Exiled monk returns to a changed Vietnam

By Tini Tran, Deseret Morning News (Associated Press), 2 April 2005

HANOI, Vietnam -- The South Vietnamese government exiled him. Its communist successor wouldn't let him return. So for 39 years, Vietnam's best-known Buddhist monk has traveled the world and built a huge and faithful audience for his message of peace and forgiveness.

Now Thich Nhat Hanh has come full circle, back to his native soil.
That the 79-year-old Zen master is being allowed to visit for three months is testimony to the transformation Vietnam has undergone in recent years. On the streets, the clatter of traffic and cell phones reveal the modern consumer society that has eclipsed the old communist ways. And a regime deeply suspicious of religion has allowed Nhat Hanh to meet with its prime minister and preach to 9,000 people at the famed Thien Mu Pagoda in central Hue.

"In a country that has gone through many decades of war, there must be a lot of suspicion and fear and hate and violence in their way of thinking, so the purpose of my visit is to decrease that level of fear and suspicion. . . . The seeds that you plant will sprout in the future," the slender, brown-robed monk said in an interview at the Hanoi pagoda where he is staying.

In the 1960s, Nhat Hanh became an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He is credited with inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against it and was nominated by King for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was abroad in 1966 when the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government banned his return. Nine years later, when the communist government seized the south, it kept the ban in force.

Today, Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Nyut Han) ranks second only to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, among Buddhist voices to the Western world. He lives in France and teaches in the United States and has won a worldwide following with his doctrine of "engaged Buddhism," which emphasizes peace, meditation, and -- in a crisis -- nonviolent civil disobedience. His books have sold more than a million copies.

His return has meant navigating a diplomatic mine field. It took a year to negotiate the government invitation to him and 200 followers to make the visit in January. Vietnam has agreed to publish some of his books here, and allow him to travel throughout the country.

But his itineraries need official approval, police discourage large attendance at his talks, and minders report his every word to the government.

His visit comes at a time of renewed human rights pressure. Last year, Washington placed Vietnam on its worst-offender list, citing its mistreatment of ethnic minority evangelicals in the Central Highlands and repression of dissident Buddhists and Catholics.

Under threat of economic sanctions, Hanoi released a half dozen political and religious dissidents in a nationwide prisoner amnesty early this year, and last month the U.S. State Department acknowledged Vietnam has made progress in relaxing curbs on religious freedom.

Indeed, public worship has flourished in recent years with crowds filling incense-fragrant temples and wooden church pews -- as long as no politics come into play.

But the patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Huyen Quang, and his deputy, Thich Quang Do, have been under house arrest for two decades, and the church has been scathing about Nhat Hanh's visit, saying it "gives a precious propaganda bonus to the Vietnamese regime but it does nothing for the cause of religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam."

Nhat Hanh asked to meet the patriarch and his deputy, and was repeatedly rebuffed.

But the soft-spoken monk seemed undeterred, radiating an earnest calm as he spoke of the need to break down the distrust between the government and independent Buddhists.

"My way is not to fight or threaten or punish but to help," he said. "We don't consider anyone as the enemy. Our enemy is wrong perceptions, hate, violence. Communist or anti-communists, from the Buddhist church or other churches -- we want to embrace them all."

He knows reconciliation will take time -- that "To reunite the country is one thing, but to reunite the hearts of the people, that is quite another thing."

In mid-April, he will leave, back to preaching and teaching abroad, in the United States and at Plum Village, the multinational retreat he founded for Zen followers in southern France. But Vietnam will stay with him.

"It's a wonderful thing to come home after 39 years, almost 40 years," he said. "It's very nice to be mindful of every step you make, to know you are touching the soil of Vietnam."