Stone Woman Pagoda

After dinner on my first night in Hanoi I went across the street to Chùa Bà Dá (Stone Woman Pagoda). The main hall was closed for the night, but the ancestor altar behind the main building was, as always, open, so I paid my respects there. The site's religious associations go back, at least, to the 11th century. The story goes that while digging the foundation footings for a temple, workers found a stone shaped like a woman: whether the stone was a sculpture or a naturally produced object is unclear in the accounts I have read. In any case, the object was considered sacred, and the stone woman was set up as an object of veneration. A fuller account is presented here, but the animist impulse blended, over the centuries, with Buddhism, especially the Chan form that came over the northern border from China. During the revolutionary struggle against the French, the monks of Chùa Bà Dá supported the Communist insurgents, though I have not discovered what this support consisted of. In any case, in 1945, Hồ Chí Minh visited the pagoda and encouraged an early form of engaged Buddhism. Chua Ba Da To a Soto Zen student, the phrase "stone woman" will surely suggest Master Dogen's "Mountains and Rivers Sutra," [1. The title is often translated as "Mountains and Waters."] in which the enigmatic line, "A stone woman gives birth to a child at night" appears. [2. Text of the sutra.] Just a coincidence. of course, but one with a particular resonance for me. Note: Some other "Bà" (Mrs.) temples around Hanoi.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.