“Am I allowed a second Vietnamese iced coffee?" I wondered. The sweetened condensed milk swirled magically in its tall, cold pint glass. The caffeine made my heart pound, but I was on holiday in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the first time, and so I granted myself the luxury.
I sat at an outdoor cafe by Hoan Kiem Lake and watched people stroll past: local families with small children, senior citizens wearing tracksuits, and the occasional European backpacker. A warm breeze ruffled the spring leaves in the trees.
So far, Hanoi in May had been a perfect choice for a week-long vacation: fabulous bowls of rice noodles, meatballs, and fresh herbs, crumbling but beautiful French architecture, bustling streetlife with rickshaws and motorbikes, and fascinating temples and museums.
I knew I'd been led to Vietnam to discover something inside myself, something sacred, a missing piece, but over the first two days of solo travel, I had been satisfied to find my missing peace.
Even my hotel choice had been guided. Last year when I booked, I opened the online map and asked, “Where?” Zooming in and out, I kept coming back to the neighborhood near St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the older part of town, away from the crush of bars where budget travelers usually stay.
It wasn’t the church I was after, however. I needed to find a place of healing, and it was Buddhist, but that’s as much as I knew.
I'd visited three temples already in my first two days, and they were definitely havens of serenity. But I was still on the lookout for the "right" one.
After my coffee at the lake, I was in no rush to get back to my hotel.
I let myself be guided as to which streets to take. I felt my feet turn to the right just when they "should" have turned left, one street away from the hotel, and I felt as if my body wanted me to walk off the effects of the strong coffee.
Suddenly I came to a halt in the middle of a busy pavement. With that familiar feeling of turning into a marionette on strings, I felt my body rotate 90 degrees until I was gazing across the motorbike-filled street. Through the traffic, I saw an entryway in the wall, a doorway in a facade painted light yellow. The wooden door stood open.
My first day, I had learned how to cross a Hanoi street (it demanded courage!).
1. Deep breath
3. Don't make eye contact
I inhaled and stepped slowly but purposefully into the stream of Vespas and Hondas, and they miraculously flowed around me like a whitewater river around a floating log.
The yellow building had a sign above its ornate doorway, but I couldn’t read it. As I glanced up, I saw dark clouds gathering in the sky, and I smelled the approach of rain.
I stepped through the entryway and discovered another Buddhist temple; there are so many in Hanoi. The time was about 4:30 pm, and the temple was empty, with just a few visitors. I slipped off my flip flops, placing them by the inner entrance near a few other pairs of shoes, and stepped inside.
The room stretched out long and narrow toward its altar, every surface covered entirely with gold leaf. The few electric lights shimmered warmly off the gold. All around, on this ordinary day, there were as many fresh flowers arranged in vases as at a Western wedding.
At the front, the altar consisted of platforms cascading from the ceiling down to the floor, each holding multitudes of burnished statues.
Near the ceiling loomed three identical Buddha figures with huge ears. I had visited the Women's Museum in the morning, and so luckily I had learned that although they did not look feminine, these three represented the Mother Goddesses and were revered most highly in the hierarchy.
A gigantic king, probably 5 meters high, stood at the back, beneath the Mothers. In front of the king sat a Buddha, 3 meters high, shining brightly.
Interspersed with the statues, and all around the temple, overflowing vases of white lilies and tropical flowers perfumed the air. I meditated with my eyes gently open, inhaling the fragrance and staying present to the room.
Two women entered, both about 80 years old. They murmured quietly to each other and then slipped on thin brown robes over their street clothes. Another woman joined them, and another, until the room was filled with about thirty women, all grandmotherly. Apparently, I had arrived a few minutes early for “afternoon Mass,” and now I was surrounded by church ladies. No escape!
I sat very still and kept meditating with my eyelids slightly cracked open. The women took out prayer books and distributed them onto plastic stools used as low reading tables.
After a few minutes, a middle-aged male monk in an orange robe entered the room without much pretension and stood at the front of the temple, on a short stage in front of the massive altar. He faced the Buddha and then he turned back toward us. To either side of the monk sat two roundish, cylindrical objects - one metal and one ceramic, judging by their reflectivity.
To my right and to my left, in front of me and behind me, the women sat on the floor. There was no way for me to stand up and leave the room. They were so close to me that if I had extended an arm, I could have reached out and touched three or four people.
All together, the women chanted from their books. Some voices quavered, some called out low and husky. The chant was a mix between singing and speaking, with tone variation, and they sang with strength and sincerity. I could feel their intention.
I estimated this would go on for about an hour, so I settled into my best cross-legged meditation position and followed along with my gestures when they namasted their palms together, raised their hands to their forehead, lowered their hands to their hearts, and gently knocked their foreheads against the floor.
Not knowing the words, I repeated silently, "Peace in my mind, peace in my heart, peace on earth."
The chanting continued. The two objects next to the monk turned out to be drums. The monk hit a stick against the ceramic cylinder to keep time. He hit once per syllable, at a staccato pace - to me, it sounded like: “old-mc-don-ald-had-a-farm-e-i-e-i-o.”
I focused on my breath. It was hard to turn off the translation function of my ears, but I had zero Vietnamese vocabulary, so my mind grasped fruitlessly at the sounds, straining to make meaning in English.
“A-di-da” sounded like sports shoes. "Cell-phone." "Da-ma-scus." Nope, I had nothing.
I wanted to get up. I wanted to leave. I wanted to understand.
I liked the chanting. I liked the monk hitting the drum. I liked the flowers.
I wanted a brown robe for myself. I wanted the women to like me.
Ah, Buddhism springing to life, right in my own mind!Desire and aversion, desire and aversion.Liking and disliking.Wanting and not wanting.
These are the elements of the human condition.
And these dualities are what meditation is meant to help us recognize and work through.
Sitting on that plastic mat, surrounded by sincere elders at prayer, I was definitely in the right place.
As the women sang the Buddhist sutras, I let go of any attempt to discern meaning. I felt the power of their collective reverence wash through me, along with the scent of the flowers, the glow of the golden light, and the dedication of the women giving their time and praise.
I switched to my visual sense, as the temple was clearly designed to overwhelm the eyes with divine glory. I gazed upon the serene face of the Buddha and opened my mind to receive messages.
The golden tableau blurred.
All the flowers became angels, and I felt loved and completely guided, surrounded by legions of divine help that had led me here and would continue to lead me on the right path.
Even when I didn't understand, even when I resisted with my logical mind, I would be led and shown. Now my eyes swam with tears as well.
The chanting rolled on. I felt my left thigh muscle protest, as if it were developing sciatica. I responded to my thigh: “I dedicate my small pain to redeeming the pain of the world.” Despite my loft aspirations, my thigh was not impressed.
My leg burned. My ego burned with it; I felt awkward, embarrassed, "not enough." I didn't want to wiggle or fidget. I'd notify the grandmothers to either side of me that I was uncomfortable, a newbie, a weakling. I held my position. The back of my thigh began to cry.
I re-crossed my legs, embarrassed that my dress was showing my knees. I had thought the dress was modest enough, but not in this context! You're not supposed to point your feet toward the Buddha, I knew that from the 10 day Vipassana retreats I had attended. What about bare knees? Certainly also a no, right?
The chanting went on.
Luckily this temple had electric fans, as the temperature outside grew ever more stifling and the barometric pressure weighed heavily with the threat of an evening rain. In the thick air and the darkening room, I extended my gratitude to Hanoi, to electricity, to the Buddha, and to the temple.
Then I had an extraordinary moment. It was as if a small candle lit up, right inside my mind.
I had walked into this temple randomly off the street, but suddenly all of my memories came together. Could this tiny room be the holy site I had read about a year previous, when I had planned this trip? Could this be the monastery of a healing monk?
Just as that thought hit my mind, the service ended with one last bash of the drum.
All of the grandmothers bowed again, stood up, and bowed again. Then, as grandmothers do, they milled about greeting each other. I made a beeline for the door, seeking out a plaque or sign so that I could photograph and google it.
Near the doorway, I found a statue of a human being who was definitely not a Buddha or a god. Maybe he was my monk?
Just outside the temple building, I snapped a photo of the name carved above the door. A fat raindrop splatted on my phone screen. I shoved the phone back in my pocket and jogged toward my hotel as the storm broke overhead.
Back in my hotel room, thunder crashing outside, I opened my laptop and pulled up Google Maps, tracing where I had walked. I found my temple! Named the Ly Trieu Quoc Su Pagoda, Google gave it only lukewarm reviews, as “ornate” but “cramped.” Well, true enough!
Wikipedia gave me more information on the temple itself, which led me to the name of “my” monk:
Constructed in 1131, the pagoda was dedicated to a healer monk called Nguyễn Minh Không, father of the copper casting craft believed to possess magical skills. After curing the Emperor, he obtained the highest ranking title of national master.
I googled a bit more around my monk and found a cool, manga-like illustration of him in his full powers.
This short Wiki article brought me an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction. Mission accomplished!
Maybe in a previous incarnation, I had served as a novice monk to this powerful healer?
Perhaps by visiting this monastery, I would also activate my hidden, magical healing abilities?
I had found a missing element of my soul puzzle, although I still couldn’t see the whole picture.
But for the moment, I had to be content with that piece.
And a delicious bowl of stew for supper, too.