Not This, Not That ~ A YEAR IN THE US

Having got my visa for the US in Manila, in October ’84, I flew to Los Angeles, and was met by quite a delegation of old faces from Bataan ~ Paul and his brothers, Chi Phuong and her family, Tran Cong Nam, Hoang Dac Loc and Tomas (who’d come to the US ahead of me for a visit), and some others. And, because I’d not known where I would stay when I got to L.A., Loc, who was staying in a temple ~ Phat Hoc Vien Quoc Te ~ north of the city, had arranged for me to stay there. So, from the airport, I was taken to this place. It had been set up as a training-center for young monks and nuns by a senior monk named Thich Duc Niem. He also operated a printing-press, and reproduced a number of books written by prominent Buddhist writers (all in Vietnamese; he hadn’t realized the importance of printing in English, too), plus his own quarterly publication. He was aloof, who loved to be addressed as ‘Dr. Duc Niem’ because of the Ph.D. he’d gained in Taiwan years before. Within a week, he appointed me to the quite-meaningless position of ‘Vice-President for Dharma-Propagation’ in his organization, without first asking if I’d be willing to assist. But I soon came to see that this was just a ploy for getting me on ‘his side’, as he was involved in a long-running feud with another senior monk in L.A. ~ Thich Manh Giac ~ although the nature of this feud I never managed to ascertain; it was probably just a personality thing, something quite common among monks.

While in southern California, I again met Tuan and Diep, and he translated for me in one of the temples that were coming up like mushrooms in Orange County. I also met Ping Kim Suor. She’d married an American named Jim, but he wasn’t too healthy and needed quite a bit of care; she was working for an agency help-ing newly-arrived refugees settle into their unfamiliar surround-ings, and was ideally suited for this, having learned so much about compassion. Chi Phuong and Dong were running a hair-dressing salon, and were doing alright; they always were hard-working and enterprising.

I had no plans for my stay in the US, so played it by ear, as had been my way for a long time; it was no different there. But after a while, together with Tomas, I went to San Francisco, and we were met at the airport late at night by Thich Quang Chon, who had been with me in Bataan in 1980 (he was the second of the Vietnamese monks there, after Thong Hai); he took us to his temple in the city, Chua Tu Quang, where he was staying with his uncle, the abbot, Thich Tinh Tu. Quang Chon and others showed us something of San Francisco, and I instinctively liked the place; it had a sense of character that L.A. lacked.

Victor was also over from Manila at this time, so we met up and spent a bit of time with him. His family owned a house in S.F.

From there, we went to San Jose, invited by Thich Giac Luong, a monk I’d met in Manila in ‘79 when he had just arrived there as a refugee. He showed us a video about the Buddha, but I’d have been ashamed to show it to anyone, as it was such a travesty, and portrayed the Buddha more as an E.T. than a teacher who people could follow. He also took us to a Buddhist Youth Camp in the mountains, where I met Thich Manh Giac, who was there to conduct the opening-ceremony. He gave me with one of his name-cards, and when I saw what was written there, among his numerous titles and awards ~ Great Dharma Master ~ I almost laughed out loud! But I should have known better and not ex-pected anything different!

We returned to L.A., Tomas soon to go back to Manila, and I to stay in PHVQT again. The pettiness that prevailed there, how-ever, became more obvious. Tinh Tu of San Francisco had es-tablished a meditation-center in the mountains near San Jose (Northern California), which he’d called Kim Son (Gold Mountain), so Duc Niem felt that he had to do the same in Southern California (Tinh Tu was a nephew of Duc Niem’s rival, Manh Giac), and bought a piece of desert-land in the mountains nearby which he called, Tien Son (Zen Mountain); he paid $100,000 for it, but I don’t know if anything was done to develop it, and it was without water or other facilities. What rivalry will do!

By then, it was no secret why I had come to the US; I’d spoken about it openly, but several monks made transparent and silly excuses for not going back to the Camps. Some said, “I have no passport”, but though this might have been true, it was not a great obstacle, as anyone who’d been there over a year as a refugee could get a travel-document in place of a passport, which would permit him to go overseas. Some said, “I have no money”. Again, no big problem, because if people knew that a monk needed support to visit the Camps, they would have gen-erously helped out. Duc Niem himself said, “If you stay here long enough to help me learn more English, I will go with you to the Camps.” Had he forgotten that the people in the Camps were Vietnamese? He didn’t need to speak English with them, and anyway, his English was quite adequate for him to go to Taiwan. One monk even said, “If I go to the Camps, will I be able to find a cushion there?”

A cushion?” I said, “What for?

“Oh, I need a cushion for my meditation.” I felt like telling him to sit on his head, as that was soft enough! I was very disappointed at being unable to find a single monk in the US or later, in Can-ada, willing to go back ~ they were all too busy setting them-selves up like petty kings in their own temple-kingdoms! Months later, I wrote a letter, copies of which I sent to as many temples as I could get addresses of, telling how I felt and why. Maybe this letter had some effect in disturbing some of them, as later, several monks did visit some of the Camps, but far too few and much too late, because by then, of course, so many refugees who hitherto considered themselves ‘Buddhists’ had succumbed to the pressures of the missionaries or their already-changed friends, and converted.

A talk ~ or so I assumed ~ was arranged for me one Sunday at Chua Viet Nam (Manh Giac’s place in downtown L.A.). When I got there, however, it seems that I’d only been invited for lunch, but I said that’s not what I had come for, and didn’t need to go anywhere for lunch. A talk was hastily arranged, and while I was waiting for the people already in the temple to assemble, Manh Giac sent his secretary-monk to tell me that he wanted to offer me some money to take back to the Refugee Camps in the Phil-ippines, but I said. “Look here, I didn’t come to the US to look for money, but for monks who would go back to the Camps, so don’t offer me money, because I won’t accept it!” I gave my talk ~ it wasn’t a success ~ and when I saw Manh Giac’s face over lunch, I could tell he wasn’t happy over what I’d said, but neither was I happy about him being willing to use me as a stop-gap in the Camps instead of going himself or at least arranging for someone else to go. I never saw him again.

Not long after this, Duc Niem made a trip to Taiwan to buy stuff and visit a brother-monk, and asked me to take charge while he was away. Well, not long after he left things began to happen. There were two nuns, you see, one of whom ~ Quang Tam ~ was very close to Duc Niem, and seemed to have some hold over him ~ an unhealthy situation! The other nun, Dieu Thanh, was more easy-going and amiable, and did most of the cooking; she was from Canada, and had been there over a year. Quang Tam was clearly resentful of Dieu Thanh and probably jealous, fearing some competition, wanting to have the whole scene to herself. One day, a letter for Dieu Thanh came by registered-post; it contained a one-way ticket from L.A. to Montreal, and a note saying something to the effect that: “You have overstayed your visa here, so take this ticket and leave before someone re-ports you and you are deported.” There was no name or signa-ture. Needless to say, we were all shocked by this ~ except the person who had sent it, and suspicion fell on Quang Tam, of course. Nothing could be proved, however, and she denied it, but who else would spend so much money on a ticket for such a purpose? No-one else hated Dieu Thanh as much as that! It made my stay there very uncomfortable, and before Duc Niem returned, I’d resolved to leave as soon as possible.

While these funny things were going on in PHVQT, I got a call from someone in Minneapolis ~ again, someone I’d known in Bataan ~ who, learning I was in L.A., got my number and called; it provided me with a way out, and I accepted his invitation to visit, especially as he told me that other people I knew from Bataan were there. Duc Niem returned, but did nothing about what had happened during his absence, although he must have known who the culprit was.

My stay there had not been a waste of time in spite of all these things, as I’d rewritten my simple book, Keys For Refugees, and several people had helped translate it ~ accurately or not, I was unable to tell ~ and although Duc Niem arranged for someone to type out the Vietnamese for me ~ a relative of his, as I recall, and for which I was charged some $400 ~ he never offered to print the book for me; so much for my position of ‘Vice-President in Charge of Dharma-Propagation”!

It was still winter, so very cold when I arrived in Minneapolis. Again, there was a group of people awaiting me at the airport, and since the temple there was unheated, I was taken to stay in someone’s home, going to the temple only on Sunday to give a talk, which was well-received. There, I met a family I’d known at the end of 1980 in Bataan. The day after arriving in the US, Nguyen Tang Huyen and his wife had gone to work in a friend’s restaurant, and some months later, opened their own, and were so successful that people lined up, in all weathers, to get in! They were lovely people, and I was sure their clientele were at-tracted just as much by their charm as by the food they served.

In Minneapolis, I extended my visa by another 6 months; it was no problem at all in those days.

Two hours south of Minneapolis, in Rochester, I found Chi Ba ~ a lady ~ one of several ~ who had cooked for me in Bataan, and went to stay with some of her friends. She was as industrious as ever, and had always had a job of some kind since she arrived from the Phils in ’82, and sometimes two at once. From there, I went to Chicago, to spend six weeks in the temple there ~ an old clap-board house in a run-down inner-city area where I didn’t feel safe. I retyped my book and got it ready for printing, then sent it ~ together with the Vietnamese version ~ to Loc in PHVQT, where it was printed, at a cost of $4,000 for 2,000 cop-ies. But it wasn’t well done; the ink on the cover rubbed off, the paper was of poor quality, and the pages were only thinly glued in and soon came loose. My first printed book was behind me. Later, I wrote to Duc Niem to say that I wouldn’t be coming back, so he should find someone else for the position; I didn’t need a position or title for something I had been doing for some years already and would continue to do, and hadn’t come to the US to get involved in feuds and take sides, as I was on no-one’s side. I don’t know how he reacted to my letter ~ probably with disdain; I can imagine the expression on his face as he read it.

While watching the TV news one evening, I saw a flash about a Vietnamese man in a Chicago hospital being treated for leuke-mia; his younger brother had been allowed by the government of Vietnam to fly to the U.S. to donate bone-marrow for a trans-plant, after which he’d have to go back to Vietnam. I called the hospital and asked the receptionist if she could find out for me if the patient was a Buddhist, and if so, would he like me to visit him. She went away and came back not long after, and said yes on both counts. I immediately got someone to drive me there, and found the man lying there with tubes running into and out of him in all directions, but he was lucid and aware. I asked if there was anything I could do for him, and was surprised ~ and very pleased, as it’s quite rare ~ when he asked me to speak Dharma to him, the best thing he could have asked me for. Well, I told him about dukkha, and related the story of Kisa Gotami, as I had explained to Ping Kim Suor several years before:

There was a young woman named Kisa Gotami. She’d not had a happy life, but her parents did their duty, and managed to scrape together enough to find her a husband. He was also poor, but was kind to her, and when, later, she gave birth to a boy, her happiness knew no limits, because a boy meant status in the community, and whereas before, people had ignored and looked down upon her, they now respected and befriended her.

One day, when the child was about two years old, she put him outside to play in the garden, as she often did, while she did her housework, and could hear him playing happily. After some time, however, she noticed he’d become quiet. Wondering what was wrong, she went to see, and found him lying on the ground, unmoving. She ran to him and picked him up, but he was cold and still and quiet; she did not know that a snake had bitten him while he was playing. Shaking him, and holding him tightly to her, she said: "Speak, cry, move, do something," but he re-mained still and cold. She ran to her neighbor’s, saying, "My baby’s sick; he won't move or talk. Can you tell me what to do? Do you have any medicine?" The neighbor could see that the child was dead, but said: "I'm sorry; I have no medicine for that."

Kisa Gotami went to the next house, but got a similar answer. She went to many houses, and some people said they had no medicine, while others unkindly laughed and told her the baby was dead, and nothing could cure him. But she couldn’t accept this ~ her baby, who’d been so well and happy just a short time ago, dead? She continued to ask around for medicine until one man, wiser than the others, said: "If you follow the path into the forest over there, you will come to a place where a monk sits beneath a tree. Ask him; perhaps he knows of some medicine."

Overjoyed, she ran along the path until she came to the place where the Buddha was sitting. She was disheveled and out of breath and said: "Please, please, Sir, can you help me? My baby is sick; he does not move or even cry. Do you know of some medicine that might help him?"

The Buddha could see, of course, that the baby was dead, but He said: "Yes, I know some medicine for this sickness. Go back to the village, and ask for a handful of mustard seeds from a household where no-one has died".

Hearing this, she was overjoyed. "It’s so easy," she thought; "everyone has mustard seeds." So she ran back to the village, and at the first house she came to, said: "Please help me; I need a handful of mustard seeds as medicine for my baby."

"Certainly," said the woman, and went inside to get it, but when she returned and gave it to her, Kisa Gotami said: “But tell me, friend, in your family, has anyone ever died?"

"What is this you ask?" said the woman, surprised; "many of my family are dead: my parents, some of my sisters and brothers, and even two of my own children ~ you know this."

"Oh, in that case, I can’t take the seeds," said Kisa Gotami, and returned them. She hastened to the next house, and the next, and the next, but although they were all willing to give her the seeds, the story was always the same: so many people had died; she could find no family that had not been visited by death. Then she realized that it is normal, that everyone will die. And when she understood this, she took her baby to the riverbank, and gently put the tiny body in the water, as was the custom, to be carried away by the current. She then went back to the for-est, to the Buddha, but this time, she did not run, and her face was calm and peaceful, instead of sad.

The Buddha saw her coming, and knew what had happened, but asked: "Did you get the medicine I sent you for?"

"Yes," said Kisa Gotami, "I got it, Lord. And now I wish to be-come your disciple; please teach me more".

Such is the Buddhist way: by understanding things clearly, we reach Enlightenment. That is how we overcome suffering while living in this world. When we understand, although we are still subject to the pains and problems of life, they do not affect us so much. Whatever happens to us is not unusual, as it happens all the time, and can happen to anyone, even to rich people with all their money; money is no protection against dukkha. We must accept the woes consequent upon birth, and try to find ways to deal with them instead of hoping and praying they’ll go away.

He was happy with what I said, and I said I would visit again when I returned from the trip to Canada I was shortly to make.

I flew to Montreal, and went to stay in the temple of a friend of Duc Niem, Thich Tinh Nghi. I gave talks there, but he didn’t like what I said; perhaps he felt threatened by it. Nor was he happy when I visited other monks in the city; he wanted to be top-dog. I thought he was silly.

One of his young monks took me by train to Toronto, where Tinh Nghi had another temple. I enjoyed Toronto; it seemed free of the tension I felt in American cities; in fact, Canada was gener-ally so; I felt a difference in the air; it was cleaner and safer than the US. I even thought of settling there, but the winter put me off ~ so long and cold!

Returning to Chicago, I visited the man in hospital again, but alas, the transplant had failed, and he was in a coma; I thought he was dead, but the support-system he was on made him ap-pear to be still alive. I sat beside his bed, sending him positive thoughts. He died a few days later, and together with some peo-ple from the temple, I attended his funeral; he left a wife and four young children. The temple later made a collection for her.

Traveling on from Chicago, I went to many places in the eastern states, and even visited an old great-aunt ~ Aunt Bess ~ in rural Pennsylvania, who I’d never met before. She was a lovely old lady, and was very kind to me during the 3 days I stayed with her, but other relatives, who came over in a bunch to check me out, were not so friendly, and I felt their distinct disapproval be-cause I’d deserted the faith that they ~ as WASPS: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants ~ so strongly upheld; in their eyes, I was clearly a renegade, an apostate and infidel!

I was picked up from there by an Indian friend, Ramesh Jain, who I’d met in Bataan when he was working on a nuclear-power-plant near the Camp. He was living with his family near Pittsburgh, so it wasn’t far for him to come and get me and take me to his home for a few days. This was the beginning of July, and on the 4th, we went into town for the Independence Day celebrations near the river, and the fireworks-display there at night was really spectacular! It was many years since I’d seen fireworks, and none as resplendent as those!

Lancaster is the center of the Amish community, and I was taken to visit one of their villages, where the people were living according to their old ways, without electricity or motor-vehicles, their farms neat and tidy, their dress somber, using horse-drawn buggies to get where they needed to go; honest, hard-working, content with their simple lifestyle, helping each other and living in harmony, they compromised little with mainstream society.

July is hot and humid in Pennsylvania and other eastern states of the US, with temperatures in the high 30’s. I was to stay this side all throughout the summer and into mid-autumn.

In Atlanta, I met Hien, who’d prospered to an amazing degree, and was living in a mansion; I also met his mother and younger sister, who were over from England on a visit. I never really knew what Hien did, but he had the golden-touch ~ everything he did turned to gold!

I met other people I knew from Bataan; in fact, they were all over, and often, people would come up to me and ask if I re-membered them; well, sometimes I did, and sometimes didn’t, as there were just so many; over 100,000 people passed through PRPC while I was there. I have a good memory, for some things, but not so good that I remember everyone I meet. Sometimes, I’d ask what we’d talked about, and if they told me, the memories often came back.

While in Atlanta, I got a letter from Bobby; she was in Germany, where she’d been teaching English after leaving Israel some years before. We’d kept in touch by letter since she’d left Bang-kok in ’73. She said she was in hospital, with a tumor on her spine; she didn’t say it was cancer, but you always suspect the worst in such cases. As she’d given me the hospital phone-number, I immediately called and asked how she was. Some-what jokingly, she said, “Fine; I’m dying. The doctors have given me just three months to live!”

“Alright”, I said, “I’ll come,” but couldn’t go immediately, as there were still some talks arranged for me that I didn’t want to cancel, and so, leaving Atlanta soon afterwards, I went on to Hartford, Connecticut, where I was expected and met at the station by someone else from Bataan, Cao Van Pha, who took care of me during my stay in the temple. This was really a house the Viet-namese Buddhists had rented for use as a temple ~ a house be-longing to a wealthy Jew who, when he heard the Buddhists were in need of a place for a temple, offered to rent it to them for the nominal sum of $1 per year! He had survived incarceration in one of Hitler’s death-camps and had come to the US penni-less after the war to make a new start (with the number tattooed on his arm to remind him for the rest of his life). He’d worked hard and prospered, and was now in a position to help others, having learned something from all his suffering. What a story!

The resident monk there ~ Thich Tinh Tuong ~ was to attend a ceremony at a temple in Boston, so took me along with him to give a talk. This temple was a converted church, and the stained-glass windows were still in place in the large hall where a sizeable crowd had gathered. Needless to say, I met some ex-Bataan people there.

I’d been invited to New York by some Vietnamese there, so got a ticket and informed them of when I’d arrive the next day, so they could meet me at the bus-terminal. When the bus finally got to the huge terminal, however, we docked at a different bay from the one where I was expected, and I waited for over an hour ~ and US bus-stations have lots of strange characters hanging around in them ~ until I was found. They’d been waiting for me in another part of the terminal. They then took me to someone’s apartment in The Bronx ~ not the most up-market area of the city ~ where I stayed for the next five days. I gave a talk in the only Vietnamese temple there at that time ~ a makeshift place, just a few upstairs rooms somewhere ~ although there were quite a few Chinese temples, the Chinese having been there much longer than the Viets.

Then, knowing I needed a ride out to the airport at Newark for a flight back to Cleveland, another ex-Bataan refugee offered to drive me, and I gratefully accepted, but soon had cause to regret it, as he picked me up late, just at peak-hour, and took over an hour to reach the freeway, where he drove at 35 mph in the middle lane! Needless to say, I missed my flight and had to wait for the next one some hours later, but wasn’t too upset; I was only too glad to be still alive after that crazy ride, getting honked and cursed at and almost rammed many times! The people in Cleveland didn’t know what had happened, and all except one had gone home, but he was still there waiting when I came in on the late flight. A week later, I flew out to Brussels via Newark, by People’s Express ~ a budget airline which was later forced out of business by bigger airlines ganging up on it. You didn’t get or pay for your ticket beforehand, but merely made a booking over the phone (it had no offices, you see). Then you went to the air-port in time for your flight, checked in your baggage, boarded the plane, and only then paid for your ticket, as upon a bus. And, being a no-frills airline, there was no food ~ and not even a cup of tea ~ unless you paid for it. Newark to Brussels: $199.

It is a strange civilization wherein sportsmen are paid obscene amounts of money while people like teachers and nurses must struggle for a living.

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