Deep Questioning: The Kalama Sutta Comes Alive

by Ven Kobutsu Malone, The BUddhist Channel, Oct 2, 2009

Sedgwick, ME (USA) -- In keeping with the spirit of the Kalama Sutta, it is perhaps wise to be very suspicious of the recent Bat Nhan Monastery stories out of Vietnam. It appears the "Buddhist world" is getting behind the Thich Nhat Hanh followers without question. There are however, a lot of questions:

It is obvious that the Thich Nhat Hanh people have a well-oiled propaganda machine going. The site purported to represent the monastery only represents the voice of the Thich Nhat Hanh clergy at the Bat Nha Monastery. The site is registered to Deer Park Monastery, Thich Nhat Hanh’s facility in Escondido, California. Is it possible that this perhaps inflames the local residents who may feel that the Thich Nhat Hanh followers had taken over their temple?

A recent article reports Bat Nha as being "Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery,"[i] that is incorrect. Venerable Thich Duc Nghi is the Abbot of Bat Nha and he invited Thich Nhat Hanh to help develop the monastery, Thich Nhat Hanh did not establish Bat Nha. It has been reported that the Thich Nhat Hanh people arranged to occupy a subsection of the original monastery and built buildings there. It has also been reported that Thich Duc Nghi rescinded his welcome of Thich Nhat Hanh followers after doctrinal disputes arose, first asking them to leave, then in time telling them to leave.

We have yet to hear verified statements from local people, local Buddhist clergy, or the temple Abbot, Thich Duc Nghi. The Ben Stocking AP article[ii] raised suspicion, in that the sources of information Mr. Stocking presented were overwhelmingly from Thich Nhat Hanh followers. Did not Mr. Stocking have an ethical obligation to interview local people to balance his article rather than relying on press releases and interviews with supporters of only one side?

Is the real issue here more than likely the behavior of Thich Nhat Hanh's clergy? They were told to leave a year ago; in an entire year they could not negotiate an arrangement? "Deep listening" for a YEAR could only result in a standoff? Is there something wrong with this picture?

Is it possible that the local people and local Buddhist clergy had enough of Thich Nhat Hanh's followers and drove them off; and the police presence was simply an attempt to maintain order? Might what may be transpiring here be perhaps the response of local people to the difference between a personality cult and a traditional monastic community in Vietnam? Were any court cases brought? Did any litigation take place? Were Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers under any sort of court order?

It has been reported that the temple Abbot, Thich Duc Nghi, originally embraced Thich Nhat Hanh but after a year changed his mind. The Thich Nhat Hanh people claim it was through government pressure, yet reports cite “doctrinal disputes” as the reason for the disagreements. Which is it? Perhaps the Abbot and the locals had enough of this large group of foreigners moving into the local temple? If the newcomers weren't doing their share, taking over, disrespecting local people, acting "holier that thou" or generally acting in a passive/aggressive manner, is it not easy to see how local people would be upset and is it not easy to see how Abbot Thich Duc Nghi would ask them to leave?

Apparently, according to reports, they were first asked to leave, then told to leave - they remained intransigent and refused. What did they expect? After being told to leave by the Monastery Abbot, did they not become essentially squatters? If a bunch of squatting monks and nuns take over a local temple and refuse to move at the Abbot’s request, then order - for a year, it is easy to see how local people and clergy might be annoyed.

Are the Thich Nhat Hanh people are putting a religious persecution spin on this when it is a matter of local people resenting an influx of foreigners presenting "Buddhist" teachings in an unfamiliar light? Might it be that Thich Nhat Hanh's people made some bad decisions, reacted in a childish passive/aggressive manner and are attempting to shift blame? Is it possible that the Vietnamese government’s reported summation of the situation as a dispute between two Buddhist factions is indeed correct?

How were all these Thich Nhat Hanh monks and nuns being supported and funded? Were the local people supporting them as is customary with local clergy? It is easy to see how folks might resent that if that is the case. The AP article reports some 380 monks and nuns present who are followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, that is a huge number of extra people for a temple to support.

How did these people behave? What brought about the change in circumstances? Where are the perspectives of the local people in the press? Why is there so much apparently vitriolic rhetoric coming out of the Thich Nhat Hanh camp? Are well meaning Buddhist people being manipulated into taking the side of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers and not getting the full story? Too many questions remain unanswered.

No one likes the idea of forcing monks and nuns from their "home" – as an ideological perspective. However, experience with monasticism reveals that monastic communities undergo a constant flux of people leaving and arriving. Monks and nuns are by definition "leavers of home" - a monastery is never some sort of idyllic homestead. Folks are asked to leave, told to leave, and have even been physically extracted during psychotic breaks in monastic environs. It is easy to envision how an Abbot would have to make a decision to dis-invite a segment of a community out of necessity. That is a responsibility that goes with the job.

We can hope that Venerable Thich Duc Nghi, the Abbot of the Bat Nha Monastery eventually tells his story publicly. We can also hope that local parishioners and indigenous clergy speak out. We might perhaps be not too optimistic about them coming forward because to do so would involve losing face to a certain extent. They would also place themselves in the awkward position of having to point out the faults of the Thich Nhat Hanh followers; this would be very distasteful for most Vietnamese people.

Perhaps these questions can serve as an inspiration to an investigative reporter on the ground in Vietnam to look into this case in much greater depth and gain a perspective from the local people around Ap Thanh Huong.