Virtual meanderings

Hanoi | Master(s) of Puppets

Now that I started writing about my stay in Vietnam, I’ll begin with a quote from the book “Old Path White Clouds” by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.

“Contemplate the nature of dependent co-arising during every moment. When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on all the conditions, near and distant, that have contributed to the presence of that leaf or raindrop. Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is born, because that is born. This dies, because that dies. [..] The one contains the many and the many contains the one. […] A chief cause is the first condition necessary to give rise to a phenomenon. For example, a grain of rice is the chief cause necessary to give rise to a rice plant. Contributory causes are supportive conditions. In the case of grain of rice, these include sun, rain, and earth which enable the seed to grow into a rice plant”.

The book attributes the quote to Buddha (from a lecture to his disciples on the nature of “co-arising”). I thought it was a good start for this blog entry, but I also like to check my sources (a habit from my university days). Thus I tried to find the particular sutra from where the text originated and use it directly. Despite all my efforts searching online I could not. The concept of “co-arising” is discussed in a number of sutras, but nowhere is any mentioning of raindrops or rice. In fact, the style of the quote is so different than the usual exposition in any Buddhist sutra that it led me to the conclusion that Thich Nhat Hanh extended the original sutra with his own additions (very much in the Eastern tradition which to this day considers the concepts of intellectual property and plagiarism somewhat exotic).

I’d loved it if Buddha dis say that 2500 years ago, since it makes all the sense in the world, but for the time being we’ll just have to assume that the true author of the examples above was Mr. Hanh in the late 20th century. And, for that matter, Marx and Engels before him in the mid 19th century.

If, however,  it would be me to choose a relevant example from nature to illustrate the concept, I would not use rice or a leaf, but rather a snowflake.

Snowflake. Courtesy:

It is well-known that no two snowflakes are absolutely the same. But why exactly? Well, the snowflake formation is a process that depends on many factors – the temperature, the humidity, the wind speed, the height above ground, as well as the actual path of the snowflake throughout the air – to name a few contributors. Hence, never can these conditions be exactly the same for any two snowflakes. So, if you were some kind of a super being armed with super knowledge about all contributing factors, it would be possible for you to reconstruct the exact atmosphere of the Earth from examining a single snowflake that landed on your hand. Nothing so much original here – I’ve referred to this holographic approach in two earlier posts about Cambodia and Laos .

Which brings us back to Buddha, Hanh, Marx and Engels (why not add Lenin here as well) – neither of whom was a biologist or geophysicist and, obviously, when they referred to natural phenomena they used those as examples to explain similar social phenomena.

In this regard, I already mentioned in passing how knowledge of Vietnam’s historic relations with its immediate neighbors Japan and China (bad! and bad! ) could help one understand why Christianity spread in Vietnam, why the relations with the French had more aspects than a simple “colonizer – colonized” cliché, or even maybe why the Vietnamese use the Latin script and not the Chinese hieroglyphics that were used traditionally. The answer is simple: enforce and maintain a separate national identity. Or let’s look at Korea, which historically has also had an uneasy relation with its two stronger neighbors. Just like Vietnamese, Koreans also embraced Christianity in large numbers. And developed their own alphabet to supercede the Chinese script. It should be noted that after the WW II the North Koreans went one step further than the South and got rid of all Chinese characters for good. Should you wish to find out more about it look up “Hangul vs Hanja” online.

There is the famous Butterfly effect in Chaos theory, derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Or, in stricter terms, “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state”. This is similar to Buddha’s explanations about chief causes and contributory causes. As well as to dialectical materialism’s logical apparatus. Taking advantage of the latter, even without commanding super powers, one could extract great insight about how Vietnam’s culture and relations with its neighbors logically led to welcoming the enthusiastic French colonizers, how this eventually led to the US invasion in Vietnam, why the war itself was won by the relentless Vietnamese (respect!), and – going a step further to present day – why after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vietnam made a kind of full circle and is now developing close relations with the United States (not just economic but also military), to the displeasure of its powerful northern neighbor.

Here is a memorable photo of US President George W Bush meeting Vietnamese Communist Party leaders during his visit in Vietnam a mere five years ago (in 2006).

US President  Bush in Hanoi, 2006

Comrades? Courtesy:

Now that I’ve talked about 1) historical conditions, 2) how every thing influences everything else and is in turn influenced, and 3) even about puppets on strings (see above), I’d like to wrap it all up with  a couple of photos from the inspiration for this post –  the Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre’s performance that I visited that evening!

Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre Performance

Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre Performance

Water puppetry originated about 1000 years ago in Vietnam. It arose from Vietnamese people looking for ways to entertain themselves when the rice harvest was over. Why in the water? Because people were still all over the water-flooded rice-fields. It makes sense why such an art form could only originate in a rice-growing culture. But also, please note that this art form is unique to North Vietnam, and it’s about the only place on the planet where you could see it. Which basically makes it a must-see if in Hanoi.

... and after

... and the artists

The show was performed to the tune of traditional music played by a 5-member Vietnamese orchestra (percussion, violin, two singers, and I cannot recall what else). Before the show itself, the band played a couple of traditional folk songs which were simply extraordinary. I’d recommend going to that. The Theatre is located in the very center of Hanoi, next to Hoan Kiem Lake. It’sreally cool to watch. Look up some videos online!


3 responses to “Hanoi | Master(s) of Puppets

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