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Touching Roots in Vietnam

By Cynthia Jurs

In November 1992, Sister Annabel, Joan Halifax, Hugh Wheir, and I went to Vietnam on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist sacred places in the north and to visit Thay's homeland and temples in Hue. Here are some impressions.

A small boat gliding gently through channels of water carved into rocky landscapes lush with forest, took us to the Pure Land of Perfume where the daughter of the evil king became enlightened in a cave centuries ago. The bodhisattva Avalokita's presence is still felt, and although communism has drowned out much of Buddhist practice in Vietnam, the spirit is still alive in the pilgrims who come to the Perfume Pagoda near Hanoi to pray for help along the way. As we ascended Mount Yen Tu, the most sacred pilgrimage site in Vietnam where generations of Buddhist patriarchs lived and taught, we saw the Little Hermitage of the Sleeping Clouds as well as many other pagodas.

Hue is the land of temples and inspiring nuns and monks. Colors of lavender blue, elegant foods, and indescribable beauty everywhere. A home, a family lost, never before known, now found. We visited these places for Thay, who has never been to these sacred sites in the North and cannot go back. We tried to see with his eyes and walk with his presence in our hearts. We could not speak his name, there is danger in doing so. But in our shoes we wore the sticker, "I walk for you."

In Hue, we carried the original handwritten manuscript in Vietnamese of Transformation and Healing to his home temple. The monks and nuns there have built a beautiful meditation hut for Thay. After a feast of the most abundant delicacies we had ever tasted in all our lives, we made our way in the misty rain to Thay's hut. We offered Thay's text ceremoniously and joined our hearts as tears began to fall. Our Vietnamese brothers and sisters cried to feel Thay's presence, and we, to feel their pain and long suffering. We shared deeply as each one of us spoke, and then we sang songs and read poetry. Tea was brought to the hut, and we discovered the source of much that Thay has brought to us in the West—the natural ways of the Vietnamese to sing, share tea, and gently offer, "a lotus for you, a Buddha to be."

With the sound of the bell we came back to our true selves and were hushed to deep silence with the beauty of the courtyard at the temple where Thay lived as a novice. We walked down the bamboo-lined path through a forest of tall, slim trees to the gate and half-moon pond, then up the path to the temple. The courtyard has bonsai plants of many kinds that are tended on stands in porcelain pots. Under our feet were dark, smooth, wooden walkways, and at our sides intricate mosaics of dragons and phoenix. The temple itself was dark wood and golden light. A grand Buddha smiled down behind countless offerings, bodhisattvas, ancestors, and patriarchs. This place is a well-kept secret, a refuge from the storm. Reverence awakens immediately upon entering. This is a spiritual homeland. Every detail is filled with care. The old ways are intact. The persimmon tree that Thay had planted as a novice has grown tall and fruitful. We were given fruit to take to Thay and were humbled by the generosity we encountered everywhere.

Each temple we visited is the home of an inspired nun or monk who teaches and works tirelessly. The gentle beauty of their ways moved us deeply. With deep understanding, they live lives of truly engaged Buddhism, embodying so directly all that Thay has taught. Even after practicing for a lifetime, they still carry love and devotion to Thay, and a yearning for him to return home. The soft colors, the gray of their robes, the blue wash of the walls in rooms filled with smiles and flowers touched and transformed us. We saw pagodas named Plum Blossom and Mountain of Merit. We met venerables who remember Thay from when he was a novice, wise ones who have lived through war, and young ones who carry on. A large white statue of Quan Te Am stood outside Gratitude Temple facing a beautiful pond. There is a feminine force of wisdom in Hue that penetrates each stone.

There is also the presence of strong outspoken monks who still threaten the government with their politics of compassion and do not let things go unnoticed. They bear witness to the oppression and injustice and open our eyes to the unforgivable suffering that still goes on today.

Our last meal in Hue was taken at the temple of our gentle yet powerful guide and leader of engaged Buddhism, Nu Minh. Before dawn, Nu Minh would ride her motorbike out into the countryside to help the underprivileged, and then return to give a Dharma talk, and take us around afterwards. The last dish of this meal was a lavender-purple sweet soup made from a kind of tuber. It was the color of the walls in our hotel and many of the homes of nuns, monks, and of the temples we visited. This color had filled our dreams and now we took it into us, the taste of Vietnam. In Plum Village on our way home, we visited Thay and Sister Chan Khong to report on the trip. Thay told us that the cover of his new book was this color too. Touching peace and the roots of our practice lineage in Vietnam, our lives have been enriched beyond words. Going to the source of our teacher's wisdom, seeing the magical and enchanting nature his Dharma has blossomed from, we understand much more.

The Vietnamese landscape entered our bones and brought home to us the vows we have taken, the lineage we are a part of. This earth we are connected to, this culture we have learned from, this country we have warred with. Let the wounds be healed. Let teacher and world leader Thich Nhat Hanh, return to his home. Let peace begin with me.

Cynthia Jurs, True Source, leads ongoing mindfulness practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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