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Friday, July 23, 2010
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
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
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.
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
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
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 Bình – TP. Hồ Chí Minh
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
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.