|Walk this way: Zen students follow masters on a walk around Sui Pagoda. — VNSPhotos Minh Thu
|Singing one's praises: Zen masters sing with their students.
|In praise of vegetarianism: Students queue up in silence for their vegetarian dinner.
Sui Pagoda in Ha Noi holds Zen courses for the public. Students learn how to be open-minded, compassionate and tolerant – but be warned, the experience is no picnic. Minh Thu
Wearing a grey zen robe instead of a fashionable outfit, I look as strange in the mirror as my fellow students. We are attending the Sui Pagoda in Gia Lam District, Ha Noi, to experience a monk's life, but without having to shave our heads.
Each of the 100 zen students participating in the four-day spring course does so for different reasons. Some want to try a life completely different from the ordinary. Some are in search of tranquillity or ways to avoid sorrow.
We quickly grow acquainted with 20 monks aged 25-40 from different locations across the country, who teach us the finer aspects of a spiritual life. They are more open-minded and interesting than I first expected.
I often catch the monks with gentle smiles on their faces and cosy glints in their eyes. They play guitar, teach us Buddhist anthems and sing musical hits with us. At the end of each meal, we wash up together.
I find the first day of the course difficult, not acquainted with vegetarian food or praying session at which we are required to sit in the lotus position for long periods of time.
The course is no holiday, accommodation sparse. I feel discouraged by having to wake up at 4:30 am for early morning prayers in the fierce cold.
We are taught zen keywords:
Meditation is to master the mind
To master the mind, we have to steady the breath
To steady the breath, we have to steady the body
"Zen courses for young people are organised at the Sui Pagoda every year," says Most Venerable Thich Thanh Phuong, chief monk at the pagoda.
"The course takes place on the occasion of Tet (Lunar New Year). Many young people participate instead of going on holiday. I'm happy for that."
"Zen students have the chance to add balance to their often turbulent lives and discover ways by which to solve their problems," he said, adding "we help them understand Buddha's dogmas and teach them to do good."
Nguyen Viet Anh, 20, said he has discovered a new spiritual family at the pagoda.
"This is the most memorable and meaningful Tet holiday I've ever had. I learnt and experienced many things," he noted.
"Following the monks we didn't say anything during meal times. Before eating, we found inner peace by thanking the living beings sacrificed for us and the people who prepared our food."
"This is the first time I have eaten with so many people in silence. We ate slowly and really enjoyed the vegetarian food and what it meant to have food on our plates while so many go hungry."
After lessons and prayers, students are instructed to have zen walks around the pagoda and surrounding gardens, thoughts strictly focused on each foot step.
"This method helps us relax and keeps us healthy," Anh said, "I don't feel tired despite walking for long hours."
A zen rest at midday seems to be among the favourite activities at the pagoda. Traditionally a time to relax and give free rein to the body, most students prefer to use it as a siesta.
The sweet singing voice of nun Linh Nghiem lures us to sleep.
Linh Nghiem taught us to respect all parts of the body, love ourselves and try to live well. Although many students struggled to follow her teachings, everyone understood the importance of relaxation and slumber.
Give up, ease up
When asked, "do you hate anyone, is there anyone who has annoyed you," I naturally said yes, only to learn that by giving up my feuds with others, I can progress on the path of inner peace.
"When someone does you wrong, don't hate him because of the action alone, but retain your faith in the goodness of the soul," said Most Venerable Phap Tan from the northern province of Hai Duong.
"If someone is really bad, hate makes little difference and only wastes energy. Living in tolerance and forgiveness is the key to happiness," he said.
We are given a poem to help us remember and apply all the lessons we have been taught:
Wake up with a smile and feel fresh all 24 hours
We pledge to live with a whole heart and see life through merciful eyes
People may think pagodas house only ascetic monks, far removed from everyday life. I do not think so. The zen teachers I have grown to know are open-minded and some of the happiest people on Earth because they find joy in modest things and live in peace, compassion and tolerance.
Taking off the zen robe, I leave the pagoda and return to city life. It is hard to apply all I have learnt, but I do feel altered in some way. I promise myself to look at other people through more tolerant eyes. In memory of my favourite teacher, when I wake up in the morning, smiling will be the first thing I do. — VNS