If you have recently followed me on Twitter, be advised I can’t access Twitter from VN (except indirectly by posting to WordPress, I think). I’ll follow back when I gent back to the states in December.
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.
To a Soto Zen student, the phrase “stone woman” will surely suggest Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” 1 in which the enigmatic line, “A stone woman gives birth to a child at night” appears. 2 Just a coincidence. of course, but one with a particular resonance for me. Note: Some other “Bà” (Mrs.) temples around Hanoi.
I’ll be in my favorite city for five weeks beginning on the 31st.
I’ve just been practicing Vietnamese tones, so I have particular sympathy for people learning to distinguish sounds in English that even most native speakers are, at best, only dimly aware of.
Probably should have waited for a couple more weeks before beginning to post again. Deadlines of various sorts, chairing a search committee, grading essays . . . being ground down by a long, gray winter. I have been writing posts in my imagination. At some point in the not too distant future I’ll start writing them down & posting them.
For an essay I’m writing, I had occasion to take a look at Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal. I am a Zen practitioner & I grew up in the 1960s – 70s at a time when Merton, Alan Watts & others were popularizing Buddhism in general & Zen in particular. (Watts became a leading exponent of Zen without ever practicing zazen, sitting meditation, which is at the center of Zen.) Merton was a Trappist monk who interested himself in many other religious traditions; like Watts & Aldous Huxley, he tended to elide distinctions between Buddhism & Hinduism, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. This may be an unfair judgment based on slim acquaintance, but Merton strikes me as kind of a drip. Self-involved, declamatory, aggressively synthesizing–a spiritual tourist. At least in these journals. But then, having fled from the Christians who harried me in my childhood, I have never understood, either before or after becoming a Zen student, the desire to bring Jesus & Gautama into harmony. I’m a pretty thorough-going pluralist, too, so I just don’t see the usefulness of this sort of religious syncretism.