by Do Van Truong
|Apple of her eye: Nguyen Thi Phuoc Thuan (left) is one of the lucky orphans at Quang Chau Pagoda.
|Lean and green: Minh Tinh cooks vegetarian food for guests to earn extra money for her orphans.
Visitors to Quang Chau Pagoda, 10km south of central Da Nang, are often surprised to see so many children playing in the grounds, a spectacle not often seen in the quiet atmosphere of a pagoda.
The children's bright faces belie their unfortunate past; all orphaned or abandoned at a young age and subsequently raised in the pagoda, which is chaired by nun Minh Tinh.
Here in Hoa Chau Commune in the central city's Hoa Vang District, the 53-year-old nun has cared for 52 such children in the 16 years since she fostered her first child.
Minh Tinh tells me that she had been chairing the pagoda for just one year when a family from the central province of Quang Tri brought their baby to her because they were short of money. The parents never returned.
Although the pagoda also faced significant financial difficulties at that time, she still decided to open the pagoda's doors to orphaned and abandoned children. "To serve people is also to serve Buddha."
This led to a steady stream of babies arriving at the pagoda for a variety of reasons. Most of them are abandoned by their parents in front of the pagoda gates when they are just one or two months old, says Minh Tinh.
The nun says that there is one particular incident that occurred on a cold, windy night two years ago that stands out in her mind. She was in the pagoda late one evening chanting Buddhist scriptures when she heard a baby cry out in the yard. She rushed out and saw a newborn girl with her umbilical cord still attached laid under an old pipal tree. She immediately took her to a local hospital and fortunately, the baby survived.
Minh Tinh named the girl Nguyen Thi Phuoc Thuan. She says "Phuoc Thuan" means that the baby is born following providence and all good things will come to her.
She registers all the children she takes in with the authorities, so they are issued birth certificates and have official names. Their names always include the nun's family name, Nguyen, and Phuoc, which implies they are very fortunate to be raised here.
It's true that the ill-fated children are fortunate to some extent. In the pagoda they live in a warm, family atmosphere, with volunteer mothers who care for them and brothers and sisters who they can share with everyday.
Forty-six-year-old Pham Thi Thu, a local volunteer, says that she has been a surrogate mother in the pagoda for five years and lives here permanently. "We think of these babies as our own children," she says.
"Minh Tinh loves the orphans very much, and she worries whenever they are sick," Thu adds.
The older children also look after their younger brothers and sisters and help with daily chores, in between their own studies.
Minh Tinh says she wants the children to learn how to take care of themselves to prepare them for adult life. "I want to create advantageous conditions to raise and teach the children so that they will become good citizens," she says.
Three students from the pagoda are studying at the Van Hanh Buddhist University in HCM City and 20 children attend local schools, she says.
In order to feed the children, Minh Tinh grows rice and also cooks vegetarian dishes that she sells to earn more money to cover everyday costs and medical expenses.
In the past, many families have visited Quang Chau Pagoda, looking to adopt a baby, but Minh Tinh always refuses.
"I have to work hard to bring them up but I don't want to live without them near me; to me, they are my children. Furthermore, here they may have the opportunity to meet their parents again," she says.
Minh Tinh says she wishes to open a children's home near the pagoda with a larger living space for orphaned and abandoned children. — VNS