Sister Thich nu Minh Tam
A Buddhist Nun from Vietnam.
By Caroline Leclerc (Tinh An)
It has been for more than eight months now, that I have been studying for an ethnographic course a Vietnamese Buddhist Church in Montreal, Canada. My field research focuses primarily on the Vietnamese community of the Tu Quang Buddhist Order, located in downtown Montreal. Since last September, I have attended most of the Sunday ceremonies and gatherings, but I also have had the chance to assist in other special events related to their traditional and religious customs, such as the Lunar New Year's, the Buddha's Birthday or the National Day that honors women's prestige, by the commemoration of two historical women heroes who vanquished Chinese invaders in 40 A.D. However, for this paper, I will rather talk about a contemporary or modern case of a Vietnamese Buddhist nun, who has just come to America for few years only.
When I first started my field research on these particular Vietnamese Buddhists, I wanted to interview monks and nuns, to observe them and to study their daily life and practices. However, as the General Secretary of the temple, Mr. Thai Vu, told me right at the beginning, the monastery or Samgha has some rules that really isolated and closed to the public. There are also many rules to follow in order to be able to approach a monk or a nun. It would have been easier for my field studies to work with lay Buddhists since they do not all follow these strict rules, having up to 58 precepts to follow instead of 250 for the monks and 348 for the nuns. I first thought that being a woman would have been a disadvantage for my research, because in order to be able to talk with a monk, an individual usually has to be introduced or seconded by a Buddhist layman. From that rule, it would have been easier for me to speak with a nun, having not the sexual suspicions that monks might have; which I strongly presume has to due with some of Taoism's influences, that was melt into Vietnamese Buddhism a few centuries ago. But on my field study in Tu Quang Order, it was impossible for me to find a nun who would accept to be an informant for my study, because the three nuns that have taken refuge in this place, barely speak English or French. They were also of an advanced age, being 80 years and older. It seems from my observations that it is more like a retreat for these nuns who seem to see their near death as immanent. Nevertheless, I knew that I could only communicate with. But I was too shy at first, and I felt that I was not prepared and courageous enough to be ready for an interview with the monks. I needed to know more about the religion, its doctrines, its rules, and the Vietnamese traditions in order not to risk mistakes that might offend them.
The Vietnamese Buddhist Order (Samgha) is divided into four groups: the monks (Bonzes), the nuns (Bonzesses), the laymen and the laywomen. A Samgha is a group of four or more monks or nuns who properly practice the Buddha's Teachings together, especially the Six Principles of Harmony (from Buddhism: The Wisdom of Compassion and Awakening, by Ven. Master Chin Kung, 1999, p. 203). No group is more important than the others, and all members, men or women, ascetic or lay can be seen on the path of enlightenment, in the pursuit of Buddhahood, or in the being of a Bodhisattva. However, it seems that in following the path of a monk or a nun better helps to attain higher level of wisdom and enlightenment in Buddhism. "Buddha, Bodhisattva and Arhat are common titles, not a specific name for a specific person. For example, in the name Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin represents great compassion and kindness. The title of Bodhisattva is similar to a Master's Degree. Presently people have misconceptions about Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, thinking these names are specific beings. They do not understand that these titles refer to any being who possesses those characteristics. Buddha or Bodhisattva, when added to a name is simply referring to a speciality. (from To Understand Buddhism, in the collected works of Ven. Master Chin Kung, 1996, p. 17-18). As an example of my own study, I have few Bodhisattvas that are venerated and respected particularly by the Tu Quang Order, as for example the Venerable Master Thich Tam Chau, and the General Secretary of the temple who is a layman considered also as a Bodhisattva from his great knowledge and wisdom in Buddhism.
Being stubborn and persistent, I asked once again, a few months after, the General Secretary of Tu Quang Order, introduced me to some monks who are the only ones who had a certain background in the English language. By chance, my request came at a good time. A Vietnamese Buddhist nun, now living in United States, was in for a visit for a couple of weeks at the temple. She is considered as a radical and educated nun, a translator and writer of some published books, and a lecturer veneered by some Vietnamese Buddhist communities in America. In exchange for an interview with her, the General Secretary asked me to be her guide for a tour of the underground paths of Montreal's downtown, such as the place Ville Marie. I accepted right away, finding personally that it would be an interesting and strange place to discuss with the nun. So he introduced me to Su Co Thich nu Minh Tam, and we planned to meet for the interview the next day. Thus, this paper was inspired by an interview with Sister Minh Tam during the first two weeks of January 2002.
The next morning, Sister Minh Tam called me to be sure that it was not cancelled, and to invite me for lunch with her and other monks and nuns before going out in the city. I could not refuse such a privilege to meet them, since I knew how difficult it was for a foreigner to approach them. Furthermore, I personally believe that people are often more natural when they eat meal together. Therefore, even though I could not understand a word when they were speaking to each other in Vietnamese, I still had the chance to observe them from their body language and facial expressions. My first meal with the monks and nuns was surrounded by an atmosphere of timidity and curiosity. Only Minh Tam was not so reserved with me, and she led the conversation at the table, often making the monks and nuns smile and laugh. And slowly but brilliantly, she was able to introduce me in this ascetic circle.
Needless to say, Minh Tam made a huge impression on me right from the beginning; and it is more than possible that my perception of her cannot be objective because of my great admiration and respect for her. Nevertheless, I felt that the admiration for this wise and intelligent woman is also felt by whoever had the chance to meet or listen to her. Therefore, from my few quantitative moments however rich in quality, I will try to present Minh Tam as a woman and a Buddhist nun who sometimes opposed different social and religious precepts to unify them into a philosophy or a way of life that follows the Buddha's path of wisdom and enlightenment.
Minh Tam was born in South Vietnam during the mid-fifties of our Western calendar. At her very young age, about 4 years old, her father left her mother and home and never came back, building a new family with another woman in another town. When she explained to me that her father abandoned her and her family, I could see from her eyes that she still had some sadness about the fact that he did not even show up at her mom's funeral. Since in Vietnam the cult made to the dead and ancestors plays a main role in Vietnamese traditions, it is understandable that for Minh Tam it was a great offense and sadness that her father had done this to her mom.
At the age of fifteen, Minh Tam decided to get baptized as a Catholic. We have to note that Catholicism is one of the main religions of Viet Nam, being instituted during the French colonization. For four years until the age of nineteen, Minh Tam stayed Catholic. Then she decided to convert to Mahayana Buddhism and to become a Buddhist nun in 1977. For about twenty years, up to the day she left Viet Nam in the mid nineties, she became and was considered as one of radical and educated Vietnamese Buddhist nuns after 1975. During the Communist regime that took power in 1975, she and other Buddhist educators and practitioners had to be careful on how to spread Buddha's Teachings without interfering with the government's authority.
We all know that the Communist regime does not tolerate any religion. They have even tried to use some Buddhist monks and nuns in order to spread the communist ideology to be Vietnamese population. And in consequence of this, many of the great Buddhists have been put in jail or been murdered because of their refusal to be submissive to the Communists. Minh Tam told me that she knows some of the monks that have been in jail. However, as it has been for Buddhism throughout all its long history, the Buddhists have smartly molded their religion within the social and political changes in the society.
Around the end of the 1990's, Viet Nam opened its border to the "outsiders," in order to obtain the approval of the international market. At this period, the Communists also enabled some religious scholars such as the Buddhists to study outside of Viet Nam, in countries such as China, Taiwan or India. Minh Tam took this opportunity to leave the country in order to have more freedom in her religious study and practices. She chose India precisely because the tuition fee there is the cheapest. She studied mostly on its origin in India, its rises and spread over Thailand, China and Sri Lanka.
Minh Tam stayed in India two years and fortunately, like a miracle, she received a letter from American Embassy for immigration, sponsored by her sister who has lived in United States of America for mostly 26 years. Her sister has tried one time ago to bring Minh Tam to America, but her case was forgotten or put aside for years by the American Embassy. So in June 1996, Minh Tam was surprised to receive a letter from the American Embassy in India who wished to meet her. There at the embassy, she received a visa to go directly from India to America, instead of passing by the Vietnamese authority. For Minh Tam, in a way, it opened the door to the liberty she asked for. Her sister had made her immigration possible by paying the high fees accorded by the American Immigration, giving her, furthermore, a place to lodge and study.
It could seem a happy-ending story, and surely it is one. Living now in Virginia state with her sister's family, Minh Tam is finishing a Bachelor degree in American literature and religious studies. At one point, she said to me that it seems that she is always studying, or always keeping her mind working. In her sister's house, Minh Tam has two rooms. As she said with a smile: "I have two rooms, one for the Buddha and one for me." I asked her if there was any Buddhist monastery in the United States where she could have gone. She replied that there are many places where she could have lived, but that she had freely chosen not to live in a particular Samgha, but rather to preach, lecture and teach among and with them. Minh Tam said to me that she did not want to be isolated in a monastery, like most of the monks and nuns do in this "alien" and "American" land where they took refuge. Minh Tam prefers to travel and to visit places and people, not only Buddhist members but also from other different religions or nationalities. She said to me that she dislikes the fact that people are too narrow-minded and want to hang on to things that symbolize their safety from the unknown, thus, remaining traditionalists. "People have to open their mind and to become compassionate with the other. So they could see that we are all alike, all united in a matter or another. We are All in One, One in All, and that is the Buddha's teaching." So she visits and teaches to her disciples in different temples around America. And travels regularly in Canada to visit her Great Master, brother - monks and sister - nuns and other disciples that she knows. But she is also curious about the "outside life," and she takes every opportunity to see and learn about other societies, religions and cultures. It seems to me that she is like a child who always wants to see more, to grasp everything and to enjoy every and each moment.
Even though Minh Tam seems to be much free than her ascetic companions, she, however, respectfully follows the Buddha's teachings and the institutionalized precepts of the Samgha. Despite her not low status in the Samgha, she is still at her 46 years old, a young nun who has to walk behind the monks and I had to witness it when she stayed at the Tu Quang Temple. Furthermore, these are the rules that so many Western feminist and other authors that specialize in Asian religions are criticizing, such as Buddhism's socially putting men above women, making the latter submissive to the former's control. However, "our eurocentric" view of it makes it seem much worse than it really is." Minh Tam told me. "But it is also true that even if we are on an equal mind level and people in Buddhism, I, as a woman, still have to serve all the monks first before serving myself." And as a "Feminist" you should write about that." She had expressed this absurd irony with a smile and twinkles in her eyes, in front of the monks sitting at the table when serving them, before the nuns, herself and me. "Look, she said, smiling to me, all the while pointing to a monk sitting beside her, "he is a "baby monk" here, because he has just been ennobled to be a Bhikkhu."(the last rank to be admitted as a member of the Buddhist Order.) I still have to follow his steps . . ." They were all laughing and teasing to each other about this, with a warm conviviality known only by them.
Minh Tam could be seen in such a way, as a Buddhist nun but yet a modern egalitarian feminist; since she had stated in front of me, that she is aware of the inequality of the Buddhist rules towards women. But she has also shown that she is not frustrated about this reality. She knows that these Eight Chief rules and precepts were created in earlier periods of Buddhist history, and that even today, the Buddhist schools still hold on to it. Minh Tam thinks and believes that this should change, giving more rights to women, so to see everyone as equal, being judged as a living being and not by gender. She also believes that these precepts discriminating women's status are perhaps socially created for the need of a stable structure and order of the Samgha. She knows it and wishes that it could gradually change into better egalitarian structures of the Samgha. But she said to me, that female Buddhists are in a stage of transforming it. She also argued that in order to change these ancestral superstitions about women in general, one has to discuss this issue with the monks; making them conscious of how some Buddhist precepts are discriminatory to women. Furthermore, she says that Buddhism, which is a syncretism of religions and philosophies, will build in North America its own school, by a gradual assimilation into the society of Buddhist wisdom.
Minh Tam has the chance as a nun to be respected and listened to by the Buddhist disciples. Being a lecturer, helping in the organization of some Buddhist festivities and events in some temples, and by giving lectures and participating in debates, she tries to teach them that the path to Enlightenment has nothing to do with neither gender nor race, and that would we should preach instead for a state of impermanence and non-attachment.
Minh Tam sees or defines Buddhism as: "the way of how to perform on improving yourself. Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy, but it is more especially an education, a way of living, away to reach wisdom." What really matters to Minh Tam is rather the spiritual will to attain wisdom or enlightenment in the present life. From the hierarchical rank created by the Buddhist institution, Minh Tam is below the monks, however, on the spiritual level, Minh Tam believes that she is equal to all. As she said to me: "We, Buddhists, care more about the moral education than the rank. This is why some nuns can have or receive as much consideration from the Buddhist community and the Samgha, being spiritually elevated as great teachers or masters who teach others the path to enlightenment. Therefore, for me, monks and nuns are equal. It is how and what you are going to use your spirituality in order to attain Buddha's enlightenment."
From my time experienced with Minh Tam, I have seen a woman and a Buddhist nun who is above all the expectations that I first had. With her, I have realized what Buddhism really is, which is not fully lived in the religious institutions or the textual philosophical doctrines, but rather in the "state of being" itself. I agree that it can be understood more on a spiritual and metaphysical ground than a rational one. But the way she expresses herself and how she looks at things, as well as her compassion for others, demonstrates her enlightenment and her wisdom to truly see right through thins. My relation with her, even though short, was extremely intense and fascinating. She did bring a lot to me, and I hope that this paper will show my relevance to her. The first time I met her, she asked me if we had not met each other before, perhaps in a previous life. At first, I laughed, but after a few moments with her, it seemed to me that we knew each other so well, as if it was not new for her and me. Let's say that maybe she was right about our past, but personally, in my future, she will remain eternally as my personal Bodhisattva of the "Heart Brilliant."
particularly want to express my gratitude to the General Secretary of Tu
Quang Temple, Mr. Thai Vu, as well as the Buddhist monks and nuns, and
the members of thevietnamese community who have helped me a long with my
study. I want also thanks Thich nu Minh Tam for her willing to do
the interview with me, which occurred between January 7th and January 15th
of the year 2002.
Bibliographie and Sources:
Ven. Master Chin Kung: Buddhism: The Wisdom of Compassion and Awakening, reprinted for free distributon by The Corporate Body of The Buddha Educatonal Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 1999, p.211.
Ven. Master Chin Kung: To Understand Buddhism: The Collective works of Ven. Master Chin Kung from the Talks in Australia 1996, reprinted for free distribution by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 1999.
Ven. Thich Thanh Tu: The Key To Budhism, translated by Phuc Anh & Hien Mat, Revised Edition, Complimentary Copy, Montreal, Canada, 2001, p152.
Phu van Nguyen: Le Bouddhisme en Bref, by the Ordre Bouddhique Tu Quang, Montreal, Canada, 2000, p.50.
Vu T.V.: Enseignement du Bouddhisme Vietnamien a Montreal par le Moine Thich Tam Chau, memoire presente pour L'Universite du Quebec a Montreal, 2000, p.148.
Also a special thanks
for Professor Leslie Orr, and her avangardist course on Women and Buddhism
Reli - 498 C/616G, at Concordia University, during Winter 2002. With
her great knowledge on the subject as well as the interesting readings,
she has helped me to enlighten some of the issues about the struggle of
the nuns in the Samgha and in the society.