Like the memory of rain: a travel essay
–Grand Master Hui-neng
“…amble pagoda paths,
Poem bag almost full, wine flask almost empty.
Pond fish, hearing prayers, flutter their gills.
Hillside birds, hearing chants, bob their necks.
Crowds gather at this door of compassion…”
–Hồ Xuân Hương, transl. John Balaban
Buddha is a lady here. From far off, the white shape leaning against the mountain on the other side of the bay could only just be a sliver of something, and I’m not sure how I knew it was another colossal Guan Yin. That’s her Chinese name. In Vietnamese it is Chùa Linh Ứng, and she is the female version of the bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, an embodiment of compassion. How different from the Avalokitesvara statues I knew, especially the one I always picture in my mind, towering over visitors at the entrance to the Asian galleries at the Met Museum in New York City. How different from any feeling I’d expected on this tour. Post-typhoon waves coiled and crashed to the packed sand at Da Nang, Vietnam, while we walked toward her.
According to the monument’s official website, this image is the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam. But, really, the Buddha is only a 2-meter-high relief-sculpture on her crown, at the top of her 67-meter form. I knew none of this at the time, as we strolled up My Khe beach, surprised by the absence of birds, seashells. We walked past dozens of construction sites on our walk, as Da Nang scurries in a huge hurry to build hotels for a hoped-for flood of tourists. This moment was the exact middle of my travels through Vietnam over the holiday break without my kids, but with three friends who are research scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont Earth Observatory.
Skinny hotels and nice toast,
we toast a city getting a grip,
dodging the busy rat
while lifting its face to the dragon sea.
We found ourselves stepping carefully around piles of rebar, construction debris, and yes, rats, while constantly taking new routes to avoid the sudden appearance of a crane or bulldozer in a narrow street. The present moment required all of our focus. I knew about mindfulness practices that focus on presence and self-compassion as touchstones for spiritual growth. One of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, talks about mindfulness as a way to end the suffering of what could be a lifetime’s war with oneself. And when that war rages on, she points out, we get cut off from others. We can’t find our way forward.
The next day, our Airbnb hostess Tran mentioned the statue as a possible excursion for us. But we had already visited (and been surprised by) Guan Yin in the central highlands city of Da Lat, where she is a three-story-high embodiment in flowers.
Typhoon Tembin had poured on our time there, but at appropriate moments, the rain slowed, as at Linh Phuoc Pagoda while we took photos of the ornate decoration made of broken pottery and glass. Later we learned that this pagoda’s devotional bell is the largest in central Vietnam. I could have guessed this from the sound and its humming echo reverberating in typhoon drizzle. Our guide, Truong, pointed to a table with neon-yellow slips of paper, pens and a paste jar with brush, and I understood. I wrote a prayer for blessings on my children as well as friends, family, neighbors: everyone I missed so much on this holiday adventure to the opposite side of the earth.
My heart still dwells beneath those golden clouds.
No answer will your poem get today.
This quote comes from The Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du, one of the masterworks of Vietnamese literature, a nineteenth-century narrative poem based on a Chinese novel. In the Vietnamese version of the story, the heroine Kiều faces a series of calamities that separates her from family and ensnares her in the sex trade and other terrible situations, until finally, after leaping into a river to drown, she is rescued by a nun from a Buddhist temple. Kiều takes her vow in a shrine of Guan Yin. After many cycles of reckless love and misfortune, she eventually reunites with her family and first love. I didn’t know that this was the place to pray that prayer.
Downstairs from the main Guan Yin shrine, we entered a large shop selling wood and stone carvings. There was even an adjoining workshop for such sculptures, to which our host guided us, way behind the tour buses and vans. My travel companions on this trip through Vietnam beamed: here’s where we collectively knew a lot. The quality and source of the wood interested Brendan, and he talked about the specific cypresses and pines that are prized (and poached) for such carving. Terry pointed out the heft of a single bench, and the inclusions and milky textures of the stones.
Before our tour of Da Lat, we had spent two days at the ICTHER dorms at Bidoup Nui Ba National Forest. Brendan works with the staff of the park for his research and has conducted fieldwork training for students there. He told us what to expect, but I didn’t really know what we would see and what I’d pick up that might nourish poems. I expected to learn about forestry and climate research and conservation. As a poet and teacher of creative writing, I was the odd non-scientist of our group of four. I had brought along a collection of Molière’s plays as literary company.
On Christmas morning, before our trip into the forested central highlands, the wind surprised us at the garden-terraced cafe in Da Lat, where we waited for tiny, metal melittas to strain Vietnamese coffee into white cups. The orchids arching above the table mildly nodded as the roof screamed. Minh Ton That, a director at the park, didn’t comment and didn’t talk about weather at all, even as Typhoon Tembin bore down on Da Lat. After discovering the sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of my coffee, I wasn’t thinking of rain. I thought of fruit, and of a winding drive into the mountains, imagining the scent of pine, mossy waterfalls and rose farms. I wasn’t thinking of a typhoon for Christmas. My friends bought mangoes and rose apples, and we crowded into the park’s SUV for the trip into the forest.
In rain, in mist
Guan Yin picks out the best four mangoes.
In flowers, in clouds, the mulberries grow.
The scenery along the way was much like that of my childhood visits to a hill station in India, near my hometown of Madurai. But the trees reminded me that this was not there: mostly elegant pines, and no introduced eucalyptus. We saw miles of coffee under cultivation, and very few tour buses. The soil, however, was utterly familiar. We saw it lying exposed at the edges of the road: a reddish, ancient powder called laterite, which Terry explained had lost most of its original mineral content except for the insoluble aluminum- and iron-oxides. The evergreen stubbornness of this forest tied at its base with such red, ribbon-like gullies put me in a sad Christmas mood, because I felt then how far I was from my kids. Divorce has meant alternate years for the holidays, which has meant time for such adventures. Still, I lingered on the loss, the erosion of something meant to nourish.
That night, after a Christmas dinner of fried fish cakes, beet soup, and a local pork specialty in the park’s cafeteria, after walking the slippery path back to the dorm in rain and frog song, I read more of Molière’s play The School for Wives, which I had started on the long overseas flight to Vietnam. This part of the dialogue had almost caused me to put down the book and leave it in the airplane seat:
ARNOLPHE. To wed a fool is not to be one, as a rule.
Your wife may turn out very wise, much more than mine,
But if a woman’s clever, that’s an awful sign….
The sort who writes of love in prose and even verse,
And is at home to all the gentry, which is worse–
but I had started to root for the heroine, Agnes, and I expected the ending to liberate her from this “benefactor” somehow. But, how, I wondered, would she free her heart from her own ignorance born of captivity? Jealous Arnolphe seemed to have all the power. As his servant Alain started to say about him,
Look here, let me explain what jealousy is like,
And then you’ll understand why master seems so stup-
Efied. Imagine if you’ve got a bowl of soup,
And then some greedy-guts comes running up to try
To help himself. Well? You’d go mad, you won’t deny.
I returned to the play’s plot twists and turns when I woke at 4 AM under the clangorous, drenching gales of the typhoon on the roof of the unheated dorm. In spite of Arnolphe’s plan to isolate Agnes and to keep her entirely naive and without guile, she fell into a deeper purity, that of love with the hero, Horace. As he says to Arnolphe (who is pretending to be on his side),
HORACE. But look here, you’re my friend. Let me read you her note.
You’ll sense her deepest feelings in the words she wrote.
It’s touchingly expressed, full of sincerity,
You’ll feel her innocence, and sweet simplicity.
You’d think that Nature’s learnt to talk–that’s how it reads,
It shows you how a girl’s heart feels when first it bleeds.
My friends woke around 5 AM, and we commented on the playful fury of our La Niña weather, which spoiled our plan of hiking up to a waterfall that day. We were disappointed not to see wild orchids, gibbons, and vampire flying frogs on this trip. A herd of water buffaloes trooped past the dorm quietly, surprisingly surefooted on the rainy slope. Orawan sliced the rose apples and made coffee in a melitta for us.
Later that day, we would have cappuccinos in the newest tourist stop in Da Lat, watching the most torrential rain of the whole trip. Xuân Hương Lake, named for a 17th-century woman poet, at the center of Da Lat must have nearly overwhelmed its dam, I mused. The landscape under the typhoon’s swirling arms coiled into the shape of this, one of her short poems, titled “The Floating Cake.”
My body is white; my fate, softly rounded,
rising and sinking like mountains in streams.
Whatever way hands may shape me,
at center my heart is red and true.
The weather couldn’t stop us from talking geology, too, and Terry speculated on the unique landscape of the central highlands and the volcanism of the area close to Ho Chi Minh City and in the East Sea. She explained “watermelon-seed tectonics,” which describes the extrusion of the Indochina peninsula out of the crushing force of the Indian subcontinental plate against the Eurasian plate. The inner dynamics of the land seemed to me like the curls and eddies of a typhoon-made rill. I tucked the detail into my mind for later poems.
When we made it to Da Nang in the wake of Tembin, the rain had lessened, and we visited limestone hill formations called Marble Mountains, as well as the ancient port city of Hoi An, which had been long ago silted in from its previous commercial importance. Both places overwhelmed my senses, so that I started to complain to my friends that the poetic details of the places had no time to settle on my mind, to create an impression.
Bright like a white rose,
this daylit sky;
like muddy water roiling,
my Vietnamese-coffee heart.
At the Marble Mountains, we were assailed as soon as we stepped out of the hired car by women selling carved stone items, from bright little “happy Buddha, one dollah” to fierce and colossal marble lions, which must have cost quadrillions of Vietnamese dong.
In Hoi An, too, it was all women. They taught us the essentials of Vietnamese cuisine, sold us silk and fruits, and gave us guided tours of the ancient houses and museums.
One of them, in the Tan Ky House, showed us an original 17th century “cup of Confucius” and sold me a replica of it for my kids. How could I resist, in a courtyard flanked by pillars inlaid with mother-of-pearl poetry, in which each character soared in the shapes of darting birds?
This cup, a confluence of science and morality, holds liquid when poured to about three-quarters full. Any more, however, and all of it flows out through a hole in the bottom of the cup, lost. The balance of surface tension and the weight of the liquid imparts this crucial teaching against greed: too much is as bad as none at all. The ladies in charge of the house and gift shop diligently unwrapped and tested three cups, to make sure to give me the one that worked best. Of course, I still had Molière on my mind, having just finished reading the play, and feeling giddy at the defeat of the monstrous Arnolphe, who persisted in speeches like this:
ARNOLPHE. The whole world is aware how foolish women are:
Extravagance and madness are their repertoire.
Their minds are mischievous, they’re too inclined to sin,
Pathetically feeble, lacking discipline.
They’re constantly unfaithful to their menfolk; still
The little creatures bend us strong men to their will.
All right, you little villainess, don’t let’s make war.
Yes, I’ll forgive you, and I’ll love you as before.
You see, that proves I love you like a maniac,
So, since I’ve been so good to you, just love me back.
I thought a better title for the play might have been How to Hate and Imagine It Love, or more simply The Misogynist than The School for Wives. After enjoying the happy, if deus ex machina, ending, I started right into The Misanthrope. And we headed to Hanoi for the last stop on our tour of Vietnam. I still missed my kids miserably, but I felt a richness rising in my heart in the absence and the all-too-familiar post-divorce feeling of guilt. Wise gifts for them and inspiring stories to share would accompany me home.
Self-compassion means practicing kind self-regard, and eventually realizing and rejecting the subtle ways that we put ourselves down, which leads us to freedom from terrible monsters: our own feelings of isolation. As much as I felt guilty at the start of the trip, I felt grateful to myself for allowing acceptance, courage, and loyalty to my friends to undo the knots of self-judgment tied by past traumas.
But as soon as Terry and I entered the main courtyard, we saw a group of young people in graduation robes and caps. Further inside the complex of pagodas, pools and stone stelae, we saw high school students–the girls wearing white traditional Vietnamese dresses called áo dài and the boys wearing navy-blue suits. And as we exited the main pagoda at the far end of the site, a group of elementary school-age kids burst in with their chaperones to peer into the glass cases displaying ancient textbook-carrying boxes, ink brushes and inkwells. Obviously, not a relic but a living and respected tradition.
My mind went to The Analects, the collected sayings of Confucius, which suddenly reminded me that he and “the misanthrope” Alceste might have agreed on some things:
ALCESTE. …I want us to be proper men, and when we meet,
To show our secret, inner thoughts, without deceit.
We must speak from the heart, lay bare our sentiments,
Not hide the truth with empty, formal compliments.
While Confucius concurred “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles,” there are also many strictures on adherence to “rules of propriety” and ceremony in many of the sayings. Molière’s misanthrope would have agreed that the observance of formal courtesy should be absolutely sincere. Confucius also said “It is only the truly virtuous man, who can love, or who can hate, others.” This saying irks me a little, and that’s probably why it stays on my mind.
After steeping ourselves in the atmosphere of ancient wisdom, we walked several long blocks to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and the rain started up again. Inside the warm, modern, concrete-and-glass building, we read plaques about indigenous Vietnamese tribes’ customs and ways of life, many of which run on matrilineal organization. On another floor, we learned about war heroines of the 1950s to 70s and outcomes for Vietnamese women.
With better writing, this part of the museum could have been entirely overwhelming. The sorrow and courage of so many can’t be expressed well in bright, official-looking photographs. It is difficult to achieve self-compassion. Here, I saw the necessity of Guan Yin all laid out in front of us: it is so difficult to find the subtle knots from past trauma and to undo them. Terry and I skipped the top-floor exhibits on fashion, wondering how to find a better sense of contemporary Vietnamese women. What aspirations now? What poetry rises in their hearts?
The next day in the streets around The Lake of the Recovered Sword, small hordes of young women stopped us to request ten minutes’ conversation in order to practice their English. Many locals and tourists strolled in the no-traffic zone, and it was New Year’s Eve. In a few hours, the annual dance party sponsored by Heineken would tip the old quarter of Hanoi into a pulsing 21st century scene.
We lingered at corner street stalls and, in one of them, looked at a carved Buddha, plump and laughing, made of the type of tree that my friend Brendan studies for climate history data. The grain of tree rings rested like waves across the image’s belly and robes. The women in the stall didn’t try to sell it to us, so as not to interrupt his talk about the wood and what it tells him about past rains. This was the last day of our Vietnamese holiday, full of the memory of rain and the melancholy sweetness of anticipating the end of this time together. After guiding us on this trip through Vietnam, Brendan headed off to central Laos to take samples from ancient trees salvaged from an illegal lumber operation. The Chinese water pine is one of the oldest living species of conifer. Its name, Glyptostrobus pencilis, carved itself into a piece of my heart.
Finally, Vietnam settled in my mind on the “lady Buddha” as a foundation. She, like Vietnam, was unfamiliar to me and a sweet discovery: a command to self-compassion on the path to deeper understanding. I could add Confucius as a foundation, too, whose fervent wishes swam to the surface of my own heart at so many times during the trip: “in regard to the aged, to give them rest; in regard to friends, to show them sincerity; in regard to the young, to treat them tenderly.” I wrote poems inspired by both wisdom traditions, and I drew my friends into collaborative writing of Asian poetic forms, renga and pantoum, during our travels. But, as Horace says in Molière’s play, I’d say of Chùa Linh Ứng, bodhisattva of compassion, “To put it plainly, she’s the one you’ve come to find, / And she’s the very girl on whom I’ve set my mind.” With compassion for myself as a divorced mom missing her kids, I felt my connection with them grow, through sadness, learning, observation. My real, loving self revealed itself in camaraderie with friends and in our myriad discoveries.
It is hard to photograph birdsong—
even the cages elude.
Then, what songs in the heart go unnoticed.
I had watched the recent documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in its 17-hour entirety just a couple of months before the trip, which had set my expectation for a country drowning in painful memory. Suffering and struggle didn’t evade our gaze on this trip, and perhaps that is the reason the lady Buddha is quite tall there. She keeps us all in mind.
Confucius. James Legge, transl. The Analects of Confucius (from the Chinese Classics). Public domain.
Hồ, Xuân Hương. John Balaban, ed. and transl. Spring essence: the poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000.
Molière. Maya Slater, ed. and transl. The Misanthrope, Tartuffe and other plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Nguyễn Du. The Tale of Kiều: a bilingual edition of Truyện Kiều, transl. Huynh Sanh Thong. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.
About the writer:
A. Anupama is a poet, critic, essayist, and translator whose work has appeared in Waxwing, Fourteen Hills, Drunken Boat, CutBank, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. She is an adjunct professor at Ramapo College, director of River River Writers Circle, and creative writing instructor for kids and teens at Writopia Lab. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and Northwestern University. Recent honors include Pushcart Prize nominations in 2015 and 2018, and a fellowship at the Center for Book Arts in NYC. Anupama lives with her family in Nyack, New York.
Images: Google photo album, all photos by A. Anupama, © 2018.