The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect

Truc Lam Dau Da Phap Loa Huyen Quang

We would like to take this opportunity to introduce to you the legends of the three patriarchs of Truc Lam sect. The presented data on this page is retrieved from the book "Tam To Truc Lam," written by Zen Master Thich Thanh Tu. We will translate more of their writing works if time permits in the future. But what shows here is good enough to make you feel impressive and respectful to their devoted life, attainment, and achievements. They are the great marks of Vietnamese Buddhism history.

Truc Lam Dau Da

(King Tran Nhan Tong)

The First Patriarch
(1258 - 1308)

Borned on November 11th of 1258, his real name was Kham. He was the oldest child of King Tran Thanh Tong and Queen Nguyen Thanh. Even though living in luxury, at young age, his mind was still interested in Zen. At the age of 16, he was promoted as crown prince. He had tried to reject it many times by promoting his brother, but his father would never accept it. He married the oldest daughter of queen Nguyen Tu, who later became queen Kham Tu. Living in happiness at the time, he still preferred to become a monk.

One time at midnight, he left the palace to Yen Tu mountain. At sunrise, he arrived at Thap temple at Dong Cuu mountain. Being too exhausted, he rested in the temple. Noticing his unique characteristics, the abbot offered him good treats. When the King's father got the news, he urged his men for a search. He was found later on. With no choice, he had to return to the palace.

At the age of 21 (1279), he became king. Even though having the upmost power, he still maintained purification for his Zen practice. Each day, he practiced at Tu Phuoc temple, which located within the city. One day, while taking a lunch nap, he saw from his navel grew a big lotus flower with a golden Buddha's statue on the top. A man standing by pointed his hand to him and said, "Do you know this Buddha? He's the Vairocana Buddha (The Great Sun Buddha). After waking up, the King told his father the dream. King Tran Thanh Tong exclaimed for this strange incident.

King Tran Nhan Tong preferred vegetarian foods, therefore, his body was slim. King Thanh Tong noticed his health condition so he asked for the reason. King Nhan Tong confessed his desire for renunciation. King Thanh Tong in tears mourned, "I'm already old. I always count on you. How could you do it? How could you continue the duty of our ancestors by doing that?" King Nhan Tong listened in tears.

King Nhan Tong was quite intelligent and aggressive in learning. He had read many books and understood thoroughly all Buddhist scriptures and other public writings. In his spare times, he liked to discuss Zen with Zen masters or practitioners, especially, High official Tue Trung. The king's discernment was at the upmost level. He respected High official Tue Trung as his teacher. When Mongolian invaded the country, he had to put aside his religious interests to concentrate on the national defense. Because our army was united, we were able to defeat Mongolians twice in 1285 and 1288. In his era, there were 2 significant conferences: 1) Of all high-rank generals and officials at Binh Than 2) of all senior citizens at Dien Hong to discuss strategies for national defense.

In 1293, King Tran Anh Tong became king. For the following six years, he was beside his son to support him in his new role. In October of 1299, he ordained as a monastic monk and stayed at Yen Tu mountain. For the years that he resided at this place, he focussed on ascetic virtues. Thus, his title was "Huong Van Dai Dau Da" (The Great Ascetic monk). Later, he established temples, meditation centers, and performed teachings to other monks and the public. Numbers of them attended his lecturings. Next, he established a lecture hall at Pho Minh temple and performed lecturing there. Several years after, he traveled to Bo Chanh camp. This is where Tri Kien pagoda was built. The First Patriarch decided to stay there until 1304, he traveled around to abolish places with inappropriate worshippings and to teach them the practice of ten precepts. In the winter of that year, King Tran Anh Tong requested him to perform a ritual for his ordainment of Bodhisattva precepts at the palace.

Later, leaned on his wand, he walked to Sung Nghiem temple at Linh Son mountain to propagate Zen sect. On January 1st, he assigned Master Phap Loa to Bao An temple at Sieu Thoai province to perform a ceremony. Three months later, he came to Vinh Nghiem temple at Luong Giang and assigned master Phap Loa to perform a ceremony. This time, the First Patriarch expounded "Truyen Dang Luc" and requested National Advisor Dao Nhat to expound Lotus suttra to the mass. At the end of the retreat season, he returned to Yen Tu mountain and dismissed all laymen and helpers in the temple. He only kept 12 novices, who often followed him to places. One time on Master Phap Loa's request, he went to Tu Tieu pagoda to expound "Truyen Dang Luc." At the end, all novices were asked to leave, except master Phap Loa. The First Patriarch then climbed on various places around hut to search for caves. Master Phap Loa curiously asked, "Master, at your old age, you're still active. If anything happens to you, who could we count on in propagating Buddhist dharmas?" The First Patriarch replied, "Time has come for me, therefore, I want to make a long-term plan."

On October 5th of that year, a servant of Thien Doan princess arrived. He notified,"Thien Doan princess is critically ill. She would like to see you once again before she passes away." The First Patriarch sadly replied, "Time has come." He left with only one novice to see the princess. Five days later, he arrived the palace. After the event, he departed to Sieu Thoai temple on the 15th of the month. Next morning after his arrival at the temple, he walked to a temple at Co Chau village and wrote this verse:

People's life is on a breath
Their greed is endless
Devil fortress is like a dungeon,
While the Buddha realm is full of joy

On the 17th of that month, he stayed at Sung Nghiem temple at Linh Son mountain. Queen Tuyen Tu invited him to a luncheon at Binh Duong pagoda. He delightedly said, " This is the last offering." Next day, he walked to Tu Lam temple at Ky Anh Sanh mountain. Suddenly, he experienced a headache so he immediately called two bhikkhus and asked, "I would like to go up to Ngoa Van mountain, but don't have energy to do it. What can I do?" They answered, "We could help you, Master." When they reached to Ngoa Van, he dismissed the two bhikkhus, "Return to the temple and practice. Remember not to underestimate life and death."

On the 19th day, he asked novice Phap Khong to get to Tu Tieu pagoda at Yen Tu and asked novice Bao Sat to see him. On the next day, Bao Sat departed. When he passed Doanh Tuyen lake, he saw a dark cloud flew from Ngoa Van mountain to Loi Son, then dropped down to Doanh Tuyen. This caused a high water rising. In a moment, it went back to normal level. Next, he saw 2 dragons with sharp eyes popped the heads out of water for a moment, then, they submerged into the water. That night, Bao sat rested in an inn at the foot of the mountain. He had a bad dream.

On the 21st day, he arrived at Ngoa Van pagoda. Seeing him, the First Patriarch smiled, "I'm about to go. Why are you late? If you have anything unclear on Buddhist dharmas, you should ask me now."

Bao sat asked:
- When Ma Tsu was ill, the rector asked, "How were you for the past several days?" Ma Tsu replied, "The sun is the Buddha, so as the moon." What does it mean?

The First Patriarch raised his voice:
- What are the five Chinese emperors and three ancient kings?

Bao Sat asked:
- What does it mean by "Flowers blossom as many as silk. Bamboos in the south are as many as those in the north?"

The First Patriarch replied:
- They blind your eyes.

Bao Sat remained silent.

Days later, the sky was dull. Birds circled above with tragic cry.

On the night of November 1st, the sky was clear with sparkling stars. The First Patriarch asked, "What time is it?" Bao Sat replied, "Is midnight, Master." He lifted the curtain to look at the sky, then 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 in presence
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!

Then, in the posture of lion, he passed away. This was the year of 1308, when he was 51 years old.

Based on the First Patriarch's will, Master Phap Loa cremated his body and reserved his remains in an ash pot. Later, King Anh Tong and his officials brought his remains back to Duc Lang for worshipping. The king also built a pagoda next to Van Yen temple in Yen Tu mountain. He named it "Hue Quang Kim Thap" (Hue Quang pagoda). Meanwhile, he honored the First Patriarch with the title "Dai Thanh Tran Trieu Truc Lam Dau Da Tinh Tue Giac Hoang Dieu Ngu To Phat."

The First Patriarch's writings are:

  • Thien Lam Thiet Chuy Ngu Luc
  • Dai Huong Hai An Thi Tap
  • Tang Gia Toai Su
  • Thach That Mi Ngu (revised by Master Phap Loa)

Zen Master Phap Loa

The Second Patriarch
(1258 - 1308)

His real name was Dong Kien Cuong. He was borned in 1284 at Cuu La village in Hai Duong province. His father named Dong Thuan Mau and his mother named Vu Tu cuu. Before conceiving him, his mother dreamed of a man giving her a holy sword. She liked it much so she took it. After that day, she realized that she was pregnant. But having 8 daughters discouraged her from having this one, therefore, she tried to abort him. None of the attempts worked. After giving birth to him, she was joyful to name him Kien Cuong. At young age, he portrayed intellect and dignity. He would never make malicious speeches and had no interest in eating meats.

In 1304, the First Patriarch (Dieu Ngu Giac Hoang) traveled around to perform teaching and abolish places with inappropriate worshippings. Age the age of 21, he expressed to the First Patriarch his desire of ordainment. The First Patriarch was pleased at his first sight at Master Phap Hoa. He said, "This man has virtue. He should later be able to propagate Buddhism. Come here..." Master Phap Loa ordained ten commandments at Linh Son. On that day, he was officially called "Thien Lai." He was sent to study with the most venerable Tanh Giac at Quynh Quan. He raised many questions but could never attain realization. But after reading the dialogue between the Buddha and Patriarch Ananda asking seven questions about the mind, his mind was opened. He said good-bye to the most venerable Tanh Giac to return to the First Patriarch Dieu Ngu. During his lecturings, Master Phap Loa raised several questions to the First Patriarch and the more he asked, the more awakened he was. Realizing his potential, the First patriarch allowed him to be his assistant. One day, he presented 3 verses to the First Patriarch, but got criticized. He raised couple questions, but was told to do self learning. Returned to his room with his head heavy, he stayed up beyond the midnight. When he caught the extinction of the light, he was enlightened. He immediately presented his discernment to the First Patriarch. Unspokenly, the First Patriarch accepted his realization. From that time on, he practiced the twelve ascetic virtues.

In 1305, the First Patriarch took him to Ky Lan to ordain bhikkhu and bodhisattva precepts. Acknowledging his accomplishment in studying and practicing, the First Patriarch gave him a title "Phap Loa."

When he was 24, he and other 7 novices assisted the First Patriarch to Thien Bao Quan pagoda for his lecture on "Dai Hue Ngu Luc." In May, the First Patriarch resided at a pagoda on Ngoa Van Phong mountain. After the repentance session on the 15th of the month, he dismissed everyone except Master Phap Loa. He wrote a verse and gave it to Master Phap Loa with his bowl.

On January 1st, he followed the First Patriarch to expound dharma at Sieu Loai temple. Attended the ceremony were King Tran Anh Tong and high officials. After the lecture, the First Patriarch announced him to officially become the abbot of Sieu Thoai temple and the leader of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect or the second patriarch of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect. He also passed to Patriarch Phap Loa over 200 suttras and requested King Tran Anh Tong to donate hundred acres of land to the temple.

In November of that year, the First Patriarch passed away. After taking his remains to the royal palace, Patriarch Phap Loa returned to Yen Tu and revised all verses written by the First Patriarch when he resided at Thach That. It was later called the book of "Thach That Mi Ngu."

In 1311, he followed the King's order to write "Dai Tang Kinh." He appointed Bao Sat to supervise this project. In April, he expounded "Truyen Dang Luc" at Sieu Loai temple. At that time, he accepted all presentations of Master Huyen Quang.

In September of 1313, he followed the King's order to be at Vinh Nghiem temple. Here, he laid out the position of each monk and the list was recorded in a book. This book was in his possession. At that time, he had overseen over 1000 monks. Every three years, he had to revised their positions and the list again.

For years later, King Tran Minh Tong took the thrown. In February, Patriarch Phap Loa was critically ill. He wrote the mind transmission verse and gave it to Master Huyen Quang along with the First Patriarch's bowl, his Buddhist props and rod to Canh Ngung, and feather wand to Canh Huy, bamboo rod to Hue Quan, dharma poems and dharma props to Hue Nhien, golden bell to Hai An, and golden history book to Hue Chuc. But several days later, he recovered. Many people from the queen, princess, to royal members had requested for ordainment. Even King Tran Anh Tong could consider to be his student. They competed in donating land, gold, and money to the Patriarch so he could build more temples, make more Buddha statues, and publish more scriptures. The donation was so much to the point that he had to limit the donation amount. He refused to accept a donation from the King: a boat that could facilitate his commute from the temple to the palace and other places.

In 1329, King Tran Hieu Tong became king. In this year, he enhanced and extended the scenery of Con Son and Thanh Mai Son (mountains). They had become the tourist attractions. Here, he had made a verse called "A fond of Thanh Son."

On February 5th of 1330, he became ill again during his summon at Hoa Nghiem temple. Six days later, his condition got worse. Master Huyen Quang was always beside him for assistant. On his last day, he wrote:

Terminating all factors of this self is pleasantness
Forty years plus are just a long dream
Just remember, not to ask
With the moon and cool wind, there it opens wide

After the last stroke, he threw the pen and pleasantly extincted. He was 47 at that time. His students followed his will to bring his remains to a pagoda Thanh Mai Son. On March 11th, the King Tran Minh Tong in writing gave the title of "Tinh Tri Ton Gia (sage)" and named the pagoda as Vien Thong." He donated 10 taels of gold to rebuild the pagoda. He also made a tribute through a poem.

Review his religious life, we could see that he had built over 1,300 Buddha statues in various sizes, 2 temples, 5 pagodas, over 200 sangha houses, and coverted over 15,000 monks and nuns. He also published a set of books "Dai Tang Kinh." Over 3,000 of his students attain the Way, in which, six of them had become the Great Masters.

The Second Patriarch's writings are:

  • Doan Sach Luc
  • Tham Thien Chi Yeu
  • Kim Cuong Dao Trang Da La Ni Kinh
  • Tan Phap Hoa Kinh Khoa So
  • Bat Nha Tam Kinh Khoa
  • And a verse before his extinction

Zen Master Huyen Quang

The Third Patriarch
(1258 - 1308)

His birth name was Ly Dao Tai. He was borned in the Year of Tiger (1254) at Van Tai village of Bac Giang province. His father, sir Hue To, was a descent of a bureaucratic family. However he had no interest in fame even though he had earned a merit of winning a battle over Ciampa. His mother, Mrs. Le, was a virtuous lady. They lived south of Ngoc Hoang temple. In the year that Master Huyen Quang was borned, a peculiar thing happened at this temple. One night after a recitation, Zen master Hue Nghia fell to sleep with an interesting dream: His room was bright with lights and packed with numerous Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Diamond protectors. Pointed at Ananda, the Buddha said, "You will reborn to disseminate dharmas in the north realm." A sudden knock on the door had waked him up. He immediately wrote this verse on a wall:

One should not look elsewhere for the Way
The Buddha is our mind and the Buddha mind is profound
Having good dream means good karma
This life should meet a companion

At young age, he looked abnormal. He always carried high goals. He was filled much of love from his parents. They taught him literature as well as engaged him in other learning activities. His intelligence was far extent. In the reign of King Tran Anh Tong (1274), he earned a first doctoral degree at the age of 21. Even though he was engaged at the time, the King would like him to marry the princess. But Master Huyen Quang refused. Later on, he was pointed as an official to work in the academy in conjunction of greeting Chinese ambassadors. They quite respected his talent and knowledge.

One day, he followed King Tran Anh Tong to Vinh Nghiem at Phung Nhan district to listen to Zen Master Phap Loa's lecture. Suddenly, he was awakened to say, "Being an official, I could reach to fairyland. If I attained the Way, I could reach to Pho Da mountain. The fairyland in this world is just at immortal level, but the western realm is the Buddha realm. The wealth and nobility are like autumn leaves or summer white clouds. What is there for me to hold on to?" After a few times submitting his resignation letters, the King finally granted his request. In 1305, he ordained with monastic name "Huyen Quang" at Vinh Nghiem temple and became the First Patriarch's assistant.

In 1309, he assisted Zen Master Phap Loa after the First Patriarch's extinction. Later on, he stayed at Van Yen temple at Yen Tu mountain. His profound dharma knowledge and wiseness had attracted many people from all places. Thousands of them gathered for dharma inquiries. He also was assigned to lecture at various places and responsible for notating the First Patriarch's lectures and editing all other writings.

On January 15th of 1313, King Tran Anh Tong invited him to expound Suramgama suttra at Bao An temple. After the lecture, he requested to return home to visit his parents. On this journey, he established a new temple called Dai Bi located west of their house.

At the age of 60, he returned to Van Yen temple. To examine his virtue, the King assigned Diem Bich, an imperial servant, to spy on him. She used different tricks to provoke his compassion and made false reports to the King. His reputation was damaged. But later on, the King realized the truth about the Master. Therefore, Diem Bich was punished to become a janitor at Canh Linh palace.

In 1317, he was bequeathed a Zen transmission from Zen Master Phap Loa (the second Patriarch of Truc Lam sect).

In 1330, after Zen master Phap Loa's extinction, Zen Master Huyen Quang officially became the third patriarch of Truc Lam Yen Tu sect. He was 77 at that time. Dued to his old age, he could not be active in leading the sangha. Therefore, he designated Master Quoc An (the National Advisor) to be in charge. Meanwhile, he returned to a temple at Con Son.

He stayed at Thanh Mai Son for six years. Then, he moved Con Son to perform teaching. On January 23rd of 1334, he extincted at the age of 80.

King Tran Minh Tong conferred the Master with the title of "The Third Great Zen Master of Truc Lam Sect" and "Tu Phap Huyen Quang Ton Gia (sage)."

The Third Patriarch's writings are:

  • Ngoc Tien Tap
  • Chu Pham Kinh
  • Cong Van Tap
  • Pho Tue Ngu luc