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.
Not a conversion experience, really. More like waking up one morning with the realization that I had become a Buddhist. William James said of religion that it is the “fruits not the roots” that are significant markers of belief and if that’s true, then I can say I practice Buddhism at least as much as most American Christians practice their religion. I have a shrine in my house to the historical Buddha and to Quan Am, the goddess of mercy. I meditate most days. I have been reading Buddhist texts and listening to Buddhist teachers on CDs. So, as the Vietnamese put it, Toi teo dao Phat Giao. I am a Buddhist.
My hotel is right across from Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in, I think, 1889. It is a gray concrete hulk without much charm, it’s two towers modeled on Notre Dame. I hear the bells strike the quarter hours and a little faint singing from morning mass; but Sunday evening mass, it turns out, is a big occasion in the city. The church fills and there is a long service with music, chanting and at least two homilies. Because the priest enunciates for his congregation, I find I can pick out words and phrases from his flow of words. Not only does the church fill with worshipers, but the square in front of the cathedral also fills — with families on motorbikes and standing groups of worshipers. The service is broadcast on loudspeakers — the Vietnamese have a particular love of audio amplification — and there is a screen on the front of the cathedral so that the worshipers can see the priest at the alter.
I listened to the first part of the mass in my hotel room and then went out for dinner and heard the conclusion of the service booming through the open windows of the Moca Cafe. As the mass wound down, balloon sellers began to appear with their huge drifts of helium balloons in the shape of Mickey Mouse and other Western cartoon characters, for mass is a family affair and there were many families with small children streaming through the narrow streets when church was over. Only about ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholics, but the cathedral here and the ones in Hue and Saigon concentrate their visibility whereas the Buddhists and more general followers of Tam Giao are more dispersed.
Religion permeates Vietnamese life without dominating it and people seem genuinely tolerant of others’ beliefs, but I, as an outsider, can’t help seeing Catholicism as pushy and overly assertive — as taking advantage of Vietnamese tolerance. Probably because the Church is centralized whereas the temples and shrines are dispersed. (And I freely admit to a strictly personal bias against “organized religion,” being myself something of an American gnostic.) I have a great respect for that dispersed sort of religion — it’s one of the things I first noticed about Vietnam, that the sacred was not confined to official places and practices, but could be found anywhere, so naturally I find Vietnamese Catholicism a little froward, however sincere. And yet, as the service lets out, there is a feeling of goodwill and relaxed celebration among the worshipers and the non-worshipers — for commerce goes on around the cathedral even as mass is celebrated.
Well, all the preparation is complete. I’ve picked up my travel funds from the university, gotten travelers checks, made sure my prescriptions are filled, taken my old car to the dealer who has my new one on order, packed most of my things, sent all the necessary emails, and now I feel as if I am on a little vacation before I go on Tuesday. My trip is shaping up a little differently than I had originally expected, its shape determined to some extent by who can help me and who is available to meet with. I’ll probably spend a bit less time in Hanoi and a bit more in HCMC, with a few days in Hue it now appears. I spent a couple of lovely days in Hue in 1998, so I’m looking forward to getting to meet writers there. And I have a strong bias toward Hanoi and the north, so it will be good to explore the virtues of HCMC and the south. With luck I will get out to Chau Doc to see the Lady of the Realm, the center of a relatively new cult in Vietnam, which is famous for inventing a wild variety of syncretic religions. I’m curious about the degree to which a tendency toward syncretic pragmatism might affect contemporary Vietnamese writers.
This item in the NY Times caught my attention yesterday because I am writing a story in which a religious woman is dying. According to the study quoted, very devout people request more heroic measures to extend life than those who are not religious. One would have thought otherwise, given that the afterlife should be no great mystery for believers. The study’s authors say that the devout believe life is sacred and that they have a duty to extend it. I have another theory: the devout are more frightened of death than non-believers because they fear damnation. At least among the Christians I knew growing up, one’s salvation was never quite assured. This of course keeps people in a state of exquisite fear and trepedation throughout their lives, as they build ever more elaborate visions of paradise to distract themselves from their obsessive fear of eternal punishment. Or if they don’t fear damnation, perhaps they fear nothingness, which would give the lie to their lives as believers. This is the sort of belief system that eats away at life by inducing continual anxiety, then in a final irony desperately clings to life in the face of death. This is the way my mother lived and died and I find it profoundly depressing.