When she was a baby, Mai Spring, born in 1974 in Vietnam during the war, already beat the odds more than once before she took her first step.
Though she was an orphan at 2 months of age, she was luckier than most of her peers in the war-torn country, because she ended up in an orphanage where volunteers helped American families find adoptive children.
By the time she was 8 months old, an American family adopted Spring and she was en route to safer grounds, just before the fall of Saigon in April of 1975.
But the trip was not ordinary, to say the least. As the C5-A Galaxy military cargo plane reached cruising altitude, a door came loose and the cabin lost pressure, debilitating the aircraft.
“We got up to full altitude with 200 orphans and eight staff members on board — the door came off and the pressure dropped,” said Spring. “The pilot tried to go back, but the plane crashed two kilometers before it could land.”
Most of the children on board died. However, the lives of the babies, tucked safely on the second level of the aircraft, were spared.
Today, 26-year-old Spring is an ordained Buddhist nun, and she strolls the California coastline on a peace walk, carrying only a sleeping bag and a small backpack with the basic necessities, relying on the goodness of others to make it through each day.
As she continues on her trek, she hopes to share her wisdom with those who cross her path.
“I may not have much to offer materially,” Spring said, “but I do have time.”
Spring tries to encourage people to be more peaceful, offers tools for meditation and takes the time to acknowledge people when she sees them. She does not consider herself a teacher, but rather somebody who shares knowledge, she said.
Spring began her California trip in Venice on March 1, and hopes to walk as far north as she can until early summer.
She arrived in Malibu a few days after the onset of her trip looking for a soup kitchen. Directed to the Labor Exchange, she met Malibu resident Mona Loo.
Loo, volunteer executive director at the Labor Exchange, invited the young woman into her home after workers introduced the two.
“It wasn’t a big decision,” said Loo. “She arrived at the Labor Exchange looking for a soup kitchen and our director, Oscar [Mondragon], usually helps women when they come. He allows them to stay in the office where they are more comfortable.”
When Spring told Loo about her journey, Loo decided that she could put Spring’s abilities to good use, while she, in turn, could also enjoy the calming element Spring would impart on her, so she offered the young traveler shelter for a few days.
“Her arrival was kind of providential to me,” said Loo, who not only enjoyed Spring’s spiritual maturity, but also needed some extra hands to accomplish the multiple political endeavors she is currently working on. “So I put her to work,” said Loo.
At the moment, Loo is working on a political bond measure, the city’s anniversary journal and, all the while, she continues to raise funds for the Labor Exchange, which is running out of money, she said. Spring helps with phone calls and administrative tasks.
Another thing that touched Loo is that Spring, who is fluent in Spanish and French, meets a lot of homeless people in her travels, so when she spent the day at the Labor Exchange people shared things with her.
“For such a young woman she shows a lot of maturity, knows more about what life is about than the average American — she chose to do this instead of her studies,” said Loo. “She understands what a life journey is and that’s what she is doing.”
Spring, the third of four children, was the only adopted child in her family.
“She grew up in the small community of Fredericton in Canada, which was not an integrated town,” said Loo. “So I’m sure part of her exploration of Buddhism was to explore her roots.”
“As a child I stood out,” concurred Spring.
After graduating from high school, Spring went to college for a few months, but she quickly decided that it was not for her. It wasn’t stimulating. “I was not challenged academically,” said Spring.
Therefore, she opted to take the school of life instead, learning as she traveled on her own. She began by traveling around Canada and the United States, working odd jobs here and there to support herself.
“It’s commendable from my point of view, but from her parents’ point of view it can be a little distressing that she is not doing a regular job,” said Loo.
Spring went back to Vietnam for the first time in 1993 in the company of her mother. When her mother left after three weeks, Spring continued to tour the country of her birth for a few months.
She became more interested in her Vietnamese cultural ancestry and hoped to join a monastery. But the Vietnamese government did not allow her to live within a monastery’s walls because she carried a Canadian passport.
However, Spring did become acquainted with Buddhism. She learned kung fu, began to meditate and became more spiritual. Her experiences in Vietnam also sensitized her. When she saw the many homeless children, she couldn’t help but think, “This could have been me.”
She was 19 when someone gave her a book about Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn that sparked her interest in Buddhism even more.
“He was an eloquent writer,” said Spring of Hahn, who was exiled from Vietnam in 1968. He has been heading a monastery near Bordeaux, France ever since.
Upon her return to the Western Hemisphere, Spring became restless again and moved to Spain. She took a few courses and began teaching English as a means of support.
While she was in Spain, someone told her about Hahn, and she decided to go to France to further her spiritual calling.
But before she was allowed to go to stay at the monastery, she had to write a letter explaining who she was and what she wanted to do. The letter made an impression on the monastery’s leaders and Spring was invited to stay.
Once again, divine intervention seemed to take place. When Spring arrived at the monastery she met a woman there who had worked in the orphanage that Spring was in when she was a baby.
Spring was ordained in 1998. The procedure is different in every monastery, she said. In her case, Spring had to write a series of letters to the community in the monastery, telling them why she wanted to become a nun. After that, she underwent a short period of observation.
“The monks look at your intentions and aspirations,” explained Spring.
“My driving force was that I was sensitive to things around me and I wanted to do something good with my life,” she said. “I had read a lot about Buddha and I was a wanderer, a nomad like him, that’s the lifestyle that appealed to me.”
But she realized monastery life was sedentary, so, after spending several months at the monastery, she decided to leave.
Once she left the monastery, Spring undertook a 300-mile journey in France, meeting people and sharing her peaceful thoughts with them. However, the French journey ended harshly when Spring was attacked by two men who had guns. Nonetheless, the nasty situation did not completely discourage Spring.
The journeys she has made teach her to be aware of people’s intentions, and “even thought bad things do happen, I move on,” she said.
Spring plans to walk the California coastline until the end of June or the middle of July, hoping to complete about 40 miles a week, but with no particular arrival point. She sleeps outdoors most of the time, counting on the generosity of others for sustenance and begging for money when necessary.
“Malibu is an exception,” she said. “I usually don’t stop this long.” Spring resumed her walk on Sunday, progressing northward once more.
As for the future, Spring has not made any definite plans. She may continue walking for peace for many more years, she said, but she is not certain of what the future will bring and she will continue to take life one day at a time without a specific agenda, other than promoting peace.
A letter to Malibu
Editors note: The following is a letter submitted by Mai Spring, a Buddhist nun who stayed a few days in Malibu, before we interviewed her for the accompanying story.
My name is Sister Spring, a young Buddhist nun walking up the California coastline on a spiritual pilgrimage for peace. This letter is only to share a glimpse of my Malibu experience.
Arriving in Malibu, with sore, blistered feet, my face being weathered by the sun, I asked a few people how to get into the “city.” They told me I was not far away. Eventually, I found myself meandering down a small road, lined with nice-looking shops and well-dressed people. As I found my way to the Civic Center and the library, I noticed a crowd of people on the other end of the parking lot. It immediately occurred to me that it might be a soup kitchen, and as I was hungry, a nomadic home-leaver, I walked, slowly approaching the array of men hanging out. There were no women in sight, and for a moment I hesitated. But the moment melted into the welcoming smiles from the men seated on the picnic table, and they asked me if I wanted to play dominoes. Smiling back, I told them that I didn’t know how to play, and asked them if there was anything around to eat. They motioned toward the trailer, and a man with a foreign accent led me to the table. They told me that this place was called the Labor Exchange, where you could get some work, and brought me inside to show me the ropes. Soon enough, I was signed up and ready to go to work.
So I waited along with all the other men, talking and mingling amongst them. They shared all pertinent information with me as a fellow homeless, shared with me some of their lives, and I listened. I listened to their stories, and they listened to mine. The morning passed quickly, and soon it was time to go. I was invited for lunch to meet one of the women in charge, and she graciously invited me to stay in her home. Since then, she has offered me another glimpse of Malibu.
The following day, she invited me to accompany her to a political fundraiser. Not knowing much about politics, as well as not being allowed to be involved with them as a Buddhist nun, I thought it might be a good learning experience as an outside observer. It was a poignant change indeed — from rags to riches, one day to the next. We drove up to this large estate, the lawn perfectly kept, and the well-dressed people scattered here and there, mingling, meandering and drinking their cocktails.
Feeling slightly out of place, shy and self-conscious, I asked myself what in the world I was doing in a place like this. However, like the day before, mingling and talking with the people was the same, although they were dressed in fancier clothes, perhaps using sophisticated language, with more rules of etiquette and a refined tension in the air. It was a change from the raw tension of yesterday, yet a tension nonetheless.
We chatted amongst one another in a friendly atmosphere, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun together. The Indian food they served was lovely. I was silently very grateful and humbled by the privilege that was bestowed upon me to eat this wonderful and delicious food. We ate in a large dining hall, decorated with elaborate statues, chandeliers and listened to the politician’s speech. Being a rather simple person, there was a lot I did not understand.
What strikes me the most about people, no matter who they are, where they come from, what language they speak, if they are rich or poor — they are all human. In some form or another, we are all searching for the same things. Beneath the rags, beneath the riches, we all want to be loved, to love, to be respected, to be happy — we laugh, we cry, we feel, we fear, we hurt, and someday we will all die. We are all the same, separated only by superficial differences of the masks we wear. Every day is a new discovery, and another reminder that we are only human. May peace be will you all.