By Joan Halifax Hanoi was amazing with its sea of bicycles, blue haze of coal smoke, wide tree-lined avenues, decaying French colonial buildings, people dressed in Vietcong fatigues or cheap, high-style French garb, cigarettes and all. The first morning, we left early for the Perfume Pagoda, driving over ridged dykes to a small village of opium smokers at the head of the river system that would take us to a series of exquisite pagodas. Marx wrote that "Religion is the opiate of the masses," but looking at North Vietnam, it seems that opium is the religion of the masses. Buddhism is not very present as a practice in the North; opium is. Yet looking at the Perfume Pagoda, I sense that the potential for a full revival of Buddhism is not far from possible. In fact, several of the pagodas along the way were being renovated, and the main temple had been recently rebuilt.
It is a wonderful place, with small vertical mountains punctuating the landscape, colorful rare birds fishing along the waterways, primitive huts tucked into rock cliffs, and beautiful temples. The walk to the bodhisattva's cave was also very beautiful, taking us up to a dark moist turn on the trail that led down to this extraordinary opening in the mountain. I really felt Her presence, and was grateful to have heard the story of Her sacrifice. We were fortunate to spend the night at the temple, where we ate wonderful baked potatoes, met an old, wild, nearly toothless monk dressed finely, and shared tangerines and smiles. He said he heard that there is a very famous monk in France who has many students. We were careful not to utter Thay's name.
The next day,we rode for hours over washboard dykes on our way to to Mount Yen Tu. In the early afternoon, we noticed that the air was particularly bad; we also noticed that the only oncoming vehicles were old trucks loaded with raw coal. It turns out that Mount Yen Tu, the holy mountain "one must climb to be a real Buddhist," is in the midst of a strip mine area. Its rivers suffer with the effects of mining, the earth and forest are torn up. We were shocked and dismayed. That night, we slept in the pagoda after doing a simple service, and we left early for our hike up the mountain. Near the top was an old Russian radio station inhabited by several young men who gave us tea and cookies. Big smiles all around before we left for the summit. As we arrived, the clouds parted to reveal a simple stone shrine and several old bells. All around the countryside was revealed with the terrible scars of strip mining. The creaking sound of earth grinders could be heard. So also could the wind and wild birds. We made offerings there and left before the clouds closed like a gate behind us. Halfway down the mountain, we stopped for a while at the Little Hermitage of the Sleeping Clouds. It felt like an island floating halfway up the mountain. High grasses and old shrines make a world here. It also feels like a gateway, a place to the "beyond."
Flying Vietnam Air was an adventure. The baggage was piled in the forward part of the old Aeroflot plane, and those silting up front had the job of keeping the bags from flying to the rear of the plane by placing their feet on the luggage pile. It was like riding a country bus in Mexico, a casual and rustic affair. Landing in Hue, I felt what it must of been like during the war with so much bombing of this area. Also this is Thay's hometown, the place where his people are still gathered. The next morning in a soft rain, we walked the path to Thay's temple. The rain was mixed with tears as we made our way through the pines, around the gate, past the half-moon pool, past the delicate vegetable garden, and under the persimmon tree laden with fruit, into what was literally the most beautiful pagoda we were to see. The great smile of the abbot, the fresh faces of the young monks and novices, so innocent and clear, the completely beautiful shrine room, really every detail of the place, to our eyes, was perfect. Greetings and tea, joy and smiles, the utter relief of being able to say Thay's name. Then we were taken to an extraordinary lunch with many dear old friends of Thay. Some of us ate until our eyes popped, wonderful and delicate dishes of jackfruit, taro, and transparent mysteries.
Later that afternoon, we walked slowly to the retreat hut they have built for Thay. The fruit trees and shrines to the ancestors were wet with early afternoon rain. Our group seemed to float like spirits to this place. The whole atmosphere was watery, as if all this was taking place under the surface of a great and still lake. Sitting on the floor of the hut, I admired the dark hardwood that had been so carefully polished. It was time to present Thay's book which was received with tears. People miss Thay so much. A picture of him was put on the altar, and we sat down to enjoy tea, poetry, song, and story. It was a "real" tea ceremony.
The next day, we visited temples, and went to the orphanage to see the children and the wonderful work being done by the nuns and their friends It seemed to us that Hue is the spiritual center of Vietnam—the monks and nuns moving through the city on bicycles, old and new pagodas. Our last night in Hue, we ate with our nun friends and some of the dear men from the School of Youth for Social Service. Dessert was sweet lavender-blue taro soup . We had admired the lovely color of the walls of so many pagodas, now to find it in our last meal, as though were were going to be infused with the delicacy of Hue through taste and color.
And then to Saigon which is so corrupt, too difficult for us who had smiled our hearts open. I could see that I needed to protect myself from the rough suffering of the South, the pollution, the pickpockets, even the guns. I felt raw and fragile after being in such a rarified psychic atmosphere as we encountered in Hue. We all felt we needed time to absorb the subtle and deep atmosphere of what had transpired in Hanoi and Hue.
Joan Halifax, True Continuation, is the founder of the Ojai Foundation and the Upaya Foundation, and author of The Fruitful Darkness.