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  • That day, as my grandfather was walking home, it began to rain, not just a drizzle, but a real storm, he had forgotten his umbrella, his clothes became quickly soaked, taking refuge at a Buddhist temple, he stood under the eaves, the roof, with its green and orange tiles, the smell of sandalwood incense, he waited for the monsoon storm to pass.

    The wooden door creaked opened. A monk in persimmon robe beckoned my grandfather to wait inside. He offered him a cup of green tea. A golden Buddha, sat smiling, radiantly, peaceful.

    They conversed in French. My grandfather was living in Phnom Penh at the time, and did not speak Cambodian.

    After that day, it became a tradition. A friendship developed between the two men. Often, on his way home from work, my grandfather would pay a visit to the monk, an old man with kind eyes, his cardammon face creased by time.

    To someone who knew my grandfather, the relationship would seem odd. My grandfather had a disdain for all organized religion, both Buddhism and Christianity.

    At best, he thought monks and priests were parasites.

    At worse, he believed them to be con men, charlatans, peddling snake oil to ignorant peasants.

    But this monk was an exception. Many afternoons, as the sun was setting, my grandfather would sit with a cup of tea, talking with the monk about metaphysics and politics.

    On his last visit, before returning to Vietnam, the monk gave my grandfather a special gift. A mantra.

    “This mantra,” he said, “should be recited only in extreme emergencies.”

    “It will liberate you from danger. But the grace that comes from this mantra is not free. You will pay for it later in some other form. So use it wisely.”

    Years later, my grandfather would use this mantra on several occasions.

    One time, my aunt had a fever, that left her for days, drenched in sweat, burning, the western medicine, provided no relief, there was a possibility of death, her eyes, had that glazed mildewed look. The day after the mantra was recited, her conditions improved, she was able to swallow fluid, again, without her body retching.

    Another time, my grandfather found himself on the verge of bankruptcy and imprisonment (the allegations involved murder). A few days, after reciting the mantra, the lawsuit was dropped, the criminal investigation closed.

    When my family fled Vietnam by boat, they also recited this mantra. They credit the mantra for their good fortune. Unlike other boats which suffered the perils of pirates, whirlpools, shipwreck, my family was unmolested throughout the journey.

    And, unlike most boat people, who spent years in fetid conditions, in refugee camps in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, my family, because they were rescued by a Japanese ship lived in relative luxury at a refugee camp near Kobe.

    My own direct experience with the mantra is with my sister. My sister was in the hospital at Duke University. Her condition was getting worse and worse. I flew in from San Francisco to visit her. The doctor had warned my parents that there was even a possibility of death based on the test results from her kidney.

    My uncle recited the mantra. A few days later, my sister underwent further medical examination. To everyone’s surprise, the lab results showed that the condition had suddenly vanished. By the end of the weekend, my sister left the hospital, returned home to New York. Today, she remains free of the illness.

    The skeptical part in me does not believe in the power of the mantra. How can a few Sanskrit syllables alter the fabric of reality. Coincidence? Positive thinking?

    Nevertheless. I still keep the mantra by my side. You just never know when I might need it.

    Besides, it never hurts to try. Right?
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