Our Patriarch Liễu Quán

Sister Đoan Nghiêm teaches about koans and the Plum Village lineage; Thầy’s disciples are the ninth generation of the Liễu Quán Dharma line.

All who received the Mindfulness Trainings from Thầy, even The Five Mindfulness Trainings, receive an ordination certificate. Usually the brothers and sisters who transmit the precepts read the certificate and let us know what lineage we are a part of—whose disciple we are.

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Sister Đoan Nghiêm teaches about koans and the Plum Village lineage; Thầy’s disciples are the ninth generation of the Liễu Quán Dharma line.

All who received the Mindfulness Trainings from Thầy, even The Five Mindfulness Trainings, receive an ordination certificate. Usually the brothers and sisters who transmit the precepts read the certificate and let us know what lineage we are a part of—whose disciple we are. Thầy’s disciples are the forty-third generation of the Lâm Tế (Linji) Dhyāna School and the ninth generation of the Liễu Quán Dharma line. Now we are going to learn about the patriarch Liễu Quán.

Plum Village ancestors festival, summer retreat July 2023; photo by Sister Lực Nghiêm

Liễu” has two meanings. It means joy complete; it also means understanding: to see, to know. “Quán” means to contemplate, to look deeply; it means we can say that because of looking deeply we can see clearly. It can also mean we have looked deeply successfully, contemplated successfully, completely.

The patriarch Liễu Quán is Vietnamese. He was born in 1670 in Bạch Mã village in the province Phú Yên. We’re very lucky the province still exists today. Anyone who wants to find Liễu Quán’s homeland can visit the beautiful province. Here, those who are Vietnamese can organize a tour to visit the homeland of our ancestor, of our patriarch.

Liễu Quán’s family was very poor. He was not like the Buddha, the son of the king. He was like Jesus—poor and born in a poor family. Jesus was born in a stable, and Liễu Quán was born in a forest. He lived in the forest and was a logger. In 1676 his mother passed away, so after that Liễu Quán lived only with his father, who would take him to Hội Tôn Temple to play with the monks.

At the temple, young Liễu Quán met a Zen master from China named Tế Viên. Tế Viên was the abbot at a temple he built in Vietnam. Liễu Quán would often go to the temple and was very loved by Zen Master Tế Viên. When he was twelve years old, Liễu Quán officially began to live at the monastery under the guidance of Tế Viên. Liễu Quán was a novice. He learned the sutras, gathas, and chants, but all in Chinese. He lived at the temple for seven years, and was still an aspirant when Zen master Tế Viên passed away. Liễu Quán heard that many high venerables were in Huế, in Central Vietnam. So after Zen Master Tế Viên’s funeral, Liễu Quán went south to Huế. He walked because there weren’t any vehicles at that time. The journey was about five hundred kilometers. Liễu Quán had to cross mountains, streams, rivers, hills, and it was very, very difficult. It took him one year to reach Huế.

A koan is like a question, a riddle, that doesn’t need an answer from your intellect.

In 1690, Liễu Quán arrived in Thuận Hóa (now Huế). He went to Thiên Thọ Temple (now called Báo Quốc Temple) in Hàm Long Mountain—the same place where Thầy went to study when he was an aspirant. Our root temple sent Thầy to Thiên Thọ Temple because it was a Buddhist Institute, kind of like the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. They would regularly receive monks and nuns from other temples, and they didn’t ask for money for ordination. Instead, monastics would pay by offering kilos of rice to the temple. Thầy shared that he sent about forty kilos a year of rice to this temple.

In Liễu Quán’s time, Zen Master Giác Phong lived at Thiên Thọ Temple. He was from Guangdong province, China, which was very close to Vietnam. This closeness is why the Chinese Zen masters could go to Vietnam to teach and share the Dharma.

After practicing in the temple for one year, Liễu Quán heard that his father was ill, so he walked back to his hometown in Phú Yên and became a logger to afford food. When Liễu Quán was twenty-five, his father passed away, and Liễu Quán returned to Huế to continue his practice. On his way back to Huế, he heard that the venerable, Zen Master Thạch Liêm had organized a Great Ordination Ceremony at Thiền Lâm Temple. Liễu Quán stopped at the temple to receive novice ordination. Two years later in 1697, Liễu Quán received full ordination in another Great Ordination Ceremony organized at Thiền Lâm Temple. He was now an elder, a most respected Zen master. After receiving ordination, Liễu Quán wanted to study, so he stayed at the temple two years before continuing his journey. In the past, monastics really liked to travel to learn, so going to this temple and that temple was very normal. Liễu Quán continued to travel, and three years later, in 1702, he met his teacher, Zen Master Minh Hoằng Tử Dung (commonly known as Tử Dung) on Hoàng Long Mountain. He originated from Guangdong, China. Zen Master Minh Hoàng established and lived at Ấn Tôn Temple (now Từ Đàm Temple), and there, he and our patriarch, Liễu Quán, met. They spoke to each other, and the Zen master gave Liễu Quán a koan.

The koan’s purpose is for us to embrace it—to hold it, to take care of it, water it, and then one day it will bloom. Then, we suddenly understand.

I need to explain this koan so we’ll be able to understand the Zen masters’ conversation. A koan is like a question, a riddle, that doesn’t need an answer from your intellect. Maybe this is a normal riddle, for example: The sandy road—is there sand in it? It could mean fine sugar or it can mean sandy path. Sugar that is very, very fine is called cát, which means fine as sand. So the word cát, sand, is used to speak about the nature of sugar, how fine it is. But this riddle is using thinking, speculation, analysis. The koan Zen Master Minh Hoàng gave Liễu Quán is this:

All Dharma goes to the one.
The one goes to where?

That’s a koan. Look at me, Sister Đoan Nghiêm. I am one, this is one, and all Dharmas are coming to this one me. And this one me—where do I go?

Or we look at this one flower. All phenomena return to this one flower: the rain, clouds, the person taking care of the flower, those that water it, etc., etc., and that’s how we have this bud. That means all phenomena, all conditions, go to the one.

So next time, where will this go, this one bud? We cannot answer that it will go everywhere. The purpose of the koan is to help us not use our thinking, our intellect. If we understand, then we understand. If we don’t, once we start to think or use our intellect, then we’ve already failed. The koan, it’s feeling, then understanding. We feel, if we don’t understand, we don’t understand. If we say we understand, then we don’t understand. If we say we understand and we smile, that means we understand.

So the answer of the koan is smiling, yelling, screaming, but it’s not explaining. I think, here, nobody understands anything about the koan yet. So our Patriarch also didn’t understand. He embraced this koan and went back to his hometown, and he studied. He investigated, and he tried to understand. He embraced the koan in his heart and mind.

The koan’s purpose is for us to embrace it—to hold it, to take care of it, water it, and then one day it will bloom. Then, we suddenly understand. You can’t explain it. Understanding a koan is very miraculous.

Some study to the point where they’re walking and hit a pole they didn’t even know was there. But sometimes hitting the pole is when they have an awakening. It’s like Newton, who realized something when the apple dropped on his head.

So Liễu Quán read a book called The Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (傳燈錄, Truyền Đăng lục) a recording of all the stories, the gathas, that had been transmitted from generation to generation. It’s storytelling but also a transmission between this person and that person. It’s like the Lamp Transmission that we have, transmission to this person to the next person. In this book was a sentence pointing to an object to express an idea or a deeper meaning, intention, of the mind. We point to an object like the flower to explain about interdependent co-arising. Thầy would point to a flower so we would look at the flower and see that means pointing to an object. He’s able to understand, he feels something. Thầy would use it in order to express how Thầy understands, which means pointing to an object to express, to explain. The majority of us when we point to something we see that we don’t see the mind, we don’t see the intention, and that’s why we don’t understand the essence of what is being shared. The more we point to the object, others just continue to look at that object, but they don’t feel and understand what the teacher is trying to transmit; they only understand that object. So here, the mind is not able to be transmitted and the student is grasping on the object. Instead of trying to help clear the things in the person’s mind, they end up grasping more on the object; so the more they study the more they are ignorant. There’s no space for insight to arise. When the patriarch Liễu Quán read this sentence, he was so happy. He put the book down and returned to Huế to meet Zen Master Minh Hoàng (Tử Dung), who had given him the koan six years earlier.

How do you understand, ‘The ancestor transmits to the ancestor. The Buddha transmits to the Buddha’? What do they actually transmit to each other?

In 1708, Liễu Quán met Minh Hoàng (Tử Dung) and shared his understanding of the koan. Liễu Quán wondered if the Zen master would approve or certify his insight. Was it correct or not? When the Zen master heard the patriarch Liễu Quán share, he wanted to check one more time. The Zen master read this poem:

Release your grip over the abyss,
Alone, you endure,
Dying and being reborn,
Who dares to criticize you?

Do we feel anything? This is like a test to check the insight of the future of Liễu Quán. For example, say we’re standing on a mountain and then we jump into the abyss. It’s a deep, deep abyss, and we let go. Usually if we jump down, perhaps from a cliff, we want to hold on to something. But he said, this cliff we let go. We don’t want to hold on to anything, we just jump without holding, without grasping. This is a very, very good line. When we have feelings or emotions that are full, usually we don’t dare to jump into that emotion, that suffering. It’s like this deep, deep cliff, abyss. There are those who commit suicide. Why? Because they cannot deal face-to-face with their suffering. It’s like this abyss; they don’t dare to look into that. They jump but then always have this fear. We feel like we have to grasp onto something. If we see a rope or a tree we can grasp, we will grasp it, because we have this fear. We don’t have the capacity to let go. We bear it ourselves and we accept it. There’s no fear. We jump into the abyss. Do we dare to look face-to-face with our difficulties, our suffering, those things that we fear? The capacity to do that is called “dying and being born again.” It’s like a ball that we throw down and then it bounces back up. When we’re able to overcome these mental formations, this fear, it’s like dying and being born again. Then who would dare to look down upon us or who dared to look down? No one dares to look down upon us. This action is very courageous. This is a very, very wonderful poem. Who dares to do it?

After the Zen master heard Liễu Quán offer his insight gatha, he wanted to make sure he really understood, so he read this poem to see his reaction. When Liễu Quán heard this poem he clapped his hands and laughed very joyfully. The Zen master was not happy with this reaction. He said “No, no, no, no, no. Not yet.” (That’s how these two Zen masters spoke to each other. We can imagine in our head that it’s very funny.) Liễu Quán then pointed to a weighing scale. The Zen master said “No, no, not yet.” He wasn’t satisfied with that answer. That day they ended their conversation there. The next morning, Zen Master Tử Dung saw Zen Master Liễu Quán walking back and forth, but Liễu Quán didn’t notice that Tử Dung was approaching him to speak further. If he had experienced anything new, Liễu Quán would always want Tử Dung to know about it, to see if he had attained enlightenment yet. So, Tử Dung called Liễu Quán over and said, “We haven’t finished our conversation from yesterday.” Zen Master Liễu Quán replied with one line: “If we already know that the lamp is fire, then the rice was cooked long ago.” Once he heard this line, Zen Master Tử Dung nodded his head and praised, “Wonderful, wonderful.” He was very satisfied.

So now we can explain this gatha. Do you want to hear the Zen story?

When we cook rice, it takes a while for it to be fully cooked. We need to use fire, not the lamp. When we cook rice, we just think of the fire; we don’t think about the lamp. So, when we see the fire, we know we need to cook. Sometimes you see the light but don’t think about cooking rice. We look for the fire in order to cook. That is the form. If we know how to use the essence, the heat, of the lamp, the nature of fire and the nature of the lamp are the same. What is that nature? Heat. If we don’t have fire, we cannot cook rice. If we don’t have fire, we can use the lamp’s heat to cook the rice. The patriarch wanted to share. He was looking for the fire but he overlooked the lamp. If he had known the lamp and the fire had the same nature, he wouldn’t have lost so much time. He was able to share that, and the Zen master said, “You understand, you can see the nature of phenomena.” And so Liễu Quán passed. Do you understand yet? Do you see it’s wonderful?

After reading the poem, Zen Master Tử Dung marked “pass.” In 1708, Zen Master Liễu Quán built Thiền Tông Temple on Thiên Thai Mountain. When he had established his temple, he continued to study and began to teach. 

In 1712, Liễu Quán had the opportunity to meet Tử Dung again for the third time. A ceremony had been organized in Quảng Nam Province, and the two Zen masters spoke to each other in a Zen way. Zen Master Liễu Quán was like a disciple to his teacher. He presented a gatha. History didn’t write down that gatha. We just know that it had to do with Buddha nature. Zen Master Tử Dung read the gatha to see how Zen Master Liễu Quán was studying and where he was in his practice at this time. Tử Dung asked, “How do you understand, ‘The ancestor transmits to the ancestor. The Buddha transmits to the Buddha’? What do they actually transmit to each other?”

“I teach to you, you teach to the younger ones. and then the younger ones—who did they teach to? What are we transmitting? What do they actually transmit?”

Liễu Quán was able to recognize a question, but at the same time if we answer like the sutras, we’ve failed. This is how a Zen master replies to another Zen master:

Bamboo shoot on the rock is very long, very high.
A duster of the turtle weighs three kilos.

What are they transmitting? When you read this you don’t see anything, right? The sisters usually use the bamboo shoots to cook and to eat. A bamboo shoot is on the rock and is very, very long, very high. Is it practical? No, how can a bamboo shoot grow on a rock? That doesn’t make sense. A duster was usually made from a rooster, but the verse says it’s a duster from the turtle. If you don’t understand Zen, you will be caught in the words like “duster,” “three kilos.” We will start to wonder, what are they transmitting? What the Buddha is transmitting is not through words, through speaking, not something to talk about. So in this poem, you cannot use your thinking to feel what the patriarchs, what our ancestors, what the Buddha is trying to transmit to us. We have to use our mind, our heart to feel. We have to use our mind to receive it, our heart to receive it. If we sit and think about the bamboo shoot when we are pointing to an object and we just think about the object, this duster that’s made from a turtle. This is not what the Buddha is trying to transmit. What does the Buddha (or our ancestors or Thầy) want to transmit to us? We should reflect on what we have been able to learn from Thầy. Can you feel Thầy’s heart that he’s transmitted to us? Or are we just copying what Thầy has done or as Thầy has taught us? Can we actually feel his heart, his inspiration? Practicing Zen is not using your head, it’s using your heart.

After Zen Master Liễu Quán replied to this koan, he offered another:

Rowing a boat on a high mountain
Riding a horse deep in the sea.

Rowing a boat on a high mountain is not really possible. It doesn’t make any sense. Riding a horse in the depths of the sea—can you really do that? In the first poem, we read about the bamboo shoot and the duster. We saw it doesn’t make sense. In that way, it’s similar to the latter verse about rowing the boat on a high mountain. That means they are on the same frequency. 

A broken string plays the zither throughout the day.
The buffalo horn roars all night.

In this gatha, they’re trying to say these are responses that ancestors are transmitting to ancestors and the Buddha is transmitting to the Buddha. We can never talk about it or use words to explain it. They speak to each other through images, through poetry. When we think of it, we cannot think further. How can we think further? This helps us not to think too much. That’s why practicing in the Zen tradition is not using your mind to think; we should learn to use our heart.

After they spoke to each other, Zen Master Tử Dung was very satisfied. He continued to nod his head; he was very happy with his disciple. Liễu Quán was officially considered as his disciple. They say his full name is Lé Puck Yieu but Thầy does not agree. He just uses the word Puck Yieu. It’s his official name which means that he is the disciple, the continuation, of the Zen Master Minh Huang (Tử Dung). We are Thầy’s disciples; so we will follow as Thầy has researched and if it’s wrong then Thầy will be responsible for it. So it’s very easy, we just take refuge in the Sangha like that. If anything’s wrong, the Sangha will take care of it. We shouldn’t take care of it ourselves. When we take refuge in the Sangha like that it’s very easy.

In 1742, when he was seventy-two, Liễu Quán saw that his health was not very stable and so he made a gatha for the Sangha.

We are living in the world of form and emptiness. After seventy years, what had Liễu Quán been able to learn? Form and emptiness inter-are; they embrace each other and are not separate. Liễu Quán saw that in form there is emptiness and in emptiness there is form. No separation. We practice to the point when we no longer have discrimination. That’s when we have attained enlightenment.

Lotus at Plum Village, France, July 2023 summer retreat; photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

On Liễu Quán’s last morning, he saw that his appointment with this life was completed. So when we come to this life it is an appointment, and when we come here the appointment is finished. Now we return back to our home.

What else do we need to ask from our ancestral teachers? What do you need to look for from our ancestors, to ask from them? Liễu Quán’s life was completed. He had nothing that he needed to search for. He saw his life was complete, and he just needed to return home. He no longer needed to go somewhere to study, to learn. After he finished this gatha the Sangha cried, because they knew that he was about to pass to Nirvana. Liễu Quán said:

Why are you crying? What is there to cry for? When the Buddhas are born, they pass into Nirvana and me, I know the path to take. There is nothing more to fear. I don’t need to wait for anything, so you don’t have to worry or be sad about anything. If we pass away and you know where you’re going, what fear is left? It’s a great happiness. It’s like we are going traveling and it’s a one-way ticket traveling forever. And if we leave in that mindset, then what is there to cry about? If we’re being kidnapped then of course we’re going to be very fearful because we don’t know where we’re going, but he has a path, so what is there to cry? I already have my path, I already know where I’m going. What is there for you to cry?

When they heard that they said okay. Then he asked for the time. “What time is it?”

He said, “Yes, it’s almost time.”

He said, “I will go. Please remember,” he said. “One last reminder that impermanence is very quick, it passes by very quickly. You should practice diligently, properly. Please remember.”

He did sitting meditation and he passed away. It was very, very beautiful. Hopefully we’ll be able to be the same. Zen Master Liễu Quán had left a gatha so whenever we receive an ordination we will know where we stand in the lineage. Novices, you will see this gatha on our novice ordination certificate. As disciples we should memorize this gatha.

The great way of Reality,
Is our true nature’s pure ocean.
The source of Mind penetrates everywhere.
From the roots of virtue springs the practice of compassion.
Precepts, concentration and insight –
The nature and function of all three are one.
The fruit of transcendent wisdom,
Can be realized by being wonderfully together.
Maintain and transmit the wonderful principle,
In order to reveal the true teaching!
For the realization of True Emptiness to be possible,
Wisdom and Action must go together.

The great way of reality is our true nature’s pure ocean. It’s very clear, it’s pure, it’s settled and when we see the ocean, it’s the waves rising and falling. That’s not the nature of the ocean. If waves are rising and falling, it’s because of the wind, it’s because of outer conditions, but its nature, its essence, is pure and still. We see that waves rise and fall from outer conditions. This great path is like the ocean; its true nature is pure and still.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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