Chua Ky Quang II
This pagoda is an orphanage where I like to stay. The first time I came was with a friend, a kalyanamitra, and her family—they were bringing food and candies for the children. Those children, the orphans, are usually found in the morning. According to tradition, they are swaddled in something distinctive from which the monks take a swatch. Mothers sometimes return years later with a scrap of the original garment, and by comparing swatches the monks reunite mother and child. That doesn’t happen often though, because almost all the children left there are severely crippled, blind, or retarded.
The pagoda did not start out as an orphanage. It became one over time, by default. This was a place to leave children. Soon it became a place to leave handicapped children, and more and more children appeared—blind children, and then blind adolescents. Now there are so many that dormitories have had to be added on, and they are fitted so closely together that the roofs almost touch.
There are no nappies in the crowded nursery. The old wooden cribs do not have mattresses, much less stuffed animals and so forth. The child you choose to hold for a moment holds onto you for dear life. In the room next to it, one child sits at the end of a cord that runs from his ankle to his bed. There are no medicines or psychiatric care for the ward of blind adolescent boys, just acceptance.
The monks are bewildered, and so are the children; everyone is. But the sense of refuge is as palpable as the humid air. The children ring the bell at any odd time—it doesn’t mean come and chant or meditate or that it is time to eat or sleep—it is just some child ringing the bell.
My kalyanamitra was born on 30 April 1975 (the day on which Saigon was liberated and her country reunified) and grew up in a ‘new economic zone’, one of those empty spots in the jungle where the politically untouchable were sent to build villages. She gathered firewood and took care of children younger than herself. Now that she lives in America and is about to be married, her devout grandmother tells her a secret: She was an orphan herself. A few days after her birth, the family she knows as her own took her from an orphanage near Nha Trang, a seaport in the central part of the country. The secret came as no great surprise, village rumours sometimes made her wonder. And because she has always been a devout and natural Buddhist, it hardly troubles her to have such homeless origins. She had been abandoned at birth, yes, but only to be taken in—an act of astonishing compassion in those days of upheaval. My friend is not some outsider visiting this orphanage pagoda. She knows this place as her own, and I thank her for bringing me along and showing me the only refuge.
[If you would like to donate towards the work of the orphanage, please contact Mai Van Phuc, , 154/4A Le Hoang Phai (duong 26/3), P. 17, Quan Go Vap, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.]
John Martone is a minimalist haiku poet. You can read some of his work here.
This article first appeared in Buddhism Now.
Just before posting this I came across these moving photographs from Chua Ky Quang by Jarekn.