Buddhist leader returns to Vietnam to heal war wounds

24-Feb-2007 Intellasia | VoA | 9:53 AM Print This Post

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The renowned Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has returned to his native Vietnam. Hanh, who has tens of thousands of followers in France and the United States, plans to conduct mass prayer ceremonies. It is Hanh’s second trip back to his homeland since the 1960s, when he was exiled from what was then South Vietnam due to his anti-war views. Hundreds of supporters from Vietnam and overseas were on hand at the airport in HCM City to greet the arrival of Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Hanh, 80, and his entourage have come to Vietnam to conduct three large ceremonies, which he calls requiem masses, to honor the country’s war dead. One will be held in each of Vietnam’s major cities of HCM City, Hue, and Hanoi.

Thich Phuoc Chi is a monk at Phap Van pagoda in HCM City, where Hanh will stay. He explains the goal of the ceremonies.

Chi says the ceremonies are a Vietnamese family ritual, which Thich Nhat Hanh has carried to a national level. He says they will honor the soldiers who fell on both sides of the war with the US, to eradicate hatred and to clear the false accusations against the dead.

Hanh moved to the West after being exiled from South Vietnam in 1966. He was a leader in the Buddhist Peace Movement that opposed the war with the US. In the United States, he became close to anti-war religious figures such as civil rights activist Martin Luther King.

In the West, Hanh developed a large following with an accessible version of Zen focusing on mindfulness or concentrating thoughts and actions on the present moment. His monastic group, the Order of Interbeing, has thousands of members, with centres in France, Vermont and California, and his books have sold millions of copies.

His works were banned in Vietnam until two-years ago, when he reached an agreement with the government. He returned for the first time in February 2005 and lectured to thousands of curious Vietnamese monks and lay people.

Since then, Hanh’s influence among Vietnamese Buddhists has grown. Thich Huan is another monk at the Phap Van pagoda, says both clergy and lay people read Hanh’s books widely.

Thich Dam Nguyen, a monk at the Yen Tu pagoda in northern Vietnam, explains that Hanh’s form of Zen is something new, especially in northern Vietnam.

Nguyen says Northerners traditionally practice an intensive sitting meditation called Tinh Do, whereas Hanh’s Zen method can be practiced while walking around. Nguyen says he used to be afraid of Zen, but since Hanh’s visit, he has begun to enjoy it.

Hanh’s returns to Vietnam have provoked some dissension among Vietnamese Buddhists. Many of the monks Hanh started out with are now leaders of the Unification Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which is banned by the government.

The UBCV’s leaders, Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, have spent years in prison and under house arrest. Thich Quang Do refused to meet with Hanh when he returned in 2005, fearing the Vietnamese government would use Hanh’s trip as propaganda.

In Paris, the UBCV spokesman, Vo Van Ai, said he was shocked that Hanh would visit Vietnam while UBCV leaders are under house arrest.

“I believe Thich Nhat Hanh’s trip is manipulated by the Hanoi government to hide its repression of the UBCV and create a false impression of religious freedom in Vietnam,” he said.

But the Vietnamese government has raised its own objections to Hanh’s ceremonies, which are normally called “giai oan”.

Chi says that the phrase “giai oan” means absolving people of false charges. But in the case of those who fought for South Vietnam, the government considers them guilty of betraying the Vietnamese people for what it calls an US puppet regime.

Due to the sensitivity of the term “giai oan”, Thich Nhat Hanh’s deputy, Brother Phap An, says they have decided to call the rituals “equalisation ceremonies”.

Government denies arrest of dissident priest

24/Feb/2007 Intellasia | dpa German Press Agency

Vietnam’s government spokesman on Friday February 23 denied that police had arrested a prominent Catholic priest and two other dissidents but confirmed a raid on the priest’s office and accused him of illegal “acts of incitement.” However, an official at the diocese of Father Nguyen Van Ly, 59, said his office was being guarded by two uniformed police and he was not allowed to leave.

An overseas dissidents’ group said Father Ly had begun a hunger strike, although the information could not be confirmed. government spokesman Le Dung said that Father Ly and two other Hue-based democracy activists, Nguyen Phong and Nguyen Binh Thanh, had not been formally arrested -but did not answer questions on whether they were being detained in their homes. “There is no arrest of these three people. Currently, they are living in their residences,” Dung said in a statement. Dung confirmed that police on Sunday raided Father Ly’s diocese home in the central province of Hue while “investigating acts of legal violation by Ly.” He said the priest is being investigated on suspicion of violating Article 87 of Vietnamese law that bans “undermining national unity.”

Sunday’s raid on the Catholic church came less than a month after a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung aimed at paving the way to normalising relations between the communist government and the Vatican.

Dung did not address reports of similar raids on the homes of Nguyen Phong and Nguyen Binh Thanh (none are related), who are co-founders of the illegal Vietnam Progression Party. Opposition political groups are banned in the communist country. Both Phong and Binh Thanh were reported by dissident groups to have been arrested over last week’s Tet holiday and not seen since. Police in Hue declined to comment on Friday February 23 when reached by telephone.

Father Ly has spent a total of 14 years in prison since 1983 for his opposition to the Communist Party’s sole rule in Vietnam. He was most recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for “undermining national unity” but was released in a general amnesty in 2005. On Friday February 23, government spokesman Dung accused Father Ly specifically of violating the terms of his release.

“Ly has shown no repentance since his release, refusing to comply with his probation sentence,” Dung said in the statement. “He has even conducted acts of inciting and gathering some elements against the authority.”

On Friday February 23, a call to Father Ly’s diocese was answered by a man who said two uniformed police were guarding the priest’s office, though visitors had been allowed inside. “I don’t think he is allowed to leave the office,” said the church official, who declined to give his name.

 


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