Chua Dieu Ngu Vietnamese Buddhist Temple
Interview with the Venerable Thich Nhất Thanh
By Carisa Carlton
As the 2016 grand-opening keynote speaker, His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama taught “The Power of Compassion and as a Key to Accomplishing Values to Self and Others” at Chùa Điều Ngự Buddhist Temple in Westminster (“Little Saigon”), California. That prodigious event is a source of pride that bonds its members; and the Dali Lama’s visit compelled me to select the temple as the source of this interview.
When I telephoned the temple to request an interview, I faced a heavy language barrier so I drove up there hoping for a different outcome. I respectfully strolled the grounds asking strangers who I could speak to about Buddhism. In a broken mixture of Vietnamese and English, I was repeatedly told that no one was around to help me. My ten years of living in Asia taught me, however, that “no” usually means I’m just not asking the right person. So, I continued to ask around until a woman agreed to make a phone call. “Wait,” she said after disengaging the line. Within a few minutes, the Venerable Thich Nhất Thanh (hereinafter “Terry”) appeared in a modest brown robe, beaming a radiant smile as if he was greeting an old acquaintance. I felt warmly welcome from that moment. Finally, I asked the right person and a heart-flutter whisked me right back to the lessons of Asia: You must persist.
Terry invited me into the main temple hall. The temple’s modestly ornate ceilings and simple, enlightening-yellow walls makes it hard to believe six million dollars was invested in the building’s construction just a year ago. A single statue of Bồ Tát, a Bodhisattva, which Terry explained is someone who devotes their life to relieving the suffering of others, dominates the clean rectangular room where we sat together to discuss Terry’s background and Buddha’s teachings. Though the Bồ Tát appears as a female Bodhisattva, he is actually male, as are all Buddhas. Despite surface appearances, however, Buddhism has no gender hierarchy. Terry said suffering, sorrow, and mourning is the same for everyone.
When Terry was a young child, he was quite ornery and his family did not believe he would amount to anything. He did not study and he received poor marks in school. On his 11th birthday, though, an idea lit his mind: Terry would commit his entire life to Buddhism. Apparently his family was relieved by his new plans because they drove him from their farm village near the southern Cambodian border to the Tuệ Đức Monastery in northern Vietnam and said, “Tạm biệt.” It seems that in Vietnam, as in Thailand, “…to some degree even the “the humblest villager” is familiar with the basic principles of the faith” (Moro 40) because even this young peasant knew enough about Buddhism to desire devotion. Unlike Thailand, however, the familiarity, and perhaps even glamorization of Buddhism in Vietnam, may be residual effects of the 1963 crisis known as the Vietnamese Buddhist revival, which linked the core of their national identity to a modern destiny (Miller 1907).
Guided by resident monks, Terry studied English and he practiced mindful living by tending the gardens and meditating with joyful men clad in saffron robes. His discipleship earned him the privilege of moving to monasteries in India, Nepal, and just three months ago, to the Chùa Điều Ngự Buddhist Temple where he adopted his American name. Even after studying English in the Vietnamese, Indian, and Nepalese monasteries, however, Terry’s English is understandably limited. As noted above, the Chùa Điều Ngự Temple members, who are predominantly Vietnamese, are not speaking much English, so Terry is studying here in his native language. Still, with pencil drawings, hand gestures, and rudimentary vocabulary, we giggled our way through the interview in between moments of reflective inquiry.
According to Terry, each of us reincarnate after our death. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is, however, not to reincarnate. Once we reach this no-longer-reincarnating stage of ultimate Buddhahood, or ordination as Terry called it, we experience no more suffering, no more karma, and we rest eternally in a place “higher than heaven.” The hierarchical path to this ultimate enlightenment is set forth in Vinaya Piṭaka (“a basket of discipline”) scripture and it includes proper behavior and rules for monks and nuns. Due to language barriers, I did not inquire about exactly how to obtain the highest state of enlightenment, but generally it has something to do with restricted behavior. Authors Pamela Moro and Susan Darlington claim there are various sects in Buddhism (Moro 40-41; 437), but Terry said that there is only one Buddhism and it is practiced the same no matter where in the world you are.
Terry struggled to understand my line of domestic violence questioning, but through a respectful game of charades, he finally understood that I wanted to know what Buddha taught about domestic violence. I specifically wanted to know about controlling behaviors, or psychological abuse, within an intimate partner relationship because that is my raison d’être at the University of California, Irvine.
Terry said that husbands must answer not only for their families, but for everyone around them. Sometimes people put their ego first and the ego wants to become the strongest by controlling others. But Buddha teaches love and kindness. Husbands and wives must devote themselves to the discipline of “listening together” wherein they listen to the heart of the other. No harm, psychologically or physically, should come to those for whom a man is responsible, Terry said, and though violence in Buddhism is strictly prohibited, the discipline contains a weakness: “strength in its position against personal violence is combined with silence in the face of more impersonal mechanisms of evil” (Sivaraksa 66). The silence may prevent us from ever discovering the true nature of the most unspeakable of family relations.
If man is struggling with sorrow, he can turn to Di-lặc, aka Maitreya, the happy buddha, for comfort. Though Maitreya is not exactly a Buddha yet, he is a buddha of the future. Currently, he is in heaven saying prayers for us and studying in preparation for his arrival on earth. Somehow, and I am unclear on how or when this will happen, Maitreya will come to earth and obtain enlightenment, which will allow him to provide Dharma, the teaching of Buddha, to the rest of us. In the meantime, we can think of him as one who is happy and spreads happiness. Terry said Maitreya is also the patron saint for sick children.
Siddhārtha Gautama, who Terry referred to as Śākyamuni Buddha, was the original founder of Buddhism and he is an enlightened being who knows all: He knows the past, present, future and all karma of all knowing. He is the destroyer of all illusion and all suffering. He became all knowing by renouncing all things, going into the forest and sitting under a Bodhi, a sacred fig tree, for 14 days. After he became enlightened, Buddha went to northern India via the Verona Sea and he did not speak to anyone for five months. I’m not clear what happened after that, but all monks today worship “The Prince.”
While touring the grounds, I asked Terry about some of the other life-size statues positioned around the temple. He said that reciting prayer to Quán Thế m, known worldwide as Avalokiteśvara, the white mother Bodhisattva who listens to the suffering in the world, can help us feel happy, too. Avalokitesvara is particularly helpful in creating fertility for those wishing to bear a child; and he is revered for his compassion toward those on earth.
A grand bronze chuông, or bell, near the temple entrance serves to “make the consciousness happy and destroy suffering.” Small bells are also used during chanting ceremonies, perhaps to entertain those most concerned about our enlightenment. Traditionally, larger bells are used to summon monks to the main hall.
Since that lovely afternoon, Terry has text me invitations to ceremonies, which I will attend in the near future. Terry said if I want to begin my path to enlightenment, I could practice everyday and become an Arahan, the lowest Buddhahood, and the first step toward changing my karma. If I were to really study Buddhism, I would move to McLeod Ganj, India for a year and spend time with the Dali Lama when he’s at home. The Buddhist principles and philosophies are certainly worthy of further pursuit, even if just from an anthropological perspective.
(Terry’s childhood based loosely on a true story.)
Miller, Edward. “Religious Revival and the Politics of Nation Building: Reinterpreting the 1963 ‘Buddhist Crisis’ in South Vietnam.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 49, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1903-1962
Myers-Moro, Pamela A. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Dubuque, McGraw-Hill Companies, 2013.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. “Buddhism and Human Freedom.” Buddhist – Christian Studies, vol. 18, 1998, pp. 63-68