Thursday, November 22, 2012

Minh Dang Quang

One of the most mysterious and fascinating figures in Vietnamese Buddhist history is the Patriarch Minh Dang Quang.

Though he was an enormously influential character whose legacy still thrives today in Vietnam, there is almost nothing about him in English. If there is something substantial I'd be most grateful if anyone could alert me to it. I have discovered an excellent scholarly article by Mark W. Mcleod called 'The Way of the Mendicants' which provides some excellent insights into life at Tinh Xa Trung Tam, the central monastic institution for the sect.

Minh Dang Quang was the founder of the Tang Gia Khat Si (The Mendicant Buddhist Order) - this is one of the largest Buddhist sects in Vietnam, and the Khat Si temples (known as Tinh Xa) are to be found all over Southern Vietnam (including many in Ho Chi Minh City). He was half Viet half Khmer, from Vinh Long province, and his bi-racial upbringing exposed him to both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. At a young age he was driven by the idea of combining the two traditions in Vietnam, the only country that could boast of sizeable numbers in each camp.

So he established the Mendicant Order, and it quickly gained in popularity, particularly in the villages and towns of the Mekong Delta. Minh Dang Quang was impressed by the strictness of the Theravadin monastic orders, and so created similar rules for his own monastics - banning the consumption of food after midday, banning the use of shoes or sandals, not allowing monks to cook or prepare their own food, encouraging them to go on begging rounds in the morning etc. He also added the additional burden of vegetarianism, which is not normally observed by Theravadin monks. He opened up the monastic vocation to women, another tradition also absent in the Theravada.

Adopting the theological structure of Mahayana almost holus bolus, he encouraged both the recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name and the worship of Kwan Yin, both of which are anathema to the Theravadin establishment.

What really popularised his movement however - aside from the great respect the people formed for the monks and nuns willing to observe such hardship - was his translation of the Buddhist sutras from the difficult (and sometimes even nonsensical) sino-vietnamese language into an easily understood and even rhyming form of the common language. The largely uneducated parishioners found it infinitely easier to remember these sutras, and to glean some meaning from them. This, naturally, made him extremely unpopular with the Mahayana Buddhist hierarchy, who accused him of corrupting the Dharma by tampering with the texts they had known since antiquity.

Sometime in the 1950s Minh Dang Quang 'disappeared' and was never seen again. There were rumours that he was assasinated by the anti-Buddhist government forces who saw him as a trouble-maker, or by agents of a rival Buddhist sect who saw his growing movement as a threat to their own power base in the Mekong Delta. His followers, however, refuse to acknowledge his death and still celebrate his 'disappearance' day each year.

An intriguing character with an intriguing story - one day I think I will write a book about him.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tan Dinh Church, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

News about Vietnam rarely includes mention of the numerous sleepy, crumbling French Colonial churches that are to be found in every city and large town. Tourists mostly just drive by them, and to the local Vietnamese (unless they are parishioners) they are exotic remnants of a largely unknown past. I took my friend Kien - a Saigon native -  with me when I visited Tan Dinh church, and it was the first time he'd ever been inside a Catholic church.

In Ho Chi Minh City there are only a couple of these French Colonial beauties left - most of the really big Catholic churches were built in the 60s and 70s, and have a distinctive and quite groovy architecture all of their own.

Tan Dinh Church in District 3 is probably my favourite of the French churches.
It is always painted a vibrant and unexpected colour - salmon pink, orange, a kind of biscuit-colour, baby blue and mint green. The aesthetic eye overseeing this church's exterior is distinctly camp.

Inside it is largely untouched. Lots of faux-baroque statuary, a shrine to Saint Therese of Lisieux (the only one I know of in Vietnam), a shrine to St. Martin de Porres (there is one of these in every second church) and one to the Vietnamese martyrs (also reasonably common).

Unlike the infuriatingly chained-up Nha Tho Duc Ba in central Saigon, Tan Dinh church is always open, and is well worth checking out.
It is also situated right near Tan Dinh market, which is THE place to buy fabrics in Ho Chi Minh City. If you are searching for linens and cottons (reasonably rare at other markets), then this is the place to go (heads up - I always go to ABC Fabric).
There is also a doughnut shop just before the church called The Gioi Donut, and I have been known to drop by there ;-)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cong Binh, the lost fighters of Vietnam

At a book launch recently I met a fascinating woman who was the descendant of Vietnamese workers who had been sent to France as forced labourers. Joel Pham has contacted me to explain:

 "The reason for these twenty thousand Vietnamese coming to France during the war of 1939/1945 is primarily to work in the munitions factories and thus support the war effort. Work for rice is one of the many jobs they were then assigned but concerned only about 5% of the workforce."

Until then I had never heard of such a project, and was fascinated to discover that a documentary is being made about it all.

Here is the trailer for the film, called Cong Binh:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Countrytown Temple

This photo was taken at a little temple in Song Be back in 1996. I was taken there on an agonisingly long trip on the back of a motorcycle, but when we arrived the temple was closed and there was no-one around.
Seeing a foreigner poking about, one of the neighbours came out, and someone was sent to fetch the monk, who was nearby.
He came back beaming, a frail, thin and elderly man. He unlocked the temple and showed me around. The whole place was dusty and uncared for, and the nighbours swept the shrine room so that we could bow to the Buddha without blackening our foreheads.
When I came to offer incense at this side shrine, where the statues were all very old and covered in years of grime, I was suddenly overcome with a kind of elation. It was one of those rare moments of transition, of self-discovery, and is impossible to put down in words. For me it was a memory, a feeling, a strange sense of belonging. I had been in this place before.
You could my response mystical, romantic, even hormonal. It may have been a practical emotional response to being accepted as family amongst all of this exotica.
But when I look at this photo it describes for me a change in lifestyle, and the beginning of an obsession.
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