Monday, August 27, 2012

Liao Fan's Four Lessons

When I was in Vietnam last time I made the acquaintance of a really lovely (and impossibly handsome) young monk from Hanoi called Thay Nguyen. He had come to Saigon to study at the Buddhist University, and I would go to visit him in his suburban temple, hidden down an incredible maze of back streets and alleys. It was a busy temple, a real community hub, as such temples tend to be. In the afternoons we would sit out on the monks' terrace garden and discuss some of the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, in a wonderfully effective mix of English and Vietnamese.
He always had gifts for me - CDs of Kwan Yin chants, colourful plastic prayer beads and, once, a book by the Dalai Lama in Vietnamese. That was rather too ambitious a gift, I'm afraid.
One of the texts that Thay Nguyen enthusisatically endorsed was Liao Fan's Four Lessons, a book which I had in fact read several times before.

In recent days I have been listening to a very old series of cassettes on which the book is read - something I picked up at a temple in Sydney 10 or more years ago - and I am struck by what a good guide to life it really is.
It is a kind of Chinese self-help book, advocating that wholesome mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism that has sustained the spiritual life of the Chinese for a thousand years, and has in turn had such a great influence on Vietnamese culture. It tells the story of a Mr. Liao Fan, a man who set great store by the predictions of psychics and soothsayers. After a chance meeting with a Zen master, he learnes that in fact destiny can change at any point, and that all people should be involved in re-shaping their destiny for the better. Then follows a long list of different methods for acquiring good karma, all illustrated with stories from Chinese mythology and antiquity.
In terms of Vietnamese culture it is probably quite a salient text. The people living in 21st Century Vietnam still set great store on the teachings of psychics, mediums and feng-shui masters, though all occupations are officially banned by the Communist government. Thay Nguyen was constantly coming up against parishioners who were distraught because of some bad forecast for the future, or overly-casual about spiritual cultivation because they were completely convinced that their destiny was pre-ordained.
As a popular cultural text, Liao Fan's Four Lessons is absolutely intriguing. Indeed, it is so much admired by people of all religious stripes that in Hong Kong and Taiwan there are societies established specifically to distribute the book and propagate its teachings.
The Vietnamese translation is becoming more readily available too, though the ones I saw in Vietnam were always donated by a Buddhist group in Taiwan, or were printed for commercial sale and distribution.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Love You, Man

Matters Queer are popping up again and again in Vietnam lately.
Last year one of the best Queer movies ever to be made in Asia, Hot Boy Noi Loan, was released in Vietnam. Then there was a recent gay pride parade in Hanoi, and then whisperings that the notoriously conservative central government is about to legalise gay marriage.
It comes as a great surprise to many that Vietnam should suddenly become a hotbed of Queer foment. But to me it is no surprise, familiar as I am with the vibrant gay cultures that exist in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi (and in other, smaller, cities).
I stumbled upon this very sweet video on Youtube.

I am not at all sure it is real. Some say yes, some say it was staged by film students in order to raise the profile of gay and lesbian issues in Vietnam. I don't really care, because it is a charming piece of ficto-reality, and the actors/participants show incredible bravery. Oh, and balloon boy is an absolute hottie.
Do watch and enjoy:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Monastic Communities

Buddhist monastic communities are still very much alive in Vietnam, though the numbers of young monks have dwindled rapidly from their heyday twenty years ago when Vietnam was desperately poor and entering a monastic institution was seen as a guarantee of a comfortable and predictable life. Now that Vietnam has well and truly entered the consumer age young people are less willing to embrace a life of renunciation, celibacy and physical hardship in exchange for predictable food and quality education. 

The Baby Buddha, Tinh Xa Trung Tam, Ho Chi Minh City

And because the predominant form of Buddhism in Vietnam is Mahayana, there is none of the temporary ordination that you see in neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Laos, which swells the ranks of monks quite deceptively with young men and makes for all those charming pictures of monks that people take back home after their holidays. 

Monk blessing people, Battambang, Cambodia

In the Vietnamese tradition you take the monks’ robes for life, so young men take the decision a good deal more seriously. 

The internet has been abuzz for the past week or so with stories of a gang of Buddhist monks in Korea caught on camera drinking, smoking and gambling. It would be extremely naive to think that such things don’t go on in Vietnam. Of course they do. Drinking is completely verboten, but back in the 90s I knew young monks who consumed beer at parties. When I questioned them about this, they maintained that the ban was on strong forms of liquor like vodka and whiskey. Beer, they maintained, was only a mild intoxicant and so not technically wrong. Absolute nonsense, of course, but it was a common deception. 

In the 80s and 90s I would say that most monks in Vietnam smoked, though I have noticed that in recent years this is increasingly frowned upon, and many of my old monastic companions have given up for the sake of propriety. The disapproval of lay people had simply grown too strong. I can honestly say I have never witnessed monks gambling. I think that gambling is such a real and ever-present social problem in Vietnam, one which regularly destroyed the lives of the people they ministered to, that they were not capable of giving it any kind of saffron-wash. 

One sees now, more and more often, clips of Buddhist monks on Youtube doing inappropriate things, like dancing, staring down women’s blouses or even, in the case of one Thai monk, vouging. Of course, these things are all forbidden by the Vinaya, the enormous code of ethical conduct for monks devised by the Buddha many centuries ago.  This is a fascinating document, going into the detail t hat it does about what monks should or shouldn’t do. The list is exhaustive and seemingly random – most scholars assume it was created in reaction to infringements by monks living in the Buddha’s day, or the complaints of scandalised lay people. 

And so it is that rules exist forbidding monks, for example, to climb trees, or to roll rice up in balls and throw it into their mouths, or to eat with an “mmmph mmmph” sound. So extensive is the list of forbidden activities in the Vinaya that it is almost impossible for any human being to uphold them all, and most monks don’t even try. The Buddha himself knew this, and said that if a monk could abide consistently by every rule established he would be immediately enlightened. Suffice to say that enlightenment among monks is still pretty thin on the ground.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cao Dai

When I was in Vietnam I had had several sad and frustrating trips to Tay Ninh, all alone. I had decided not to visit anymore, though I was fascinated by Cao Dai. But just before I left I finally relented and accepted a standing invitation from a friend to re-visit Tay Ninh. I had had such an unpleasant time there before that I was really reluctant to, but he was a devout believer in Cao Dai and he had his own motorcycle, so it was too good an opportunity to miss.
I am so glad I did it - I really had an opportunity to explore Tay Ninh, which is such an intriguing city with such an extraordinary past. And doing it with someone who was a follower of Cao Dai really opened up the religious world of Tay Ninh to me. About 80% of the residents of Tay Ninh belong to the Cao Dai faith, and most of those are observant and manage to get along to temple at least once a week. Most tourists are familiar with the Cathedral there (one of the most popular day trios from Saigon, the midday prayers can become dangerously packed with tourists looking for a colourful photo opportunity), but the Holy City itself is actually a vast complex containing many different chapels and lecture halls. It is slowly being renovated and restored to its former glory, and this resurgence of the Cao Dai spirit reminds one of what a force it used to be in South Vietnam, back in the day when it could boast of its own army.
Cao Dai as a concept is almost impossible to resist. An attempt to fuse the ideas of the great religions and philosophies of the world, Cao Dai is just so colourful and so wacky and so entirely Vietnamese that it can't help but be completely charming.
And the prayer sessions themselves are quite moving, filled as they are with pomp and ritual. There is a moment of complete stillness at the end of prayers that is absolutely transcendent, and makes one think that just possibly there is a meeting point between heaven and humanity, between God (represented by the all-seeing eye) and Her creation.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Monastery Gardens - Ho Chi Minh City - Chua Pho Quang

Pho Quang is a large-ish suburban temple in Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh district. When I first started coming to Vietnam it was situated in a semi-industrial area, surrounded by army and air-force camps. Now it is a densely populated urban zone, and the temple is actually quite hard to find, hidden away down several sub-streets.
It has one of the most fantastic Buddhist supply shops in Vietnam, and is well worth visiting for that reason alone. The products are very reasonably priced, and clearly ticketed, so it makes shopping a breeze.
The grounds are still quite spacious, and there are plenty of seats in the monastery courtyards, so it is a great place to spend an afternoon relaxing and people watching.

There are any number of shrines and grottoes in the temple complex, and on sabbath days the place becomes quite crowded. It is not really a place to come for Buddhist meditation, though in the Kwan Yin grotto quite a number of people attempt it, doing their best to block out the crowds and the chatter.
The common areas were all paved long ago, so the garden, such as it is, is composed of potted trees, shrubs and bonsai.

In the roots of the big trees that surround the outdoor shrines you can see a range of fascinating cast-off ritual objects.

Buddhists believe that you cannot throw away a statue or picture that you used in worship, so when such things break or get too tatty, the faithful bring them to temples like this one and put the unwanted items at the base of the temple trees, this being seen as a sufficiently respectful way of getting rid of them. I assume that a couple of times a year the temple just rounds all this junk up and throws it out - I have never enquired about the actual ritual requirements of it all. It would be fascinating to know.


I enjoy a bowl of  Pho and I have some very strong feelings about it, so here goes.

The best Pho is to be had in Ho Chi Minh City - no ifs or buts. I know it is a Northern dish, but in general the quality of ingredients in the South is still far superior to the North, and the Southerners are inclined to add a little pizzazz to their Pho, while the more conventional Hanoians are content to enjoy a humbe beef broth.

Chain Pho restaurants are despicable, every last one of them. The Pho to be had at such places is quite inedible, though every day scores of Westerners are herded into such places in the name of hygiene and menus and seats that won't collapse under a hefty Western bottom. None of these factors is worth the sacrifice.

For my money I like the Pho at Pho Anh on Ky Dong St, in District 3. Be warned though that the restaurant is only open in the mornings and the evenings. Delicious pho with a hint of five spice, the crowds that jam this place are testament to its deliciousness. There is also a very good and justly famous Pho shop right around the corner from my house on Le Van Sy in Tan Binh district, just before the corner of Pham Van Hai. This is a late night haunt of some repute, and you may catch movie stars, singers and gangsters there in the small hours. This is actually the best Pho in the city, but it doesn't really have a name that I can remember.

I like Pho nam (with pre-cooked beef sliced on top), though most plump for Pho tai (with thin slices of raw beef plunged into the hot broth). My nephew also likes extras like a raw egg broken into a small bowl of hot Pho broth, and a little bowl of beef balls in soup (bo vien).

Eating Pho in the SBS Feast Food Awards

Anyone who has visited Saigon knows that eating Pho is a regular pastime in Vietnam. More than a snack, less than a meal, it is a moment in time where you can sit and enjoy an exquisite treat at a strange juncture in the day or night when hunger might overtake you - late at night when you are drunk is a perfect moment for Pho consumption, don't ask me how I know.

If you live in Australia the final word on Pho is published this week in the fabulous SBS Feast Magazine. Attached to the mag is a fantastic little booklet detailing the results of the 2012 Feast Food Awards, giving the lowdown on the best places to get the key dishes in each capital city.

Judging Pho for Sydney is a prominent food blogger and someone pretty close to my heart, Thang Ngo from Noodlies. No need to declare an interest here - crack open your copy of my book Destination Saigon and you will discover that it is dedicated to him.

So who did he declare the best Pho in Sydney? I'm not saying - get the mag and find out for yourself, as well as where you can get the best Peking Duck, Pad Thai and Tandoori Chicken all over Australia. This little booklet is a treasure that is going straight into my carry-on luggage.

And the rest of SBS Feast magazine is always terrific reading - and I'm not just saying that because Mr. Noodlies is featured this month. It is always one of the magazines I look forward to most every month, filled with quirky and subastantial stories about food and eating all over the world.
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