Monday, December 12, 2011

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda is one of the Chinese clan temples (belonging to the Fujianese) in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. District 5 is the old Cholon, once one of the most tremendous Chinese cities in the world - to read about it in its heyday you can't do better than Gontran de Poncins' wonderful book From A Chinese City. If you are lucky enough to travel to Ho Chi Minh City, you should really put aside a morning or afternoon to visit the colourful temples of Cholon.
The Phuoc An Hoi Quan is just two minutes walk from the Quan Am pagoda (that's not counting the ten minutes you will spend drumming up the courage to cross the truly terrifying Hung Vuong Rd.), so you should really plan to do both at once. Both temples are shown on maps in any of the guide books to Ho Chi Minh City.
There are reasonably concealed benches in the temple courtyard so it makes a nice place to sit and people watch without being hassled. Bring a fan.

The statue of Kwan Yin to the left of the courtyard as you enter is a very popular and lucky statue in this part of town.

And interestingly the robes for Kwan Yin that are donated by people who have had their prayers answered are embroidered with the names of the donors or the people they want blessed.

This is the first time I have seen this. I wonder if it's new or old?

There is also a lucky horse to your left as you enter the temple - it is meant to be lucky for travellers to stroke its mane.


Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda is at 184 D. Hung Vuong, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.
It is meant to stay open till 6pm, but they normally won't let you in after 5.30.
It's a 10-15 minute taxi ride from downtown Saigon.
Photography is allowed, and you don't have to take your shoes off to enter this temple.
You can purchase incense and offerings inside the temple, where you will be charged the true local price.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Orchid Farm in Cu Chi

Well, I can't really tell you how I ended up at an orchid farm in Cu Chi, about 50 kilometres outside of Saigon. I just say yes to any old invitation, and this is where it lands me.
Quite a beautiful place, though, filled with sweet teenagers from Hue who have never quite made it to the city.

And all around it, picturesque farms with women in conical hats, and tethered buffalo. It felt like an ad from Vietnam Airlines.
I'm quite an afficionado of Vietnamese rural architecture, and keep an eye out for trends. At Cu Chi, richer farmers seem to be favouring a big porcelain lion at the tops of their gateposts, unlike in Binh Chanh, where concrete dobermanns are de rigeur.

Do you think that noticing and liking flowers is a sign of getting old?

I suspect so, because increasingly I find myself spending time looking at them, smelling them and photographing them. And I was in the perfect place for that!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Learn More About Ireland With Rosamund Burton

Acclaimed travel writer Rosamund Burton will be speaking about her wonderful book Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers at Balmain Library in November.

Illustrated with some of the most evocative photographs from her journey along St. Declan's Way, this is a unique opportunity to learn more about the deep spirituality of Ireland and see the beauty of its mystical landscape.


Author Talk: Rosamund Burton @ Balmain Library

30 Nov 2011

6.30pm - 8pm

Adventures along Ireland’s ancient highway and pilgrim route St Declan's Way

Ros BurtonCome and hear travel writer and journalist Rosamund Burton tell of her adventures along Ireland’s ancient highway and pilgrim route St Declan's Way. Rosamund's adventures begin when she is lent a map of the ancient route. Stories of goddesses, ghosts and fairies are intertwined with the eccentricities and daily lives of everyday people—this is a journey full of surprises.

Bookings essential: ring Balmain Library 9367 9211

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Walter Mason Talks About Angkor Wat

Just a reminder that I will be giving a talk about the wonderful Angkor Wat next week on the 24th of October. Details:

Angkor Wat: The Beauty and Spiritual Significance of Cambodia's Great Forgotten City

At the Southern Cross Academy of Light
Monday, 24th October 2011
St John’s Uniting Church Hall, cnr of Yeo Street and Barry Street, Neutral Bay. Enter off Barry Street. Session starts 7:30pm. Entry Fee: $15, concession $10.

Forgotten for centuries in the jungles of Cambodia, Angkor Wat was once the world's greatest and most sophisticated city. Re-discovered by French explorers in the nineteenth century, this massive stone structure was both a political and a religious centre, built to illustrate the creation myths of Hinduism, and later accommodating many of the schools of Buddhism. In this fascinating talk Walter will take us through the stories, history and meanings of the great temple of Angkor Wat.

Walter Mason is a travel writer whose book on Vietnam, Destination Saigon, was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 best travel books of 2010.
Walter is currently at work on his next book, a spiritual journey through Cambodia. He is also in the final stages of writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Western Sydney's Writing & Society Research Group, where he is writing a history of self-help literature in Australia."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nui Ba Den - Vietnamese Travel Spots

This is the shrine atop Nui Ba Den, the Black lady Mountain that rises up out of the plains of Tay Ninh that stretch from Saigon to Cambodia. Vietnamese tour groups always visit the mountain, but it is relatively unknown to foreigners. It is a place of immense mystical significance, said to house a Black Goddess whose power is so great that all around the Mountain is a vibrant Holy Land that was and is something of a spiritual powerhouse in Vietnam.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Mr. Buddha!

Sister Truth is one of the thousands of Buddhist nuns throughout Vietnam who do unpaid and unsung charity work, caring for the orphaned, the disabled and the destitute.

Here is an excerpt from my book Destination Saigon, telling a little bit of the story behind this picture:

Sister’s main problem is orphans. Hers is a small temple and a small community, with very limited space and resources. But, being in a poor area, orphans and unwanted children are plentiful, and every month she finds a baby dumped on her doorstep, or a desperate mother appears at her quarters begging her to take her children. Almost the entire community of nuns in Binh Chanh is made up of orphan girls who have decided to embrace the religious life (and there is no compulsion to take the robe). The littlest nun is only five, and is adored by Sisters and disciples alike. She is very fat and very forward, with two top knots poking from her forehead, the rest of her head shaved.

In spite of herself – for she likes to cultivate something of a hard-hearted exterior – Sister Truth dotes on the child, and spoils her terribly. She had been left by her mother at the temple some years ago, and no-one had ever been back to claim her or see her since.

“When she first asked me who her mother was, I told her it was me,” said Sister Truth. “Lately she has been going to infant school, and after mixing with the other children there she came home one day and asked me who her father was. I told her it was the Buddha. I told her I loved the Buddha so much that he gave me a special child, and that was her.” She called the little novice over and, stroking her topknots she absently asked her, “Who is your mother, child?”

“The Abbess!” cried the little girl, throwing her arms around the Sister.

“And your father?”

“Mr. Buddha!” she cried, pointing towards the prayer hall.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Quan The Am

"The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced wonderful wisdom and attained Enlightenment completely free of attachment. He entered emptiness, unobstructed, through the gate of liberation. Since there is nothing but Emptiness, (including the body, mind and all that exists), a Bodhisattva is never moved by eulogy or ridicule, slander or fame. Even war, famine or the bubonic plague are dismissed by him or her as illusions taking hold through karma. Letting go of all that seemingly exists on its own, independently of the mind, sets forth brightness; and the one experiencing it will not be intimidated."

From Dharma Master Lok To's Introduction to his translation of The Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.

Statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat in the courtyard of Long Khanh Temple, Quy Nhon City. Any tour of Vietnam should include this beautiful and little-visited place.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is, of course, the deity more commonly known as Kwan Yin, or, in Vietnamese, Quan The Am.
Notice that Master Lok To refers to the Bodhisattva as "him." This causes much confusion, because in popular imagery Kwan Yin is almost always shown in a feminine aspect, and most people believe Kwan Yin to be a woman. Technically, Kwan Yin is without gender, though in the earliest representations (as in the scriptures) she is normally a he.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keeping Yourself Inspired - What You Need to Do

I went to hear Robert Adamson, one of Australia's great poets, talk about himself, his craft and his recent Blake Prize-winning poem.

Robert Adamson and Judith Beveridge at the National Art School

It was a fascinating talk, and wonderful to hear an Australian writer talking about spirituality. All too few writers of any description are willing to open themselves up to matters metaphysical, so it was refreshing to hear some of the big themes being discussed in the enchanting dialogue between Adamson and Judith Beveridge, herself an acclaimed poet.
But what really struck me as the afternoon progressed was the idea of inspiration - it was a theme that Beveridge kept leading Adamson back to, and it was an incredibly helpful theme to an audience of willing listeners - many of them writers themselves. So here are some lessons about inspiration that I learned from Robert Adamson:

1. Just Keep Doing It
So often we feel really inspired, but when things get dull or difficult, when we encounter a discouraging word or an outright rejection, we can simply give up on our writing. I know this was a pattern I followed for about 20 years! Robert Adamson spoke of his first rejection, and how much it smarted, until he confided in an older and more experienced poet who told him to keep writing and keep submitting, and when you have exhausted all avenues, go back and start again from the top of the list!

2. Writing is an Adventure
It's not a job, it is something wholly more spiritual than that - it is a vocation. So when things get tough, when we don't want to open that file or take up that pen, remember that what you are embarked upon is not a task or a chore - it is a fulfilment of divine purpose, and a rare and privileged pleasure. Approach every writing task as an adventure in the human spirit. Embrace and love what you do, and never allow it to become mundane.

3. Keep a Journal
From the age of 11 Robert Adamson kept curious journals about birds. He loved birds and he bred pigeons, and so he recorded everything about them in his journals. Most people would think that was all mundane or childish material, but Adamson says that when he went back and looked at these journals he realised they were pure poetry. In his journals he was totally free. No-one to read or criticise or censor, he could write exactly what he wanted, and this freed him both as a writer and as a human. So keep journals and record whatever you want in them, no matter how mundane or silly you might think them.

4. Read the Classics
Just by reading Shelley and Blake, and later Yeats and Dickinson, Adamson realised what it was to be a poet, and realised his own potential for creation. It's easy to get lazy in our reading, especially, I think, in this distracted age where we demand instant gratification. But reading some of the literary greats serves as a discipline, an education and an almost-religious instruction in what it is to be exceptional, and to be an artist. Allow yourself to be lost in the words of the great writers of the past, and see what you might be able to discover in their creative worlds.

5. Have Mentors
Knowing that someone is older and wiser than you and has been through many of your torments is extraordinarily valuable, and perhaps people in this world don't realise the value of sitting at the feet of masters. I have had some wonderful mentors in my life, and continue to. I love learning from them, and offering them help, support and enthusiasm as much as I can. Adamson spoke about the guidance and influence of people like John Tranter and the wonderful Dorothy Hewett in his own life. They picked him up when he was at his lowest and encouraged him to remember who he was and what he wanted to do. He said that often all it takes is one person's faith in you to be able to change your whole life. So identify some people you admire, get to know them, and do all you can for them. It's a process as old as civilisation, and history proves that it works to make us become better writers and better people.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

7 Most Influential Buddhist Nuns

1 Sister Chan Khong - Born in 1938, she is a lifelong friend and devotee of Thich Nhat Hanh. Sister Chan Khong wrote a fascinating spiritual biography called Learning True Love. She lives in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's famous retreat in France.

2 Sister Annabel Laity - A quiet and scholarly presence, Sister Annabel was born in England and was ordained a nun at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village. She is an accomplished translator and Buddhist scholar.

3 Pema Chodron - Prolific author and Buddhist superstar, Pema Chodron is an American woman ordained in the Tibetan tradition. Resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist institute in Nova Scotia intended to train Westerners in the Tibetan monastic tradition.

4 Dhammananda Bhikkhuni - Probably the woman facing the most serious hurdles on this list, Dhammananda is a Thai academic who agitates for the recognition of full monastic vows for women in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. She runs a centre for women monastics (Wat Songdhammakalyani) in Thailand, though their ordinations are not recognised legally, socially or by the male Buddhist hierarchy.

5 Tenzin Palmo - Became famous after the publication of Cave in the Snow, which detailed her long solitary retreat in the Himalayas. Tenzin Palmo has been charged by the Dalai Lama with establishing full monastic ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition. She was born in London, and is ordained in the Drukpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

6 Robina Courtin - An Australian, Courtin was the subject of a popular documentary which brought her to great prominence in the Buddhist world. Laid-back and forthright, Courtin is a popular teacher whose special work is with prisoners. She has been a Buddhist nun for 30 years, but was raised a Catholic in Queensland.

7 Thubten Chodron - Another reasonably prolific author, her popular teachings embrace themes of ecology and social justice. Born in 1950, she is Abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington.

8 Dharma Master Cheng Yen - A slight and quiet Buddhist nun who only speaks Taiwanese dialect and is frequently in ill health, Cheng Yen is one of the most powerful and influential Buddhist leaders in the sinosphere, and is the spiritual head of the Tzu Chi welfare organisation that has a presence in diasporic Chinese communities across the world.

This list is incomplete and arbitrary - the world is full of incredible ordained women running institutions and working to spread their religion.
I am aware that there are gaps, and would be interested in suggestions for extending the list. The women on this list are all here because they are prominent in the anglosphere. I know there must be women in other traditions who are well known to, for example, Chinese or Korean speakers, that I have not included. Please tell us about them in the comments!
I also want you to know that the list is of ordained, celibate religious, which is why it doesn't include many of the prominent Zen and Insight Meditation teachers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

DESTINATION SAIGON hits the bestsellers list at Shearer's Bookshop

Excuse me for a brief moment of boasting, but I am so excited to discover that my book Destination Saigon, one of the most lighthearted and affectionate books on Vietnam you will ever read, has slipped quietly this week into the bestseller's list at Shearer's Bookshop on Norton St., Leichhardt.
How wonderful! I know that the good people at Shearer's have always been great believers in the book, and their enthusiasm has obviously paid off.
Many thanks Barbara, Tony and gang!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Walter Mason Takes Us on a Spiritual Journey Through Vietnam - Adyar Bookshop Sept. 29

A Spiritual Journey Through Vietnam
Adyar Booksop
99 Bathurst St (Upstairs)
6.30pm Free Entry
Thursday 29th September

Join Walter Mason, author of Destination Saigon, on an incredible illustrated journey through the rich spiritual life of Vietnam.
Walter will be talking about the diverse mystical traditions of the Vietnamese people, from the stark discipline of Zen Buddhist monasteries to the wild colour and controlled chaos of Cao Dai, the indigenous religion of southern Vietnam.
This is a rare opportunity to see unknown and hidden parts of this beautiful country and discover aspects of Vietnam's culture and history that you'll never discover in a travel guide.

Private shrine inside a senior Buddhist monk's room, Vietnam.

Outdoor shrine to Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, Central Vietnam.

Statue of the Earth Mother, a folk religious figure, Ho Chi Minh City.

Shrine to Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, Hoai Nhon.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Entrance, Benedictine Monastery, Thu Duc

A place I spend a lot of my time in Vietnam is the Benedictine monastery in Thu Duc, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
It is hidden down a quiet, sandy laneway, and taxis can almost never find it.
It's the perfect place to spend a day, though it can get a little busy - people seem to come from everywhere to visit this place.
I mention the monastry a couple of times in my book, Destination Saigon. It's the place where the monks drag out the big mahogany chairs whenever I come to lunch.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Di Da Phat

This is a pic of the Amitabha Tower that my friend designed and built at his temple in Quy Nhon City after he had a prophetic dream.
Amitabha Buddha is the central focus of worship in Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism. The worship of Amitabha is a characteristic of the Pure Land School of Buddhism, though in reality it is very rare for any particular school to be practiced exclusively in Vietnam. Most teach a combination of various schools, which is the prevalent mode throughout East Asia, including in Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Best-Ever Booklist for People Who Want to get Serious About Their Writing

Writers need to read. Full stop - there is no way out of it. And what do you need to read? Well, I always tell people to sit down and read the current top 10 bestsellers in the genre they hope to master. Next they need to read the top 10 great classics in the same genre. Finished? Well here is the next part of your curriculum:

Building a Platform

The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson - "acting as if" is immensely important, and a lot of the excellent advice in this book can be put to work before you have a book

101 Ways to Promote Yourself by Raleigh Pinskey - could be seen as corny and a bit old, it has, nonetheless, given me some excellent ideas

Guerrilla Networking by Jay Conrad Levinson and Monroe Mann - quite remarkably useful

Facebook Marketing for Dummies by Paul Dunay

Celebritize Yourself by Marsha Friedman

How to Work a Room by Susan RoAne

How to Sell Yourself by Joe Girard

Inspiring Yourself as a Writer and Learning Your Craft

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing by Stephen King

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Writing the Sacred Journey by Elizabeth J. Andrew

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Rip the Page by Karen Benke

Is There a Book Inside You? by Dan Poynter - particularly helpful early on in the process
The Way In by Rita D. Jacobs
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

More General, but Perfect for Inspiration:

The Success Principles by Jack Canfield

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky

Experience Your Good Now by Louise L. Hay

The Creative Life by Julia Cameron

Excuses Begone by Wayne Dyer

This Year I Will by M. J. Ryan