Van Hanh Temple - a spiritual oasis in Saigon

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Each Sunday, just after sunrise, I take a taxi out to Van Hanh Temple in the Phu Nhuan District to attend the morning meditation session.

The neighborhood is non-descript a jumble of clothing shops, food stalls, bicyle repair shops nothing that would indicate this isle of tranquility is nearby.

The temple itself is situated on the grounds of what once was the Vietnam Buddhist University, a complex of dormitories, cafeterias and gardens.

A red gate in the walled compound signifies the entrance. A small courtyard opens into, gardens lined by austere dorms and offices. Religious libraries flank the main hall.

Prior to 1975, the complex has been home to movements against war, poverty and social injustice. Successive governments have had their issues with the temple, but today it is home to research institutes and training centers for monks.

It also provides the general public with an open space for reflection and meditation.

Sites like Dharma Web say that the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh (perhaps one of the best-known Buddhist monks in the West) have their roots here.

Born 85 years ago in Central Vietnam, Hanh studied Zen and Mayana yoga as a monk.

He attended Columbia University, met Dr. Martin Luther King and returned to Vietnam to engage in the peace movement.

Despite Hanh's international significance, the temple was surprisingly devoid of Western visitors, during recent visits.

The main hall is styled after the imperial buildings in Hue, but has been refurbished by gifts from Taiwanese Buddhists.

Shoes line the long steps leading into the massive main hall.

A gigantic white Buddha sits on a lotus flower beckoning visitors to meditation. Light pours in through the windows and open doors. A gentle breeze blows into the room as the city noise subsides.

At seven, the service begins (in Vietnamese).

I cannot follow the lecture, but quietly listen to the soft voice of the abbot. With hand gestures, he seems to beckon his followers to close their eyes, breathe and be mindful at least, I think so.

Following the service, the half-hour meditation session begins.

I struggle to get my 6-foot plus Western form into position as everyone around me, effortly settles into form. Time is suspended as several worshippers breath in and out in total silence.

I end up retreating to a chair and space out for the remainder of the session.

When it's all over, the group awakes rubs their faces, arms, legs and stretches their bodies.

As I recover my shoes, a student approaches me and invites me to speak to the abbot.

The pair lead me into the dining hall and we sit across from one another. The abbott exudes a radiant glow as he recalls his visits to US monasteries in perfect English.

I learn more, in the ensuing hour, about meditation than I have in decades of reading and occasional practice.

He assures me that Buddhism is not about a particular seated position or ridding your mind of thoughts. Thoughts come and they go do not dwell on them, he says.

One can meditate while walking or eating. One can meditate while at rest or in just about any location or situation.

"Count your breath" he says "one in, two out, up to ten. Do not labor at it. It does not need to go deep unless it naturally goes deep. Let the thoughts come and let them go."

He invites me to return to the great hall and return to my chair. With my feet well-planted on the ground, my back more erect and my newfound awareness, I return to meditation.

I emerge more at peace, as if waking from a comfortable, eight-hour snooze the perfect start to my Sunday in Saigon.

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