Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In the West it is a normal assumption that the primary spiritual practice of Buddhism is meditation. The two words go hand in hand, and it is imagined that the average Buddhist spends many hours a day in full lotus on the floor.
But anyone who has spent any time in a predominantly Buddhist country will tell you that this is not really true. In my experience the vast majority of Buddhist lay people in Asia do not practice meditation, though many will claim it is a good thing to do. Even more surprising, most Buddhist monastics have no regular meditation practice to speak of.
This is especially true in Vietnam, where monks and nuns are quite intergrated into the community, and lead busy lives of social and religious organisation. Apart from counselling, the provision of charity and other pastoral work, the main work of monastics in Vietnam seems to be the administration of temples (especially overseeing extensions, repairs and other building work), the care of younger monastics in their charge, conducting daily prayer sessions, making themselves available for memorial ceremonies, planning festivities for religious holidays and the study of religious and other topics - probably in that order. I can honestly say that, in the course of 16+ years study and travel in Vietnam and having dozens of monastic friends, I have never met a single monk or nun in Vietnam who practices meditation in any consistent way. I have visited three temples there where meditation is the primary focus, but these tend to be isolated retreat centres, and viewed by the locals (and almost especially by other monastics) as exotic sites quite alien ot the general thrust of Vietnamese Buddhism.
Of course, starting out as a young Buddhist this all came as a terrible blow to me. Almost from the beginning of my interest in Buddhism I had carefully and conscientously attended meditation classes and pursued my own meditation practice at home. I was (I am) a great fan of the writing of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and had assumed that he was describing the standard of Vietnamese Buddhism.
Staying in Vietnamese monasteries I became increasingly frustrated at the absence of what I then considered "proper" practice. I would ask the monks when they meditated and they would look at me in a confused and apologetic manner. I looked down on them - this wasn't the way things were meant to be. I was the original religious imperialist.
But when I came back to Australia I made the acquaintance of a very senior Vietnamese monk, and he explained that this obsession with meditation as the singular and superior form of Buddhist practice was a recent Western phenomenon. He convinced me that a life well-lived, engaged with the lay-people, trying to meet their all-too-worldly expectations and alleviate their existential anxieties was work enough for most monks. Their meditation was in an active form, either in chanting the sutras or reciting the Buddha's name while using the rosary.
The last time I was in Vietnam I spent a lot of time at one of the big temples in Ho Chi Minh City. My friend, a young monk who excelled in administrative matters and also spent a lot of time blessing the statues for people's home shrines, pointed out a large new building that had been added to the temple complex.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Oh, a zen hall - for the monks to practice meditation. An overseas Vietnamese paid for its construction."
I was shocked because I had never witnessed this community in meditation. Indeed, I'd never even heard the word mentioned before. The look on my face must have been obvious, because my friend smiled and patted me on the arm reassuringly.
"Never once been used for the purpose," he said with a laugh. "But it's an excellent spot for visiting monks to sleep in when they are here."

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Teo Chiew

Vietnam has had a conflicted history with its great suffocating neighbour to the North, China. While much of Vietnamese culture and religion is identifiably sinific, the Vietnamese have been staunchly nationalistic and adamant about their ethnic difference since the beginning of recorded history. The unfortunate tendency of the Middle Kingdom to drift towards thecolonisation and oppression of its neighbours is still remembered bitterly in Vietnam, and with occasional vehemence. I can't find the quote anywhere (and do, please, someone let me know!), but Ho Chi Minh famously said something along the lines of "I'd rather be America's dog for a hundred years than China's whore forever."
The presence of the Chinese in Vietnam has also been notable for its occasional conflicts. Undoubtedly living there for as long as Vietnam itself has existed, the Chinese minority was consistently and almost universally despised, though these days that kind of vehement racism seems to have faded. The Chinese in the South had, of course, their famous city-within-a-city, Cholon. A vast Chinese ghetto on the outskirts of Saigon, Cholon was (and still is) home to immense wealth, enterprise and, invariably, vice. Cholon, with its craziness, over-population, filth and romantic propensity to wickedness has always enchanted European writers, who were much more bewitched by that city's obvious glamour and squalour. Graham Greene smoked opium there, Marguerite Duras was kept there as a lover of an idle young Chinese merchant, and my very favourite, the French Count Gontran de Poncins, lived there for a year with a sullen mistress while he wrote his travel masterpiece From a Chinese City.
The Chinese seemed always to drift toward the south of Vietnam, as far away from the Chinese border as possible. They settled in large numbers in the Mekong Delta towns, and driving through these areas now you still see Chinese family temples that have been there for centuries. In many cases they are quite new-looking, having been re-built and expanded with Chinese money from abroad.
The dominant ethnic group among the Chinese in Vietnam was (and is) the Teo Chiew. Indeed, the Teo Chiew seem to have been inveterate travellers, for they are also the dominant merchant caste in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and much of South East Asia. Where I live in South West Sydney, in the Indo-Chinese ghetto of Cabramatta, the Teo Chiew remain strongly represented, maintaining special temples, welfare associations and community centres. And this was the great genius of the Chinese diaspora: banding together in kinship groups based for the most part on ethnic and regional origin, and using these bonds to establish strong networks of community welfare, business and education.
These days the great commuity temples of the Chinese are still much in evidence in Cholon, despite a period of time when the ethnic Chinese were victimised and hounded out of Vietnam, immediately following 1975. Fortunately not all of them left, and it was the people who remained who have emerged as the great initiators of the modern Vietnamese economic miracle, particularly in the South. Anyone who has driven down Nguyen Trai on a Sunday night will be able to vouch for the continued energy, wealth and just plain fun of Cholon. It is a wonderful place, and somewhere I'd like to spend more time one day. Indeed, I've thought of re-creating de Poncins' book - minus the sullen mistress, of course - in 21st Century Vietnam. We'll see.
Teo Chiew dialect (Chao Zhou Hua) is commonly heard in Cholon, and among disaporic communities of Indo-Chinese in the West. These incredibly strong and universal tribes of Chinese fascinate me, and very little study has been done of them. But the Teo Chiew (cue a thousand different spellings - I'm sticking to this one), the Cantonese, the Hakka and the Fujianese are among the most widely-scattered and successful peoples on the earth. And most overseas Chinese can quickly identify to which of the groupings they and their ancestors belong.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Water Dispenser Outside Church, Le Van Sy St.

One of the most touching sights in Ho Chi Minh City is the humble water dispenser many Catholic churches leave on the footpath outside. In a city where clean, drinkable water is hard to get, this is a small act of charity that is immensely useful, and, to my mind at least, quite admirable.
These dispensers are filled up with clean water throughout the day, and the thousands of people who work, travel or live on the streets of this enormous city know they can walk by and grap a cupful whenever they want it. The sign on the side says "No Charge."
This particular photograph was taken on Le Van Sy St. in Phu Nhuan, outside the beautiful Ba Chuong church.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Amitabha Buddha

The name you will hear most consistently if you spend any time in Vietnamese Buddhist temples is that of Amitabha Buddha - or A Di Da Phat in Vietnamese. In his fascinating book Buddhism in America, Richard Hughes Seager calls Amitabha "among the greatest of the cosmic buddhas of the Mahayana tradition."
The vast bulk of Vietnamese Buddhists practise a basic form of Pure Land Buddhism, and for the most part the monks advocate recitation of Amitabha's name as the most effective form of religious practice for lay-people. This is what all of those wrist malas and long prayer beads are for.
Within the temple, Amitabha's name is also a kind of shorthand replacement for everything. When you say hello, you say A Di Da Phat, when you say goodbye, when you want to attract someone's attention and when you express surprise. Once I was at temple when one of the large vases that are found in the main prayer hall tumbled over and smashed, and a number of monks looked up and exclaimed, as one, A Di Da Phat!
The true form of Buddha recitation is, of course, Nam Mo A Di Da Phat. This is enunciated clearly during communal temple worship, but at other times it is shortened to Mo Phat, and this is in fact the standard greeting amongst Buddhists, both monastics and laity.
Despite his name being constantly on everyone's lips, statues of Amitabha Buddha are not normally very prominent at temples. It is rare to have him as the main object of devotion in the prayer hall, and he is rarely seen on other shrines. Normally there is a printed image of him on the wall in the monks' offices, or a small statue on a shelf somewhere. People seem to set much greater store on statues of Kwan Yin and Sakyamuni Buddha.
One place where an image of Amitabha does become important is at people's death beds, which is why monks always have a small-ish statue of him to hand to take to hospitals and houses of the faithful, should the need arise. It is thought that if the dying person lays eyes upon an image of Amitabha, they will be reborn in his paradise. In Tibetan Buddhism there are much more elaborate forms of Amitabha worship involving initiations and various other practices. But in Vietnamese Buddhism the devotion to Amitabha is restricted to the recitation of his name while using the rosary and, in a very few temples, the chanting of the Amitabha Sutra.
The image with this post is from the large Buddhist nunnery that stands atop the mountain overlooking Phan Thiet. It is part of a massive reproduction of the Pure Land Trinity that stands on a sunny terrace carved into the side of the mountain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Walter Mason to appear in the Writers' Tent at the Newtown Festival Sunday 14th November

I'm very honoured to be appearing in the Writers' Tent at this year's Newtown Festival.
The Tent, sponsored by King St literary institution Better Read Than Dead, is THE hotspot of the Festival, featuring a really fascinating range of authors (including my good friend Geesche Jacobsen) talking about their books and their craft.
I'll be In Conversation with the terrific Maggie Hamilton, and I'm sure she'll drag insights, profundities and epiphanies aplenty out of me.

Please come along and hear me!

Newtown Festival - Writers' Tent
Sunday 14th November

Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam with Walter Mason

From the crazy heat and colour of Saigon to the quieter splendour of Hanoi, Walter Mason gives us a rare, joyous, at times hilarious insight into contemporary Vietnam.
Seduced by the beauty and charm of its people, the rich variety of foods, travel off the beaten track to far-flung villages in overcrowded buses or perched perilously on motorbikes.

In conversation with publisher Maggie Hamilton.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Crowded Buddhist Shrine - Long Khanh Temple - Quy Nhon, Vietnam

People often have a romanticised idea of the Buddhist aesthetic. Actually, people hold all kinds of unrealistic notions about many aspects of Buddhism, but the great cliche is that of the clutter-free, ultra-simple, zen-like atmosphere.
I'm here to tell you that Buddhist temples and monasteries are not like that. Especially not in Vietnam.
This is a shrine in a senior monk's room at the largest temple in Quy Nhon City. Actually, as these things go, it's quite restrained - I've certainly seen far more crowded shrines in my time.
But you can see, there's a certain dedication to colour, and plenty to catch the eye.
I actually like my Buddhism like this: colourful, chaotic, unpretentious and appealing directly to common ideas. I love that life in Vietnamese Buddhist monasteries can be chaotic and crowded, the shrines dusty and filled with tat.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bonsai in Buddhist Temples in Vietnam

Monks are, naturally, somewhat restricted in the pastimes they can pursue.
Though they may play sports on temple grounds, hidden from the eyes of lay-people, and they may get enthusiastic about watching soccer on TV, generally they are forbidden from really indulging in sport as a hobby. That said, I once knew a monk in Saigon who was a keen body-builder. He eventually gave it away after a few years - he had come to the realisation that body-building was not quite in the spirit of his monastic vows.
Literature is, of course, an admirable pursuit for monks, and those who are talented enough spend their time writing or translating.
If they are wealthy, monks can turn their hand to collecting - Buddhist art, old manuscripts and antique vases are popular. I even know a monk who breeds pekingese dogs in his leisure time, though for some reason this makes me uneasy.
Monks can work on becoming artists and calligraphers, and sometimes flower arrangers - all are admirable skills in a monastery. Some turn their hand to the occult, and work on becoming expert at the I Ching, Chinese astrology and palm reading - this is all, of course, technically forbidden, but plenty of monks do it.
But there are three hobbies that monks in Vietnam excel at, and all are, in my book, exquisite and approrpiate. They are: tea connoisseurship, the growing of orchids and the cultivation of bonsai.

Bonsai are ubiquitous in the temple courtyards of Vietnam, and monks deal and trade in them.

They can be quite expensive, and sometimes a monk is appointed as temple gardener in order to attend to the bonsai.
If a monk or abbott is really keen on them common areas can become somewhat over-crowded with these potted plants.

Some are also allowed to grow to enormous size - I'm not quite sure if, in this case, they are still considered bonsai (perhaps an expert can enlighten us?), but they are still cared for and cultivated in the same manner.

Popular mythology would have it that the roots (no pun intended) of bonsai lie in the patient care and eccentric eye of the Buddhist monks of antiquity. Certainly it is a stately, gentle pursuit, and one worthy of monastic attention.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Catholics and Christmas in Vietnam

The vast Catholic churches that serve the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City are also home to eclectic book and gift shops tucked discreetly into side buildings. Around Christmas time they pack up the usual assortment of plastic rosary beads and plaster of paris statues of the Vietnamese martyrs and turn themselves into dazzling winter wonderlands, selling cards, nativity sets and all other kinds of Christmas paraphernalia to the people of Saigon, Christian and Buddhist alike. Christmas is big business in Vietnam, and the Catholic gift shops see themselves as the rightful source of festive tawdriness in all its manifestations. Courting couples hit the Catholic churches to browse the immense stands of cards, and maybe pick up a purple plastic Christmas tree or two. If its Christmas cheer you’re after, your local church will have it in spades.
Tan Dinh church, a pastel pink masterpiece of French provincial frippery at the best of times, is transformed by late November into a riotous Noel-themed fun park. Vast plastic pine trees, their limbs heavy with snow, are hot sellers, and outside the church individual entrepreneurs set up racks and racks of Santa suits in every size – except in sizes that Santa himself would actually fit. It is not unusual to pass someone driving his motorcycle dressed in full Santa regalia – indeed, I have driven past entire families all dressed as Santa balancing on a motorbike. The laws requiring adults to wear safety helmets probably put a dampener on things a little, but the merest suggestion of a red cap and white pom pom poking coquettishly from underneath a helmet is enough to offer a tantalising suggestion of Father Christmas. The only other modification is that Santa is invariably wearing flip-flops.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Destination Saigon in Siem Reap!

I had a wonderful email from my old friends Beth and Peter at the Bay Bookshop in gorgeous Batemans Bay.
They have just come back from Cambodia (where, incidentally, I'm headed at the end of this year to write my second book), and they were overjoyed to discover my book, Destination Saigon, at Monument Books in Siem Reap International Airport!

How wonderful.
Last week I heard from a friend who has just come back from Bangkok, and he says that Destination Saigon is prominently displayed in the airport bookshop there, as well.
And of course, it continues to be a fixture at airport bookshops across Australia.
It's so woderful to hear that my little book has struck a chord with travellers to Asia, and a great big thanks to all of those shops that continue to support it!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gate Gate Paragate...

If you attend evening prayer sessions at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, one of the scriptures that you will hear chanted is the Heart Sutra.
This is the most concise sutra in the Mahayana canon, and is particularly prized in the Zen school of Buddhism. Though short, it is densely and enigmatically phrased, and a practitioner could easily spend a lifetime devoted to its study. Some do.
One of the moments I love during chanting is when we reach the end of the sutra and the mantra is chanted. This is the famous mantra Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. As the lay people sit cross-legged on the floor the mantra is chanted over and over at quite a dizzying pace, the fish drum beating the pace. It really is a transcendent moment.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Thu Duc - Phap Vien Minh Dang Quang

One of my favourite monasteries - and one which is almost completely unknown - is Phap Vien Minh Dang Quang on Hanoi Road in Thu Duc.
It's quite difficult to find because over the years the monastery has sold off its land that faces the road and is now obscured behind a range of genuinely hideous factories and light-industry. Once you enter the monastery gates, however, you are instantly in another world - a world of almost complete quiet, with monks dotted about the park-like gardens in individual huts, dressed in the bright-yellow robes of the Khat Si, Vietnam's indigenous Buddhist order.
There's nothing fancy about the place - the main hall is little more than a rickety tin shed on stilts that actually shakes when I walk about in it.

But it's a semi-rural monastery in the oldest style, the way I imagine many places would have been in a quieter, less overpopulated Vietnam.
These days the gardens are populated with some massive statuary.

There is also a large and surprisingly beautiful statue of the Order's founder, Minh Dang Quang.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Ho Chi Minh City - Vanh Hanh Buddhist University

Van Hanh Buddhist University was once a dusty collection of ramshackle shacks and 60s-era concrete buildings. A few years ago a wealthy Taiwanese Buddhist group came to the rescue and developed it into one of the most beautiful small universities I have seen.
It is also home to a resident monastic community (it is the residence of Vietnam's Buddhist Patriarch), and operates a neighbourhood temple.

Monastery Gardens - Ho Chi Minh City - Chua Giac Lam

One of the suburban temples in Ho Chi Minh City that is well and truly on the tourist beat is Chua Giac Lam.
It is said to be one of the area's earliest extant Mahayana temples (there are, naturally, some much older Theravada temples in the vicinity, including Wat Bodhiwong, a Khmer temple), and there are graves in the temple cemetery dating back 300 years. Despite the occasional crowd of tourists, I quite like Giac Lam. It is spread out, and in the afternoons it is a hangout for students from the neighbourhood who come here to study in the quiet - and do quite a bit of flirting with each other. When I spent a lot of time in Vietnam in 1999 I used to come here quite often to conduct an informal English class with a young monk I knew, and we were allowed special access to a closed-off garden at the side of the temple which grows special medicinal herbs for the monks' use. Unfortunately I have no pics from that time.
The front courtyard boasts a very big and very healthy Bodhi tree.
As it is situated on quite a large parcel of land, the temple has, over the years, established a number of different outdoor shrines on a grand scale.

This shrine to Kwan Yin is a great favourite of elderly Chinese men, who sit in front of it all morning shouting to each other in Teo Chew dialect, smoking and scratching their bare bellies.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Thu Duc - Benedictine Monastery

For something a little different, I thought I would show you the gardens at the Benedictine Monastery in Thu Duc, a satellite city of Ho Chi Minh City.

Once upon a time the monastery would have been in a rural area, but these days it is really just a suburb of the enormous, amorphous metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. It's about a 30 minute drive from my house in Tan Binh, and the taxi ride comes to about $15. Taxi drivers can NEVER find it.
There are several gardens in the monastery, all serving very different purposes.
These are the front gardens, which are packed for most of the day with Catholic lay-people waiting for confession and to receive the blessings of a monk. The monastery has a reputation for helping women to conceive, so it is quite a popular pilgrimage spot - even for people of other faiths.

There is a large working garden - which includes this fish farm. The monks grow their own food, and they also propagate cash crops - most particularly marigolds for sale during the Lunar New Year.

Out of sight of the public lie the monastery gardens proper. These are spaces for the monks to enjoy, and are normally based around a piece of statuary. These gardens are quite beautiful, and are meant to inspire meditation and prayer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Ho Chi Minh City - Chua Vien Giac

Right near my house in Ho Chi Minh City is a small suburban temple that was once dusty, decrepit and nondescript.

About ten years ago the new Abbott began to rebuild it, and these days it is one of the most beautiful temples in the City.

It is one of the few temples to have a dedicated full-time gardener (who also happens to be a monk), and the grounds are kept in pristine condition.

Chua Vien Giac is well worth a visit, not just for its lovely garden, but for its unique architecture, based on traditional Hue styles.

Details: Chua Vien Giac, 193 Bùi Thị Xuân – Phường 1 – Quận Tân BìnhTP. Hồ Chí Minh

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Hoai Nhon - Beachside Temple

This is the smaller temple that sits right on the beach.
The courtyard garden is paved, so only has potted plants and bonsai.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Hoai Nhon - Chua Huong Mai

Hoai Nhon is a delightful fishing village situated in a cove about 40km from Quy Nhon City. It is hidden away and extremely difficult to get to, but is really one of the most exquisite spots in Vietnam.
The village is small, and sits right on the beach. There are only two temples there, and this one, Chua Huong Mai, is the largest.
It is situated on a hillside tumbling down to the beach, so the monastery complex is terraced, each building situated on its own separate cliff and accessed by steep stone steps.

The Abbott is an enthusiastic cultivator of bonsai.

The Kwan Yin terrace also doubles as an outdoor vegetarian restaurant on sabbath days. Because it is a small village, where fish is the stable diet, there is no vegetarian restaurant in town. So on the sabbath (ram) the monks and dedicated lay-people make vegetarian noodles for the villagers.

These wonderful aqua-coloured dragons tumble down many of the stairs - this colour seems to be unique to central Vietnam.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Monastery Gardens - Quy Nhon - Chua Hien Nam

Chua Hien Nam is a 300 year-old temple in Quy Nhon City, Binh Dinh province.
Like many temples in Vietnam, it is hemmed in all around by houses and shops, so the only way to reach the temple is by going down an alley. This has happened because over the years the temple has subdivided and sold off its lands, leaving itself stranded in the middle of urban density.
The grounds are still reasonably spacious, and the forecourt garden contains a large shrine to Kwan Yin.

This outdoor shrine is above a water garden, growing some rather fine lotuses.

The area is paved so that it can be used as an extension of worship or other congregational space. It is used all day by people from the surrounding neighbourhood - in this case to release a cage full of birds as an act of good karma.

Looking out from the Abbott's room you can see his prize collection of bonsai in pots. The cultivation of bonsai - along with the cultivation of orchids - is seen as a monkish pasttime in Vietnam.

And though they provide an interesting focal point in front of the main prayer hall, they hardly provide any shade, which is much needed in Quy Nhon's hot climate.