I had cried all my tear and lost my laughter for the sorrow of life,
But I have returned to the kind and pure soul of GENUINE HUMANITY,
escaped from the dark and wickedness of INHUMANITY.
From all mental affliction and physical suffering sowed upon me,
I gathered the MOST BEAUTIFUL flowers of unbounded LOVE and FORGIVENESS…
Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc
Reflection on Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc’s Last Edict
1. Within the Vovinam family, the disciples, besides training and practicing martial arts, get to participate in discussion activities to gain a deeper understanding about our discipline’s history. According to many senior masters, Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc has a passion for arts and literature and maintained close ties with artists of different types. As a little known fact, he had a knack for tap dancing (1). During the last three years of his life (from 1957 to 1960), he used to paint scenery on the lids of water reservoir (nắp chum) and continued developing Vovinam martial arts through his writing.
Apart from sharing his wisdom and insights on techniques and development strategy with his senior masters, he also shared his thoughts on martial art and philosophy in writing with a few of his close and influential artist friends in order to promote a widespread of the discipline’s teaching. Even though more than a few of his friends have suggested that his writing should be published, but he refused and, and at the end, he personally set them all to flames. The Founder Master did not want his writing to be regarded as the “ultimate standard” or “golden rule” to be followed rigidly by the following generations, as rules and standards tend to be viewed as constraints on one’s creativity, and Vovinam always encourages its disciples to strive and improve themselves constantly.
According to a senior master: “Even though the Founder Master always encouraged his disciples to expand their general knowledge and improve their professional skills, his notion of maintaining văn võ song toàn, a parallel aptitude for both letters and martial arts should be interpreted flexibly. ‘Văn’, in this case, does not strictly imply merely academic credentials but it’s rather an emphasis for the love of arts and literature (writing, poetry, music, theater, paintings,…). This effort, on one hand, breaks up an archaic prejudice that favors scholar elite over the martial elite; and, on the other hand, it softens the image of muscularly brute, a stereotype often being associated with people of hard labor including martial art practitioners.”
After the Founder Master passed away, his family and disciples discovered some of his personal artifacts including a short essay about his life summarized in 5 sentences and 76 words. This short essay is later known to the disciples as the Founder Master’s last edict.
More than 15 years ago, the Founder Master’s last edict was placed beside Grand Master Lê Sáng’s office desk (on 2nd floor, at the Altar Hall on 31 Sư Vạn Hạnh, District 10, HCM city). In June 2011, Master Nguyễn Văn Sen requested Master Vũ Trọng Bảo to create a calligraphy rendition of Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc’s last edict along with Grand Master Lê Sáng’s last instructions. These magnificent calligraphy stokes is now on display solemnly at the Founder Master’s Altar Hall.
As a faithful disciple, I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the Founder Master’s last edict as seeds for further discussion. Sentiment expressed here is also my personal reflection in spirit of self-improvement!
2. Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc was born and raised during the French colonization era in Vietnam. He resisted numerous temptations that were sanctioned by the colonial regime that aim to weaken the will power of the youth and felt a deep and painful agony as he witnessed the poverty and moral corruption during this chaotic period, and screamed aloud: “I had cried all my tear and lost of my laughter for the sorrow of life”. These words summed up the excruciating torment he directly felt and experienced. The “I” in his utterance reflects the sentiment of the mass at the time. If life is uneventful and absence of sorrow, there would not be great philosophers who devote their whole lives to the quest of lifting people out of suffering.
In the early 19th century, the famous poet Nguyễn Du had lamented:
“Living through a chaotic time,
my heart wrenches for all malice I’ve seen”
Mankind suffering is viewed as an vast ocean! “…The repeating stages of life: birth, aging, diseases and death playing out everywhere has haunted Siddhartha; Life decadence and cultural degradation has challenged Confucius and Laozi. For Plato, suffering is the moment he witnessed the unjust death of his teacher. He could not understand why a good and decent man like Socrates was forced to death. As it remained a burning question for him, he spent his remaining life looking for a different social structure that ensures a decent and fair life” (Bùi Văn Nam Sơn). God, the creator of the universe, per Catholic faith, “regretted for having created man on earth, and sadness reigned in his heart upon human decadence”, according to the Book of Genesis. For the same reasons, prince Siddhartha left his comfort living in the palace to take on the quest for meaning of life and ways to reduce suffering; and Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross to save mankind…
3. As he faced the harsh reality, he found traditional wrestling techniques, a set of natural and human basic human instincts as the foundation for creating Vovinam basic techniques. His journey back to “the kind and pure soul of GENUINE HUMANITY” or to back to innocent of childhood, as juvenile age is viewed as a heavenly time in Vietnamese culture, angelical time in Western culture, and old Chinese teachings believe in complete innocence at young age: “Children are naturally kind-hearted.”
Young boys and girls are basically pure and innocent. They treat people with sincerity, the notions of hatred, exclusiveness, jealousy,…have not yet creped into their mentality at this age. They possess GENUINE HUMANITY and have not been exposed to complicated emotions as of the alduts. Why did Founder Master used “pure soul” instead of the more popular and widely used phrases like “grand heart” or “pure heart”? According to the Sino-Vietnamese dictionary by the late Vietnamese scholar Đào Duy Anh, soul is spirit or mindful intention; and in religious interpretation, soul is the divine being that rules the human body.
“Kiều said: For truly talented ones,
When they die what deteriorates away is their body, what remains is their soul”
(famous poet Nguyễn Du)
Death takes away the body; however, the best part of a human being is the soul or spirit remains beyond death. So, when the Founder Master mentions of “soul” he emphasizes on human consciences with ability to tell apart right from wrong, be happy when accomplish an altruistic act, and feel shameful when commit a bad deed. Soul, in this context, is not simply the spirit after death.
Returning to “the pure soul of the GENUINE HUMANITY” can be understood as the Founder Master’s quest for “truth – beauty – goodness” in life. A pure soul represents truth, no wickedness. Honesty and purity are also considered as a form of beauty. Living with a kind heart, loving everyone and being helpful to others, conducting one’s life with decency are acts of goodness. Of course, living a life of kindness also symbolizes truth and beauty. Truth – Beauty – Goodness are crucial values of Vovinam disciples as summarized in: “To live, to let others live, and to live for others”. To live properly (healthily, vivaciously, and lucidly) is to live truthfully. To let others live is not taking advantage or interfere with others’ lives unnecessarily and let them thrive as individual in their own (goodness). To live for others is to be ready to help others when needed and making sacrifice for the right cause is also the beauty of a Vovinam disciple.
4. As Founder Master returned to his childhood, he had realized the true values of the “GENUINE HUMANITY”. Since that point in time, he was determined to never conduct his life in decadence as many he has personally witnessed. In contrast, he has broken away from the vicious circle of the darkness and sin of “INHUMANITY” (decadence, cruelty, stubbornness…) Although he lived among the “dark and wickedness of INHUMANITY”, but he did not let himself be consumed by the tornados of decadence, but emerged from it all, like a lotus blossom growing out of a muddy pond, rising above superficiality and unfairness in life…
How can one rise up like a sweet lotus emerging from the pungent pond? Through Vovinam he has discovered a methodology that enables an individual to train physically and mentally, to improve oneself. The self training method is actually simple but it requires personal determination; and it has a significant societal consequence as when an individual becomes a constructive citizen that also effectively contributes to making the society better as a whole.
As one train physically and mentally, the determining factor for success is self-discipline. Self-discipline is not simply understanding and willingness to follow organizational policies and rules, but it is also a the awareness and self-motivation to improve oneself. Who else but yourselves who can help you overcome mental and physical weaknesses? As French people say: “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera” (Help yourself first, God will help you). Asian philosophy teaches: “Use all your resources, let God take care of the rest”.
As he identified negative influences and emerged from the moral corruption, the Founder Master had never turned away from life reality, instead he sought to understand the social movements, how to bring about positive changes, and engaged in a human development concept. Although he had high expectation for achieving technical astuteness, his training methods were flexible, always respected individual differences and show genuine care for every disciple. Master Lê Văn Phúc (who practiced Vovinam with the Founder Master in 1951 in Ha Noi) talked about what he learned from the Founder Master:
“…It is important for you, my brothers(2) to constantly improve our working methods to adapt with situations and enhance our discipline to be more logical, and up-to-date. If you see any rooms for improvement under my leadership, it is your responsibility to make it better(3)”.
These words show his sincerity, a respect for democratic ideal, not inflexible and restrictive and always encourage ideas for improvement from his students while displaying a genuine humility, an admirable character of a teacher. For that reasons, different ideas and perspectives among his students when debating and deciding were deemed important and necessary. Team collaboration among disciples to find solutions contributing to the discipline and to the society(4) were also strongly encouraged. However, it is not advisable that disciples ganging up for their own interests, fostering exclusiveness, bullying others, or harassing others who may have different viewpoints are not to be tolerated. In other words, disciples should avoid all forms of greed, hatred and negative obsession.
5. Once emerged from the blurry line separating right from wrong, propriety and inappropriateness, the Founder Master has gained a balance in his life that gave him the ability to endure and stay patiently optimistic as he knows “we may not live among angels, but we still have to live among our own humankind” (Tzvetan Todorov). Where is his solution? It is to act with LOVE and FORGIVENESS for only BENEVOLENCE and TOLERANCE, the courage to rise above selfishness to accept the both perfects and imperfects, is the only way to close the gaps of incongruity. Only true tolerance can bring everyone together. To live in harmony with other people is to help oneself emerging from all the negativity and pain in our lives. This type of profound realization comes with time and experience as an old Vietnamese adage reminds us that with love any mistakes can be tolerated and with hatred any goodwill intention can be doubted,
In love, trái ấu (Trapa, a fruit of strange shape) is perceived as perfectly round,
In hatred, bồ hòn (Sapindales, a fruit of smooth round shape) is perceived as crooked
If there is no love, no forgiveness and no patience for one another, how can there be understanding and collaboration? “Forgiveness is the hardest thing, yet it’s the noblest thing”. When you forgive others, you also forgive yourself, as none of us going through life and never make a mistake or never hurt anyone! It is believed if each and everyone of us reflects upon our thoughts, statements and behaviors before we go to bed, there would be less pain and suffering in our lives.
6. “To love and to forgive” is the first lesson every Vovinam disciple learns. Through “nghiêm lễ” (to greet the Founder Master’s portrait and each one another), Vovinam disciple shows respect and benevolence to others. The hand represents strength, like a powerful sword. Putting hand over heart depicts that even when danger is near, Vovinam disciple accepts the reality with calmness and patience as there is simply no way to avoid challenges and difficulties in life. Only through tolerance and wisdom can one opens his
heart to forgive others.
It is said: “Happiness lies in the patience”. In life, there are moments where we let our impulsiveness destroy friendship or love. For leaders and senior masters, “LOVE and FORGIVENESS” have an important meaning: “to forgive your subordinates is to be forgiven by superior” (revered poet Nguyễn Du).
At the worst point in agony, the Founder Master found “GENUINE HUMANITY”, his patience has helped him “gathered the MOST BEAUTIFUL flowers of LOVE”. His life time devotion was Vovinam. What is the “MOST BEAUTIFUL flowers of LOVE” if it’s not Vovinam that he had invested all his time, energy, effort and passion cultivating? For him, Vovinam is not only a self-defense martial art. He expects that the physical training and philosophy of Vovinam will contribute to building generations of well-rounded Vovinam disciples (with talent, kind heart, healthy and able body,…) to serve the discipline and society at large.
Techniques and ethics (Vovinam philosophy) are intertwined in small as well as great matters. Two training partners who drill together tend to develop a friendship from physical interaction and from working together. Friendship, understanding, and common ideal form a Vovinam bond. Since the beginning, Vovinam disciples are encouraged to use this type of genuine relationship in treating other people in our lives.
Once the Vovinam disciple is aware of the ethical responsibility, one will be inspired to improve his techniques and master the strength and accuracy so that he can ensure safety for the partner in training and even for the assailant in case of self-defense response to an attack. Honing one’s skills, as in perfecting a certain technique or practicing timed delivery a certain move effectively… is actually working toward achieving truth, beauty and goodness. In other words, Vovinam aims to develop a person physically and mentally for good health, building characters, enhancing one’s individuality, and to use the martial skills only for self-defense and not for solving personal conflicts by force…
As one joins the Vovinam family, through hard conditioning and difficult physical training environment, the LOVE and FORGIVENESS will gradually permeate through one’s consciousness. “LOVE and FORGIVENESS” will eventually grow and transcend into “unbounded LOVE and FORGIVENESS”.
7. Regarding the relationship between Vovinam philosophy and techniques, a senior master has explained further: “Wrestling is the basis for all Vovinam techniques, although these are separate moves for escaping and subduing other in defending against someone’s attack, they are only a part of a self-defense mechanism. Therefore, all moves in Vovinam are, in some ways, meant to augment wrestling. Wrestling is a term for indicating an act of take down, methods of taking away the balance of the other person, so the use of hands, feet, shoulders, and other body parts in combat in short and long range can be thought as a form of wrestling. Leg wrestling methods (“quặp cổ” is the term used by the Founder Master Nguyễn Lộc to describe techniques that use one’s legs to cease and take down someone) is the signature and highest form of Vovinam wrestling techniques. Wrestling with flying legs can be dangerous for both sides, as these require lots of practice and should only be used in defending life-threatening situations as one should always restraints our action by Vovinam ethics”. In fact, nowadays, the leg wrestling techniques have been modified to be less lethal and used mostly in exhibition performance only.
8. The brief essay verses that the Founder Master has written has became a dictum, a moral edict for the Vovinam family. This lesson shows a pathway for all Vovinam disciples to follow, and from which each individual can hone techniques and philosophy to enhance oneself in becoming a constructive member of the discipline and of their country.
I also want to differentiate the two terms: “môn sinh” (student) and “môn đồ” (disciple). Môn sinh is a practitioner actively involves in current activities, while môn đồ are those who may not practice Vovinam any longer but had had a few years of training and still care for the well being of the discipline, and contribute in form of research efforts, and promote Vovinam, etc. Whether you are a Môn sinh or a môn đồ, all “Vovinamese” are connected to the discipline, and interlinked with other disciples by a special and fervent bond of “Vovinam camaraderie”.
If ultimate goal means the end goal, then according to our Founder Master: “unbounded LOVE and FORGIVENESS” must be the aspiration for the Vovinamese.
1/6 – 31/7/2011
Disciple Nguyễn Hồng Tâm
English version – translation by Lê Đức Hòa
(1) Tap dance – a popular dance in the 30’s-60’s. Dancers wear a pair of shoes with metal tap on the heel and toe.
(2) When the Founder Master taught the students, he asked them to call him “anh Lộc” (big brother Lộc) and he called them “em” (younger sibling) as it was a brotherhood based relationship. The notion of master and students got started when Grandmaster Lê Sáng accepted new students in 1958.
(3) Vovinam magazine 1971.
(4) Grandmaster Lê Sáng (1920-2010).