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A View of Vietnam

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By Geoffrey Pullen

Having now spent a year and a half in Vietnam I felt it would be of interest to Newsletter readers if I offered a short overview of the spiritual/religious life there and how this has affected my stay there.

I initially went to Vietnam knowing it to be a Buddhist country and was very disappointed in my first year there to be in a town where there were very few pagodas and the only ones there had been rebuilt up after the communist victory in 1975. There were monks to be seen, it is true, and these officiated at funerals chanting far into the night, but the main role of the pagodas seemed to be to receive offerings from local people at full moon and at half moon and to redistribute these to the poor as best they could.

In fact the town I was in, Bien Hoa near Saigon in the South, had a much more active Catholic population. Church services were usually full and overflowing and on Sundays I counted four morning services as well as an equal number in the afternoon.

In fact there are 7 million Catholics in (mainly South) Vietnam and one street in Bien Hoa has a church every hundred yards or so for almost a mile. One monastery there invited me warmly to eat with the monks whenever I wished and had a fully active clinic dispensing herbal medicine and acupuncture to the local people at almost no cost.

It has to be said that although Buddhist and Catholics do not often intermarry (this is largely because of parental objections) there is great tolerance between the two communities and I seldom knew the religion of my colleagues unless they chose to tell me.

Clearly in a Communist country it is not useful to be a religious person to obtain advancement. I know of colleagues who have a portrait of Jesus in their home which can be turned round to display Ho Chi Minh.

Most families have a shrine in their homes at which they burn incense and portray photos of their deceased. But this is ancestor worship and is tolerated happily by the authorities.

The Vietnamese believe that the spirits of their ancestors, particularly those recently deceased, are hanging around their homes and need appeasing. Every year, on the death anniversary of, say, a grandparent, the whole family congregates (no need to beg for a day off work) and the eldest son is responsible for organising the day, which often includes a visit to the family grave, a group of chanting monks, the wearing of white, mourning headbands (for three consecutive years after a death) and a big meal at which over a hundred guests may be seated. Particularly during TET, (the Vietnamese New Year) the pagodas are full as people offer incense and food for health and prosperity in the coming year.

My second trip to Vietnam was to Dalat, a town in the Central Highlands, and here my experience of Buddhism has been much richer. Dalat is full of delightful pagodas, often with many monks living in them, but more important is the monastery of Chuk Lam (bamboo grove) situated high in the pine forests outside the town. Here I came in my first month and was welcomed by the English-speaking ‘hospitality’ monk who has since become a good friend. Chuk Lam has a resident Abbot of 83 years who is at present on a three year silent retreat. I see him sometimes doing walking meditation through the trees. Chuk Lam is a Zen monastery and Vietnamese Zen is somewhat similar to Chinese Chan Buddhism.

I often go to Chuk Lam for an afternoon sitting (2:30–4:30pm) and the peaceful setting and gongs and bells have a most refreshing effect on me. In fact I doubt if I would have survived my second tour without this ocean of peace in the hills.

Breathing meditation is taught after an introductory prayer and at the end the Heart Sutra is recited.

I also sometimes attend a morning sitting at my local pagoda from 4–5am. Most participants there are women but it is run by an elderly monk who walks around with a big ‘wake-up’ stick. So far he hasn’t used it on me. I tried to ascertain once if the pagoda belonged to the Chuk Lam Zen tradition. “Oh yes,” said the monk, “we are a branch of Chuk Lam”. “What about the Pure Land tradition,” I said, knowing that this was strong in Vietnam. “Oh, yes” he said, “we practise that too.”

“And I have heard that one of your monks is a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh” I continued. “Oh yes,” replied the monk, “we follow his teachings too.”

So as a person used to the strict divisions of Tibetan Buddhism I was initiated into the wonderful flexibility of the Vietnamese. The figure of Kwan Yin (Avalokiteshvara) who stands outside the pagoda looks suspiciously like the Virgin Mary and one Christmas as we admired the lights in the Catholic area of the town we were struck how all the Joseph figures at Nativity scenes looked suspiciously like David Beckham!

I have just heard that Thich Nhat Hanh is being invited back to Vietnam after an absence of over 40 years. This will be a great moment for Buddhism in Vietnam and I hope will mark a softening on the part of the authorities.

There are so many young people who would like to enter monasteries (often for very materialistic reasons) but as the country develops economically it is vital that this ancient culture is retained and developed to balance the blind copying of Western values that is taking place.

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