Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return

“Merchants in Motion: The Art of Vietnam’s Street Vendors” — Loes Heerink

A friend of mine once commented that I can be quite harsh in my judgment. It’s true; there is harshness in me. It is difficult to see and experience sufferings without being affected in the very least by it.

What kind of man is not touched by the sufferings of his own people? An old friend told me the story of his first trip to Vietnam in the 1980s after many years abroad: “During my journey, I was convulsed with anxiety and anticipation; I did not know what to expect. When I saw young children fishing plastic bags from the river outside Saigon, I was moved to tears.” I, too, would weep at such sight. This gentleman later devoted much efforts and resources to bring hundreds of thousands of scientific and medical books to Vietnam; his books have saved many lives.

I have little endurance for small talks; that is a bad habit of mine. I am impatient whenever young people talk a lot about travel, food, entertainment or celebrities. When I ask young, well educated Vietnamese, especially those who have studied in America and Europe, about the state of the country and its governance, and when they do not have an answer or show any interest in such discussions, I feel an anger inside. So much blood and sacrifices have been spilled to afford this extraordinary moment, and all that we get are people who are endlessly absorbed in these indulgences? When I remember the history of my people, I am moved by ancient emotions, and when I am momentarily disappointed with what the best of my people have to offer, I am outraged.

“Merchants in Motion: The Art of Vietnam’s Street Vendors” — Loes Heerink

I do recognize, in many ways, the unfairness of this anger. Young Vietnamese people, like young people everywhere, desire freedom and the enjoyments of life. It is popular these days to profess a certain love for freedom — freedom from any tradition, burden or expectation. It feels good to be free. I have enjoyed much freedom from fears, anxieties, and hatred, and I hope my descendants will also enjoy such freedom too. In particular, I do not want young people to be beholden to old grudges and ancients feuds that have been passed down through history. Saint Benedict writes, “The sun should never set on our rage. Let’s go to sleep at peace with mankind.” I think it is a lovely sentiment.

I also want my descendants to know that such privilege and freedom do not come freely and cheaply. This freedom has been paid in much blood, sweats, and treasures by their predecessors under adverse circumstances. I hope this recognition will motivate and inspire them to find their meaning and purpose in life, and contribute to the common peace and prosperity of mankind, so that more beings will also be able to enjoy freedom. There is a final day of accounting for each of us, and when it comes, I do not want them to lament: “I did not do thus, because I did not know thus; I should have done more.”

Like everyone, I love spending time with friends and family and enjoy fine products, good food, traveling and meeting famous people and celebrities. Whenever I visit Vietnam, I want to spend some time sharing my knowledge and experience with young students in local universities — they are the pride and the future of the country. Many of them come from poor families and have never traveled outside of the country.

Woman Praying at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles by Don Farber, 1977 | Don Farber

I want them to know more about the world, to see in flesh, blood, and spirit, a fellow kinsman who has traveled the world and achieved a measure of personal success, however small, in his own terms. I love the cultures of the world, but I also love my culture and tradition. I have learned from people everywhere, but I do not change my name or my inner being. Because of my culture and traditions, I do not bend easily in whatever direction the wind of authority or fashion blows. I want these students to know that they, too, can also be successful in the world and remain who they are, being proud of their culture and heritage.

When I am invited to socialize among the Vietnamese elites, I try to speak truth to power, to remind them of the unrealized dreams of their ancestors, the immense sufferings their people have endured, and their own mortality. “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris” — “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” In one hundred years, most of us will be dead, but the shared legacy of our people will endure. We should strive to make a positive contribution to this legacy, to increase the shared peace and prosperity in this world. That is my duty, my Dharma.

Recently, I came across a quote from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh from the 1980s. He wrote, “One day we will not be boat people; we will be space people.” I was struck by the audacity and the hopefulness of this vision. I also had a wonderful dream where Vietnamese people joined space exploration and built a town on Mars. With hard work, discipline and luck, this vision might become a reality.

Early morning during a three-day retreat at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles, 1982 | Don Farber