Vietnamese Buddhist nun's yeoman work in Japan

By Duc Trung   December 16, 2023 | 05:00 am PT
Vietnamese Buddhist nun's yeoman work in Japan
Vietnamese Buddhism nun Thich Tam Tri prays in front of an altar for Vietnamese who died in Japan at Nisshinkutsu Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Japan, March 13, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Issei Kato
Thich Tam Tri, head monk of the Dai An Pagoda in Japan's Saitama, provided shelter for thousands of Vietnamese during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The youngest of nine siblings in a family in Gia Lai Province, Thich Tam Tri, real name Nguyen Thi Du, became a Buddhist at the Buu Tinh Pagoda when she was seven.

She moved to HCMC and studied eastern philosophy at the HCMC University of Foreign Languages - Information Technology.

Her fate became intertwined with Japan’s when she met monk Daichi in 1998. Daichi first taught her about Japanese Buddhism, and she later learned about it herself, and fell in love with the country.

In 2001 she began to study in Japan, and obtained a master’s degree in Indian philosophy at the Taisho University.

In 2011, while undergoing training at the Nisshinkutsu Pagoda in Tokyo, where Daichi was based, the earthquake and tsunami disaster shook Japan to its core. It caused several Vietnamese students and apprentices to lose their homes and left them with no place to go.

Many called the embassy to ask for help, but it had no place to shelter them, and they turned to Thich Tam Tri instead. Daichi agreed to shelter as many people as possible.

Tam Tri took in 84 people.

She recalls the first day: "We only had around two kilograms of rice and some frozen rice. We defrosted it and made a big pot of porridge for everyone."

Then she called on the community for help, and a flood of noodles and other items arrived within two days, enabling those taking shelter at the pagoda to get through a month.

In 2013, when the Vietnamese Buddhist Association in Japan was formed, she became its figurehead and opened four facilities around Tokyo to receive Vietnamese coming to light incense.

In 2018 she was invited to become the head monk of the Honjo Pagoda in Saitama.

The pagoda has since become a refuge for many Vietnamese in difficult circumstances and a place to organize funerals for people losing their lives in Japan.

In July 2019 Tam Tri was among four Vietnamese commended by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for bolstering Japan’s diplomatic relations and Vietnam-Japan ties.

In early 2020 the pandemic came to Japan, causing long lockdowns and rendering thousands of Vietnamese jobless, in debt and unable to return home.

Tam Tri and other organizations helped them by providing them food and medicines, organizing funerals for the deceased and setting up community homes for those in difficult circumstances.

"When Japan was trying its best to fight the pandemic, there were always 60-70 people sleeping at the Dai An Pagoda every night," she says.

"Those taking refuge at the pagoda and its three housing areas were not infected; that was a big miracle."

Tam Tri's actions were admired in Japanese society, and many people sent rice, cash and other essential items to the pagoda.

"The pagoda has received 50 tons of rice and 600 mails about sharing, of appreciation. There were also mails expressing apologies."

Over the two years of the pandemic Tam Tri helped provide 218 tons of rice, 9,000 cartons of noodles and thousands of tons of other items. The money donated by Japanese was used for the over 2,000 Vietnamese taking refuge at the pagoda and waiting to return home.

Of the thousands of people she helped, there were some she cannot forget, like Nguyen Thi Nhung, an apprentice.

When the number of Covid infections and deaths rose in Japan, Nhung lost her job and was left without an income or home. She could not return to Vietnam either and contacted Tam Tri for help, asking to stay at the pagoda while waiting for a repatriation flight.

But before she could arrive, she was involved in a road accident and died after two days in hospital.

After her funeral, Tam Tri took Nhung's ashes back to the pagoda. When she checked her belongings to file the paperwork, she discovered two notes with handwritten Buddhist sutras.

In the last pages, Nhung had written her prayers, wishing her two young children back in Vietnam would stay safe amid the pandemic.

"As I turned the pages, the tears just kept falling," Tam Tri says, her voice breaking.

"We all thought that if we had brought Nhung sooner to the pagoda, these things would not have happened.

"Throughout the two years of the pandemic, Nhung's story became something of a regret, so we always tell ourselves not to leave behind anyone in need of help."

On June 5, 2020, the first repatriation flight to take Vietnamese home from Japan landed. There were also six urns with ashes on the flight home, Nhung's among them.

Tam Tri continued to pursue her cause, helping Vietnamese and the community in general, and teaching Buddhism at universities. After the second Dai An Pagoda opened in Tochigi in 2021, she is now pushing for the construction of a third in Tokyo.

She was honored with a certificate for social contribution by Akie Abe, the wife of assassinated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for her contributions to Japanese society.

In a meeting held in March 2022 Phung Khanh Hung, vice chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Central Committee, hailed Tam Tri and the Vietnamese Buddhist Association's activities in Japan as fostering solidarity between Vietnamese living in their motherland and elsewhere.

go to top