In early June, while taking pictures of the southbound bike lane on Clairemont Drive for a previous column, a car pulled to the curb and parked. A woman carrying flowers stepped out of the vehicle and we greeted one another. The woman, Nhu Van, was going to the Chua Dinh Thanh Buddhist Temple at the corner of Gila Avenue. She graciously invited me to join her.
Over the years, I had passed this fascinating site many times and assumed it was a residence. Now, I was entering another world in the middle of Clairemont. We removed our shoes and were greeted by a smiling Buddhist nun, Khoa Vuong, who showed me the entire facility. This is a sanctuary of tranquility. Nhu Van and Khoa Vuong invited me to their celebration of Buddhist Mother’s Day on Sunday, September 17, 2017.
As we stood in the front yard beside Ho Tai, “The Happy Buddha,” Nhu Van told me that Buddhists believe in reincarnation. She said that our random meeting was not by chance, but rather because we knew each other from a previous life. Dharma is ideal truth as taught by Buddha and karma is the theory of retributive justice created by the effects of one’s past deeds. Dharma influences karma and meeting Nhu Van was good karma for me.
She sent information about her “master,” Thich Nhat Hanh, a 90-year-old Buddhist monk, peace advocate and author. This verse is about his Vietnamese childhood. “Evening enveloped Mother’s tomb, the pagoda bell rang sweetly. I realized that to lose your mother is to lose your universe.”
The following excerpt is from an essay, “A Rose For Your Pocket,” written in 1962. “Thien An and I went into the bookstore and he told me that today was what is called Mother’s Day. In Japan, if your mother is still alive, you wear a red flower on your pocket or your lapel, proud that you still have your mother. If she is no longer alive, you wear a white flower.”
“‘Mother’ cannot be separated from ‘love.’ Love is sweet, tender, and delicious. Without love, a child cannot flower, an adult cannot mature. Without love, we weaken, wither.”
Nhat Hanh summarized the family unit as, “…the work of the father, the devotion of the mother, and the duty of the child.”
Over 100 people attended the Mother’s Day celebration on September 17. The double doors to the altar were open. Most stood and sat outside, because the building could not hold everybody. The service lasted two hours. There seemed to be a sermon with music, chanting and prayer. The little children seemed as confused as I and little boys tend to grow restless in similar settings.
A boy in a blue Adidas warmup suit was fascinated by the large temple bell visible from Clairemont Drive. He circled it like a moth and touched the suspended mallet several times. Finally, the mallet hit the bell and everybody turned. They saw the boy and smiled. Boys will be boys.
I was drawn to a cute three-year-old boy, Jaden Nguyen, who was trying to be respectful and quiet, but his energy was boundless. We were on the edge of the front yard beside the large bell. He began jumping up and down and wet his pants. His parents, Thang and Heidi Nguyen, took his antics in stride.
His cousin, Jennifer Nguyen, a beautiful, calm and composed 11-year-old acknowledged that not many kids attend these services, because, “they get bored.” She explained, “Buddha teaches people to be kind and nice and not selfish.”
When asked about her mother, Jennifer answered, “My mother is very nice. She is caring. She is kind and generous… and she is very pretty. I help her clean the table and fold clothes.”
Her uncle, Thang Nguyen, came to America when he was 11-years-old. He said, “We are taught not just to respect our parents, but to respect everyone. I want my family to be respectful of other people. I’m not concerned with other families. I’m concerned with mine and how we treat others.”
After the service, Kim Tran described how Mother’s Day can get complicated. The holiday was actually observed during the full moon on September 6, but the various Buddhist temples throughout San Diego celebrate on different days. That way, if you miss a celebration one week, you can find another temple to honor your parents another week.
“It’s very hard to keep our culture, because our kids go to school and are influenced by their friends. They become Americanized. We love America, but we want to keep our culture, too. I’ve lived here since 1984. All three of my kids graduated from Madison. They are in their thirties now and we have grandkids.”
“We also celebrate on the day our parents passed. We don’t forget them. We have flowers and food and burn incense. We pray for them. It is very important to honor and respect your parents,” she added.
Her husband, Wayne Tran, was 15 when Saigon fell. “I was at the American Embassy when people were getting on the helicopters. I watched, but couldn’t get close to the roof. There were so many people who wanted to go. I liked the Americans. I had an American African soldier friend. He shared his lunch with me. When I told my parents, they gave me some dessert to share with him.”
Denny Lee coordinates charitable fundraising at the various Buddhist temples throughout the San Diego region. “We give to the homeless and to the hurricane victims in Texas and Florida through the Red Cross. We believe it is important to help other people in need,” he said.
Everybody I met at the Chua Dinh Thanh Temple was friendly and polite. They seemed genuinely pleased that I was interested in their celebration and culture. A smile is understood throughout the world. Kindness has no language barrier.
The next time you drive past the corner of Clairemont Drive and Gila Avenue, remember that Ho Tai, the Happy Buddha, is smiling at you. Over 1,000 years ago, Ho Tai was a joyous, well-rounded monk who carried a bag of candy which he gave to the children. He was a Buddhist Santa Claus.