Truc Lam sits at the other end of Dalat’s cable car ride, and is best reached by parking your bike at Robin Hill, getting a round trip cable car ticket and easing down the scenic 2.4 km route to the pagoda.
Built in 1994, the young monastery overlooks Tuyen Lam Lake and follows the practice of Truc Lam, started by Emperor Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), who gave up his throne to travel around Vietnam as a Buddhist monk.
Two entrances lead inside, one sporting a brisk 61 steps and the other offering a calorie-burning 222, which rise past the triple-gated entrance and into the main courtyard. On the 24 hectare plot, two hectares are used for the pagoda’s religious buildings and living quarters, where about 100 monks and nuns study and reside.
Strolling Truc Lam's grounds is cathartic. Just be sure to have a roll of toilet paper on hand: the toilet is basically a hole in the ground. If you're hungry, there's a snack shop at the entrance near the cable car station, reasonably priced but pricy compared to the rest of Dalat's convenience stores.
We sat down with one of the older monks at Truc Lam for a brief Q&A over some green tea.
He spoke English well, with some pauses between his sentences for dramatic effect. We already had the hard facts from our online research, so we skipped the usual questions about size and history. What we really wanted to know was if the stuff we’d read in books – texts like Siddhartha, where central figures went through periods of hardship and asceticism to obtain enlightenment – was a valid representation of life at Truc Lam.
As it turns out, a monk’s life isn’t so much a courageous crawl out of a pit as a patient stroll through fields of never-ending grass. In fact, the practice encourages power of choice and free will rather than strict devotion. Indeed, the monk we spoke to said there were 84,000 ways to practice Buddhism; it was up to the devotee to choose the way they carried out their duties.
Anyone can become a monk or nun, even a foreigner. (Although, if you’re coming into the country to shave your head and live a life of celibacy under official terms, it might prove a bit difficult: you need permission from the government before you’re accepted into a monastery.) The training monk/nun must undergo a trial period, where he or she studies ancient texts, listens to monks’ teachings and then chooses his or her own way of practice.
There are five basic principles every monk must follow, which are sort of like the Ten Commandments (cut in half): don’t kill, steal, commit adultery, lie or get angry.
People tend to desire mystical experiences and supernatural revelations. They expect an end result: nirvana, enlightenment, floating inches above the ground in full lotus position. People start looking externally, as the monk explained to us, when true enlightenment was internal. He recounted a few parables with a storyteller’s grin. We listened and sipped our tea. After each story he’d look at each of us in turn, beaming, expectant.