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.