Remnants of Suffering

We began the day in a mad rush to UEF. Due to the long previous day, everyone was understandably tired and a few had woken up slightly late. Unfortunately, the trend of long days continued as we had almost five activities planned for the day. The first being a lesson on Buddhism, a generally ubiquitous religion throughout the world, though it is most popular in south east Asia. Buddhism’s story begins in early fifth century India, now Nepal, where Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family; a sage present during his birth predicted that his light would bring peace to the world. Having been raised within the palace grounds, the young prince never experienced hunger, illness, or pain for much of his life. Although he was curious as to what lay beyond the walls of his home, the king never allowed his son to venture outside, thinking he was protecting him from the horrors of the outside world. Eventually as the prince grew older, he was able to marry and venture into the world, where he observed instances of extreme poverty, illness, hunger, and death. He also observed a monk, meditating, seemingly free of the pain from the pain of the world around him. The monk explained to him the principles of asceticism which basically follows the ideology that wants or temptation was the root of all pain and evil, so to abstain from all that is considered unnecessary is the only way to reach a point of happiness. He explained that one must only eat and drink the bare minimum of what is necessary to stay alive, and to spend the rest of your time praying or meditating. Prince Gautama took this to heart and would soon leave his life behind to become an ascetic monk, but he quickly realised that the constant state of weakness and hunger he was in could not be the true answer in his quest to end his suffering, so he devised the idea of the happy medium, which would become one of the foundations of Buddhism. The idea of the happy medium is the idea that true happiness does not lie in the indulgence and lavish lifestyle of the upper castes of Hinduism as he had learned in his early life, nor did it lie in depravity of all except that which is necessary as he had learned as monk, instead he proposed that true happiness lay in some practice in the middle of the two belief systems. One day, as legend has it, while meditating under the bodhi tree, Siddhartha is said to have reached a state of nirvana. In this state, the Buddha, or enlightened one, was born and devised the four noble truths: the truth that there is suffering in life, the truth that suffering stems from temptation and greed, the truth that suffering can be brought to an end, and the truth that the end of all suffering lies in a eightfold path. The eightfold path held eight tenants on which to base your behavior and thought to ensure a lifestyle, not necessarily free of suffering, but free of the pain with which suffering comes. The Buddha’s teaching would spread far and wide much after his death and is now apparent in two major systems of Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism. Theraveda Buddhism is much more apparent in places like Thailand and Malaysia whereas Mahayana is much more prevalent in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This is mostly due to the geographical layout of Asia and the belief systems already put in place by the people of each country. Mahayana beliefs differ from Theraveda in that (1) Mahayanas believe there are multiple Buddhas who reached nirvana after the orginal, (2) Anyone can reach nirvana in Mahayana, and (3) that the journey to nirvana is a group effort.

After learning about the different tenants and beliefs of Buddhism, we travelled to a pagoda, a temple where Buddhists go to pray or meditate. It is important to point out the Buddhism is considered both a philosophy and religion, as it is both a school of ideals and ways to interpret the world while also being an un-centralised belief system with universal truths. Near the pagoda stood a memorial at the intersection where a monk self-immolated in protest of the religious restrictions set upon the Vietnamese people by the democratic, United States-backed government. The government had imposed strict, Christian-centric laws about the practice of religion, and the martyrdom of the singular monk had become one of many examples of the Vietnamese protesting the United States using the country as a battleground against communism. The site itself was preparing for the celebration of the first Buddha’s historic birthday which is this Sunday. As the recognized site for the main celebration of the event, temples all over Vietnam prepared for the celebration. The temple itself featured a central place of worship where one could meditate upon the events in their life as well as small memorials for deceased members of the temple.  The hot and humid sun beat down upon us as we walked among the small garden they had on the temple grounds, featuring small bonsais and flowers with little statues of buddhas nestled among the flora. The occasional temple worker walked back and forth, cleaning and hanging decorations in preparation for the coming events and celebration, their uniform being a plain gray robe and a shaved head. Surprisingly, many of the monks were female which was odd to me as the only experience I had in a Buddhist temple was in America, where many temples were male-dominated. It was also interesting to see female Buddhas around, as we learned that much of ancestral Vietnamese beliefs featured strong feminine deities that are referred to as “Mother.” The mixture between Vietnamese tradition and their adoption of Buddhism into their beliefs was something I had not seen before as an American, and it was refreshing to see a sort of equal focus on female and male presence in faith.

We then headed towards the War Remnants Museum, a painful and solemn reminder of the scars the United States had left on Vietnam as a nation. Defunct tanks and fighter planes sat in the front courtyard, each in relatively good shape, leftover from the period of time when America hastily exited the country near the end of the war as the NVA moved into the city. Inside lay hundreds of photographs and news articles of the collective ill will the world had felt towards the United States as a major power in this war, with propaganda from countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and the Netherlands showing their support for the Vietnamese people. Examples of dissent within the United States include the self-immolation of three United States students and protests in universities across the nation covered an entire wall as people showed their hatred towards the imperialistic tendencies of the Johnson administration. Other rooms recounted the tales of the beginning of the war. Of people losing their entire family in a single night as their home was reduced to nothing but a hole in the ground due to American bombings, of American soldiers abandoning their posts due to their disagreements with the treatment of the Vietnamese people, and of people gathering together to ensure that they were able to save and unify as many Vietnamese as possible. On the top floor, an entire floor was dedicated display the gross effects of Agent Orange, not only on those involved in the war, but their children as well, many of whom were born deformed and disable, living in terrible conditions. The gross malformations serve as a great reminder of the horrible lengths people, not just Americans, go to in order to win wars or gain an upper hand. An outside exhibit of American prison camps serves as a reminder of the conditions that we put our enemies in, as many were tortured and were forced to be caged like animals in barbed wire.

Lastly, we went to the Ben Thanh market, where we bargained with traders for goods which, even at their original upscaled prices, were astoundingly cheap compared to their American counterparts. Although I personally am not one for impulsive purchases of consumer goods, it was a good experience of how the Vietnamese culture differed from ours as we slowly figured out the do’s and don’ts of bartering. A general rule of a 1/3 the original price would be asked, as well as the shared belief among the vendors that is the price was stated then a deal and purchases must be made. Other general strategies were employed by us students such as inciting bidding wars, using hyperbolic exclamations about how bad of quality certain items were, or the classic walking away from certain asked prices to get the merchants to rush the deal. All in all the entire was a good learning experience the difference of cultures in Vietnam.

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