MY JOURNEY - Nguyễn Trần Ai

13 Tháng Năm 20204:30 CH(Xem: 303)

Nguyễn Trần Ai

(Vài nét về Nguyễn Trần Ai:

Nguyễn Trần Ai là một hành giả chuyên nghiên cứu và thực hành đạo Phật trong nhiều năm, cũng là bình luận gia về nhiều vấn đề trên thế giới. Ông từng cộng tác với báo Trúc Lâm do chùa Bảo Quang chủ trương và những báo khác như "Người Dân" chuyên bình luận chính trị. Tác phẩm xuất bản của ông gồm những sách nghiên cứu về Phật giáo như "Những sắc thái đặc thù của Phật giáo", "Bên lề Phật giáo" v.v...
Nhân có lời yêu cầu của người bạn Mỹ, ông đã viết tập hồi ký "My Journey", "My Training" và "My Practice" để chia xẻ những kinh nghiệm trên bước đường nghiên cứu và thực tập tâm linh.)



A short history of the Vietnam War will serve as the background of my story.

The Geneva Agreement dated July 20, 1954 partitioned Vietnam into 2 parts at the 17th parallel: North Vietnam (NVN) placed under the Communist regime and South Vietnam (SVN) under the Republic regime.

Bản đồ VN

At that time, I was in my late 20s, single and manager of the Hanoi agency of an airline company with a salary roughly 5 times that of a regular employee.

Me (26 years old) in Hanoi 1953

On July 18, 1954 my fiancée (9 years younger than I), and I went to the Hanoi city hall to sign a marriage certificate. I made a joke, saying: “Ho Chi Minh came in and urged me to get married. So I have Happiness but lose Independence and Liberty” (The motto of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is Independence, Liberty, Happiness). According to the Geneva Agreement, all communist troops stationed in SVN were required to leave for NVN. However many of them stayed back and became “sleeper agents”. They composed the core leadership  of the “Southern Liberation Front” (SLF) to which adhered many elite people from the South.

SLF was a hoax to Southern people. After the communists had successfully invaded SVN, the VN Communist Party (VNCP) -- whose leaders were mostly from Central and North Vietnam and much more crafty than SVN people -- disbanded the SLF. The first batch of troops who overtook Saigon belonged to the SLF. They were soon replaced by a second one composed of communist cadres, much more malignant.

I was working for the state-owned bank and the new regime let me keep my job, sitting at the same desk with the same personnel. I was well aware that it was not proper to keep the residence provided by the bank. So my family moved to a rented apartment. I sold my car for almost nothing and went to work by bus. At the bank, there was nothing for us to work on. The third batch to take over the bank belonged to the technicians, headed by a guy from the National Bank in Hanoi, always wearing dark glasses. Another so-called technician was a former employee working for a French bank under the French rule (La Văn Liếm). He joined the communists and became head of the “assassination team of Saigon”. Every day I had to come to his office just to say hello. He was quite polite, always offering me tea and cigarettes. I knew that he was a hypocrite. One day I omitted the routine. He phoned me: “I don’t see you today. Are you too busy?” All this made me nervous. However, I did not dare to apply for a resignation.

Meanwhile in secret, I made preparations for an escape by boat with the whole family and some friends. The adventure failed. We were arrested by the communist authorities. I made a deal with them: in exchange for the release of my wife and children, I would show them where to find my fortune. They agreed and kept their promise but put me in prison for four and a half years. I think that was a wise deal and had no regret for that.

In prison, young inmates thought I was a scholar and asked me many questions. I realized how ignorant I was, so when I got out of prison, I looked for books to study. Under the communist regime, keeping printed materials was a crime, making it very difficult to procure them. My younger brother -- who was a dentist just released from “reeducation camp”, according to the regime policy to release the “technicians” to let them work for the regime -- loaned me a set of international history books in French, measuring about one yard long. I started to study it, taking notes, making charts… laboriously as a school boy. History leads to philosophy, and from philosophy arises religion. That way I gathered knowledge and became interested in religion.

I think people of integrity, of character, of dignity and of responsibility are apt to commit suicide when occurs a problematic situation to which they are incapable of providing a solution and at the same time, safeguard their honor. That argument can be used to justify my attempt at suicide when I encountered a “case of conscience” or an “agony of spirit” – to borrow the term coined by John Blofeld (The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, p. 67). A passage by Alan W. Watts explaining my state of mind at that time: “Liberation begins from the point where anxiety or guilt becomes insupportable, where the individual feels that he can no longer tolerate his situation as an ego in opposition to an alien society, to a universe in which pain and death deny him, or to negative emotions which overwhelm him…” (Psychotherapy east and west, p. 105).


I confided with a friend of mine, more than 10 years older than me. He took me to see his friend who was about a dozen years younger than me. After listening to my story, my new friend said “There remains only one way for you. Do you want to follow it?” He did not tell me what was this “way” but for me any “way” was better than the way I was on at that time. So I gave him a positive response. He asked me when I wanted to start. I said “Right now”.  That is the commencement of my journey.

 Nothing happens haphazardly. Perhaps my new friend and I had predestined mutual affinities? A common adage says: “When The Student Is Ready, The Teacher Appears” and Lao Tse further taught:

Lão Tử

Anyhow, my meeting with my new friend was a deciding event for my spiritual journey. Edwin John Dingle (1881-1972), an English philosopher who founded the Institute of metaphysics in 1934, emphasized the paramount importance of the role of a guru: “It was Aristotle who said that the one exclusive sign of a thorough knowledge is the power of teaching… On the one hand, to find one’s teacher is the very highest of life’s blessings, and, on the other hand, to seek unsuccessfully is a tragedy… When we are ready, we are ever in the presence of the Higher Ones, but we must also have eyes to see and hearts of great simplicity to understand” (p. 94). Dingle relies entirely on his 152 year old Chinese Master as he admits: “I felt that my Master was a very part of me, could scarcely imagine what my life would be without his almost constant contact (pp. 155-6)… How kind he was! How gentle! Yet how wise!” (My Life in Tibet. p. 160). However,  Garma C. C. Chan is more flexible: “If a qualified Guru is not available, the yogi can pray to the Buddha directly and receive the initiation from Buddha through visualization and prayers” (Teachings of Tibetan Yoga. p. 127). 

My friend neither acted as my guru, nor considered me as his chela. We were just companions on our common journey. In fact, I practice autodidactically.

My new friend was the only son of the wealthiest family in the district where my parents, sister and brothers lived and where we moved to after the communist took over Saigon. His parents’ estate was a huge piece of land located in a busy business zone, with the side facing the street consisting of several stores for rent; the ground level was an auto repair workshop; the first and second floors served as the residence of the family (in Vietnam the family of the owner’s family business live right at the store in the rear area or the upper levels); on the terrace was a pagoda. 

It was amazing that my wife and my children were good friends of his mother, aunt and niece. I saw them quite often too. The only person of that family that we did not know was my new friend. Maybe because he lived in a big villa far away, where I met him as related above. The walls and the floor of his two-story villa were covered with Italian marble he imported. The three-story servant quarters were about 30 yards long. When the communists came in, his family was first assigned to the servant quarters. He saw me the first time on its terrace, where he had a small chapel. Later their living area was restricted to the kitchen at the ground floor. No matter what happened he was always in good humor. His wife belonged to the first of four wealthiest families of the country. Her cousin became the wife of the last emperor of Vietnam. When she was studying at a convent in Switzerland, my friend, visiting there, met, courted and married her. When they came back to Saigon, her family went to the port to meet them and some cried in pity for her that she had married such a poor guy!!!

Every time I went to see my friend and discuss religion and my practice experience in his kitchen, she was there and participated in the discussion. He and his family left Vietnam for the U.S.A. before my family. I don’t know why or how. He did not tell and I did not ask. Later when we were allowed to leave for America as political refugees, we settled in the city of Paradise, Northern  California. He and his wife came to see us, bringing some presents, especially some incense sticks.

One day, his son called and asked me to allow him to come and pick me up to go and see his dad who was dying and wanted to see me.  My son, overhearing the conversation, offered to drive to spare my friend’s son the job. So my son, his wife, my wife and myself arrived at my friend’s house at around 2:00 in the morning. We came and saw my friend laying in bed. As always, in good humor, he jocularly said: “For us, when the time comes we go”, flicking his fingers, “simply like that!” For us, life is lila in Sanskrit. We joyously chatted for a while and my friend urged us to go to the hotel his son had rented to rest. The next morning, his son came to the hotel to pick us up and go for breakfast. Afterwards we went to see my friend. He had changed completely, now visibly a dying person. A few days later his wife called to inform me that her husband could pass away only after having seen me. That was a wonderful companionship on this spiritual journey.


            Before proceeding further with my account and in order to make it easier to understand, I think I had better expose as best as I can how my “self” was formed.

            People usually keep an agreeable souvenir from their school years. Not me. Those years were odious to me. I am small and short and was prone to be bullied. A complex of inferiority and as a corollary, stubbornness, developed in me. A classmate of mine, a big guy, said that during all his school days, he only once engaged in fighting, just to protect me. Later I did him a big favor (see endnote). Since grade 1 at the public school, I had nasty experiences with teachers. For New Year, my grandmother gave each of us a large gift of money. I bought some snack for 1/20th of the value of it and saved the rest in my pocket. In class the coins slipped out from my pocket onto the floor, making some noise. The teacher “confiscated” my money. The next year, my grade 2 teacher was a cruel and unjust little man. To please him, some of my classmates reported wrongdoings that I had not committed. Without any investigation, the teacher inflicted harsh punishment on me: he used a big wooden ruler to hit my knuckles. Resentment against my teachers at that public school left a permanent scar on my young mind and caused my being naughty and snappish. Consequently, during my whole life I try never to be unjust to anyone, especially to my employees.

My father decided to send me to a catholic school of the order of Saint Jean-Baptist de la Salle (figure below) which charged high tuition.

St Jean-Baptist

I studied there until I finished grade 10, passed the examination and obtained at the age of 18 the diploma for the Indochinese superior primary studies (DEPSI). The teachers were friars (we called them in French “Frères”) and were well trained educators. Two of them left a profound and lasting impact on my life.

I could not pronounce words with the letter “l”, for instance, “letter” would be “etter”. I was very ashamed of that and that defect caused another complex. My grade 6 teacher told me to stay back after class and patiently trained me to pronounce correctly the letter “l”. After several days I could pronounce “la libellule” (the dragonfly). Oh! How marvelous was the bliss given by that great event in my life and how deep was the gratitude to he who caused it! At school we studied every subject in French and we were forbidden to talk in Vietnamese even among ourselves. Every school day we had half an hour of catechism early in the morning and half an hour of bible study late in the afternoon. I was so attracted by Catholicism that I wanted to be baptized and to join a Catholic religious order but my parents objected. Nevertheless I bought a rosary and every night at bed time I fervently recited a decade of Hail Mary preceded by an Our Father, either in French or in Vietnamese. The seed of my religiosity was germinated then.

My 10th grade teacher left a decisive influence on my life. He looked very severe, even austere. The first day in his class, he assigned us to write a redaction on the spot in 2 hours. As I am small, my seat was on the front row, facing his desk. I started to write for a short while and then began looking vaguely out the window. Perhaps he had already observed me. Finally, striking to my place, he irritably asked: “Where is your draft?’ I said “I have no draft”. He snarled, “Where is your paper?” I gave it to him. He angrily snatched it and returned to his desk to read. At the end of 2 hours he collected the other students’ papers and read mine out loud to the class as a model redaction. Since then I was the outstanding student in class, at least for French. The teacher encouraged us to practice a self-help program including the cultivation of body, mind and spirit. He urged us to read all kinds of books, including those on oriental philosophies and religions. He instructed us to keep a system of cards (fichier in French) on which to note the title of the book, the name of the author, the topic of the book, interesting quotations and our own remarks. This helped us to enrich our ideas and improve our style. Later he went to Rome to study and became an ecclesiastic priest and taught at a university. I owe him my spiritual propensity and also my personality.

My eldest sibling, a brother 4 years older than me, also influenced my studies. He was a brilliant student at grade 10 while I was at grade 6. He never had the intention to tutor me. On the contrary he made use of me, asking me to read, each day, several French texts for him to write in order to check his orthography (in French this is called “dictée”) and improve his French. He even asked me to look up in the dictionary to find the words he did not understand and write down the definition for him. I became an assistant student, a title I was the only one in history to hold. Inadvertently, because of that my French was ameliorated. I became familiar with many French authors and their works to be studied by students 4 years above my level. Molière (L'Avare, Le Malade imaginaire, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), Victor Hugo (Le Bossu De Notre Dame), George Sand (La Mare au Diable), Alphonse Daudet (Lettres de Mon Moulin), Alexandre Dumas the father (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Vingt ans après), Alexandre Dumas the son (La Dame aux Camélias), Guy de Maupassant (La Petite Roque), Pierre Corneille whose “Le Cid” included a statement of Rodrigue: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années” (To well-born souls, value does not wait for the number of years) and his lofty interjection “À moi, conte, deux mots” (To me, count, two words) desecrating upper class people, left a deep impression and admiration on me… to cite only a few which I still remember the contents of their works. The novel “L'ami Fritz” by Erckmann-Chatrian tells stories about Switzerland so vividly that when I actually visited this country I felt at home. All this incited my love of reading. I devoured any novels, both in French and in Vietnamese, I could lay my hands on. Under the French rule, students good in French had a good chance to succeed.


Me in 1947 (20 years old) during the VNC/French War, living at my parents ranch at Ha Nam.

While I had learned nothing positive from my brother. I learned a lot from my father. He was a man of great character. He was not superstitious. Once my mother set up an altar with fruits to worship the “previous residents”. My father happened to pass by and plucked a banana and ate it right on the spot. To my mother’s indignation and reprimand for his blasphemy, he retorted: “If the host (himself) has not eaten how can the guests (previous residents) dare to eat?”  In our country, there was a saying: “Never start the trip on the 7th day of the lunar calendar and return on the 3rd”. My father waited for these days to make his business trips, arguing that people avoided them so the traffic was not crowded and travelling was more comfortable. He started building his fortune during the Great Depression (1929-c.1940). He was pragmatic, generous in petty expenses like paying taxis or giving tips but tight in bargaining important transactions such as buying properties, organizing companies…

He was a man of self-respect, elegant in manner, well dressed in Vietnamese traditional fashion. His favorite soap was Cadum and his favorite lotion was Pompeia, both from France.

lotion Pompeasavon Cadum

 In business he had some principles, one of them was never grab 100% profit for oneself but leave some for others. Two occurrences helped greatly enhance his prestige.

Once, in checking the invoice for the porcelain he bought, he found there was a mistake in his favor. He showed it to the owner of the factory who got mad and wanted to immediately fire the secretary who had prepared the invoice. My father intervened, saying that every human made mistakes and because the factory owner was a good man (had a good karma) so he did not lose his money. The secretary was not fired and the porcelain factory owner spread the story to other owners, all of them were Chinese in Móng Cái, the town on the most northern border with China.

Porcelain 1

Porcelain 2ban do Bac Viet
Specimens of Mong Cai porcelain and location of Mong Cai

For Oriental, especially Chinese, business people, trustworthiness is extremely important since all contracts were verbal.  My father became well known for his honesty. Since then he enjoyed first priority in selecting the lots of merchandise, consisting mostly of tableware and household utensils, he wanted to buy and could buy on credit without limit. Thus he almost had the monopoly in porcelain trading. He was treated by the Chinese porcelain factory owners as a friend, not only as a trader. Their friendship was so sincere that a conjugal alliance almost occured. It was common for Chinese men to marry Vietnamese women but it was extremely rare that Chinese women married Vietnamese men. Yet a young, pretty and elegant sister of a wealthy porcelain factory owner came to our house to become my father’s concubine. In Asia concubinage was normal and polygamy was legal. If my father had a concubine from a respectable Chinese family it would be an exceptional honor for him and for my family. Perhaps by inviting the Chinese lady to our house, my father tried to obtain my mother’s consent. Not speaking Vietnamese, the Chinese lady only communicated with my father in Chinese. That aggravated the uneasiness.  Finally, feeling my mother’s silent though courteous jealousy and final refusal, she left after a few days. My father always respected my mother’s opinion. She was an exemplary oriental woman and was my father’s potent partner in business. Together they built a huge fortune.


My mother (51 years old) and I (25 years old) walking in Saigon in 1952. My mother came from Hanoi to Saigon to negotiate the establishment of the branch office for North Vietnam of the COSARA airlines in which my parents contributed 25% of the capital.

When WWII was approaching, my father speculated that during the war imports would be prohibited. He went to Dainan Kooshi, a Japanese trader in Hanoi, and asked to buy all the interesting items they had in stock, among them were “Buffalo eye cups” (the small cups the size of a buffalo eye to be used in alcohol drinking or in worship offerings). The Japanese, after consulting their records, said they had 40 crates left. My father asked to buy all. A few days later the Japanese, in a delegation, came to see my father. They were very embarrassed for having found out they had only 39 crates left. They apologized and offered to pay damages. My father refused to take any compensation, saying he intended to buy the totality of what they had in stock whether it be 40 or 39 crates. My father did not try “to get the utmost out of the occasion” (to borrow the words of Alan W. Watts in The Way of Zen,  p.140). His non-cupid attitude gave him the highest esteem of the Japanese. There were some anecdotes proving their feeling but we don’t have space to relate them here.

Later my parents rightly thought that trading in porcelain would always be restricted in size because both production and consumption were local and limited. So they switched the porcelain business into a sugar business. Sugar was produced from sugar cane in Central Vietnam. Every year, the monsoon winds brought hundreds of large wooden boats loaded with unrefined sugar to our city, the fluvial port of North Vietnam, for sale, actually for consignment because nobody had enough funds to pay cash for that huge amount of merchandise, even the Chinese who reserved for themselves the monopoly in that branch of trade. On their way back home, these sugar producers loaded their empty boats with all kinds of North Vietnamese handicrafts among which was porcelain upon which my parents had almost the monopoly.

 When my parents expressed their desire to get into the sugar business, they warmly welcomed the idea, partly because they were often rigged by the Chinese, partly because people from Central Vietnam were well known for their ardent patriotism. They wanted to favor their compatriots. With their wholehearted support my parents business was rapidly flourishing. They had to rent 2 more warehouses to store sugar they received on consignment. The floor of the warehouse was paved with a drainage ditch around it because the sugar bags, piled up to the ceiling, pressed down by their weight on the lower layer bags, thus releasing molasses. A hollow punch with a sharp end was used to puncture the sugar bag and withdraw a sample to present to the customers. Sugar samples, after presentation to the customers, were dumped in a tank. These were the source of pocket money for my two younger brothers and I. In exchange, we had the chore of counting money. At that time, every transaction was made in cash and the volume of cash in and out of my parents business was enormous. It was carried in big leather suitcases or jute bags for 100kg of rice. Each evening my mother dumped on the large mahogany bed a big heap of money of all denominations.  My two younger brothers and I (picture below) were in charge of counting the banknotes and separating them by denominations. Maybe this was my apprenticeship for my job in the bank later!


My parents sold sugar to local retailers and bakeries as well as to the surrounding areas but the bulk of their business was to supply sugar for the Chinese exporters at the maritime port of Haiphong.

My father said that we must have university diplomas to show that we succeeded in schooling but he would destroy them because, as his sons, we would not work for anyone else. In fact, except my youngest brother who died at age 15, both my elder brother and I have degrees in law (my elder brother is graduated after me) and my younger brother is a dentist. My parents had a plan for our future. They had bought a big house in Hanoi and a smaller one in Haiphong. My elder brother would be their representative in Hanoi, the capital, and me in Haiphong.  This period of time – when both my parents were 45 years old -- was the apogee of their lives. My maternal uncle said that although my father was a merchant, his lifestyle was better than the governor’s of our province. He was highly respected by his trading partners, Vietnamese as well as foreign. They were glad to have opportunities to please him. The Chinese regularly supplied him with Dragon Well tea, his favorite tea, imported from China. Once I heard him express his wish to have a pair of plastic sleepers to wear in the bathroom. A few days later, they ordered them from Shanghai for him. At the lunar New Year, they sent him several branches of red flowers called “small bells” from China, not available in Vietnam. My father shared some with our Chinese neighbors who appreciated it so much, for displaying these flowers alleviated their nostalgia.

Perhaps my parent’s success in life when they were still young incited me to make a vow: “If I will not be rich at the age of 30, I will commit suicide”.

My father was very self-confident, saying that he would never be ruined; the buildings might be destroyed by bombing during the war, but the land will still be there. My parents also owned a big ranch. However my father did not foresee the communist resurgence. But he was wise enough to sell without hesitation and on time, almost all his real estates, at a very low price of course. With the proceeds of these transactions – a small fraction of what he used to have -- he decided that my whole family be moved to the South to live under a non-communist government.  I admired his quick decision, but what I admired more was his attitude when facing the loss of almost his entire fortune, showing a stolid equanimity and ultimate detachment. I presumed that he earned money, not for the money per se, but for the pleasure of testing his capability and playing with challenges.

Thus the “I” was formed with both good and bad qualities, the primordial one is no doubt stubbornness.

End Note regarding the friend I mentioned earlier:

One day in 1945, upon returning to my home, my mother told me: “A gentleman came and asked to see you. He left his address and asked you to come to see him”. The gentleman’s name was Đồng.  I could not remember knowing anyone by that name. Anyhow I went to the address he gave and met a real “gentleman” elegantly dressed in Western style and in charge of a deluxe boutique in the French quarters while I was a little boy dressed in a traditional tunic. After a while talking, I recognized him as the friend who had defended me in school. He told me that after high school he attended École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine (Hanoi University of Fine Art) which admission did not require a Baccalaureate degree (which Đồng did not hold) as other university schools. At that time, only those who attended university were called “students”, otherwise only “school boys”. So Đồng was student and I was schoolboy. There was a big difference between us. Nevertheless Đồng remained very attached to me. He encouraged me to adopt the Western style and liked to take a walk with me in the city for which I was quite proud. Then war broke and I lost track of Đồng until some time in 1952 when I was the manager of Hanoi branch office of the COSARA airlines. One afternoon, after lunch and nap at home, I drove the English Land Rover to my office, I saw Đồng standing at an office supplies store, wearing a threadbare shirt. I stopped and asked him what he was doing there. He told me his story. He got married with the daughter of a retired mandarin; he just got to the (non-communist) “free zone” with his family and was without any resources. A friend who was the owner of the store gave him a job just out of charity and he was paid the minimum salary. I asked him whether he wanted a job that paid him double. Of course he did. I asked him when he could start taking the new job and if he needed to give notice to his employer. He said his employer did not need him so he could start anytime. I asked him “How about now?” He asked me: “Where do I have to go to take the job?” I told him: “Right here. Jump in the car and go to work”. He asked me about his bicycle. I told him to throw it in the rear end of the Land Rover. Later he told people that it was like he was living a fairy tale.

I started to have all kinds of problems with him. An “artist” could not be a good employee of an airlines company.  When the communists took over Hanoi, the company’s headquarters in Saigon asked me to find someone who was willing to stay back to take care of the Hanoi office (They hoped to resume activity pretty soon). I designated Đồng who stayed on to be fully paid. After a few months, the inspector from COSARA Saigon headquarters came to Haiphong where the Hanoi office had evacuated to, and asked the communist authorities for an authorization to visit Hanoi. When he came back, he told me that at the previous Hanoi office he could not find Đồng but a flock of kids playing music on the floor with kettles. That spectacle and maybe the dim prospect of resuming activities had decided the inspector to close the Hanoi office and Đồng was jobless again. I have not heard from him since. It is problematic for a lunatic like him to survive under a sub-human regime especially when he had committed the “treason” of having collaborated with an airlines company which had supplied many planes to assist the French in their attempt to once more place the country under the yoke of their colonization. During the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from 13 March to 7 May 1954, COSARA had 12 planes based in Hanoi for French military missions, the largest number by far in civil air companies contribution. The other companies had one or two planes each.


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