In addition to Prof, I connected with Tom and Tum, a married couple who drove from Hanoi to volunteer at Tam Chuc. We met in the lunch line on the first day and struck up a conversation about Buddhism. Although we never had an opportunity to finish the discussion, Tom invited me for tea when we got back to Hanoi. As promised, he picked me up from my hotel on his electric motorcycle and whisked me across town. We bobbed and weaved through capricious traffic, and 30 minutes later we were having tea in their apartment overlooking Westlake, (the largest in Hanoi).
“Many people confuse Buddhism with a religion when in fact it’s more of a way of life”, started Tum. I was ignorant and fell into the “many people” category she referred to. She continued to explain their core beliefs, which could be summarized into three basic principles. Firstly, do good. Second, do no harm to others and lastly, expand your mind. The third principle relates to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. It all sounded very simple, yet Tom insisted that these were not merely automatic statements. These tenants formed the bedrock of their belief system. Tom chipped-in as the conversation steered toward the ego, “learn to seek the I. The moment you say I, an invisible barrier appears because I am not you. He sensed the stupefaction on my face and clarified, “well, it all starts with us. Humans carry a sense of doubt and insecurity, therefore we need to hold on to something in order to cope, and the first thing we grasp is this sense of I.” It still did not make sense, how can we function without the recognition of the I?
Tum remarked, “this is why we refer to relative and absolute truth in Buddhism”. On a relative level, it makes complete sense to have identities because they help us distinguish between objects, people and places. It allows our brain to create order and helps us organize our lives, this is not the challenge. What concerned Tom was how we related to the I. Therefore, if we hang on to the distinction between I and you, you are more likely to do the same in other areas. For example, Northerner vs Southerner, black vs white, American vs Mexican or Hindu vs Christian. We take concepts that separate us and pit them against each other, without recognizing that they are merely constructions. “Holding on to them for security is how we continue to hurt ourselves'', said Tom.
The absolute truth extends beyond concepts and time. Ultimately any label (table, chair, democracy, socialism, I, you etc.), is a concept that lacks substantial value in the greater scheme of things. Tum knocked on the wood in front of me, “in the same way this coffee table will disintegrate, so shall our bodies breakdown when we die. Time will reduce us all to a molecular level, this is an absolute fact.” My encounter with Dr. Siri came to mind, now I understood what he meant. It was getting late but the green tea kept flowing and we had passed the two hour mark. I didn’t want to impose on their dinner plans, so I offered to call a taxi. “Why don’t you join us for dinner? We planned to grab some Pho in the Old Quarter” asked Tom. I obliged on the condition that I could order a beef dish. We hopped into a taxi, made our way down to the Lantern Restaurant and continued the dialogue.
Andrew Williams was a rock star, he had an extensive career in the entertainment industry, starting out as a songwriter and musician in Australia. As his profile grew he explored other talents, became a thespian and emigrated to Los Angeles, California. He soon became known to television audiences around the world, for his acting roles in shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Acapulco H.E.A.T and my personal favorite Melrose Place. I was curious to know what brought him to this point of his life and how he became a Buddhist monk. We were on a boat, headed to see the cultural performance show with the other international delegates. He opened up, “I lived an excessive life. Fame brought an abundance of women and the debaucherous lifestyle nearly cost me my life”. Andrew soon found himself at a crossroads, either he adapted, changed or he would die. He was introduced to meditation by an old friend, and decided to study Buddhism shortly after. “I received teachings in all of the three major Buddhist traditions, Vajrayana Theravada and Mahayana,'' he explained.
I respected his position but wondered whether the decision to devote his entire life, and become ordained was not misguided. It seemed like an extreme way to deal with his addiction to liquor and sex. I pressed him, “why didn’t you simply seek a more traditional approach?” LA surely didn’t have a shortage of therapists or rehabilitation centres. He spoke softly, “my problems were structural and life was completely meaningless back then. No amount of therapy could fix that.” We reached our destination and exchanged business cards. I didn’t think we would meet again after that fateful boat ride, however on the last day, I found Andrew in a que as he waited to board a bus back to his hotel. As I approached him to say goodbye, the bus driver abruptly announced that departure was delayed for another 45 minutes. So we decided to take one last stroll around the temple.
We occupied two empty chairs facing the lake and observed the view in silence. Dubbed the “Ha Long Bay on land”, the middle of the freshwater lake had six small limestone mountains, poking up toward the heavens. Large cumulonimbus clouds loomed in the background and I could feel the cool breeze blow through my white linen suit. “So did any of your records ever break the Billboard Top 100”? I had to ask. Andrew giggled and answered, “no but they had a major impact in Australia.” He was a good sport, so I didn’t hesitate to ask for a song. He started singing as three Buddhist nuns walked by taking pictures. After five minutes, another group of nuns joined and before we knew it, we were surrounded by 25-30 nuns singing along to “Namo Sakyamuni Buddha”. This was the single most spiritual moment of the trip and it consumed me whole. This is why I was here, my question had been answered.
Officially I was here to represent an African Think Tank, at a conference hosted by the UNDV International Organizing Committee. Perhaps it was the principle of causation that earned us an invitation. Over the years, our institute greatly supported the United Nations sustainable development goals. Was this possibly good Karma in effect? Maybe it was more of a public relations exercise by the Vietnamese government. Either way, the experience deeply enriched my mind and spirit. Overall Vietnam taught me to rejoice in suffering, for only then will you know the true meaning of happiness. Like two sides of a coin, happiness and suffering are the same. We all want to be happy, so we fight. We fight other people, and at times, we fight ourselves to satisfy the I. When you begin to investigate absolute truth to the highest level, you will find emptiness and attain true Enlightenment. Our body is solid but it’s nature is empty, because one day, it will return to the dust from which it came. So in the words of Dr. Siri, “be happy, everything else is ego.”
At the airport, I passed through immigration in record time. As I walked through duty free, my conversation with Tum and Tom came to mind. When you do something for your own benefit, the feeling of joy is fleeting. However, when you do something for the benefit of others, your joy is permanent. I casually strolled into the souvenir store and purchased a Good Morning Vietnam t-shirt.
The journey to the opening ceremony led us to Ha Nam Province, a short drive from Hanoi. Delegates were ushered into buses and the entire 70km journey was fast-tracked with the help of a police escort. I peered out of the window and observed the change from urban to rural landscape. The dense metropolis of Hanoi’s skyline was soon replaced by Tilapia farms and paddy fields. I noticed thousands of flags lining the streets towards the venue, each draped in the same colours (yellow, blue, red, white and orange). Intrigued, I turned to my neighbour Amir, a delegate from India and asked him if he knew the meaning of the flags? He leaned over from his aisle seat, poked into my personal space and peeped out my window. “Ah,'' he screeched. “This is the Buddhist flag! The colors of the flag are the same colors of the aura that emerged from the Buddha’s body after he effectuated Enlightenment.” Deep. As we approached the venue, the masses poured alongside the road to wave and welcome the convoy of dignitaries descending into their province. By the time we drove through the entrance, the bus came to a near standstill. The number of people had swelled from hundreds to thousands, we finally arrived at the renowned Tum Chuc Pogoda. Located in the Tam Chuc Buddhist Cultural Complex, Tam Chuc Pagoda is home to the largest Buddhist temple in Vietnam. Walking off the bus was an assault to the senses. Thousands of visitors teemed around like ants adorned in livery, bright costumes and indigenous ensembles. Nuns, monks, performers, Presidents, Prime Ministers, royals, paupers, followers and non-followers of Buddhism were all under one roof. I was in the mix, feeling like a single raisin amongst the peanuts.
The opening ceremony commenced with over 1 600 international delegates and more than 20,000 Vietnamese Buddhist dignitaries in attendance. A new world record. While some international delegates came from the Western hemisphere and Europe, the vast majority arrived from other Asian countries such as Nepal, Thailand and Laos. My people, as is usually the case, were underrepresented. Although, there were some exceptions. I briefly met two brothers, one from Uganda and the other from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I identified one sister sitting two rows below, but we lost each other in a sea of warm bodies after the group photo. During his speech at the podium, Venerable Bhante Buddharakkhita spoke about his experience spreading Dhamma seeds in Africa and his ambition to host the UNDV in Uganda one day. This was met with roaring applause by the thousands in attendance, and suddenly a conference star was born. His reputation clearly preceded him, and later, I learnt that he was the first African Bhuddist monk. I remember being more impressed by his ability to confidently occupy that space, than his attainment of monk hood. Much like other parts of the world the Vietnamese have embraced social media, however this drove much of the attention I received from locals. Centuries of isolation had cut the country off from the world, so I wasn’t surprised by the frequent photo request. Many locals shared that I was the first black man they had met. Curiosity towards my black body was high, mothers asked me to take pictures with their baby and selfies turned into group photos. Despite this I never felt uncomfortable. As a black solo traveler, I have become inured to the fetishization of my black body.
However, in Vietnam there were no sexual innuendos or big penis jokes hurled my way. Throughout the entire three day celebration, the wealth of my time was spent in conversation with UNDV participants and delegates from around the globe. In most instances it was a casual, surface level discussion. However there was a select group of people I shared an intimate connection with, the first being Chinese Professor Lo. We both stayed at the Daewoo Hotel but only managed to speak in the mess hall after lunch. The Prof was soft spoken but his words commanded attention. He appeared behind me and asked, “Did you know that human beings originate from Africa?” I turned around perplexed. He continued with urgency, “Anthropologist and geneticists have proven this scientifically through gene mutation. We leave genetic markers in our DNA, if we probed the gene sequence of every racial group in the world (white, black, yellow, etc.), we can calculate how many mutations have accumulated”. I listened in silence as he spoke, “research proves that the African gene is the purest and has the least mutation, therefore we all originate from Africa”. I wasn’t sure why he felt the need to share this with me, but he had my undivided attention. My entire approach to the conversation was to listen without judgement. Although the concept was not new to me, I didn’t expect to hear this from a complete stranger. Sensing my interest in the topic, the professor continued his stream of consciousness. He spoke of a world consumed by negative entities, “Christians refer to it as the devil, Muslims use the term satan and Budhists know this force as asura”. In his view, these negative forces have captured our sense of reality through suppression of consciousness and replacing it with technology. These consequences have resulted in a world with a low sense of spirituality. He shared an example, “Colonists arrived in Africa with advanced technology (guns, ships, canons, etc.) but instead of using it to benefit human lives, they used it to enslave Africans, which resulted in the immoral trans-atlantic slave trade”.
Although he presented factual arguments, it was his sincerity and passion that won me over. He continued, “These dark forces know science and technology better than us, and they will continue to colonize our minds if we allow them to feed off our negative energies. The human spirit naturally gravitates towards perfection, so they have to create a lie, a system of lies that have been with humanity for millennia”.The conversation was lopsided but I was happy to do all the listening. Although Professor Lo unpacked complex topics, he used elementary metaphors to illustrate the pith. He clarified this point with a simple farm analogy, “it only takes one farmer to control the entire farm, yet the chicken and the ducks remain loyal. Every species on the farm has given up their free will, the mother hen comes home every night and proudly lays her eggs. Only for the master to take it from her in the morning. This is not life.” In order for us to break free from the yolk of oppression, he suggested that we wake up to this reality. However this is easier said than done. How do we even begin the process to conscientise the masses? I borrowed from his analogy and asked, “so how do we transform the farm”? Professor Lo chimed in, “we are more powerful than we are led to believe. If every free range chicken leaves the farm and starts eating juicy worms, instead of the antibiotic laced chicken feed, we will have a different farm”. We burst into tears and embraced each other one last time.
The taxi pulled-up to the airport. As I hurled my luggage out of the boot, the driver yelled, “hey, can you bring back one of those Good Morning Vietnam t-shirts”! I rolled my eyes and dashed towards departures, thankfully there were no delays. After a short detour through Doha, we were Eastbound. The passenger in the middle grit his teeth and clenched his fists throughout the night, while I slept through the turbulence. As the rubber hit the road with a violent thud, I eagerly gazed out of the window. My eyes were transfixed on the blue letters nestled above the airport, which boldly read, Noi Bai International Terminal. This was only my second time in Asia but it felt good to be back. History did not escape me as I disembarked and proceeded through customs. The pristine uniforms worn by Vietnamese law enforcement, reminded me of the regalia donned by the People's Army of Vietnam during the Second Indochina War.
As I approached the counter, the immigration officials’ immaculate dark-green suite and matching visor hat rendered me completely speechless. Her gaze commanded even more authority. “Purpose of your visit,'' she asked abruptly? “Conference, uhm, Vesak...” My voice trembled as the words squeaked out of my mouth. She meticulously scrolled through each page of my passport, paused, lifted her head and fixed her eyes square into mine, “what country this (sic)”? It wasn’t clear whether she was being sarcastic or genuine. Nonetheless, I was determined to get top marks, “Namibia, it’s in South West Africa just one country north of South Africa”. She tilted her head back into the pages and proceeded to scroll. When she flipped to the end, she pointed at my picture bemused and asked, “wha (sic) happened”? I smiled and assured her that it was indeed me in the picture, sans the afro. My nerves kicked in as we approached the ten minute mark. Surely this shouldn’t take this long? I was wrong.
She pulled out a black box from beneath her counter, placed my passport under the UV light and combed through each page, again. Her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, transfixed by the image of an Oryx luminating on the blank page under the violet beam. Eighteen minutes later and the lady standing behind me had already been assisted at the next available counter. Meanwhile, my heart palpitated. She abruptly stamped the page, handed it back and whispered, “beautiful, very beautiful passport”.
The relief on my face was visible to the naked eye and for the first time in my adult life, I rejoiced in my green passport. Whoever thought to obnubilate the Namibian coat of arms as a security feature was a genius. The angst was soon replaced with excitement as I passed through baggage claim. “Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, this way to your shuttle sir,'' exclaimed the volunteer holding a UNDV 2019 sign. An hour later, I was in my room in Hanoi’s Daewoo Hotel preparing for my first engagement.
Despite the plethora of vegetarian entrees on offer, I left the gala dinner peckish. However my early departure was solely attributed to the arduous 16 hour flight. In all fairness, this happened shortly after the keynote speech by H.E President of the National Assembly. As I waited outside for the driver with my fellow international delegates, I pondered what the actual purpose of my trip was. Why was our organisation selected to participate in the United Nations Day of Vesak? In that moment, a gentleman wearing a saffron robe approached me. “What is the time, he asked? Seven minutes later the driver pulled up and we continued the conversation on the way to the hotel.
Rev. Dr. Sumana Siri, himself a buddhist monk described the thrice-sacred day of Vesak as the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha Gautama. On the 15th of December 1999 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, birthing the International Council for the Day of Vesak. Fifteen UNDV celebrations have taken place since 2000, with many international Buddhist communities hosting their own celebrations. To host this event is considered a supreme honor, and the prestige often drives competition amongst prospecting Buddhist countries. To date, twelve celebrations have been observed in Thailand, two in Vietnam and one in Sri Lanka.
Feeling more confused I asked, “but why do you think we were invited? We are not even a Buddhist or religious institution, so why...”. Dr. Siri interjected halfway through my sentence, tilted his chest towards mine and said, “beyond time and space, you will find the truth”. Confusion morphed into bewilderment but it was the most auspicious moment of the trip yet. Before we disembarked the vehicle, he handed me a copy of his book titled “Realists”. He asked me to read through it and return it to him the next morning. We disappeared into our hotel rooms as the rain drizzled down.
I dashed out of the shower, put on my robe and feverishly skimmed through the publication. The first page had a note from David Ryan, Director of the Private Secretary’s Office at Buckingham Palace, with a message conveying Her Majesty’s best wishes on the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. Siri’s Monkhood. The back cover revealed the principles of “The Realist Plan” by Kalama Sutta. It was an essential list of commandments that encouraged followers not to accept mere hearsay, tradition, report, similar scriptures, reason, inference, appearance, preconceived notions or what seems acceptable. Yet it was the final tenant that engrossed me most, “Do not accept thinking that the teacher is respected by us”. As I tucked into bed, I wondered what the second day would have in store.