Friday, June 10, 2016

Walter Mason lectures on Charles Dickens' final novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

On Saturday June 11, 2016, I am proud to be lecturing to the NSW Dickens Society on Charles Dickens' final, unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It has been such a delight reading this book closely and researching it, and I am excited to present some wonderful stories about Dickens at the lecture. Keep your ears out for opium, mysterious goings-on in church crypts and the lingering effects of mesmerism. I even cover Dickens' activities from beyond the grave!

NSW Dickens Society Meetings are always open to all, and the cost for guests is only $10 - money well spent that helps keep this precious literary society alive.


Edwin Drood and the Death of Dickens - a talk by Walter Mason at the NSW Dickens Society.

John Everrett Millais' sketch of Charles Dickens shortly after his death in 1870

Saturday 11th of June at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel, 1st Floor

169 Castlereagh St

Sydney (about 5 minutes walk from Town Hall Station).

10.30am start

Entry fee for guests (all welcome) $10 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tinh Xa Trung Tam, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City

Tinh Xa Trung Tam has a special place in my heart because it is the first temple in Vietnam that I ever had any real connection with. In the mid-90s I was a student of a monk in Australia who was a part of the order, and so I visited Vietnam with the special intention of studying more here and learning about this distinctive form of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Master Minh Dang Quang

Tinh Xa Trung Tam is one of the centres of worship for the Tang Gia Khat Si, an indigenous Buddhist order founded by Master Minh Dang Quang. There is an excellent Wikipedia entry for this temple which explains its history and a little about the Order and its founder (I would actually love to hear from whoever wrote it) which you should read.

I have spent many days in this temple and its surrounds, though these days when I go back to Vietnam I probably only visit once or twice to say a prayer and soak in some of the memories of my youth.

I am still quite fascinated by the Order's founder, a Mekong Delta monk called Minh Dang Quang who attempted to unify the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism and re-write the scriptures in colloquial Vietnamese. As at every Tinh Xa (the Vietnamese version of "Vihara" which is what the Tang Gia Khat Si temples are called, as opposed to the Mahayana temples which are called Chua in Vietnamese), there is a shrine to the Master, and this one also contains some of his relics.

Shrine to Master Minh Dang Quang, his relics in cabinet below

On a weekday afternoon there is rarely anyone inside the main shrine, and it is a great place to sit quietly and meditate, or to do a round or two of quiet recitation of the Buddha's name.

Outside there is a famous, and enormous, statue of Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy (Quan The Am in Vietnamese). It is a very popular object of worship, and throughout the day people come into the monastery grounds to make their own prayers at its base.

Statue of Quan The Am, Bodhisattva of mercy

The temple was built in the 60s, and visiting recently with an architect I was informed that it was a classic piece of American-era architecture, especially in its liberal use of pebble-crete. The main hall is built in the octagonal shape of all Tinh Xas, symbolising the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. Over the years the surrounding buildings have been demolished and rebuilt, and I fear that the same fate awaits the main hall, which would be a shame.

Tinh Xa Trung Tam in Binh Thanh claims to be the main temple of the order, but it's worth mentioning that the order did break up into different sects in the 60s and there are a couple of other Tinh Xas around that claim to be Trung Tam (The Central). 

Just outside the main gates of the temple is a little bookshop, and a small gift stall next to it. The bookshop is run by the loveliest man, though sadly there are no books in English. If you have any Buddhist friends in Vietnam, though, or plan to make some, this is a great place to buy gifts. Publishing in Vietnam is vibrant, and books are beautifully designed and cheap. I always buy a bag-full and manage to distribute them easily.

You can find the temple at:

7 Nguyễn Trung Trực Street, Bình Thạnh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

It is about a 25 minute taxi ride from downtown Saigon (outside of peak hours) and is well worth a visit.
It is hidden down several lanes, so be prepared for your driver to stop and ask for directions along the way.

 In October/November this year I am once again leading a tour of Vietnam, from Hanoi all the way down to the Mekong Delta. This will be a fantastic journey, and I'd love to have you along.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Vietnam Books - Something to Read Before You Go

If you're anything like me, reading books about a place is one of the most pleasurable parts of preparing for a holiday abroad. Here is my reading list for Vietnam:

Walter Mason's Destination Saigon - Ok, ok, so I wrote it. But honestly, if you want an intimate view of contemporary Vietnamese religion, culture and sexual mores, and a bit of a giggle, then this is where you should start. So many books about Vietnam are about the war or about colonial history. I set about writing a book that was telling stories of Vietnam now, and I really think I succeeded!

Andrew X Pham's Catfish and Mandala - Quite a superbly written book that is about so much more than Vietnam, this is a unique and compulsive read that offers a great deal of insight into what it's like to be an overseas Vietnamese returning home as a stranger. Books about Vietnam are normally told from the perspective of a foreigner, or are translated works by people living in Vietnam.

Gontran de Poncins' From a Chinese City - A French Count goes to spend a few months in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, in the 1950s. This is such a gorgeous book, and absolutely fascinating. There are very few books on Vietnam that deal with the Chinese community in any detail, so this is a real rarity.

Norman Lewis' A Dragon Apparent - More Indochina in the 50s, Lewis' quiet British fortitude makes him an excellent observer, and his love of the Vietnamese comes seeping through. Vietnam travel books are surprisingly rare, and really good ones rarer still. Lewis' is the best.

Graham Greene's The Quiet American - Yeah, yeah, I know it's on every list, but really it is quite perfect, and you can still visit most of the places he mentions in the book. If you're going to Vietnam, do make sure you read this book first.

Marguerite Duras' The Lover - Especially if you are planning on having an affair with a Vietnamese guy (though the lover is actually Chinese). Sensuous, historically fascinating and quite dazzlingly accurate. Not really full of Vietnam tips, but it creates the most wonderful mood and evokes an incredible era that is only now beginning to be romanticised and even celebrated in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen Keys - A unique insight into Vietnamese Buddhist monasticism. As well as information about the philosophy of Buddhism, it provides a great story to read about the life of a young monk, and how they were once expected to behave inside the Chua (Pagoda).

Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted - Absolutely the best account of what Vietnam was like in the years immediately following the end of the war. This book is a masterpiece and deserves to be better known. Don't wait to buy this one - it is one of the really good Vietnam books, and one of the most unique perspectives.

Duy Long Nguyen's The Dragon's Journey - A memoir about a Vietnamese refugee's journey to Australia, where he becomes a famous healer. A book about Vietnam and about the journey of the Vietnamese dispora.

Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History - Pretty solid going, but once you've finished it you will be entirely informed about the complex and long-lasting Vietnam war.

Ma Van Khang's Against the Flood - A little-known but fascinating fictional peek into the ghastly bureaucracy and stifling conservatism of Vietnamese life in the 80s and 90s.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Walter Mason lectures on Bhutan, April 8, 2016, 1pm - Ashfield Library

In August 2015 I was lucky enough to travel to Bhutan, one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on Earth.

Do join me at Ashfield Library on Friday April 8, 2016 for a lecture on Bhutan's culture, history and religion, accompanied with amazing photographs I took while I was there.

This is a free event, and all are welcome - do mark your diaries.


Friday April 8, 1pm - Level 6 Council Chambers, Ashfield Library

Walter Mason will give an illustrated lecture Om Mani Padme Hum and the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan.

This is a Seniors Week event.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Walter Mason illustrated lecture on Graham Greene's Vietnam

I'll be at Ashfield Library on Saturday February 7, 2015 from 11am - 12pm in the Local Studies Room (just off the main library floor), Level 2, Civic Centre talking about Graham Greene, Vietnam and The Quiet American and I would love to see you there.

I have been obsessed with Greene's short and perfect novel about Vietnam ever since I first read it when I visited Vietnam at the age of 24.

My interest in The Quiet American, and Greene the writer, has only grown over the years.

I am delighted to be able to show you some of Greene's novel and where and how it is reflected in Vietnam in the 21st Century.

Do join me at this free talk illustrated with my own photos and reflections.

I can promise you an engaging and entertaining hour.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Always in threes: the significance of 3 in Buddhism

"Different schools of Buddhism all have different devotional practices to the Buddha, although all  Buddhists make symbolic offerings to the Three Jewels, that is, the Buddha (teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community)."

Andi Young "The Sacred Art of Bowing"

Recently I was teaching a course on Vietnamese history, and naturally enough Buddhism was a part of the discussion. While discussing a ritual, one of the students asked me: "Why is everything always done in threes in Buddhism?"
I realised then that I had a lot to explain, and I thought I would do so on this blog.

When one bows at a Buddhist shrine, one always makes three prostrations. At the same time one offers three sticks of incense. When you make a ceremonial procession around a temple or tomb you do so three times.

3 sticks of incense offered at a buddhist shrine in Binh Dinh, Vietnam

This number is not arbitrary. Buddhists instantly understand that the number 3 represents the Three Jewels (the Triratna) that make up Buddhism. These are:

Sakyamuni Buddha

1. The Buddha: The person of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni.

2. The Dharma: The body of teachings that describe Buddhist doctrine and belief.

3. The Sangha: The group of people who follow the Buddha and his teachings. This was traditionally interpreted as the ordained celibate clergy who serve the Buddha exclusively, but most modern Buddhists extend the meaning to incorporate the communities of lay-people who follow the Buddhist path.

And so each time we bow, and each time we place a a stick of incense in the burner, we are recalling one of these "Jewels," these essential elements of the Buddhism. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Quan Am Pagoda, Phu Nhuan

One of the places I find myself constantly recommending people visit is the little-known Quan Am Pagoda in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City.

This temple is also mentioned in my book, Destination Saigon, and I have been visiting there for almost 15 years now.

It is a pretty basic suburban temple, but it was the Saigon residence of Thich Quang Duc, and as I mentioned in a previous post, it has become something of a shrine to him.
Downstairs is a large shrine to Thich Quang Duc Bodhisattva and the other Buddhist martyrs that followed him - most people don't realise that many people, both monastic and lay, followed his example and set fire to themselves in protest to the war.

There is also a large and very kitsch grotto housing a quite unique shrine to Quan Am (Kwan Yin). This particular shrine is very popular with locals, and the statue of Quan Am is quite unique, in a form rarely seen.

To get to the grotto you need to walk through the gift shop to the left of the temple, and then climb up through the fake cave. Offerings are made from behind the statue. This grotto is exceedingly cramped, and should you meet someone on your way up or down one of you is going have to re-trace your steps - it is almost impossible to pass another person.

Details: Chua Quan Am - Phu Nhuan, 90 Thích Quảng Đức St, Phu Nhuan, Ho Chi Minh City

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