A tranquil temple hidden among the hustle and bustle of Saigon offers a challenging but rewarding meditative experience, as Tom Christie discovers. Photos by Chua Hoang Phac.
Waking up to the sound of a Buddhist bell on your first morning in a temple must always be a surreal experience.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City on day one of a three-day temple stay. I adjusted my eyes to the near dark of my room which consisted of nothing but me, a yoga mat, a pillow and a creaking fan surrounded by bare walls. I’m up and ready for the morning meditation at 3:30am. The bell is my awakening.
How did I get here? One dear yogi friend knew that temple Chua Hoang Phap in Hoc Mon district would likely accommodate me. A phone call, some clothing guidelines and a lightly packed bag; I’m ready to go. The number 13 bus takes an hour from Pham Ngu Lao.
I wanted to experience silence from, but still within, the city where I could practice meditation and follow Buddhist temple rituals. What better place to develop than in a temple with devotees and little distraction?
On arrival I was told to buy robes from a nearby shop. I chose orange only to be told at the reception to demote myself to grey. Orange is for the teachers known as ‘Thay’ – not me. I was nervous going in at first, feeling like a fish out of water and getting ready to test out my broken Vietnamese. An American who stayed there eight months ago was the last foreigner, staying one day.
I was stared at more than I am used to but all of this disappeared when welcoming smiles greeted me. I quickly became friends with university students who stay at the temple whenever they can. Then I was introduced to my two guides: English speaking monks Thich Tam Truong and Thich Tam Huong.
I enjoyed the three-hour daily early morning and evening meditations. Filling the temple hall, the community focused their attention on the great Buddha at front. The older women often gestured me to join them instead of my back seating place. One cute old woman asked if I understood the chanting. I couldn’t but felt connected to the serene nature of the object of the words. However, it was the walking meditation that was most challenging. We’d chant and walk around the temple in unison with every move and spoken word of mantra ‘nam mo a di da phat’ (hail Amitabha Buddha) being deliberate, calculated and conscious. It was an extremely balanced feeling.
I never physically left the vicinity but my mind sometimes strayed from the present moment. What’s awaiting me on my smartphone? Could I return one day sooner? No! I had to continuously refocus my mind on to my surroundings. Mindfulness aims to focus my attention on to what matters in the present moment.
It took me lots of concentration to follow the rituals during eating times, even after Truong’s instructions. I wore an extra robe and walked in line with other practitioners, always a step behind the monks. I tried my best to follow the disciplines correctly. Pick up food with chopsticks, eat with the spoon, hold the bowl to your mouth, chopsticks facing the left on top of your bowl, spoon on the right, bow to the right and opposite your place after standing to leave. This might sound easy but it broke down my usual eating habits, forcing me to be mindful in silent consciousness. I sometimes caught myself using chopsticks to eat or another devotee would signal an error through eye contact. Every time I also realized that I was distracted by an unnecessary thought pattern that wasn’t present to my current actions. It was all dominated by silence. One lunch every one sat in absolute silence for what seemed like forever before eating the food in front of us. I was told later that everyone was paying homage to the farmers that produce the rice. After every meal, not one grain of rice was spilt or left uneaten. These rituals were a huge skill to learn
Building, studying, cleaning, and cooking: everyone had a role. I was shown the kitchens, gallery, cemetery, a talking bird, and grounds at the back, which were, in stark contrast, being ceded to the military barracks next door. I was asked if I wanted to convert (I am kind of agnostic) and marry the temple. I wondered how different my life would be. A monk’s life is much more difficult than I previously thought. They solely and beautifully devote themselves to the goal of attaining enlightenment. My mum thought this course sounded relaxing. It wasn’t! I battled with impatience, frustration, lust, boredom; everything that a mind-made problem could throw at you plus physical pain from sitting for so long. But soon I realised how much a short spree of long, monotonous days gave me such a boost in daily life. I carried a calm sense on the return bus, while everything outside felt more colourful. The feeling of my first hot shower back felt like the first shower I had in my apartment. I felt the water on my back. I felt presence.
The monks welcome people that are interested in Buddhism and practicing meditation. I don’t know one person who hasn’t had some benefit from their meditation. Put your phone on silent, set an alarm, find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus your being on the sensation of your breath. When you get distracted, become aware and return to your breathing. Your breath is the object of Vipassana meditation – the eternal life force of our universe.