Friday, June 10, 2016

Walter Mason lectures on Charles Dickens' final novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

On Saturday June 11, 2016, I am proud to be lecturing to the NSW Dickens Society on Charles Dickens' final, unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It has been such a delight reading this book closely and researching it, and I am excited to present some wonderful stories about Dickens at the lecture. Keep your ears out for opium, mysterious goings-on in church crypts and the lingering effects of mesmerism. I even cover Dickens' activities from beyond the grave!

NSW Dickens Society Meetings are always open to all, and the cost for guests is only $10 - money well spent that helps keep this precious literary society alive.


Edwin Drood and the Death of Dickens - a talk by Walter Mason at the NSW Dickens Society.

John Everrett Millais' sketch of Charles Dickens shortly after his death in 1870

Saturday 11th of June at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel, 1st Floor

169 Castlereagh St

Sydney (about 5 minutes walk from Town Hall Station).

10.30am start

Entry fee for guests (all welcome) $10 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tinh Xa Trung Tam, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City

Tinh Xa Trung Tam has a special place in my heart because it is the first temple in Vietnam that I ever had any real connection with. In the mid-90s I was a student of a monk in Australia who was a part of the order, and so I visited Vietnam with the special intention of studying more here and learning about this distinctive form of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Master Minh Dang Quang

Tinh Xa Trung Tam is one of the centres of worship for the Tang Gia Khat Si, an indigenous Buddhist order founded by Master Minh Dang Quang. There is an excellent Wikipedia entry for this temple which explains its history and a little about the Order and its founder (I would actually love to hear from whoever wrote it) which you should read.

I have spent many days in this temple and its surrounds, though these days when I go back to Vietnam I probably only visit once or twice to say a prayer and soak in some of the memories of my youth.

I am still quite fascinated by the Order's founder, a Mekong Delta monk called Minh Dang Quang who attempted to unify the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism and re-write the scriptures in colloquial Vietnamese. As at every Tinh Xa (the Vietnamese version of "Vihara" which is what the Tang Gia Khat Si temples are called, as opposed to the Mahayana temples which are called Chua in Vietnamese), there is a shrine to the Master, and this one also contains some of his relics.

Shrine to Master Minh Dang Quang, his relics in cabinet below

On a weekday afternoon there is rarely anyone inside the main shrine, and it is a great place to sit quietly and meditate, or to do a round or two of quiet recitation of the Buddha's name.

Outside there is a famous, and enormous, statue of Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy (Quan The Am in Vietnamese). It is a very popular object of worship, and throughout the day people come into the monastery grounds to make their own prayers at its base.

Statue of Quan The Am, Bodhisattva of mercy

The temple was built in the 60s, and visiting recently with an architect I was informed that it was a classic piece of American-era architecture, especially in its liberal use of pebble-crete. The main hall is built in the octagonal shape of all Tinh Xas, symbolising the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. Over the years the surrounding buildings have been demolished and rebuilt, and I fear that the same fate awaits the main hall, which would be a shame.

Tinh Xa Trung Tam in Binh Thanh claims to be the main temple of the order, but it's worth mentioning that the order did break up into different sects in the 60s and there are a couple of other Tinh Xas around that claim to be Trung Tam (The Central). 

Just outside the main gates of the temple is a little bookshop, and a small gift stall next to it. The bookshop is run by the loveliest man, though sadly there are no books in English. If you have any Buddhist friends in Vietnam, though, or plan to make some, this is a great place to buy gifts. Publishing in Vietnam is vibrant, and books are beautifully designed and cheap. I always buy a bag-full and manage to distribute them easily.

You can find the temple at:

7 Nguyễn Trung Trực Street, Bình Thạnh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

It is about a 25 minute taxi ride from downtown Saigon (outside of peak hours) and is well worth a visit.
It is hidden down several lanes, so be prepared for your driver to stop and ask for directions along the way.

 In October/November this year I am once again leading a tour of Vietnam, from Hanoi all the way down to the Mekong Delta. This will be a fantastic journey, and I'd love to have you along.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Vietnam Books - Something to Read Before You Go

If you're anything like me, reading books about a place is one of the most pleasurable parts of preparing for a holiday abroad. Here is my reading list for Vietnam:

Walter Mason's Destination Saigon - Ok, ok, so I wrote it. But honestly, if you want an intimate view of contemporary Vietnamese religion, culture and sexual mores, and a bit of a giggle, then this is where you should start. So many books about Vietnam are about the war or about colonial history. I set about writing a book that was telling stories of Vietnam now, and I really think I succeeded!

Andrew X Pham's Catfish and Mandala - Quite a superbly written book that is about so much more than Vietnam, this is a unique and compulsive read that offers a great deal of insight into what it's like to be an overseas Vietnamese returning home as a stranger. Books about Vietnam are normally told from the perspective of a foreigner, or are translated works by people living in Vietnam.

Gontran de Poncins' From a Chinese City - A French Count goes to spend a few months in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, in the 1950s. This is such a gorgeous book, and absolutely fascinating. There are very few books on Vietnam that deal with the Chinese community in any detail, so this is a real rarity.

Norman Lewis' A Dragon Apparent - More Indochina in the 50s, Lewis' quiet British fortitude makes him an excellent observer, and his love of the Vietnamese comes seeping through. Vietnam travel books are surprisingly rare, and really good ones rarer still. Lewis' is the best.

Graham Greene's The Quiet American - Yeah, yeah, I know it's on every list, but really it is quite perfect, and you can still visit most of the places he mentions in the book. If you're going to Vietnam, do make sure you read this book first.

Marguerite Duras' The Lover - Especially if you are planning on having an affair with a Vietnamese guy (though the lover is actually Chinese). Sensuous, historically fascinating and quite dazzlingly accurate. Not really full of Vietnam tips, but it creates the most wonderful mood and evokes an incredible era that is only now beginning to be romanticised and even celebrated in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen Keys - A unique insight into Vietnamese Buddhist monasticism. As well as information about the philosophy of Buddhism, it provides a great story to read about the life of a young monk, and how they were once expected to behave inside the Chua (Pagoda).

Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted - Absolutely the best account of what Vietnam was like in the years immediately following the end of the war. This book is a masterpiece and deserves to be better known. Don't wait to buy this one - it is one of the really good Vietnam books, and one of the most unique perspectives.

Duy Long Nguyen's The Dragon's Journey - A memoir about a Vietnamese refugee's journey to Australia, where he becomes a famous healer. A book about Vietnam and about the journey of the Vietnamese dispora.

Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History - Pretty solid going, but once you've finished it you will be entirely informed about the complex and long-lasting Vietnam war.

Ma Van Khang's Against the Flood - A little-known but fascinating fictional peek into the ghastly bureaucracy and stifling conservatism of Vietnamese life in the 80s and 90s.
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