It's hard to find the Venerable Vien Thuc sometimes. He is a reclusive monk. He has lived alone in a Dalat pagoda for twenty years. Some days, he calls his garden "The Green Parasol of the Universe." Other days, it's "The Bamboo Garden Under the Indolent Clouds." The Venerable Vien Thuc is also a fifty-four year-old Zen poet.
He is definitely a tourist attraction -- or at least his collection of shacks and bamboo roofs is. Be prepared to duck under woven twigs and unruly branches, or to step over rocks and bricks and paint pails. You can be lost in the maze-like series of open brick walls that criss-cross the pagoda's large courtyard. The doors are square holes in the walls. Chairs and stools of all sizes and shapes are scattered about. None will give you any comfort.
But if you get invited in, you'd be unlikely to have a moment to sit down. "Come this way," the Venerable Vien Thuc will say. He'll take you by the hand and lead you from room to room. Vien Thuc is also a painter, and he has, he claims, over 85,000 paintings. You'd better believe it. His paintings hang from fences, they cover massive walls, they are stacked like merchandise in a warehouse. "Come, come, I have more over here. And through there, over to the next room,'' the Venerable Vien Thuc will tell you, and you'll hear a series of laughter in response to your incredulous face.
The Lam Ty Ni Pagoda, a short walk from the art-deco summer palace of Vietnam's last emperor Bao Dai, was founded in 1961. Vien Thuc joined in 1968, living with two other monks. They left in 1975, and he has been alone ever since.
He sleeps on a hammock in a tiny hut fashioned out of woven bamboo, driftwood and dried branches. He darts through the corridors, around the lotus ponds, the rock arrangements, and in the various gardens in his ankle-high basketball sneakers. His socks don't match, and he is always followed by his dog. When it catches a dragonfly, the Venerable Vien Thuc will chide the dog with the language reserved for a spoiled but much loved child.
Vien Thuc ducks through a hole in the brick wall, you follow him, but he has disappeared. Moments later, you hear him hammering something in another room off to your left. Or is it behind you? Vien Thuc is a carpenter, but don't expect neat pieces of furniture. "I build everything myself," Vien Thuc says, and true to his eccentricity, everything in the temple is crooked, uneven, and simple, and charming and crazy and fascinating.
Vien Thuc is unreal. Perhaps it is because I had come expecting a serene monk telling Zen stories over a cup of tea. But Vien Thuc never sits still.
The first time I visited him, the gates were locked. When I came back the next morning, Vien Thuc sent me away, claiming he had a stomach ache. I was to come back in a few hours. When I showed up, he was moving with the energy of a young man, slipping in and out of walls and corridors, talking to a dozen visitors in at least four languages at the same time. And that laughter.
"Look through these, " he says, pointing to stacks of watercolor stretching around the largest room. "What are these paintings of?", I ask. But he was already gone.
It takes me an hour to merely flip through the paintings. The watercolors are essentially marble papers framed as vertical panels of various heights. They are of astonishing colors, some pale and subdued, a few dark and intense. They make up a strange landscape of mountains and rivers belonging to a distant planet.
"Thien hoa do," grins the Venerable Vien Thuc. "Zen painting." He has suddenly reappeared and stands next to me to read out loud the ink brush inscriptions, mostly in English, that accompany some of the paintings. "Pink Clouds Above Summer Lovers." "A Zen Walk Through The Mountainous Sky." "Clouds Forming Lotus Bouquet in Zen Garden."
"Come, come," he invites. There are more brightly colored and beautiful marble papers, with haiku or Zen poems written in black ink, using the ancient Vietnamese script, the nom.
"Wordless Conversations, Everything Would Be Quite Perfect."
"If There Were No Cold Winters, How Could There Be Blossoming Flowers Full Of Fragrance?"
"The Wind Has Brought Visitors From Distant Lands,
Long Poems And Old Ages, Golden Clouds In Zen Music,
How Mysterious Are Sounds And Colors."
"I have been painting since I was ten," says Vien Thuc. "These Zen paintings are meant to take away people's sorrow and pain. They're calming, don't you think?"
Before I can answer, the Venerable Vien Thuc is off again. The dog is barking, there are more visitors.
I wander about, marveling at the broad brush strokes that depict a monk in the midst of writing poems. Or stark paintings of black ink splashed on white paper, looking like violent water streams or melting ice caught by a photographer. Vien Thuc has painted a lot of them, each one more exciting than the next. "These are dramatic," I say to him when he returns, but I am too shy to question him about the calming effect of such paintings.
Hours later, I have selected a group of these paintings, and the Venerable Vien Thuc carefully takes them out of the frames, revealing five or six more in the back of each frame. He expertly wraps them around a bamboo stick, winds a plastic string around them and hands them to me. When I pay, he pulls out a sportsman's nylon wallet, yanks the Velcro fastener apart and pulls out wads of dollar bills to give me my change. "I want to build a new roof for the pagoda. That's why I am selling these paintings, and I want to share them with people all over," Vien Thuc says.
It's true that in a souvenir book, there are notes written by people from Germany, Israel and Costa Rica and France and the U.S. expressing how happy they are to have met him.
There are also orders for hundreds of his paintings. I keep wondering how this reclusive monk can paint? When does he sleep? When does he meditate?
"Oh, I have been painting for a long time. I only sleep a few hours, and I meditate early in the morning. But I want to sell a lot of these paintings. It will take a lot of money to repair the roof of the pagoda. And then I also want to visit Paris. My dream is to see the Eiffel Tower one day."
For now, the monk remains at the pagoda. Somewhat secluded, but the number of visitors seems to increase by the day. As I leave, the Venerable Vien Thuc asks for a ride to the post office on the back of my motor scooter.
"If you want something mailed, I'd be happy to do it for you," I say.
"No, no, I need to go there myself. My hand phone isn't working, no one can call me," says the hermit monk.
Published on 8/1/95