Home-Converted Temple: My Spiritual Struggle in Australia

First-person, Thich Nu Phuoc Hoan, as told to Andrew Lam,Pacific News Service, Aug 22, 2005

Editor's Note: Places of worship are growing in Australia at a phenomenal rate. In Sydney alone, there are more than 150 Buddhist temples. But while large mosques and temples have the funding to deal with bureaucracy, many home-converted temples run into problems.

Neighbors may complain about noise, parking and the smell of incense. Last June, Andrew Lam, author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" talked to Abbess Ven. Thich Nu Phuoc Hoan, a Buddhist nun who operates the Thien Hoa temple in Southwest Sydney. The conversation was in Vietnamese.

SYDNEY, Australia --To convert a house into a temple in Australia can be as difficult as moving a mountain. Why? Because you've got lots of problems when you want to do it. When I bought this house it was a ramshackle place and I worked and worked, day and night, to turn it into a temple. That is my resolve --- Just me and my dog at the beginning, and later a few more people came to help.

I put in this water fountain, built my Buddha statues, lay down bricks and carpets, turned the garage into a meditation hall and built two extra bedrooms for those who come worshipping from afar. Some statues I ordered from Vietnam. I built this water fountain here in the garden. With the sound of water running, your spirit is calm.

But all is not easy when you are poor. Wealthy temples like the Chinese Buddhist temple Mingyue near here have wealthy donors -- Australia's Chinese population are well established. They could help put in two, three million dollars to hire lawyers to deal with the bureaucracy, buy land and build temples the size of palaces. But if you're a Vietnamese refugee and you can only buy a house to convert it into a place of worship for a refugee population, you're really in for a long struggle.

My English is limited. I don't understand all these complicated laws. I kept petitioning to make this a legitimate place but they won't allow it. The main reason: They think the temple is a fire hazard. The house is half a century old. But I couldn't afford to rebuild from scratch. I had an alarm system built in as required, plus other adjustments. What the city council gave me finally is the permission for this place to remain as it is, but they won't acknowledge it as a place of worship. So if too many people show up at one time, I still get fined. It's a very terrible situation to be in. The neighbors do not complain but that doesn't mean anything. They kept giving me tickets for failing regulations.

Disciples come and meditate and I teach Buddha's teachings. Over the years, more people know about this place and on the weekend, it is full of Vietnamese immigrants who come seeking solace. Lots of old people come, of course, because this place is home away from home. It has the same feel as the temples back over there. I've been joined by three other nuns who live here now.

How do I fund-raise? Worshippers donate their time and money and we sell a little food here and there -- all vegetarian, of course -- and that's barely enough to keep the temple going. I also make these CDs of Buddhist teachings -- my own chants and sermons -- and I give them away but I do get donations for them. These Buddhist chanting are very important. It brings us all solace. My dog used to listen to me nightly when I chanted, and he too, I believe, became a Buddhist. When he died, I buried him in the garden and I even have this tape recorder next to his grave to play the Buddhist chanting so that his soul will go to heaven.

I also teach walking meditation. Here [gets up and walks slowly around main hall while chanting for three minutes]. It's very soothing. It lets all your worries dissolve away.

More and more Vietnamese worshippers come here. Even kids who ran away from their families come here asking to stay. I can't let the boys stay because, well, it's a nunnery. I feed them and call social services, but the Vietnamese kids really want a place to belong to, and a Vietnamese temple is a calming place to be. Plus, they get fed. One kid, a teenage boy around 15, 16, kept showing up and slept here even without our permission. I had to call the police finally, but only after they promised not to arrest him. He kept coming back during daytime, which was fine. He just can't expect to stay overnight with the nuns. [laughs]

How important is this temple in respect to Vietnamese community? Vietnamese come from all over Australia to be here on Buddhist holidays to listen to sermons and chant. We've seen so much suffering, and many of us were boat people. We lost a lot to get here and then struggle very hard to survive in a foreign country. But material wealth is not enough. Everyone needs deep spiritual meanings in their lives, and they need inner peace. [Gestures to a group of older Vietnamese worshippers on their knees with clasped hands, eyes closed, praying and chanting in front of the main altar filled with Buddha statues] That's why they come here.