I have read a really fascinating and enlightening new academic article by Mark W. McLeod called 'The Way of the Mendicants'. If you can get it at all (it might be available on-line through your library) it is well worth reading, as it as an absolutely unique contribution to Vietnamese and Buddhist studies, and the first thing of its kind to appear in the English language. Mr. McLeod humbles me with his erudition and excellent knowledge of the Vietnamese language, religion and culture. The article is about the Tang Gia Khat Si, an indigenous Vietnamese Buddhist Order that I was involved with for many years, and who are referred to in passing in Destination Saigon. Reading it, I was reminded of the many hours I have spent chanting with a Buddhist congregation, either in Vietnam or here in Australia. In popular Vietnamese Buddhist practice, chanting is seen to be the premier obligation of the committed lay-Buddhist, along with the observation of vegetarianism and the recitation of the Buddha's name. Chanting sessions take place each night in Buddhist pagodas, and in Vietnam they can be quite heavily attended. The lay people (invariably women, middle-aged or older) wear loose grey robes to signify their status as serious practitioners, and they manage to remain fit and nimble well into old age through the physical rigours involved with regular chanting. You see, and average chanting session lasts for over an hour, during which devotees are seated directly on hard tiled floors, reading from the sutras kept open on special little wooden stands. It's not one long sit, however - there are also long periods of kneeling, and sections where you have to stand up and prostrate yourself on the floor over and over again. It's a regular work out. Even more difficult are the days of sam hoi, or repentance. These days - preceding the sabbath days of the full and new moons - are when Buddhists should recall their faults and sins and renounce them. The accompanying ceremony is exhausting, involving a whopping 108 prostrations whle chanting the names of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. By the end everyone is in a lather of sweat, particularly on hot Saigon nights. Chanting as a spiritual discipline is interesting, because it relies on the power of sound and the hypnotic effects of group recitation and repetition. In general the scriptures being chanted (invariably a chapter of the Lotus Sutra, plus extras) are a combination of meaningless mantra and difficult-to-understand Sino-Vietnamese, so the act of chanting is not really an intellectual process.
"While religious traditions tend to some extent to be exclusive regarding our experience, the path of radical questioning is a universally inclusive process. In this, Buddhism invites us to take seriously our entire human existence, to take everything in our life as "the path.""
There seems to be some interesting films coming out of America made by young Viet-American directors. I hadn't been aware of them previously, but one of the DVD shops in Cabramatta sells them, and I have really enjoyed all of the ones I've watched. I just saw a wonderful ghost story called Love Never Dies, directed by one Victor Vu, and it was tremendous fun. It combines so many of the elements of Asian horror cinema that would be familiar to any fans of the Hong Kong and Japanese films which are so fashionable right now. Stirred into the mix is a healthy dose of Buddhist mysticism and an interesting sexual tension that I think always underlies ghost stories. In this film, a young woman is suffering frequent miscarriages, and as a result her marriage to a handsome young doctor is crumbling. What neither of them realises is that her troubles stem from a romantic attachment formed in a previous life. As the heroine is abused by her selfish husband and her half-mad mother, who is herself obsessed with the dead, she sinks into a state of spirit possession as the past leaks into the present. It is a well-made film, with a beautiful cast and a reasonably well-paced plot. It also features some excellent performances, most notably from the wonderful Catherine Thuy Ai as the hopeless mother. Ai has featured in other American-Vietnamese productions, and she has a wonderful screen presence. There is also a cameo from a real-live Buddhist monk, and he performs surprisingly well. Not quite sure about the propriety of a real Buddhist monk performing a scripted role in a feature film, however. I seem to remember that a prominent American-Vietnamese monk had a role in Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth, but he never said anything - he was just seen performing a ritual. Anyway, I'm just being a spiritual pedant. Another aspect I found interesting (apart from the amalgamation of Catholic and Buddhist spiritualities, something which is characteristically Vietnamese) was the fact that this is the first of these films I have seen to be set in the US. The others have been set in a mythical kind of Vietnamese landscape, but this story is planted firmly in the diaspora, and the fact of this is, I think, central to the storyline. If you can find Love Never Dies, have a look. Entertaining and interestingly done.
Incense is everywhere in Vietnam, and during almost any walk down any street you will encounter the smell of incense coming from a temple or a home shrine or a streetside offering of some kind. In fact, the production of incense is a serious industry in Vietnam, and takes place normally on a small scale, though the results can end up being exported to all kinds of peculiar places - including to Sydney, Australia, where I always try to buy "Made in Vietnam" incense. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and all kinds of smells, from basic joss sticks that don't smell of anything much at all but smoke, to delicately-scented cinnamon or sandalwoodincense that is quite expensive and is reserved for the most special ceremonial occasions. I always love the massive red sticks of incense which the more ostentatious faithful resort to when they really want to make a statement. Vietnam has a long history of making ritual implements, and the most famous of these are the exquisite incense holders. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from massive brass ones used to decorate an ancestor shrine at home, to delicately rendered porcelain and soapstone burners intended for the more subtle types of cone incense. Now, I understand that some people dislike the smell of incense, and I have read recently that its smoke is quite carcinogenic. But I don't care. I love coming across an outdoor shrine to Quan The Am, with its massive cement incense holder and its clouds of fragrant smoke spilling down the street, enveloping everyone in its special sacred intent.
As many of you know, I worked in bookselling, distribution and publishing for many years before I made the leap and became an author. I learned how incredibly tough it is being a first-time author, and how publishing companies can sometimes leave you to sink or swim. But my experience has been the complete opposite. My publishing company, Allen & Unwin, has showered me with energy and enthusiasm and good wishes, and I am really pleased with how seriously they seem to be taking me and my book. One of the most amazing and exciting things for me was to see some uncorrected proof copies of the book distributed to booksellers, reviewers and key players in the industry. In Australia the production of such proofs is costly, and therefore quiet rare - particularly for a first-time author. I was just blown away that Allen & Unwin saw my book as so important that they produced the proofs. Actually holding a copy in my hands was an excitement beyond description. It is really just one minute step away from the finished product, and therefore almost the culmination of decades of dreaming and planning! I was only allowed one copy of the proof, as they are precious, and it really is better that they should find proper homes among people whose opinions count. I have already heard back from several who have read it and loved it, so the excitement builds.