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Moped Mind: Mindfulness and Nonduality Inspire in Vietnam

Zen and the Art of Motorbike Dodging - or the Spirituality of Street-Crossing!

By Ravi Chandra
Source: By Ravi Chandra

April 25, 2016

I was so proud to learn last week that Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. Also, poet Ocean Vuong won the 2016 Whiting Award. This on the eve of the 41st anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. My friend Tony Nguyen’s award-winning film about his refugee experience, Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, will be shown on PBS nationwide beginning in May. My interview with Tony is on the CAAM website, and details about his and other Asian American PBS broadcasts are here. This piece was written after my trip to Vietnam with Tony last year. I’m so happy to know all my friends in the Vietnamese diaspora community, whose voices are so vital for the American experience, whose voices are now being heard.

Sometimes, even crossing the street can be an enlightening experience. Soft-bodied humans enter a passage ruled by hard metal and fast-moving engines, vulnerability pressed against danger. Mistakes are deadly. So much depends on so little. The barest loss of attention from pedestrian or motorist could cost a life. How we drive, how we walk – tells us something about our inner world, how we accommodate and make space for the lives of others in our midst. Poke under the surface of this everyday, commonplace routine, and find glimpses of our humanity.

I was in Vietnam with my friend, filmmaker Tony Nguyen, in April, 2015, to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the War in Vietnam, and to catch the vibe of a young but ancient country whose name spells tragedy, shame and strife in American ears. A 92-year old woman we met in a park politely refused to elaborate on her war experience. “This is a time of peace. Peace is better,” she said, decisively.

by Ravi Chandra, in Hanoi
Source: by Ravi Chandra, in Hanoi

Children played soccer at a park in front of a revolutionary statue, while other children climbed the statue itself. “The children shall lead,” and these children led by their spirit, their buoyant childhood a truer outcome of victory than the triumphant-appearing statue itself. All politics and ideology go silent before a child at play. All but love. Children can play only when war is relegated to relic status, in statues that welcome small bodies clamoring and climbing for a higher vantage.

We met Việt Kiều, overseas Vietnamese, who found their way back to the land of their or their parents’ origin. Filmmakers, artists, business people, entrepreneurs, expats – they all found their trajectories entwined with others of their ethnicity, and with the land of Vietnam itself.

The Nonduality of Phi Phi, by Ravi Chandra
Source: The Nonduality of Phi Phi, by Ravi Chandra
Phi Phi Oanh Nguyen, in her studio with her lacquer artwork, by Ravi Chandra
Source: Phi Phi Oanh Nguyen, in her studio with her lacquer artwork, by Ravi Chandra

Phi Phi Oanh Nguyen, a lacquer artist in Hanoi, spoke of creating relationships with the earth that yielded the raw material for her work, and the people on whom she depended to refine that material. The interdependence was a profoundly enriching experience. Her name, Phi Phi, means “ultimate nonduality”, and she said she tried to elevate her thoughts to the nondual ideals of underlying unity and acceptance despite the appearance of difference. Nonduality is transcendent, above conflict and blame, embodying a middle way of understanding and compassion. She chose lacquer as a medium in part because its “history defies easy categorization,” much like the stories of the Vietnamese people themselves, or any of us. Despite complex and conflicting histories, our inner artist, the artist in our hearts, looks for ways to communicate and heal, ways that defy easy categorization.

Luan Jenkins, by Tony Nguyen
Source: Luan Jenkins, by Tony Nguyen

Luan Jenkins was adopted from Vietnam to Rome, Georgia when he was ten years old, where he was raised by loving White parents. In his twenties, he moved back to Saigon to rediscover and invigorate his Vietnamese roots. In central Vietnam, he found the orphanage in which he grew up, and through it, the surviving members of his family. He has few memories of his early years. He’s learning Vietnamese hoping to jog his memory into clarity. He’s also trying to establish a school. The Việt Kiều come back not only to receive, but also to give. Receiving and giving, like breathing in and breathing out, are vital to life and part of the healing journey. These Việt Kiều were filling their lungs with the air of this land, and breathing out a new world. War turns to peace in the alveoli and neurons of the caring. Forced to inhale war, the pollution of our conflicted environment, we choose to breathe out peace.

Vietnamese American Selfie in Saigon, with filmmakers Ham Tran, Jenni Trang Le and Tony Nguyen; by Ravi Chandra
Source: Vietnamese American Selfie in Saigon, with filmmakers Ham Tran, Jenni Trang Le and Tony Nguyen; by Ravi Chandra

My friend Tony was on a healing journey as well. His first short film, Giap’s Last Day at the Ironing Board Factory, won awards for its sensitive portrayal of his mother, Giap, and himself. Giap fled Vietnam at the close of the war, pregnant with Tony. She ended up in Indiana, and took up work at what turned out to be the last ironing board factory in America. Tony harbored still unanswered questions about his father’s identity, and feelings of loss. His family in Cam Ranh told him to look around. “There are others like you. Don’t think you’re so special.” The war left many without parents or families. Of course, it doesn’t take a war to absent a father; mine left too, in my early years. His absence was and is a teacher, reminding me of the importance of human connections. Tony turned his questions into an activist and artist’s quest to explore issues of identity, war and conflict in the Vietnamese diaspora. Together, we traveled to fold together points on a map, practicing “Whole Earth Origami”, as I called it in a poem, making peace cranes of our lives, bringing our hearts to fullness in relationships around the world. (If you'd like a copy of the poem, send me an email via this contact link.)

Healing and finding commonality in the wake of war and loss seems a task for us all, too large for any single person. In their own ways, all the Việt Kiều were living into nonduality, finding broader, global, transnational identities beyond histories and statuses as refugee, immigrant, war victim, child of divorce and abandonment, Asian American, multiracial or Eurasian. Crossing borders meant remixing hybrid identities, reworking old wounds with the subtle possibilities of a welcoming landscape. Here, in Vietnam, were materials to patch sullen losses and create new hopes. Life must be lived bricolage. Here at the creative edge of cultures and character, you could feel the artists of life pining for reunion, wholeness and growth, shedding the most narrowing confines of self for a more universal soul. Their minds, cross pollinated across continents, bloomed into discovery. Their journeys could only be understood in spiritual terms, beyond politics and the personal. The latter may have impelled the spirit, but could never contain it.

by Ravi Chandra
Source: by Ravi Chandra

There were many people on the roads in Vietnam, most of them driving mopeds. Whole schools of people – like schools of fish – plied the streets, bending around the corners, weaving and merging with precision and care. The scooter is versatile, and Asians are creative with them. I saw scooters carrying up to five people, two adults and three children, and friends say they’ve seen even more. In the West, this would call for a minivan, child safety seats, and many, many airbags and regulations. In Vietnam, everybody simply pays attention. We were all united in the sangha of the street.

by Ravi Chandra
Source: by Ravi Chandra

To cross the road as a pedestrian, you simply step into traffic. Keep your eyes on the approaching mopeds and cars, and place one foot in front of the other, with steady, determined strides. Make no sudden moves. Don’t dart forward. The scooters will make their way around you. Naturally, no one wants to hit you. You are not a foreign object impeding progress, worthy of angry beeps and upraised middle fingers, common to the American urban experience. You are part of the story of the street, and each passing moped makes you part of their tale of self-control, respect and care. In psychology, “mentalizing” means understanding the mental state of others and oneself, and taking all into account. “Moped mind” is clearly an advanced state of mentalizing awareness beyond the self. Each driver and pedestrian is focused on their goal and path, but mindful of intersecting space and time, and the needs of others for safety and life.

Maybe the Buddha had the most moped mind of all, accounting for both the needs of diverse individuals and the group, all in service to the overarching goal of overcoming suffering. In other words, crossing the street of samsara to reach the other shore.

When I crossed the street in Vietnam, I thought of memories of war, speeding towards me, and past me, on their mopeds of emotion and thought. At any moment, I could be struck by history’s relentless furies and unresolved angers, or blindsided by losses careening on their own lonely course. I was aware of these losses and furies, aware of the riders and their stories, aware of the messages they bore. Imperialism, colonialism, war, democracy, capitalism, communism, victims, oppressors, and those caught up by fates… Peace was the pedestrian here. Not as powerful as any metallic engine, but more powerful and necessary than all of them combined. Peace was the force that they all aspired to, the destination of every traveller, the only meaningful victory after strife. The art was in crossing the street with mind and heart, and in recognizing the humanity of all.

by Ravi Chandra
Source: by Ravi Chandra

Nonduality is both an immersion in opposites, and their transcendence. As powerful as the polarities are, there is a greater truth that holds them all, one suffused with love. Crossing the street, resting in nondual awareness, being mindful, changes you, and alters every riding impulse around you. Those minute changes, and the grounded example of your path, are not insignificant. On a personal level, at least, they are profound.

Sometimes my heart precedes me, wanting to claim a space. I clear a path to reach it, hours, days and months later. It is a fruitful but perilous journey in time and space, word and work.

There is no other way across. We must have courage. We must step into traffic, beckoned by our hearts, beckoned by that other, peaceful shore.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His book-in-progress, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, is about the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens. Sign up for a newsletter at

(c) 2016, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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