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.

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