"Praying to the Buddha: Living amid Religious Pluralism," a Commentary by Peter C. Phan

January 26, 2007

Author: Peter C. Phan

Source: Commonweal Magazine


In 2000, twenty-five members of my family returned to Vietnam, many for the first time since leaving the country as refugees a quarter of a century earlier. Our nostalgic tour included a visit to the buildings of the Catholic high school where I used to teach. That visit was disappointing because the school had been seized years earlier by the Communist government and no longer existed. But our curiosity was aroused by a nearby Buddhist pagoda which, in contrast to the school, seemed to be prospering, with a beautiful garden and several new buildings.

As we entered the courtyard, dominated by a huge statue of the reclining Buddha surrounded by his five disciples, we were greeted by a smiling and gentle-looking nun in her late twenties. She was dressed in a light-grey habit, her head clean-shaven, a necklace of brown wooden beads hanging down from around her neck. She immediately recognized that we were viet kieu-foreign Vietnamese, the government’s designation for expatriates-and offered to give us a tour of the pagoda. She showed us various buildings, her voice soft and soothing, her demeanor radiating warmth and peace. When my mother asked her about her life, she replied that she had entered the monastery as a girl and had lived there ever since.

Finally she led us into the pagoda itself. In the dimly-lit sanctuary a huge golden Buddha sat cross-legged on a high lotus-flower throne, his eyes peacefully closed, his hands touching each other and resting on his lap in the traditional gesture of meditation. In front of the Buddha, offerings of fruit were artfully arranged in golden bowls, along with flowers, incense, and red candles. On the side stood a statue of the female bodhisattva, or the Buddha of compassion, known in Vietnamese as Quan Am. The whole place was suffused with a prayerful silence periodically punctuated by the muffled sounds of a gong. Never had I had as deep an experience of stepping on sacred ground and as overwhelming a sense of what Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, not even in Catholic churches. My mother stood reverently in front of the Buddha, her eyes fixed on him, her palms held together at her chest, her lips murmuring a prayer. When she finished, she rummaged in her handbag, took out a handful of American dollars, and dropped them into the coffer. As we left, she turned to me and said: “The Buddha is a holy man.”