The Tran kings and princes were exceptionally well educated, and not only in the Confucian classics. They were also trained in Buddhism, and they were great builders of temples and stupas. Tran Canh read widely in the Buddhist sutras and the writings of Chan (Japanese Zen, Korean Soen, Vietnamese Thien) masters of the Tang dynasty, particularly Huineng (638–713). Tran Canh was an original thinker, abreast with Buddhist thought in Song China, and he developed an inclusive view of various currents in Buddhism. He wrote many sermons and essays during his lifetime that were subsequently compiled as Khoa Hu Luc (Instructions on Emptiness). His grandson, Tran Kham, followed his deep engagement with Buddhist thought and practice and became the founder of a royal sect of Buddhism, the Truc Lam (Bamboo Grove) School.
Tran Canh’s writings moved beyond the miscellany of devotional, thaumatur- gical, and meditational practices that had characterized the Buddhism of the Ly dynasty and earlier. Similar to the way Confucian studies were reoriented by trends in Song thought, Tran Canh’s writings express a distinctive response to issues in Song Chan Buddhism. In the late eleventh century, the monk and patriarch Thong Bien (d. 1134) had propounded a distinction between the “scriptural school” and the “mind school,” a divide that was typical of Song Buddhist thought. At issue was whether one achieved enlightenment gradually through the study of books or suddenly by meditative intuition. Tran Canh moved beyond such dichotomous conundrums toward a sense of the unity of all things and all beings. The Tang Chan patriarch Huineng, who taught that all sentient beings were endowed with the Buddha nature, was an important influence on his thought. Tran Canh believed that all perceivable phenomena were parts of a single underlying unity in the mind of Buddha and that the highest wisdom transcended all distinctions. This idea, “not-two” (bat nhi; Chinese bu’er; Sanskrit advaita), meaning “non-separation,” is generally translated into English as “non-duality.” An emphasis on non-duality is promin- ent in the poems of the monk Tue Trung (1230–1291), who was Tran Kham’s teacher, and is characteristic of Tran thought generally. Among members of royalty, the idea of non-duality tended to be conflated with a sense of family solidarity and of unlimited power over the country.
Tran princes had a strong sense of ownership over every aspect of the kingdom and were unwilling to distinguish between themselves and the people and prop- erty over which they ruled. They resisted any tendency to affirm separation, division, or alienation from the realm in which they were masters. We see this in successive generations of adherence to a marriage policy designed to heal the wound between the brothers Tran Lieu and Tran Canh. Tran Canh’s protection of Tran Lieu against Tran Thu Do’s wrath was an act against the duality, or irreconcilable separation, expressed in this feud. On the other hand, Tran Kien’s choice to avenge his grandfather’s humiliation with the separatism of a traitor earned him an arrow of death, for what was not in harmony with the group could not be allowed to exist.
The relatively strong sense of solidarity among the Tran princes was expressed by Tran Hoang when, as king, he addressed a gathering of his royal kin in spring 1268. His words were recorded as follows: All that is in the world is nothing but the realm of our ancestors, and it is only right that the elder and younger brothers of our royal house together enjoy the riches and honors that are the inheritance of our ancestors. Although outwardly there be but one person on the throne to receive the world’s respect, yet inwardly you and I are the bone and flesh of the same womb. If there is something to worry about, we worry together; if there is something to be happy about, we are happy together. You must all pass these words on to your sons and grandsons so they will never forget them, for only then will our royal house have good fortune for ages to come. Tran Hoang’s emphasis on solidarity was surely aimed at ameliorating the volatile relations among his royal kin and uniting them under his authority.
In typical Tran fashion, the matter was not left at the level of words. The king followed up his remarks with a decree that whenever there was a royal audience, his kinsmen were to remain after everyone else was dismissed and go with him into the inner palace to eat and drink together and afterwards to bring out a long pillow and a large blanket for them all to sleep together, “in order to have true feelings of brotherly affection.” At the same time, a strict hierarchy was to be observed among the royal kin at public occasions. The result of these policies, according to later court chroniclers, was that at that time all the royal kinsmen were united in mutual harmony and respect and none was arrogant or disdainful toward another.
In reality, as already noted, there were many tensions among these men, and the emphasis upon solidarity was surely intended to lessen the dangers of this. Aside from the accumulation of resentments produced by escapades such as Tran Quoc Tuan’s stealing away the bride of a kinsman, there remained the founding feud of the royal house between the “senior line” of Tran Lieu and the “junior line” of Tran Canh. Marriage policy and habits of friendship could not entirely push this feud out of sight. A remarkable indication of this is an episode recorded from the Mongol invasion of 1285 as the royal entourage fled from the enemy. Tran Quoc Tuan carried a wooden staff with a sharp iron point. Since dissatis- fied members of the “senior line” considered that the throne rightfully belonged to him, the king’s men kept a sharp watch upon him, afraid that he might stab the king. When he realized this, he discarded the iron point from his staff.
A famous exception to Tran solidarity was Tran Ich Tac, a son of Tran Canh who, when growing up, was extraordinarily bright and competitive, good at everything and particularly known as an expert chess player. It was said that he had sent a letter to the Mongols via merchants at Van Don requesting that they come to make him king. When they came, he went over to their side with his entourage and dependents; three other men with their dependents went with him, one of whom had been an envoy to the Mongols in 1263. Tran Ich Tac subse- quently spent the rest of his life at the Mongol court as the “King of An Nam.” Annalists recorded a story to explain his treason. At the time of Tran Ich Tac’s birth, he had announced himself to Tran Canh in a dream, saying that he was a northern prince being punished by his sovereign for misbehavior; he would be reborn as Tran Canh’s son and later would return north. Reincarnation was a common explanation for otherwise unaccountable behavior.
Considering the magnitude of the Mongol challenge that would test the Tran house, and considering the number of people who eventually failed the test of loyalty, the degree of solidarity among Tran leaders was nevertheless remark- able. This was not by chance but grew from the spirit of inclusion and reconcili- ation that was the hallmark of Tran Canh’s personality, religious sensibility, philosophy, and policy. His son and grandson, Tran Hoang and Tran Kham, who stood at the head of the Tran family during the Mongol invasions of the 1280s, imbibed his attitude and understood that the fortunes of their dynasty depended upon the unity of the royal house, preferably mobilized willingly with a spirit of group solidarity but enforced by coercion if necessary.