DAM LUU: an Eminent Vietnamese Buddhist Nun By Thich Minh Duc

With the scarcity of documents about Buddhist nuns in mind, I am writing this paper about the life of the Venerable Dam Luu, a Vietnamese nun, who came to the US in 1980 as a refugee. Starting her new life in America with less than 20 dollars and no knowledge of English, Dam Luu, in less than two decades, made her presence known in many positive ways in the Vietnamese community and the community at large. Her works in the education of nuns, teaching Buddhism in the community, and helping Vietnamese Buddhist tradition evolve a strong impact on the development of Vietnamese Buddhism in America.

            Dam Luu’s life story will be briefly narrated, including her thinking about various issues, her significant contributions to the Vietnamese Buddhist community, and her influence on the Buddhist community at large in this country and abroad. Sources for this paper include Dam Luu’s personal notes, conversations between Dam Luu and this writer on many different occasions over the last 20 years, telephone interviews with persons who knew her, and cassette tapes of Dam Luu’s lectures.

            Buddhism has been a central force in on Vietnamese history. It was introduced to Vietnam in the early part of the first century C.E. from India by Indian merchants, and from China by those Chinese who left China for Giao Chau (as Vietnam was then called) to escape war. At the time, Vietnam was under Chinese domination (the Han Dynasty) and was considered a part of the Han kingdom. Since then, Buddhism has blended with local indigenous beliefs, Confucianism, as well as Taoism, and became the foundation on which Vietnamese culture was established. It was the force that unified the Vietnamese in their fights for independence against the Chinese in the eighth century, as well as in the fights against the Chinese attempts to recolonize Vietnam later in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In modern times, Buddhism served as the protector of traditional Vietnamese culture when the French came to colonize the country with their army in the nineteenth century. Buddhism served again as the “national conscience” when the Buddhists stood up and protested the U.S. intervention during the Vietnam war.

            During the course of Vietnamese history, Buddhist men and women alike have contributed to the preservation of the traditional culture, to the transmission of Buddhist doctrines and values, to the struggle for independence during the French domination, and to the efforts for peace during the Vietnam war. However, almost nothing has been recorded on Vietnamese Buddhist women and their contributions. For example, In Vietnamese records, there is only one nun whose life was recorded in the Thien Uyen Tap Anh (Eminent Figures in the Zen Garden). This book was compiled in the early decades of the fourteenth century C.E. The situation is similar with Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese canon contains only a small book-the Pi Chiu Ni Chuan (Stories of Eminent Buddhist Nuns)-that records the lives of eminent Chinese nuns in this case from the fourth to the sixth century. Not many nuns are listed in this book and their lives are recorded only briefly.

            In reading of Dam Luu’s remarkable life and deeds, therefore, on should keep in mind that Dam Luu was far from the only Buddhist woman, or Buddhist nun, to have made such contributions. Women and men who knew Dam Luu, nuns and also monks, have benefited greatly from her presence and wisdom; hopefully others can benefit as well through reading this account. Dam Luu’s story should remind us, all at once, of the other Vietnamese Buddhist nuns whose stories we are missing.

 

I. DAM LUU IN VIETNAM

            Dam Luu was born on August 4, 1932 in Ha Dong province, Northern Vietnam. Her family was Buddhist and her parents were very devoted to the Buddhist practice. When Dam Luu was two and a half years old, her parents took her on a trip to Cu Da temple in their locality. At the end of her first trip, she did not want to return home, cried, and refused to go home with her parents. Her parents did not want to leave her at the temple because of her age but with her resistance to return home, they had no choice. Dam Luu was left behind at the temple to the care of the venerable nun Dam Soan who was, at the time, the abbess of Cu Da temple.

            Dam Soan was one of the most respected members of the Vietnamese Buddhist community.  She was a member of the Dong Do Buddhist order, and she was widely noted for her wisdom and devout practice. This order came from the Tao Dong tradition, which was founded in the 14th century in Vietnam. She was the abbess of several temples, as well as the director of Van Ho Buddhist school, which was one of the first schools in North Vietnam in which nuns could receive a formal Buddhist education. Dam Soan also served as a teacher of Buddhist practice to the Queen and royal family in Hue, which was then the capital of Vietnam. Working closely with Venerable To Lien, one of the pioneers in the effort to rejuvenate Buddhism in Vietnam, Dam Soan gave special attention to the education of nuns because she believed that education was an integral part of the successful teaching of Buddhism.

            At the time, Vietnamese nuns, like the vast majority of other women in Vietnam in the 1930s, were not typically given much opportunity to receive a formal education, and most of the nuns were illiterate. Under the very strong influence of Neo-Confucianism, Vietnamese society in general believed then (and some still believe today) that a woman’s social role should be limited to the home. Before marriage, young women were expected to obey their father, when married they were expected to obey their husband, and after their husband passed away they were expected to obey their son. Women were only allowed to learn skills that had to do with housework such as cooking, baking, sewing and caretaking.

            Under the guidance and teaching of Dam Soan, Dam Luu was ordained as a Sramanekira when she was 16 years old. After being ordained, with the encouragement of her teacher, she traveled to different Buddhist centers in North Vietnam to learn more about Buddhist doctrines and practices from other traditions. In 1951 when Dam Luu was 19 years of age, she was sent to Quan Su Temple in Ha Noi to be ordained as a Bhiksuni even though she was underage. This was because of her exceptional effort in her practice, her broad knowledge in Buddhist doctrines, and the sincerity she displayed in her daily life in the community.

            In 1952 Dam Soan was invited to serve as the abbess of Duoc Su Temple in Saigon and took Dam Luu with her to Saigon as an attendant. With the support of the local monastic community, she changed Duoc Su temple into the first Southern Buddhist school for nuns. The education was unusual, for not only were nuns taught traditional Buddhist scriptural knowledge, but were also given a Western education. At the time, this was not considered important by the vast majority of Vietnamese Buddhist monastic members. In 1960, Dam Luu not only graduated from Duoc Su Buddhist school but also passed the national examination for a high school diploma. At the end of 1961, Dam Luu retired to Phuoc Hoa temple, planning to focus on the study of Mahayana Tripitaka. Her retreat was cut short in 1963 by President Ngo Dinh Diem's unfair treatment of the Buddhist community. She joined with other fellow monastic members in the protest against Diem’s policies and demand religious freedom, was jailed by Diem’s government, and released after Diem was overthrown by a coup d’etat later that year.

            In 1964 the United Vietnamese Buddhist Church recognized the need to train monks and nuns in various secular fields as Dam Soan and colleagues had foreseen in 1952. This occurred both in Vietnam and abroad as part of an effort to rejuvenate Buddhism to better meet the modern and sometimes complex needs of Vietnamese society. Some Vietnamese monastic members, including Dam Luu, were selected to study abroad in India, France, Japan, and Germany. They were given full scholarships, provided by their schools, and awarded through the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church. Dam Huong, the head of the Vietnamese nuns’ order agreed with Dam Luu’s wish to study social work, and sent her to West Germany where Dam Luu studied for five years. In a later conversation with me, Dam Luu explained this choice: “I had seen a lot of suffering around us, right in front of our eyes. I wanted to do something practical to help eliminate some of the pain of the world. I love children and I wanted to have some knowledge of social work in order to help them effectively”

            When Dam Luu returned to Vietnam in the middle of 1969, the war was becoming more intense. Thousands of refugees had left their home towns and moved to the cities to avoid being bombed or caught up in battle, including many children whose parents were either killed or unable to provide them with basic care. Out of compassion, the local monastic community decided to provide foster care to abandoned or parentless children. An orphanage based on the Western model with the name of Lam Ty Ni was established with Dam Luu as Director. With the help of many volunteer nuns and monks, and varied individuals and organizations, Dam Luu ran this orphanage until the end of April 1975 when the Communists took over the Saigon government.

            Immediately after the takeover, the Lam Ty Ni orphanage was dissolved at the order of the new regime. The children under Dam Luu’s care were sent to several locations. Some children had no place to go, but Dam Luu was not allowed to speak with them. Dam Luu secretly asked nearby temples to provide them with basic daily needs.

            In 1976 Dam Luu was pressured to make false accusations against a well-known monastic friend, who was quite well known in the South. Her own safety was repeatedly threatened but she refused to go along with the government plot. Dam Luu secretly made arrangements through lay disciples for the children who were still with her to leave Vietnam. Soon after she was to escape herself.

            To summarize, during Dam Luu’s time in Vietnam, her life as a nun was unusual, beginning with her residence in the nunnery from age two and a half, her early ordination as Bhiksuni at age 19, her subsequent position as attendant to Dam Soan, her role in helping establish the first Southern Buddhist school for nuns, and her own accomplishments as one of the first Vietnamese Buddhist nuns to graduate from high school. She subsequently did advanced studies abroad on a scholarship at a time when many nuns remained illiterate. Indeed, Dam Luu became heir to an important tradition for educating nuns. With the war, Dam Luu turned from previous plans to head an orphanage, risking her own welfare repeatedly to save the children after it was dissolved, and to save a colleague against whom she was asked to falsely testify. One sees this strength in a nun of profound conviction in the Bodhisattva’s path.

            Dam Luu was committed to do what is good and to be of benefit to all sentient beings. The path she chose was the Bodhisattva’s path. The Buddha taught: “Do not what is evil, do what is good, and be of benefit to all sentient beings.” Those who honor the Bodhisattva’s path will take upon themselves the task of rescuing and protecting all sentient beings and they will do what is needed, which might be for example to study secular knowledge. Dam Luu chose the Bodhisattva precepts and she involved herself in giving, educating, providing services to those children in need, and risking her own safety to protect others.

 

II. DAM LUU’ S LIFE AS A REFUGEE.

            Dam Luu wished to escape from Vietnam but her attempts failed four times. Finally, in late 1978, disguised as a lay person, she boarded a small fishing boat and began a new voyage in her life. She was 46 years old. The boat was at sea for almost a week and lost its direction, but finally landed on an island in Malaysia. There, in a refugee camp in Kuchin, Malaya, Dam Luu started her life over as a displaced person, a person with no country. She was surrounded by many refugees who were desperate, emotionally drained, and full of anger and willingness to blame others for the sufferings that happened to them in Vietnam and in camp.

            Characteristically, Dam Luu decided not to look at others’ faults and blame them, but instead used her time to reflect on the impermanence of life and on what people can learn from it. Here, from personal accounts, we can get a flavor of how Dam Luu lived. A colleague of her recalls Dam Luu saying the following about her time in the camps:

 

      "I had actually started to meditate on impermanence seriously when I was on my boat leaving Vietnam. The boat was too crowded and there was not enough room for me lie down. I was pushed into a corner and from that corner I could observe what people did to each other. Surprisingly, I noticed that when the situation was bad and when everybody suffered, people fought against each other for tiny things. On the boat I reflected on the lives of the Buddha that I had studied in the Jataka. He sacrificed everything for the benefit of others, including animals. He did not give too much attention to himself. He did not have any attachment to what He had. Taking care of others was what the Buddha practiced and He had never fought against others for the minor things in life. He had everything as a prince but he abandoned all this because He believed that it could not bring him real happiness.

      These memories came back to my mind and they helped me in restraining myself. I did not participate in fighting for a little room, a little water, or a little bit of food. I kept reminding myself that as a Buddhist nun, I was not allowed to fight, to be angry, or to argue. People in the boat did not know my real identity. They thought that I was a lay woman and therefore they probably would not have cared if I had fought. I refused to fight because I knew myself as a nun and I needed to live what I believed in.

      When we got ashore, people found out that I was a nun but many did not care. They just minded their own business and worried about what would happen next. Many people seemed to lose faith when confronted with their misery in the camps. They did whatever seemed to benefit them without thinking about what kind of karma they were creating. They acted as though there would be nothing after this life and therefore were not afraid of the negative karma they might accumulate in this short life. I observed and came to the conclusion that they were just nominal Buddhists who had neither learned nor practiced the doctrine. If they had learned the doctrine or practiced it seriously they would not have done bad things to others and they would not have changed their perspective on life in times of crisis. I myself decided to continue my Buddhist path by trying my best to do what the Buddha exemplified through his previous lives: forget about myself and think of the welfare of others before my own.”

 

            Even under stress and deprivation, with her strong commitment in Buddhist practice, Dam Luu did whatever she could to honor the Bodhisattva precepts. Not only did she refuse to participate in fighting against others for little conveniences in the camps, but she tried to do whatever she could to make the lives of others less miserable. She related what she did for others when she was still in refugee camps:

 

      “During the time in the camps, I did not want to waste my time doing nothing and just waiting for the time to resettle in another country. I decided to do something practical to help other refugees. With some money received from friends in Germany and the U.S., I provided the young people whom I met in camps with extra food and clothing. Many of them were young and had never experienced traumatic events in their lives prior to their escape from Vietnam. They were lost, hungry for both food and love, and in need of someone who offered them some guidance in dealing with their dimmed and unknown future. I did whatever I could to eliminate their suffering. I cooked for them with whatever vegetables I found available. I was not a good cook, though, because I had not cooked for a long time. There was always somebody to cook for everybody at Lam Ty Ni Orphanage. Being a vegetarian I could not cook anything with meat for them even though I knew that many of them used to eat meat. I realized that it was hard for them to be on a vegetarian diet.

      Once in a while, I gave them some money for personal use. They went to a restaurant run by an islander’s family to have meals with meat. I was aware of what they did with the money I gave but I did not say anything. Many of them arrived at the camps with just shorts on their bodies. While waiting for the Red Cross to arrive and provide some relief, I used my money to buy them used clothes from local Malaysians. These clothes were not great but 'a handful when in need is more meaningful than a ton when one has no need.'

      Many people thought that I was 'stupid' because I did not use the money my friends sent from Germany to take care of my needs. When being told of that comment, I just laughed it off and did not respond. In my mind, however, I felt bad for the people who made that comment. They probably mistook wants for needs. At the time I still had two sets of clothes and I did not need more. To me, those who did not have anything but one pair of shorts or pants were actually in need of another pair."

 

By doing something practical to eliminate pain and suffering for others-such as providing foods and clothing to those who were hungry and cold, offering guidance to those who lost hopes, giving love and understanding to those who needed it, and tolerating others’ deeds even when these deeds went against her faith-Dam Luu taught those who were around her the essence of Buddhism without telling them anything about Buddhist theology. She just lived what she believed in.

 

III. DAM LUU’S LIFE IN AMERICA.

            After staying at refugee camps for over a year, Dam Luu came to the U.S. in 1980 when she was 48 years old with less than 20 dollars to start her new life. First she stayed at a temple in East Palo Alto and took courses in English as a second language, but she gave up her plan to make time for other refugees who came to the area after her. She volunteered to help by taking newly arrived refugees to shop for used clothes, to medical clinics, and to grocery stores in her used car, a Pinto, given to her by a Vietnamese Buddhist.

            Being a woman in a strange land where the culture is different, lacking both knowledge of English and sound financial resources, Dam Luu did not have much of a worldly base to build on. She had brought to America her lifetime commitment to practice and to teaching Buddhism, her desire to serve others and to educate nuns in particular, her willingness to sacrifice and endure obstacles if necessary, and her love for all sentient beings. With these ingredients and at the request of some Vietnamese families who lived in San Jose, Dam Luu relocated to this area in 1981 and established a temple herself.

            Without much support from the small monastic community, Dam Luu started Duc Vien Temple on a modest scale. She rented small house on the East Side of San Jose and used the living room as a Buddha’s hall. A tent was set up in the back yard as a multipurpose hall: as a dining hall when people had meals, a lecture hall when Dharma was taught, a classroom for children to learn Vietnamese, and even a bedroom for people who wanted to sleep over at the temple with their sleeping bags.

            Donations from Buddhists were not enough to cover the rent and other expenses, so she decided to find some other way to earn money without being restrained in her religious activities. During the day Dam Luu served diligently as a nun at her small temple. In the evenings and early mornings, she went out and collected cans at public garbage dumps to redeem for what money she could obtain. Later, with the participation of other older Buddhist women, she also collected newspapers. Penny by penny she built the resources of the temple. While doing all of this, she still made herself available to provide a wide range of services to those who were in need.

            What else did Dam Luu do to help? A strong believer in the three Vietnamese Buddhist mottoes: Compassion (for others), wisdom (to determine real needs and real sufferings), and involvement (acting courageously based on one’s knowledge to help others eliminate suffering and obtain happiness), Dam Luu provided a variety of services. In each case she did what she could, as she explained:

 

      "When people came to me and complained that they could not afford the rent, I always tried to match these people with a family that had an extra room to share. Others came to the temple out of loneliness and homesickness; I cooked for them, talked to them and listened to them, and encouraged them. I did my best to provide them with a substitute home environment in which people cared for each other. For those who came and complained about the painful changes in their lives, I sat down with them and talked with them about their experiences and helped them to reflect on the impermanence of all things in the world. I always tried to help them see the potential of growth out of their current sufferings no matter how painful they were. Very often I advised them to look at themselves first before blaming someone else for their problems. Causes and effects were very often intertwined and it was hard to sort them out. I might not have been very helpful in resolving their emotional or psychological problems, but at least they knew that I cared and I was willing to do my best to help.

      I did all of these services without any organization. I preferred to have the freedom to make decisions based on my determination of need. I did not want to be under the influence of others. If I met someone who was in need, I did not want to have to ask for permission to help. I made a decision right there and if I could not provide help myself, then I would ask someone else to aid me in providing help. 

      For some reason, there were rumors that I was a Communist agent infiltrated into the Vietnamese community in San Jose. I heard the rumor but I did not pay it any heed. Why bother with rumors when there were a lot of things for me to give my attention to? Besides, it was I who knew myself best. I knew for sure that I was not a Communist and that was good enough. You could not expect everybody in the world to understand you, especially when they did not care to."

 

            Through contacts with refugees who had arrived before she did, Dam Luu noticed that many younger Vietnamese spoke English to each other and not Vietnamese. They spoke English even to their grandparents, who did not seem to understand them. They had had also absorbed aspects of American culture and behaved in ways that did not always accord with Vietnamese culture. They often could not speak in Vietnamese with others in the family, and family conflicts resulted. Many older Vietnamese complained to Dam Luu that their grandchildren were assimilating into mainstream culture too fast and they were loosing their Vietnamese cultural roots.

            Dam Luu addressed this problem in two ways. First, she advised the older Vietnamese to learn English so that they could understand what was happening. This would make life easier for them. Secondly, she began an innovative program - one that thousands of Vietnamese community - based organizations are now repeating all over the United States: she opened a Vietnamese language school at the temple. Classes met each Sunday. However concerned the grandparents may have been, the parents’ response was not very enthusiastic. There were only four students in the first two weeks of the school. Parents complained of their busy schedule after a long work week, of the inconvenience of driving children back and forth, and in some cases partly the lack of need for their children to be fluent in Vietnamese.

            With the help of Vietnamese volunteers, Dam Luu decided to add something extra to attract more students. The temple would not only provide Vietnamese lessons to the children but also a free lunch. The number of students increased rapidly. Vietnamese parents could leave their children at the temple on Sunday morning, go grocery shopping, and on their way back, drop by to pick up their children. Some parents even left their children at the temple all day Sunday so they could have more time to for chores. That did not bother Dam Luu at all. The only problem was that her volunteers, and sometimes Dam Luu herself, had to cook dinner for the children. Dam Luu did not eat anything after lunch. Furthermore, cooking on temple grounds in the afternoon by nuns or monks was considered a violation of the Vinaya, or monastic rules. When asked about this minor “violation,” Dam Luu laughed and alluded to the spirit of the rules:

 

“We need to understand the Vinaya with intelligence. That rule was established to prevent monks and nuns from developing an attachment to food and to the care of their bodies. Furthermore, monks and nuns used to go out begging for food. If they had three meals a day and therefore went out three times to beg, how much time would they have for meditation? When we cook, the hungry ghosts may suffer according to the Mahayana monastic rules because they would see the food but would not be able to consume it. To prevent this suffering by the hungry ghosts, we always perform food offering rituals and chant scriptures in the afternoon to pray for their liberation. My volunteers and I do the cooking now in the afternoon, but in spirit it is not considered a violation of the monastic rules because we do it out of compassion and for the sake of others."

 

            Four years later the temple had grown dramatically and was relocated to a new 9,000 square-foot location at the corner of McLaughlin Avenue and Tully Road in San Jose, California. A new temple was built with traditional Vietnamese structural design, and a large space was allocated for classrooms to teach Vietnamese. The growth has continued to this time. Seventeen years later, Dam Luu had not only gone from a small rented home to a large traditional temple, but from a few volunteers to a volunteer staff of dozens many of whom came from the first group of students, and to a large lay membership. The young students of Vietnamese had increased by a factor of sixty, to about 250 students. To this day, students still receive free lunch on Sundays.

            While serving the community, Dam Luu also began the first Vietnamese nunnery in America. Two years after the temple was established, several young women became novices and nuns under Dam Luu’s guidance. Soon Vietnamese nuns from across the U.S. came to her for teaching. The number of nuns has increased over the years and today is approximately twenty. Thus the first Vietnamese nunnery in America has become an established institution.

            Dam Luu not only attended to the education of nuns, but of monks as well. Due to a lack of resources, the Vietnamese monastic community was not able to provide a similar institution for monks in Northern California, Dam Luu therefore allowed monks to join her group. With a teaching staff of four monastic members, Dam Luu provided students with the basic but comprehensive curriculum of Buddhist studies. Students were also requested to take courses at local community colleges and universities for a secular education. They were supported financially by Dam Luu’s community during their education and some of them are still continuing to pursue their masters and doctoral degrees.

            Many graduates from this Buddhist school are now serving as Dharma teachers at temples across the U.S, Europe, and in South East Asia. For example, a few serve as teachers at Plum Village, a monastic community in France headed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese Zen master.

            Dam Luu had an unusually open mind and had the intent to provide monks and nuns with options in their practice, Dam Luu created a new curriculum for Buddhism in America. To her, the traditional Vietnamese curriculum focused too much on Mahayana tradition and on Chinese canonical texts. Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam lacked an adequate knowledge of the Pali canon. Many were therefore unfamiliar with the methods of meditation practiced in the Theravada tradition. Dam Luu, herself a practitioner in Pureland school, believed that all Buddhist methods of practice could be helpful. Monks and nuns who attended her school, therefore, were taught theories and practices in all Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and with the help of visiting Tibetan lamas, the Vajrayana.   With a non sectarian mind and willingness to support her students, Dam Luu sent students who had interests in methods other than the ones she practiced to centers where they could learn them, would support them financially while they were away, and then welcome them back when they had finished. Some were sent to Burma to study Insight meditation methods, and some to Plum Village in France to study Mindfulness meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh. Both the Sravaka and Bodhisattva precepts were taught but Dam Luu emphasized the later because of their spirit of engagement in life and dedication to transforming the pain and suffering of sentient beings.

            One may recall that, on the boat leaving Vietnam, and in the refugee camps, Dam Luu had noticed that many Vietnamese claimed to be Buddhists but did not behave in accordance with Buddhist doctrines. Their behavior changed rapidly and their faith weakened when they were faced with hardships and worldly temptations. They would forget about compassion and wisdom; they would act and react according to their immediate social conditions. Dam Luu had not forgotten this experience. Attributing this change partly to a lack of knowledge of Buddhist principles, Dam Luu in 1980 decided to experiment with something very new at the time to help others understand Buddhist teachings: All the scriptural chanting at her temple was to be done, not in the Sino-Vietnamese that many Vietnamese didn’t understand, but in their own Vietnamese language. This innovation ended up influencing practice at temples across the U.S. and abroad.

            From the beginning of its history, Vietnam had had close contacts with Chinese culture and civilizations. Vietnam was under Chinese domination for more than a thousand years from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. and during this period Vietnam was considered a Chinese province. Vietnamese learned many things from Chinese culture, customs, and language but they still kept their own ethnic identity apart from the Chinese. After the Vietnamese gained independence from the Chinese in 938 A.D., many aspects of Chinese culture remained as important parts of Vietnamese culture, well into the 20th century. One of these was the Chinese system of written ideographs. For almost 10 centuries, after independence from the Chinese, the Chinese system of writing was still considered the official Vietnamese system. It was used by successive dynasties in national examinations for court mandarin status until 1918. As the result, all Buddhist scriptures in Vietnam were copied in Chinese characters. Even today most Buddhist scriptures used by the Vietnamese monastic community are still written in Chinese ideographs.

            Later, when the Western alphabet was introduced, the Chinese characters gave way to Romanized spellings. Still, many Romanized words were merely phonetic transcriptions of the Chinese. This system is called Sino-Vietnamese. A tradition of chanting scriptures in Sino-Vietnamese was established several hundred years ago and continues to be used at many temples in Vietnam today as well as in the U.S. Many Buddhists, due to their lack of knowledge of Chinese characters and Sino-Vietnamese, did not (and still do not) thoroughly understand what they were chanting in religious services, either at their temples or in their own homes. Many Vietnamese Buddhists functioned mostly by faith and devotion and did not have much knowledge of the methods that the Buddha taught.

                                         To make the scriptures understandable to ordinary Buddhists and  younger generations born and raised in the U.S., Dam Luu went boldly against tradition by creating her own Vietnamese prayer book. For the book, she selected Vietnamese translations of Chinese scriptures which were practical in daily life, and made the Vietnamese versions the official texts for services at her temple. Her attempt to change tradition was greeted with enthusiasm by younger Vietnamese. It also attracted a lot of criticism from many older Vietnamese Buddhists. They accused Dam Luu of not being traditional or authentic. Some people threatened to discontinue financial support to the temple. These accusations and threats did not prevent Dam Luu from doing what she thought was right. Questioned about this issue, Dam Luu replied in 1983 as reported by a Buddhist layman:

 

      "Somebody has to start a new way in this new environment. When the Buddha was alive, scriptural chanting was not heard of. After the Buddha passed away, monks and nuns began to recite what he had taught. The whole thing about scriptural chanting is to bring back to life what the Buddha taught. Years ago the Vietnamese used Chinese and many of them understood Sino-Vietnamese. Nowadays there are not many Vietnamese who can understand Sino-Vietnamese so there is no reason to do the chanting in that language.           Furthermore, the Buddha taught us two principles in the practice of  Buddhism. The first one is whatever we do must be in accordance with the teaching of the Truth. The second one is we have to present the teaching in accordance with the social condition and the taste of the population at the time of the presentation. I do not see anything wrong with chanting scriptural texts in Vietnamese. Believe me, you will understand the teachings better, although you may have some problems with the musical tones at first."

 

            Her idea of chanting Buddhist scriptures entirely in Vietnamese has now gained wide support at many temples in the United States. Furthermore, Vietnamese is used at least partly in the chanting of Buddhist scriptural texts at most temples at this time.

            Yet, in Dam Luu’s opinion, using Vietnamese scriptural texts in services was still not enough. Just two weeks after her temple was established, with the help of a monastic friend who served as a lecturer, Dam Luu started weekly lectures in Buddhism, given in Vietnamese. Her intent was to provide lay Buddhists both the knowledge of and practical methods to apply Buddhist principles in their busy daily lives in the U.S. Such an offering was a major departure; it was new to Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. At temple, Buddhists normally prayed and did their chanting with the guidance of monastic members. Lectures on Buddhism were offered to the lay community only about three times a year during certain big celebrations. Lectures had never been weekly events at temples in the U.S. or in Vietnam with the exception of Dam Luu’s temple. In addition, free cassettes of these lectures were made available to those who requested them if they could not personally attend the lectures. From 1995 on, lectures were provided in English as well at Dam Luu’s temple to accommodate the younger Vietnamese population who were more fluent in English than Vietnamese. Visiting scholars and practitioners from different traditions were also invited to lecture at Duc Vien temple and their tapes were made available. Free English and Vietnamese Books on Buddhism were also made available both through private donations and temple’s subsidy support. Today Duc Vien temple is one of the major distributors of free Vietnamese Buddhist texts in the U.S. as well as abroad.

            Dam Luu herself eventually became a visiting teacher in the U.S. and abroad. She has a specialization in Vinaya pitaka and Pureland school, and was invited to teach both monastic and lay members at various temples in Canada, France, Germany, and India. Dam Luu has also been honored being selected as the headmaster in international ordination ceremonies organized by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France to ordain new monastic members from Spain, South Africa, Australia and several other countries. One of the senior nuns who studied with her at Plum Village, Sister Chan Khong a longtime associate of Thich Nhat Hanh, had this to say in a letter sent to Dam Luu on her birthday in 1998:

 

                        “All of us, your monastic children, are trying to learn your life of non-attachment. You walk over money, but monetary dust cannot settle [on your feet]. You step on fame, but fame does not have any tiny effect on your character. You stand firm and fearless against threats from strong destructive forces (maras). You have built one of the greatest temples, but the grandeur of the temple has not changed the way you look at life or the way you treat others. Many people love you, but you have no personal attachment whatsoever because you can see the reality. You are great mountains, immense rivers, and vast oceans. You are a bright dew drop and a beautiful silent flower that adorns the walking paths of innumerable Buddhas.”[1]

 

IV. DAM LUU’S PERSONAL QUALITIES.

            As the head of a large monastic community of nuns, how did Dam Luu live her life? How did she practice? She lived the very simple lifestyle of an ascetic, with one meal a day, and never owned more than three sets of clothing. When people gave her something of value she would accept the gift, but she typically gave it away as soon as the giver left.

            Although she was ultimately well known for her works in service to Buddhist communities both in Vietnam and abroad, Dam Luu took precautions to avoid fame. To her, in fact, it was more difficult to deal with fame and praise than with slander, libel, disdain or insult. In 1996 Dam Luu shared her perspective on fame and some other matters in life to her disciples:

 

                        “It is much easier to be attached to favorable news that only makes your ego bigger. If people praise you for doing something good for others and you become attached to praise, you will tend to look for similar praise later when providing services. When that happens, you are no longer doing good out of compassion and for the benefit of others, but for the sake of your own ego. Your act is then full of unwholesome seeds that prevent you from being free. Freedom, in my Buddhist practice, means not being influenced and not being led by unwholesome mental defilements such as greed, anger, false views, doubt in your own ability, pride, arrogance, torpor, and stinginess. To be fully liberated, we have been taught to practice the Six Paramitas. If we are attached to what people give us, such as fame, and we have problems letting it go, then where is dana paramita (perfection of giving)? If people only praise us and nobody slanders, criticizes, or insults us, then how can we fully practice ksanti paramita (perfection of forbearance)? If our mind is disturbed by slanders and insults, if it is inflated with praise from others, then where is the practice of dhyana paramita (perfection of meditation)?”

 

            Dam Luu took these practices seriously in her work and daily activities. She never wished to be equal with others; rather, she always considered herself inferior to others. To nuns of her age and to monks, she always addressed herself as “con” which, in Vietnamese, means "your daughter." To younger nuns and even to lay people she addressed herself as “toi,” which literally means "your servant." On the other side, many monks addressed themselves as “con” which means “your sons” when they talked to her. Dam Luu always replied with “I dare not.” Titles never bothered Dam Luu. She treated people the same no matter how they addressed her: “Thay” (master), “Su Ba” (elder nun), “Su Co” ( nun sister), “Ni Su” (nun teacher), and even “ba vai” which literally means “wicked nun,” a term that protesters called Dam Luu in their demonstrations against her in 1994 and 1998.

            The demonstrations provide an unusual opportunity to see Dam Luu’s compassion and courage, and her strong determination to do what she thought was right. On each occasion Dam Luu had had to face an angry and outspoken group of Vietnamese political extremists from the San Jose area. In 1994, one of the most respected living Vietnamese Zen masters, Venerable Thich Thanh Tu, visited the San Jose area. Acting according to the monastic rules and her own wisdom, Dam Luu invited this well-known master to give a lecture at her temple. Her invitation angered a group of extreme anti-Communists in San Jose's Vietnamese community. This group argued that since Vietnam was a communist country and communists did not trust religious people, this visiting Zen master and his associates must really be communists disguised as religious persons. In the group’s view anybody who was allowed to leave Vietnam must be a communist including the Venerable Thich Thanh Tu. They organized protests in front of Duc Vien temple which lasted for many days. They employed propaganda through various public media which slandered both Dam Luu and the master from Vietnam. They pressured Dam Luu, harassed her, and even threatened her, with the hope that she would cancel the invitation. Undisturbed by the protesters, the widely circulated accusations, and the mudslinging aimed at her and her community, Dam Luu refused to cancel the lecture and went on with what she had planned. Many members of the community were concerned for her safety but Dam Luu did not seem at all bothered by the disturbances. She told this writer:

 

“As Buddhists, we need to have the courage to do what we believe to be right in accordance with the Vinaya and for the benefit of many. Thich Thanh Tu, with his fifty years of meditation practice, has many spiritual insights to teach us. I believe that our Buddhist community will learn a lot from his teachings, and therefore we should go ahead with our plan. I am taking full responsibility for this. I am not fearful of any threats or pressure from outside. What concerns me most is whether or not I could leave this world with a smile knowing that I have tried my best to do all the things I could to benefit others. I do not want to leave this world with regrets because, out of fear for my safety, I did not do the right things that I was supposed to do.”

 

            On the day of Thich Thanh Tu's lecture, thousands of people flocked to the temple to listen to the monk, among them many non-Buddhists. By the end of his first two-hour talk in the morning, a full 538 individuals had registered with this master to take the three refuges, the first step to becoming a Buddhist. Meanwhile, only about thirty individuals showed up to protest outside the temple gate, and not thousands of people as the organizers of the protest had hoped. It rained very hard that day and the weather was cold. Dam Luu ordered the temple gate to be opened. Her intent was to offer the protesters shelter from the rain by allowing them to protest under the temple’s roof. The nun who received the order from Dam Luu was reluctant to open the gate. In the nun’s mind, this would only create more disturbances and the protesters, in the nun’s judgment, did not deserve any consideration. Dam Luu explained her thinking to this nun:

 

“They do deserve care and respect. It does not matter how bad their deeds might be; they still have Buddha nature. They still have the seeds of enlightenment, of love, and of understanding in their alaya. They might protest due to their lack of knowledge or due to being provided biased information. In any case, they should not be blamed for whatever they are doing. To me the real troublemakers are greed, anger, and ignorance, and never human beings.”

 

            Thus, remarkably, the temple gate was opened for the protesters to come inside. Hot tea and lunch were provided to all who were present that day, and this included the protesters. Some of them availed themselves of the offer and had tea and lunch with the community they had earlier opposed. Three days later, two of the protesters returned to the temple, this time not to protest, but to apologize for what they had done out of anger and their one-sided knowledge about the event.

            Unfortunately, Duc Vien temple and Dam Luu returned to the news again in the middle of 1998 for a similar situation. This time Venerable Thich Tri Dung, a 93-year-old monk from Vietnam had come to the U.S. for a visit. This elder monk visited Duc Vien temple and stayed overnight. Some anti-Communist groups, using same argument made during Thich Thanh Tu’s visit in 1994, demonstrated noisily in front of the temple gate, protesting Dam Luu’s decision to host this old monk. They even entered the nuns’ living quarters one night and harassed Dam Luu and her nun disciples. Noisy protests continued every day for almost two weeks after the monk had left to visit another temple. Dam Luu again was called many names by angry protesters in front of her temple. Protesters harassed those who came to the temple, and their actions annoyed and alarmed many temple goers. One of Dam Luu’s colleagues called a meeting to figure out how to deal with the situation. An attorney present suggested that the temple should request a restraining order, and sue a radio station and a magazine for libel because they kept publicly calling her “wicked Communist who disguised herself as a Buddhist nun.” A community organizer proposed yet other ways to fight back. Dam Luu was going through chemotherapy at the time for a cancer which had been diagnosed; She could not attend the first part of the meeting when these options were discussed. Later Dam Luu arrived and after being briefed, she responded:

 

“Monks and nuns have many rules to live with, according to the Vinaya. However, the most important ones for them are the promises that they make at the ordination ceremony. Three of these are: (1) From now to the end of my life when people hurt me, I vow not to do or say anything to hurt them back; (2) from now to the end of my life when people slander, libel, disdain, or insult me, I vow not to do anything to gain revenge; and (3) from now to the end of my life when people are angry at me, I vow not to return their anger with anger. I sincerely thank you for your efforts to help, but I really think that we should not take any of these measures. What we need to do now is to maintain our inner peace and pray for those who do not have it.”

 

            The whole group sit silently for some time. Nothing was ultimately done to fight back. Two days after that meeting, the whole monastic community of Northern California issued a statement supporting Dam Luu’s position. The demonstrators did not come back to protest against her.

            After 19 years in America, Dam Luu, equipped with nothing but her compassion, wisdom, and courageous commitment to start a new life, has contributed significantly to the development of Buddhism in her new country. The temple that she built is considered one of the best representatives of Vietnamese traditional architectural structures outside Vietnam and has become an important center to a large lay and monastic community. Out of the community of nuns which has resided at the temple, many are now either teachers or abbesses at centers and temples throughout the country. Dam Luu’s initiatives in chanting Buddhist scriptures in Vietnamese, educating monastic members with both Buddhist and secular knowledge, being with and of service to all people, and her non-sectarian teaching, are now being emulated at many temples across the U.S. and abroad.

            Dam Luu served without any discrimination-providing Dharma from a variety of sources, and sharing the teachings as possible to whomever was in need. Dam Luu did what she could in order to benefit all beings. Other considerations were secondary.

            Dam Luu, for instance, was committed to the Mahayana tradition, but later turned more to certain Theravada sources, to balance the emphasis. Then there was the invitation to the Vajrayana monastic teachers, and the introduction of certain Tibetan practices to the community, as well as the sending of nuns to Burma and France to learn of yet other traditions and practices. Of great importance was Dam Luu’s long-standing commitment to the Pureland practice, along with her own Tao Dong Zen tradition (a mixture often found in Vietnam) which she provided to a great many devotees in the Duc Vien community.

One sees that Dam Luu was open to Dharma from a wide range of sources, and shared whatever would be helpful, be this through formal teachings or involvement in everyday life. She shared too with whomever needed the teachings, be they the nuns, the monks who also needed instruction, the laypersons in her community--or the protesters outside the temple gate!

            Thich Nhat Hanh told his community about Dam Luu’s achievement:

                                    “You are lucky. You have been around her so much  and have learned from her so often. She has lived in a temple since childhood, has faced great barriers and pain, and has conquered them all to become a highly successful nun. Her bodhicitta has never changed. The robes she received from the time she became a nun have been respected and appreciated each day: ‘How beautiful they are, the robes of a nun! They are the robes of merits’ fields. I bow my head to receive them. I vow to take them with me, life after life.’

                                    Her vows, her courage, and spirit have always been strong ... She has displayed her fearless courage in many situations and has not bent under any pressure, no matter where this pressure has come from. She has always done what is right and caring. She has refused to do what is not wrong and is cruel. Many times, I have bowed to her virtue of fearlessness.

                                    She has achieved a very high level of spiritual life, but she is also a person of action. With her own hands, her patience, compassion, and endurance, she has created an enormous center for the teaching of  Buddhism. She has protected, cared for, and taught her disciples like their very compassionate mother. All those who around her have always received limitless compassion and love from her. I too have received great benefit from her.”

 

            After several years living with cancer and complication from diabetes, Dam Luu finally passed away at her temple on March 26, 1999, surrounded by many monks and nuns. Many had gathered from centers throughout the U.S., and others had come from France and Germany. After Dam Luu’s body had been cremated for five hours at 2000 degrees, a remarkable discovery was made: she had left to the world many multicolored pieces of bone. These rare and colorful relics are called “Sariras” in the Buddhist tradition. Initially, the term Sariras was used to refer to parts of the Buddha’s body, such as hair or fingernails. Later, after the Buddha passed away, his body was cremated and remains such as bones and teeth became known as sariras. In the Buddhist faith, only the remains of those who attain very high level of spiritual enlightenment have been known to become colorful after cremation. These colorful remains, according to the Suvarnaprabhasa sutra, are the result of a lifetime continuous practice of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). In Dam Luu’s case, pieces of her bones turned distinctive colors: red, green, yellow, black, pink, blue, and ivory. Her bone marrow crystallized into blue, pink, and yellow pearl-shaped drops. These extremely rare and incredible remains are considered to be evidence that Dam Luu had obtained a very high level of spiritual achievement in Buddhist practice.                                    

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

I would like to express my thanks to reverend Dam Sieu for her review of this paper and valuable suggestions. My sincere appreciation to Ruth Richards, M.D., Ph. D. for her patience, care, and compassionation in editing drafts of this paper. Her constructive comments and advice have greatly improved it.

                                                                        

REFERENCES

 

Browne, M. The New Face of War. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merril Company Inc., 1968.

Crawford, A., C. Customs and Culture of Vietnam. Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co. Publishers, 1966.

Jamieson, N. Understanding Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Le Van Sieu. Viet Nam Van Minh Su [A History of Vietnamese Civilization]. Saigon,        Vietnam: Vietnamese Ministry of Education, 1972.

Nguyen Lang. Viet Nam Phat Giao Su Luan [Discussions on Vietnamese Buddhism].    Vol. 1. Paris: La Boi, 1973.

Scheder, J. The New Face of Buddha. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967.

Taylor, K., W. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Thich Duc Nhuan.  Dao Phat Tinh Hoa   [The Essence of Buddhism].    Saigon,   Vietnam: Van Hanh University Press, 1973.

Thich Thien Hoa. Nam Muoi Nam Chan Hung Phat Giao [Fifty Years of Buddhist            Revitalization]. Saigon, Vietnam: Huong Dao Publisher, 1971.

 

 

 

 

[1] Person new to this teaching may note that “non-attachment” does not connote a lack of caring or concern. Rather, it indicates a pervasive compassion and love that does not leave anybody out, and is not marred by self-interest or particular areas of clinging that could distort a greater good.

 

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