Tuesday, March 24, 2009


While leafing through Harold Acton's exquisite Memoirs of an Aesthete I came across a passing reference to one of the Monkey stories, and I think I will include the quote in my book. I was suddenly reminded of how important the Monkey stories are in Vietnamese culture, serving much the same purpose that the Grimm Fairy Tales or the Mother Goose stories once served in Western culture. Various versions of the Monkey stories are endlessly repeated on Vietnamese television - Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and even home-made series of greater or lesser artistry.
One frequently comes across statues of Monkey and his companions in temple gardens in Vietnam, reminding us that the stories always functioned as Buddhist propaganda, serving up fanciful moral tales in which Buddhist virtues (and Buddhist characters) always came out on top - normally trumping the foolish Taoist or folk-religion figures.
A few years ago a whole slew of books came out about the mythic Journey to the West, with people trying to re-trace the steps of the monk Hsuan Tsang and his animal companions. At the moment I am reading one of the better ones - Richard Bernstein's stately and meditative Ultimate Journey.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Monkey tales is how they made the leap to the West through the agency of the 1970s Japanese TV series that was so hilariously dubbed into English by out-of-work Royal Shakespeare players and seemed to play endlessly on the ABC throughout the 80s. A whole generation of British and Australian youngsters (myself included) became immersed in this East Asian epic, the greater philosophical and cultural significance of which went completely over our heads.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Eye in the Sky

So often when I visited Cao Dai temples in Vietnam the old Alan Parsons Project song kept running through my head. "I am the eye in the sky, looking at you-o-o, I can read your mind..."
For that is very much what the central worship image of Cao Dai is: an eye in the sky.
The all-seeing eye of God represents to Cao Dai devotees the universal nature of the deity. God's eye sees all and God belongs to all.
The old Cao Dai teacher who was my friend at the Phu Nhuan temple in Ho Chi Minh City explained it to me this way: "Gos is one - there can only be one God. There is no God for Catholics, another God for Protestants, another for Buddhists. What a foolish way to think! God sees all, loves all, and belongs to all. God needs only one eye, and that single eye represents the unified nature of all of humanity, regardless of religion or race."
You can see why I always find Cao Dai such a seductive religion.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quan Am Temple, Cholon

I have been an enthusiast for Quan Am Temple in Cholon for many years now.
In fact, one of my abiding fantasies is to go and work there as a temple attendant for a few months and write a book about it - a la Gontran de Poncins' wonderful From a Chinese City.
I love District 5 and its crazy energy - especially at night. I love how the one place residents of Saigon consistently warn me against visiting is District 5 - allegedly many bad things happen there. Perhaps it's just lingering prejudice against the Chinese, or perhaps it's true? Cong An News, the trashy police tabloid that is read religiously by many in Ho Chi Minh City, delights in a good murder or violent robbery in District 5. In fact, it normally warrants a front page.
But by day my favourite place to hang is the colourful and crazily busy Quan Am Temple in Lao Tu street. The fact that this place is well and truly on the Lonely Planet beat doesn't bother me, because I have been hanging out there for many years. The foreigners drift in and out after taking a few snaps, but I have contacts among the incense sellers and fortune tellers and old ladies who clean the toilets, and am allowed to put my feet up in secret rooms and watch the non-stop activity at what must be one of Vietnam's busiest temples.
A few years ago this place was much more interesting, from a religious/anthropological view. It was a lot more run-down, and there were lots more shrines hidden about the place (which is amazing when you witness the sheer number of shrines that still exist within the temple complex!). Also, there used to be any number of lady shamans, clairvoyants and spiritual healers on the premises, ready to prescribe a religious ritual or two to advance the petitioner's good luck. An inflow of money from overseas Chinese communities has meant that the temple has cleaned up its act considerably, and the lady shamans and prophetesses were among the first things to go. It's kinda sad, but was probably necessary - the local authorities tend to take a dim view of When I spend a morning or afternoon at the temple I am treated as a special guest and ushered into one of the side rooms and fed royally with buns and fruit left on the shrines by devotees. It really is a wonderful way to while away some spare time while you are in Ho Chi Minh City, and I can't recommend it enough. Just pull up a chair somewhere near the main shrine room and brave the carcinogenic clouds of incense smoke.