Monastic Living

The musings of a novice Buddhist monk

Tucked away on a side street off of Highway 13 in Binh Duong, the Hoi Khanh temple is a place for serene meditation.

An eight story pagoda overlooks the carefully manicured gardens, a place for supplicants to offer up incense and prayers for the dead. However, it’s opposite the street where the Buddhist school is located that devotion finds human form.

Under the shadow of the largest reclining Buddha in Vietnam at 52m (eclipsing the 49m reclining Buddha in Mui Ne), lies the Buddhism Center of Binh Duong, home to over 200 novice monks enrolled in the four year program.

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Image by James Pham

In the back of the school, a block of concrete rooms faces a bursting lotus pond, a powerful icon in Buddhism, embodying the concept of something perfectly beautiful rising from the quagmire.

After Graduation
My name is Duc Hanh (meaning “Righteous” or “Virtue”), but that’s not the name I was born with. It’s my new name, given to me when I first came to the pagoda at the age of 15.

It’s not like I was a bad kid. I didn’t get into fights or anything, but I did like to play and often got into minor trouble. But when I was 15, I guess you could say I ran away to the monastery. I didn’t mean to, really. I only intended to go for a visit, to help clean the pagoda in Tien Giang Province. It was like something drew me there. Soon, one week became two and one of the monks asked me if I wanted to join the program.

I’m 21 now and in my fourth and last year at the Buddhist school in Binh Duong, with graduation only two weeks away. It’s summer which is why it’s pretty deserted here. The instructors have a few weeks off. After all our studying, we’re free to perform our prayers and relax on the grounds. [On this hot afternoon, some monks are fiddling with their phones as others go about their chores of sweeping and laundry.]

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On an average day, though, we get up at 3:30 in the morning and pray for an hour. You have to get used to waking up early here. And the bells. There are bells ringing constantly.

Come 5:30, it’s time for breakfast. We gather in the pagoda on the other side of the street and prayers begin and end the meal. Breakfast is sometimes hu tiu, bun rieu, banh canh [variations of Vietnamese noodle soups] or xoi [glutinous rice] ― whatever the faithful bring in that day. Of course, it’s vegetarian only ― vegetables and tofu. At the beginning, it was hard to get used to. I remember getting hungry much faster. But afterwards, your stomach gets used to it. I don’t want to go back to eating meat. Just the smell now makes me sick.

I know the Buddha wasn’t a vegetarian himself. He ate whatever alms he collected because food was just a means to an end. But that was a different place, a different time. Buddhism is all about mercy and a respect for life, whether it’s a worm in the soil or a grasshopper or a cow or an elephant. Everything wants to live. All animals fear death. All of us have a right to life, a right to share the natural environment. Taking a life to sustain a life is a sin. We’re taught to respect life, whether actively by helping people, even sacrificing our own lives if needed, or passively by not harming other living creatures.

The Buddha teaches us balance. For instance, your eye, your nose, your body belongs to the outside world. If you see a pretty girl, she becomes a temptation and you stop thinking about consequences. A girl wearing perfume spawns illicit desire. The smell of food can make one greedy. But the Buddha teaches us to gain mastery over our senses to the point where even a beautiful woman looks average. We learn to put things aside, not hold grudges. It’s actually a very practical way to live.

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But you were asking me about my day. From 7:00, we learn our lessons. Twelve subjects in a year: English, Chinese, culture, law…but nothing ‘outside’ like Geography or Math. The rest are religious classes. We also have computer classes, but not everyone has a computer, so we can’t always practice. Out of my class of 20, only seven or eight have a computer.

At 10:30am, we prepare to have lunch. Then a nap at noon, and we review our lessons in the afternoons.

At 4:30pm, we use donations to start preparing dinner. Then it’s prayers for an hour until 7:30pm. The temple gates close at 8pm, so no one can leave after that. There’s not much to do around here, anyway.

It’s a good life, living at the pagoda. At first, some people may join because they want to get away from the world, run away from life, but once you’re here and understand the Buddha’s teachings, it’s all different.

Most people, once they open their eyes in the morning, they think about money ― how to get enough money to live for that day, especially for those with families. Here in the temple, we don’t think about money. We think about how to contribute to society, how to better ourselves. In the outside world, you only look after yourself, but here, you look after many other people.

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It’s not all easy, though. Even here, your mind is never fully at peace. We can’t go out, mingle with society. Life is rigid. Sometimes, you may want to eat something, but you can’t. Even sitting still for an hour during prayers can be hard.

But those things don’t matter. Life is temporary. Our bodies are temporary. We’re born, we grow old, we get sick, we die. We’re continually in a state of flux. At least here, lots of people love you. You have no quibbles with anyone.

After graduation, some of my friends will leave to become monks in pagodas around the country while others will simply return to their previous lives. But all of us will leave changed somehow. Personally, I feel more at peace with myself. These past few years, I’ve done a lot of growing up.

After graduation, I think I’m going to continue with the program for another three years at a school in District 9. After that, who knows? Life is a journey. You can always set your destination, but you never really know if you’re going to make it there.

Images by Ngoc Tran

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