LONG SON PAGODA, NHA TRANG, VIET NAM: The Long Son Pagoda’s huge white Buddha is visible throughout Nha Trang and beyond. The pagoda is dedicated to the Buddhist monks who gave their lives or were killed protesting the repression of the Diem government. Perhaps the memory of Thich Quang Doc’s self-immolation in 1963 played a part in my seeking out this place. More likely not. There was simply something compelling about the gigantic, utterly peaceful presence of the 79 foot tall Buddha that led me to taxi away from resting at our hotel and to the base of Trai Thuy Hill, to look up in awe and then begin the climb (120 or 152 steep steps, depending on which guidebook you believed) to the statue.
Half way up there was to be a great reclining Buddha created by a Thai sculptor. I never saw it on my way to the top. The only diversion from my climbing: a covered platform off to one side housing a great bell, a stone bench under it, attended by a monk who motioned me toward the bench. Was I really ready to willingly break my momentum? Apparently so, for I found myself going down steps to reach the platform then climbing up steps to take a seat on the bench.
From the waist up I was within the bell surrounded by messages taped up by previous sitters: notes, poems, sections of sutras, wishes, thanks. I began to feel myself to be part of a large, ancient and contemporary culture of gratitude.
My shoulders relaxed as did my belly and legs. My breathing, stimulated by the climb and my fears that this was more than a 71 year old with my feet could handle slowed down into a warm and gentle rhythm.
The monk sounded the bell. A deep, low, almost soundless vibration surrounded me like a loving embrace. He began to chant softly. Twice more he sounded the gong as the chant continued. All the lunacies of the climb and of aging and of all the rest of the neurotic package I’d brought with me from home vanished. Writing now, two months later, the ease of that moment remains with me.
The rest of the walk up felt both brief and easy. The hilltop was filled on two sides by snack and souvenir vendors, some worshipers, some tourists and some folks just hanging out. Both the “legitimate beggars” and the “scam artists” the guide books had warned against were absent or on a break. Built into and around the hilltop were containers for the cremated remains of generations of monks and believers.
The statue itself rested atop a pedestal large enough to contain a shrine room where another monk assisted those wishing to light incense. I removed my shoes, entered in silence and bowed at the altar. The vibration of the bell below was still inside me.
Walking joyfully back down the steps I came upon–no surprise, right?–the enormous reclining Buddha. Clearly the universe had known I wasn’t ready for it on the way up. There were several folks admiring and interacting with it including honeymooners who were being photographed touching Buddha’s elbow for luck.
I made a note to do that once the elbow was cleared and began photographing the enormous statue from various angles. I moved in close for a tight shot of the Buddha’s face. That was when it happened. The right eye winked at me! There’s no other way to say it, just as there is no way to explain it. As I looked at the crystal clear image on the camera’s viewing screen, the right eye of the great stone reclining Buddha statue winked at me! It did! I looked directly at the statue. No second wink. Back at the screen. No wink. I switched to “memory,” but, of course, I’d not taken a picture.
I virtually skipped down the remaining steps, My smile growing with each stride. At the base of the hill, just outside the pagoda, I got into a singing, giggling goof with three Vietnamese souvenir-sellers, then rode back to the hotel on the back of a motorbike through what seemed to me to be remarkably calm and well directed Nha Trang rush hour traffic. There’s a picture of me with the cyclorickshaw driver, but that’s not what this is about.