In contrast to the previous night’s scene with its thousands of colored lights, beginning in the early morning an austere religious atmosphere covered the Holy Land. People turned back to the primary purpose of their visit, the duty of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Group after group, pilgrims from all places --- and especially the Councils of Administrators from all the provinces in the western area, wearing uniforms of black long robes and turbans --- stood in orderly lines. Leading the ceremonial corps were the representatives of the Ancestral Temple (Founder’s Hall, at that time Mr. Ut and Ms. Nam of the Central Council of Administrators) followed by honorary guests, representatives of the government, and diplomatic delegations. They walked in line toward the official location for rituals at An Hoa Tu, the ancient pagoda of the village. The ceremony was simple but solemn. After the worshipping rituals, one after another, representatives of the delegations expressed their respect and shared their impressions the special occasion.
The pilgrims also had the chance to visit many art exhibitions. I paid a lot of attention to the gallery of artist Ha Khe, who brought much originality in his art as well as the influence of India, where he had made a pilgrimage by following in the footsteps of Sakyamuni Buddha. From the scene of Lumbini Garden where Buddha was born to the place of His Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree on the bank of the river Nairaõnjanaõ; from the Bodhigaõya, where He gave his very first teaching, to other preaching halls in the garden of Magadava or on the Vulture Peak, to his last resting place in Kusinagara between Saõla trees. There were also scenes of the river Ganges and the ancient city of Benares.
Ha Khe had vowed to visit the country of Buddha personally to paint His footsteps and vestiges, to enrich his own art, and later to use the paintings as materials in training classes reserved for preaching staff, since he was the deputy chief of the Central Unit for Teaching Religious Dogma. The teaching sessions about the life of Saõkyamuni Buddha were captivating thanks to those lively pictures. Ha Khe also brought them with him to make presentations and exhibitions in various universities. Unfortunately, artist Ha Khe passed away after the communists took over South Vietnam.
I was also fascinated when I attended a religion class for children. The most interesting part was the competition in reading the Prophet's teachings. The instructor would read one verse, then ask the children in what chapter this verse was, and the pupil who could answer the question first would receive an award. But the more important part was to explain the meaning of the verse. If nobody could answer, the instructor would explain it to them all. Even more exciting was the recitation of the next verse; anyone who could read the next verses would receive an award too. I was surprised how good the kids were, at the age of ten or twelve, and some of them could recite dozens of verses right after the instructor started one.
After the worship ceremony in An Hoa Tu we went back to Founder’s Hall. I was so moved at returning to the place I had spent much of my childhood before I was in school. My parents had often taken me along when they went there to do the meritorious works expected of Hoa Hao Buddhist adepts. While my father and mother were busy with their religious duties, I would join my friends in countless childish games under the shadows of the high and dense rows of coconut trees in the huge yards.
The Founder’s Hall had changed very little. The rows of tables set alongside the guest hall were still in the same place, welcoming all guests, visitors, and pilgrims who came back after religious ceremonies with good vegetarian food. The red flowers of the big sapan trees in the backyard, the earthen jars of cool and limpid rainwater --- everything was still in its own place. Afterward we went to pay our respects at the tomb of Duc Ong, just behind a nearby field. Each of these places was full of people performing their pilgrimage side by side.
The afternoon might have been the best time of all. My younger sisters would wait to be taken into the food centers to get free vegetarian food; it was delicious and they could have as much as they liked. At that time five very large food centers had been established in the Holy Land. Every year about two million free meals were given during the three days of great festivities, since about three hundred thousand people came to attend the festivities and each would eat three meals a day. Therefore, these centers were always full of animation. The units of volunteers divided their labor by shifts and according to the type of work. Some took care of the huge rice pans; others cooked gigantic caldrons of soups or salty mixed vegetables, which were so big that hundreds of people could not finish one of them. However, there was never enough food for the many consumers who came incessantly. Anyone could eat at any time and as much as they wanted, without limit or distinction. The food was always vegetarian and always the same for everyone.
How could they get such a supply of vegetables, fruits, rice, and firewood? In fact, these all came from voluntary contribution of all the believers from the provinces in the western region who observed the custom of offering food during pilgrimage every year. Without being asked, they brought their own fruits and vegetables --- melons, gourds, pumpkins, cabbages, corn, --- as well as herbs, rice, firewood, tofu, soy sauce, and fermented salty soybean cake, and gave them to the administrative units of the food centers.
Like all the other visitors, we took these meals with great pleasure; we were often hungry after so many activities, the food was delicious, and the environment was special, with so many people around us eating with appetite and comfort. I would eat the offered food and wonder how they could do that, how they could take care of so many people with no formal funding plan and no preparation --- with only the high spirit of devotion and commitment to the faith and the people.
Our family stayed in the Holy Land until the next day. I left Hoa Hao Village with a great sense of attachment. I really wanted to stay for a few more days, since I met so many old friends and relatives there. All the believers of my parents’ age always considered me their child, grandchild, or cousin, so my relatives were many. It was exactly as in the teachings of the Prophet Huynh Phu So: “The Hoa Hao connection covers all of the four oceans.”