The Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has sent a Message to Vietnamese Buddhists on the occasion of the Lunar New Year of the Monkey today, 22nd January 2004. The Message was sent clandestinely from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh, where Venerable Thich Huyen Quang is currently detained incommunicado. The 86-year-old UBCV Patriarch, who has spent 21 years under house arrest without trial (1982-2003), has been held in total isolation since October 9th 2003, when he was arrested with UBCV Deputy leader Thich Quang Do and several senior UBCV monks for organizing a Special Assembly of the banned UBCV in Binh Dinh to elect a new leadership. Although they have not been formally charged, Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do are both under investigation for “possessing state secrets”, a crime which carries the death penalty in Vietnam.
Looking back on a year of significant upheavals for the UBCV, which began with great hopes after the landmark meeting between the UBCV Patriarch and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on April 2nd and ended tragically with a widespread, brutal government crack-down in October 2003, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang exhorted Buddhists not to lose hope, but to look upon these fluctuations as a lesson in impermanence : “The advent of every New Year shows us how to advance our condition by learning the universal law of impermanence : we can find happiness and destroy suffering if only we realize that all things are impermanent, and use this knowledge as a means of deliverance, instead of remaining prisoners within the bonds of slavery, ignorance and fanaticism”.
“It is because we understand the nature of impermanence that the fierce crack-down on the UBCV after the Special Assembly in Nguyen Thieu Monastery in October 2003 has not succeeded in perturbing the UBCV leadership. All our senior monks have been placed under house arrest, subjected to harassment and repression. Venerable Thich Quang Do and myself are living in conditions indistinguishable from imprisonment. But we are not intimidated. We have already endured decades of repression. One more crack-down launched by the authorities against us, however harsh it may be, can never make us to abandon our commitment to protect our faith and the people of Vietnam”.
Thich Huyen Quang told Buddhists that the UBCV is still very much alive in Vietnam, despite almost 30 years of repression by the Communist authorities. “As you know, at the beginning of the year I went to Hanoi for medical treatment. After that, I met with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. Subsequently, I traveled to Hue and visited many provinces in the South, as far as the province of My Tho. All over Vietnam, wherever I went, I found unwavering support for the UBCV. Our infrastructures are intact, Buddhist monks, nuns and followers remain profoundly devoted to the UBCV, although they cannot yet openly claim their adherence. I also visited some former UBCV senior monks who have now joined the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. Even they expressed their respect and attachment to the UBCV… Everyone asked me : “When will “our” Church regain its freedom of activities after being banned for so long ?”.
In his Message, Thich Huyen Quang thanked the international community for supporting the banned UBCV : “I have sent a letter to Members of the United States Congress and the European Parliament to thank them for calling for the re-establishment of the UBCV’s legitimate status and the release of all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.” He also paid homage to Venerable Thich Chan Hy who immolated himself in North Carolina, USA in December 2003. “I was very moved to hear that Venerable Thich Chan Hy had immolated himself to call for religious freedom, human rights and democracy in Vietnam…. Two years ago, Buddhist Youth leader Ho Tan Anh [in Danang] made a similar sacrifice. I am deeply grieved by these tragic acts, and wish that they might never take place again. Let us hope that these Torches of Wisdom will awaken the Vietnamese government and make them change their policies, encouraging them to promote justice and equality and cease repression and discrimination”.
Thich Huyen Quang stressed that Vietnamese Buddhism is deeply impregnated with the spirit of freedom and social justice, and demands the right to social activism denied by the “State-controlled Buddhism” imposed by the Communist regime. “Buddhism came to this earth to purify the world and deliver all beings from suffering. It cannot be reduced to sermons and preaching”… UBCV Buddhists must strive to become « boddhisattva » – one who attains self-enlightenment but remains committed to emancipating his fellows from suffering and injustice. “This is the path and the pledge taken by our ancestors and the founders of our faith in Vietnam for the past two thousand years. We are the heirs to this tradition, and it is our duty to perpetuate it by re-establishing the UBCV and working to restore peace and stability to our nation. We cannot derogate from this task, nor place our hopes in some radiant future in another life… It is the responsibility of each one of us, and we must realize it in our daily lives, here and now”.
Vietnamese Buddhists should continue this tradition of social engagement, and not content themselves with the practice of quasi-superstitious rites. “We practice the symbolic rituals of setting free birds and fish, yet we do not think of helping the poor or trying to defend victims of repression. This is the contrary of the Boddhisattva spirit…”.