It just so happens that a friend from Arizona traveled with my family to Saigon and is staying with us for several weeks while he is in town. It also just so happens that he’s a Buddhist monk.
He was once a successful Wall Street trader. Today he is a monk.
Someday I’ll share his story, which is interesting and a little mind boggling, but not today. Today, it’s all about the monastery we went to visit the day after I arrived in Saigon.
This monastery, located several hours South of Saigon, is also the home to a monastic school. The property is extensive with many temples, incredible gardens, a small business that makes and sells vegetarian foods in order to support the monastery, and the school, which has dorms, a cafeteria and learning centers built around central courtyards that are straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was a little surreal.
It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. It was quiet and slow. It was a place where people bowed to each other in respect when passing, smiled and gestured softly. You could hear the laughter of kids mixed in with the chanting and prayers of monks in nearby temples. Everywhere you walked there were monks working: trimming trees, sweeping paths, working on construction projects.
Below are the two monks who traveled with us: on the left (in mustard) is our friend from Arizona; on the right (in gray) is a longtime student of our friend. He is Vietnamese, but has spent the past many years studying Buddhism in India. He came to visit his teacher (our friend) and spend some time with us.
He was absolutely lovely. Doesn’t he have the sweetest smile?
Here’s Minh, paying his respect in one of the many temples.
We got a chance to visit the dormitories and personal areas that are normally closed to visitors. We were allowed a sneak peek into daily life at the monastery and school.
We happened to arrive at lunch time so the kids were headed to the cafeteria, each with their bowl and chopsticks in hand.
Here’s one of the many boards throughout the property that list chores and who is responsible for it. Things like: Sweep the patio.
On the left, a library. On the right, one of the many amazing natural arrangements displayed throughout the property. I’m telling you the gardens of this property were impressive and meticulously tended.
The bathing and laundry building was immaculate. You could have eaten off the floor. I was so impressed.
And because we were visiting with two monks we were invited to eat in the dining area reserved for the elder clergy. It was a huge room that contained about 60 round tables, each seating 8 to 10 people. It was very dark and cool, a respite from the humidity and heat.
It was also very quiet. Monks practice silence when they eat in order to be more mindful of the food that they are taking in. And I can tell you, this was not easy for our family. Some shushing was done.
The fare is entirely vegetarian and made from fresh, local foods. It was interesting that we all remarked on the flavors of the dishes. All of the flavors were represented by different dishes: bitter, sour, salty, sweet … we wondered if this was intentional. I would not be surprised if it was. Regardless, the food was fantastic.
We were also instructed to please eat with our spoon and only use our chopsticks to select food from the communal dishes in order to avoid contamination. That’s actually harder to do then you might think.
And the golden drink you see below was fresh passion fruit juice. Holy cow—sooooo delicious.
The kids all eat outside at round stone tables set beneath the canopy of trees. After our meal we went to visit with them.
In the end you realize that kids are just kids, they laugh and tease each other, they play with their food.
About 30% of these kids go on to become monks, the rest go back into the secular world after they finish schooling.
Visiting this monastery was so beautiful and interesting. I felt lucky to get this peek into a life so completely different from my own.