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The Mountain Cliff Robe

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Waldbroel, Germany

Last night while sleeping here Thầy had a dream. He saw that he was climbing a mountain with the Buddha and with little Hải Triều Âm (Sound of the Rising Tide). At that time, it was about 2 am in the morning which is 8 o’clock in the morning in Vietnam.

In the dream, the Buddha was still very young, in his sixties. Thầy was in his fifties and Hải Triều Âm was a teenager. Lord Buddha did not look chubby and jolly like Thầy Lệ Trang, but rather skinny and tall like Thầy Pháp Hộ. He climbed the mountain with ease, Thầy followed the Buddha very closely and climbed pretty well himself. Little Hải Triều Âm was not carrying any cushion or tea or hot water. He just carried a brown shoulder bag which may not have contained anything. The Buddha did not bring his bowl and Thầy didn’t either. Even little Hải Triều Âm didn’t bring his bowl. Thầy and little Hải Triều Âm were supposed to play the role of Buddha’s attendants. How could Thầy and little Hải Triều Âm be as good as Thầy Ananda because the two of them didn’t help the Buddhha with anything? They didn’t even carry his robe and bowl!

The mountain which the Buddha, Thầy and little Hải Triều Âm were climbing looked a little like the Vulture Peak, but it was not Vulture Peak. On this mountain as well as grey cliffs of rock, there were also monolithic brown rocks that were much harder to climb than Vulture Peak. Once you had climbed up one rock, there came another. The mountain rocks appeared constantly in their infinite massiveness. Thầy didn’t feel tired and it is quite possible that little Hải Triều Âm also didn’t feel tired. It’s a great happiness to climb the mountain with the World Honored One, how could we feel tired, my dear children?

In real life little Hải Triều Âm is the boy TÝ in the book “The Young Guava Leaf” and the book “The Bamboo of One Million Internodes”. He is now about 40 years old, married and has a Ph.D degree in Law. In the dream Hải Triều Âm was only twelve, still very innocent and attentive as in the days he lived in the Walnut Building, Lower Hamlet, when Plum Village had only just begun. He wore a small grey novice robe and carried a brown cloth bag. Thầy wore a brown robe and what was the most fascinating thing was that the Buddha also wore a brown robe, not a copper color sanghati like the one of the Theravada monks. It looked like the Buddha also enjoyed wearing the brown robe of the monks and nuns of Vietnam. Or perhaps the Buddha just wanted to be a good companion and did the same as Thầy and Hải Triều Âm and that is why he was climbing the mountain in a brown robe. In Plum Village there are monks of Thai, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Lao, Sri Lankan or Cambodian tradition. After living for a time with the Plum Village monks in their residence in the Upper Hamlet, brothers like Thầy Pitaya, Thầy Shariputra, Thầy Doji, Thầy Ananda and Novice Học Hiền put away their sanghati in order to enjoy wearing the same brown robes as our brothers do. They only put on their sanghati in ceremonies of recitation or transmission of the precepts.

In the dream there was a moment when the Buddha stopped and sat down alongside a small stream that was running from a source in the cliff. Thầy and Hải Triều Âm sat down a little to one side in attendance. Little Hải Triều Âm was very at ease. He joined his palms, looked up and addressed the Buddha:

“Lord Buddha, my teacher said that the brown color of the robe (áo tràng) that the monks and nuns in Vietnam wear, expresses the simplicity of the monastic life and also the strength of the mind of love. I also love this simple brown color very much. Why do we call it áo tràng? What does áo tràng mean, Lord Buddha?”

The World Honored One looked at the mountain range above them, then he kindly addressed Hải Triều Âm:

“You may very well call the áo tràng ‘the Mountain Cliff Robe’, or ‘the Mountain Rock Robe’ or ‘the Mountain Rock Cliff Robe’.

Thầy’s dream ended suddenly after the Buddha’s words. On waking Thầy felt some little regret because the dream was so beautiful. Thầy lay there, following his breathing and tried to recapitulate the little details of the dream. Thầy can only guarantee that the words of the Buddha which you read above are about seventy per cent correct in detail. In fact it seemed that the Buddha only used one name for the áo tràng which was either ‘the Mountain Cliff Robe’, or ‘the Mountain Rock Robe’ or ‘the Mountain Rock Cliff Robe’. What we can be sure about is that the name of the robe only had two words either ‘mountain rock’ or ‘rock mountain’ or ‘mountain cliff’ or ‘rock cliff’, it could not have been Mountain Rock Cliff Robe, because an epithet of three words is too long. What is recorded is in accord with the meaning and spirit of the Buddha’s words rather than an exact record of each word.

Little Hải Triều Âm was a novice; he wore the grey novice robe, called the color of the smoke of incense, or of mist. That is the color of the mountain rocks of Vulture Peak. That grey color is not really the blue color. It is just the grey color of the mist. This color belongs to the novice robe and the color of the uniform of the Buddhist Youth Association. It represents the purity and lightness of the incense smoke, the mist, and the power of the forests and mountains. The Grey Mountain (Nui Lam) is the sacred area of Vietnam where the hero Lê Lợi, who wore a simple cloth robe, prepared for the removal of the Ming army from Vietnam.

A song about Núi Lam goes “The sun rises and the mist evaporates into the mountain clouds.” So grey is also the color of strength. The brown robe which the monks and nuns in Vietnam have worn for the past two thousand years also expresses the wholesome and frugal life of the Vietnamese country people. The country people in Vietnam enjoy wearing brown. The elderly as well as the young village girls look beautiful in their traditional light brown tunic. The quiet and deep brown color is both simple and imposing. Thầy had often told little Hải Triều Âm that his monastic disciples should try to preserve the brown color of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. They only need to put on the yellow sanghati during ceremonies of recitation or transmission of the precepts. Little Hải Triều Âm had remembered this and in his child’s language had brought up the matter with the Buddha during the climb up the mountain. At this moment of writing to you, my beloved children, I feel very happy as I recall the image of the Buddha wearing a brown robe. The Buddha just wanted to go along with us in wearing the brown robe. It is Thay’s idea that from now on we may call the grey áo tràng Grey Mountain Robe and the brown áo tràng Mountain Rock Robe.

In our Deer Park and Blue Cliff monasteries there are steep mountain rocks and the monks and the nuns often like to climb them. Ascending a rock cliff is a very Zen phrase. It means that the cliff is not easy to climb, but once you are on top of it, you will feel so happy. The monastic path is also a difficult one, but very beautiful. What is wonderful is that we are climbing the mountain together with the Buddha. The poet Nguyển Công Trứ sometimes wanted to drop everything and just climb the mountain. He spoke of a pine tree growing up solid on the mountain ridge, perching independently from a surrounding area. That is the image of an authentic monk or nun. He wrote:

“In the next lifetime instead of being a human,
Let me be a pine tree standing and rustling under the sky,
In the place of steep rock cliffs
Whoever can bear the cold may enjoy climbing with the pine.”

Although Thầy and his disciples enjoy climbing the rocks on the mountains, but we still want to be human in the next lifetimes. The chant Taking Refuge in the book “Chanting from the Heart” carries the words:

“In the next lifetime may we again be born as humans
And may we encounter the Dharma and live a life of true practice.
May we be guided on the path of practice by an enlightened teacher.
Equipped with faith, may we be ordained into the monastic Sangha.”

Thầy is very happy whenever he remembers that he and his disciples are climbing the hill of the twenty first century together. We have been climbing this hill for nearly ten years now. In the year 2050, we shall stand on the peak and look down at the beautiful scenery which will be no less beautiful than the scene from the Vulture Peak. Thầy wrote to Thầy Giác Thanh, the first abbot of the Deer Park Monastery, a gatha just before he passed away and a couple of parallel verses sometimes after:

“An autumn leaf falls. Still you continue to climb with us the hill of the century
Thousands of daffodils bloom. Heaven and earth keep singing together the song of no birth and no death”

These two lines have been engraved at the memorial stupa of Thầy Giác Thanh on a steep rock cliff in the Deer park Monastery, U.S.A.

In the Zen tradition there is a very famous book that expounds Zen koans. It is called Blue Cliff Records (Bích Nham Lục). Bích is blue, Nham is a cliff. The Yên Tử Mountain where the Great Bamboo Forest Master (King Trần Nhân Tông) practiced, taught and realized the path is also a sacred place, full of grey mist. The color of our robes comes from a very long tradition. So try to preserve these two colors grey and brown as the colors of your robes.

In Prajna monastery there are no steep cliffs. As teacher and disciples we have climbed the hill that goes down to the stream many times and each time has brought us much happiness. The monastic path is not a smooth highway but a cliff we have to climb. And you have climbed the mountain cliffs very well. Little Hải Triều Âm has climbed the mountain with Lord Buddha very well. Thầy has also climbed well. We are very happy even though we still encounter difficulties. All my beloved children, whether you are monastic or lay, whether you have come to practice at Prajna monastery, the Root Temple, Blue Cliff Monastery, Deer Park Monastery, Định Quán, Trúc Lâm, Diệu Trạm…. , you all are my little Hải Triều Âm, and you all still have been able to preserve the mind of clarity and purity of a young person with the deep aspiration to serve all beings. Even if you are a lay practitioner, you may like to wear these two colors, grey and brown. The way we walk, stand, lie down and sit mindfully, the way we practice to build brotherhood and sisterhood, is what helps people in society to recognize who we are.

We are the continuation of Lord Buddha and the Patriarchs who include: the great Bamboo Forest Master, Linji, Liễu Quán, and Nhất Định. We are going as a river, and at the same time we are climbing the hill of the century with much happiness.

Thầy is staying now in the European Institute of Applied Buddhism. Many young Germans are coming to practice. On 8th May 2009, the Mountain Rock Cliff sangha will be invited by the mayor of the city of Cologne for an official welcome. Thầy’s attendants, Brs. Pháp Hy and Pháp Hữu will tell you all more about what we are doing here in the heart of Europe these days.

Well known as a true practitioner,
He has done what needed to be done.
As soon as the stupa stands of the mountain ridge,
The sound of children’s laughter rings out.

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