Mother Mudra, pen and ink on graph paper, doodle
© 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
“Would you like to see a special temple?” our guide asks as she holds out her hand to help us off the canoe. “Tourists never go there, but I know where it is.”
“Yes, yes,” we nod.
Two brothers from the boat crew and one of their girlfriends have the day off, so they join the Japanese couple and me, plus our guide, on a sight-seeing tour.
It’s still early. We walk single-file on a narrow path past houses where children loll in front of TV sets and women shell nuts. The brriing-brriing of an old-fashioned bell causes us to step off the path in unison to let a bicyclist pass.
Soon we turn on to a dirt road. The ground is moist from last night’s rain. We come upon a bevy of small roosters strutting herky-jerky in individual cages. “Fighting cocks,” our guide says, and we stare somberly as we continue on. Nervous prisoners awaiting execution.
Suddenly there it is before us, a shimmering white pagoda with blue-tipped wings, ready for take-off. We slip through the gate and everything changes, like walking through a mirror into paradise. Our feet float on spongy grass-moss and our hands graze two golden dragons.
A teeny tiny frog catches my eye. I stoop to catch it. The rest of the group peers in to my cupped hands to see what I have, but as soon as I flatten my palm the baby frog leaps toward the sea of green.
Thirty-nine days have come and gone since that morning in Cai Be, Vietnam. I’ve tried to find out what temple it was—a name or lineage—to put into context what I experienced there. But every town in Vietnam, it seems, is filled with temples. Finally and with some relief, I give up my search and fall back on the only context I can lend, which is the moment itself.
Our group moves together like a small cloud, individual ions held in a single energy field. We seven are the only people on the temple grounds this Sunday morning. Our guide ceases being a guide—this isn’t a formal stop on the tour—and together we step gingerly from one area to another. We are like children who aren’t sure we’re supposed to be there.
We take turns rubbing the Smiling Buddha’s belly for luck, slip off our shoes and climb the steps to the interior courtyard. Once inside the great temple’s main chamber, we splinter off to explore. I’m drawn to a table with framed photos of men, women, and children. Next to each photo is a hand-written card, and next to the table is a large cabinet, its shelves filled with goods and more cards.
“Those are gifts.” Our guide has come up behind me as I peer at the blue-and-white china and tarnished silver in the cabinet. “The card says these valuables were passed down through the family since the 14th Century, and now the family gives the items to the temple in return for their daughter’s health.”
I turn back to the porcelain, suddenly troubled by the notion that as more tourists come to Vietnam, vandals might some day steal these gifts and sell them for profit. I am sad, and I shuffle, burdened by the thought, to another table, this one covered with hundreds of glass tumblers holding candle wicks in shiny yellow oil. The candles are lit—prayers reflecting like sunlight on a river.
Now it is October in the Rio Grande Valley, a beautiful fall day. My country is in turmoil—our economy imploding and our society exploding, with rage, over the national elections. I am literally and figuratively oceans away from that soft temple, its Smiling Buddha and croaking frogs, the river of light and strength of detachment to material things. I feel far, far away from a belief in miracles and peace.
There is a goddess in the Buddhist temple of Cai Be. I don’t know her name, but she wears a wry smile and dons earlobes to her shoulders, reminding us that the Buddha was once a prince whose ears became stretched from the heavy jewels he wore. Even when he gave up a life of luxury, his ears remained long.
Like an apparition, this goddess appears during my final stroll through the temple’s courtyard then again in the flower garden. She holds her right hand next to her heart, palm out, fourth finger touching thumb. She offers the Vitarka Mudra, a Buddhist hand gesture that symbolizes Teaching or Instruction.
At the core of Buddhist Teaching are the Four Noble Truths: 1) life means suffering, 2) the origin of suffering is attachment, 3) the cessation of suffering is attainable, 4) there is a path to the cessation of suffering, which is middle-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
I think of the parents who carried their precious family treasures to the temple. I can understand that kind of act. People who love others, truly love, will give up anything if it means their loved ones will survive. There are people all across this world and in my country and my life who know that kind of love. They are greater than all the bad, and though I lose this truth when I most need it, it lives even when I forget or stop believing.
The goddess of Cai Be resides in my heart now. She stands before a vast, desolate land whose river runs red and mountains are bare. She wears the colors of new life, green and yellow, but also the color of death, because they are of the same cycle. Above her the sky fills with the promise of renewal. She welcomes all who come to listen and learn. She is a teacher, and she is peace.
Today I can see her.
Buddha Mother, statue in a Buddhist temple in Cai Be,
Vietnam, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.