Vietnam: From Notion to Reality

By Therese Fitzgerald As soon as Arnie and I joined Thay for a retreat in St. Petersburg, Russia, he encouraged us to join Sister Annabel for two weeks, visiting temples and other Buddhist Pilgrimage sights around Hanoi and Hue. We were hesitant at first to make such a long trip for such a short stay, but Sister Chan Khong encouraged us strongly, "You know Plum Village, but you know nothing of the real Vietnam." So off we went November 5 to Hanoi via Hong Kong after a Day of Mindfulness in (snowy!) Portland, Oregon.

Hong Kong served as a helpful way-station between the West and the East. Walking around the city for a few hours between flights, we began to adjust the sounds of a tonal language, the physicality of massive crowds, and the sensation of a tropical climate.


We arrived in Hanoi terrified of being searched or interrogated because of our affiliation with Thich Nhat Hanh. We had 30 books and tapes by Thay but, fortunately, none of our luggage was inspected. The ride from the airport past the rice fields at dusk was very calming before we entered the amazing chaos of Hanoi proper. Chuckles among the Westerners aboard turned into screams as the traffic thickened with cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists (transporting mattresses, bales of hay, whole slaughtered pigs, or baskets full of live chickens) swerved around each other in breathtakingly close shaves. Our driver remained unfazed as he leaned on his horn all the way to our hotel.

Arriving a day late, I had missed the visit to the leper colony that Sister Doan Nghiem of Plum Village had made with former School of Youth for Social Service worker and Order of Interbeing member Chan Phuong. Our group of eight Westerners and three Vietnamese from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe were joined by several nuns the next day to see two Buddhist temples in Hanoi and the famous Confucian Temple of Literature.

The following day, we traveled 160 kilometers southwest to Fragrant Mountain (Huong Tich) in Hoa Binh Province. In My Due, we boarded metal rowboats and drifted quietly through deliciously fertile waters while villagers gathered plants, snails, fish, reeds, and clods of mud for bricks. For the first time, I saw boats full of manioc roots—a food I had heard of so many times from letters about life for the poor in Vietnam. Later I would see fields of manioc growing on hillsides and marvel at the peasants who hiked far into the mountains to cultivate these roots. The steep, green-covered mountains beckoned us further until we docked our boats and started the short walk up the mountain to the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong Tich) nestled there. Right away, I was aware of so many fragrances, the most prevalent and powerful being that of plumeria flowers on the trees and all over the path. "How sweet!" became the refrain.

We sat on beautifully carved Chinese-style wooden chairs having tea in tiny French-style demitasse cups with saucers with the 32-year-old head monk of the temple in the greeting room. Although jet lagged, I felt our good fortune to be in such an idyllic practice place. After three in the afternoon when all tourists departed by boat, a great quiet came over the mountain that was pierced by bird calls and the rumblings of very lively inhabitants rebuilding temples, creating makeshift shops along the main walking paths, and blasting caves. Early each morning and in the evening we enjoyed the penetrating sound of the monks chanting, "Namu Amida Buddha." The head monk, however, alerted us to the fact that "although it may seem so easy and beautiful, life at the temple has been very hard. After so much destruction from the war," he said, referring to the American bombing of the temple during the Japanese occupation around World War II, "it has been very hard to maintain this place, and Buddhist practice has not had much support over the last many years."


The next day after meditation and breakfast, we hiked up past several caves, temples, and shrines, including the Spring of Resolving Resentments shrine, to a fruit stand where we sipped fresh coconut juice out of the shell before walking down into the cave where it is believed that a princess, forbidden by her insensitive father to become a nun, took refuge in the cave for nine years and manifested as Avalokitesvara, anonymously giving her own arms and eyes to help her estranged father heal.

The next afternoon we hiked up to a temple that was being reconstructed and sat by the gate enjoying the vista of steep, lush mountains and valleys of rice fields and listened to Sister Annabel give a beautiful Dharma talk on love, including a detailed metta meditation practice.

Upon leaving Fragrant Mountain, we met again with the head monk as well as an 80-year-old venerable, whose curly fingernails were over an inch long, and the young monk expressed his delight that we had come to visit. He also asked us to come again, "Next time, perhaps you could join in the practices of the temple." "That  would be wonderful, and we hope that you and your students could join us in our sitting and walking meditation," Arnie responded with a smile.

Our pilgrimage also included a visit to Yen Tu Mountain, southeast of Hanoi, where True Lam Dai, the founding master of the Bamboo Forest Zen School and the former King Tran Nhan Tong of the late thirteenth century, lived and practiced. After a lengthy drive through crowded, bustling towns and long stretches of rice fields being harvested, we came to a dirt road that took us into the coal mining regions of the mountains near Yen Tu. Huge trucks tumbled past us loaded with coal and topped with workers, including young girls covered with soot wearing scarves over their faces that revealed only a twinkling smile from their delicate eyes. When I sighed with sympathy for these young girls working in the coal mines, Sister Doan Nghiem responded, "You want to help. It's not so easy," referring to the complicated economic reality of life in Vietnam. Young men completely blackened with coal washed themselves in the nearby stream.

Several times we bailed out of the vans to cross streams and deep ravines on foot. Once our van got stuck in the mud and only got out by the help of a big coal truck's winch. Finally we reached the first temple of nuns, and we stayed at their nearby guest house during our two nights on the mountain. After a sumptuous meal of noodles and vegetables, we had a Dharma discussion and then walked to our rooms accompanied by the sound of the stream and the light of the ripening moon.


Once back in Hanoi, Khanh and I made a visit to the temple of Sisters Dam Nguyen and Hanh Chau to see nearby schools and to visit families who cannot afford to send their children to school. This was my first time of finally touching the people with whom I have been in contact only through other people's letters. I was very happy to sit on the tiny school chairs inside simple dirt-floor classrooms while the youngsters sang, including Thay's song of the Two Promises of understanding and compassion. We held the babies and watched them play together. I remember seeing one mother lying with two infants in a hammock in a one-room thatched hut with a dirt floor which housed four, or seeing tattered clothing hung out on the line to dry. I knew we in the First World have so much to learn about "being content with just a few possessions," and that we have something we can give to alleviate the widespread hunger and disease our Third World friends have to endure.

We took an all-night train from Hanoi to Hue, during which time the train jostled and stopped at stations where a high-pitched female voice "sang" out directions for what seemed to be a very long time. At sunrise, we looked out our windows to see gorgeous rice fields, lush mountains, and very red, wet earth. In Hue, we were met by our host, Anh Quan, a longtime worker in the School of Youth for Social Service, and we were taken immediately to Tu Hieu Temple where Thay Nhat Hanh studied as a novice.

The ride through Hue was surprisingly quiet and uncongested after cacophonous Hanoi. As we approached the area of Tu Hieu Temple, we were greeted by a colony of ancient steles on a hill before we reached the pine grove at Tu Hieu. I had seen these pines in a video, but now with fresh rain glistening on the black bark and soft green pine needles and soaking the rich red earth, I was awestruck by the gentle beauty. Our driver drove right through the curved stone gate and parked alongside the magical half-moon pond inside. Several of us got out and walked back outside the gate to enter on foot. Total peace and calm enveloped us as we walked up the path to the temple. The beauty of the cared-for floors, furniture, artwork, and courtyard was striking. We bowed before the main altar and the ancestral altar to show our respect and acknowledge our ancestral roots with this temple through our teacher, Thay or Su Ong, grandfather teacher, as he is known there. Every surface and object shone with caring attention. We walked in the courtyard full of bonsai plants in colorful pots and admired the 300-year-old starfruit tree and the ripe persimmons hanging over the delicately carved corner pieces of the roof. Everywhere we felt gratitude for such a lovely temple that supported our teacher's practice as a young monk.

We were invited to a feast of wonderful tofu dishes, soup with lotus seeds, rice, special pickled leaves and olives, and "Vietnamese spinach" dipped in soy sauce. Afterwards, we walked slowly to Deep Listening Hermitage, built for Su Ong past a "garden" of steles through pine trees. Here we did sitting meditation and shared a few songs in Vietnamese and English. Two young monks walked slowly back to the main temple with me. One stopped and looked at me deeply, and asked, "Do you ever see Thich Nhat Hanh?" I felt his sincerity and answered softly, "Yes, I do." "Do you ever speak with him?" Even more humbly, I answered, "I do." There was a long pause, and I could see the tears in his eyes. He so longed to be near Thay.


Later we went nearby (through torrential rain!) to visit the temple of Su Ba, Thay's Dharma sister, who is very active in organizing schools for needy children in the area. The feeling at Su Ba's temple, less richly furnished than Tu Hieu Temple but beaming with joyful nuns working together, was heartwarming. Su Ba's direct, alert, and loving manner permeated everywhere. We sat down to another bountiful meal attended by the quiet, knowing hands of young nuns all around us.

The next day we set out early (but not early enough to bypass a mild interrogation about our activities by two local officials who "happened" to show up) to visit several social work projects in villages outside of Hue. After driving an hour, we parked the van and began walking down sandy paths towards some wetlands where we took bamboo boats to the village of Vinh Tai to see two kindergartens. This area had lost its rice crops two years in a row, once because of a flood and once because of drought, so the people were very poor. The children, earnest and sweet, had runny noses and their skin looked pallid. They seemed to have no school supplies whatsoever. Nevertheless, they sang their hearts out when their teacher asked them to do so for us. Each room had a drawing hung on the wall of "Uncle Ho" embracing children.

We then did an hour-long walking meditation along the mounds between rice fields, past dignified water buffaloes bathing in the water, to another village temple where people had gathered for a Morning of Mindfulness. Here Arnie gave brief breathing and walking meditation instruction translated by Khanh, and then, hand in hand, we all circumambulated the temple in walking meditation. We ended this enjoyable visit in a circle singing "Bong, Bong" in Vietnamese and "Breathing

In, Breathing Out" in English. After a visit to another temple where the villagers were also having a Day of Mindfulness, we did prostrations and had lunch to the sound of the Buddhist Youth Group playing some very exciting games outside.


The team of four social workers who have been working with Thich Nhat Hanh and Sr. Chan Khong since the 1960s were eager to have us also see the Bridges of Love and Understanding that allow children access to nearby schools. So we were off in the van onto a very muddy road and up a mountain. After fortifying parts of the road with rocks, we finally came to a completely impassable section, at which time Anh Vinh, the social worker who had primary responsibility for the bridge project, leapt out of the van and began running up the road with Gerhard, the most able-bodied member of our group. It took a while before we caught up with them to say we could not all make the three-hour excursion, as it was already getting dark. After one more push to get the van out of a muddy ditch, we headed back to Hue to have dinner in the temple of the former abbot of Tu Hieu.

On our last day in Hue, Khanh and I ventured off to Quang Tri Province to visit Thay's mother's village, Ha Trung. As we rode down the long, flat road from Hue to the town of Quang Tri, our social worker friends quietly commented, "There has been much misery and death along this road during the war," and the many graveyards along the way bore testimony.

When we approached the rice fields where Thay's maternal grandfather's grave was, an elderly man in traditional black attire, a relative of Thay, greeted us. I told him that Thay was "very well and helping many people." As we passed buffalo boys and other children, I thought of Thay as a young boy, and I also thought of young Bao Tich, Thay's one-year-old grandnephew, whose bright face I saw reflected in the toddlers at the makeshift school we visited. The teacher expressed a desire to have crayons for the children.

The social workers told us about the possibility of buying the plot of land across from the thatched hut schoolhouse to build a sturdy school. Anh Vinh said that it is important to have the local people contribute at least part of the funds, labor, or materials for such a project, and that that had not come through yet. "Maybe it is not even necessary to have a school building where no one will actually live. In this remote an area, there might be vandalism in an unoccupied building. It might be better to make use of an existing village center building, and think about constructing a simple temple where someone could live and take care of the place." It was agreed that more meetings with the villagers were needed before a decision could be made. The social workers also described a plan for a statue of a Vietnamese Madonna to be sculpted and erected in Ha Trung.

On the way back to Hue, Anh Dinh suggested we visit the village of Linh Mai, where villagers have established self-support projects, such as embroidery work to be sold through an agent. We rode through villages and countryside until we came to a flooded road, and, not having enough time to make the trip on foot, we turned back.


That afternoon, we had a wonderful Half-Day of Mindfulness at Tu Hieu Temple. Twenty young novices and monks and that many laypeople gathered with us as the abbot and former abbot offered incense. Arnie gave brief meditation instruction, and, after some sitting together, Arnie gave a Dharma talk translated into Vietnamese by Khanh, sharing many of Thay's basic teachings—the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, stopping and calming, love and understanding, the Four Noble Truths—and describing Thay's role in bringing Buddhism to the West. After the talk, walking meditation outdoors was enjoyable on the fresh, rain-soaked temple grounds. Our steps and breathing were accompanied by the rhythmical sound of novices chanting "Namu Amida Buddha." Then we joined them in the main hall for walking meditation and chanting. Afterwards, we sat down to yet another sumptuous feast. Afterwards, the English-speaking monks gathered around us and shared their deep desire to study with Thay.

After dinner, we went to the Deep Listening Hut to recite the Five Precepts together in Vietnamese and English. I looked at the photo of Thay smiling under the "teaching tree" at Ojai, and I felt him smiling with us also. Among the many farewell statements was one by Anh Tri, who said that he was a little nervous when we set out for Vinh Tai, but the way we were quiet and walked so mindfully put the villagers at ease and helped the social workers' relations with them. Arnie said that Vietnam had seemed very far away until this visit, and that "now it seems very close." One of the monks, whose visa application to go to Plum Village was recently turned down by the government, interjected, in English, "Are you sure?" reflecting Arnie's Dharma talk about confirming one's perceptions and sharing the multifaceted nature of the reality of life in Vietnam. We parted from these dear monks and went across the road to bid farewell to Su Ba and the nuns there.

Arnie, Khanh, and I stayed up until midnight with the social workers discussing everything from their need for a xerox machine to how to do social work in mindfulness. We were deeply impressed with the social workers' Sangha's thorough communication and real concern about always coming back to the practice of mindfulness. I offered them the small bell from Plum Village we had been using along our journey, and we wished each other well.


The drive the next morning to Danang Airport was one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced. The road wound along the sea with vast expanses of rice fields and reached high into lush mountains and down again. I marveled at the breathtaking beauty and also mourned at the sight of mass graveyards along the way. "How could we have thought to come to this country in that way!" was a continuing refrain, one that is all the more vivid now that Vietnam has become a reality for me and not just a notion or image in my consciousness. I had known many details about the police-state nature of life in Vietnam, the religious and economic oppression, and so on, and that was not contradicted by my firsthand experience. But I also saw how hardy and resilient the people are and how their deepest desire is to continue to live close to the land, with familial and ancestral relationships intact. I began to feel all the sadder for our government's and many government's ignorance in sending troops to "destroy Vietnam in order to save it." Arnie and I wished for the various presidents of the U.S. who had escalated the war could have traveled to Vietnam as we did and really seen the people and their beautiful country.

The image of Su Ba and her nunnery stays in my mind as a strong reminder of the capacity to realize one's love of practice for the liberation of all beings in the midst of adversity. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to have come in to contact with Thay's fellow Dharma practitioners and the places that nurtured him as a child and a young monk. When one young monk said to us, "I am sad you are leaving, but I look forward to your coming again so I can practice with you," my heart swelled with gratitude and awe that life can offer so much. So much given, so much received, so much to be given back.

Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, is the Director of the Community of Mindful Living.

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