Throughout history, Buddhism has always been a companion with Vietnamese. Though having come to existence for 26 centuries, having endured the up and down of society, but the Dharma has always pervaded. Many Zen masters has became National Teacher, such as master Dharma Flow (Pháp Thuận), master Myriads Virtue (Vạn Hạnh), master Water Moon (Thủy Nguyệt), master Tong Dien, etc. Following the maxim “being flexible in accordance with every moment, yet always following the absolute Tao”, Zen schools have existed and evolved together, adapting themselves to the mentality of People in different periods. Amongst, Zen CaoDong, founded by Master Water Moon in the later half of XVII century, is a noticeable school which has contributed significantly to Vietnamese Buddhism.
Master Water Moon (1637–1704) was born in the Chinese year of Buffalo in Thanh Trieu, Hung Nhan, Thai Binh province. He was talented, originating in a family who follows Confucianism. At the age of 18, being knowledgeable in Confucianism, he had achieved numerous certificates of academics. His name was famous among the Confucians. But soon realizing the teaching of Buddha that “life is emptiness, and human body is transient”, he was initiated into Buddhism with a great will to “first learn the Dharma, second share with People”. After numerous year of learning with local masters, he still found himself unhappy. Thus, in 1664, at the age of 28, he decided to travel Chinese for further studies.
After nearly one year of many hardship in traveling, with a devoted will to the Tao, it is said that he was spiritually guided by Bodhisattva so that finally, he found his authentic master at mountain Phuong Hoang (Phoenix) in Huzhou, China. This is master Nhat Cu Tri Giao — the 35th master of Zen CaoDong lineage, which is founded by master Dongshan Liangjie (807–869) and Sōzan Honjaku (840, 901). From then on, the school has been spreaded to China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. As CaoDong meditation techniques are easy to grasp, it has pervaded to people from all walks of life, helping them attaining peace and happiness. Thus, surely Taodong meditation techniques are not hard to practice. The important thing is that the meditator must abandon the attachments to both suffering and happiness, seriously practice, being able to apply theoretical knowledge and actual practice so as to find the salvation.
CaoDong school’s method stresses on the “Principle of Five”, which is about the idea “the primary” and “the secondary”of master Dongshan. “the Main” represents staticness, emptiness, equality, absoluteness, reality; while “the Secondary” represents dynamicness, usage, form, difference, relativeness, ignorance, and transience. The Main and the Secondary complements each other, giving born to “the Five”. Master Dongshan once said: “There is one thing which holds the sky from above, and holds the earth from above. It is black, constantly moving and active” [1, p.497]. The Primary could not be explained in language and concepts. When the Primary manifests itself in the phenomenal world, it becomes the Secondary. Their relationship is dialectic, together coexisting, and unordered, which is similar to wind and wave, or to essence and manifestation.
The Five corresponds to five stages to enlightenment which meditators had to go through.
First, the Main is hidden in the Secondary (aka, Main within Secondary 正中偏)
Dongshan said “The absolute must contain the relative. If not, does it occur before the relative?” [1, p.498] In other word, though the absolute is unfathomable by language, but could be referred to via the relative, which are the physical objects.
This realization will mark the first stage of enlightenment of meditators. The following is a poem of master Dongshan, translated by master Thanh Tu (aka, master Purity Compassion):
“It is in the first moment before sun rise, the yard is illuminated by the moon
It is strange that though there is an outer meeting, but there is no inner communion
A hidden and subtle affliction“
In the poem, the meditator touched by the moon’s beauty, but he also realizes that he has not truly become one with it. In this stage of meditation, the meditator has not yet his small self is all-inclusive universe, or the big self. He has to seek the absolute reality via its outer manifestation.
Second, the Secondary is hidden within the Main (Secondary within Main 偏中)
Dongshan said that “The relative is already within the absolute. If not, did the relative occur before the absolute?” [3, p.498]. In other words, the relative, or the physical manifestation are not separate and discrete, but they are joined within the absolute. The following is another poem of master Dongshan, which is translated by master Purity Compassion [2, p.11]
“Losing mindfulness, an old woman lost in her memory of the past
She has mistaken her shadow for her real self” [1, p.19]
In the above poem, the author stresses that it is the myriads of physical forms will eventually lead to the oneness of dharma. In this stage, the meditator will realize this oneness. Thus, he is free from fear and confusion. In other words, now realizing that the truth is found within the its outer manifestation and practicality, and the emptiness of all dharmas, the mediator is more and more distant from physical world and less attached to the dharmas.
Third, the Main is self-contained (正中來)
The absolute is self-contained, without a being born, without a beginning and an end, could not be grasped through the relationship between the essence and the form. Master Dongshan wrote a poem, which is translated as following by master Purity Compassion [2, p.11]:
“There is a new-emerged path
Leave both both and mind aside
Heading towards this new light.” [3, p.21]
In the third stage, the meditator has achieved “dharmic body” and a thoughtless (aka, mindless) state, which is call “the main standpoint”. From the place which is beyond the Main and the Secondary, he has realized the inter-dependence nature. Here both his sense of mind and body is leaved aside. He somewhat reached the level of a novice Bodhisattva.
Forth, the Secondary is self-contained (偏中至)
The realive is contained within itself. In other words, the one who realized the absolute is unwavered by the manifested world, though living in it. The following is a poem of master Dongshan, translated by master Purity Compassion [2, p.11]:
“There are two swords fighting themselves
The skilled hand are like lotus in a mud lake,
Untouched among the fight” [3, p.22]
In this stage, the meditator has mastered the duality of the universe, which is lotus flowering in a mud lake. He has realized the oneness of everything. His mind reached the level of thoughtlessness. He has realized the supreme nature of Dharma. He somewhat reached the level of a matured Bodhisattva.
Fifth, The Main and the Secondary is one (兼中到)
In this stage, all the possible distinctions lost. The following is a poem of master Dongshan, translated by master Purity Compassion [2, p.11]:
“Being lead by unhappiness,
The layman was lost in samsara,
Eventually, nothing is gained but ash of the body” [3, p.18]
The final stage is the nirvana, in which everything is one.
In summary, the Main Secondary and the Five is an establishment of Buddha Nature. When this nature is in first stage, the meditator realizes dynamicness in staticness, but things are still separate. When it is in the second stage, the meditator realizes staticness in dynamicness. In the third stage, he realizes that dynamicness and staticness is one. The similar thing is written in Mahāyāna Śraddhotpāda Śāstra: “Buddha nature, the ego, the unchanging, and the interdependence”.
After that, master Dongshan also establishes “Five principles” served as a map so for future generations on the path towards enlightenment. After that, master Cáoshān Běnjì inherits this dharma and develops it further.
- Just sitting zazen is enough (Shikantaza in Japanese)
- Meditation and enlightenment is one.
- Body and mind is one.
- Realization is not an object to realize.
- Enlightenment is not an object to realize.
Master Water Moon was ordained “Mastering Enlightenment” (Thông Giác) and officially inherited the main CaoDong Lineage by master To Nhat Cu Tri Giao. He was the 36th lineage of the school. After that, he returned Vietnam, spreading his learnings to the People, become the founder of Vietnamese Caodong. The following is a poem that he wrote for the future generation of CaoDong school:
«The peaceful mind pervades
Compassion is as the sea
The realization of dharma illuminates oneself
Right mindfulness gives birth to virtue
Virtue gives birth to kindness
When the light of dharma pervades
It lasts forever” [3, p.15]
In summary, via the relationship between the Main and the Secondary, the CaoDong masters has pointed out five stages of enlightenment, which serves as the commandment of the followers of Buddha.
- Nguyen Lang. On this history of Vietnamese Buddhism, Oriental Press, 2014.
- Original book's name in Mandarin 三更初夜月明前，莫怪相逢不相識，隱隱猶懷舊日嫌。(thành số 2)
- Thich Thanh Tu. Chinese Zen masters: Ho Chi Minh city’s Buddhism Assembly Press, 1990.