In that huge and solemn atmosphere, I felt the coziness of a big family. One chant affected me deeply: “Not knowing that you have lost your own body. Your mind is unclear, confused, uncertain where it is going....’’ How many of us are living like sleep walkers? How many hungry ghosts wander through our civilized society?
The Chanting Master named the ten kinds of hungry ghosts. After each, the co-chanters recited mantras to untie their internal knots. They became hungry ghosts because they died in battles, or while running away from invaders, or while giving birth in which both mother and child lost their lives, or while serving as concubines and dancers in royal palaces, or while being sold for their bodies, or while taking their own lives in despair. Their suffering and injustices had continued to dwell in the deep consciousness of their loved ones and of the society.
A Stampede for Sacred Rice
The Chanting Master threw a handful of rice into the audience. People leaned forward to catch it. Everyone wanted to receive some of this rice empowered by theThree Jewels. They would save it and use it for treating ailments. The Chanting Master poured each fifty-kilogram sack of rice on a table, blessing it with mantras and mudras. Assisting monks scooped the rice into small bowls to distribute to the people. The more the rice was distributed, the more people crowded in to receive it. A few monastic sisters next to me had just left, so there was empty space around me. The lay people closed in right up to my neck, but because I sat solidly, they did not dare to pass me. Finally, I felt their energy becoming too strong, so I unfolded my legs and stood up. In a split second, everyone behind me poured forward. The people-waves were about to rush up and overturn everything. All the monastic brothers and sisters immediately stood up, stretched their arms, and held each other’s hands to create a wall of yellow sanghatis, surrounding and protecting the Chanting Master and the co-chanters.
Some monastics stood on the other side of the circle holding the ceremonial poles with one hand and holding onto to each other with the other hand. Strong human waves continued to push forward. Hundreds and thousands of hands were begging for rice. Many were raising up plastic bags or paper funnels, their eyes so sincere. There were also eyes filled with deep thirst and hunger–those who shoved everyone crudely and violently, including monastics. As they distributed rice, the monastics were stopping the human waves with their own bodies. As I gave out each handful of rice, I breathed in and placed my folded hand in that person’s palm; then I breathed out and released the rice. I could feel the thirst and hunger within them were instantly satisfied. Our moment of contact was sacred.
Clearing the Stream
Once again, the Sangha packed up to go to Da Nang, Nha Trang, before we went to Hanoi. During the time in Da Nang, I went to visit my birthplace Quang Ngai — after being away for thirty-three years. I had gone back to Vietnam three times before I ordained, but I never had the desire to return to Quang Ngai. This time, I came home, and I believe that the Great Requiem Ceremonies in the South and Central Vietnam had cleared the ancestral stream in me.
I walked slowly on the road that led to my old elementary school. The bamboo bridge was gone, the land now flat above a sewage tunnel. I was born during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and just after my birth, my homeland was severely bombed. Houses were destroyed and my whole family had to run away when I was less than one week old. Two men carried my mother on a hammock; my auntie ran with me in her arms. My grandmother explained that they separated my mother and me so if a bomb hit, both of us would not die.
They carried us a long way, but no one in the next village wanted to house my mother and me. They believed that a recently birthing woman carried negative energy and bad luck to the host. In the end, a cousin of my mother took us in.
A Tearful Reunion
When that same Uncle heard I had come back to visit, he rode his bicycle to see me. Now in his 70's, wearing a black hat and a black outfit, his features are handsome, elegant. I could not help staring at him as hot tears streamed down my face.
‘‘Lo and behold,” he said, “she looks just like that little girl Number Five!’’ meaning my mother, who was the fifth child in her family.
‘‘Why did you take us in, Uncle, when everyone was afraid of bad luck, of becoming poor for the rest of their lives?’’
‘‘I thought to myself, she is my niece. If I don’t help her, who will? After you came to stay with us, my wife was sick for many years, and it is true that we were always poor. But I never believed it was because of you and your mother. Being poor is a part of my destiny, that’s all. What is most important is that I offer love and kindness to others from the beginning to the end.’’
He continued, ‘‘I made a little bamboo hut for your mother and you behind my house. There was a bamboo grove in the garden, so I dug a deep hole in its shade, covering it with a log so your mother could relieve herself in private. I still remember the neighbor looking over from his house, shaking his head, as he said, ‘Young brother number six, you involve yourself in futile work!’ I just disregarded remarks like that.’’
My uncle is still living in that simple house with his wife. I asked permission to visit the back yard. My mother’s hut was now just a barren spot, but the bamboo grove had recently been cut; the bamboos were still lying on the ground!
Before I left, I ransacked my brown sac: Ensure [liquid nutrition] in a plastic bag, forty-some chewable Vitamin C tablets, half a bottle of green oil, and a stack of Band-aids. I asked my uncle to accept them for me.
I gave my auntie all the money I had, so that she could help him make a complete set of dentures.
‘‘When you eat, and you can chew vegetables easily, think of me,’’ I told him.
Festival of a Thousand Stars
After our return to Deer Park, brother Phap Luu shared that one happiness for him is that in the morning when he wakes up, he can sit still; he does not have to take his alms bowl on the bus to go somewhere.
Sister Hanh Nghiem said, ‘‘Everyone thinks I am normal. I eat. I sleep. I use the bathroom. Everything looks normal, but there is something different inside. We experienced something very intense [in Vietnam]. How can you explain that to people?’’
I nodded my head. It has been almost two weeks since I returned to Deer Park. Still I continue to limit my contact with people. Even though I left Vietnam, my mind has not yet arrived completely in Deer Park. I am still in the process of digesting and absorbing the journey.
I have been taking a lot of time to write. I am grateful to the Buddha and to Thay for allowing me to be a monastic — to always have the opportunity to come back to what is happening in the depth of my consciousness.
Spanning a bridge from the cave of hell
All the way to heaven for a festival of a thousand stars.
Sister Dang Nghiem, a nun residing at Deer Park Monastery, worked as a physician before embracing the monastic life. She translated many of Thay's talks for the English-speaking monastics and lay friends during the Vietnam tour.