Community adhesion, ecological conservation, and the central role of a Buddhist monastery
By: Hugh Holliday
At first glance
I walked through the monastery’s gates for the first time at three o’clock on a grey Wednesday afternoon. A light drizzle had settled in long ago, and a steady breeze pushed it about the air. I walked across an empty car park. To my right was a large warehouse-like building with a simple undercover area attached to the side. To my left was a more distinguished building. Its green rectangular roof had two levels, characteristic of Buddhist architecture. The whole place was quiet. With an air of nervousness I approached the building to my left, and on the door read a sign: ‘Open 8am to 8pm … Remove Shoes.’ I obeyed the message, placing my shoes on a long rack which already held another small pair. I stood awkwardly on the decking in my socks, with my backpack over my shoulders. I felt like a child on his first day at a new school. I peered inside through the sliding door’s windows. I saw at one end of the large and spacious room a large statue of Buddha surrounded by colourful ornaments. Facing the statue was a kneeling woman dressed in a light blue-grey robe. She held a metal container with smoke billowing from it and at her feet an open book rested on a little stand. She stood up and made her way over to the door. She saw me and greeted me with a warm smile. I introduced myself and explained that I was there to meet with T. As I was doing so, T appeared from around the corner. He wore work boots, labouring pants and a fluorescent yellow high-visibility fleece jumper. Not what I had expected, but I should not have had such expectations to begin with. Suddenly my preconceived idea that everyone here would be roaming around in robes seemed quite immature and biased. It became clear to me that the monastery was not only a place for worship for Buddhist monks, although as I had observed it was that, too. T was the monastery’s environmental manager, and the coordinator for community engagement. We shook hands.
I had emailed T a few days earlier regarding my interest in the monastery. We organised to have an introductory meeting today. He took me behind the large prayer room, down to a portable building which was out of view earlier. He explained how it was being used as a classroom for one of the monastery’s community-based projects. The monastery is involved in facilitating a government-lead program where unemployed youths, some with learning difficulties, are given the opportunity to voluntarily learn new skills in gardening and cultivation, resulting in a Certificate II in horticulture. They are currently building a new vegetable garden to be used by the monastery which hosts a free vegetarian lunch every Sunday. On the wall there was an aerial view of the monastery and its grounds; he called the whole thing ‘the site.’ On the map, he pointed out several environmental projects that were underway. There was a commercial worm farm for food waste disposal. Before this was installed the food scraps from the Sunday lunches ended up in landfills. There were seven large tanks that gathered water from the roofs for the gardens and toilets. There was also an area being built for putting bee hives in. The projects were not only put in place out of concern for the environment; setting them up was a logical step for saving money. It cost money to have the food waste taken to landfills, water was being saved, and they made their own garden fertiliser.
T emphasised that not all project were the ideas of the monastery. Sometimes outside groups approached the monastery with ideas, and the monastery became involved and responded to those needs. The monastery wants to listen to peoples needs and utilise resources in order to cooperate with Vietnamese Buddhists, and the broader community.
A little history
In the classroom T gave me a brief history lesson of the site. He explained that it was once a dump for scrap metal. The terrain used to be rough and bordered by cliff faces. During the late 1980s the area was allocated to the Vietnamese Buddhist population of Melbourne’s west by the city council. This was partly due to the need of a bigger location and partly to do with the impracticalities of the practices concerning communal gatherings at the time. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a large intake of Vietnamese migrants into Australia, and T said that because Braybrook was one of the poorest areas of Melbourne, commission housing and migrant hostels were set up there to accommodate for them. He told me that along Vietnamese streets, there are temples every few hundred meters. New migrants had no temples in Melbourne, therefore gathered at residential houses and used them as temples. During Vietnamese Buddhist holidays and festival days, hundreds of people would congregate at a single house in a residential street. For reasons like this the site was offered to the Vietnamese community. The site was an industrial space away from residential areas. It began to function as a parish for Vietnamese migrants in Melbourne, with its own field of activity. The community needed a hub, and by default the monastery took that role on.
Today, the monastery is the one of the most important centres for Melbourne’s Vietnamese population. Its function goes beyond that of a Buddhist temple for prayer. It has many ways of encouraging community adhesion. Every Sunday the monastery brings hundreds of people together by hosting a free vegetarian lunch. As I discovered on my subsequent Sunday visits, this contribution to the community is important for maintaining connectivity, as well as preserving cultural traditions among a young diaspora.
A Sunday at the monastery
That Sunday I returned to the monastery. It was raining once again, but everything else had changed. There were cars parked along the length of the street, and the inside car park was full. Many people were walking in from all directions in large groups, as couples, or alone; others were making their way out. A man in a reflective vest directed traffic into more parking areas. I walked through the front gate. The place was bustling with people. Music was playing from a CD player. The air had the mixed aroma of cooked food and incense. The once empty undercover area of the large warehouse had transformed into a market, selling vegetables, cooked Vietnamese snacks and meals, dry food, batteries, light globes, CDs, DVDs, notebooks, incense, tea and more. I walked into the warehouse. It was a large dining hall. People were lining up waiting to be dished out a serving of a noodle-based soup. There were about 100 to 150 people in the hall alone. I bumped into T; we had a brief chat and he introduced me to his wife. He pointed me in the direction of the free food, and I walked over to queue. I chatted to a woman as we stood in line together. She was a Vietnamese Catholic. He told me that most people who attend the monastery were Vietnamese or Chinese. The Sunday gatherings are not exclusively for Vietnamese Buddhists, in fact it encourages people from all backgrounds to attend. She said that the function of the monastery was more focussed on community adhesion than religious exclusivity. A group of Vietnamese kids in their early 20s overheard. They were not Buddhist either. They said they had never been to the monastery’s Sunday lunch, but had heard about it and decided to come down to check the place out. It became apparent that the monastery encouraged involvement from everybody, and the Vietnamese population were especially receptive. During this conversation I explained what I was doing at the monastery, and was told that in a couple of weeks a festival an anthropologist should not miss would be celebrated at the monastery.
Preserving ancestral ties and traditions
Each year the monastery hosts a number of Buddhist festivals. One such festival I was able to witness was the festival of Vu-Lan. This is held in honour of all mothers and fathers. It is a celebration of parents, especially those who have passed away. During Vu-Lan, people wear a flower pinned to their breast, either coloured red or white. A visitor to the monastery, M, told me that if a person was wearing a red flower their parents were still alive. A white flower symbolised that at least one parent had already passed away.
On the day of Vu-Lan, I had walked into the monastery’s grounds and followed the unusually large crowds of people to the bottom story of the half-completed temple. I found myself thrown into a systematic queue for lunch. A young teenage boy handed me a plastic plate and serviette and pointed me in the right direction. Like the regular Sunday lunches, ladies were dishing out rice, vegetables, seaweed, bean shoots, banana pods, and more onto my plate. I thanked them and made my way into the main hall of the building. There was a large stage where performances were being held. At least 200 people were sitting down on chairs eating and watching the stage. It was a crowded but the atmosphere remained relaxed. Performing were six dancing teenage girls. They were dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing, and their dancing style also looked quite traditional. The music had a distinctively South East Asian-sounding melody and instrumentation, but the rhythm and beat was driving heavily with the bass and drums of modern dance music.
With my plate of food I searched for a seat. That is when I met M. I had sat down next to him and almost immediately we struck up a conversation. He had a friendly smile and looked about 35 years old. He lived in the area with his wife and daughter, and visited the monastery on Sundays whenever he could. M explained to me a little about the meaning of the monastery. He said the monastery plays an important part in maintaining culture and tradition within the Vietnamese Buddhist community. This is especially important for new generations of young people who are not as familiar with their heritage as their parents may be because they have not grown up surrounded by it in Vietnam. Rather, they have grown up in Australia, surrounded by a very different social and cultural environment. A central aspect to the monastery is the preservation of Vietnamese Buddhist identity in Australia. I watched the girls. They danced with homage to their traditional roots, while simultaneously displaying the generational differences between them and their parents through the non-traditional dance music style.
The next act took the stage: a singing boy of 8 years accompanied by a middle-aged man on guitar. The small boy was dressed in a suit. He sung in Vietnamese, as did every singer that day. His song was about his mother, and M explained that every song that day was about the remembering and celebration of one’s parents. Most of the acts that took the stage were children, and often an adult would accompany. It painted an image of one generation handing songs down to the next. With those songs passed onto the children came remembrance and a preservation of culture and identity. The celebration of Vu-Lan, especially outside of Vietnam, ¬is important for younger generations of Vietnamese Buddhists in maintaining awareness of their history. The homage paid to one’s mother and father can be directly linked to the remembrance of one’s roots and cultural heritage.
Parallels can be drawn with Vietnamese diasporas in other parts of the world. Nguyen and Barber (1998, pp. 136–137) comment on the role of Vietnamese Buddhist monasteries in North America. They acknowledge the importance of the temple in carrying out spiritual and religious activities, but they emphasise the significance of the social role the temple plays in the community in preserving cultural values and traditions. Specifically, Nguyen and Barber state that Vietnamese children come not only for religious obligation, but “to learn something about the customs and habits of their ancestral homeland” (1998, p. 137).
A week later I was chatting to a man who volunteered at the monastery directing the traffic in and around the entrance and car park. I had seen him on every Sunday visit; his reflective red vest and the waving of his batons made him easily noticeable. To him, he explained, the importance of the monastery lies in its binding quality, and this was a reason he volunteered his time to the monastery every Sunday. It helps maintain a healthy community among Melbourne’s Vietnamese and Chinese people, regardless of their religious affiliation. Buddhism encourages unity amongst all people, and the monastery invites people of all backgrounds to participate in many of its social activities. Spuler supports the view that migrant Buddhists are less concerned with missionary ideals, and more concerned with “meeting the needs of the migrant ethnic community” (2003, p. 12).
Each Sunday, after visitors have finished their lunch, they have the option of taking home with them a selection of food free of charge. Foods such as fruit and vegetables, cereals, and tinned food are donated to the monastery by local businesses. T calls this the food bank. I mentioned to him a small organisation I knew of which gave out cooked food on the street to people in need. T was quick to clarify that the monastery’s food bank was different to such organisations because it does not label people as ‘in need.’ Recipients of the monastery’s donation are not made to feel as though they cannot sustain themselves, and must rely on receiving from a charity. T said that the monastery does not label itself as a donor, either. The food bank is not advertised outside the monastery, or even within. People know about it through word of mouth only. This is to ensure that it does not gain the label of a charity used by those in need. T did not want the food bank to be seen as a charity. He sees it as a facilitator in strengthening community ties with Vietnamese Buddhists and other groups.
Certain parallels can be drawn with Marcel Mauss’ well-known text The Gift (2002) in relation to the monastery’s practice of giving the gift of free food, but they are weak. Mauss argues that no gift is free, and that the recipient is obliged to reciprocate (2002, p. i). He argues that gift-giving creates a bond of social solidarity between giver and recipient, and refusing to give in return (or accept in the first place) is to “reject the bonds of alliance and commonality” (2002, p. 17). In the context of the monastery, visitors receive the gift of food. But what are they giving in return? Perhaps the returning gift is the mere presence of the visitors – them being there keeps the monastery functioning. Indeed, the returning gift, if present at all, is not as obvious. Perhaps the returning gift does not come from recipients but from karma, and is received either later in life or beyond. But karma is not a gift from the recipient; it is a result from one’s own actions. Despite the lack of the gift being returned, however, solidarity between the monastery and local community still grows.
Testart (1998) argues that Mauss’ gift-giving theory cannot be universally applied. He writes that Mauss fails to note the difference between giving (the handing over of something free of charge) and exchanging. Mauss’ generalisations weaken his own theory. In the context of the monastery’s giving of food, there is no obligation to reciprocate. It is possible that people may feel as though they should give something in return (incidentally, besides the food bank and the free lunch, there is an area in the hall where cooked meals are bought from the monastery) but there is no real obligation to reciprocate (Testart 1998, p. 99). Furthermore, failing to reciprocate does not jeopardise relations. Mauss argues that reciprocation enhances social solidarity (2002, p. 42). But at the monastery, the gift of food is given and nothing in return is expected, and the Vietnamese Buddhist community remains bonded with the monastery. Solidarity continues without reciprocation. Mauss does not acknowledge selflessness. People do give without expectation of anything in return. The second truth in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is that suffering is caused by wanting (Capara 1984, p. 85). If the people of the monastery wanted anything in return for their gift they would be on the path to suffering and defying their own beliefs.
Finally, the food which is given away at the food bank is itself a donation from various local groups outside of the monastery. This is another gift-giving practice where no return is expected. In a sense there is a ‘give-and-take’ setup where the monastery takes from one outside group, and gives an unrelated ‘gift’ to another. For example, the monastery takes food from an outside group with no expected obligation to reciprocate to that group. The monastery, in support of broader community engagement and solidarity, gives its services to other outside groups. For instance, it assists the youth agriculture program, provides space for a beekeeper’s hives, and provides the community with a place they can enjoy each other’s company and a free lunch. Here, there is no direct reciprocity, but social relations continue to grow.
The importance of ‘outsider’ involvement
In a conversation with T, I learned how the Buddhists at the monastery are always prepared to listen and respond to community needs and requests. This assists in establishing social solidarity in the broader community. One such proposal was put forward by L, a local beekeeper. He had been searching for a place to set up several hives for a number of years, before chasing the monastery for the chance of utilising its spacious grounds. The monastery saw an opportunity for another connection in the local community and accepted to take on the beehives. Later on during my fieldwork I had the opportunity to speak to L, and he shared his experience with the monastery. They had accepted L’s proposal and he was allocated an area in the monastery’s grounds, down near the riverbank. The agreement, however, was met under certain conditions. The main condition was that he had to agree to not purposely kill any bees, because the killing of any animal is against Buddhist practice. L was forced to change his beekeeping techniques, which had involved the killing of the queen bee once it reached a certain age – a very common practice in commercial beekeeping. This is done because upon reaching an older age the queen is prone to breeding vicious bees, which can put people in danger. Therefore, L needed a place for old queen bees to ‘retire’ and live out the remainder of their lives. He bought cheap land, uninhabitable for people, on coastal Victoria to set up small hives for the queens. The local beekeeping community were not in agreement with L’s actions, because vicious bees might be bred, therefore putting people in danger and giving bees a bad name. He had to shoulder criticism and extra costs in order to comply with Buddhist practice, but there were benefits for both L and the monastery.
L’s beekeeping practice has the potential to become self-sufficient. He will not have to buy new queens because over time his ‘retired’ queens would breed new queens. Perhaps that convenience could be a form of karma in return for not killing animals. The monastery will be involved in selling the bees’ honey which will help fund the upkeep and continuing development of the monastery. T spoke of the possibility of taking on more volunteers to care for the bees. Like the agriculture students, those volunteers would be given a chance to further their understanding and education in related fields such as apiculture or biology. These plans show how responding positively to community needs is healthy and can benefit everyone involved.
T used the analogy of the lotus when he described the monastery site. Common in Buddhist imagery, the lotus is a flower which grows out of mud. It blossoms once it has risen above the mud, and is not dirtied by it. The idea is that anything and anyone has the potential to rise out of suffering and defilement and become enlightened. T saw the site as something beautiful which had risen out of the ugliness the area once had, meaning the quarried, debris-filled and lifeless industrial site it used to be. He had a bleak outlook for the future of people and our planet. Concerning water, he said we have left it too late for proper solutions. The solutions we create, like desalination plants, are ad hoc ideas which cost too much money and use too much of our planet’s limited energy. People are reaching the limits of what they can extract from the earth. The truth is, he said, we are dying slowly. On the state of the monastery site, however, T was very upbeat. He was passionate about the immediate future he pictured for the place. He took me away from the monastery’s buildings, past the bee hive site and the vegetable garden, and further until we reached the riverbank. Many native trees had been recently planted, while others were already quite mature. Along the river there was a public walking track; we spotted wallabies and some cockatoos. He envisioned something like a forest in the city, a place where people will want to come and enjoy a natural environment, away from the usual urbanised setting, surrounded by trees and animals.
The critical state that our world is in can sometimes overwhelm us. We are pushing our planet’s limits in many ways, and much ugliness can be seen in the way we treat each other. There is a self-destructive element to human nature; disillusionment is rife. Like the lotus, perhaps the monastery is an example of one of the beautiful things that can arise from a world of suffering. Its activities – often in response to community and environmental needs – promote interconnectedness, well-being, and responsible treatment of the ecosystem. The teachings of Buddhism emphasise the impermanence of all things, and encourage people to live in the present, valuing what we have today (QMBC 2010).
The monastery is a place of worship for Buddhists, but it is more than that. It plays a central role in ensuring cultural roots remain in the hearts and minds of new generations of Vietnamese Buddhist children. It is motivated to enhance social solidarity throughout the broader community. The Buddhist world view is deeply concerned with the unity and interconnectedness of all things. It emphasises living in harmony with nature and each other. Those at the monastery strive for this and reach out to others in the hope that they too will adopt such a view of the world in which they live. A lot of mud can be seen in our world, but the potential for blossoming lotuses, the spreading of their seeds, and reproduction does exist. By taking the acts of those at the monastery for example, it can be seen how treating our delicate natural world and fellow human beings with love and respect can create a healthy, harmonious community.
– Capra, F 1984, The Tao of physics, 2nd ed., Bantam Books, New York.
– Mauss, M 2002, The gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge, London.
– Nguyen, CT & Barber, AW 1998, ‘Vietnamese Buddhism in North America: tradition and acculturation’ in The faces of Buddhism in America, eds CS Prebish & KK Tanaka, University of California Press, London, pp. 129–154.
– QMBC 2010, What is the purpose of making offerings to the Buddha?, Quang Minh Buddhist Temple, viewed 5 November 2010,.
– Spuler, M 2003, Developments in Australian Buddhism: facets of the diamond, Routledge Curzon, London.
– Testart, A 1998, ‘Uncertainties of the ‘obligation to recprocate’: a critique of Mauss’ in Marcel Mauss: a centenary tribute, eds W James & NJ Allen, Berghahn Books, Providence, RI, pp. 97–110.