Loi Trinh Le.
As I dream of Việt Nam in anticipation of my return, I dream also of the love that turned me towards the East. As with most love stories, people get involved and shape the narrative. My compass, my guide, my mentor and inspiration in this love was Loi Trinh Le.
We called her Trinh. A diminutive but imposing woman, she was a highly gifted acupuncturist with numerous celebrity patients thrown in for good measure. But everyone had to find her modest house in Culver City for treatments. Trinh navigated me through life’s challenges, imposing Buddhist tough love when necessary and then countering with a warmth of abounding compassion.
She would always ask “What don’t you tell me?” at the beginning of a session, establishing honesty before trust. Her needle accuracy was like a laser beam and she would always demand that I call her at 8 AM the day after a treatment. She wanted to hear my voice to diagnose the success of her treatment and the progress of my response.
After my first trip to Asia, to Japan in 2002 to celebrate our 20th anniversary during cherry blossom time (more on that in my next post), I brought Trinh some photos of Buddhist Temples in Kyoto. She’d peaked my curiosity. Mixed in with those photos was an old black and white photograph that included my Aunt Phyllis.
My mother Louise and her two sisters, Phyllis and Lorraine, worked hard as waitresses at the 20th Century Fox commissary of Darryl Zanuck (yes, stay tuned to my blog for some great Hollywood moments). My Aunt Phyllis passed away while we were in Osaka, Japan, and somehow a photo of hers was mixed in with my photos of Kyoto. The black and white in question was of a 20th Century Fox cast party with Ann Baxter, with my aunt in the background, a cherished memento of Hollywood’s Golden Age in my family.
Trinh sees this photograph and falls to the floor, prostrating herself three times and chanting. I’d never seen behavior like this in my life. I asked her, in astonishment, what had come over her. She then calmly replied to me “You have brought the souls in the photograph into my life for a reason – I either knew them or will know them and acknowledged them. There is reason for every person we encounter, even through a photograph. You need to realize you are not in Santiago, Chile, for a reason.”
It was nice to learn about reincarnation from her perspective and not a book by a Western expert!
And so our treatments continued with more and more questions, with her wisdom wiping away years of my Western philosophy hands down. By the summer of 2003 I suspected something was changing (I suspected she was going to move to be a full-time grandmother in Montreal). One afternoon I presented myself for a session and her rooms were full with patients. I thought I’d overbooked or she’d made a mistake. But no, she took me by the hand into her living room, where I’d never been.
I was quite surprised as there was a table in place for our treatment, but with a major, striking difference. I was before her family altar in her private living room, with incense perfuming the air. As she took my pulse and began gently placing acupuncture needles in my skin, she talked to me as never before.
“I am putting some needles in your skull so you never forget me. They will help you think clearly, trust me.”
She mentioned she was so happy at the birth of her grandchild, but she wanted to ask me something. The Việt Nam War had claimed her husband, and she struggled with its outcome for America, Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Before she left the room to let the needles take effect and to quietly absorb the energy of her family shrine and sweet comfort of the incense, Trinh felt my pulse again. With her hands on my wrist she softly said words I can never forget.
“I want you to try to find out why the war happened and make something wonderful take its place. Will you do this for me?”
Loi Trinh Le passed away about a month later, a year before I ever stepped foot in Việt Nam.
Hi Jeff. I was very happy to find your blog and recollection about Trinh. I was a patient of hers for a long time and very fond of her. I credit her acupuncture with helping me quite smoking 25 years ago. I can still hear her greeting me when I entered..”hi..hi..hi..” And I remember her kicking someone out because they didn’t follow her recommendations.
Thanks for sharing and I’m curious to learn about your musical world now!
Jeff von der Schmidt said:
Dear Geoff, What a nice message to receive from a story posted in 2013! My last session with her became the catalyst for now 10 trips to Vietnam and much hard work. I mention her again in a blog about the oldest Buddhist temple in the country, Chua Dau. Thanks for sending on your thoughts! Warm regards, Jeff
H Jeff, I was so grateful to read your post a few years ago. Trinh saved me from a life of physical pain by showing me the cause and guiding me on what to do. Her skill and toughness kept me on track. I regret not doing my follow up sooner before she passed. Thank you again, Char
I just reread your blog here after a few years and once again was taken with the image of Trinh and how I miss her. To elaborate on my earlier message… I started going to her in the early 90’s when we got a referral from my ex-wife’s boss (a Hollywood producer). She was so funny and intuitive. I learned a lot from my sessions with her. I even brought my twin daughters in once when they were around 6 or 7 years old. Maybe younger. They sat there with eyes wide opened as she placed the needles in my body and head. They were in rapt attention and afterwards Trinh said “they could be doctors!”. She thought that because they didn’t recoil as they watched the process. I know I wanted to jokingly tease them and fake scream when a needle went in but I thought better of it. Saved money on therapy later on too! My ex and I went to her on and off and I was still seeing her after 2000. I had gotten divorced and she was very honest about the relationship that she saw me in (she thought it good that we divorced). I had been very interested in Thich Nhat Hanh and loved his ideas and books. We had talked about going to the Deerpark Monestary in Escondido together and I’m sad that we never took that trip. A few years later I tried calling her and I got no answer so I went to the house and knocked. I could tell that no one had been around for awhile and it made me sad not knowing what had happened or where she had gone. I find it apropos that I’m writing this today having heard about Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing. I think of Trinh and Thich in the same breath. I was absorbing both of their words at the same time in my late twenties and thirties. Did she have any family members that are in the area? Do you have any contact with anyone that knew her?
Are you living in Vietnam now or another Asian country? I haven’t read your whole blog but I’m sure I can find that here but I wasn’t sure how up to date the information is.
If you ever find yourself in Los Angeles again please let me know. I’d enjoy sharing a cup of tea or coffee with you and chatting about Trinh and music as well. I make a living playing jazz piano and composing.