Ton-That Niem remembers the old days in Vietnam, when children would bow automatically and often as a signal of respect to their parents. In the new country, that age-old tradition has all but died. These days, he said, some children won’t even bother to acknowledge their parents when they walk in the front door.
That sort of American-bred informality has frustrated immigrant Buddhists such as Niem, a Cerritos psychiatrist who believes that respect for elders forms the basis of family life and social morality.
To that end, Niem joined about 800 other Buddhists last Sunday to celebrate their families, both dead and alive, at a new Garden Grove pagoda. Relatives offered prayers to Buddha to forgive the sins of their loved ones so their spirits could be released from reincarnation and reach nirvana, or paradise.
At the same time, the ceremony was designed to instill immigrant youths with at least the concept of respect for their parents.
The strong materialistic underpinnings of American society breeds selfishness that diminishes the family, the Venerable Thich Phap-Chau, master of the temple, told participants.
Speaking in Vietnamese, he urged them to “live a life with good moral conduct and be helpful to elders, help the needy and educate children and youths to become good family members.”
Niem attended the ceremony with his mother and brother.
“According to Buddha,” he said, “the most valuable act of veneration is the one we address to parents. The worst is the lack of such responsibilities,” said the 64-year-old father of four.
“When our parents are alive, we not only contribute to them materially to make their life happy but emotionally to bring love to them,” he said. “When they are no more alive, we should do whatever to contribute to their memory and spread the teaching of Buddha in this matter.”
Niem said his children now only nod their heads when they are leaving. And he said he has had to adjust to other changes, such as his college-age son staying out after midnight, or his daughter continuing her education after marriage.
“The old generation is trying their best to keep traditional values going,” Niem said. “There’s always a kind of conflict. We try our best and be flexible. I believe with love we can do it.”
As eight monks in saffron robes prayed, people milled about, chatted and distributed box lunches in the new pagoda of Chua Viet Nam. Musicians played hymns and soft rock songs.
Participants wore red flowers if their mothers are still alive, white flowers if they had died.
Some had traveled from as far as Virginia to pray in the unfinished two-story pagoda. Construction of the structure has progressed in fits and starts depending on the success of the Buddhist fund-raisers.
When it is finished, perhaps in a year, the pagoda is expected to be the largest Vietnamese Buddhist temple in California. Currently, the temple has a mailing list of 5,000, board member Le Huynh said.
About a third of the participants in the ceremony had relatives who drowned or were killed at sea while fleeing on boats after the 1975 fall of Saigon, Phap-Chau said.
A band member, Nam Nguyen, 23, of Garden Grove, said both his parents died of natural causes in Vietnam. On Sunday, he and other band members played an original song in memory of the boat people who died escaping. The lyrics include the chorus: “We wish we could be the mermaids to sing you to sleep.”