Ceremonies to Heal and Transform
In Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] the first of the three “Great Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All to Untie the Knots of Great Injustice” was conducted at Vinh Nghiem Temple. The second of these took place in Dieu De Temple in the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, which, as a battleground between the North and South, suffered terribly with many thousands of civilians killed. Thousands of lay people came to both Vinh Nghiem and Dieu De Temples over the course of the three-day ceremonies. Many Sanghas in the West as well as those in Vietnam who were unable to come conducted their own ceremonies in their own centers and homes.
The three days included daily Dharma talks by Thay in which he particularly encouraged us to generate wholesome, forgiving, and loving thoughts, and to purify the three karmas or actions of body, speech, and mind. Thay shared about the practice of beginning anew, even for those who have committed the worst of bodily actions. If we know how to begin anew and purify the mind of wrong thinking, then like a phoenix rising from the ashes we can free ourselves from the complex of guilt and despair to become a true bodhisattva. Thay also read several times “Prayers and Vows to Be Expressed During the Great Requiem Ceremony,” which set the spiritual intention and offered a common aspiration for all [see page 16].
In Saigon, ceremonies were led by Master Le Trang, Abbot of Vien Giac Temple, whose concentration and wholehearted intention as well as his expertise in chanting and mudras enriched the event tremendously. Each day it seemed he donned a different and more elaborately embroidered sanghati. For the opening ceremony Thay was persuaded to wear the dress reserved for the highest master. After that Thay was happy to return to wearing his own simple sanghati.
As well as the dress many of the ritual instruments and other ornamentations are rarely if ever used, instead being preserved as precious antiques, relics of the tradition. Traditionally dressed musicians playing the old instruments — percussion, a single stringed box guitar, and a reeded woodwind horn — accompanied the chanting master and the processions in general. Monks also sounded conch horns at various stages of the procession. The musicians were able to continuously follow, build, and crescendo with each nuance of the chanted texts for the whole three days. Their contribution was magnificent. The second evening ended with a grand procession of monastic and lay people to set thousands of candles in origami lotus flowers floating down the river along with our prayers and vows for those who were killed in the Vietnam war. In Hue a similar event had our whole sangha board a flotilla of large tourist boats and after some time traveling upstream we congregated to set the lighted candles on the Perfume River while chanting. The image of hundreds of floating candles emitting their soft light could not fail to touch our hearts and the onlookers from the bridge.
In Saigon, the entire floor area underneath the Buddha Hall was converted into a maze of altars draped with golden yellow fabrics. Incredible artistry went into decorating many altars, each with their own bodhisattva, some fierce looking, some gentle. Part of this was an inner sanctum that served as the main area for the long chanting sessions. During these sessions only monastics could enter in order to generate and maintain the high level of concentration necessary. Lay people followed these on a big screen outside but at various points the chanting master would lead a procession outside to the temple gates and back. Outside the inner sanctum altars held food offerings and lists of hundreds of loved ones with the date they were killed in the war. After the very final chanting of the three-day ceremony at 2:00 a.m. all the decorations, altars, papier-mâché statues made especially for the Grand Requiem Ceremony and the lists of countrymen and women who died were burned together as an offering.
With the support of the monastic and lay community of Saigon and the cooperation of government officials, the ceremony that took place in Saigon was a major success. Mass ceremonies of this scale and intention are a unique occurrence in Vietnam. It is not surprising they are controversial — they bring up past suffering and require acknowledgment that great injustices were suffered on both sides. It has not always been possible to attain the official acceptance of a ceremony that acknowledges that people suffered unspeakable injustices on both sides and that asks that we pray equally for all without any discrimination across the old divides of geography and ideology, man and woman, civilian and the army. Imagine previously warring nations coming together in this spirit and one begins to understand the significance of these ceremonies, the potential healing but also the obstacles in the mind that prevent them from taking place.
—Brother Phap Lai