Finding Zen in Vietnam

When I decided to go to South East Asia, one thing that I wanted was to learn about Buddhism, however, some people advised me that I wouldn’t find places to join in Vietnam, my first stop. So, I visited pagodas all over the country but always just as a tourist. And it wasn’t until I reached Da Lat, a cute city in the South, that I finally had some sort of deeper experience with Buddhism. And all happened by chance, as does the best experiences in life.

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Da Lat – South Vietnam.

It was a sunny day in Da Lat, perfect day for a bicycle ride. I chose to go up the mountain to a monastery close by, more because of the ride than because of the place itself, I have to admit. Unaware that this was the beginning of a peaceful journey and my encounter with meditation.

Arriving there I discovered that Truc Lam Monastery is not just another pagoda. Its location, on the top of a mountain, the cool climate and the amazing gardens that surround the temple with a great variety of flowers and colours make this one of the most peaceful places I had ever been. You can easily spend the day there.

After walking around a bit, I noticed some people eating lunch and because I love Vietnamese food, I had to ask if I could join. A monk pointed me towards the master teacher, who invited me for lunch while we chatted a little in Spanish. He is such a joyful man with a great sense of humour. The master then told me that it was possible to come as a guest and learn how to meditate with the nuns. This was a sign! Exactly what I was hoping for before I came to Asia, joining a monastery and experiencing life with nuns. So, without hesitation, I agreed to come the next day at 6am to begin my journey, although I had no idea what I was agreeing to do.

Next day, I couldn’t believe but there I was. The nun manager greeted me and gave me some kind of uniform that I should wear and showed me my room. Not many words were spoken. Clothes changed; time to have breakfast, which is a ritual that involves a lot of chanting and mindful movements. There is no much talking and I felt awkward, trying to copy the ways of me colleagues, nuns to-be, around the table. Most of them young, in their 20s. After eating delicious vegan food, time to do some work around the house before my first meditation lesson.

IMG_0674 She gave me a square cushion and a small one to lift my body and asked me if I could sit in full lotus position. What? I tried, but I didn’t get any close to that. She laughed at my clumsy ways and total lack of flexibility, and eventually gave up showing me how to do it. So with much effort, I tried my best to sit in a position that would at least reassemble that of hers. Surprisingly to me, Zen meditation involves a lot of body work, stretching and, at least to this stiff body of mine, pain. As I tried to maintain my “great” not lotus at all posture, my duty was to count my breath until 10 and then start again. What could be simpler than that right? Well, try it and tell me. I lost count, I counted until 30 or so, I started thinking of the most useless things… and then I began to understand a little how difficult is this thing called meditation, the art of emptying the mind and focusing on the now.

After meditating, or at least trying to do it for 30 minutes, it was already time for lunch. The ritual would be similar to the breakfast. Again, we started it with chanting, and proceeded to eat delicious vegan food and not speaking. The idea, one nun later told me, is to be focused on the food during meals. In fact this is the whole idea behind meditation and Zen Buddhism, being able to be present in the moment you are living. A pretty simple task, but so hard to achieve.

Having eaten and cleaning the dishes, time for a nap till 2pm, to wake up for some more meditation. I was given some books to help me understand meditation and Buddhism and I could read them in my spare time, while looking at the marvellous gardens. In this monastery they really take care of the gardens. You can see nuns working on them most of the time. This was one of my favourite jobs there. They also grow some vegetables and fruits that are used to cook the meals. Ah, and of course I wanted to see how they cook such beautiful food. The kitchen is huge, as there are almost 200 nuns in the monastery. And they use firewood – that’s the secret!

In the following days my routine would be similar: chanting, eating, meditating, reading, doing some work around the house and contemplating the beautiful gardens. I also had the chance to speak to some nuns. One in particular, was keen to speak to us, the two foreigners there. She was 20 years old and had joined the monastery one year before. She told me that prior to coming to the monastery she was feeling empty working a lot in a company and didn’t have the time to do the things she liked. She began to question what was the point to work the whole life and just be able to enjoy the things she liked when turned old. The kind of questioning we all go through at some point in our lives, isn’t it? She told me that in the monastery she felt happy and could study and dedicate herself to what she liked. She wanted to learn Buddhism to be able to help others who want to lead better lives. Such a cheerful and happy young lady with mature and lucid words. Talking to her reminded me that we are all in search for a meaningful life and that are several different paths we choose in this pursue.

The meditation itself got a little easier with the time, my body started to grow accustomed to the position, although it still hurts, and I could focus for a little longer. Some days I would practice twice a day for almost an hour. These practices gave would calm my mind down, make relax and give me sense of organizing the drawers of my thoughts.

I visited the monastery everyday for four days, I wasn’t allowed to sleep there, but could stay until around 7pm to join the chantings. And, although it was not a very long time, I can tell you that the quality was immense and I am still digesting all that I have learned from just watching life peacefully, eating quietly, speaking less and simply counting my breath. Meditation and Buddhist are so simple and yet so difficult to experience. They are part of my journey in life now, from time to time I find myself meditating in different places and it gives me a feeling of happiness that I had never experienced before.  I hope to continue with my journey and keep learning more and more each day.

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