Abbot Phuoc Tan is preparing to lead a funeral service tomorrow. The deceased, a member of the Vietnamese Buddhist community of Melbourne, contracted COVID-19 at her nursing home. She passed away while quarantined and will be cremated in a simple service at the Quang Minh Temple in Braybrook, with 10 family members in attendance. Her children will not be able to say goodbye in the traditional manor, with an open casket, because of the nature of the contagion. No members of the community will be there to pass on their condolences to the family.

For Abbot Phuoc Tan, it was a relief to be able to talk about the impact of COVID 19 on his community, to “get this off my chest.” While the spread of the virus is relatively low in the Vietnamese Buddhist community of Melbourne, only around 50 people have contracted it so far, a community spokesperson told them, people are concerned and anxious. Abbot Phuoc Tan believes this is, in part, fueled by the prevalence of ‘fake news’ on the internet and the boredom that leads people to be drawn to the clickable headlines. “Fake news is easily occupying peoples’ minds in the boredom.” “The topics are interesting but they are harmful,” he says. “They have no benefit at all.” “When people are drawn to something they lack something else. Just like when you take vitamins. If you take too much of one vitamin you will find yourself lacking another.” The information vacuum, Abbot Phuoc Tan suggests, is exacerbated because many of the usual sources of news and information for the Vietnamese community are no longer available or harder to access. Radio 97.4 FM, a community radio station with Vietnamese programming, closed its doors earlier in the year, citing financial constraints. Abbot Phuoc Tan says many seniors in the community relied on it for information. “Many elderly do not go to the market anymore so they don’t pick up the Vietnamese newspaper,” another important source of information for the community. Now they are reliant on SBS radio and the internet. Abbot Phuoc Tan believes the information they are receiving is either too slow or inadequate. 

Abbot Phuoc Tan’s days are spent at the Quang Minh temple, where he is the spiritual leader. Before the lockdown, the house of worship had around 500 regular attendees. Approximately 100 worshipers attended the chanting service each evening; fewer attended the three chanting sessions during the day. The temple was a thriving centre of activity, with a martial arts group, two youth groups, a Vietnamese language school, a volunteer group and a catering group also using the premises. Now they are using various online forums to engage their segments of the community. Abbot Phuoc Tan has a YouTube channel where he posts pre-recorded chanting and a Dhamma talk. They also offer another Dhamma talk, involving other monks, via Zoom. Between 70 and 120 people attend this session, some as far away as Sydney and Europe. They tried chanting via Zoom too but it wasn’t really successful. The time delay meant they were out of sync with each other. After four months of online sessions, they are taking a break this week. 

Yet, the move to online forums has been largely successful, he reflects. Although they lack “a degree of harmony,” the dynamics of their community on Zoom has improved. At first people were happy to practice alone but now they crave human interaction, Abbot Phuoc Tan notes. “Together we are reading long discourses by Buddha and people are progressing quickly in the group. We find those who practice alone are not doing as well.” Human interaction gives people a real sense of who they are, he believes. “It is the same as the price of an ounce of gold, it has the value people give it.”

For the Vietnamese, community is a fundamental part of life. “We are very family orientated,” Abbot Phuoc Tan says, “through the extended family we support each other.” Many Vietnamese came to Australia without any family—Abbot Phuoc Tan himself arrived as a refugee in 1981—and this is why they use kindred names for people they are close to, like ‘aunt’ or ‘brother.’ These people become almost surrogate family members in the absence of the extended family. However, the lockdown has taken away this structure of support. Abbot Phuoc Tan says it has been hard for people not being able to visit the temple, not being able to share their problems or seek support. This is a real loss for the community at this time. Di Cousins from the Buddhist Council of Victoria explains it is very counter-cultural for many Buddhists to phone an abbot to ask for support or seek advice. It would be considered presumptuous to take up the time of a spiritual leader who is held in such high regard and approach them in this way. These kinds of interactions are usually sought in a much more informal way through encounters at the temple or on the grounds. Of course, this cannot happen at the moment. Abbot Phuoc Tan recalls the embarrassment of having to go to Bunnings to purchase a sign to hang at the temple saying ‘sorry closed.’ He feels guilty that the people are not welcome.

Abbot Phuoc Tan is particularly worried about the youth in his community and is starting to see the toll on their mental health. “They are restless and anxious,” he says, although he is somewhat surprised by this. “We thought the younger would be stronger because they can access the technology easily but we are seeing they are more vulnerable than the elderly.”  He is doing what he can to support them by phone.

While there are many ongoing challenges, there are also positives to come from the lockdown. Abbot Phuoc Tan says the community has been busy organizing and distributing face masks. He was approached by Sunshine hospital and they have been able to donate the stocks of masks from their beauty salons. Fashion warehouses are also using their workers and machinery to make reusable cloth masks, either under government contract or for free. Abbot Phuoc Tan believes the Vietnamese community may have donated 100,000 masks so far.

Although many of its activities are currently on hold, there is still a lot do to at Quang Minh Temple, one of Australia’s most significant Buddhist sites, and on the 4.5-hectare grounds that surround it. A small number of volunteers come to the site regularly to assist with gardening, maintenance, cleaning and food delivery. There are monks and nuns who live on-site and they are taken care of. Abbot Phuoc Tan says with a smile, “there is plenty to do.” There are also lots of paths to walk on throughout the property and the cherry trees are in bloom. “They are very beautiful.” Abbot Phuoc Tan promises to share a photo.

[1] Note, this interview was conducted prior to the introduction of Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria.