Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lunar New Year Fair, Cabramatta

I live in Cabramatta, which is the Vietnamese heart of Sydney.
Being alone for lunch, I made my way down to the town centre and checked out the New Year Fair which is going on there this weekend.

Lots of people, but stall-wise it was pretty much politicians and soy-sauce companies.

Still, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and mercifully it's not as hot as it has been this week.

Thang was on the radio this morning talking about Tet and pointing out that this coming year is a double animal year - for Vietnamese it is the Cat, for Chinese the Rabbit.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wat U Phai Rat Bamrung - A Vietnamese Temple in Bangkok!

For many years I'd heard of a mythical Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist temple in the heart of Bangkok, but whenever I visited Thailand my Thai friends had never heard of it and assured me that no such place existed. My Vietnamese friends who had visited it were shaky in their grasp of Bangkok's topography, and couldn't give any useful directions.
One day I was wandering around Pantip Plaza and I saw two young monks shopping. Though they were dressed peculiarly (see my description in the video) I knew instantly that they were from the Mahayana school - a rare sight in Thailand. Using my minimal Thai and their even more minimal English I managed to get their address and visited them that day. Lo and behold, I had discovered my long sought for Vietnamese temple.
Most Bangkokians, even those living in the Chinatown district, have no idea that Wat U Phai Rat Bamrung on Charoen Krung Rd was established by a Vietnamese monk 300 years ago. They have just glanced inside and assumed it was one of the various Chinese temples that dot this part of Bangkok.
The families that make up the temple's devotees were once Vietnamese, but were long ago assimilated into Thai culture. All that remains of their ethnicity is their allegiance to this strange temple. The chanting is done in Vietnamese, but the parishioners (and the Thai monks resident) need to read the words transliterated into the Thai alphabet.
I have blogged some photos of the temple in the past.
There are two young monks from Vietnam resident, and they are rather unstinting in their continued Vietnamese-ness. They refuse to eat meat and they assume a rather more active role in the community than Thai Buddhists are used to.
It is a strange place, and one that I like very much. As soon as I get to Bangkok I always try to visit, and my Thai friends are always fascinated to learn about it. I guess it is a remnant of a much closer relationship that once existed between the two countries.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Destination Saigon in Cambodia

I have spent the past few weeks in Cambodia, researching my new book.
While there I was lucky enough to make contact with the Khmer Youth Writer's Association, an incredible bunch of young people who are passionately and energetically writing, creating and publishing in a way that made me feel like a lazy old hack. I wish I'd had even an ounce of their energy and enterprise when I was their age. As a body they are madly self-publishing their own work, as well as submitting material to the publishing houses of Phnom Penh. And they are successful at it, too - I kept seeing their books in the city's bookshops.
My dear friend Chanphal Sok is one of the group's luminaries. A successful commercial songwriter, Chanphal is also a novelist, and he was kind enought to give me inscribed copies of his previously published works, including the bestselling Gentleman's Love.

Just as I was leaving he was about to launch his newest book, Winter Love.

Unfortunately I had to go before I saw a finished copy. I promised Chanphal that this year I would do my very best to learn Khmer, using his writing as my textbooks. I haven't got very far yet, but I do intend to make more of an effort.
When I went to Cambodia I only took one copy of Destination Saigon with me, in case I should be called upon to prove my bona fides. Of course, I realised instantly my error, because many of my writing friends, most of whom spoke excellent English and regularly read English books, were desperate for a copy. Fortunately my partner, Thang, was due to visit me in Phnom Penh, and I prevailed upon him to bring a half dozen extra copies of the book for distribution.
Imagine my delight when Chanphal posted on his Facebook page (and can I mention here what a phenomenal social force Facebook is in Cambodia? Young Phnom Penh-ese use it as a principal form of communication, and some of them have Facebook friends in the thousands!) a picture of his copy of my book, lying casually in his room, obviously read. What an immense feeling of satisfaction it gave me!
I felt foolish when, just a day or two before I was scheduled to leave, I discovered that Phnom Penh's wonderful bookshop, Monument Books, had plenty of copies of Destination Saigon in stock, so I could have been buying and distributing them all along!

Friday, January 7, 2011

My Guide to Vietnam: Interacting With Buddhist Monks and Nuns

Most visitors to Vietnam will encounter monks and nuns.

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.
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