April 18, 2011

VIET NAM: Kind-hearted monk looks after destitute elderly

HA NOI / Viet Nam News Agency / News / April 18, 2011

By Kim Cuong - Thu Trang

The elderly in Viet Nam face an uncertain future if they are poor and have no one to look after them. Some must live on the street, begging for food and money, while others may even take their own lives.

Charitable organisations such as Buddhist groups play a crucial role in providing care for the destitute elderly. One of many Buddhist pagodas across the country that offers shelter and care to the elderly is Soc Trang Province's Phuoc Lam Pagoda, run by the Venerable Thich Giac Thoi, 50, whose secular name is Tran Van Chien.

Hailing from the southern province of Kien Giang, Thoi first came to the pagoda in 1988, when he had been a monk for only a year. Two years later, he was appointed as the head of the pagoda.

Warm welcome: A view of Phuoc Lam Pagoda in Soc Trang District. — VNS File Photos

Thoi says he had the idea of establishing a home for the elderly in 1998, after an 84-year-old woman came to the pagoda, desperate to find a place to stay.

"She was homeless, exhausted, hungry and thirsty," says Thoi.

"I saw that many other elderly people also needed help, so I began seeking donations to help me build the house," he said.

Since then the pagoda's home for the elderly has provided accommodation for 34 people. Every afternoon he checks on the old people at the pagoda, providing them with food, such as noodles, and medicinal ointment.

Healing plants:Monks and old people dry Vietnamese traditional medicine at the pagoda.

"All of the elderly experienced unhappiness before being accepted here," Thoi says.

Elderly couple Le Hung Hau, 83, and Nguyen Thi Quoi, 77, from Tra Vinh Province, were homeless for nearly three years before they came to the pagoda.

Hau says he and his wife were driven into poverty after she fell ill in 2008.

"I had to sell all of my property, including my house, to pay for the hospital fees, but despite this she did not get better," he says.

"Since then we have not had a home."

In late 2009, after hearing about Phuoc Lam Pagoda, the elderly couple decided to seek help from Thoi.

"Now my wife's health has improved," says Hau.

"We have decided to live here until we die."

Another women Tran Thi Soi, 83, says that both her children had abandoned her.

Shelter from the storm:The old people are being taken care of in the pagoda.

"Despite my old age, I had to sell vegetables every day to earn my living," she says.

The pagoda has provided a home for Soi and many others like her who have been discarded by the rest of society.

The airy four room house was built for the elderly in 2002 with funds of nearly VND80 million (US$4,000).

The head of the Soc Trang Buddhist Sangha's Executive Board, Duong Nhon, says the Sangha gave the Phuoc Lam Pagoda financial help for Thoi's worthy project.

"The pagoda still faces many difficulties and lacks funds for its work, but Thoi does not hesitate to help homeless and unhappy people," says Nhon.

The elderly people who have received care and shelter at the pagoda have come from all over the country, from places such as Phan Thiet and Kien Giang provinces and HCM City.

All of them have suffered and were homeless when they came to the pagoda. Most of them lack affection and have illnesses, according to Thoi.

In addition to setting up the old people's home, the monk has expanded the pagoda's store of traditional medicines to provide health services for all disadvantaged people.

"Many old people at the pagoda suffer from illnesses so the idea of giving them treatment right at the pagoda popped into my head," he says.

Thoi assigned nun Thich Nu Dang Chieu to join a Vietnamese traditional medicine and acupuncture course.

"Thanks to donations from Buddhists from across the country, we have funds to look after old people and give them medical treatment," says Thoi.

"Many Buddhists also come to the pagoda and help us to take care of the elderly here."

Nun Chieu says that although the pagoda received donations from Buddhists, the facilities were very basic.

"We lack acupuncture equipment to give proper treatment to the people," she says.

Every day the pagoda delivers 50 to 100 packs of traditional Vietnamese medicines and provides acupuncture for 50 people. In addition, the pagoda serves meals to more than 70 people.

Currently the pagoda is building nine more rooms which will provide accommodation to more than 40 people. The VND400 million ($20,000) project is expected to be completed in a few months' time.

"Doing charitable work, helping old people, ill people and homeless people is simply following the Buddha's teachings," says Thoi.

"Carrying out this work means that I can fulfil a monk's responsibilities." — VNS

Source: Viet Nam News Service