A blast from the past, gentle readers!
The handsome young chap in the photo is yours truly, posing on the terrace of Tinh Xa Trung Tam in Phu Nhuan, Ho Chi Minh City sometime circa 1996!
Tinh Xa Trung Tam is a fascinating place, being one of the central monasteries for the indigenous Vietnamese monastic order, the Tang Gia Khat Si. I say 'one of' because after the death of the founder-master, Minh Dang Quang, in the 1950s, the order soon split along doctrinal lines, and in TPHCM there are several khat si (mendicant) monasteries which claim to be the 'Central Monastery'. Each of them represents the seat of one of the original disciples of Minh Dang Quang - almost every one of them established their own lineage and order, though all are ostensibly united beneath the teachings of the Master.
The Indigenous Mendicant Order is a fascinating experiment in Buddhist syncretism, and one day I hope to write a book about it (should be a mammoth seller!). Minh Dang Quang was a half Khmer, half Viet man who dreamed of repairing the Theravada and Mahayana division in Buddhism, and went about doing so, based on his own knowledge of both schools gained through his ethnic and racial blend. In Southern Vietnam, the TGKS represents around 20% of all Buddhists, though monastics from the more traditional schools look askance at this indigenous form. Their main criticism is that Minh Dang Quang translated the sutras into a rhyming form of everyday Viet language, making them easy for lay people to remember. The traditionalists, however, claim that these translations are lacking in depth and authenticity, and in some places are outright incorrect.
The TGKS monastics are easily recognised by their bright yellow robes and their practise of public begging. For the most part their theology is mainstream Pure Land Buddhism (hence the presence of this huge statue of Kwan Yin), but they insist that monastics follow the stricter Theravada Vinaya (i.e. the rules by which monks and nuns must live). It's a fascinating blend, and the only place in the modern world where such an amalgamation is practised.