I spent this Thanksgiving at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. I had wanted to work a little meditation retreat into my trip, and Thanksgiving seemed like an appropriate time for contemplation and reflection. I felt I needed to do something to mark the holiday, to justify spending it away from home.
This was my second Thanksgiving apart from family. The first, six years ago after studying abroad in Australia, included a camper van and three friends as we travelled around Tasmania. We found a pay phone and took turns calling our families, then made stir-fry. Something about spending holidays away from the people you love makes the ones you spend with them that much more meaningful.
Arranging this trip to the temple had taken a bit of effort. Unlike other countries (say, India) where I imagine there is a meditation center on every corner, things aren’t really set up in Vietnam for foreigners to stay and meditate for multiple days, especially if you don’t speak the language. A family friend had suggested I try to stay at a temple with all women. They do take visitors, but it requires a bit of formality and prearranging. I called one Vietnamese temple in California and visited another to meet with the abbess. She recommended I stay at Vien Chieu, the temple she was originally from. The temple is in Dong Nai province, a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.
The all-female temple is home to 150 nuns and nuns-in-training. My experiences during two nights there can easily fill another blog post, so for this one, I’ll just focus on meditating and eating (in the spirit of Thanksgiving).
To get a sense of the place, it’s worth sharing the daily schedule:
3:00 am: Wake up to the sound of the big bell
3:30-5:00 am: Sitting meditation
5:30-6:00 am: Chanting prayers
6:30 am: Breakfast.
7:30-11 am: Do chores, work around the temple.
11:00 am: Lunch
Noon-1:00 pm: Sleep
1:00-400 pm: Dharma lessons and/or meditation
4:00-6:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm: Chanting prayers
7:30-8:30 pm: Sitting meditation
9:00 pm: Sleep.
The only time I’ve ever meditated consistently was five years ago, during a three-month stay at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington. Those three months were also some of the best of my life, an experience I can’t help but describe as “magical.” Although it was wonderful for all kinds of reasons, I sometimes wonder how much the meditation helped with my mental outlook. What kept me consistent was having a buddy, another girl who sat with me for 20 or 30 minutes every day before breakfast. Being accountable to someone else gave me the motivation to get out of bed a little earlier — which back then was only 7 am or so.
So now consider 3 am. At that hour, it helps not only to have a buddy, but also a giant bell that sounds a like a cross between a gong and an enormous clock chiming. It rings in a low, rhythmic but insistent tone, prying me from sleep. I grab my two cushions, a large, flat square one and a taller round one, and head downstairs from the guesthouse where I’m sleeping.
In the kitchen, a young novice nun hands me a pack of instant sweet coffee and a small glass. She pours in about a quarter of the hot water I normally use. I almost ask for more, then watch her gulp down her own strong glass in a few sips, almost like a shot. It’s time to get moving.
In the pre-dawn darkness, under glittering stars, we head to the meditation hall, a beautiful building shiny with dark, polished wood. We climb the curved wooden stairs. The novices carry cushions for some of the older nuns. The nuns sit in two long rows on either side of the long hall; the novices and I sit on the balcony, facing outwards.
Before sitting, we line up in two long rows, facing each other, and they chant some prayers. The big bell sounds, someone else beats a drum. The rising and falling tones of Vietnamese lend themselves well to singing. It sounds almost Native American. It’s enough to get your heart going.
We prostrate to a statue of the Buddha three times, then disperse to our cushions. The big bell sounds a few more times. Then, silence. Except, not really. Crickets chirp, a few early morning birds twitter. During the evening sessions, frogs croak in the pond and dogs bark in the distance. Bats flit around the white flowers of the large tree in front of me. There are plenty of stimuli to distract me from the task at hand if I want them too.
The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it was always completely dark.
The nuns practice zen meditation, which, in theory, appears deceptively simple. Observe your mind. Notice when a thought arises. Realize it is just an illusion. Let it go. Return to observing your mind. Simple, until you realize just how incessantly and thoroughly your mind fills with thoughts. Thinking about people, places, events that have happened or have yet to happen. These thoughts that bring about our happiness and sadness—they don’t really exist. They’re just projections that prevent us from truly experiencing the present moment.
The first evening I sat with the nuns felt like the longest hour ever. My thoughts jumped all over the place. I felt almost afraid of quieting my mind, afraid of the emptiness I would find if I let go of my world of thoughts. I felt myself tensing up, thinking that all of this was hard work, how exhausting it was to watch my mind at every moment. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I felt myself relax. I’ve read that sitting on the cushion should just be an extension of your real life. Your mind should be in a similar, watchful state at all times. Except on the cushion, there are fewer distractions. It’s the training ground—and it can be challenging enough.
There are distractions aplenty for an untrained mind. In addition to the sounds of nature, I found myself puzzling over a periodic, wooden sound, thwack, thwack, THWACK, like two blocks hitting each other. Was it some kind of ritual happening behind me? Then one of the walking nuns knelt next to the woman sitting next to me, who rubbed her shoulder slightly. The kneeling nun proceeded to whack the sitter on the back with what looked like a wooden flyswatter. Thwack, thwack, THWACK. Clearly this was welcome relief for a cramping muscle, because the sitter acknowledged the thwacking with a little bow. But for me it brought to mind the image of Catholic nuns wielding rulers in the schoolroom. I couldn’t help but tense up when the walking shadows passed by. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me… Kind of funny to think about it now.
Sitting for long periods can definitely cramp up your body. After thirty minutes, the cushion felt as hard as a stone. Trying to shift my crossed legs discretely was a challenge —like the nuns, I was dressed in a long shirt and pants, with an outer tunic-like dress over that. And I was sweating. My legs and fabric and everything felt stuck together. The sun wasn’t even up. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to sit here at the height of summer in its muggy, humid glory.
On the second morning, it dawned on me as the bell sounded and we settled down to sit, that for everyone except for me, this was the real deal. This wasn’t some special event, and certainly nothing staged for my benefit as a tourist. Every single morning and evening, these women sit and confront the true, stripped-down nature of their minds. And though I admired them for it, I found myself relieved, almost desperate, to return to my familiar world of distractions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the sensory pleasures of the world actually bring you suffering in their impermanence. It’s another thing to walk the talk, to renounce them entirely.
A little wind chime over my head faked me out once or twice during the sessions into thinking the meditation was over. Another time, I stole a glance at my watch and it was 4:59. The session ended at 5 am—couldn’t I have held out for just one minute longer? The bell sounded to mark the end of the meditation, and the nuns spent a good five or seven minutes stretching and massaging their faces, necks, backs and limbs. I always felt relieved.
Altogether, I sat five times over the course of three days, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. Each time was a challenge, though it got easier. And in the best moments, it became clear how many of the things that cause me stress and distress don’t really exist. That I can have more control over what runs through my head. That I’m mentally stronger than I think I am.
And now, a few words on eating. The vegetarian meals I ate with everyone in their common area—breakfast and lunch—were marked with ceremony. Once everyone has piled up their food, buffet style, and filed into the cafeteria, the nuns recite some prayers and bless the meal.
The Buddha instructed five basic points for monks and nuns to contemplate while eating in silence. Huan, my translator, broke it down for me like this:
1. Think about all the people and effort necessary to bring this food in front of you.
2. Contemplate your virtues: have you worked hard enough to earn this food others have given to you?
3. Guard against being greedy in your eating.
4. See the food as medicine to nourish your body (more than a source of pleasure)
5. The purpose for eating this food and nourishing your body is to study the Buddhist path and help yourself and others reach enlightenment.
To me, these seemed like fitting reflections for Thanksgiving. The nuns recite the contemplations, then bless their bowls of rice. You balance the bowl on three fingers of your left hand and hold it to your forehead.
On Friday morning, around the time many people back in the US gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, I sat down to a breakfast of rice, greens, eggplant—and, to my great delight, butternut squash. Golden and delicious, and one of my holiday favorites, it felt comforting to eat thousands of miles from home. We also had a bright pink broth, the color of beets (or cranberries) that looked festive, but was rather sour, and I think flavored with some kind of fruit. Bananas for desert.
All in all, it was a holiday unlike any other, and one I’ll remember for a long time. And I even made it back to my cousin’s house on Friday after an eventful bus ride (25 people crammed into a 12-seater van, the woman next to me throwing up into a plastic bag…) to Skype my family at the end of their Thanksgiving. After being “away from it all” for a few days, there’s nothing like technology to bridge the distance of an ocean.