September 12, 2012

The First Buddhist Monk I Ever Saw

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi Remembers Ven. Thich Minh Chau

Several years later, when Venerable Thich Minh Chau next visited the U.S. (perhaps it was 1969), he stayed with us for a couple of days at our house in Claremont. Still later, when I was planning my trip to Asia to receive bhikkhu ordination and study the Dhamma, he gave me useful advice and provided me with a beautiful letter of introduction to the general secretary of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Bangkok, which I made my first stop when I arrived in Asia in August 1972. I kept that letter and still have it among my treasured belongings. After my one-week stay in Bangkok, before going on to Sri Lanka, I went to Vietnam to visit my first Buddhist teacher, who had returned to his home temple after completing his doctorate at Claremont in 1970. Together, we went to visit Thich Minh Chau at Van Hanh University. I still can see him in my mind’s eye rising up to greet me when I came to his office to meet him.

During my first years as a monk in Sri Lanka I occasionally wrote to Thich Minh Chau for advice and he always answered me promptly and thoughtfully. It was he who suggested that, when I go to Sri Lanka, I study with the elder German monk, Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera. Although I could not fulfill that aim until several years after my arrival in the island, I eventually wound up living with Nyanaponika Mahathera during the last ten years of his life, right up to the day of his death, and already during his life I had succeeded him as editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society.

I lost contact with Venerable Thich Minh Chau after South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, but when planning a lecture in 2004, I recalled our earlier meetings, and these memories became so vivid that I wrote an early draft of this recollection. Through the Internet, I contacted a Vietnamese web-master in Australia and found out he is still alive in Ho Chi Minh City, though weak and ill with Parkinson’s disease. He is over ninety years of age. I gave the draft to a Vietnamese Buddhist friend of mine, Sukhavati Thu Tran, who had it translated into Vietnamese. It was published in a Vietnamese Buddhist magazine and read aloud to Venerable Thich Minh Chau, who indicated that he understood it.

Over the past few decades, before his illness incapacitated him, Venerable Thich Minh Chau had translated into Vietnamese the four Nikayas of the Pali Canon. This fact I learned only in the late 1990s. Now here is the remarkable and uncanny thing that raises some interesting questions: On that day in early August 1965, a twenty-year-old American college student, who would one day be the co-translator of the Majjhima Nikaya and translator of the Samyutta Nikaya, and who is presently working on a translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, encountered by sheer chance a Vietnamese monk, thirty years older than himself, who would translate the four Nikayas into Vietnamese. The American student at that time was not yet a Buddhist. He was not at all involved in Buddhist studies and had started to read about Buddhism just a few months earlier. He had no intention of meeting the monk, and in fact they did not meet face to face. Looked at from the standpoint of “objective causality,” the encounter was sheer coincidence. The American student merely made a chance turn while taking a walk in a town he had arrived at by chance while making a car trip across the country; he saw the monk from a distance and then went away without even knowing who he was. The monk didn’t see the American at all.

But what made me decide to take a walk that morning, and to turn off the lakeside road on to the campus at just that point and at just that moment? Was it really entirely a matter of chance, a mere series of random decisions? And if we can raise these questions, then let’s ask: What broader loop of conditionality might have connected my trip to California with the monk’s trip to Wisconsin at just that time? If I remember correctly—and I am quite sure my memory is correct on this point—we were due to leave Brooklyn two days earlier, on a Saturday, but a last-minute hitch forced us to postpone our departure until that Monday morning. If we had left as originally planned, my meeting with the monk would probably not have taken place.

When I left the campus, convinced we would never meet again, I did nothing to consciously facilitate another meeting with him. Indeed, I hadn’t the slightest idea who he was! Yet I made a series of decisions, without any conscious design, that led me to him once again, and this time in a situation where we would be facing each other as fellow Dhamma-farers. I selected a graduate school that eventually brought me into contact with another Vietnamese monk with whom I became friends—yet I selected it without even knowing that this monk would attend that school (in fact, without even knowing anything about Vietnamese Buddhist monks); and through my friendship with him, I came to meet the monk whom I had seen two years earlier, whose deportment had so impressed me—yet without knowing that these two monks were acquainted. Years later, when I took to translating Pali texts, though I knew that Thich Minh Chau had written a scholarly comparison of Pali and Chinese texts, I didn’t know that he was engaged in translating the Nikayas from Pali into Vietnamese. Yet our projects, in our respective mother languages, are almost identical. Was this also in some way foreshadowed in that chance encounter at the University of Wisconsin, a place to which I have never returned since that meeting and to which I well may never return in the course of this life?

—Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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