A Viet Kieu Visits Her Homeland for the First Time
Nam Mo Di Da Phat. Praise to the Buddha and to the Goddess of Compassion. The nuns' chants enveloped me with their rhythmic, almost melancholic tones. The tones didn't seem to vary as much as the tonal singsong greeting of the woman who sold sticky rice in front of our foreign students' dorm in Hanoi; nor did it rise like the fishermen's calls in Venh Long south of Saigon; nor did it ring as the street children's appeals to buy postcards or photocopies of Lonely Planet books. Beach trinkets? Sweet rice in coconut milk? Mung bean dessert? No. The chants were none of the above.
Vietnamese is a subtle language characterized by nuance--a slight lilting emphasis on a particular tone changes a nose to salt, a smell or the number ten. No, in that temple, the subtlety lay not only in accents and tones, but also in rhythm, in resonance, in its archaic echo of ideals espoused by the Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. One didn't have to be an esoteric student of religion to read the sacred text in the chants; after all, I wasn't. I was simply a Viet Kieu, an overseas Vietnamese, visiting her country for the first time in the fall of 1996 on a study abroad program in Hanoi. The purpose of visiting my homeland wasn't as simple as a search for roots, a cathartic trip to reconcile my bicultural identity, nor was it simply the exoticism or natural beauty that drew me. Perhaps it was tangled karmic ties or maybe it was the hollow silence of my family's history. Or it could have been a desire to find respite in the hauntingly familiar, yet completely foreign 'home' of Vietnam. And I did find all of that. Nam Mo Di Da Phat
Nam Mo Di Da Phat. So there I was, in a half-lotus position, numb and drunk with sleep, adjusting to the incense and dimly lit temple. The head sister, Su Co Nhu Minh (Sister True Wisdom) took my hand and that of my friend and led us to the courtyard. After a series of stretches, she started pacing around the courtyard in even measured steps. "Have you ever walked and arrived at your destination but forgotten how you got there?" She continued to walk in slow circles. Two steps--she would silently inhale...two steps--exhale. "This helps you to be aware of each step, walking in constant mindfulness of the journey." So we walked and meditated until the sun appeared, a rose flame that enveloped the courtyard in a protective halo.
The thought of meditating typically conjures up images of cushions, a sanctuary and reverent silence. To meditate in the streets of Hue, among pedestrian traffic, street vendors, a mob of women diving into watercress bins, tourists in oppressive heat waiting to go through Marble Mountain, the cacophony of students and business persons in the city--now that is another realm of mindfulness. I was reminded of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's words, "The real challenge is not to walk on air or water, but rather, to walk on earth."
We were with Su Co Nhu Minh for only two days, but she remained at my side, in my steps, for my entire stay in Vietnam and now, continues to lend me a quiet strength through metronomic pulses of mindfulness: my breath and footsteps.
A child no more than ten years old scurried down the train aisle, "Tea, shoeshine, gum and desserts?" he called out in a chant of sorts. Take two steps, inhale--take two steps, exhale. "So, you are Viet Kieu?" asked my seatmate. I nodded silently, still focusing on the boy's sales mantra of tea-shoeshine-gum-desserts. "Your parents, have they come back?" I didn't answer. "Well, my child, tell them to come back," he continued in a thick northern accent. "Tell them there is nothing to fear and that the time has come for them to return to their birthplace. Nothing to fear at all." I pictured Vietnam taking two giant steps, then meditatively inhaling all of history: Chinese and French colonialism, civil unrest, an international cadre of soldiers. "Tell them to come home." Two steps, exhale.
I mused on this thought as we passed through the Hanoi countryside. Blurred images and textures: water buffalo, vendors thrusting triangles of sticky rice through the windows at each station, bamboo hats, black silk pants and weathered expressions that had endured sun, water, fire and history. Yet, Vietnam's exhale is not of resignation, of defeat, or of fatalism, but rather of peace. As I fell into slumber, I imagined a halo of flames, dancing around the ring of history.
And we were in the middle of that grand circle of history. Street vendors, fellow passengers, tourists, pedestrians, Buddhist nuns and Viet Kieu's Midnight Children born into a new era of Vietnamese history. Perhaps the chanting in the temple contains no more sacred text than the 'chants' heard on the streets, in homes, in cars or cyclos, in restaurants and schools. The art of mindfulness is perfected in small steps--a child races a cyclo with a large foreigner aboard, a woman fans charcoal flames from her restaurant stall, an American professor works with Vietnamese economists in cross-cultural exchange, a Hmong man prays with his child, a water puppet dances in an imaginary ocean, a Vietnamese man keeps hypnotic tempo to techno house music, an ao dai white school gown flows out of a cyclo. Two steps--inhale; two steps--exhale. The people, the landscape, the journey. For a moment, all of it is suspended in a fragile timeless web of fellow passengers and True Wisdom speakers.
Two steps--inhale; two steps--exhale.
Su Co Nhu Minh can be found at her temple in Hue. She speaks little English, which should not discourage a visit because even though we speak the same language, the most powerful message she conveyed to me was through her silence.
Su Co Nhu Minh (Sister True Wisdom)
Chua Tay Linh Temple
Ton That Thuyet Street
P. Thuan Loc
Published on 9/1/99