70 delegations of senior monks, nuns and lay-Buddhists representing sections of the Vietnamese American Unified Buddhist Congress in the USA (VAUBC-USA), leaders of the Buddhist Youth Movement and representatives of 36 organizations of the Vietnamese community and media from all over the United States, Canada and Europe gathered in San Diego, California on Sunday, 2nd May 2004 to celebrate the 2548th Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha (Vesak). This gathering marks the first in a whole season of celebrations organised by Vietnamese Buddhists all over the world which will culminate on 2nd June 2004, the official date of the Vesak Anniversary. To commemorate this event, the County Supervisor of San Diego, Mr. Ron Roberts, unveiled a “Proclamation” adopted by the San Diego authorities proclaiming 2nd May as “Buddha Day” for the 3 million inhabitants of San Diego County.
The highlight of the Festival was the reading of the Vesak Message from the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). Sent clandestinely from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh province, Vietnam, where the 86-year-old Patriarch is under house arrest, the Message was brought to San Diego by the UBCV’s Paris-based international spokesman Mr Vo Van Ai, who addressed the gathering on the current situation of the UBCV in Vietnam and his international campaigns to support the UBCV movement for religious freedom and human rights. It was read to the attendance by the Very Venerable Thich Ho Giac, President of the VAUBC-USA, and head of the overseas office of the UBCV.
Undaunted by more than 20 years in internal exile under house arrest, Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang forcefully exhorted Buddhists to be “steadfast and unshakeable” in their pursuit of freedom for Buddhism and Vietnam. This vibrant appeal, launched by one of Vietnam’s most well-know dissidents, comes after a fierce government crack-down on the banned UBCV, in which scores of UBCV monks, nuns and lay-followers were placed under official or effective house arrest, and hundreds of UBCV pagodas under round-the-clock surveillance by Security Police.
Citing the words of the UBCV’s first Patriarch Thich Thinh Khiet, Thich Huyen Quang wrote : “Buddhists do not want their nation or their faith to be destroyed. To prevent this, each one of us must develop our potentiality, devise new strategies and exert ourselves to the utmost to save our nation and our faith from the tragedy they suffer today. I call this the spirit of devotion, and it is absolutely vital in these times. The honour of Buddhism is founded on the spirit of devotion, and all Buddhists must illumine this honour for the sake of their faith (…)”. Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang warned Buddhists, however, that violence was not the way to overcome repression. “We Buddhists are conscious that the use of violence to overcome violence is not what is meant by the Buddhist ‘virtue of intrepidity’”. Armed with the vitrue of intrepidity, or fearnessness, Buddhists should confront all dangers with complete serenity, and be “steadfast and unshakeable as we spread Buddha’s teachings for the service of our people and mankind”.
In this era of global terrorism, Buddha’s teachings of enlightenment are extremely relevant, he said, for they teach how to dispel ignorance, which is the cause of all intolerance and fanatism. “Unless we can dissipate ignorance at its very roots, the violence and terrorism so prevalent today will lead inexorably to the destruction of the human race … Lord Buddha’s Path to Enlightenment can restore mankind’s completeness in this era of divisions and crisis of the human personality. Especially in this age when the very foundations of our spiritual and cultural heritage are threatened by the ‘me’ culture and consumerism of our alienated society”. For the Path to Enlightenment, he said, “is nothing other than the re-awakening of the spirituality within each individual, so that each of us may help save and emancipate all beings”.
Vietnamese Buddhists, said Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, must “develop Compassion (Karuna) and universal Wisdom (Prajna), and at the same time, engage ourselves, with one mind, in the Great Action to realize these two pillars of Buddhist thinking and overcome all assaults against Buddhism”. Because of this spirit of engagement and social activism, which has characterized Vietnamese Buddhism over the past 2,000 years, Buddhists have often been in conflict with the ruling powers, and have routinely suffered reprisals. “It is precisely because of our deep determination to emancipate all beings that we Buddhists suffer persecution today. But it is also thanks to this deep determination that Great Compassion, Great Wisdom, Great Vows and Great Action have been achieved, and that the Boddhisattvas and our Buddhist forefathers have forged the Path of Salvation across our homeland, Vietnam, over the past two thousand years”.
Evoking the notion of gender equality advocated by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago, he said, “in this modern age fraught by divisions, conflict, hatred and destruction, may the Four-fold union of monks, nuns, lay-men and lay-women, which form the foundations of Buddhism, be a symbol of unity, conciliation, love and edification for one and all.”
In conclusion, the UBCV Patriarch launched an appeal to all Vietnamese Buddhists, at home and abroad, inside and outside the UBCV: “In life, our achievements depend on our determination. I therefore call upon all monks, nuns, lay-men and lay-women to unite in a spirit of tolerance and solidarity to confront the contradictions and conflicts of our world. This is the most significant offering you can make in celebration of the Vesak”… “We must be fully conscious of the tragedy of Vietnam, whose people are alienated, whose nation is threatened, and whose unique salvation lies in the Buddhist spirit of enlightenment and liberation”…
“Buddhism knows no borders. It can flourish in a diversity of cultures. It opens new horizons, for it shows all beings within the multitude of worlds, that enlightenment is accessible to all”.
Despite a landmark meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in April 2003, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang is detained today under extremely tight controls at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh. Security Police are stationed permanently outside the Monastery gates, and all approaching vehicles are searched. The Monastery’s telephone and fax have been cut since the UBCV Patriarch was arrested in a government crack-down on the UBCV in October 2003 and placed under house arrest pending “investigation for possession of State secrets”, a crime which carries very heavy penalties in Vietnam. The US Ambassador to Vietnam, Raymond Burghardt who visited Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang on April 28th was the first foreign diplomat authorized to meet the UBCV leader since he was placed under house arrest in October 2003.