I took these two photos of Quan Âm in monsoon of 1970, on the way back from Vũng Tàu to Củ Chi; the statue stands in isolation, with no buildings anywhere near. That was not an artifact created by judicious positioning of the camera; for miles, there was nothing, not even abandoned shacks or ancestor-worship shrines. The emptiness you see was real.
I wanted to stop, visit, take more pictures. I was carrying a loaded grenade launcher and the Sergeant who was driving carried an M16. He wasn’t big on spirituality, however, and there was a war on; we were afraid of mines, so I settled for slowing down and snapping these two hurried shots. Quan Âm needed a good cleanup. Later, after the roll of film is developed, I show the pictures to Sergeant Ngai.
“Who’s this?” I ask.
He thinks a minute. “Mother of Buddha,” he finally says. He tells me her name, but I forget.
In July of 2002, I go back to Việt Nam with the Third Annual Sage College Learning and Reconciliation Tour, and we travel from Sàigòn to Vũng Tàu, stay for two nights, and return. On the way down, I see that what had once been Quốc Lộ (national highway) 15 had been extensively rebuilt and widened and renamed Quốc Lộ 51; what was once a road through many uninhabited areas now had great similarities to driving from Boston to Washington DC—crammed, crowded, and traffic-jammed. I keep an eye out for Quan Âm, but don’t spot her.
It is the same on the way back, until we stop at a Cambodian Buddhist temple and compound, Trường Hạ Đại Tòng Lâm. “Trường Hạ” isn’t in any of my dictionaries and translating the parts leads me to “Lower school,” which doesn’t seem to apply, and at the very least inspires little confidence. I think it should be translated as something like “training center,” but I wouldn’t quote me.
Thuy Ngo says, “‘Trường Hạ’ has nothing to do with training center or school. It means the location where the monks and nuns go in for a 3-month ‘retreat’ (usually from the 15th of the 4th month through the 15th of the 7th month of the lunar calendar year), where they are to stay in one place to meditate and study and not to go anywhere else unless absolutely necessary. This is a Buddhist tradition that is followed everywhere in the world for thousands of years.”
“Retreat,” then, seems like a reasonable translation.
Closeup of the lion at the entrance; the left picture is foggy because the camera lens misted up.
Most temple grounds contain statues and sculpture arranged in groups reflecting the eight stages of Buddha’s life, and this one is no exception. This is Stage One, Birth of the Buddha.
The main Temple, Monastery and Convent grounds; I don’t make it that far. The picture’s taken from the bridge over the Lotus Pond.
At the far end of the bridge, you can see there is a tree, which stands in for the Bodhi Tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, and there’s a statue of the contemplative Buddha under it.
That statue is supposed to be my next stop, but in the middle of the bridge I stop to take some other pictures.
Then I turn to my left, and there she is.
I take this shot from perhaps a quarter-mile away. I walk back over the Lotus bridge and turn right, walking down a eucalyptus-lined path, past kids fishing.
“Hey, where you from?” a boy calls out.
“Tôi là người Mỹ,” I say. I’m an American.
“Way cool,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Tôi tên là Ịvan,” I say. My name’s Ivan. I mean to ask “What’s yours?” but can’t think fast enough.
“How old are you?”
“Um, năm mười lăm,” I say. Fifty-five. I expect him to ask for a dollar.
“Have a good time,” he says, grinning and waving. I keep walking, but I feel bad because I was seeing him through my preconceptions. With each step, there is more and more silence. Past the statue of Quan Âm, I can see water buffalo and farmers working in the rice paddies that had not been there 32 years ago.
Where are you from? What’s your name? How old are you? These were the three questions I was asked, in that order, by nearly every Vietnamese I met. Priorities. Later, at Mỹ Lai, our guide, Miss Kiều,
is asked why she is working as a guide at Mỹ Lai when her English skills are so good. She had gone to college and then had worked somewhere else, she says, but wanted this job because she had been born in the next village, two kilometers away. “Since I was born here,” she says, “I have the right to die here, so I was given preference when I applied.” Priorities.
By the time I reach the statue, I can no longer hear traffic noises from the road; my tour companions are off looking at other bits of the Buddha’s life; the kids are still fishing; and the water buffalo are plodding silently along in the background.
As far as I can tell, Quan Âm has not moved, it is the world that has changed. She is in the same location and the temple complex has grown up around her. The new divided highway follows roughly the same route as the old one, and the statue lies about the same distance from the road as the one in 1970. The distance from Vũng Tàu is roughly the same, and the mountain in the background of both sets of images has approximately the same contour. It’s true that she might have been destroyed and later replaced or rebuilt, although the identical outlines and directional orientation argue against that. She has at least been renovated; possibly sandblasted, although that can be somewhat destructive in the hands of incompetents. I can’t tell from the 1970 pictures if the surrounding wall and pond were there originally or were added later; it doesn’t really matter much. I’m satisfied that I have revisited my Quan Âm.
2005: I recently began renovating my website, and decided to put up a page for a photo I took in 1970 of a sign that cautioned passersby, “Don’t Shoot Into Pagoda.” In doing so, I noticed the name of the pagoda.
It is clearly Đại Tòng Lâm, confirmation that this is the same statue in the same location.
Pouring the healing water of compassion on the sea of suffering. Quan Âm is about twenty meters tall, around sixty feet.
The dragon, the pond, the paddies and the water buffalo in the background. Stillness. In the distance, off to one side, two monks walk in the trees past the paddies. I wish I’d brought incense for the burner directly in front of where I take this picture. I didn’t, so I settle for bowing three times the way you’re supposed to when making an incense offering. I turn and walk away, back up the path where the kids are still fishing. “Hey, come back and visit us again,” calls the boy who’d talked to me before. I smile, nod, wave, but can’t remember the words for “See you again.” It starts to rain; back on the road leading to the gate, I am passed by orange-robed monks on motorbikes carrying plump grey-robed nuns who smile broadly at me, waving.
Everyone congregates back at the bus after buying bottled water and soft drinks. Some of us are quieter than usual. Soon, we are again crossing bridges in monsoon season in the South of Việt Nam.
Quan Âm is the tiếng Việt transcription of the Chinese Kuan Yin (or Kwan Yin). Bồ Tát is Boddhisatva, one who has vowed never to cross over into Nirvana until every sentient being has crossed over before. I don’t know the function or meaning of Thế, but it’s probably a middle name to bring Kuan Yin’s Vietnamese name in line with the traditional three-name scheme.
2008: Thuy Ngo, who lived in Sàigòn in 1970, has this to say about Kwan Yin:
Kuan Yin (or Kwan Yin) is actually short for Guanshi’yin (觀世音, or guānshì yīn, or kuan-shih yin) which means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World.” So “shi” is “Thế” as in “thế gian” (world people, the living) or thế giới (the world).
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org