Ho Thi Thanh Mai The pagoda of exile

- through Henry Oudin

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The Buddhist teachings rooted in the modern life of Venerable Thich Thien Châu enabled the President of the Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in France, Hô Thi Thanh Mai, a young adult exile from Vietnam, to accept her new life in the southern suburbs of Paris.

Some people enjoy stretching their course. Ho Thi Thanh Mai, president of the Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in France (ABVF) since 2013, is not one of them. "I suggest you rather paint the portrait of Dr. Dinh Hy Trinh, member of the board of directors, endowed with a better knowledge of Buddhism," she replies by email. After a few exchanges, Mai finally accepts an interview at the pagoda of the Buddhist Institute Truc Lâm, in the heights of Villebon-sur-Yvette, in Essonne. In this place of tranquility, on the hillside, she feels at ease. Over tea, I meet a little bit of an energetic and simple woman. To manage the administrative tasks and other hazards that fall to her as President of the association, the young retiree goes several times a week to Truc Lâm. His memories are many. At the top of the Japanese-style garden, an imposing white Buddha, commissioned in Vietnam in 1993, watches over the faithful.

Aged 69, Ho Thi Thanh Mai is part of the hard core of the Buddhist Institute. It was in 1969 that she crossed paths with her master and founder of Truc Lâm, the Venerable Thich Thien Châu, at the Sorbonne, Paris. Within the prestigious university, Thich Thien Châu founded a movement of young Vietnamese students. Aged between 20 and 25, most have fled the war. Like May. Born in Saigon, the economic heart of Vietnam, she arrived in France at the age of eighteen with her parents and her seven brothers and sisters, and was touched by the message of this master. Quickly, the latter becomes for the students both a spiritual guide and a big brother.

Healing the wound of departure

Beginning in the 1970s, the group happily reunited every July for an outdoor summer camp. In the afternoon, Thich Thien Châu teaches the students and gives them a solid foundation in Buddhism. "In Vietnam, we are Buddhists by tradition," she says. We pray to Buddha as we pray to a good God. We are neither in research nor in questioning, but in rites”. May has everything to learn. Buddhism's concept of impermanence helps him feel good about his sneakers. She, who in France as in Vietnam, feels foreign. She has only one thing in mind: to return to Vietnam. Despite the misery, the war and the dirt, she keeps a wonderful memory. “My teacher healed this initial wound by teaching me that life is good only with the people you love. »

“My mission is to ensure that the association continues to transmit a pure and simple Buddhism, without superstition, which sticks to modern life. »

The years pass, the group grows. At each ceremony, New Year, Buddha's birthday or celebration of family piety, the Buddha statue is moved to a room rented for the occasion. In 1980, the Venerable Thich Thien Châu decided to erect the pagoda of Villebon-sur-Yvette. “He announced to me, happy, that we were going to become neighbors”, recalls Mai, who at that time lived with her family in Orsay. “These are bamboo cuttings from my garden that grew in Truc Lâm, whose name means “bamboo forest” in French,” she adds. The work lasted about ten years.

During all these years, holding on to his freedom, Ho Thi Thanh Mai did not wish to occupy a position in the Association of Vietnamese Buddhists in France, created in 1977, which today has 80 active members. Her life as a mother of two children, and the positions she held in the administration, within the Ministry of National Education and the faculties of Sceaux and Orsay, take up a lot of her time. Finally, in 1995, she agreed to become treasurer, although she "hatred to keep money". In October 1998, when Thich Thien Châu died in the middle of the night of a heart attack, at the age of 68, the community was shocked. "Even when you're a Buddhist, you tell yourself that the people you love never die," she says. In 2013, she was elected President and has held this position ever since. “My mission is to ensure that the association continues to spread pure and simple Buddhism, without superstition, which sticks to modern life. This Buddhism which allowed him to build solid roots in France. “One of my sons, who lives in the United States, asked me to join him. I refused. I am fine now here, in France”

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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