|Generous giving: Poor households in A Luoi District, Thua Thien-Hue Province, wait to receive food and warm blankets from Buddhist clergy. — Phatgiao.org.vn Photo
Buddhist teachings and alms-giving offer a solution to the widespread poverty in Son La Province, where residents in many districts must survive on less than VND400,000 per month. Hong Thuy reports.
Ca Van Xung has a simple, straightforward formula for happiness.
It happens when his family is able to afford medicines needed to treat his daughter's eye disease and when there is enough food on the table for his family.
So when he received a simple donation of rice, warm clothes and a bottle of cooking oil on the occasion of Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, Xung's formula was working like a charm.
"I'm joyful because we have more rice to cook banh chung (square, glutinous rice cakes that are a Tet specialty)," he said, smiling broadly.
Throughout out the rest of the year, however, like many poor households in mountainous Son La province's Moc Chau District, Xung's family struggles to make ends meet.
His wife is the only breadwinner in their family, working on their field to grow rice and maize and then hiring out her labour between crops. Xung has a breathing problem that does not allow him to exert himself.
With two children, the family finds it hard to have enough rice to eat all year round, and things are made more difficult by their daughter's eye infection, which discharges pus all year long, needing treatment and medicines that they can ill afford.
Isolated location, infertile land and frequent droughts are among the major reasons cited for the poverty seen in many parts of Son La, which is home to a large number of ethnic minority communities.
Deputy Chairman of the Moc Chau Motherland Front Committee Le Xuan Thanh said approximately 30 per cent of the district's population have incomes of less than VND400,000 (US$19) a month.
The situation is even worse in newly established Van Ho District where poor households account for 50.7 per cent, said Sa Anh Xuan, deputy chairman of the provincial Motherland Front Committee.
To put this in context, although Moc Chau and Van Ho districts have a high rate of poor households, they are not considered the poorest localities in Son La.
|Handful: Ca Van Xung carries Tet gifts home. — VNS Photo Hong Thuy
The provincial People's Committee Chairman, Cam Ngoc Minh, said just five out of twelve districts in the province figure on the list of 62 poorest districts nationwide that receive special support from the central Government.
Since the Government's support programme began implementation in 2008 in the five districts - Phu Yen, Bac Yen, Muong La, Quynh Nhai, and Sop Cop - they have moved up on the socio-economic ladder.
Minh said that by 2013, the number of poor households in these districts had reduced by an average of 4.5 per cent to around 33 per cent.
Not much better off
Visiting Moc Chau during days approaching the Lunar New Year in late January, I felt conditions are probably not much better here than the poorest districts.
I saw no real sign of the festive atmosphere of days preceding the biggest festival of the year. Houses were not painted and decorated with flowers to welcome the Lunar New Year, though Son La is known for its natural wild peach forests.
Streets in the district wore a deserted look. Very few people were heading to the central market to go shopping.
"Living conditions have become difficult, obviously, and people have no alternative but to tighten their purse-strings," Thanh said.
His remark finds its echo in a 2012 World Bank report, which said that though the poverty headcount in Viet Nam had fallen to below 10 per cent in 2010 from 58 per cent in the early 1990s, ethnic poverty remained persistently high.
The report also said that although Viet Nam's 53 ethnic minority groups make up less than 15 per cent of the population, they accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the poor in 2010.
|Assistance: Venerable Thich Tam Hoa gives 10kg of rice and warm clothes to ethnic people in Son La Province. — VNS Photo Hong Thuy
Compassion in action
Pham Thi Thin subsists on the little money that her children give her, but the 75-year-old woman says giving rice and warm clothes to the poor has become a norm in her life. She said this although her ability to support the poor is modest compared with other donors in the Tich Thien (good karma accumulation) Bodhi-Manda in Ha Noi's Hoan Kiem District.
"I use the little money that my children give me for breakfast towards meeting expenses to feed the poor," said Thin, a mother of three.
She has been blind in her right eye since she was five and her husband was born without sight. Both of them only have a monthly allowance of VND350,000 ($17) that the Government pays her husband.
The couple are looking forward to receiving the same grant given to people with disabilities. Thin said she is waiting for the authority's approval of her application.
Thin is one of the 174 members of the Tich Thien Bodhi-Manda, who gather not only recite sutras and chant the names of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, but also to contribute money for charitable activities including poverty alleviation and disaster relief efforts, meeting medical expenses of the poor, and building and repairing pagodas.
A voluntary organization, it was able to raise VND336 million ($16,000 approximately) last year from its members and friends.
Devout Buddhist Tinh Minh, founder of the Phuc Thien (blessings and good karma) Bodhi-Manda, located in Ha Noi's Ba Dinh District, believes that giving alms to the poor is the best way to keep one's "real property" secure.
|Heavy burden: Monks and nuns walk for long distances to carry food and other necessities to poor people. — Phatgiao.org.vn
That her belief is shared by many is demonstrated by the rise in the organization's membership from less than 20 in 1997 to more than 300 now.
"We cannot take anything with us when we leave this life, except sins and blessings. Giving alms is like creating good seeds and sending them to the bank, therefore there is no fear of losing anything," she said.
Agreeing with Tinh Minh, Most Venerable Thich Quang Tung, vice chairman of the Viet Nam Buddhist Sangha‘s Executive Council, said it is the responsibility of clergy and Buddhist followers to nurture mercifulness and promote the spirit of loving others in accordance with the Buddha's teachings.
Tung said that there are more than 14,000 pagodas and temples nationwide, and each one has at least one Bodhi-Manda. Along with their rapid growth, funds raised for charity has increased every year.
Tung said that in 2013 alone, that the Viet Nam Buddhist Sangha Committee had provided VND1,200 billion (approximately $600 million) to people in mountainous and remote areas, through scholarships for students with good academic records despite living in difficult circumstances, building houses for invalids and relatives of war martyrs as well as those who have rendered great services to the nation, and funding poverty alleviation and disaster relief efforts in provinces like Son La.
Venerable Thich Tam Hoa takes his charity work further than the traditional giving of alms.
When he began working in Son La two years ago, very few ethnic people knew about Buddhism and its philosophy, including the law of cause and effect that lasts lifetimes.
This has started to change. Trieu Thi Nuong now thinks that many rituals that her community practiced, spending a lot of money, were not helping them get good crops or blessing them with good health.
"I'm in good health and able to spend more time on the field and garden since I began worshipping Buddha," Nuong said.
Hoa said poor people will work to live and not depend on the State and donors for aid relief if they understand Buddhist philosophy.
The monk helped former drug and timber smuggler Sung A Son turn over a new leaf through Buddhist teachings.
After his release from prison, instead of depending on government assistance, Son used his own strength and hard work to grow maize and cassava. He has been able to use his earnings to buy a car and works as a driver at present.
Hoa has been practicing the theory of giving people fishing rods instead of just fish, and local authorities are grateful for such efforts.
"We are thankful to Buddhist institutes, other organisations, and individuals who have helped ethnic people in Son La Province gradually improve their lives," said provincial chairman Minh.
He said large investments running into thousands of billions of dong in State assistance is needed to build infrastructure and carry out other activities for fighting poverty.
"We need more fishing rods," Minh said.
Xung with the simple formula for happiness is keen on getting his own fishing rod.
"I wish I could borrow money to buy a cow, have it multiply and have a herd. Then, my family would be well fed and dressed all the time." — VNS