Issue 33 / When A Monk Invited Me For Tea In Vietnam

When A Monk Invited Me For Tea In Vietnam

Jan 24, 2016


A spontanous stop during my road trip in Vietnam led me to having tea with a very special person. 

 
One of the most precious things I love about travelling is being able to be in the moment and relish all the experiences that come with it. So when I was asked to have tea with the head monk of a Buddhist temple in Vietnam, I knew that this was no ordinary encounter.

En route back from an overnight cruise at Ha Long Bay, we were on our way towards Hanoi so that I could catch my flight to the historic beach city of Danang. It was just myself, my guide, Tuan, and my driver so the privacy of this tour lent itself to being able to take detours if time allowed. We were ahead of schedule so at Tuan’s suggestion we spontaneously stopped to visit Con Son Temple. I chalked it up to another delightful surprise in a trip full of surprises. Con Son Temple was home to famed Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai (1380-1442). The compound includes a temple dedicated to Trai. 

The temple exuded a powerful presence buoyed by the weight of silent prayer. We quietly walked through the various sections and relished in the numerous monuments that anchored the various points of the mini compound. Most notably was the impressive row of bronze statues depicting the various disciples of Buddha; each statue approximately 300 years old and kept in mint condition complete with the name and bio of the person inscribed in a plaque at the foot of the statue.

Con Son Temple

Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari     


The rows of bronze statues depicting Buddha's disciples.

Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari

We then came across this pretty magnificent Karma Chart which hung over one of the temple's small gardens. This illustrated chart depicted what could be your next-life destiny if you acted a certain way in this life. If you were a gossiper, in your next life you may not be able to eat anything. If you didn’t take care of your children, in your next life you may be in jail. I could on and on.


The colourful illustration of Karma; as I call it The Karma Chart.

Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari

Two examples on The Karma Chart. 
Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari 
 

That’s when I heard a frenetic high-pitched voice behind me. A very animated monk came up and initiated a conversation with Tuan. Among the rapid-fire exchange between the two of them I managed to pick up the words “India” “Canada” and “tourist” a few times. So it was clear that I was the source of the monk’s curiosity. “He’s curious about you. He has invited us to have tea with him” Tuan whispered. Of course I wholeheartedly agreed.
 
We quickly followed him to his “office." His thin build and active nature was evident by the pace that he was walking. He led us to his office, which was beautifully and sparsely decorated with the essentials: two comfortable cushy chairs with dark mahogany frames, a matching sofa and a desk with some papers (“Monks do paperwork?” I asked myself) and a little tea making area where an iron kettle was just about to start boiling.
 
And so it began. With Tuan as the official translator I wanted to ensure that it was okay if I delved a bit into this monk's life. The monk enthusiastically responded by noting that in Vietnamese culture when one wants to know someone personally, it’s a sign of respect. So that was the green light for me.  
 
As a sign of respect — as it’s not everyday that one gets invited to tea at a Buddhist temple — I refrained from taking any photos or recordings during the conversation. So I scrabbled down my notes post meeting to ensure I didn’t lose any of the details of this special encounter. And of course, not knowing the monk’s temperament, the last thing I wanted to do was to anger a Buddhist monk before I board a plane — for obvious reasons.


The Monk's office.
Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari 

 

So here we were. The three of us: myself, Tuan and Mr. Monk, (just a side note: Due to the whirlwind tea invitation it didn’t occur to me to ask him his name. So I’ve given him the endearing title of  “Mr. Monk.”)
 
Mr. Monk was wearing a beautifully draped dark brown cotton wrap and he looked no more than in his mid-30s (He was actually in his early 40s).
 
He had a mixed aura of frenetic energy with a dose of calmness. His body language indicated an unmistakable sense of candour. His answers were thorough (he spoke in Vietnamese so I would judge the extent of detail that he would provide by how long his sentences were).
 
And so where exactly did Mr. Monk come from? Well, Mr. Monk used to work in media as a television news reporter (I almost fell off the sofa when I heard that) for a national outlet for 11 years before he decided to take the monk way of life.
 
It was what he called The Calling which he received seven years ago. The Calling was an inner feeling, an inner voice he explained. None of his siblings were monks but because he came from a small town, the cultural and religious connection wasn’t unheard of.
 
Mr. Monk left behind his high profile job and decided to enter the Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) where he learned the key tenants of Buddhism. He still keeps in touch with his former media colleagues and they do go out for coffee and catch up (See? Monks are like us!) but outside of that, he spends his days teaching his students at the Institute. When school’s out for the holidays, as it was in this case, he stations himself at a temple for that period of time. During the time of our conversation, he was planning to return to his professorial duties when school reopened in two weeks.
 
At this point a female monk walked into the room with a tray of warm tea for us. I wasn’t surprised to see a female monk as it’s a common sighting throughout my trip but I was curious to see if there was a distinctive number at the institute. Mr. Monk noted that the majority of his students are male but there has been an increase of female students in the past few years. So it’s clear that The Calling doesn’t hold a gender bias.
 
He noted that there isn’t an age requirement per say to become a monk. It really depends on when The Calling takes place. The majority of his students are in their early 20s or so, however he has taught students who were in their 40s, 50s and even 60s.

The Calling does not hold ageist bias either.

I asked him about the colour of his robe and he deciphered the colour code: there are two different sets of Buddhist monks. The orthodox monks are the ones who don the saffron-hued robes. The brown-robed monks are religious of course but have a more flexible way of looking at the world and approaching the tenants of their ideologies.
 
I wanted to ask him so many more questions but a glance at the huge digital clock affixed on the wall behind Mr. Monk indicated that my time was up because I still had a flight to catch.
 


Mr. Monk and I. 
Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari


Mr. Monk's parting gift for us. A beautiful prayer. 
Photo Credit: Hina P. Ansari 

As we stood up to make our exit, Mr. Monk went to his desk and grabbed two small pieces of colourful paper. It was a little bookmark with a Buddhist prayer on it. As I thanked him profusely for his time and for indulging me with my questions, he nodded and smiled back “We were destined to meet today."

These six words I still remember to this day. Yes Mr. Monk, we certainly were destined.


Main Image Photo Credit: www.theearthchild.co.za

Hina P. Ansari

Hina P. Ansari

Author

Hina P. Ansari is a graduate from The University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario). Since then she has carved a successful career in Canada's national fashion-publishing world as the Entertainment/Photo Editor at FLARE Magazine, Canada's national fashion magazine. She was the first South Asian in...

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