Dreaming the Mountain is the first English anthology of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Tue Sy’s poetry. Although he’s a prominent figure in Vietnamese culture, you won’t find much of Tue Sy’s work in the West, but translators Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins have taken a step toward filling the void with their forthcoming bilingual book. An evocative, lyrical, and quietly complex collection, Dreaming the Mountain gives English speakers a taste of a truly extraordinary man’s work.
A professor, Buddhist scholar, translator, and political dissident, Tue Sy writes from a vast breadth of experience. Born in 1943 in Laos, he joined the Linji Buddhist order when he was a child, going on to attend the Institute of Buddhism and become a tenured professor at Van Hanh University in Ho Chi Minh City. He’s translated numerous Chinese and Pali Buddhist works and produced a robust collection of philosophical teachings covering subjects ranging from Theravada and Zen Buddhism to Heidegger and Foucault.
In 1978, due to the continued suppression of Buddhism, Tue Sy was sent to a reeducation camp for three years. A year after his release, he was arrested again and eventually sentenced to death. With the help of human rights organizations, his sentence was reduced to hard labor for fourteen years, but when his scheduled release finally came, the government demanded Tue Sy write a letter asking for leniency. He refused and was only freed after ten days of fasting.
Dreaming the Mountain is a moving depiction of a mind seeking freedom in a chaotic world: the doubts and certainties, the careful, profound observations, and, ultimately, the dedication to liberation. It belongs with the greats of wartime poetry and Buddhist literature, but it’s also a generous companion for any of us seeking to understand this human life.
As with most Zen poetry, nature is omnipresent in Tue Sy’s writing. Wind, sunlight, moss, clouds, and waterfalls appear as characters throughout the poems, their meanings evolving in subtle and unexpected ways like slippery demigods—sometimes angel, sometimes demon. Beyond the universal natural world, there’s the precise landscape Tue Sy inhabits. He wrote most of the poems in this book from Nha Trang, Vietnam (where he previously attended the Institute of Buddhism) or secluded in the neighboring forest, far from his family and friends in what was then still Saigon. It was in Nha Trang that he began to dream of “a desolate peak in the Truong Son Mountain Range, pounded and battered by storms,” which became a symbol of Vietnam for him.
“Dream” is a multivalent term throughout the work, conjuring everything from fantasy to noble aspiration to a lost cause. It’s the gap between real and imagined, and a poignant refrain for someone searching for home in a nation that abandoned him. Tue Sy also uses “dream” as an explicit reference to the illusion caused by ignorance. He writes: “I go to the dream-place / Like early dew, like lightning, like evening clouds,” summoning the Diamond Sutra’s description of conditioned phenomena.
“Why do people die,” he asks, “but love doesn’t die?”
Dreams are also an apt frame for the multiple physical and temporal realities in Tue Sy’s writing. In one breath, we’re on the ground in the Van Gia forest or the reeducation camp where “an army march tramples the setting sun,” and in the next, we’re traveling to paradise. He writes: “Half of me stays in an inn / Half lives in the deva realm with the fairies / Half stays awake in long underworld nights.” Tue Sy’s past and future lives meander beside his poems like shadows, signaling his desire to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth:
The same life, still listening to troubling stories
Still living and dying with pretense and devastation…
Once, before a gracious old monk, I faltered
Could I, that once, have made a serious error?
Tomorrow I will wait, this time, for you
It’s a pleasure to witness the way Tue Sy navigates ultimate and conventional reality in every line. In a single sentence of grief, he gestures to both the mass death caused by political violence and that caused by samsara: “For thousands of years, people have said goodbye.” Even when directly dealing with samsara, he shifts between two pairs of eyes. One is disgusted and exhausted by the suffering of human life, and the other sees that nirvana is right here, right now. Renunciation lives alongside the wisdom to know there’s nothing to renounce. From the reeducation camp, he writes,
What magic is behind so much destruction?
And yet a rose just bloomed beside the stream—
Everywhere is the home of the Pure Land
Tue Sy’s poems read like private conversations with himself, turning over sorrow, exile, loneliness, aging, and an enduring sense of the divine like warm stones in the palm of his hand. Even as he wanders through the deepest shadows of human suffering, he comes back again and again to the heart. “Why do people die,” he asks, “but love doesn’t die?”
Are these love poems? Not in the way we might be used to. A current thrums beneath them that sounds like the fourth noble truth: there is a path out of all of this suffering. When Tue Sy speaks of love, I hear a fierce devotion to that path of freedom. “Love, in every moment of my dreams,” he writes. “For love, I’m reaching out to catch stars.”