Biloxi’s Buddhist temple, Chua Van Duc, was crowded for the first time in months on Sunday.
Dozens of people from as far away as Pensacola gathered to celebrate Le Vu Lan, a festival that honors parents and ancestors, especially mothers, and is sometimes called Vietnamese Mother’s Day.
Tanya Kennedy, the temple’s president, smiled after the ceremony as she surveyed the room where 60 or 70 masked people had gathered to pray and honor their parents. On recent Sunday mornings, only about 10 people had come to the temple for regular services, kept away by fears of the coronavirus.
Le Vu Lan was the biggest event the temple has had since Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration, in January. A hard rain on Sunday morning had made some people nervous, Kennedy said. But the rain stopped as soon as the ceremony began.
“It doesn’t matter what, we have to do it,” Kennedy said of the ceremony. “Storms, COVID, whatever. We give to Buddha to bless us.”
Worshippers knelt on the floor and sat in chairs facing the temple’s large statue of the Buddha. The temple’s nun, Su Co Phuc Lien, prayed in Vietnamese for health and strength for all, especially parents.
Each attendee pinned a polyester rose to their chest. Red symbolized that the wearer’s parents are still living, white that their parents have died, pink that one parent is living and another has passed away.
Le Vu Lan takes place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, known in Vietnam as the month of lonely spirits, and hungry ghost month in other Asian countries. On the first day of the month, legend says, the gates of hell open and the spirits roam the earth.
In Sanskrit, Le Vu Lan is called Ullambana, or the Festival of All Souls. It originated when one of the Buddha’s 10 original disciples was meditating and saw his mother suffering and starving in hell because of her actions in a previous life.
Distraught, the disciple asked the Buddha for help. The Buddha advised him to gather monks and worshipers to pray for his mother’s release from suffering on the day of the full moon in the seventh lunar month. Their prayers were so powerful that not only the disciple’s mother, but many other “hungry ghosts,” were able to find a peaceful afterlife.
Today, Le Vu Lan is a day of gratitude for parents who are living, and prayer that those who have died will have a comfortable afterlife.
‘IT’S AN EXCEPTION’
During a month when Vietnamese Buddhist religious observation is marked by consideration of spirits, Kennedy has been troubled by earthly concerns. How will Chua Van Duc survive the pandemic and the financial crunch it has brought on?
Kennedy said that operating the temple costs $2,000 a month. With attendance at weekly services so low, donations have fallen drastically. She was hoping that strong turnout would lead to donations.
Kennedy applied for a Small Business Administration loan for religious organizations, but on the day of Le Vu Lan, she was still waiting to hear back.
The turnout was much lower than during a typical year, when the parking lot would be full and two or three hundred people would crowd inside. But Kennedy was pleased, considering the circumstances.
Seventeen-year-old Angela Nguyen said she typically goes to the temple regularly. But this year, she hadn’t been back since Tet.
“I just don’t think it’s fair if I come here,” she said, sitting in the temple’s dining room and wearing a cloth face mask. “I don’t want to spread the virus. But this is a big celebration, so it’s an exception.”
As the ceremony continued, Quang Dang and her daughter Krystina Tu were in the dining room packing vegetarian food into styrofoam boxes. Dang had arrived at the temple at 6:30 in the morning to prepare vegetarian egg rolls. Vung Tau Restaurant, just down Oak Street, had donated a tray of stir fried tofu and vegetables. Another member of the temple had cooked egg noodles. For dessert, there was sweet sticky rice and mung bean topped with creamy coconut milk.
Dang took on the task of lead food preparer at the temple after another member opened a restaurant and didn’t have enough time to do the cooking on Sundays. She learned how to make vegetarian versions of favorite Vietnamese dishes: spice bun bo hue, pho, banh canh, and more.
On Le Vu Lan, Tu said, she was especially remembering her grandmother, who passed away in 2015. On other Sundays, going to the temple is an opportunity for reflection.
“Every time we come to the temple, smell the incense and hear the bell, we feel really relaxed,” Tu said.
After the ceremony ended and people headed to pick up boxes of food, Su Co Phuc Lien sat in the room behind the main sanctuary. There, plates of food had been set in front of the altar honoring family members who have passed away. Their portraits, the size of index cards, are affixed to the wall behind the altar.
Before Katrina, Kennedy said, the wall was almost completely covered in photographs. The storm washed the photographs away. The pictures on the wall now have been added since the storm. The nun prays every day for them to have a happy afterlife.