Vietnamese Zen At Late
20th Century

This translated version is an excerpt from the book "Thien Tong Vietnam Cuoi The Ky 20" ("Vietnamese Zen At The Late 20th Century"), written by Master Thich Thanh Tu.

When I talk about Vietnamese Zen, I mean to talk about the Zen practicing method that had been implemented earlier at Chan Khong monastery (1970-1986) and now at Thuong Chieu monastery (1974 present). This practicing method was instructed by me. I did not follow the lineages extended from China such as Tao Dong, Lam Te, Qui Nguong, Van Mon, and Phap Nhan. I only combine three important key ideas from the historical Zen transmissions from China to Vietnam. The first key idea is from patriarch Hui Ko, the second one is from patriarch Hui Neng, and the third one is from patriarch Truc Lam Dau Da. Put together their discernment, enlightenment, and practice, I develop a unique Zen method for us to practice at our monasteries.

Patriarch Hui Ko (494 601)

After his ordainment with patriarch Bodhidharma, patriarch Hui Ko's mind was still agitated during his meditation sessions. One day, he approached his master with a question: "Master, my mind is not tamed. Could you show me a method that I could tame it?" patriarch Bodhidharma replied, "Show me your mind, I will tame it for you." Shocked by the answer, patriarch Hui Ko returned to himself to look for the mind. However, he could not find it. He then said, "I could not find it." patriarch Bodhidharma replied, "I already tame it for you." At this moment, patriarch Hui Ko realized the way to practice. His realization is a practicing method, but it's actually not. How come? It's because for long, we have misperceived our agitated mind as our true mind. patriarch Hui Ko was the same. Thus, each time we meditate, our mind could not tame as we want it to be. This issue has caused us much anxiety. Asking for the practicing method of taming the mind is a desire of determined practitioners. Here, patriarch Bodhidharma did not teach any practicing method. He only said, "Show me your mind , I will tame it for you." This phrase is a thunder that destroys the long time misperception of patriarch Hui Ko.

We usually misperceive those agitated thoughts our mind so we are controlled by them. Suddenly, when we look for them, they disappear. Isn't true that the mind is tamed when those agitated thoughts disappear? That's why patriarch Bodhidharma said, "I already tame it for you." patriarch Hui Ko realized this idea therefore, he discovered the way to practice. Obviously, the method of taming the mind is not really a method. It only requires us to use our wisdom to search for the agitated mind, from there, it disappears. In Zen, this is called "Self reflection." I called it "aware the false thoughts and not to follow them." This is the "realization of the practicing method" of patriarch Hui Ko.

Why in Zen, we don't accept that agitated mind as our true mind? It's because by accepting it, we would make the following mistakes:

  1. That agitated mind sometimes exists, other times does not. However, we're always exist. If we accept them to be our true mind or us, then shouldn't we exist when we're not thinking?

  2. Normally, this agitated mind is filled with thoughts. When we find it, it disappears. If this mind is us, then it should always exist. But the fact is it vanishes when we look for it. This agitated mind is just a reflection. Accepting this reflection as our ourselves is a real suffering of humans.

  3. All of us should agree that from the young age to the old age, we are who we are. However, this agitated mind has changed in hundreds of thousands of forms: sometimes it has good thoughts (like sage) and sometimes it has mean thoughts (like animals). So, which form is us?

  4. When we think, we know that we are thinking. When we don't think, we know that we are not thinking. The thinking is an observing object of our awareness. Once is an object, it's a guest or an external object that doesn't belong to us. On the other hand, if the thinking is ourselves, then who awares that it's not thinking when it's not thinking? If the awareness exists when the mind is not thinking, how could we accept the thinking to be ourselves?

When we misperceive false things as ourselves, in Buddhist suttras, it's called "accepting enemies as our children." It's a big disaster. Thus, in all suttras and dharmas, the Buddha's teaching emphasizes on this idea "to stop this agitated mind." We chant, recite Buddha names, and meditate with concentration. But in Zen, the patriarchs don't suppress it as to stop it, but they use the wisdom to discern its false nature. Once they discern it, it's in control. The phrase "Show me your mind, I will tame it for you" depicts this idea.

"Realizing the way" doesn't mean that he already arrived home. It took a long time before he could say to patriarch Bodhidharma, "My mind is unattached to all phenonmenons." Patriarch Bodhidharma said, "Don't fall into unconsciousness (cessation)!" Patriarch Hui Ko replied, "Not at all." Patriarch Bodhidharma asked, "What should you do?" Patriarch Hui Ko said, "Always knowing, how can I not discern it?" Patriarch Bodhidharma immediately said, "This is the transmission of all Buddhas. You should raise no doubt." This indicates his arrival at home. There should be no doubt.

Before his extinction, patriarch Bodhidharma reviewed the discernment of all disciples. When it's his turn, patriarch Hui Ko just bowed three times, then left. Patriarch Bodhidharma said, "You have my marrow." When the ultimate stage is reached, there's no word to describe it. It's because words are the relative usage, therefore, it could not describe the absolute truth. From that point on, patriarch Hui Ko became the second patriarch of China.

Patriarch Hui Neng (638 713)

The realization of patriarch Hui Neng was attained from listening to Diamond suttra. One night, he entered patriarch Hung Jeng's room to listen to his lecture on the segment about this question that reverend Subhuti had raised, "If there are good men or good women set their hearts on the supreme enlightenment, how can they appease their mind? How can they conquer their mind?" and the Buddha replied, "They should not arise their mind to attach to forms, sounds, scents, tastes, touch, and mental objects. No attachment causes their hearts on the supreme enlightenment." Hearing this, patriarch Hui Neng exclaimed, "Never known my own nature is always tranquil. Never known that it has everything! Never known it's eternal (not subjected to birth and death). Never known that is tamed. Never known that it often arises all mental objects!" The Fifth patriarch said, "It's useless to learn dharmas when you don't know your true mind. Discerning your mind is called 'a hero, Sasta Devamanusyanam (teacher of devas and men), or Buddha...'". So, he was bequeathed with the Fifth patriarch's robe and bowl and became the Sixth patriarch.

Through this story, we could see that idea of prajna is not to attach six organs to six sensual objects to cause the hearts on the supreme enlightenment. Patriarch Hui Neng went beyond the stage of unattachment by discerning the true nature of his mind which is tamed and permanent. This true nature is called the "Dharma body" or "True identity." For a long time, it has been existed in us. Being able to attain this discernment and live with it is called "Sudden awakening" or "Discernment of the true nature." But in teaching, he still needs to find ways to express his discernment. By doing that, he developed a practicing method called "Three No's": "No thought is the principle, no form is the nature, and no dwelling is the basis." The patriarch explained, "Internally, dealing with all objects with no dwelling thoughts means no attachment. This is called "No dwelling is the basis." Externally, detaching from all objects called "No form." It reveals the true purified nature. This is called "No form is the nature." Dealing with all objects with the mind unaffected is called "No thought" (inscribed in Platform suttra, chapter 4, "Samadhi and Prajna"). No affection from phenonmenons, no dwelling in all forms, and no attachment to all phenonmenons are the principle of the Sixth patriarch Hui Neng. No affection, no dwelling, and no attachment arises when we are in contact with six sensual objects is called Zen. It doesn't mean that we have to run away from sensual objects, then tame the mind like other Zen methods.

Patriarch Truc Lam (1258 -1308)

As a monarch, king Tran Nhan Tong understood Zen fully through the learning from High official Tue Trung. After his renunciation, his ordained title was "Huong Van Dai Dau Da." He compiled the principles of all popular sects at the time such as Vinitaruci sect, Wu Yen Tong, and Thao Duong to establish a new Zen sect called "Truc Lam Yen tu." This is a true Vietnamese sect. Here, I just select some outstanding points from his teaching and use them as the principle. One of them is from the verse "Perceiving The Existence and Void":

Perceiving the existence and void
When creepers dry up, the plant will fall
On top of monks
Injures their heads

Perceiving the existence and void
Autumn wind blows leave trees with no leaf
Uncountable people
Are cut by blades

Perceiving the existence and void
Make principles
Like pounding tiles or burning turtle's shell,
Climbing mountains or wading across the stream

Perceiving the existence and void
Exists or not exists
Marking the boat to find the sword
Reference a guide book for a good horse

Perceiving the existence and void
This or that
Like snow hat or floral shoes
Clinging to a tree, await the rabbits

Perceiving the existence and void
From the past until now
Attach to the finger to ignore the moon
Drown in the plain ground

Perceiving the existence and void
It has been said
The character eight has two open strokes
Why not seeing the nose?

Perceiving the existence and void
Look to the left and right
Babble all day
Causing noises

Perceiving the existence and void
Always in fear
If cut all creepers,
Walk in pleasantness

We could see from his verse he opposed the obstinance in both side using "existence and void." But the obstinance in both sides could be illustated by many types: existence and void, right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse, victory and defeat, etc...That obstinance is the cause of conflicts and afflictions, which lead to the effect of suffering and not knowing the truth.

Thus, in these 9 segments of this verse, he scolded and taught us everything. Like in first segment, he said, "On top of monks, injures their heads." In the second segment, he said, "Uncountable people, are cut with blades." In the third segment, he said, "Like pounding tiles or burning turtle's shell, climbing mountains or wading across the streams." In the fourth segment, "Marking the boat to find the sword, reference a guide book for a good horse." The fifth segment: "Like snow hat or floral shoes, clinging to a tree, await the rabbits." The sixth segment: "Attach to the finger to ignore the moon, drown in the plain ground." The seventh segment: "Character eight has two open strokes, why not seeing the nose?." The eighth segment: "Babble all day, causing noises." And the ninth segment: "If cut all creepers, walk in pleasantness."

In the first and second segments, he scolded that who obstinates in both sides will ask for suffering on himself/herself. In the third and fourth segments, he criticized that whoever obstinates in both sides is foolish. He/she just wasted his/her effort. In the fifth and sixth segment, he scolded that because one obstinates in the expedients, he/she could not discern the truth. In the seventh and eighth segments, he said the truth is so obvious to us like the nose is below the eye brows. We don't recognize that, therefore, we keep argue. In the ninth segment, he said that whoever could end the obstinance in both sides would attain happiness. This segment portrayed the same idea when patriarch Hui Ko bowed 3 times at patriarch Bodhidharma, then silently left. No obstinance in both sides is the principle of Zen. It's also the rudiment of Buddhism.

Another verse written by patriarch Truc Lam called "Enjoy The Way In Life." This verse depicts everything from his discernment to his practice:

Enjoy the Way and live with what comes in life
Eat when hungry, sleep when tired
Our house already has the treasure,so no need to search
Dealing with all matters with no false mind,no need to ask about Zen

Only the last two lines could reflect his enlightenment and his excellent practicing principle. The third line reflects the same idea that patriarch Hui Neng discerned as he exclaimed, "Never known my true nature is always pacified!..." Zen means to arise no mind when dealing with forms; therefore, there should be no affection. This means "No thought." No mind causes no dwelling in external forms, which means "No form." No mind causes no attachment to external forms, which means "No dwelling." The last line of this verse covers all three: no thought, no form, and no dwelling or principle, nature, and basis that were taught by the patriarch. The principle of patriarch Truc Lam as well as Zen is no affection, no dwelling, and no attachment. He brilliantly applied in practice the discernment of patriarch Hui Ko, the realization and practice of patriarch Hui Neng. As their successors, we should feel proud that in Vietnam, there's is a Zen sect that fully carries the stamp of the patriarchs and proficiently compiles the practicing methods of the ancestors to develop a practicing principle for Vietnamese practitioners.


I have compiled the practicing methods of predescribed three patriarchs to develop the following concrete practicing method:

  • From Second patriarch Hui Ko, I apply the method of taming the mind. It means to know the thinking that we have for long is unreal. We should not let it deceive us or make us running after false forms. This is called "Not to follow the false thoughts." Each time a false thought arises, we have this awareness. Once, practitioners know its false identity, it immediately vanishes. During meditation and those times that we deal with forms, we should have the same awareness. We should not be fooled by them. We practice until we could reach to the level that patriarch Hui Ko described "Terminate all attachments and always knowing. It cannot be described." This means we have gotten the result.

    But the false thoughts are not easy to tame. They arise constantly one after another. Practitioners should be patient to observe and realize it. Gradually, the thoughts become lessen. Perceiving false thoughts as our mind is foolish, while knowing they're unreal is an awakening. This practicing method utilize "the wisdom to destroy the ignorance." There's no method to suppress them as it said, "It is a way to tame the mind, but it is not really a method." When ignorance and false thoughts end, the utilization of wisdom should also end. It's like in The Ten Ox Herding pictures, when the ox disappears, the herdsman also disappears. Once the utilization of wisdom ends, it unites with the wisdom's nature.

  • From the Sixth patriarch Hui Neng, I apply his principle of no attachment between the six sensual organs and six sensual objects as our practicing method. It's from the phrase "No dwelling in forms arise the true mind..." in Diamond suttra that patriarch Hui Ko expounded to the Sixth patriarch. But how could we not letting sensual organs attach to sensual objects? Of course, we need to utilize the Prajna wisdom to observe that all objects are unreal as they are made up by many factors. Thus, in Platform suttra, after chapter 1, "Autobiography," is chapter 2, "On Prajna." Having Prajna wisdom, we could discern that all phenonmenons are comprised by different factors so they have no real self (selflessness) and are changeable (impermanence). Knowing that, the mind would not be affected by forms...the forms and organs would not attach to each other. The unattachment between form and organs means no thought, no forms, and no dwelling. This is the principle of the Sixth patriarch.

    There's another way to look at. If practitioners could discern the true nature like the Sixth patriarch did and live with it, then there should be no reason for them to be bothered by false thoughts and false forms. In four postures, they should always live with the true nature. If they could do that, they're pleasant in all circumstances. Like it said, "eat when hungry, drink when thirsty."

  • From patriarch Truc Lam, I use his verse "Perceiving the Existence and Void." In the fourth segment, it said, "Like snow hat or floral shoes, clinging to a tree await the rabbits." This depicts the idea of Prajna of patriarch Hui Neng. All false phenonmenons are like snow hat or shoes made by flowers. They exist temporarily, then vanish. They're pretty at this moment, but soon wither. Nothing is permanent. Whoever holds on to them is a fool. It is like a person who "clinging to a tree await the rabbits." All dharmas that we apply are also unreal. They are just the tools that we developed. Like the big tree's creepers, when they are cut, we are pleasant. This idea is described by the last 2 lines of the verse "Cut the tree's creepers, one could pleasantly walk." Right at the moment a thought arises, differentiation exists. Right at the moment we speak, differentiation exists. If differentiation is terminated, what thought is left to arise or what word is left to say? This means that we always live in Zen.

    The last 2 lines of the verse "Enjoy The Way In Life" said "Our house already has the treasure, so no need to search" and "Dealing with all matters with no false mind, no need to ask about Zen." They depicts the Sixth patriarch's exclaiming: "Never known my true nature is always pacified!..." Fully discerning our nature is same as seeing the precious jade in our house. No need to search elsewhere. After discerning our tamed permanent mind, this impermanent body and false mind are valueless. Internally, no obstinance in false body and mind and externally, no attachment to false forms are the principle of Zen. It's also the rudiment of Buddhist dharmas. Here, I use "dealing with forms with no mind" as our practicing principle. No mind means no false mind that runs after six sensual objects. It doesn't mean becoming insensitive like woods. The mind doesn't arise false thoughts but always awares and exists. This is the stage of liberation for Buddhist practitioners.

    Even though he was enlightened, patriarch Hui Ko was still given from patriarch Bodhidharma four books to tame the mind. Listening to the lecture of Diamond suttra, patriarch Hui Neng attained realization. This proves that Zen is not separated from suttras. It's because Zen is the Buddha's mind and suttras are his speech. If the Buddha's mind and speech are the same, then how could Zen and suttras be separated? Thus, my intention is "practicing Zen and learning suttras concurrently."

Let me summarize the compilation of the practicing methods of three patriarchs through the following practicing methods:
  1. Aware false thoughts but not to follow them. It's because false thoughts are unreal.

  2. Dealing with forms with no mind. It's because they are false forms, which are comprised by different factors.

  3. No differentiation because differentiation is unreal.

  4. Always live with true nature and not to follow false phenonmenons. It's because whatever false is impermanent and whatever real is liberation.

Those 4 methods are the expedients that I temporarily developed to guide practitioners. The application of this practicing method varies to the level of attainment of practitioners. In some cases, practitioners could intuitively practice by applying these method in the specified order. This summary has concluded my lecture on this chapter.