A way of life that we lose at our peril

(No.4, Vol.3, May 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

How does a regular Buddhist, that is to say, a lay person, and not a monk, travel the Buddhist path? Does it consist of going to the pagoda, making an offering, and taking refuge in the three gems (Buddha, dharma and Sangha)? Is it keeping the five precepts, saying the prayers, studying the sutras and practising the dharma?

At Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, Dist.3,
Ho Chi Minh City, 2012.
Photo: Dang Kim Phuong

In my opinion, burning incense sticks, offering flowers on altars and taking a vegetarian diet on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month are things that a regular Buddhist does. The first among the five precepts is usually not obeyed strictly- two days a month are enough to remind the Buddhists to practise the compassionate mind, trying not to kill the living beings. Besides, setting their mind toward Buddha will help them to be conscious about the other four precepts: no drinking excessively, no committing adultery, no lying, and no stealing.
As a Buddhist I practise this way, and inherited a family tradition. My father had spent his entire life doing pagoda services and reading voraciously the Buddhist sutras, whereas my mother, although spending her life taking care of our family, had always kept the altar in good shape, getting flowers and incense sticks for anniversaries. She rarely went to the pagoda, but any time she went, she worshipped the Buddha very solemnly, greeted the venerables, said ‘hello’ to the nuns and everybody, and then went to visit the towers. In a Buddhist pagoda there are usually towers to keep the remains of the monks.
Following a vegetarian diet on the 1st and the 15th days every lunar month and setting our minds toward the three gems are our family’s traditions; and I think that we need to maintain very good customs that will be transferred from generation to generation, otherwise family life would decline. A people without a cultural identity could be controlled by foreign influences. It is the tradition of taking a vegetarian diet on those two days, as well as practising how to keep the karmas of the body, the mouth and the mind from developing in the wrong way that has helped to maintain the cultural tradition of Vietnam for thousands of years. In Hue, that tradition had, in the past, been shown very clearly at the Buddhist pagodas, in the home, or at the inns or restaurants, where only a vegetarian diet was prepared on those two days. To this day, Hue still has a reputation as a Buddhist stronghold.

At On Lang Pagoda, Dist.5,
Ho Chi Minh City.
Photos: Thu Ba

It does not seem to be very easy to strictly follow a vegetarian diet on those two days, especially for young people whose mind is occupied with worldly pleasures. Several decades ago, the vegetarian diet consisted only of soy sauce, soya bean curd, soya bean sauce, vegetables and the ‘meat’ of a jack-fruit; young people did not enjoy a vegetarian diet very much. The older I got, the more I realized that the delicacy comes not only from the food but also from the perception that we should respect every living being's life, the perception that we could enjoy the pure and refined source of nature, and especially the perception of being able to enjoy a purified mind. Therefore, the vegetarian food as well as the dishes and plates, should always be very clean and sanitary.
Moreover, the cook, as well as the people who make the vegetarian offering, should be respectful in every detail, in the preparation of the flower and fruit arrangement, the cooking of food and in personal manners. That is the lesson I’ve learned from my parents.
Since my father died, my mother had been more interested in the worshiping of Buddha. Besides burning sticks and offering flowers on the altar, my mother had prepared a tray of vegetarian food for the worshiping of my father and our ancestors every month on the 1st and the 15th days, which she had never done before. Later on, even after my mother has died, I keep on doing what she had been doing, first to show my gratitude toward Buddha for allowing me to live the right way, and at the same time towards my parents for having set the Buddhist example for me to follow.
On the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month and on the anniversaries, my parents used to go to the pagoda and to attend the meetings of the Buddhist organizations, but I didn’t. It seems people of my generation go to the pagoda less often than the previous generations, and the younger generation do even less.
However, a lucky chance came when the nun who resided in a pagoda on the outskirts of Hue told me to come on the 1st and the 15th days every lunar month to worship Buddha and eat vegetarian food; there would be lots of fun, she said. The pagoda is hidden on a quiet plot. Before, it was a low-lying and muddy plot, but the nun had it filled with dirt and then built a spacious pagoda, with a majestic hall, fruit trees and a nice lotus pond and lots of green vegetables.

At On Lang Pagoda, Dist.5,
Ho Chi Minh City.
Photos: Thu Ba

Only the nun and one disciple live in the pagoda; during the day when the disciple has gone to school, the pagoda is so quiet, except on the 1st and the 15th days of every lunar month, when the pagoda is filled with the boisterous noise and laughter of guests.
Like many pagodas in Hue, there are always preparations for offering of food to the unknown discarnates in the evening. Surprised to see dishes and plates of food displayed on a mat on the ground, I asked the nun the reason for this, and she told me that was for the Cham who had died in this area. This is also the time for the Buddhist followers who belong to the pagoda to get together, do pagoda services and eat after they come back from work. Most of these people are shop-keepers from Dong Ba Market. They are busy working all day, and only toward late in the evening can they put up their merchandise before they can go back and do the pagoda services. All of them are middle-aged, have been traders for a long time and are the ‘core personnel’ of the pagoda on the 1st and the 15th days of the lunar month. The ‘core’ also includes those who worked in other areas. As for me and some other people, including government officials, retired teachers, as well as some others with no steady job, we come on invitation by the nun. Many people were family members of the ‘core personnel’ and their friends, young teens and old people, high school and college students joined the festivities. I enjoyed having fun with these teenagers, and I wondered why they came to the pagoda instead of roaming around for worldly fun.
After the ceremony was over, the youngsters went to the garden to help do the cooking, prepare the offerings and make arrangements of flower pots and the incense-burner. Then everybody sat around a long table and ate dinner together. The nun walked around and talked to the guests, mostly about daily activities. She usually told the guests stories about karmic retribution, reincarnation, etc.
It was subjects like these to which the store keepers enjoyed listening. Isn’t that the reason why people would be honest in their commercial activities? Isn’t that the reason why the religious activities would exert a big influence on people’s minds, the young people as well as the old ones?
But nowadays, the national education lets that kind of teaching pass unnoticed, and the negative results in our country are obvious.

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