Yuk Wah Chan, City University of Hong Kong / Global Viet Diaspora, 08 Sept. 2011
Since 2008, the Vietnamese in Hong Kong have been able to attend religious services at two Buddhist centers. One of them is in Yuen Long in the New Territories, while the other is in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon. This report examines the religious activities at the centers and how such activities have helped solidify the sense of community among Vietnamese in Hong Kong. While a number of studies within refugee literature have shown refugee experiences in a negative light and argued that religion provides a permanent ‘home’ for refugee migrants and helps them cope with post-exilic trauma and emotional distress, this report argues for the opposite. Rather than needing religion to placate unsettled refugee memories and psychological turmoil, the Vietnamese turn to religion to achieve a higher sense of life fulfillment and cope with daily vicissitudes. Based on data collected from ethnographic research at the two Vietnamese Buddhist centers in Hong Kong, the report has found that refugee memories and experiences are not necessarily taboos and negative life forces needing to be healed. Rather, they can be resources used by the Buddhist masters to exemplify and enhance dharma teaching among the Vietnamese.
Two Buddhist centers for the Vietnamese in Hong Kong
Lang Mai Tsim Sha Tsui (Plum Village)
The Plum Village Mediation Centre is located in the Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) district in Hong Kong. It was established in 2007 by the Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Centre, which is headed by the world renowned Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Master Nhat Hanh was active in peace and anti-war activism in the 1960s and has settled in the West for over four decades (Thich 1967). He and his meditation centres in the West are well-known for promoting ‘engaged Buddhism’ (Queen and King 1996) and have disciples all over the world. In the beginning, the newly opened TST centre offered dharma session for Hongkongese followers to practice. In April 2008, it began to hold monthly mindful practice for the Vietnamese on the first Sunday of each month. All the activities on this day were conducted in Vietnamese. The chief monk of the centre is a Vietnamese Buddhist Master from the US. He is assisted by four young Vietnamese monks recruited from the south of Vietnam.
The chief monk was himself a refugee. He fled Vietnam in 1978 and stayed in a refugee camp in Manila for six months. After that he was resettled in Virginia, US, where he received his education and training in engineering. At the time, he was seventeen years old. After graduation and years of hard work, he came to learn about the Plum Village meditation centre of Master Nhat Hanh, and attended its yearly retreat in France. Thirteen years ago, at the age of forty-three, he decided to become a monk.
When asked about the purposes of setting up a Vietnamese mindfulness practice session in TST, the monk replied as follows: “This mindfulness practice of course will help them. They can practice mindfulness here. We don’t want them to chit chat all the time – hair style, family matters – all gossips. With the practice, they don’t talk a lot…The centre provides them a chance to meet. They did not have many chances to meet with each other before. The centre let them meet and help each other. The feeling of being together supports each other. In the sharing session during the practice, we can also teach Dharma to them.”
The Sunday mindfulness practice was usually started by a morning walking meditation near the TST harbour. The walk was led by the young monks at around nine o’clock. After walking and chanting for an hour, the group then returned to the center and would do sitting meditation and ritualistic prostration. A few active Vietnamese women usually arrived early and prepared all the food for lunch. Lunch was served in Vietnamese vegetarian style (with rice noodles, rice paper rolls, fried noodles, soup, tofu, etc). All participants shared the lunch together with the monks. After an hour of lunch, the sangha would practice ‘lying meditation’ (nam thien). That means all the participants laid on the mattress to relax and do the breathing exercise. Some might fall asleep; it was allowed. Following a half hour of lying meditation, the group would join together again and sing songs to guitar music played by a young monk. The song book used by the sangha is titled ‘Songs for Mindfulness Practice’ (Cac bai hat thuc tap chanh niem). It was produced by the center, and most songs were written by the monks and nuns in the Plum Village centre in France. They are all disciples of Master Nhat Hanh. At the time of this research, there were 83 songs in the book, 12 in English, 9 in both English and Vietnamese, and 62 in Vietnamese.
The lyrics of the songs constantly inspire the followers to be mindful of the present moment and remind them that they are supporting each other. Images and representation of the Vietnamese homeland are also prominent in the Vietnamese lyrics. The word ‘que huong’ (hometown) appears in many songs. After singing songs, the monks will invite the participants to share stories of their everyday life. It is supposed to let the participants to talk about difficulties and troubles in life, so that they get closer to and support each other. When responding to this sharing, the monks would also impart the dharma teaching.
In one sharing, a Vietnamese man shared his recent troubles in his clothing business. He and his Vietnamese wife had a clothing business for the past ten years, which produced fashions for African women. The couple had long term business with a handful of buyers from Kenya and other African countries. One day, they had a big argument with one of the buyers. The Vietnamese man shared his thoughts:
If it is in the past, before I became a Buddhist, I would have coped with this in my own ways. I would not lose money to them. But because now I am a Buddhist, I cannot do that. But then I lose money to these greedy cheaters….”
In response to this story, the chief monk said:
Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. I heard a story. There was a billionaire who had 10 billion. One time he made some mistakes in the investment and lost 5 billion. He was very upset and wanted to commit suicide. People said to him no need to be so sad, since he still had 5 billion. He would not listen, but went to kill himself… life is like that, ups and downs, as long as we have enough to eat, we should not worry too much…
In another sharing session, the chief monk revealed to the participants his personal history as a refugee:
I left Vietnam in 1978. Six of us in my family made fake identity cards and pretended to be Chinese. We left with the Chinese in three boats. Two boats harbored in Hong Kong, one in the Philippines. We stayed in the Philippine refugee camp for a while. Life was very difficult then, we had to share a bucket with many people to hold water ….
Life is full of ups and downs. Conflicts are everywhere. Even among the communists, there are conflicts, province against province, China against Vietnam… Looking back, our life now is so different. We were all seen by the communists as betrayers before, but now we are all Viet kieu, patriots…
The sharing lasted around an hour, and the mindfulness practice would be concluded by the sound of the bell and prostration to the Buddha.
(Click on the picture for info on the Mindful Practice Center)
Chua Yuen Long (Yuen Long Monastery)
The Vietnamese temple in Yuen Long is situated at a residential flat used to be rented by some Chinese Buddhists. When the Buddhists no longer needed the place, they asked some Vietnamese Buddhists if they would like to rent the place for practice. By collecting money from the Vietnamese community, the Vietnamese succeeded in renovating the place into a small monastery. By late 2007, it became Chua Yuen Long for the Vietnamese Buddhists.
The religious service at Yuen Long monastery was held on the last Sunday of a month and was usually attended by forty to fifty people. Chua Yuen Long was headed by a seventy-five-year-old German monk. All the Vietnamese disciples called the master ‘Thay Tay Duc’ (the master from West Germany). Thay Tay Duc was very popular in the Hong Kong Vietnamese community and has known many of the Vietnamese and their families since the 1990s when he began to work as a dharma teacher in the boat people camps. Many former boat people described Thay Tay Duc with fond memories:
Thay is a very good man. He helped us a lot. When we were in the camps, he brought us food, candies, clothes, books and things we needed. All of us respect Thay a lot. He also cures our illness.
Thay Tay Duc speaks fluent English and Mandarin and some Vietnamese. Among the Vietnamese, not many are fluent in English. Most would talk to Thay by using broken English. Some disciples close to Thay would act as translator for those who cannot speak any English. On the congregation Sunday, the followers usually arrived at the temple around eleven to noon time. It began with Thay and one Vietnamese nun, who was also a refugee before, eating an early lunch at around 11:00am as Thay won’t eat after noon time. After they finished eating, the Vietnamese would lay out the plastic sheets on the floor and put all the lunch dishes on it. The lunch dishes, mostly in Indian Style, were all prepared and cooked by Thay early in the morning. They contained a lot of Indian ingredients brought back by Thay from south Asia.
After finishing lunch, people would chat to each other; after the place was cleaned up, the Vietnamese nun and some others would prepare for the afternoon chanting session. The chanting is in Vietnamese. Vietnamese sutra books are available at the monastery. Many sutra and books (in Chinese and Vietnamese) were also brought back by the Master. The chanting would last for about 2 hours. The German Master did not join the chanting. During the chanting, he would recede to his room to have some rests. The chanting would finish at around half past four in the afternoon. Then people would pack and leave. Some would stay till the evening meditation session led by Thay. The session was a sitting meditation session lasting for around an hour. The Master also treated the illness of the Vietnamese with acupuncture and medicine. On Saturday evenings, he taught small groups of Vietnamese Chinese and English words.
Besides attending the activities in the temple, the Vietnamese disciples also enjoyed in inviting the Master to visit their home and out for lunch. Having the Master to visit one’s home offers important symbolic meanings; the disciples believed that Thay would bring auspiciousness to the family. Many also brought their children to see Thay and believed their children would behave better after being blessed by the Master. Thay also performed auspicious rites and funerary rites for the Vietnamese.
The close relationship between the Master and the Vietnamese has developed since the years when the Vietnamese were still in the boat people camps. Despite the fact that the Master did not talk a lot, things in the past often emerged from his words. One Vietnamese student who attended Thay’s Saturday class said, “Last Saturday, typhoon nine was hosted, but Thay did not cancel the class. He said to us, ‘when you were in the camp, I went to visit you no matter it was sunny or rainy!’”
One Sunday, Thay was invited to visit a disciple’s family. After lunch, one of the followers asked for Thay’s permission to allow her to massage his feet. The woman was a bit nervous and constantly asked if Thay felt anv pain. Thay did not answer at the beginning; he asked the woman to continue the massage. When the woman kept asking if he felt pain, Thay said:
People in the past did not easily show their feelings or pain on the face. They had more self-control. Young people nowadays do not have self control. People who practice yoga and meditation should have more self control. In the past, when I went to the camps to massage for your people, they just smiled. They never talked about pain. You people today have little self-control.
In one refuge-taking rite, Thay taught the new disciples the five rightful precepts in Buddhism and told them that they were now taking refuge in Buddhist training. However, there was nobody around who could do the translation. Thay tried his best to explain:
You now take refuge in Buddhist training. Do you understand what is ‘take refuge’? It is like being a refugee, you were refugee before, you seek refuge in something…All human beings are refugees, we are all refugees. We take refuge in the best, it is the highest refuge…
Refugee, religion and diaspora
Albeit the title of this report is ‘Refugee Buddhism’, there is no intention to say that the Vietnamese are practicing is a special type of Buddhism only suitable for refugees. Nor do I say that the two centers described above are only suitable for Vietnamese refugees. Among the Vietnamese participants, there are non-refugees who newly migrated to Hong Kong. However, due to the fact that the majority of the participants are former boat people having a similar background of fleeing from Vietnam and being locked in the refugee camps, the narratives of the religious teachings have often related to such experiences.
In their seminal work, Lang and Ragvald (1993) have examined the emergence of a ‘refugee god’ in Hong Kong in the 1950s. They delineate the factors contributing to the rise of the fame of the Taoist master ‘Wong Tai Sin’ and have pieced together his stories with the enormous social changes in Hong Kong brought about by the massive waves of refugee migration from China to Hong Kong and the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Hong Kong. Relating the migrants’ transitional life stages with the Wong Tai Sin cult, Lang and Ragvald said:
It is possible that some of the gratification which these refugees received from worshipping Wong Tai Sin came from the return to traditional Chinese folk-religious practice as they had experienced it in the villages and towns of their native counties. It made them feel more ‘at home’, more connected to their roots…It is likely that what some of these people derived from worshipping at the temple was a feeling of grounding themselves in Chinese culture and history. It helped them to feel ‘Chinese’, despite the otherwise highly Westernized character of capitalist, colonial Hong Kong. This may explain some of the vague references to ‘peace of mind’ (ping an) which some interviewees give when asked about the benefits of going to the Wong Tai Sin temple to worship. (1993; 154)
In a similar vein, the practices and the congregation at the two Buddhist centers have allowed the Vietnamese to connect with each other and to their roots back in Vietnam. Mayer (2007), for example, has also narrated on the role of religion for the Vietnamese refugees during their escape on the open sea and their exile in refugee camps. Not only does religion help to sustain hope, it has also helped them preserve and reinforce their identity in their overseas settlement. More importantly, the ‘refugee’ background has allowed the Vietnamese to strengthen the sense of community with reference to their common experiences as refugees. The sense of community does not rest merely on the ‘Vietnamese’ language or on Buddhism. In the interactive practices between the followers and the monks and among the followers, refugee experiences such as images of escape and hardship in detention were often interweaved into the Buddhist teachings. The chief monk in the TST centre is himself an exile, while the Master in Chua Yuen Long has long involved himself in the Vietnamese community since the 1990s, and has helped the Vietnamese to solve all sorts of problems. In catering to a group of Vietnamese with similar ‘refugee’ backgrounds, the Masters have naturally employed a ‘refugee language’ that can be identified by the group.
De-problematizing refugee experiences
‘Refugee’ memories and experiences have often been problematized. Many previous studies have focused on the psychological health of refugees and have portrayed refugees as victims of traumas and patients of long term emotional stress and mental illness (Cao 2008; Hollifield, et al. 2002; Jaranson, et al. 2000; Carlson and Rosser-Hogan 1994; Hinton, et al. 1993). While we can’t deny there are such problems, there may be a danger of generalizing refugee migration experiences as long-term suffering processes. Literature on refugee immigrant and religion has had a tradition of problematizing refugee memories and encounters and tends to exemplify the theme that religious condolences provide hope for life in exile and help refugees cope with traumas and emotional distress during their resettlement and displacement (Cadge and Ecklund 2007; Dorais 2007; Mayer 2007; Gozdziak and Shandy 2002; Gozdziak 2002; Edelstein 2002; Men 2002; Lubkemann 2002; De Voe 2002).
While there is no denial that religion often answers questions arisen from suffering and helps foster meanings for life and sense of spiritual fulfillments, arguments linking refugee traumas and religious salvation may, however, reinforce the stereotypes that refugee experience is necessarily problematic, and refugee memories are necessarily negative life forces needing to be healed.
There is yet no proof that more refugee migrants practice religion than non-refugees around the world or refugees are particularly prone or susceptible to religious promotion. What is interesting to me in this research is that rather than being taboos or traumas, refugee memories and narratives often emerged among the Vietnamese in their religious undertakings. Rather than being negative life forces requiring healing, refugee life experiences have acted as sources of reference for enhancing religious teaching and learning.
There is no trace of effort trying to obscure or avoid such experiences in the interactions between the Masters and the followers or among the followers. The frequently reemerged images and memories in exilic and detention periods helped bring in the tough, enduring, and adaptive character of the refugee and intertwine the past with the present. The ‘refugee narratives’ also helped the Master to explain how present-day difficulties with husbands and business partners could be ‘trivial’ when compared with those in the camps.
Previous studies also assumed that ex-refugees turned to religion to heal their past traumatic wounds. However, the Vietnamese informants actually stressed that they adhered to Buddhism in order to achieve better life goal – to become a good person – and to help tackle changes in everyday life in the present time. One Vietnamese man explained:
Why did I turn to Buddhism? There can be many reasons. But I think what made me change is that I wanted to be good. While in the camps, we did bad things. We did not care about “causal relationship” (nhan qua). After learning Buddhism, we understand what is “causal relationship” and what is vicissitude (vo thuong). For example, when something happened to our parents in Vietnam, we became very worried and very sad. But after you learned Buddhism, you know that things cannot be always the same. Things change, people pass away.
In order to lead a more rewarding life, the Vietnamese pooled together collective resources to run two Buddhist centres that allowed them to support each other and build a sense of community. Their refugee background allowed them to identify with each other; refugee-related memories and experiences, rather than being problematic inert forces, were actually useful sources for enhancing religious teaching.
Conclusion – universal ‘refugee’ experience
The world renowned Thay Nhat Hanh is an exile himself (King 1996). In many of his books, ‘refugee’ stories and exilic representations appear repeatedly to bring out dharma teaching. Many chapters in his books talk about war, encounters in exilic life, emotions of escapees, violence, revenge, and anger (Nhat Hanh 1992). His books are widely read, and his disciples include people from different parts of the world. His ‘refugee’ character has been kept vividly in his books and poem writing, which are well-received by world readers and have made ‘refugee Buddhism’ universal for all.
Some twenty years ago, the Vietnamese were dissatisfied with life in Vietnam, and they escaped from Vietnam to seek refuge in Hong Kong and elsewhere. After settling in Hong Kong, life carries on. In Buddhism, they seemed to be able to find a more fulfilling ‘settlement’ to tackle life’s ups and downs. They take refuge in Buddhism not because they were once refugees, but because taking refuge in a belief system and achieving spiritual life goals are part of being human.
As Thay Tay Duc once said to his disciples, “All human beings are refugees…you now take refuge in the highest….”
Yuk Wah Chan is an Assistant Professor at City University of Hong Kong. She is also the co-editor of Global Viet Diaspora. She has a new book, The Chinese/Vietnamese Diaspora: Revisiting the boat people (Routledge 2011).
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