In reality, civilisations have tried to answer these questions for five thousand years now, but none of their divergent ideas have yet won universal consensus.
These questions are even more acute now, at the dawn of the Third Millennium, when the crisis of modern civilisation is compounded by global climate change, devastation of the environment, hunger and poverty in the majority of the world, the growing wealth divide, the loosening of social ties, moral misery, disguised imperialism, terrorism, wars and new pestilence. In this troubling, disquieting climate, any attempt at bringing serenity to the soul is beneficial to all.
It is in this spirit that we should welcome "Un livre des moines bouddhistes dans le Vietnam d?autrefois" (Book of Buddhist Monks in Ancient Viet Nam, Aquilon ? Paris, 2005). It is a French version of Thien Uyen Tap Anh, an anthology of meditations written in Chinese ideograms in the 10th and 12th centuries and first published in the 14th century.
The French authors, Philippe Langlet (texts) and Dominique de Miscaul (graphics) bring to life the dream of Quach Thanh Tam, or Ms Langlet herself, who died in 2003, to bring about "better understanding of the profound Buddhist wisdom" in Viet Nam. This wisdom is from a time when the country had just rid itself of Chinese domination and was living in an environment of spiritual openness.
Thien Tuyen Tap Anh is a collection of some sixty biographies of eminent monks of the school of Thien (Dhyana or Zen), in which historical and realistic details are mixed with the marvellous. Each text contains a very concise doctrinal commentary in the form of a conversation, an improvised poem or, in most cases, a ke - the ultimate spiritual instruction a master can gave his disciplines before death. A ke is a versified Buddhist stanza written in Chinese ideograms.
In the French version, a text is presented in its original form in Chinese ideograms, plus a translation in French and a Vietnamese translation in verse. In order not to go against the spirit of Thien which, based on intuition or immediate knowledge, has nothing in common with discursive reasoning, biographic notes, historical backgrounds and strictly necessary explanations are arranged to come after the texts.
The authors try to define Thien: "This is the concentration of the spirit outside of experience, outside of the joining together of cause and effect. It puts ordinary conscience in something like a dreamless sleep and allows one to remain in personal existence all the while finding oneself in the complete calm of being within oneself ... This would be intuition of nothingness (khong in Vietnamese) without having an idea of nothingness."
"Besides being a religion of personal salvation," the French authors write, "the Buddhist civilisation, through an exchange between devotion and compassion, offers a liberating intuitive wisdom about the chains and the great anguishes of existence."
Witness the following ke by Tu Dao Hanh:
Existence and Life
Existence. The least speck of dust exists.
Nothingness. All is nothing.
Existence and nothingness, like the moon in water.
Attach yourself neither to existence nor to the idea of nothingness.