A Young Man Forgoes Wealth to Become a Monk
Ha Van Thanh is set to become a monk in a month. There is still hair on his head, but not much. He shaved it off with a trimmer recently. He still goes by his birth name these days, but soon he will be given a new one when he becomes a Buddhist monk. For the past two months he has been living in a Mahayana Buddhist temple on the border of Binh Tan and Hoc Mon to prepare for the induction ceremony that will see him and 14 initiates become new monks and nuns at the Hoa Anh Temple. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized: Theravada (The School of the Elders) and Mahayana (The Great Vehicle). Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Mahayana is found throughout China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan.
Thanh’s 14 peers all come from devout Buddhist families whose parents were proud of their children’s decision to enter monkhood. Thanh’s parents, however, reacted differently. His father has renounced him in name. His mother, the more compassionate 48 of the two, still comes to the temple every other day to visit her son. “She hopes to talk some sense into me and dissuade me from entering monkhood. She can’t understand why I would want to spend the rest of my life as a hermit, chanting Buddhist sutras and doing good deeds for people who aren’t of my own blood.” He is the only one in his family who practices Buddhism.
Thanh is 21 years old and is the only son of an affluent Vietnamese family. His father is a successful businessman. His mother is a socialite amongst the Vietnamese wealthy circle. Thanh is currently attending a private university on a scholarship in Thailand. When he graduates with a bachelor in business administration he is supposed to take over the family business, the heir to his father’s fortune. Ha Van Thanh is set for a future among Vietnam’s rich and elite, which makes his choice to reject it in favor of an austere, monastic life a shock to his parents.
A Title and A Burden
“The first time I met a monk face to face was in Thailand,” he shares. “He was a fellow student at the university, majoring in biochemistry. We shared a class in philosophy. He wanted to apply for med school once he completed all the prerequisites. His temple funded his schooling. He played the guitar and had a good singing voice, said he liked Abba. He was… not at all like how I imagined monks to be.” Their friendship grew and Thanh started following his friend into Thai temples, sitting in on seminars on modern Buddhism. When Thanh returned home after his sophomore year, the first place he visited was the pagoda near his house. “I used to think the life of a monk wouldn’t be a whole lot different from that of a prisoner. You can’t eat this. You can’t do that. You need to wear this, and live by a curfew. No hair, of course, and no girls. Life in the temple sounded terribly restrictive. Most people think like I do, but that’s not true. Life as a monk can be as free as you want it to be.”
To Thanh, his life as the only son of traditional, successful parents is no less restrictive than the monk life he imagined. “I am to be whoever my parents want me to be. I wanted to become an artist but my father disagreed, so I set my passion aside to study in business school cause that’s what makes money. ‘Heir’ is both a title and a burden,” he claims. “Wealth is a trap. Prestige is a trap. The expectations of society are manacles. We allow ourselves to become slaves to the whims of our desire. In the life of a monk, there is peace and freedom.” He says that despite its status as a major religion in Vietnam, Buddhism is still misunderstood by its followers. “I’m not a monk yet, just an initiate waiting to be ordained so it probably is presumptuous for me to say this, but Buddhism is so much more than the superstitions a lot of Buddhists and non-Buddhists equate it to. It’s a discipline of the mind and heart. It’s the courage to see the world for its impermanent nature. Everything returns to nothing with time – my father’s wealth and prestige, my mother’s reputation and connections. What do those matter in the long run? I know they both paid heavy prices to be who they are today. I know my parents have more brothers, sisters and past friends than they talk about. They paid such heavy prices but are they any happier for it? I don’t think so. And… I don’t want to become like them.”
Thanh’s initiation in a month is a permanent one. He will discard his birth name and be given a Buddhist one. He will forsake all personal belongings and wealth he possesses. He will spend the rest of his life studying the sutras, taking care of the temple and performing good deeds for the people around him. With hard work and dedication, he may be sent to other temples in Vietnam and abroad, but that will be years away yet. “My mother thinks I’m in a rebellious phase,” Thanh says. “She says it’s only a passing fancy and that I’ll soon regret it. Maybe she’s right, but right now the only thing I feel is anticipation for my new life.”
Images by Ngoc Tran