Thich Dao Quang first entered a Buddhist monastery in his native Vietnam with no plan to become a monk. He wanted to change the mind of a friend who had taken that step.
“I spent many hours in the monastery doing my best but not successfully,” he said. “So, later on, I said, ?Hmm, what’s going on inside the Zen monastery? Let me investigate it and try to understand.’ “
He asked the Zen master to let him stay and learn as a layman. Thus began a journey that would lead him to Baton Rouge.
Quang, 43, became the first abbot of the Tam Bao Temple, Baton Rouge’s only Buddhist temple, in 2003. About 120 mostly Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian adherents attend Sunday services and about 70 Westerners participate in the Friday night lecture and discussions.
The leader of this spiritual community became fluent in English despite not having spoken a word of it until 1994 and has gone on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and counseling and is working on a Ph.D. He does not believe in evangelizing, but describes how his beliefs interact in an overwhelmingly monotheistic culture enigmatically.
“If all American people truly understand what Buddhism is,” Quang said, “they know they are Buddhists already.”
Born in 1968 during the Vietnam War, Quang was one of nine children who grew up in a village near Hue, in the northern part of South Vietnam.
“I asked my mother why we had a big family,” he said. “She said the majority of Vietnamese people ? had to think after the war how many children would survive. If they had four children, the estimate was that two children may die, so at least they have two.”
All of Quang’s siblings survived.
“We were very lucky,” he said. “That’s why I made a joke with my mother and said, ?You had the wrong estimation.’ “
Luck, however, did not last after South Vietnam’s surrender in 1975. Quang’s father had worked for the U.S. government during the war, and the victors exacted retribution. He was imprisoned for six years in a “re-education camp,” where food deprivation, overwork and torture were the norm.
Families were allowed to bring their loved ones food at monthly visits, but Quang’s family was so poor that they could only scrape up extra food every other month. His father returned home in 1981 and farmed rice to support the family. Sometimes, they had just one meal a day and went to bed hungry.
“He worked very, very hard,” Quang said. “When I studied psychology, I can understand why he worked hard. He tried to kill his time by not communicating or contact with anyone in the community so that the police not bother him ? he feels
safe. ?I don’t talk to anyone, wake up early, stand from 5 in the morning in the rice field until 8:30 p.m., go to bed and sleep. No radio station, nothing.’ “
After finishing high school in 1989, Quang struggled to find employment. He dropped out of vocational school, left a job at a shoe factory because employees weren’t getting paid and went to work for his oldest brother, who had a bakery.
His family rarely visited its local temple, so when Quang entered the monastery in 1991 to persuade his friend to leave and seek a secular profession, he did not expect it to appeal to him. He was hoping to leave the country.
The United States had created a program that allowed those, like Quang’s father, who had been persecuted for having served the U.S. military or South Vietnamese government during the war to immigrate to America. Quang had filled out the paperwork on the family’s behalf, but he also wanted to explore the monastic life.
“I like to exercise my mind, but my situation was not allowing me to do anything. I think probably that is the reason when I joined the Zen monastery, this was an outlet for me to exercise my mind.”
The monastic life was strict. The monks in training, their heads shaven, awoke at 3 a.m. to medicate for two hours, worked between breakfast and lunch, then, following a nap, spent two hours of training in “mindfulness.”
“We have to be mindful in everything you do,” Quang said. “We train in how to bring your mind back to the here and now. Do not let your mind travel and think of something else. The past is gone. The future has not come yet. Life is here and now. Enjoy every little thing in life. Enjoy the friendships, enjoy the teaching, learning and practicing.”
Another session followed the evening meal. Each monk had two sets of clothes and one pair of shoes. Permission was required to replace worn clothes.
In 1994, Quang’s family was accepted into the program to move to Houston, and Quang received permission from his Zen master to go. Though his family wanted him to re-grow his hair and wear conventional clothes instead of the monastic robe. Quang respectfully declined. He would come to America, but he would remain a monk.
At first, education was a necessity. If Quang was going to interact outside of Houston’s Vietnamese community, he had to learn English. While serving as a monk at a Houston temple, he took a course at Houston Community College, failed, but repeated it the next semester.
He moved to Atlanta in 1998 to earn a degree in psychology from Georgia State University and was hoping to do research on medication at Duke University. But the funding for that project didn’t materialize, and he was asked to become abbot at Tam Bao Temple.
In Quang, the temple got an abbot who mixes traditional Buddhism with an emphasis on education and counseling.
He accepts the role of monastic simplicity in a modern context. Quang has a car, but it must be at least three years old and a modest style. He lives on the temple grounds in a house that appears of the same age as others in the surrounding Villa del Rey neighborhood. He has no salary, no health insurance and depends on the temple to meet his needs.
“I’m not happy with any spiritual leader living in a big mansion and riding in a Lexus luxury car and encouraging the people to practice kindness. That’s a contradiction,” he said.
Quang sees no contradiction between Buddhism and clinical psychology. He earned a master’s degree in counseling from Southeastern Louisiana University in 2007 and is working on his doctorate online from Walden University. He served a counseling internship with Court Appointed Special Advocates, which provides volunteers to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children in the court system. He counsels at a drug abuse clinic.
Quang incorporates the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation in his counseling, and in his teaching at Tam Bao.
“My definition is mindfulness meditation is a technique to have one person bring their mind back to the body, back to the here and the now so that they can deal with what’s going on, so that they can discover their true nature, their true self,” Quang said, to discover their true selves, and quiet their minds so they can be aware of their feelings, sensations and mental formations without reaction. Usually, we have a habit in general based on our perceptions, our feelings, our emotions, and we react. The technique of mindfulness is to be aware of that and let it transform by itself.
Quang used the example of an itch. One can immediately scratch it, but can choose to observe what happens by waiting. The same is true with worry: Observe and analyze the cause, but don’t immediately respond.
“Sometimes we react too much,” he said. “I see that’s a problem when I work with many people who have an anxiety disorder or depression. They have a wrong perception, a wrong interpretation of reality. ?I have to do this ?’ No, actually, let it be, let it go. Sometimes people worry about things they should not worry (about).”
Quang realizes that many Westerners know little about Buddhism, which believes in higher powers but not a personal God that controls all. He said he doesn’t seek converts, but hopes people of all faiths live out their beliefs.
“I’ve said this many times: I believe Buddhist practitioner, Christian practitioner, Muslim practitioner will meet each other in the same place,” Quang said. “But Buddhist believer without practice, Christian believer without practice, Muslim believer without practice divide the people and they never ever live together in peace and harmony.
“As long as you make your life better, I don’t need to see more Buddhist people,” Quang said. “I need to see more people who make their life better. That’s my mission.”