by Nguyễn Việt Thanh
Parentless at six, Nguyễn Bá Tĩnh was nurtured in the pagoda. Seven years had gone by. Today monk Yên Trang took Tuệ Tĩnh to Giao Thủy region. Sitting on a boat, they both found Heaven and Earth so immense; the water of the Nhị Hà River was red. Tuệ Tĩnh was sent to study Han script with Dũng Nhuệ from a well-known scholar.
It took them only one day to reach the destination. The two students had learnt both Buddha sutras and Han script. In the study room, there were two kinds of books arranged on two separate shelves. During their stay there, the two students often visited the pagodas where there were young Buddhist nuns who still had long hair. It was rumored that Tuệ Tĩnh had fallen in love with nun Đàm Thanh from Hà Pagoda. And the monk and the teacher heard the rumor.
When there was the death anniversary of the ancestor of Giao Thủy Pagoda, monk Yên Trang came a few days in advance. One morning they called their students to come and talk. Monk Yên Trang asked:
“Tuệ Tĩnh, do you know why I sent you here?”
“I remembered the day when you took me here, you told me that I should together with Dũng Nhuệ strive to become a Buddhist monk. Doing or learning requires a friend.”
“What have you learnt from Confucianism?”
“To keep the correct name, teacher!”
“Have you any difficulties?”
After a moment, Tuệ Tĩnh answered:
“We are meeting with pieces of slander. To overcome it, we have to do a lot of good things. We have to devote ourselves to following the right path.”
The two teachers found that Tuệ Tĩnh was honest.
Teacher Yên Trang looked to Dũng Nhuệ:
“What do you think, Dũng Nhuệ?”
“Teacher, my friend is correct in saying it.”
“Now you live near Tuệ Tĩnh, now you live far from him, so how can you be sure about it?
“Teacher, if we say Buddhism is at heart, what we think, the outsider cannot tell it, but the Buddhists know it. My friend always says it!”
The two teachers nodded their heads. The interrogation was over. Tuệ Tĩnh thanked Dũng Nhuệ in silence. They were of the same age, but Dũng Nhuệ always called Tuệ Tĩnh his brother. Although Dũng Nhuệ was stronger and good at martial arts, Dung Nhuệ always said Tuệ Tĩnh was superior to him.
One day, while going to Thanh Hoa to sell traditional medicine, they met the highway men. Thanks to his good martial arts, Dung Nhuệ beat the highway men away.
Teacher Giao Thủy and teacher Yên Trang followed Buddhism together when they were small. They had practiced Oriental medicine by exploiting medicinal herbs to treat diseases and save people. They taught Tuệ Tĩnh and Dũng Nhuệ to follow their careers.
Tuệ Tĩnh had passed the first-degree provincial examination and became famous, because living in the pagoda, he could learn both Buddhism and Confucianism. It was quite rare. On the other hand, he also practiced Oriental medicine. It was also rumored that he had an affair with a nun in Hà Pagoda. Hà Pagoda was situated on Sơn Nam Thượng area. Mulberries were grown and silkworms were raised there. There were ancient mulberry trees with mistletoes on them. Mistletoe was used to cure joint inflammation. The mistletoe was harvested and dried. When Tuệ Tĩnh came to get the medicinal herbs, the nun of the pagoda was very solicitous. They became close. She had an oval face, two black eyes and a sweet voice.
One day she said to him:
“My home village was in Đoài County. I was forced by my family to marry a guy from a rich family, but he was stupid. I ran away down here and lived in the pagoda. I was very happy to see you here. I know you are not entirely devoted to living a religious life; you still do medical work and learn, and particularly you are yet to be tonsured. I know that you live in the pagoda so as one day you would become successful in your examinations. I could live only with a man who loves me, who respects me….”
Tuệ Tĩnh was still confused when the nun embraced him, sobbing violently. In the end, he calmed down and read the sutras. The nun quickly walked back. Tuệ Tĩnh said slowly:
“If you are yet to separate from the predestined affinity, you’d better give up the frock. For me, I am yet to get tonsured, I am already a proselyte.”
“I can return to the secular life when I meet a person as perfect as you. Until now, I know there is nobody like you. You are the closed door. I thank you anyway.”
When they were talking with each other, it seemed they were being followed…. From then on, Tuệ Tĩnh never came to Hà Pagoda. Actually he had contained himself. After that meeting, the image of the nun of Hà Pagoda had always been in his mind. He felt moved and missed her. One night, her image entered his dream.
Dũng Nhuệ was partly different from Tuệ Tĩnh. He was a frank person who could get angry easily.
When winter just came, monk Yên Trang wanted to meet him. Tuệ Tĩnh quickly packed and took a boat back to the pagoda. It took him two days to get back. Having just seen the teacher, Tuệ Tĩnh was startled. It seemed that the teacher was going to tell him something serious. The next morning, Tuệ Tĩnh was asked to meet the monk.
“I’ve felt something wrong inside me for these days. Teacher Giao Thủy and I have taught you for more than thirty years and I am glad that you can follow my way. In the near future you will take charge of this pagoda. The pagoda has got the job of making traditional medicine, so you should expand it. I know you are capable of doing it; that is why I am yet to get you tonsured, you see. You have to do charity work better, giving medicine and curing diseases for poor people. The country is now in difficult time. We should help the country. You have to think about human love and help people in these difficult times….”
Tuệ Tĩnh cried and said:
“I have great gratitude for you, teacher! I promise I will do everything I can to return my gratitude to you by practicing traditional medicine much better….”
The monk did not eat anything for a few days. He only sat and meditated. In the end of the day, he passed away at 80. Teacher Giao Thủy and Dũng Nhuệ stayed back for seven days to care for the incense burning and preaching. Finally teacher Giao Thủy said to Tuệ Tĩnh and Dũng Nhuệ:
“My brother has gone and it will be my turn sooner or later. He told you everything before he went to the other world. What I want is for you two to live like us….”
Tuệ Tĩnh and Dũng Nhuệ could not say anything. They embraced each other, crying. It was true that teacher Giao Thủy passed away one month later. Tuệ Tĩnh and Dũng Nhi cared for everything for the teacher’s funeral.
Tuệ Tĩnh came back to Yên Trang Pagoda. He gathered all the beggars and gave jobs to them. They started doing the field work, reclaimed the land and collecting medicinal herbs. Tuệ Tĩnh thought hard about how to build Buddhism in the heart and mind of the people. He started to go to the remote areas to mobilise people to build pagodas. Over about 10 years, Tuệ Tĩnh built a dozen pagodas. He was busy teaching and practicing medicine. He also continued to study hard so as to be able to sit for the examinations. Twenty years had gone by since he succeeded in passing the provincial examinations and now in old age, he passed the first-rank doctorate court feudal examinations. His clan members wanted him to leave the cloister and become a court mandarin.
A ceremony was to be held in the pagoda to congratulate him. Dũng Nhuệ came a few days in advance to together with the Buddhist monks and nuns to prepare. The nun from Hà Pagoda was also present to cook vegetarian food to treat the guests. Tuệ Tĩnh got slightly startled upon knowing that the nun from Hà Pagoda was here. The welcome-home celebration was organised ceremoniously. Tuệ Tĩnh remembered that it was 20 years since he had a stormy time in Hà Pagoda.
At this time, the country was being invaded and Tuệ Tĩnh was recruited for a year. During this time he had gone to many places and understood the people’s plight. A lot of people had fallen ill without medicine. When he returned home from the soldier’s life, he was determined to write books on traditional medicine, on the experience in treatment of diseases and on medicinal plants that could help cure a lot of fatal diseases. Particularly, he had tonsured and become a monk. Within five years, he had completed two books: Nam dược thần hiệu (Marvellous efficacious Vietnamese medicine) and Hồng Nghĩa giác tư ý thư (Hồng Nghĩa Medicine Book).
One day, he was warranted by the King to be an ambassador in the northern country. It was lightning news for him. He was stunned by it. A lot of questions were in his head. He wondered if the northern country wanted him to come and serve it. He felt a presentment that this trip had no day for him to return home. A lot of people advised him to pretend to be a stupid person. But he thought if there was a sick person who needed him, could he help the person?
He suddenly woke up at the crow of a cock. Tuệ Tĩnh was meditating. He remembered that in the past few days, he had received guests and taken leave of his dear ones. Then he had prepared luggage to hit the road to be an ambassador in the foreign land. At the age of 55, he had experienced so many ups and downs and learnt a lot of lessons in his life. He walked out and enjoyed the fresh air. He inhaled deeply the air of his homeland so as to keep it for good in the exotic land. He came in and burnt incense and preached. In the middle of it, tears were running down his cheeks, and he sobbed:
“Oh, my teacher!.... My teacher!”.
Translated by Mạnh Chương