I think I’m Buddhist.
That’s what I told Miss Hobeika at Birrong Public School as she was sorting students into scripture classes. At age six, I already felt confused and hesitant about my religious identity. It was 1997. In the year before that, Pauline Hanson delivered her maiden speech to parliament declaring, I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Hanson’s words were echoed on the TV, in the playground and by my parents, who wondered whether our family would be deported back to Vietnam. My fear in revealing to the outside world that my family was Buddhist was intrinsically tied to how marginalised we felt in Australian society.
Miss Hobeika blinked at the word Buddhist. Go to the main Hall where the non-scripture class is, she ordered. Back then, no one was purchasing Buddha statues to plonk into their backyard or talking about finding their zen. My Payless shoes kicked up asphalt as I joined a queue of kids at the door of the main hall. I stood behind Trinh, one of the older Viet girls in year 6. What does non-scripture mean? I asked her. It means no religion, she replied.
The lessons I learned about Buddhism were through my mother. I studied on the dining room table next to the kitchen where she played prayer tapes by a Vietnamese monk, Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh. I was soothed by Thầy’s voice crackling through the cassette player and the smell of pork being braised in fish sauce and coconut juice. One cell in our body can contain the whole universe, can contain all our former generations and our ancestors. I imagined that the spirits of my ancestors were floating around in their own version of the Magic School Bus, just like the one in my favourite cartoon show that could shrink itself to the size of an atom and squeeze through a cut in the skin. My mum did not offer much clarification on what Thầy meant, If you’re not good to your family, you are destroying us and you will return in the next life as a cockroach.
My dad scoffed at my mum’s ideas on reincarnation. When you die, you turn to dust. Your spirit is just your brain and that dies too. He proclaimed himself a man of science and to prove it, his Masters of Applied Science was hung up on the wall space directly opposite to the seat I studied in. Dad was an engineer in Vietnam and studied again to become an engineer here in Australia too. Mum’s life was more definitively split in two — pre-boat and post-boat. Pre-boat, she was a Chemistry teacher in Vietnam — roping textbooks to the back of a bike. Post-boat, Mum sorted through mail at Australia Post — leaving the house at 4am in a maroon worker’s apron and a beanie. When she came home from work in the afternoon, she wound her thick black hair around velcro rollers and put on one of Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh’s lectures. She found solace in his teachings and that gap of time we spent together in the afternoons was the only space I had to learn about being Buddhist.
When my dad came home from work in the evening, my mother muted the tape. Once, she forgot. A lecture about detaching yourself from your desires was on when my dad was pulling off his brogues at the front door. That night, I overheard Dad whispering to Mum, Shirley’s too young to listen to that stuff. She needs to have ambition in life. She has to want things and be willing to work hard for them. Standing outside the bedroom door, I found it easier siding with Dad. It was clear to me that my dad got to make the big decisions in our house. I stood outside their bedroom door and asked myself, would I rather be him or her?
I arrived in their lives at a bad time. It was 1991. My dad was working in his first engineering job after graduating from the University of New South Wales. He was the only non-White guy at the firm and the secretary joked about how he was as tall as her teenage daughter. Dad was allowed to prepare presentations for client meetings but he wasn’t allowed to present to clients because of his accent. When the recession hit and Mum was pregnant, he was the first one who got fired. That’s how it is, he says when he retells that story, you work harder than everyone else but you still get kicked in the face.
Being good to my parents meant performing well in school. In 2003, I visited Phước Huệ Temple in Wetherill Park with Mum and Dad to celebrate Tết. It was the most Buddhist thing we did all year. My eyes stung from the lit incense sticks that other Viets were waving around and I waded through piles of shoes to get into the main prayer room. Kneeling in front of a giant statue of Buddha, I clamped my palms together and squeezed my eyes shut. Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật, could you please help me pass the selective school test? I opened my eyes, still muttering please please please while staring at Buddha’s serene smiling face. I was desperate to receive a sign, any sign, that Buddha had heard and understood. Did Buddha even know what the selective school test was? I felt exhausted by how little I understood about being Buddhist. I longed for an easy explanation of it all. I wanted to be able to neatly explain my existence and my place to the rest of the world. Please explain? Pauline Hanson had asked the nation, seven years earlier while staring cold into a TV camera.
The following year, I was enrolled into Sydney Girls High School — an academically selective school an hour away in the inner city. My parents celebrated by organising a family party in our little brick home in Yagoona. A whole pig was roasted. My dad raised a VB into the night, cheeks glowing, I’ll be lighting incense for Buddha tonight. An uncle jeered, But you don’t believe in Buddha! Dad turned to him and replied, Of course I do. How do you think I survived being chased by pirates? There are some things science cannot explain.
To this day, my connection to Buddhism remains inseparable from my parents’ interpretation of the religion and I believe this makes me culturally Buddhist. Within me, I carry what my parents have taught me — my father’s willingness to ask questions to find out the truth and my mother’s openness to new realities. I make what I will of the lessons they have imparted to me. To echo Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh, each cell of our body contains all the habit energies of all generations of ancestors.
Shirley Le is a creative producer at Sweatshop Literacy Movement. She is currently completing her debut manuscript through a mentorship with Affirm Press.
Hungry Ghosts premieres 9:30pm Monday 24 August – Thursday 27 August on SBS. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each day at the same time as broadcast.