In Vietnam, Cultivating Harmony Across the Spectrum of Disability

In Vietnam, Cultivating Harmony Across the Spectrum of Disability

 

words by Andrew Lam

Photographs by Min Hyun-woo

At Vietnam’s Peaceful Bamboo Family, teachers and residents across a spectrum of disability cultivate community—with each other and with the land.

“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” This famous phrase, oft quoted by spiritual teachers, was penned by the venerable Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Art of Mindful Living. Some years ago, I got to hear the wise man himself discuss its meaning at a standing-room only event in Berkeley, California.

 

Even so, I admit that I (a Vietnamese-American writer who often retreats into his own headspace) struggle to put his teachings into practice. But if you have a chance to spend a few days at Tinh Truc Gia, or Peaceful Bamboo Family, you won’t need to try to decipher this phrase. 

 

A mere 15 minute drive from the imperial city of Hue, Vietnam, Tinh Truc Gia (TTG) is hidden in the hillsides of the city’s outskirts. Off a narrow road fit for a single car, it resembles at once a dormitory and a Buddhist temple. It’s organized around a leafy courtyard, with an earthen path that leads to a flourishing garden in the back. A running brook sings softly, and a cow lazily grazes grass in its barn while chickens roost in their enclosures. TTG is a community for young adults with disabilities, focused on living in harmony with each other and the Earth, participating in classes and workshops, and tending a biodynamic garden. 

 

There is no “typical” student. Children arrive across the spectrum of human experience, living with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities. Many have cerebral palsy, a motor disability that impacts a person’s ability to maintain balance and posture. According to the Medical University of South Carolina, there are at least 500,000 Vietnamese who suffer from cerebral palsy, out of the country’s population of 98 million. Some of these cases have been linked to the lingering, generational impact of Agent Orange, the herbicide that contains poisonous dioxin sprayed by the U.S. military over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. For some, exposure to the chemical has led to cancers, several psychological and neurological problems, and birth defects. The province on which the Eurasia Foundation built TTG was sprayed with Agent Orange in the 1960s, and so they focus on regenerative farming techniques to heal this enduring damage.

In Vietnam, where the average monthly income is less than $300 USD, resources are few and far between when it comes to treatments and care for those with disabilities, especially the intellectually disabled. 

 

The difficulties of living with a disability in Vietnam make TTG even more of a refuge. The first day I visited, after a quick breakfast, children and adult residents held hands with their teachers and guardians to form a circle. A boy named Nghia waved to me and offered me his hand. A girl held my other hand and smiled shyly. Ngan Bui, one of the teachers here, read from a poem, and then everyone, in their various capacities, sang a beautiful song about the summer rain. Those who can’t speak, hummed, swayed, or gestured, and one boy, living with Tourette syndrome, even intermittently screamed, all under the protective shade of the large, leafy courtyard. 

 

In 2009, Tho Ha Vinh and his wife, Lisi, began to build the community in Hue with the idea that it would become a healthy environment that facilitates the wellbeing of each member. They based TTG on the Camphill network, an international movement that aims to nurture and heal through regenerative agriculture. The network focuses on holism: taking into account not only physical and mental but spiritual, environmental, and emotional factors. 

 

Before coming to Vietnam, Tho served as director of special education training at Fondation Perceval, a Camphill community in St. Prex, Switzerland. After 12 years there, he decided to bring what he learned back to his father’s homeland (Tho was born in France to a Vietnamese father and a French mother). He—through the foundation he founded, called Eurasia—began to build TTG in 2009. 

  

“Nothing grows without love,” said Trinh Pham, the director of TTG, as she observed the dancers and gestured to the tall trees in the courtyard. “When we began working to create this place, there was nothing here, just a lot of grass and rocks. I helped carry each of these trees up here on my back when they were small. We planted them. We took care of them. Now look—look how they grow.”

 

Before coming to TTG, Pham was a receptionist for an upscale hotel. She was already growing restless when, in 1998, she had a chance to listen to lectures by Tho, who is a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. When the Eurasia Foundation decided to build TTG, Pham was more than willing to help. Pham’s husband, Tu Pham, also a manager at the same hotel, joined her. Both took a serious pay cut and worked diligently under tutelage of Tho and Lisi to create a place that would, as Pham put it, “take care of those with disabilities through kindness and love and good living.”

The most concise description of TTG is a practical training center for social therapy, but that doesn’t capture how it feels to be there. The place radiates love and serenity. And more, it draws seekers. A handful of teachers mentioned to me the Vietnamese word “duyên, which means fate. Many of them were drawn here, they told me, by duyên. They talked about TTG as a place where they started over, one noting, “I had to relearn everything as a beginner.”  

 

That certainly was the case for Bui, who said that she arrived as a volunteer because she wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, where she was born and raised. At the time, Bui was working for an advertising agency. Then, walking through the TTG garden, she realized that she had never seen half of the trees that bore the fruits she ate. She decided to stay, and has been there for five years. 

 

“The residents taught me so many things. I stopped having preconceived notions about myself and others. I am learning to observe, be silent, and listen deeply.” Later, in the garden, Bui added, “I began as an idealist. But this place, these kids, and these teachers, they teach me to be patient and to accept all imperfections.”

 

Bui said she was humbled by her first week there, learning how to make incense and work in the garden. “Despite the heat, the repetitive work, no one was complaining.” Bui, who thought of herself as highly intellectual, soon had to learn from scratch from the kids how to mix fertilizer, how to plant seeds, how to mix powder to roll into joss sticks. “I am here as their teacher, but they became my teachers.” 

 

But does her experience apply to life outside of the community? “Absolutely,” she said. Bui used to have a contentious relationship with her long-suffering mother, who often grew angry and yelled. “My relationship with my mother has completely changed. I now listen to what she’s trying to say. When she yells, I no longer run to my room or react with anger. This place taught me to acknowledge my mother.”

After the morning circle dance, it was time to break up into workshops and classes. The workshops are varied: residents work to produce cookies and jam, incense, lacquer paintings, and tea. In the garden, which is the beating heart of the place, many worked diligently with their mentors to fertilize the soil, pick vegetables, clear spaces for planting, or play. 

 

“The vegetables provide from 40% to 70% of our sustenance, depending on the season,” said Hung Ngo who heads the gardening projects. It is no small feat for a plot of less than 1,000 square meters to support more than 50 residents. The fruits and tea plants they grow here also provide materials for the cookies, jam, and tea products that are, in turn, sold to the public to supplement the upkeep of the place. 

 

“Nature is miraculous,” Ngo said. He pointed at a young man named Huy, who was talking animatedly to his friends by the jackfruit tree. “He couldn’t talk—or rather he didn’t believe he could talk—when he came here 15 years ago. Now, he is almost 30 and, in his way, very articulate. Before, he would stand in front of someone he didn’t recognize and tremble. But this place allowed him a regimented life, a rhythm with nature, and, in time, it healed him. Ask him anything about the garden and he will talk your ears off.”

 

Though he graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering, Ngo admitted he started from ground zero when he applied for the job to work in this garden over a decade ago. For one thing, he had no idea how to deal with children with disabilities. “When we first started working together, I made them work too hard and too long in the sun. They got upset. Some started biting me and pinching me or themselves.” Ngo had to hug one boy in particular to protect both himself and his charge. He showed me the scar, now faded, from a bite mark on his arm. And yet, 10 years hence, Ngo said he cannot imagine working anywhere else. Here, he learned biodynamic farming, which has a higher standard for regenerative practices than organic agriculture. Its macro-view is to give back more than it takes. “I now see that the garden’s development is intricately tied to the children’s development and of course my own. I am not here to rule. I am here to nourish.” 

 

Over the years, he said, he grew to see the world around him very differently. “The place is a living entity. I am merely a cell in a larger organ and everyone and everything—even things decaying—are absolutely integral to the process of growth and change.”

At first, he thought he was in charge of cultivating the land. But the more he thought about it, he felt that the land by nature is healing and supportive of all beings—and that in order to take care of it, what he really needed to do instead was to cultivate himself. “I think all things begin from observation. In reality, however, that observation is very segmented depending on your own biases. In biodynamic practice, you observe with all of your senses—taste, touch, smell, and so on—and you observe your relationship with all things.”

 

In college, Ngo was taught differently: treating a dying tree by adding certain fertilizers, certain chemicals, and trimming, for instance. “Now I see I am in community with that tree. I see the reasons why it grows certain ways, and I help it accordingly. In fact, every one of us here, we are a vibrant and integral part of that tree, this garden, and it is a part of us.”  

 

When he first began at TTG, his girlfriend at the time, Lan, discouraged him from working in a place where he came home scratched and scarred. But over time, she saw his transformation: he became more attentive and caring. In the end, she married him. She visited TTG regularly until one day she too became a teacher here. Now, both live on the premises and have two children of their own.  

 

Hanh Truong, at 61, is the oldest teacher at TTG. He said he has seen tremendous transformation in the children with disabilities who come here. “Many disabled children were hidden in their homes and they couldn’t develop. Parents didn’t have time for them. They got bullied outside of their homes. They were undisciplined, angry, and lacked confidence when they came here…but here, in nature, they learn what is what. The community and its regimented activities allow them to learn and change.” He pointed at one young man pushing a wheelbarrow: “That kid, he came here, and he couldn’t walk straight. Now, with guidance and after years of practice, he learned to coordinate his hands and feet. He became a gardener.”

It is 5:30 pm. Ngan Bui appears with a singing bowl and wooden stick in the courtyard. She strikes the bowl, and a pure sound rings out and vibrates in the air. The circle is formed once more, and once more, I join them. Time for walking meditation. Bui quietly tells everyone to be mindful and “consciously put one foot in front of another and observe the trees, the plants, and flowers.” Then, she leads us single file down an earthen path to the garden. A blind boy is holding onto her hand and walks tentatively.

 

It had rained heavily earlier in the afternoon. Now, at sunset, the sky is clear, and there’s a luster to all things. Occasionally, a boy screams for no reason. Someone else with Tourette syndrome claps violently every few minutes. It is all absorbed into the procession. We look at vines, at jackfruits, touch leaves and gourds and tree trunks. We bask in the garden’s serenity.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous phrase hangs above the entrance, and it saddened me to think the venerable monk never saw the Peaceful Bamboo Family. He passed away in January of this year, in a temple less than four kilometers from this garden. But as we walked through the garden, I thought about happiness. I was thinking, “If his teachings are practiced with heart, if everyone here is walking in his footsteps, does it matter if he ever saw this place or not?”

 

In a long conversation in the garden one afternoon, Ngo warned me against intellectualizing the meaning of happiness or trying to understand life here through a religious lens. When at one point he mentioned that “the land is Bodhisattva,” I pounced on it. Since he brought up a Buddhist concept, does he see things through a Buddhist lens? 

 

But Ngo shook his head and gestured toward a teenage boy sitting on a wheelbarrow, protected by the greenery. And just like that, a cicada on a tree somewhere sang out loudly, and the wind, as if in harmony with the singing insect, picked up. Vines and leaves swayed, and sunlight and shadows danced on the boy’s serene face. I looked back at Ngo, and he smiled.

 

And in that luminous moment, I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. I breathed in and out, then fell completely silent.

ART DIRECTION Bahno ASSISTANTS Ji Myung Kim, Seo Woo Kim SPECIAL THANKS Peaceful Bamboo Family, Ngan Bui, Trinh Phan


This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “The Way to Happiness.”


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