by Cassidy Armbruster
10,000 gold Buddha’s cover all four walls of the third floor from top to bottom, making the entire room shimmer. Tuan and I entered the pagoda during a death anniversary ceremony, so we quietly wove through the group of men, women, and children praying in front of a shrine covered in candles and incense. Although Buddhists grieve when a friend or family member dies, there were no tears during the ceremony because death is seen as a part of life, and Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Death is thus merely a transition. The death anniversary ceremony is intended to celebrate and worship the life of the dead, much like a birthday in the United States. As we made our way up to the second floor we were silently greeted with several welcoming head nods.
The second floor is where the ashes of the dead are stored. Tuan explained that it is a goal for one to have their ashes honored in this pagoda after cremation. Those that had their ashes stored in this pagoda had a room temporarily dedicated them. Pictures of them were framed on a wall, and incense and candles were lit below to commemorate these individuals. Although it is customary for Buddhists to cremate the dead, many Vietnamese Buddhists that live in the countryside are buried on their land in above ground coffins. This is to ensure that the land will stay within the family, as well as to ensure that the ancestors will protect and bring good fortune to the family’s future generations.
My curiosity grew as I was asked to take my shoes off on the way up to the third floor. Somewhat out of breath, I walked into the most peaceful and ornate room covered with 10,000 small gold Buddha’s. Because the construction and decorations of the pagoda were entirely funded by donations, each of the 10,000 Buddhas are dedicated to a donor. Donors names are engraved on each Buddha. At the center of the room was a Buddha the size of an elephant meditating above ground on an equally large gold chair.
As Tuan and I walked quietly through the pagoda, we got to talking about a small tattoo of a lotus flower he has on his lower left wrist. The lotus is symbolic of the mind, body, and speech in Buddhism. Although Tuan’s mother practiced Buddhism when he was a child, and continues to practice today, she made sure he grew up free to follow any religion, or none at all. He said in Vietnamese culture, parents are very open to religion, and usually don’t persuade their children one way or another. Tuan said that much like most youths, he grew up pushing religion away, focusing instead on school, relationships, and sports. He didn’t decide to follow Buddhism until he was thirty years old. Tuan said he considered Christianity and Islam, but felt he most connected with Buddhism as a way of life. He said he was particularly attracted to the concept of death. One lives knowing that they will die, so they live a moral life in order to achieve a better afterlife. “Everything becomes a part of the past. Even our conversation will be in the past in just a few moments,” he explained. “Aw that makes me kind of sad,” I replied, but Tuan insisted that it shouldn’t. That’s part of Buddhism.
Interested in visiting this hidden pagoda? Join our day tour of Saigon!