Around this time last year, I was taking Phap Nguong out to a French market or chateau every other day. He had come to the hard decision of leaving our community and returning to Vietnam, and suddenly an interest and even sentimentality towards French culture was awakened in him. “Ah, I’ll miss these market days.” He said as we strolled through what I think was his first produce market. But fate is a cruel mistress, I added mentally, and on we went. He’s about as Vietnamese and Buddhist as you can get, and I’m only a little of each, so to avoid confusing each other we tend to keep our conversations to everyday things like food and flowers. Oh, and talking about flowers is a perfectly manly thing to do in Vietnamese culture, so back off. Phap Nguong is a die hard disciple of the awakened one, sacrificing even his own well-being to show his devotion. Last Vesak (that’s the Buddha’s birthday) he led a crack team of craftsmen in building a birthday fountain for the Buddha. That’s a necessary part of the celebration, because unfortunately for the Buddha he doesn’t receive cake or presents on his birthday, but a bath.
In the home stretch of the construction process, Phap Nguong, rather than see a lackluster birthday celebration, threw himself in front of a giant hammer. I assume that someone was trying to destroy the fountain or something. Reports varied as to the severity of the injury. Some alluded to a scrape, others spoke of bones protruding from flesh. In any event he went to the hospital, and the Buddha’s birthday went off with only a single hitch. I could never ascertain for myself what happened to his hand, as it was always hidden under a giant bandage.
That’s one majestic monk. Now for the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that there was another Vesak casualty. The monk formerly known as Phap Due (he’s since left the community) was the primary welder on the great pink lotus project.
The lotuses are made from steel rebar and some kind of indestructible hydrocarbon polymer. They’ll probably feature as props for the next 10,000 years of Plum Village skits. Phap Due, under the guidance of Phap Dien, who did some professional welding in Vietnam, had eschewed the welding mask in favor of squinting. The following day his eyes were like vine ripened tomatoes, and Phap Dan had to put ointment directly onto the cornea. Phap Due asked Phap Dien if this was the normal outcome of a day of welding. “Yes. Eventually you become addicted to it,” was the natural response.
But all that is just to say that Phap Nguong had left Upper Hamlet to return to his homeland, and I must admit that I also needed an excuse to use these archived photos. But Phap Nguong’s final farewell was all in vain, because this Spring he returned to Upper Hamlet. The obvious question, and object of my investigation: why?
Rather than go directly to the source, I decided that I myself should take a six-month sabbatical as a form of experiential inquiry. Some called me foolish, but I had a gut feeling. And sure enough, on the second day of my sabbatical, I hit pay dirt. I’m still compiling my final report, which I’ll share next time.
P.S. Do you know what happens to the Buddha after his Birthday? In Upper Hamlet, he’s left out on a big rock, apparently to collect enough lichen and dirt to need a thorough bathing the following year.
He didn’t make it though. This poor baby Buddha had another fate in store, because there’s a switch on his back. When activated, he makes a series of infantile gurgling, giggling, and crying noises approximately once every 30 seconds until the switch is turned off. The brothers took to hiding him wherever he might be heard at unexpected or inopportune times. I hid him in Phap Kim’s bed box, under a pile of laundry and books. It was just muffled enough that his cries would be inaudible, except in the dead of night.
Until next time.