Conversation With a Dhyanist Monk
Nguyen Tien Doan
In the early 80s, I had the occasion of reading the French version of Zen
doctrine by the Japanese professor D.T. Suzuki, a book lent to me by writer
Nguyen Huu Dang. A volume of that work, "Satori" catches my
attention. I have consulted many French and Vietnamese dictionaries in my
possession and acquired a clear enough explanation of that key-word of
Buddhism.One day, I was informed from a carpenter in the neighbourhood that a
monk of Ho Chi Minh City just came to settle down in the pagoda of Vu Doai
village (Vu Thu district) in my Thai Binh province. According to the rumour,
this religious Doctor in Buddhism had undertaken studies in several countries.
The desire for knowledge took me to seek his lights.
That was in June 1982, while I was undertaking research on the village of Hanh Dung Nghia in Vu Thu which
accommodates the fortifications of the hero-gangster Phan Ba Vanh, and on many
patriot scholars of the XIXth century.
I arrived early at the pagoda of Vu Doan with the intention of asking the
real meaning of "Satori". The small temple is located separately, in
a very quiet place. A twisted path covered with grass leads to it. The morning
breeze brings the fragrant perfume of betel nut flowers, ngau and almond trees.
The moss draws mysterious designs on the tiles on the ground, on the walls and
the roof. Next to the ground is an old thatched house with three compartments
and two sloping roofs. I pushed my bicycle and waited, intrigued by the deserted
atmosphere. A moment later, an old woman came out from the kitchen and asked
me:-May I help you Sir?
-Can I meet with the Venerable?
-He is in the pagoda. Please wait a minute.
The Venerable finally presented himself. He is a man of over fifty, calm and
nimble, with very clear eyes which seem to read in your soul, with a brown
beard recalling that of Bodhidharma. He made me feel quite easy with his
-Venerable, you come from the South? - I asked him.
-Just a few days ago, What makes me the honour….? O I read books on Thien
(Zen). I meet with a word that I don’t understand well. Would you be kind
to…Knowing that I am a researcher in history, the monk smiled and gently said:
-You better consult the libraries. I hurriedly left the South without
carrying documents, even forgetting to take my reading glass. My mother and I
have only few possessions and a rosary. Excuse me…I insist, a little
embarrassed:-It would not take you long, Venerable. I only want to ask you the
meaning of just one word.
-"Satori"! In the book by Suzuki on the Zen doctrine.-In what
language is it?
-In French. Published in Paris.
-You know Chinese characters?
The monk invited me to sit. He began talking, carried away by the subject.
He expressed with ease and conviction of a Nagorika Convinda (Character from
"The Way of the White Clouds").He began to evoke the theory of
knowledge by K. Marx and Bertrand Russell in which certain approaches meet.
That of Buddhism is not very far off but its rationalism and abstraction seems
more complex and more varied to me…After having tasted some tea to hear his
voice, the monk told me about Eight knowledge’s (Bat Thuc) in the theory of
Buddhist knowledge. He gave me in Chinese ideogram the word "Giac"
(awareness).According to him, the objective perception concerning outside
objects and especially of oneself is very difficult. One can think of the wins
over by Lao Tse: "He who knows is clear-sighted, he who wins over oneself
is strong". The "Giac" (awareness) must reach a degree of
maturation to the point of bringing the subject to the highest point of
concentration, which provokes explosion of knowledge, the ngo (prefect
knowledge, awakening)…That is the answer to your question. Thus, Thien, Gyo,
Ngo or Satori are but one, but they vary according to subjects. In each
subject, there should be explosion of knowledge, illumination, to have satori.
After the stage of explosion of knowledge, the subject changes entirely, it
becomes another one, one can imagine.-I would like, I said, to ask you to
explain some more things.
The monk offers me a cigarette, excusing himself of the humidity which has
-In 1963, I said, when I was in the army, I learned that researcher Tran
Dinh Ba had discovered a statue with a foot wearing a mandarin’s boot, the
other foot naked, at the Boc pagoda, near Dong Da in Hanoi. He had identified it as Emperor Quang
Trung, the victor of Tsing invaders in 1719.The monk followed my remarks with
an amusing smile. I continued:
-I conceive some doubt regarding this subject. I have seen statues of this
kind in other pagodas. Quang Trung would have been worshipped like someone
along the line of Buddhas?
-Your story, he replies, is known among Buddhist circles in South Vietnam during the American occupation in Vietnam. The
interpretation is an error. The statue is that of the Indian monk Bodhidharma
who went to China
at the time of Emperor Luong Vo De, in VIth century…In face of the lukewarm
reception by the Emperor of the Luong, he passed over to the Nguy to propagate
Buddhist faith. He was the founder of the Thien Sect (Dhyana, Zen). You
probably know the two Chinese verses which say how hard is the road to
Awakening:Hoan Du, a well of science who only knew the Buddhist way very late
in his life,
At the end of quibbles, Emperor Luong Vo had to recognize the truth of
These are examples of belated Satori.
-Better late than never, I commented.
We all laughed.
The monk carried on:
-Lets go back to the Boc pagoda. After having terminated his apostolic
mission, Bodhidharma died. According to legend, people saw him return with a
ceremonial boot on one foot, the other foot naked and another shoe hanging on
his friar stick. This detail characterizes very much the status of Bodhidharma
which figure on the altar of monk patriarchs. That is the case with the Boc
The explanation makes me smile when I think of fanciful explanations of some
researchers who, carried away by their patriotic ardor, believed that Quang
Trung has become a democrat Buddha because one of the feet wears no shoe.
I switched to another question:
-Venerable, I said, could I ask you what this magic incantation means:
"An ma ni bat minh hong" so valued by all Buddhist sects including
that of La To not to say of some followers of Yoga in the South of our
country?After having shown a kindly sign on the corners of the lips as if to
feel ironical at my greed for knowledge, the monk seriously replied:
-A Frenchman had spent twenty five years of his life to work on the origin
and meaning of this incantation formula. For this purpose he had visited India, Sri Lanka,
Burma, Buddhist countries of
central Asia, even the Himalayas. The fruit of
his strenuous labour was a book of a thousand pages. 1000 copies were printed
at the author’s charge and freely distributed to most important libraries of
the world. This formula has a content so rich that it would be impossible to
make a presentation of it this morning. In a word, it is destined to help us
realize the serenity of the soul, to relieve our heart and mindful from all
trouble, to keep its purity in a polluted social environment. Its fundamental
meaning is: "He is in Me, Me in Him"."Him" could designate
the ideal, the transcendental God, the Eternity, the Light, the Good…As for
"Me", it could be the real Me or the illusory Me, the pre-Me and the
post-Me…The integration and disintegration of Him and Me in different places
and conjunctures becomes an extraordinary force, capable of dominating
permanent or unforeseen obstacles of the mind and matter. Also social or
natural obstacles. Leaving the philosophical ground, I approached another
subject. I learnt that the Venerable was born in Nam Hai village, Tien Hai
district, Thai Binh province and entered religion since childhood. He then left
Thai Binh under the French occupation in 1950 to stay in many pagodas of Hanoi and Saigon before going to learn Buddhism during six
years in India
and visiting several countries.
-Have you met with Suzuki, I asked?
-Yes, I had the occasion of talking about Thien with him. He was very old.
He has passed away.
-Have you written or translated?
-I have made a dozen works by myself?
-Do you feel bored now that you lack books for reading?
-No, the books are in nature, in the mind, the cogitation. The Ancients talked
about "books with characters" and "books without
characters". I now read these.After a conversation of two hours, I left
the Buddhist friar, full of respect and admiration for a son of my native
province, a province that had given birth to scholars like Le Quy Don and Ky
I learnt later that this monk was no one else but Venerable Thich Quang Do,
ex-General Secretary of the Dharma Institute of South Vietnam.
Source: Vietnamese Studies, No 2 - 1993, Hanoi, Vietnam.