Khuong Viet Temple, Tan Binh District
Down by the river in Tan Binh (my home away from home) is a little temple I've driven past hundreds of times over the years but never bothered to visit. I found myself at a loose end this afternoon so decided to wander down there. It was well worth the sweat, harrassment and risk to personal safety that any 'stroll' entails in Ho Chi Minh City.
When I entered the temple courtyard (it was around 3 pm and insanely hot) a portly young monk was asleep in a banana lounge with the most beautiful little puppy asleep on top of him. I tiptoed past and as soon as I entered the main hall I realised that there was something very different about this temple.
The statues were immense and terrifying and quite alive, of a style and bearing that I have never seen before in Vietnam.
They were also of Bodhisattvas and deities that, for the most part, I've never heard of.
A sweet faced old monk poked his head in for a peek at me, and I asked him what the deal was. Turns out I had stumbled into one of Saigon's only Vajrayana temples - I hadn't even been aware that there were any. For those of you shady on the finer points of Buddhist sectarianism, Vajrayana is the tantric form of Buddhism most commonly associated with Tibet, though at one point in the history of Buddhism's spread through Asia it was one of the commonest schools. the tantric schools were very much alive in Vietnam centuries ago, but over the course of history most Vietnamese temples shifted into the more popular schools of zen and pure land.
So Khuong Viet Temple, deep in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, is one of the last bastions of Vietnamese Buddhist Tantrism, with its emphasis on the recitation of magical formulas and mantras. This particular temple emphasises the worship of Bhaisjyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, and every evening chants the great dharani dedicated to him.
If it weren't so hot I would have gone to prayers there this evening, as it's the night before Ram, the Buddhist sabbath. On this night people go through a mammoth session of chanting and bowing in an effort to confess ones sins over the past 14 or so days. It's exhausting and I always end up a sweaty mess, so I figured I'd skip it and check out Vietnamese Vajrayana on a less rigorous night.