The International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) has received a copy of a letter written by Venerable Thich Vien Dinh to Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who is currently visiting Vietnam. Thich Vien Dinh is Superior monk of both the Thap Thap Monastery in Binh Dinh province and the Giac Hoa Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The Thap Thap Monastery is a very well-known site. During the Buddhist “Renaissance” movement in the 1920s, it was one of the most important training centres for Buddhist monks and nuns.
Thich Vien Dinh’s letter, dated 19 January 2005, was written in reply to a circular letter sent by Thich Nhat Hanh from Plum Village in France to Buddhist institutes and pagodas all over Vietnam on 30 November 2004, in preparation for his visit to Vietnam. Urging all Buddhists to support his trip, Thich Nhat Hanh gave the schedule of his lectures and Dharma talks, and urged all Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers to attend them in order to “enhance their knowledge and mutually encourage each other”.
“Reading your letter, I felt both happy and sad…” wrote Thich Vien Dinh to Thich Nhat Hanh. “I am happy that you are coming back to your homeland after 40 years in exile, but sad that you never once mentioned the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in your letter. You spoke only of the Vietnam Buddhist Church, the organization set up by the government under control of the Communist Party’s Fatherland Front”. According to the schedule, Thich Nhat Hanh will speak at the Thap Thap Monastery during his visit. Thich Vien Dinh explained that he was unable to attend this meeting. Although he is Thap Thap’s Superior monk, he has been forbidden to visit the pagoda since October 2003, when he was arrested in a government crackdown on the UBCV along with Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and several other senior monks, and placed under house arrest at the Giac Hoa Pagoda in Saigon.
In this first inside viewpoint on Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit to Vietnam, Thich Vien Dinh warned the exiled monk of the tense and complex situation of Buddhism and the on-going repression against the banned UBCV. He also cautioned Thich Nhat Hanh on the dangers of seeking to play a role of “peace-maker” between independent and State-sponsored Buddhists if he was not independent himself :
“In your letter, you suggested that Venerable Thich Duc Phuong (head of the Executive Board of the State-sponsored VBC in Thua Thien-Hue) and Venerable Thich Thien Hanh (Secretary general of the UBCV’s Institute of the Sangha) go together to meet you at the airport. You also urged VBC and UBCV monks in Hue hold their regular “Bo-Tat” meeting together at the Bao Quoc Pagoda, instead of separately at the Tu Dam and Linh Quang Pagodas as they do now. That way, you said, in just a few minutes, all the Buddhists will be reconciled. I am afraid that you don’t fully grasp the situation in Vietnam. If you really want to reconcile the two churches, you must take a middle course and remain completely objective and impartial. But if you support one side and disdain the other… then everyone will think that your aim is not to reconcile, but to force one to integrate within the other. It’s just like the government calling for Buddhist “solidarity”, when they are really ordering everyone to integrate [the State-sponsored VBC]. “Solidarity” entails mutual respect, whereas “integration” means subjugating one to the other’s control…
“I suggest you follow the proposal made by the UBCV’s Deputy leader Venerable Thich Quang Do : “To reconcile our two churches, the authorities must first re-establish the UBCV’s legitimate status and free the VBC from the control of the Vietnam Fatherland Front. Only then can both sides sit down together and discuss strategies for reconciliation, without interference from outside forces. Moreover, in order to solve our problems in general, as a crucial prerequisite, we must have democracy and human rights”. That is the most obvious and sensible way of settling things, there is no other possible solution.”
The basic difference between the outlawed UBCV and the State-sponsored VBC, said Thich Vien Dinh, is that for the UBCV, the existence of Buddhism is interdependent with that of the Vietnamese people and humankind, whereas the VBC’s existence depends on that of the communist regime. He compares the VBC with the “ephemeral Buddhist churches” in the former Socialist bloc : “Before 1989, many Buddhist delegations from Communist countries came to visit Vietnam and organized visits and exchanges with the VBC. But with the demise of communism, all these Buddhist organizations completely vanished. Any Church or religious body which links its survival to the powers of a political party has lost its true identity and will perish”.
No Buddhist monks really believe in the VBC, he said. “To put it simply, there are no State-sponsored monks, there is just a State-sponsored Church. Some monks, because of pressure, personal circumstances, or many other reasons, have been cowed into submission and joined the VBC. Whereas others continue to wage nonviolent resistance, braving detention, house arrest, exile and even death…”.
Thich Vien Dinh also told Thich Nhat Hanh that the Vietnamese government’s jubilant reception of his delegation contrasted starkly with its treatment of Buddhists in Vietnam : “You live abroad, the government is receiving you like foreign guests. Also, you are only here for three months… try staying here for three years, you will see the difference ! You come here from France, the government and the State-sponsored VBC parade and entertain you with pomp and ceremony. But we Buddhists in Vietnam, including myself, do not enjoy the same treatment. Only recently, I accompanied a delegation of Buddhist monks led by Venerable Thich Quang Do travelling to Binh Dinh to visit the UBCV Patriarch who was gravely ill in hospital. We were all intercepted by Security Police and prevented from making the trip. In Vietnam today, the people are deprived of their dignity, culture, freedom and human rights. Did you know that, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh ?”.
l Buddhists in Hue report that the authorities are keeping tight control on Thich Nhat Hanh’s movements and activities. Venerable Thich Thai Hoa from the Tu Hieu Pagoda, which belongs to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist sect, flew from Hue to greet his master at the airport, and over 40 fellow monks made the 450-mile journey by car. However, Security Police prevented them from entering the airport, ostensibly to “protect the security” of Thich Nhat Hanh. The monks were forced to return to Hue without seeing Thich Nhat Hanh.
When Thich Nhat Hanh and his delegation arrived at Hanoi’s Noi Bay airport, eye-witnesses said that some 600 Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers were present to greet him, but 300 of them were in fact under-cover Security agents.
The schedule and content of Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking tour has also been subjected to numerous changes. A lecture at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy on “The role of Buddhism in contemporary society” has been changed to the strange title of “My love is dead, where are you now” ? Other lectures scheduled to take place at Hanoi University will now be held at Nguyen Ai Quoc Institute of Communist Studies.