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.