Thursday, May 27, 2010

Buddhist Sutras in Vietnam

Sutra recitation is the principal practice of Vietnamese Buddhism

It is performed daily by monks and dedicated lay-people, and to sit in a monastery garden and listen to the heavenly sound of monastic voices chanting the scriptures, accompanied by bell and wooden drum, is one of my favourite things to do. Actually taking part in the chanting is a little more demanding, however. Though I am reasonably familiar with the liturgy (at one stage in my life I was a dedicated attender of evening sutra chanting), I still find the whole thing exhausting, involving as it does complicated shufflings of books and chanting sheets, bowing at the appropriate areas, and just keeping up with the sometimes dizzying pace of the chants. To complicate matters more, last time I was in Vietnam I was attending a Vajrayana temple in my suburb, where the whole practise of sutra chanting is ten-times more complicated. I was always doing something wrong, and being reprimanded by the elderly ladies who saw themselves as the guardians of correct conduct in the temple. So here is a list of sutras you will regularly encounter in the Vietnamese Buddhist context. I don't for a moment pretend to be a Buddhist scholar, so offer no analysis of the texts discussed. All I can do is describe them how I, in my ignorance, see them, and attempt to instruct you on when and how they are used. I'm happy to receive any corrections or further insights. 1. The Lotus Sutra: This is the grand-daddy of sutras in Vietnamese Buddhism. Most temples use this sutra as their fundamental text, and congregations chant their way through it a couple of times in the course of a year. Monks tell me that it offers the highest teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, and so can safely be taught across all sects and schools. Those of you familiar with Japanese Buddhism will be well aware of th importance of the Lotus Sutra in that culture as well. I have worked my way through it in English a couple of times, but will confess that it leaves more-or-less bewildered. I prefer chanting it in Vietnamese, where I don't feel obliged to make some kind of sense of it. 2. Kinh Pho Mon: I don't know what to call it in English. Basically it is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra which sets out the special qualities of Kwan Yin Bodhisattva (Quan Am Bo Tat). Because of the great reverence Vietnamese Buddhists have for the Goddess of Mercy, this chapter is often printed as a stand-alone text, and is often recited in its entirety during special prayer sessions. 3. The Great Compassion Dharani: OK, so I know it's not a sutra, but it is long-ish, and is a central part of the Vietnamese Buddhist liturgy. It is chanted several times a day in monasteries, and is always a part of the formal prayer liturgy. I love the beautiful, meaningless sounds of this long mantra. A nun I know has it as the ringtone of her mobile phone. 4. Heart Sutra: Well-known in English, this short sutra is also chanted nightly, with its mantra of Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate left in its original sanskrit. 5. Diamond Sutra: All monks know this sutra well and study it, though I can't recall ever having heard it recited. Most monks in Vietnam see themselves as connected to the Zen school, even if they don't practise meditation, and so this is an important text to them. 6. Metta Sutta: This Theravada sutra is much discussed in monastic circles, and praised as being applicable to all schools. It is worth noting that there is a sizeable Theravada minority in Vietnam, and that even Mahayana monastics spend some time studying Pali and the Theravada sutras - quite a unique situation in the Buddhist world, I should imagine. 7. Amitabha Sutra: While Pure Land belief and practice is almost universal among both monastic and lay practitioners in Vietnam, most temples eschew the study and chanting of the Amitabha Sutra, the principal text of the Pure Land school. There are, however, a very few monasteries which see themselves exclusively as Pure Land institutions, and so they chant this sutra in the evenings and teach from it. The numbers are actually growing because of the power, wealth and influence of Pure Land groups from Taiwan who pump a lot of money into Vietnam and encourage temples to be stricter about the teaching of Pure Land Buddhism. 8. Avatamsaka Sutra: After the Lotus Sutra this is probably the most revered text amongst serious Buddhists in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh has a really beautiful audio series on this sutra called The Ultimate Dimension, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oscar Wilde: Inspirations Along the Way #1

The whole time I was writing Destination Saigon I had on the wall in front of me some photographs that inspired me to continue writing. I thought I'd like to blog about each of these, and explain a little about why they were so important to me, and how they kept me going.
The first photograph was of Oscar Wilde, probably my greatest literary hero.
Now, the odd thing is that much of Wilde's writing is not particularly readable in the 21st Century. The fairy tales are charming, some of the plays are moderately amusing (Salome an absolute scream), and The Picture of Dorian Gray stands now as a florid piece of campery (though I took its preface to heart when I was a teenager, and read it almost every day in my last year of high school). Really the only thing of his that I find myself intrigued and touched by these days is his long, bitter letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis. I think it's one of the most extraordinary documents in the history of literature, something still quite unique.
I can't say when I learned about Oscar Wilde, but by the time I was 13 I was well aware that he had been perhaps the world's most famous homosexual, and I became determined to learn all I could about him. My local small-town library had a reasonable selection of books by and about Wilde, so by the time I was 15 I had made my way through the standard Collected Works, his collected letters, a couple of ancient biographies and the account of his trial published in the Penguin Famous Trials series. I had already become something of a Wilde expert.
In year 10 I won a couple of prizes at school, and we were given a voucher to buy a book, which we had to give back to school for them to engrave and present at the end-of-year award ceremony. Buying books was not easy in the tiny North Queensland town I lived in, but by some miracle the local newsagent had a hardcover copy of Wilde's Collected Works, and somehow this passed through the school's rigorous vetting procedure for appropriate books.
When I left school Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde was released, and this quickly became one of my favourite books. It still is, and I tend to re-read every couple of years. It was through Ellmann's careful tutelage that I broadened my knowledge, and coloured my whole life in the kind of purple aestheticism of the 1890s. I began to read Pater and Ruskin, Huysmans and Cavafy, and admire the art of Whistler and Beardsley. I also read Vyvyan Holland's exquisitely beautiful memoir Son of Oscar Wilde, and still think it a minor masterpiece.
In the early 1990s there was quite an industry around the history of the 1890s, and dozens of books were produced dealing with Wilde and people associated with him. That seems to have slowed down somewhat, but I still have two bookshelves devoted entirely to Wildeana.
Ultimately I think it is Wilde's life that inspires me - I am moved more by the person Wilde than the author Wilde. That is no longer a very fashionable position, but there you have it. I think he would have approved - I am in love with Wilde the poseur, and the wildly glamorous, decadent and ultimately tragic world he helped create.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Bodhi Tree

There is much about popular Buddhist art in Vietnam that is kitsch. Neon halos and day-glo cement lotuses figure prominently in most temples. And at many, the main shrine to Sakyamuni is backed by an enormous representation of the Bodhi Tree - the sacred fig under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.

This tree is frequently rendered as a large trompe-l'oeil, or is moulded in cement in a uniquely unconvincing approximation of a tree.

Phap Bao Temple, Sydney

It is also common for temple gardens to contain a Bodhi Tree, normally claimed to be a direct descendant of the actual tree the Buddha sat under.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Temple Bell

I have a long-standing fascination with the big bronze temple bells that are a feature of Buddhist temples in Vietnam.
The heavy, expensive, cast-metal bell is, of course, a very ancient part of traditional Buddhist temple decoration, and can be seen in temples across China, Japan and Korea as well. They are frequently one of the most costly items to furnish a temple, and they are used to call the faithful to prayer for the evening service. They are also used to wake up the monks in the mornings, and sometimes to call them to lunch.
In Vietnam there is also a really beautiful tradition of sounding the bell for a period during the afternoon, normally around 3pm. An older member of the community sits by the bell and sounds it softly at intervals, normally while reciting a sutra or mantra, or reciting the rosary. To sit in the temple garden and listen to the bell is one of those rarefied ways of spending your leisure time that makes me love Vietnam so much.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Social Evils

You still see in Vietnam – though not as often as before – big propaganda posters exhorting people to do this, or refrain from that.
My favourite propaganda campaign happened during the mid-90s, and it was called the Stop the 7 Social Evils campaign. As the campaign gathered steam, more and more social evils were added, until eventually the posters were covered with dozens and dozens of wicked activities rendered in such small print that you could barely read them. Though of course, children would stop in front of them for hours and decipher these descriptions of wickedness.
Among the original 7 evils were prostitution, heroin and homosexuality – which kind of describes an average Saturday night in the big cities of Vietnam.

Big black serpents would be painted spitting venom, and the drops of venom took the shape of words: gambling, motorcycle racing, massage. And bia om. Bia om is a uniquely Vietnamese entertainment, in which men go to a beer garden, purchase a beer and are hugged by the waitresses. Om means to hug. I’m not for a moment pretending it’s as innocent as it sounds. But the fact is that, until the Social Evils campaign spread across the country, many regional areas had never heard of bia om. However, once this particular evil was explained to them they quickly opened such places, and now even the smallest towns in Vietnam can boast of at least one bia om establishment.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why I Love Hanoi

I will confess that the first time I visited Hanoi I hated the place.
It was back in the dark days of 1994, and we visited the capital city right in the middle of winter. It was grey, drizzly and filthy, with abysmal food and shocking service. We were gleefuly overcharged by sullen shopkeepers, fleeced and robbed by cyclos and taxi drivers and forced to pay bribes to sneering, smelly policemen. Even the bus driver that took us back to the airport on the way out managed to cheat us, leaving us with that last bitter taste of Hanoi. I swore I would never return, and I never did until 2006.
A friend of mine from Australia had fallen in love with a girl in Hanoi, and they were living there. It seemed churlish not to fly up and see them, and when I did I discovered a wonderful city that had made some remarkable changes for the better. The food was good, the nightlife was fun, and, though it was again the middle of winter, I found the foggy cool a wonderful respite from Saigon's endless heat.
Hanoi has turned into a little treasure, the kind of place you could easily while away a lifetime. I could stroll along Hoan Kiem lake for days, and I adore the shopping in Hanoi, the wonderful arts and crafts that are so distinctively Vietnamese - my house is full of such things these days.

And I think that is a clue as to what distinguishes Hanoi - the interest in aesthetics, in the small details that beautify a place and make it charming.

And I love the cramped, crowded nature of the city.

It has none of the sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City. In the winter months at least, you can comfortably walk around Hanoi and really absorb the city and its little pockets.

Of course, Hanoi taxi drivers and cyclos are still notorious brigands, but I am hopeful that someday some competent government tourist authority will take that little problem in hand.
Until then, enjoy the walking.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why I love Ho Chi Minh City

Sometimes I think the world's population falls into two types of people: those who love Ho Chi Minh City, and those who don't. And you know, it is almost impossible to pick them. I am often taken aback by some quiet, shy, pollution-hating person who returns from Vietnam and says, "Wow! I really loved Saigon!"
You see, I grew up in the country, and from my youngest days I have been fascinated with big cities - the bigger, smellier and more crowded the better. And Ho Chi Minh City wins on all those fronts.
Much of Destination Saigon takes place there, because it is always my base, and I can never bear to be away from it for long.

It is a city filled with cafes, and the cafes are full. In the heat and humidity people are constantly seeking some respite, and these smoky, dimly-lit and often hyper-air-conditioned little cafes offer some shelter to the weary. Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City has their own favourite cafe or two, and they operate as extensions of their own living spaces. Once you begin frequenting a cafe you quickly become a local, and often find yourself embroiled in the personal lives of the waiting staff. I love this dimension of Saigon living.

It's still a motorcycle city, and many years ago I fell in love with climbing up onto a motorcycle and zooming through the insane traffic. There's something immensely liberating about motorcycle travel, as any number of dull films from the 1960s will attest. Sadly, several years ago laws were introduced in Vietnam that made the wearing of safety helmets compulsory, and the Ho Chi Minh City police are pretty vigilant about enforcing this particular law. This means that these days you arrive at your destination with your head a little sweaty. But still it's worth it, despite getting soaked in afternoon storms, and smelling exactly like a service station after travelling for 20 minutes or more.

And it's a religious city! It is jam-packed full of temples, chuches and shrines, and you see monks and nuns wherever you go.

Supermarket culture is quite important in Vietnam. Large-ish shopping malls are still a relatively recent phenomenon, and the people of Ho Chi Minh City view the visiting of a supermarket as a leisure activity of the highest order. Normally people will say, "I'm going to the supermarket to play."
What else do I love? The food, the endless possibilities for exploration, the great beauty of the people and their cheeky, affectionate attitudes. I was certainly a Saigonese in my past life.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hello Kitty

You see a lot of Hello Kitty in Vietnam.
I was delighted recently to read in the blog of one of my Twitter friends (Vietnam720) that a Hello Kitty shop has now opened in Saigon. I am so there as soon as I get back to Vietnam.
To me, Hello Kitty is just another manifestation of the feminine Divine - I'm being serious about this!
In so many ways Hello Kitty is THE great Asian Goddess. I am certain that in a thousand years time, when archaeologists are digging up the great cities of Asia, they will simply assume that people worshipped this mouthless pink cat with a ribbon in her hair, so ever-present is her image. Hello Kitty fascinates me, and I do plan to write a book about her one day – no-one better steal that idea. That’s my retirement book right there. I know an awful lot about Kitty, having once lived above a Hello Kitty shop in Taiwan. I know, for example, that Hello Kitty weighs exactly the same as three apples.
Look it up people – this kind of information is out there.

(Photo by Vietnam720)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Quan The Am Bo Tat

One of the most common objects of popular devotion in Vietnam is this woman – Quan The Am, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

In the West she is more commonly known by her Chinese name, Kwan Yin. Shrines to her are to be found everywhere in Vietnam, in people’s houses, on streetsides, in temples.

She embodies the qualities of compassion and unconditional love. Vietnam’s culture has a great reverence for the mother, and people indulge in a great deal of devotion directed toward this idea of the Divine Mother – one of her appellations is Me Hien, the Gentle Mother.

I love this idea of the sacred feminine, and it is one of the aspects of Vietnamese spirituality that draws me constantly back.

I grew up a Protestant boy in rural North Queensland, and reverence for the Holy Mother was not something I had ever encountered in my past.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

House Temples

People don't realise that Sydney is filled with little suburban house temples. There is well over a hundred of them, many of them in the Cabramatta/Fairfield area. They are simple suburban houses that have been renovated to become Buddhist temples, and they are the heart of many Buddhist communities.

Normally operating in a quasi-legal nowhere land, these little houses of worship are often at the mercy of local government authorities, who frequently fine them, threaten legal action and attempt to close them down. But in my experience they normally soldier on, and I find them wonderful examples of the power of the spirit standing up to the awful dead hand of homogenising local councils. It is normally the same councils that allow local "clubs" (i.e. pokie palaces) to swallow up whole tracts of land and alienate public property.

These temples normally only house one or two monastics, and service a membership of a dozen or so families. It is a hand-to-mouth existence for most, but the fact that so many monks and nuns are prepared to lead this lonely, uncomfortable and inconvenient existence in order to serve small communities stands as a testament to commitment and lived ideals.

Normally the house temples arise because parishioners - particularly the elderly - want a place of worship that is accesible by public transport. Almost all of the big Buddhist temples are in far-flung areas, quite often industrial or semi-rural districts, which are the only places they are normally allowed to build according to vile local government by-laws. Such places are almost impossible to access via public transport.

I love these little temples. My heart sings when I drive by a brick-veneer cottage and see a huge statue of Kwan Yin standing outside, sending her blessing out over the anonymous streets and cul de sacs of suburban Sydney. I know that people there still rate their spiritual life highly, and are supporting yet another humble, but terribly important, house temple.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Vietnamese Language

I am in love with the Vietnamese language, fascinated by the twists and turns of it, a sing-song, yet oddly sticky language that can leave you frequently in sticky situations.

Indeed, in an early draft of the book I expounded at length on the differences of the regional dialects of Vietnam. I daresay it was quite wise of my publisher to have cut it out.
I once worked with a woman more familiar with the more adamant tones of Cantonese, and whenever she heard me speaking Vietnamese she would remark on its beauty. "It's so gluggy," she would say. "It seems to stick in your mouth."

Of course, I happened to fall in love someone who spoke Vietnamese, and in the early days of our courtship I would swoon when he spoke with his elderly neighbour whenever she brought us food, or to his sister on the telephone. I loved its sweet softness, its sing-song affirmations and sliding denials.
It is a reasonably easy language to learn to read and write, but devilishly difficult to speak and comprehend. The differences in sounds are so subtle, so refined, that even after 11 years of trying I still make stupid, obvious mistakes. In Vietnamese I am a dunce, a childish, smiling giant who knows to say "yes" whenever anything is not clear.
I often wonder about Alexander de Rhodes, the Jesuit priest who transliterated spoken Vietnamese into a romanised writing system in the seventeenth century, inventing its abundant diacritical marks and tone guides. How many years did he wait and listen to this language he thought resembled "the singing of birds," making sketches of sounds and approximating ways of capturing those crazy noises? And who taught him, I wonder?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Self as Narrator, Self as Hero

One of the peculiarities of travel writing is that normally the central character of the narrator - the hero, if you like - is the writer himself.
I am talking here about the unnamed narrator of Destination Saigon, called variously, Big Brother, Fatty, Sir and – my favourite – Dumpling Face. He’s lazy, and disinclined to indulge in physical exercise – and there's something I recognise in that. He could be accused of being a religious maniac, except he’s never seen a religious person or religious act that he couldn’t poke fun at. There’s an inability to be serious, perhaps even a fear of the grave (and I leave the meaning of that statement intentionally unclear).
This character – this other Walter Mason – is also a big man, and I share this quality with him. The Vietnamese have the great charm of normally being completely honest and up-front. Being among them is like being in that awful film where no-one knows how to tell lies. Any faults, any physical differences, are immediately assessed and brought to the fore. My thesis is that this is a result of centuries lived in a communal culture in frequently crowded conditions. If everyone were to go about pretending not to notice things – the way we do – then society probably couldn’t function. People will introduce you to their family with such descriptions as “This is Sister Two – she’s retarded. Sister Three here is the great beauty of the family, but unfortunately that got used up by the time Sister Four came around – she’s extremely plain.” All this said not just in hearing distance of the said sisters, but in front of their faces. It might seem cruel, but after a while it is immensely liberating. You have no need to worry about what people are saying behind your back – because they are saying it in front of your back. If that makes sense.
And so my bigness is one of the badges I carry in Vietnam.
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