Thursday, June 15, 2017

Independence Day 2017: Freedom According To My Buddhist Nun Sister

copyright © Kim Roberts

As the Fourth of July is approaching, I am reminded of the person who taught me the differences between Liberty, Independence, and Freedom when I was 12 years old. My spirited Buddhist nun sister Nhu Anh, 18 years my senior, taught me everything I wanted to know about politics and changed my perception of the world forever. Without reading Locke, Jefferson, or Lincoln, she clearly explained to me each term, especially man's fundamental state of being: Freedom. But that was her brand of Freedom. She was never someone who would mimic someone else's ideas or ideals.
Nhu Anh's grave in Sadec
One would have mistaken Nhu Anh for a lady of high birth if they saw her in her regal posture, walking leisurely along Ben Thanh Market, dressed in her well kept Buddhist nun outfit and with perfect manicure and pedicure, including her pink heels showing through her sandal straps. And she would gracefully smile at everyone and charm them with her compliments. But Nhu Anh was born in 1932, lived through the brutal days when the fighting between the resistance and the French and their cohorts, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, fiercely went on. For safety, life of our family was a series of moves from place to place on our boat and food could be just rice soup flavored with salt and on raining days, they had to sleep in their wet outfits because they had no extra clothing. She said my other sisters and her would fight over who got the dry and least uncomfortable spots on the boat. Being able to go home and sleep in their beds when the fighting occasionally stopped was a treat. Then came the WWII. The Japanese controlled Indochina. Endless war. More misery. Then WWII ended, Japanese left Vietnam, the French returned. Finally, after the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French left, a few years later, the American arrived. During the wars, with all the foreign soldiers leering at her, a teenaged beauty, my parents sent her to the prestigious Tu Nghiem Buddhist Temple to live, study, and socialize with others to be away from the warzone. She was so vivacious that I called her the Buddhist Maria (from the Sound of Music).
During President Diem's suppression and persecution of the Buddhist communities, Nhu Anh joined the demonstrations against Diem's regime. She continued to support the Buddhist monks and nuns in resisting Diem's government forces after Thich Quang Duc's immolation. Being left in a large temple with over one hundred nuns, Nhu Anh rose to be popular. She was clever enough to secure her own quarters and start her private knitting business. She designed sweaters that were sold in department stores and earned her living and travel expenses. Before my father passed away, he asked her to rebuild our house, she returned to Sadec, designed the blue prints and hired a contractor to build it. Lo and behold, the contractor left before the work was finished because he and his crew were Viet Cong and she didn't know. Nhu Anh then traveled to the basecamp of the Viet Cong across the Mekong River and cleverly talked the contractor and crew into returning to finish the job or she blew their cover. There wasn't anything Nhu Anh wouldn't do if she believed that was the right thing to do.
And that brings back her brand of Freedom. During a retreat at a pagoda at the top of a mountain in Vung Tau when I turned 12, she and three older nuns taught me more than what I had learned in school or in books.  According to Nhu Anh, Liberty or Independence should be examined at a national level since Vietnam did not have independence for the longest time. Accordingly, Liberty is a condition sometimes decided by others. Vietnam was a French colony and later was a weak country controlled and backed by the U.S. But Freedom is a state of being free to act. And it should be viewed at a personal level. Freedom is not a right or privilege as humans and animals are born free. Nhu Anh would disagree with the words "inalienable rights" as in the American Declaration of Independence which says: "all men are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." To Nhu Anh, by virtue of being born free, all humans are equal and they might pursue whatever they choose. So freedom is the key, not the fact of being created. However, this freedom with which we are born, would quickly be taken away by the world around us. We are being shaped, molded, taught, and brainwashed the moment we are born. So our freedom was stripped away. However, through learning and consciousness, one could regain the lost freedom. With this newfound freedom, every individual should be able to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, and make individual choices, including the choice to stand up for one's beliefs.  Since Vietnam was not independent, she said that at war, we still have the freedom to go along with the enemy or to fight back--freedom to fight for what is right, not just fighting to be free. Even when one is physically restrained, one's spirit is free and the individual, whether he is being in captivity or being tortured, has to make his own decision to hold on to this spiritual freedom and take the beating, or to give up and succumb to adverse circumstances. So, to her, a country fights to maintain its independence and liberty but freedom is inside each one of us, not something outside and we must fight to have it. Nhu Anh made it simple by saying that unless freedom is exercised, it is a meaningless concept. Still, as a Buddhist, she concluded that at the end of one's life, one would find the original form of freedom with which one is born through a process to reach enlightenment.

Nhu Anh passed away in 1990. Hundreds of people came to pay tribute at her funeral. She was loved. I miss her dearly.

END.  copyright © Kim Roberts

Friday, June 2, 2017

My Father Taught Me To Grow a Tree, Instead of Making Money

copyright © Kim Roberts

1956. The French were leaving Vietnam. After over nine decades of being a French colony (la colonie de Cochinchine), peace and independence appeared within our reach in South Vietnam. It was a hot, sunny day in our Zen garden in Sadec. I was about 5 or 6 years old, sitting on a monkey bridge made of bamboo, swinging my legs back and forth. Father approached me with one hand behind his back.  As I curiously stretched to see what he was hiding, he produced a dwarf plum tree.  The fine dirt falling from its roots ran through his long, slim fingers. 

“It’s yours,” Father announced.

Happy tears filled my eyes.  My father had given me a gift!  My imagination wildly visualized the scented plum blossoms with wing-like white petals spreading out to reveal the tiny needles in the middle resembling ladies’ eyelashes. Then many delicious plums would weigh down the branches.  And all of that would be mine to enjoy. How fun!

But, how could I turn that tiny sapling into a full-grown fruit-bearing tree?  “How…? How?”  I asked, holding the tree in my hand and feeling the fine dirt in my palm.

"Like learning to read. Like learning to draw pictures. It's a process that requires attention and practice...," said Father.

Then he carefully dug a hole in the dirt near the creek. Gently, he held my hand and let me feel the tree’s fine roots before lowering the tree into the hole.  As he held the tree straight I thoughtfully poured handfuls of dirt over the roots.  Finally, he showed me how to water it, explaining the necessity of watering it until the roots could “drink” from the creek next to it.

I thought it was finished but he began to talk about something other than the mechanics of planting a tree. He explained the facts about the entire environment the tree experienced--the water creek, the upcoming flood in September, the weather, the butterflies and bees that would pollinate the blossoms and bugs and ants that would attack the tree. 
My painting of a pagoda
For the first time, as a child, dirt and water meant something to me. Then Father gave me a watering schedule and taught me to monitor bugs, observe the blooms, and inhale the scent. And last but not least, to pull weeds around its roots. I hesitated to tell him, "That's a lot of work." But, he read my mind as he said, "Yes, but you will be rewarded way beyond the joy of eating its fruit."

After my father passed away, I left Sadec in 1965. Then in 1975, I escaped from Vietnam and came to America. As I was reading my favorite book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" for my graduate works, it dawned on me the philosophy behind my father's words about gardening. It was more than digging dirt, planting trees, harvesting fruit, vegetable, and flowers, and turning it into a commercial business. Gardening is an understanding of the eco system and a mechanics of planting, monitoring, keeping the plants grow and produce. Gardening is a process and a tool for learning, innovation, inspiration, creativity, and pleasure. Gardening brings concentration and inner peace. It is also a feeling, a feeling about the delicate, totally integrated nurturing process and connection with the tree, with Father, and with my environment. Such invisible connection and our intangible love are so delicate, precious, and everlasting.
In our Zen garden
Father never taught me how to make money. But if I were rich and I am not able to show my love for, and respect and protection of the environment and the earth, then what would be the purpose and meaning of my wealth?

END      © Kim Roberts

P.S.: written just now, not yet edited. But, oh, well :-)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017: My Late Father, The Man Who Shaped My Character

copyright © Kim Roberts

May 29, 2017. Memorial Day. As I pulled out some old photos I received from my sister, I found a picture of my portrait painting of my late father. Whew! It hit me so hard I dropped on the floor and heaved uncontrollably.
In 1965, at 52 years of age, my father passed away after suffering a deadly bout of liver cancer. I was only 15 years old. In addition to his illness, my mother, my sisters, and some of my neighbors also said that before I was born, the French and the Cao Dais tortured my father brutally. Once they made him climb up a coconut tree and cut the tree under him as they were laughing. As he fought back, he was locked in a wired cage because there were no jails to contain him or other underground fighters whom they captured.

After my father's funeral, I struggled to find a way to honor him. I planted some "Queen of the Night," his favorite flowers around his grave. Still not satisfied, I began painting a portrait of him. When I was a child of 4 or 5 years old, my father had coached me in drawing when I showed interest in making pictures. As I excelled rapidly, he asked a painter he knew in Sadec to give me some painting tips. He said I advanced beyond his expectation. That made him very proud of me. So, to pay tribute to him, I did a portrait. The painting did not look good to me. I kept working on it and I still wasn't happy as I was unsure if I portrayed his character in the painting. But my mother was pleased with it so she displayed it on my father's altar for us to worship him. I also painted a mural painting at Buu An Buddhist Temple where my father attended services. I had given the Buddha statue a scenic background of a banyan tree, blue skies, and a meadow. But I must leave Sadec immediately. The war escalated. From across the Mekong River, the fighting overspread and turned the area behind our garden into a battlefield. After the war ended in April 1975, my sister and I left Vietnam for America. In 1988, during her first return to Vietnam for a visit after 1975, my sister took a photo of my father's portrait painting. 
I was kneeling on the floor praying while the Buddhist 
nuns were chanting. Behind them was my father's casket
My father taught me the power of critical praying. He trained me to overcome the fear of darkness, ghost, illness, accidents, deep water, and, as he appeared joking, "physical and mental tortures," through intensely critical prayers. He said, "I don't think you will ever be tortured but just in case that something similar happens to you, you'll be prepared. Others can beat you up, say things to hurt you, upset you, but no one can control the power of your mind and take away your dignity if you believe that you are spiritually stronger than all the suffering they gave you. And you must trust Heaven and the Buddha to empower you and make you unbroken. Mental strength can be built overtime." Amazingly enough, it worked when I swam in deep waters and climbed high trees without fear. Those were my two favorite sports. I had the most fun with Father when he took me to see Charlie Chaplin movies. He enjoyed watching me laugh hysterically as I tried Chaplin's funny walks.
The grave keeper is standing next to 
my father's grave in our former Zen garden
I have mentioned my father in several of my blogs but I've described his character much better in "The Queen of the Night Flower (Epiphyllum Oxypetalum): Mind over Matter," a blog posted on October 1, 2015. I am reposting that blog.

October 1st, 2015, during my sentimental journey back to Sadec, one of the images that appeared vividly in my mind was the melancholic look on my late father’s face while he was contemplating the opening of an unique, wondrous flower with an intoxicating scent, a Hylocereus Undatus in the Plantae group, or the Epiphyllum Oxypetalum, which Father called “the Queen of the Night (Hoa Quynh).”

Unlike my busy extrovert mother who often retired to bed early, my father was introvert. He enjoyed playing chess, chatting, or debating with his friends on political issues late into the night.  Although I was only seven, I knew how to appreciate the deeply melancholic part of his character.  I also noticed similar characteristics in his brother, uncle Sau, and among his close friends. They were the quiet men. But somehow I knew they had active minds and deep thoughts, which they only shared in their expression and not verbally.
A topiary horticulturalist, my father grew a variety of rare trees and flowers, some for sales and others for personal enjoyment. He especially favored a few pots of “Quynh Hoa” (Queen of the Night Flowers).  This rare cactus was named after a Vietnamese princess, Quynh Hoa Cong Chua, who, according to legend, died at a young age of a broken heart.  This cactus flower only blooms once a year and flowers wilt within an hour.  

One night when it was obvious the cactus would bloom, Father invited two friends over to celebrate.  He had done that every year. Waiting for the event, Mr. Muoi Thien, a thin man with a beard and Mr. Bay, a barefoot farmer with dirty, spread-open toes and arm muscles so defined they resembled yucca roots, joined the family at the porch table, drinking tea, reading the newspaper, and playing chess.  All activities ceased as everyone quietly watched the Quynh Hoa bloom.
As the exquisite flowers slowly opened, they released a heady, aromatic scent.  The thick, waxy white petals, pure and untouched, first pulled away from the body of each bud one by one, like little wings, until they formed a circle to cradle the inner layers.  Finally, the stamens and pistil emerged dusted with pollen in delicate shades of beige and lavender.  Within half an hour, as soon as each flower opened wide enough to reach the maximum diameter, approximately 6 to 7 inches, flowers began to close.  All the petals slowly drooped, shielding the stamens and pistil from view, seemingly in sorrow. That was an enigmatic dream-like scene.

The men quietly reflected a deep melancholy and sense of loss while simply staring at the plant in a china pot in the middle of the table.  In the soft flickering kerosene light the rugged men revealed much of what was within their hearts.  Although I was only seven years old and I didn’t know exactly why, I sensed I was witnessing something very deep in each one’s life.
I am looking back to that night and feel melancholic. What a beauty and what a short life those flowers had. Since I have been growing similar flowering cactus with a variety of flowers with different blooming cycles, I realize that it’s not only the beauty that makes the Queen of the Night flowers special. It’s how this flower could invoke feelings among those who ventured into the night, patiently waited, and then observed its brief, elegant, and mysterious performance. The Queen of the Night flowers had turned ordinary men into philosophers at heart.

There are so many things in my daily life that could remind me of Sadec. However, there are very few things that would bring out deep, intense feelings in me and take me on a memory lane to the life I had in Sadec. It is I who makes the decision to allow this process to take place. It is I who gives meaning to ordinary things that might not have any value to anyone else. That is the beauty of the mind. That is the magic that my late father and his friends discovered and enjoyed. That is the power of the spirit--so free that it can go beyond the daily routine into a realm that many don’t bother to enter. Like Dorothy following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, or Mary Lenox searching for the key to the Secret Garden, each one of us has a Sadec garden in ourselves that is waiting to be discovered. END.

In that blog, I described my father's character and soul through his love for beauty.

In short, my father has taught me that "freedom" must be the ultimate pursuit for everyone. And he had proven that one can tolerate physical pain, discomfort, or even death if one is able to set one's spirit free. And beauty is a spiritually powerful tool in building one's inner strength.

END     © Kim Roberts

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Vietnam War and Remembrance: (April 30th, 1975--April 30th, 2017)

copyright © Kim Roberts

April 30, 1975—April 30, 20117.  Then and Now. Photos of him the day we met, and of us more than four decades ago when he was alive, then my current picture taken two weeks ago with friends from the Sadec Flower Village in Vietnam. Love and War. Destiny and the magic of life. Over four decades have gone by the window of my life, literally as swiftly as whiffs of fragrance in the whirlwind breeze--from the fresh scent of Spring essence to the intense, spicy, and aromatic Summer heat then transitioned to the soft, intimate touch of flurry Autumn leaves dispersing in the air, and ending it all with a silky, tendered scent of Winter rain drips. Life has been both a curse and a blessing, nonetheless, no regrets. 
Photo taken April 14, 2017, over four decades 
after the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975
We met in April 1968 at a Military Chapel in Dong Tam, Vietnam, one year short of five decades ago, while taking communion. On April 30, 1975, he frantically tried to get me out of Vietnam to no avail. Taking a leap of faith, I planned an escape from Vietnam and succeeded. Months later, I was a tattered refugee in America beginning to build a new life. Survival, Love, and War. And hundreds, if not thousands, of other events in between. Oh, what a life! 
The way he was the day we met one year short of five decades ago
In remembrance of April 30, 1975, a day of peace, I am reprinting a piece I wrote on April 30, 2000, “Peace at Any Price,” which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. I am reposting it as I hope that this reminder helps the next generations of people from Vietnam and all Americans how precious peace is.  We need to acknowledge the past, appreciate the peaceful present, and move toward the future with our faith in each other and I pray that our government and leaders will do the same. I also hope that the healing process extended over the past four decades has brought back the spirit of Vietnam, the country I love, and the beauty and uniqueness it once manifested itself. May we all remember this day--a day to celebrate LIFE, PEACE, and LOVE.
The way we were when he was alive
Peace at Any Price/Her countrymen who survived the carnage of Vietnam seem to have put the war behind them. Why can't she? 

by Kim N Roberts Published 4:00 am, Sunday, April 30, 2000. The San Francisco Chronicle  ©   (Reposting on April 30, 2017)

When I began writing down memories of my escape from Vietnam, I had no idea it would dredge up so much pain. Often during the three years I've worked on the project, I wake up in the morning weeping.
"What's wrong?" my husband asks.
"It's Vietnam," I say. "I get upset whenever I remember the war."
"Can't you just forget about it?" he asks.
But I can't forget.

I left Vietnam for America after the war -- the war that took away the loved ones I cherished, the war that deprived me of my personal possessions, the war that forced me to flee the country I loved so much. I was 24 years old.
I was one of the lucky ones. For years I felt guilty for having escaped from Vietnam, for surviving. I wished no one would ask me about my national origin. I wished my husband would not tell people where I came from when he introduced me. I wished that others would mistake me for a Korean or Filipino. It took me a long time to realize I was a victim of the Vietnam War -- not the maker of it.
Most Americans -- even the most caring, the most sensitive -- have no idea what it was like to live through the war. For them, it is over, done with, history. I can't look to an American and see understanding in their eyes when I talk about the war. They can't understand why, after 25 years, I cannot forget.
But to my shock, when I turn to my compatriots, I see that the majority of the Vietnamese I know -- many who suffered greater losses than I did -- act as if they have managed to erase the war that tore so many of our lives to shreds.

I went back to Vietnam four years ago, hoping to find a sense of kinship I'd been missing for so many years. My countrymen welcomed me with cheerful, smiling faces as they told me they had forgotten about the war. But have they really?
My 23-year-old relative Tan Tran was born soon after his father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was killed. "I don't know anything about the war," he said. "I am now married and we have a thriving seafood business. Life is good here. So I don't think about war."
"Bring your husband back with you next time you return," the young town chief told me when I went to Sadec, my hometown in the Mekong Delta. He knew that my husband served in Vietnam. "We have forgotten about the war. Americans are our friends now."
My driver, Luu Nguyen, in his mid-40s, asked, "Why didn't you bring your husband? The Vietnamese are happy to see Americans -- no more governmental restriction or resentment, no more hatred and retaliation." While I was talking to Luu, his daughter asked me about Michael Jackson, her American idol.
The Vietnamese have learned to live like Americans, too. At the Hotel Sadec, for $25 a night, I got an air-conditioned room with breakfast and packages of luxury items: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, shampoo, and soap. I was given postcards, maps and information in English about the local tourist attractions -- including the monument to Ho Chi Minh's father and the Xeo Quyt Canal, a former Viet Cong hideout and fire-base. I later visited the Cu Chi tunnels in Phuoc Long, built by the Viet Cong underneath the military base of the American First Air Cavalry Division.
"Why do the Americans want to remember those bad old days?" asked the tour guide. "They give me my job. I feel like a winner. I make money and I don't have to remember the war."
Vietnam isn't the only place where newfound prosperity seemed to wipe out for others what for me are horrors imprinted forever upon my heart. The Vietnamese I know in California all tell me how they also have forgotten the war.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the war's end. Not long ago, I called my childhood friend, My Nguyen, to ask her about the commemoration plans in San Jose, where she now lives.
"I don't know," she said. "I have forgotten all about it. Since 1989, I have been working 70 hours a week so I can send money home regularly. You should see the videotape my brother made of our new house in Vietnam, built with the money I sent."
One evening at 10 p.m. I called Hang Doan, a sister-in-law in her early 60s who escaped Vietnam with me, to ask for information about our camp in Thailand. Hang and her husband own 15 rental houses. They both work full-time for Sacramento County, and Hang also teaches at night.
"I have almost forgotten these things," Hang said. "I'm too busy to look back. I just got home from my second job. I often have dinner around 10. Sweetie, haven't you forgotten about the war?"
Other Vietnamese tell me the same thing: They have forgotten the war, its aftermath, and the mistakes, heartache, atrocities and misery that came with it. Everyone thinks that making money, a lot of it, is the best remedy.
When I visited the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I wondered how the Vietnamese could look at the photo display of corpses strewn on the ground, the napalm victims' burned bodies, and the planes spraying clouds of Agent Orange and say they have forgotten the war.
When I saw streets that bear such names as Dien Bien Phu, or Cach Mang Thang Tam (August Revolution), Dong Khoi (Simultaneous Uprising), Nam Ky Khoi Nghia (Southern Revolt), I wondered how my countrymen could walk these avenues and say they've forgotten. Is it only their memories that have died, or have they paid for the act of "forgetting" with a piece of their hearts as well?

Linh Tran, who works for me, brought me the March 19 newspaper showing the Vietnamese protesting in Oakland over the lithograph exhibition of Ho Chi Minh. "These Vietnamese protesters probably don't want to be reminded of the war," she said. "But they show that they still hold on to memories of the past. I personally wish I can forget the war." Linh, in her mid-50s, came to America in 1986. Her husband, a former South Vietnamese soldier, was in a forced labor camp for seven years. She remembers feeding her baby thin rice soup flavored with salt because after the war, there was no milk or sugar, even in the black market.
When her oldest son, Tuan, was drafted to fight in Cambodia in 1979, she peeled off her tin roof and sold the tin piece by piece to pay for his escape. Tuan's boat was pirated four times. He ended up as a refugee in Italy. He is now a manager in an Italian bakery, working 60 hours per week. Linh, her husband and her daughter each work two jobs. "So we can afford the things we lost to the war," she says.

But for me, there isn't enough money in the world to make up for what I lost.
For Americans, the war ended when the fighting stopped 25 years ago. But for the Vietnamese, the end of the conventional war was the beginning of millions of private wars.
I, along with my sister and her family, escaped persecution by the victorious North Vietnamese by fleeing Vietnam in an old leaking fishing boat with a broken-down engine. I still recall the horror I felt one day at the sight of three bright red Khmer Rouge boats surrounding our boat. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge killed thousands of escapees -- including their own -- but for some reason that day the Khmer Rouge decided not to investigate us, 26 escapees, including children, as our boat ran adrift along the Cambodian shore. It was a miracle that we safely reached Thailand.
I wish I could forget the miserable days in the refugee camps when we were homeless and destitute. At one point, my sister-in-law Hang literally fought the camp attendant for a piece of plastic to hang around our mosquito net to give us some privacy. She lost.
And I can't forget the small fire that destroyed all the personal belongings I brought in a small overnighter and left me with only one burned silver dollar.

In California, I look at my countrymen and divide them into three groups. Some are what I call the "drifters," those too young to know the war or too indifferent to want to know. Some are the "vanquished," those who survived the war bitter, poor, underprivileged and lost. The third group, the "victors," triumphed over the past through personal success -- accumulated wealth, a brilliant career, social status or an education.
But while they seem to have forgotten about the war, their obsession with success tells me otherwise. They work as if they are racing against the ghost of the past -- a ghost that may catch up with them and devour them if they slow down.

© The San Francisco Chronicle