Buddhist temples make up a big part of the itinerary for any visitor to Vietnam, and almost all of these places are living, thriving monastic communities.
You will witness monks and nuns wandering about attending to their duties, and for most they remain mysterious, exotic and ever-so-slightly glamorous figures.
Any reader of Destination Saigon will know that Buddhist monks and nuns are a big part of my world, both in Vietnam and Australia, and have been so for many years.
People often ask me how they should behave in the presence of monastics, so here is a bit of advice.
Whenever you encounter monks or nuns you should greet them in the traditional Buddhist manner, with your hands clasped in the "prayer" position, at the chest.
In Vietnamese this is called chap tay, and it is a lovely tradition that is steeped in symbolic meaning. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about it, comparing the clasped hands to a lotus bud. By placing our hands together at our chest and bowing slightly (no need to over-do it), we are honouring and respecting the other person - Thich Nhat Hanh says the Buddha in me is greeting the Buddha in you, or "a lotus to you, a Buddha-to-be." Monks greet each other in a similar fashion, as do lay-people when they are at temple. In Vietnam the chap tay is reasonably uncomplicated - you simply make the gesture at chest level, no matter who you are or who you are meeting. In other South-East Asian countries it is altogether more tricky, and you have to raise your hands to different levels depending on what you are doing and who you are encountering. I invariably do it wrong. To make matters worse, the conventions are ever-so-slightly different in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, so that what was ok in one place becomes a gaffe in another.
When Buddhists make the chap tay gesture they also normally say Mo Phat, which is an abbreviated version of the mantra Nam Mo A Di Da Phat, which means "Hail Amitabha Buddha." If you can master these two actions, you will be an instant member of the Buddhist community in Vietnam!
If you see monks or nuns, do smile at them and greet them – most foreigners ignore them - mostly because they they are shy, I suspect, or worried that they may say or do something wrong. Perhaps they are also concerned that a monk is not to be bothered with foolish tourists and everyday gestures. But believe me, they love it when someone is friendly towards them, especially a foreigner. Monks and nuns in Vietnam are frequently well educated and can sometimes speak good English, so do try to connect.
Of course, there are a couple of simple dos and donts when it comes to interacting with them:
- Avoid physical contact, especially if they are of the opposite sex.
- Dress respectfully, especially if they invite you to a special event - this goes for men and women - no shorts and only shirts with sleeves.
- Be careful of violent acts - most monastics in Vietnam are strict vegetarians, and things like swatting at mosquitoes and squashing ants, which we do instinctively, can actually upset them.
- Don't visit the temple if you have been drinking.
- Don't arrange meetings at cafes, hotels, shopping centres or other places of secular entertainment - generally their vows don't allow them to go to such places. You can meet at temples, bookshops and vegetarian restaurants instead.
- Don't give them tasks or errands, or ask them to pass on messages or gifts. Their vows actually forbid this.
- Offer them money, by all means, but do it discreetly - always put the money in an envelope. It also helps them if you tell them what the money is for e.g. "This is for you" or "This is for the temple." Generally they are bound to use the money in the way the lay-person intends, so make it easy for them. If they refuse a monetary gift, you can always insist and say it's for the temple, or for charity, in which case they must accept. What do nuns and monks need money for? I hear you ask. Well, books, study-fees, transport, food - most rely entirely on private sponsors just to survive, so your gifts will always be needed. If you ask them what they want, please be clear about the amount you want to spend, as this saves awkward situations. If you are ofering to buy them $30 worth of books, say so, so they will know not to ask for $10,000 for a temple extension. This might seem all very mundane and worldly, but it is, in fact, the kind of thing that local lay-people do in their own interactions with the religious.
- If you see a monk or nun in a bookstore, offer to pay for their purchase. You can also do this in a vegetarian restaurant. If they are already in the company of lay-people, however, it's probably best not to do this, as they are probably already being looked after, and you don't want to embarrass anyone.
- Gifts for monastics: apart from cash, you can offer tea (especially imported), live plants (esp. orchids), cut flowers, fruit, books (they love Buddhist books in English), stationery, Buddhist religious images and paraphernalia (especially from other countries), incense (expensive or imported only), candy and cartons of soft-drink or vegetarian packet noodles.