King Tran Nhan Tong of Vietnam

Ink drawing on paper showing a group of men carrying a king on a cloth transport.

The annual festival of the Truc Lam or Bamboo Forest Buddhist tradition in Vietnam’s Yen Tu Mountain attracts over 150,000 pilgrims. They climb steep paths, passing ten pagodas and hundreds of shrines and stupas, up to the cloudcapped peak at 1,068 meters (3,500 feet) above sea level.With each passing landmark, a story unfolds of a triumphant warrior and a devout Buddhist.Vietnam’s first patriarch, King Tran Nhan Tong (1258 to 1308).

The eldest son of King Tran Thanh Tong, Tran Nhan Tong began studying Buddhism at a young age. Inspired by the teachings, he escaped the palace to Yen Tu Mountain on foot, alone. Arriving at a temple, he sought out the abbot, who took the young prince in until the palace guards arrived. Eventually he became a student of a respected Zen teacher, Tue Trung Tu, and visited the Phuoc temple every day. Although he resisted the royal life, he finally married the eldest daughter of Queen Nguyen Tu and became king at the age of 21. He maintained his Zen practice even as his duties mounted. It is said that one day he dreamed that a large lotus flower emerged from his naval with a golden Buddha statue on the top. In the dream, a passerby asked, “Do you know this Buddha? He’s the Buddha Vairocana.” (In the Vietnamese tradition the Buddha Vairochana is known as the Great Sun Buddha. In the Vajrayana he is known as the embodiment of dharmadhatu wisdom).

King Tran Nhan Tong was a great poet and philosopher who was known for the equanimity with which he treated serfs, aristocrats, and even animals alike. The harmony of his life was broken and his pacifism put to the test when Mongol invasions in 1285 and 1288 brought war to his kingdom. He proved to be a consummate strategist and a brave general on the battlefield. When the wars ended in victory, he abdicated the throne to his son Anh Tong. Finally he could return to the practice of Buddhism. He took ordination and founded the Truc Lam Chan sect, which left an enduring imprint on the ideological history of Vietnam. He became an ascetic, earning the name “Huong Van Dai Dau Da” (The Great Ascetic Monk), and established temples, meditation centers, and a lecture hall at Pho Minh temple. He taught both monks and the general public.

On the night of November 1, 1308, Tran Nhan Tong showed signs of his passing. He called a novice, Bao Sat, to see him at Ngoa Van pagoda in Yen Tu. It was near the midnight hour. Tran Nhan Tong lifted the curtain to look at the sky and said, “It’s time for me to go.” Bao Sat asked, “Where are you going?” He replied:

Nothing was created

Nothing was terminated

If that is understood

The Buddha will always be present

Where should there be the coming and returning?

Bao Sat asked, “What does it mean by no birth and no termination?” The First Patriarch slapped Bao Sat in the face and scolded, stop speaking nonsense!” With that, Tran Nhan Tong passed away, in the posture of lion. He was 51 years old.