Friday, October 30, 2009

Buddhists offer free education for poor children

VietNamNet Bridge, Oct 29, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- Lien Hoa pagoda in HCM City is the place, where hundreds of poor children from the ‘immigration village’ at Nhi Thien Duong bridge pier go to learn.

Like other classes, the class at the Lien Hoa pagoda has a teacher and students. However that is where similarities end.

As the children of rural migrants, students here have neither cash nor “ho khau” a permanent residential book enabling them to go to local schools.

Each class starts with Buddhist prayers. The children say “Nam mo a di da Phat” (Glory to Buddha Amitabha) 10 times before each lessons. Nguyen Van Tong, the teacher of the class, says students need to pray to Buddha because they need to learn morality before learning lessons.

Tong, a retired school teacher from a traditional school, is unpaid.

Despite the circumstances the conditions are impressive. They have textbooks, pens and school bags which the Buddhists have donated. There are plastic tables and chairs in the class. However, the tables appear a little small for fourth and fifth grade students. Only recently have they acquired a blackboard.

Monk Thich Thien Quy opened the class in 2006. In that year, Buddhists had to visit each family to persuade parents to allow their children to come to the class. However they found the children eager to learn and he class soon gathered 30 students.

The children here are learning free of charge and most of the teachers are otherwise retired. Teacher Tong is now 66 years old and teacher Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyet is 67.

As a result many children have learned to read and write. They go to class in the morning or afternoon, and often spend the rest of the time helping their families to earn a living.

Student Le Thi Kim Ngan, goes to class in the morning and then sells lottery tickets in the afternoon with her father. Despite being only eight years old she helps earn 100,000 dong a day to pay for food.

Hoang Anh Truong Thang, born in 1999, is now living with his great-grandmother, who is 83 years old, because his father passed away and his mother left.

He helps at the pagoda every day, cleaning rooms and gardening. His biggest fear is who will take care of him when his great grandmother dies.

One child suffers anemia and has to be hospitalised every month. Others have problems with their sight.

However, they are all still trying to learn as well as continuing to earn money for food.

Each of them hopes that education will ultimately help them escape poverty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quan Am

Quan The Am is the Vietnamese name for Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, commonly known in English as the Goddess of Mercy.
Quan Am is everywhere in Vietnam, and many people have a special devotion to her. When I first visited Vietnam one of the things that really struck me was the ubiquity of this deity. There are shrines and beautiful statues of her wherever you go - in temples, on street sides, in people's houses. After spending a lot of time in the country, I really feel as though Quan Am is one of my own special protectors.
She also figures prominently in my book, Destination Saigon. I had never really intended for her to be there, but in several chapters she appears. Obviously the energy of the Goddess was flowing through my creative endeavour!
Most temples will feature a large outdoor shrine to Quan Am, and these shrines can become quite baroque affairs. If people feel that a particular shrine has a strong spiritual power, if they feel that prayers made there were answered, they will offer money to renovate and improve the shrine, hence their frequently elaborate appointments. Another way to say thanks for prayers answered is to adorn images of the Bodhisattva with costume jewellery, or have special cloaks made for her. Sometimes popular statues can become quite bulky with all the extra gifts, and most temples keep a schedule of people allowed to provide clothing for the deity at certain key points of the religious year.
Of course, Quan Am has many forms, and her strong point in the popular religious imagination is her ability to take on different shapes in order to help people or teach them a moral lesson. One of the more common and easily recognisable manifestations of Quan Am is Chuan De, the multiple armed and multiple headed Goddess who seeks to propagate the Buddhist message using the array of symbolic instruments she clutches.
Among overseas Vietnamese communities Quan Am is especially important, as many credit her with protecting the boat people and overseeing their safety and resettlement. That is why her blissful form can be seen gazing out from the front yards and temple gardens of suburban Sydney. I am happy to think that I always rest under the gaze of the Goddess of Mercy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is a Bodhisattva?

One of the requests I hear a lot is: "Please explain what a Bodhisattva is."

Now, I have moved in Buddhist circles for many years, so perhaps have a strange view of the world.

It would seem to me that "Bodhisattva" is one of those words that has well and truly made the progression into common English usage, but I think I am quite wrong. Just a casual survey of friends and acquaintances results in puzzled looks. No-one, it seems, knows what the hell a Bodhisattva is.

My common understanding is that a Bodhisattva is a perfect, enlightened being who has renounced the benefits of nirvana and chosen to be re-born into the world in order to continue to help and enlighten human beings. It is the Bodhisattvas who so enliven the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, and whose statues so clutter up the average Buddhist temple.

The most famous Bodhisattva is of course Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

She is almost universally revered throughout East Asia, and her statue can be seen everywhere.

Indeed, the popularity of her cult often seems to eclipse the supreme status of the Buddhas themselves.

Other commonly seen Bodhisattvas include Jizo (the Lord of the Underworld), Zhuan Di (the multi-armed manifestation of Kwan Yin) and Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
While the Buddhas might serve as exemplars of behaviour, in general it is seen as poor form to ask them directly for supernatural favours.

One merely respects the Buddha and studies his path. But the Bodhisattvas are much more approachable, and are seen as intercessory beings who will carry your prayers to the proper places. This is why their shrines are so important in the popular religion of Buddhist Asia.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Edited Version

The full edited version of my manuscript arrived yesterday, and it was terribly exciting. The editors had lots of nice things to say about the book in a cover letter, but that was obviously meant to soften the blow before I turned to the actual manuscript, which was a storm of pencil marks, queries and suggested improvements.
I now have two weeks to read carefully through it, answer the queries, agree to or reject the changes, and write a couple of explanatory passages. It's quite daunting, simply because I don't really know what to do - the editor's shorthand is quite a mystery to me, and at this stage I worry that adding sentences to explain something that is unclear in the text will look clunky. But of course I'll do it. Right from the beginning of this process I decided I'd be the model author who would respond to all requests positively. I have been warned by other authors that this is always the most difficult part of the whole creative process.