Sunday, September 23, 2012


Perception is at the root tips of all thought. Thoughts originate from what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. With no sense for vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell, there can be no perception. Such is the state of Mind prescribed by the Heart Sutra. I have seriously wondered why and how such a state of Mind could be the source for awakening. What is the atmosphere inside oneself at the moment when all of our senses cease to exist? -- I have wondered. How does one perceive such a state of Emptiness? I suppose one could think of it as a shockingly pleasant  atmosphere. It is shocking because of the unexpected and surreal nature of the environment that is present when all senses have completely and totally vanished. It has to be an  atmosphere  that one would never want to leave because it is so unique.  I may never actually find an answer as to how one could block all senses from the conscious Mind, except by spontaneously and unexpectedly experiencing such a state of Mind myself. 

We perceive of many things for which a meaning and its purpose may not be known at the instant of perception. The more we think, the better the perception gets. Prior to my visit to Vietnam I had been researching the potential for hydropower harvesting from the abundance of natural, renewable hydropower resources in Vietnam. I wanted to see a map of all the rivers of Vietnam so I could get inspired by the abundance of water in Vietnam. This would have given me the feeling for why I had the urge to do what I had hoped for. I was seeking a map of just the rivers in Vietnam, their origins from neighboring China, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, names so I could be familiar with the large and small rivers in Vietnam, and their flow paths. Knowing the geography and landscape of Vietnam, it was clear in my Mind that all major rivers, with origins in China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand flowed across Vietnam and drained into the South Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. However, I could not fully grasp this picture in my Mind. This led to a feeling of anguish and uncertainty of my perception of Vietnam's rich hydro power potential.  

Then suddenly, until one day, when I was searching for maps of present day Vietnam and Vietnam in the past, I came across a 19th century water color and brush painting made in approximately 1890 AD and archived at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Frankly, I was awestruck by the beauty of the painting. At first glance, my eyes focused on the shape of the coastline which resembled a bird. With the perceived head and beak pointing eastward, the perception of a bird was unavoidable. I asked my then 6-year old daughter what she saw in the picture. It was a Bird. Even more exciting, were the complex network of rivers that symbolically portrayed the rich nourishment for the perceived bird. The complex structure of intertwining rivers in the North resembled the circulatory system for the brain. All down the backbone, the rivers seemed to provide the nourishment for the bird. The Mekong River Delta with its vast resources feeding the tail end of the bird added even more meaning to the beauty in the painting. In all, I was stunned by the beauty and wanted to know more.

As I looked deeply at the painting, thoughts of the mythical bird of Vietnam popped up in my Mind. I had come to know earlier that the Phoenix, a large magnificent bird, was a symbol of Vietnam's past. But I had no clue or the knowledge as to how it had come into existence. Why would a nation adopt such a bird as a national symbol? In India, it is the Peacock. In America, it is the Bald Eagle. I could only guess that the Phoenix was a creation based on the perception of some prehistoric bird somewhere that no one in our lifetime has ever seen. I began to wonder if this could have been the perception of some ancient civilization based on the coastline. It was just a hunch. But, with not much to go by, the origin of the Phoenix remained a mystery. 

As I found out during my 6-month stay in Vietnam, it is common to see the Phoenix Bird displayed on dinnerware, on the walls of hotel lobbies, ballrooms, sports centers, and elsewhere all across Vietnam. I had seen the Phoenix displayed several times in wedding reception ballrooms and hotel lobbies. I felt lucky one night when I could not resist searching persistently, and suddenly found a picture of a hand carved Cambodian bead tray. I needed something which could give meaning to the shape of Vietnam's coastline. I had just found it. It was an eloquent and upright sitting bird, majestic, fearsome looking yet friendly, with a charming grin. It felt like a miracle. 

The finding of a hand carved object resembling the Phoenix, gave me the uncontrollable urge to deeply understand how and why such a remarkable looking bird had come into existence. Who had the perception to conceive such an awesome looking bird? -- I thought.

Thoughts about the Phoenix lingered in my Mind. Each time I saw the Phoenix displayed on the walls of some hotel, I was reminded to look for information that could lead me to the origins of the mysterious bird. I had even asked some of my colleagues if they knew of any source that could shed light on the mythical bird of Vietnam. But to no avail. They did however, mention the name of the bird as Phuong Hoang.

It was in the beginning of April 2012, when my wife, daughter and I decided to visit Vung Tau, a beautiful beach city about 120 kilometers from Saigon. It was a windy day, just hours before Typhoon Pakhar was expected to make landfall. I could see people flying kites, others reinforcing their beach property against high winds that was expected from Typhoon Pakhar, and kids playing on the beach and having fun. Then as if by miracle I saw a few kids walk up about 25 meters from where we were sitting, unfurl their kite which had the Phoenix bird printed on it, and began making preparations to fly their kite. For a moment, I could not believe what I was seeing. I was just fascinated. As much as I was tempted to meet the kids and have a chat, I refrained from doing that and just decided to sit and watch. The urge to find out more about the Phoenix had grown even more stronger. 

A couple of weeks later, as I walked across the campus of Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, I saw a monument which attracted my attention. I had passed by this monument everyday, but did not take the time to stop and look. This day must have been a special day. As I came close to the 4 meter tall structure, I could see the image of the Phoenix all around the outer periphery of what appeared to be a wheel or disc of some kind.

For the first time, I had found the replica of some significant object with the Phoenix, along with other images of animals and human shapes. It made me think there must be a way for me to search the Internet. It looked like a wheel at first. How could I search? -- I wondered. Keywords like "Ancient wheel of Vietnam", did not produce any useful result. Then in the midst of bursting thoughts, I recalled my colleague mentioning Phượng hoàng, the name of Vietnam's mythical bird. After a few late nights of searching and reading I had understood that the  Đông Sơn culture, later called Lac Viet, who lived during the Bronze Age had adopted the Phoenix as one of their symbols for prosperity. Bronze drums, with the Phoenix along the outer periphery, were cast throughout the period of  Đông Sơn culture. The culture flourished from approximately 1000 BC to 1 BC in all of Southeast Asia. Here is the face of the Ngoc Lu drum. Note the Phoenix along the outer periphery and its direction of flight in the counterclockwise direction. Why is it in that direction and what is the significance? -- I have wondered.

Despite this finding, a question that was nagging in my Mind was: Why did the Đông Sơn culture adopt this bird? What characteristics did the Đông Sơn culture see in their environment that inspired them of such a bird? 

The answers came when I found out that the Đông Sơn culture was quite advanced in agriculture and in raising farm animals like cows, pigs, chicken, ducks and other animals. They were experts at navigating the seas. As such, they built strong dugout canoes and traveled along the entire coastline, mapped all the outlets from rivers along the coast, and most likely connected the dots !! Perceiving distances is not easy. Therefore, their perceptions of coastal distances may have been distorted, while they could still maintain the anatomy of the rivers of Vietnam draining into the Sea.

The night prior to our departure from Saigon, Tam, a brilliant graduate student with whom I had engaged in some research at the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology came to say goodbye. As I saw him carry a small package to the hotel lobby I wondered if it would be something I could bring back with me. We had limited baggage space and we had already left behind some gifts that were too heavy and bulky to bring back. I knew we would be back the following year and we could bring back whatever we had left behind. I could not have guessed by any means what was in his hands that he was about to give me. He presented me with a surprise parting gift. What I saw inside the box baffled me. It was a beautiful replica of a Đông Sơn Frog Drum.

My excitement and joy at that moment could never be expressed in any amount of words no matter how hard I try. It was another miracle in my path towards better understanding the perception of the Phoenix. There was a great sense of elation and a sense of enlightenment. It was the closure to a long perceived thought, the outcome of which which I could have never guessed. I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel when all perception is lost.

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