A month of cleansing and accumulating merit

By Phuong Anh, Thanh Nien News

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The participants in the course "Expressing deep gratitude to parents," held last weekend at the Dieu Phap Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District 
Hoang Thi Thu Nguyet left home early last Saturday to become a nun.
The 48-year-old woman was going to spend a day and a half at the Dieu Phap Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District, praying, meditating and listening to senior monks explain the teachings of the Buddha.
She does this the first time though this short-term stint is held every year during the seventh lunar month at many local pagodas.
Nguyet, who has an atrophied left leg due to infantile paralysis, is single and has lived with her 70-year-old mother since birth because of her disability, believes even such a short-term stint in religious life is a good way to seek peace as well as give merit to her mother, deceased father as well as other ancestors.
Many Vietnamese people share Nguyet's belief and choose to acquire merit during the particularly auspicious month when the nation celebrates the Vu Lan Festival, also known as Yu Lan Festival or the Hungry Ghost Festival.
One of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar, the festival is viewed as a time to pray for the peace of the deceased's souls and the pardoning of condemned souls as well as a time for people to show their filial love to their parents. This is done whatever the age of the children and the parents, even if the parents have passed away.
"My five siblings have their own families and are too busy, so as a daughter who remains single I want to do something for my parents at least during this month," said Nguyet, standing on her crutch amidst a crowded group of over 150 people of both sexes and different ages in the garden of the pagoda on the banks of the Saigon River.
Nguyet and others were participants of the third course of its kind, called "Expressing deep gratitude to parents." The course was first held three years ago by monk Thich Nguyen Phap for people above 20. This year, the oldest participant was 70.
Similar courses, which are offered for free, are currently being held in many pagodas throughout the country between August 7 and September 4, 2013.
At the Dieu Phap Pagoda, the disciples were divided into six big groups with titles like Love, Wisdom, Peace and Harmony. Each disciple received a short sleeve pullover in yellow and saffron colors from monks in brown attires. The disciples would wear this uniform during the course.
Soon after, they moved in line to a newly-built hall to listen to the first sermon of the course, which would begin at 9 a.m.
Virtue foundation
"Filial piety is the foundation of virtue and morality," Monk Thich Nguyen Phap began.
Red and white roses
It is said that the custom of pinning white and pink colors on the left side of the chest to show gratitude to parents originated in the US as part of celebrating Mother's Day.
However, it has become a popular practice during the Vu Lan Festival in Vietnam thanks to a note in praise of mothers written by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1962 in Saigon after he visited Japan and was given a white carnation by a Japanese student since his mother had passed away. Based on the monk's writing, songwriter and musician Pham The My penned Bong hong cai ao (rose pinned on blouse) in 1965 1966 when he was imprisoned by the government in South Vietnam for his pro-Buddhism activities.
Since then, the Vu Lan Festival often includes a Bong hong cai ao ceremony at pagodas. Those who have lost their mother will wear a white rose, and those whose mother is still alive will get a red rose to wear on their blouses or shirts.
The 7th lunar month is viewed as the time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are released from hell. It is a month to focus on doing good deeds including feeding the hungry.
Merit for the living is also earned by the release of birds and fish. The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn - the month of lonely spirits.
It is neither money nor any other material gift, but love, respect and devotion, and their willingness to lead a Buddhist life that are the greatest spiritual offerings children can make to their parents, he said.
"People nowadays, especially young ones, spend too much time on social networks or online games or gossiping. As a pious son or daughter, one should not think that joining these courses are a waste of time," he said.
He also said that merely praying and practicing Buddhist tenets every seventh lunar month is not enough to pay tribute to one's parents. A Buddhist should strive for redemption every day, in behavior and thought, like Maudgalyāyana, one of the Buddha's chief disciples.
According to The Ullambana Sutra, written around 4th century, Maudgalyāyana, known to Vietnamese as Mục Kiều Liên following his enlightenment, remains as an Arhat to serve in hell to ease his mother's suffering after she had been reborn after death in a lower realm, known as Avici Hell, or the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Fated to be a hungry ghost because she failed to treat Buddhist monks well after her son had left home to become a monk, she could not eat due because of a thin, fragile throat in which no food could pass through, so she was always hungry because she had a fat belly.
Thanks to his sincere piety and accumulated merit, the mother was not only relieved of her hunger, but was able to be reborn as a dog into a noble family and finally regain a human birth.
After narrating this story, Thich Nguyen Phap said: "Those who don't love their parents will not be able to love others."
Spiritual purification
During their stints as nuns and monks, the course participants join group activities and do charity work, including sharing spiritual testimonies, preparing vegetarian meals and cleaning the kitchen. They are asked to sit straight, make no sound whether they sit or walk, and stop chatting during the course in order to "use properly the inner power and energy for the benefit of spirit and mind."
Monk Thich Nhuan Quang, 34, who became a monk 23 years ago along with his elder brother, told the participants that though the course is often held in summer, but "it is neither a camping time nor an ordinary recreation activity, but a great opportunity to purify your whole being, body and mind, and make credit for your parents."
Nhuan Quang from the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, who is in charge of the course this year, said that since the course was short, they don't expect a great, immediate change in the participants after one or few days.
"It is a time for us to cleanse our whole being and empty it of dirty things before filling it up with pure elements," said Quang, "Man is like a cup of water. It is impossible for the cup to contain pure water if there is still dirt inside."
After people are taught how to cleanse themselves, they might know how to help others, the closest being parents and relatives, he said.
"Since I have become a monk, there's an improvement in my parents, but there's still a lot to do," the monk, who had served in pagodas in the central highlands town of Da Lat before moving to Ho Chi Minh City, told Vietweek.
Luong Xuan Thuy, 24, of Nghe An Province, has not only taken the course, but engages often in charity work and services, and listens to the monk's teaching every weekend to pray for his living father and deceased mother.
"Thanks to the teaching and instructions, I find myself more understanding and being more sympathetic towards my father," he said. "It is not easy to be a father with several responsibilities."
Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, which means roles that a person plays in one life can be reversed in another, so it pays to be respectful and loving to all sentient beings.
The course offers advice to both parents and children on how to nurture better relationships with each other, Quang said.
"We should learn from one another. Just because I began studying Buddhism several years ago doesn't mean that a younger, inexperienced one is not qualified to be my teacher.
"The same principle applies in parenthood. Just as parents have to take care of and teach their children, the children are also responsible for helping their parents improve themselves," he added.

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