Sunday, April 17, 2005

Hue, Vietnam
Zen Monastery

monastery gate

We had told the driver to take us to the monastery and he had assured us that he knew the way. Several times along the road, however, he pulled over the cab, walked up to a roadside vendor and after a short and uncertain exchange got back in the cab and continued driving.

We had left the main town of Hue much earlier in the evening. The haze glow of streetlights had been replaced by the occasional small fire or the raw, hanging lightbulbs which illumnated a small hovel or the faces of people huddled together in a tiny, earthy shack.

We almost drove right by the main monastery gate. It was not marked by any lights but as the headlights of our car swung around in the dark they revealed a large stone gate crowded with writing. Driving through the gate led to only more confusion as the road forked into many paths. We drove around wildly until, after a sudden left turn, the main gate which led to the monastery grounds appeared only a few feet away.

We got out of the car and I took out my camera that night for the first and only time. Our taxi sat there at the gate like a parked spaceship. We told our driver we needed to go on foot from here and would he sit and wait for us. We would try to return within an hour.

And so we walked through the gardens in complete darkness. We felt out and walked carefully on a gravel path which surrounded a series of black ponds. The only accompaniment to the sound of our shuffling feet were crickets and the sounds of both leaves and water. We guided ourselves by a small light we had seen in the distance.

When we reached the dimly lit building, a young aspirant in brown robes saw us and ran out to meet us. His aspirant status was marked by a thick lock of hair which dangled from his otherwise bald head. He motioned us to sit at a table and we bowed to him as he bowed to us in return. Several young boys appeared and stood back from us, watching us carefully as they cupped their hands to their mouths and hid their small giggles.

"How may I help you?" the young aspirant asked us with a broad smile. A. explained to him that she was here looking for two monks who were visiting from a monastery in France. He left us and returned a short while later. "They are in Meditation right now." he said and a after a short silence added "Would you like to join us in Meditation?"

At first led through the darkness, we walked into a broad temple where all the long wide doors had been flung open. About twenty monks, young and old, were taking their places on the stone floor. We followed, we with our loud Westerner clothes, removed our shoes and walked with as much grace as we could muster settling ourselves down cross-legged into our mats. As we sat down, a light rain had begun to fall outside. Gusts came in from outside and rippled through the monks robes as their bodies and ours tried to be still as statues.

During the hour of silent mediatation followed by a half-hour of chanting sutras, I was certain that I had killed all circulation in my legs several times. I imagined myself hobbling out after the meditation as a dissapointing casualty.

Like a magician at the crossroads
who summons up an illusory crowd and cuts off all their heads
And so, all worlds are equally illusory
And with this knowledge, he had no fear

After the meditation and chant (I memorized the one above) we slowly walked out of the temple in procession. A small dog had entered the temple during our all of our chanting and then had lain down across the floor and fallen asleep. The monks now scattered out of the temple, slipping on their sandals, and dashing off into the woods.

We could still hear the crackle of the rain outside and so we huddled just outside the temple. An elder monk came to greet us and to chat. He had dispatched several young monks to go fetch us umbrellas.

We again walked back through the darkness but this time each of us walked through the forest arm-in-arm with a monk holding an umbrella, leading the way. We formed an impromptu procession, all of us paired with a monk, sheltered by an umbrella, walking together through the dark woods. Their feet knew the path and at each imminent step or rise, my escort would whisper to me something like "Hup!" so that I would avoid a stumble.

The taxi was still there. We saw it from afar. With its headlights on, it was moving back and forth, back and forth, trying desperately to turn around in a small space. With its roar and its lights, it reminded me of some fantastic trapped beast.

The taxi driver saw all of us emerge from the woods and was astonished. We held hands with the monks and said goodbye.

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