Rock'n'soul: Most Venerable Thich Nhuan Tam, chief monk at La Pagoda owns a collection of art stones and uses them to beautify the life.
With a staggering collection of over 500 precious stones spanning all shapes and sizes, chief monk Thich Nhuan Tam embraces nature's beauty to find inner peace. He tells Minh Thu
how they've helped him harness the Buddhist faith.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is certainly the case in a small pagoda in Go Vap District of HCM City, where the chief monk has built up an impressive collection of natural stones and rocks that he believes evoke images of Buddha, rivers, natural landscapes and more.
The Most Venerable Thich Nhuan Tam is the head of the La Pagoda, which was built in 1996 and is roofed by leaves. Here Tam keeps his collection of 500 stones, which he claims are natural works of art. They come in all different shapes, sizes and colours. Tam uses his vivid imagination to find pictures inside them or to find meaning in their shape, and he names each stone as one would name a work of art to show the meaning that he has attached to them. He has been undertaking his hobby for twelve years.
Tam, whose real name is Huynh Kinh, graduated from the HCM City-based University of Social Sciences and Humanity in 1996, but didn't follow any career. He became a monk and built the pagoda.
As well as leading a religious life and spreading Buddhist theory, Tam likes wandering through beautiful landscapes, relaxing and making his mind tranquil. It is on these walks where he has collected many of the beautiful stones.
"I collected them from the different places I have visited, including streams, caves and paths in the forest," Tam says. "They are definitely natural. Different colours on them, from yellow to brown, and meandering veins along the side create a special fine arts effect," he adds.
"In some stones, I see the images of Buddha, sitting on a lotus or spreading theory, whereas in others in my collection I see famous people such as composer Van Cao and poet Bui Giang."
The pagoda soon became too small to store the growing collection. Tam brought a part of it to a coffee shop in HCM City, owned by one of his followers. He has also organised exhibitions to showcase some of the stones to the public on special occasions such as Viet Nam Poetry Day, the Da Lat Flower Festival and the Southern Region Fruits Festival.
"When looking at the stones I turn my mind towards ‘the True, the Good and the Beautiful' and I feel relaxed and at peace," Tam says. "Each time I see them, I realise a different beauty I had not recognised before. I never feel bored."
"I display the collection at the pagoda in the hope that when pilgrims and visitors come to visit, they will like them and understand miracle of nature."
The pagoda has also been known for a long time as a free language centre set up by Tam for any student who wants to learn English, Chinese, French, German or Japanese but can't afford a course at a centre. Tam mobilised his Buddhist followers who are good at foreign languages to teach poor students for free. Since these classes were set up, thousands of students have graduated from them.
"In the beginning we just opened free literacy classes for about 30 poor children from the neighbourhood. With an increasing number of students, classes were upgraded to include free language training for foreign languages," Tam recalls.
|Hard to beat: Some stones in the collection of Most Venerable Thich Nhuan Tam. — VNS Photos Huynh Kinh
These classes are modest and small, but thousands of poor students attend them. On certain busy days students have to sit on the pavement to study.
Le Nhat Hoa, a third year student of the College of Customs Finance, confides, "To learn in a foreign language centre the tuition is about VND 1 million (US$50) per month. I dare not go there to study because I have to care about school fees and house rent."
The reason why this place is so attractive for students, despite the poor infrastructure, is the warm and welcoming attitude of the monks and teachers.
There are over 20 experienced teachers holding Master's degrees and bachelor degrees working at the pagoda.
Tran My Duyen, an English teacher from the HCM City National University heard about the free classes by chance and wanted to contribute by teaching English to disadvantaged students.
"Through teaching I found most of them to be intelligent, hardworking and quick at learning," she says.
Tam is delighted with the growing popularity of La Pagoda. As well as a school and a museum for his collection, it is also a cultural destination where artistic exchanges between Buddhists, painters, poets, calligraphers and musicians take place. Tam himself is a calligrapher and he also teaches calligraphy for free.
"The cultural activities help people come closer to each other," he says. "When the mind is easy and relaxed, people move closer to beauty and humanity. Like my stone collection, these activities beautify life I think." — VNS