Oblate Scholastic Deacon Joseph Phuong, OMI
– Reporting from Sri Lanka
This year’s Tết (Lunar New Year Festival) was very special for me. Through the Vietnamese embassy in Sri Lanka, I learned that the Vietnamese living here often organize a common celebration of the Tết in Colombo or Kandy. This year, there were only about 20 people who gathered together in Kandy to prepare their own Festival. I asked permission to join them, and I did meet this Vietnamese group, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, and some workers; I was the only Christian.
The ancient city of Kandy has features very similar to the Hoan Kiem Lake and Western Lake in Hanoi; but the smooth pace of life feels more like Hue city … I was touched, overwhelmed with emotion: in this distant country, I was catching sight of my homeland!
First, we visited several places around Kandy, among them were the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the International Buddhist University and the famous elephant orphanage. Then it was time to prepare for the Lunar New Year.
Right away we started busying ourselves making apricot trees, cutting branches with peach blossoms, or banana leaves, chopping bamboo… for the decorations. Sticky rice, beans, melon seeds, candied fruits had been sent from Vietnam. We made banh chung, banh tet cakes. What a sight, banh chung wrapped in banana leaves!
That night we sat around the bonfire, happily telling stories about our lives, our work in this country. Most of the Buddhist monks and nuns had come here to study Buddhism; one had even come to teach at the SIBA Campus (Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy), the largest international Buddhist centre. Several others worked for a Japanese construction company; whereas I had come here to study theology, and to have a pastoral experience as an Oblate.
I told them about my experience in Sri Lanka; how happy I am to live in the mountains, to be in direct contact with people’s daily work, and visiting the poor in their homes – dialogue of life. Everyone was surprised, especially the monks and nuns. They said that whatever they know and feel about this country is what they learn at school, or through the narratives of the local monks or of some persons they befriend; meanwhile, I was able to reach deep into reality, and understand more thoroughly about the lives and living conditions of families. I just smiled and said that this is our Oblate spirituality: we reach out to the poor in remote areas, to help them recognise the loving face of God, the Most High.
I felt truly happy: my sharing allowed them to understand that their gaze and grasp stops at the theoretical and administrative aspects, while my perception is a combination of practice and lived experience. As an Oblate I felt very proud to face and converse with Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as the professor of the SIBA Campus. I felt honoured for always having the Lord with me; and that everything I said was based on the first-hand knowledge I gained being with the people. My sincere sharing brought me closer to everyone in the group. Being there together, we helped one another to grasp each other’s thinking, and to better understand the people of Sri Lanka. Further, almost everyone who came to Colombo to study Buddhism or to work had a one-sided view of the Tamil people, but by sharing my experience with the Tamils, I could help them adjust their prejudiced views.
I thank God, and the members of the formation committee who gave me the opportunity to study and minister abroad. This gives me an ample opportunity to expand my knowledge, and see things from a positive perspective.