Monday, February 1, 2010

The Long So'N Pagoda in Nha Trang

Another wonderful unexpected discovery with a history of protest, violence and death. But once you climb what seemed to be an interminable staircase, you arrive at the top and nature smiles; bougainvilleas abound. Children play under funerary urns, without giving a thought to their significance. After all, it's a great place to catch some shade. 

The real marvel is hidden from view upon arrival. A word of caution to anyone that cannot climb more than one flight of stairs: do not attempt to go to the top. There are 152 steps to climb, and in hot weather, it can be dangerous for some to undertake the ascent; there is a sign that discourages people with medical conditions from climbing, and it should be heeded. Luck came for us in the way of a bottle of water, which is absolutely necessary, and several rest stops on the way.  The young man at my side was impossible to shake off, no matter how hard I tried. I wondered how many times he had made the climb in order to get a few dong?
A huge, silver replica of a reclining Buddha waits at the top of the stairs (24 meters tall), which for us was a consolation prize for having missed the golden one in Bangkok. The view from the top is spectacular: you can see the entire city, the water, the housing, the shacks and the beautiful flowers. As we were taking photos, some curious young man appeared with shades on, and was ready to pose at a moment's notice. I called him the "little Elvis".

 and here's my Elvis:
Not to do any evil. To perform what is good. To keep one’s own heart pure. These are the teachings of lord Buddha. 

Indeed, these and other teachings are found scripted on the walls of Nha Trang’s largest pagoda in both Vietnamese and English. At any one time here, there are at least seventy students who are future monks, and eighteen orphans who serve as guides and above all, postcard vendors.

Two girls approached us as we were making our way up the stairs to reassure us so as not to worry, that they were not hawkers but rather students, and they wouldn’t be harassing us... except for the postcards. This is the way to make a contribution to this community, as they will not accept cash in any shape or form. There is so much to see here that it was great that a young man decided to serve as our guide.

The Pagoda was first built on Mount Trai Thuy in 1886 and named Dang Long Pagoda. In 1900, the Pagoda was damaged in a storm and was rebuilt down the mountain in its present location. It  was built to commemorate the monks and nuns who died while fighting against the Diem government.

 there is always work to do here; whether renovating or repairing.
Part of the monastery was damaged during the American War. 

Also visible are various buildings which are part of this establishment with their peaceful, tiled roofs, their sculpted ferocious looking dragons, and the prominent inverted yellow swastika which our guide hastens to tell us was a peaceful symbol and has nothing to do with Nazism.

By oneself, evil deed is done. By oneself, one is defiled. By oneself, evil deed is not done. By oneself, one becomes purified. Purity and Impurity are done by oneself. No one can purify another.

There are dozens such adages which adorn the walls of the main building, and one cannot help but read them all, and reflect upon their meaning.  The words continue to dance in front of my eyes, and they never quite leave me, as we continue our visit through the main hall: this area has been modernized and rebuilt several times, and serves as a memorial to the Buddhists who gave their lives to support the US-backed Diem regime of the 1960’s.

 The Memorial Building

There are very ornate mosaic symbols and decorations on top of the buildings. The combination of tile and glass is a Vietnamese specialty, which we had already seen in the ancient capital city of Hue.

All tremble in violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill or cause another to kill.

And also:

Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.

We meet a very old man who seems in contemplation and is glad to engage in some words in English with us. His face breaks into a smile when we tell him we are American. He allows us to enter a very special room where chairs and tables are set in such a way for meetings. Around the room are framed photos of the various heads of the "congregation", and the years of their reigns.

huge white Buddha sits atop a gold pedestal

One does not get a sense of what must have been very turbulent times, when monks martyred themselves against their government. At this elevated haven, there is a serenity and calm, and marvelous views of the city of Nha Trang below.

As one continues to walk along the paths and staircases, there might be a young monk in deep study; or a smiling little girl playing with siblings.  But the special room which is normally not open to the public bears witness to those who died.

The fool worries thinking," I have sons, I have wealth". Indeed, when he himself is not his own, whence are sons? whence is wealth?

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