The Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Patriarch of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has sent a Message to Vietnamese Buddhists on the occasion of the Lunar New Year of the Goat, 1st February 2003. Sent clandestinely from the small hut near Quang Phuoc Pagoda, Nghia Hanh village in the remote central province of Quang Ngai where the UBCV Patriarch has been detained without trial since 1982, the Message calls on Buddhists at home and abroad to firmly resist political and religious repression, and engage in the nonviolent struggle for democracy, religious freedom and the respect of fundamental human rights.
Detained alone, deprived of adequate medical care and routinely threatened and harassed by Security Police, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, 85, is in very poor health as a result of his harsh detention conditions. But he appears undaunted by this isolation and fully confident in the UBCV : “Over more than twenty years spent in internal exile here in Nghia Hanh villaeg, Quang Ngai, each New Year, I observe how deeply Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers at home and abroad care about the welfare of our people and our faith, and I feel as if Spring flowers are blossoming and warming my heart”. Following a year of increased persecution against the UBCV, Thich Huyen Quang urges Buddhists to stand firm against government repression : “…today, Vietnamese Buddhism is assailed by hardships. But we Buddhists must overcome these vicissitudes with fearlessness and serenity. We must transcend the two extremes of pessimism and optimism, for these are the transient products of passionate reaction. If we remain fearless and serene, we can overcome ignorance and dogmatism, and continue our mission of delivering people from suffering”.
The essence of Vietnamese Buddhism, stresses Thich Huyen Quang, lies in its spirit of freedom and justice, and its unique tradition of social activism. Over the past 2,000 years, “Buddhists have always been at the forefront of the struggle against slavery by foreign cultures and ideologies which seek to assimilate and destroy Vietnamese cultural identity, to protect the people’s sovereignty, right to life, religious freedom and social welfare”. As early as the XI Century, he wrote, Buddhist monarch Ly Nhan Tong explicitly encouraged Buddhist monks and lay-followers to participate in all aspect of the nation’s political and social life. “There is no task a Buddhist will not do, providing that it aims to free humankind from suffering, deliver society from poverty and injustice, safeguard the people’s right of self-determination of their nation, culture and spiritual heritage”. In modern terms, this means struggling for the right to choose one’s own political regime, enjoy democratic freedoms and freely practice one’s independent religious beliefs.
Speaking of Vietnam today, Thich Huyen Quang observed that “our society is in crisis, spiritual values are in decline, social problems are rife, society is polarized, cliques and gangs rule the roost with total impunity”. Buddhists cannot close their eyes and accept this situation, but must implement the “Six Buddhist Precepts of Peaceful and Harmonious Living” in their daily life. These precepts, if fully realized, will help build a society based on “ethical equality” (the elimination of gender, class and racial discrimination) “social equality and harmony” (the reduction of the wealth gap between rich and poor. This rocketing wealth gap, exacerbated by the economic liberalization, is a major source of exclusion for the rural poor, who constitute the majority of the Vietnamese population).
In conclusion, Thich Huyen Quang observes that “Never, in all our history, have there been so many Buddhist monks and followers living in countries all over the world.” The role of Buddhists overseas is crucially important today, because “UBCV leaders [inside Vietnam] are in prison or under house arrest, and are impeded from accomplishing their mission”. He appeals to Vietnamese Buddhists abroad to develop the spirit of Vietnamese Buddhism, and be the voice of repressed Buddhists in Vietnam by informing international opinion and mobilizing support for the UBCV’s movement for democracy, human rights and religious freedom.
One of the most prominent detained UBCV leaders in Vietnam is Venerable Thich Quang Do, outspoken dissident and Head of the UBCV’s Institute for the Dissemination of the Dharma (Vien Hoa Dao). Traditionally, Thich Quang Do should also have issued a New Year Message, but he has been unable to do so for the past two years. In June 2001, Thich Quang Do was sentenced to 2 years “administrative detention” for launching an “Appeal for Democracy in Vietnam” and planning to lead a UBCV delegation to escort Thich Huyen Quang to Saigon for medical treatment. He has been detained incommunicado since then at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon.
This New Year Message comes at a time when the authorities are increasing repression against Buddhism and other religious denominations, notably the ethnic Christian Montagnards. Even State-sponsored bodies are subjected to increased controls. The Government Board of Religious Affairs recently prohibited the State-sponsored “Vietnam Buddhist Church” from displaying the Buddhist flag at their 5th Congress in Hanoi. The seven-coulored flag, which is recognized by Buddhists worldwide as the symbol of their faith, was rejected as being “un-Vietnamese” by the Board’s Director, Le Quang Vinh. The only flag authorized at the VBC Congress was the red flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1963, the banning of the Buddhist flag by President Ngo Dinh Diem triggered off massive protests by Buddhists in Hue, culminating in the overthrow of the Diem regime. Leaders of the State-sponsored VBC, which is controlled by the Community Party’s Fatherland Front, made no protests against this ban.