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.