is not fully open to guests, is now the residence for 50 monks and 50 nuns who devote themselves to the practice of Buddhist meditation (dhyana) or mental cultivation.
The Outer Institute is situated on a large and even lot at the height of 1,300 metres above the sea level facing the extending Benhuit Range and the wide green Lake Tuyen Lam. Here are a number of buildings typical of the Truc Lam Institute designed by the Architects Ngo Viet Thu and Nguyen Tin, and later performed by the Venerable Manager Thich Thong tang together with countless monks, nuns and lay Buddhists. The inauguration ceremony was celebrated on 19 March, 1994.
In the centre is the stately main hall, on the right are the consulting house and the bell tower, on the left are the parlour, the kitchen and the storehouse. In front of the parlour is a beautiful flower garden and on the slope leading to the gate is an artificial pool where a 15,000 cubic metre volume of water is available for use.
The main hall decoration is simple and dignified with the Buddha Sakyamuni in concentration on the lotus throne flanked by the images of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the symbol of Greek Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the symbol of Great Virtue.
The Consulting House is the place where the Most Venerable Rector discusses various meditation matters with his disciples twice a month on the 14th and the 15th Days of lunar months, the Buddhist Observance Days (Uposatha Days).
The Truc Lam Institute's objective is to revive the Truc Lam Buddhist Chan Sect under the Tran dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is the original way of practising the Buddha's teachings initiated by King Tran Nhan Tong, founder of the Truc Lam Chan Sect. It was the King Tran Nhan Tong who, having twice defeated the Mongols (Yuang Meng), resigned from his throne and then became a monk entitled Truc Lam the Austere at Mount Yen Yu, where he founded the first Vietnamese Chan sect. Under his leadership the three Chan Sects: Vinitaruci, Wu Tung (Speechless Understanding) and Tsao Tang (Hermitage) introduced from India and China were unified into one Vietnamese Chan Sect and he was consecrated the First Patriarach of the Truc Lam Chan Sect of Vietnam. He led a very active life of a Chan Master engaged in ruling the country and after his voluntary resignation, he set out on his preaching tours with his disciples all over the country. That was the time when numerious Vietnamese Chan Masters took part in building and protecting their country; however, they remained aloof from worldly life. They laid special emphasis on mental cultivation in whatever condition one might live. It is a mind-oriented training for every Buddhist, whether a monk or a lay follower. This inward self-purification is the way to peace of mind or detachment from the world, hence the real nature manifests itself. The mental security that is to be won within oneself, not in the bliss of the Western Pure Land, is beautifully described in a calm and serene utterance by The First Truc Lam Partiarch before "The Fading Spring" (Xuan Van).
The Fading Spring
It was though not understanding the nature of Form and Void
That my heart used to be attached to hundreds of flowers in the Spring time,
Now that I have found out the Crown Prince's real face,
I am detached, sitting cross-legged on a grass-couch, watching the falling petals of the roses.
Above all, this way of practising the Dharma, the mental culture, is the best expressed in a hymn entitled "Cu Tran Lac Dao" (Taking Delight in Religion while Dwelling in the world) by Truc Lam the Austere, who concluded his hymn with the following reputable verse:
Let's take delight in religion in whatever condition we may live,
Lets eat when hungry and sleep when tired.
Within ourselves lies the gem, so let's give up searching elsewhere,
When out mind is detached from the surroundings, there is no more question of concentration.
The first Truc Lam Patriarch set a brilliant example of a virtuous and wise man who, having performed the duty of a heroic King, became a calm mediator and Dharma-master well-versed in the Buddhist Hoy Scriptures. Following the guideline "Meditation Practice and Sutra Studies must go in pairs", he ordered his Dhama heir, Phap Loa, the Second Truc Lam Patriarch, to carry out the task of engraving the Buddhist Canon which lasted 24 years (1295-1319) under the auspices of King Tran Anh Tong, together with the support from all other Buddhist devotees.. That was the greatest achievement of the Truc Lam Patriarchs, making over 5,000 engravings of Buddhist scriptures which were later preserved at Quynh Lam Pagoda. Next to Phap Loa was Huyen Quang, thus forming the Trinity of the Truc Lam Patriarchs, the symbol of the Buddhist Golden Age under the Tran Reign. Master Huyen quang, a great monk scholar and poet, led a secluded life at Mount Con Son after 20 years of serving the court and assisting the First Patriarch in propagating the Dharma and compiling various pieces of writing about Vietnamese Ch'an Buddhism. Living amidst natural conditions, he experienced the joy and the tranquality of a person who really merged with everything around, in all his postures. Whether walking, standing, lying or sitting, he felt light-hearted at all times and and uttered such wonderful stanzas as those in "an Ode to the Chrysanthemum":
An ode to the Chrysanthemum
(Vinh Cuc Hoa)
The flowers are in the court and the man is on the upper floor.
Sitting alone, carefree, contemplating the incense smoke pervading everywhere,
There is no more discrimination between the subject and the object
Just as a flower bud among them bursts open.
The daily routine of a Truc Lam Buddhist practitioner who pursues self-purification is regulated by the Six-fold Repentance Rites laid down by King Tran Thai Tong, founder of the Tran Dynasty and great Buddhist scholar. Unlike the Chinese Repentance Ritual which asks for the forgiveness of sins, the uniquely Vietnamese Six-fold Repentance Rites aim to purify oneself leading to freedom of mind, awakening. From dawn, the Buddhist cultivator begins an auspicious day by chanting such simple and lofty hymns that enhance his devotion as:
An Incense-Offering Hymn:
(Bai ke Dang huong)
Pervading the Forest of Concentration is the fragrance of the incense
Made from the Sandal well grown in the Park of Wisdom,
It is keenly trimmed by the Sword of Discipline* into the shape of a peak
And is burned at the Heart Brazier to worship the Buddhas.
A Flower-Offering Hymn:
(Bai ke dang hoa)
The open blossoms illuminating the Heart Soil
Are far sweeter than the celestial coral flowers scattering from the sky
May I pick them, one by one, to offer to the Buddhas.
May the wind of my long-lasting Evil Karma fail to shake them all.
This practical way of self-awakening in accordance with the Three-fold Training of Discipline (Sila), Concentration (Samadhi) and Wisdom (Paiia) in the Original Buddhism, which was handed down by the Truc Lam Tradition in the Buddhist Golden Age of Vietnam through centuries is now restored by Abbot Thich Thanh Tu and preserved at Truc Lam Institute as a special feature of Vietnamese Buddhists.
In order to make the above method more effective, Abbot Thanh Tu exhorts his disciples to apply the Six-harmony Principle laid down by the Buddha himself in the Brahma-faring (the holy life), that is, to perform bodily, vocal and mental actions in perfect harmony with those of their fellow Brahma-fares, to observe rules of the moral code (Vinaya), to uphold common lofty views leading upwards and to have equal share in offerings accepted lawfully.
In the spirit of Truc Lam the Austere, the practitioners should earnestly develop the three qualities, namely, diligent striving for awakening, strong determination to overcome difficulties and obstacles, and self contentment with a frugal life, avoiding all luxuries.
At the top of the Truc Lam Institute's organisational structure is the Most Venerable Abbot Thich Thanh Tu as Rector, next come the Venerable Thich Nhat Quang as Vice Rector, the Venerable Thich Thong Phuong as Monks' Manager and Venerable Thich Nu Nhu Tam as Nuns' Manager.
On reaching the Truc Lam Institute, Buddhist devotees and visitors alike seem to ignore the constant icy cold of Da Lat, the land of peach flowers, in order to enjoy the open air of its natural sceneries, to admire the beauty and the originality of many new architectural designs deeply coloured with national features, and above all, to spend peaceful hours when they feel as if they were lost in their quiet imagination of the past world where the Truc Lam Patriarchs lived on the lofty Yen Tu Mountain.
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