On Friday April 4th, at 2.00 p.m., the United States Ambassador in Vietnam, Mr Raymond Burghardt, paid a visit to the Most venerable Thich Huyen Quang at the Kim Lien Pagoda in Hanoi. This is the first time Thich Huyen Quang has received a visit from a US Ambassador since he was placed under house arrest in Cho Chua hamlet in the remote province of Quang Ngai province over two decades ago. Since he arrived in Hanoi for medical treatment in March, the leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has meet with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and been invited by the Ambassador of the European Union as well as diplomatic envoys from the USA and EU member states Austria, France, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.
Venerable Thich Huyen Quang told IBIB Director Vo Van Ai by telephone that Ambassador Burghardt was very kind and sympathetic, inquiring in detail about his health and recent operation. The US Ambassador assured the UBCV Patriarch of his own personal concern and that of the United States for the welfare of Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and his Deputy, Venerable Thich Quang Do, and said that the US continued to urge Vietnam to release them both.
Venerable Thich Huyen Quang said Ambassador Burghardt had asked him several specific questions about the UBCV, e.g. : <>“What is the UBCV’s current membership ?” Venerable Thich Huyen Quang replied : <>“Just the same as it was before it was banned. Almost all Vietnamese Buddhists follow the UBCV”. “How do you know that ?” : “All the Buddhists who have visited me over the past two decades have told me so. Outside appearances may be deceiving. But on the inside, monks, nuns, lay-followers and Pagodas remain faithful to the UBCV”. “What are the aims of the UBCV ?” : “The UBCV’s sole aim is to pursue the 2,000-year-strong tradition of Vietnamese Buddhism, i.e. to engage alongside the people in their combat to preserve national sovereignty and bring freedom, peace and prosperity to Vietnam”. He told Ambassador Burghardt that the UBCV had suffered systematic repression since 1975, but that his recent meeting with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai was a promising sign that changes may be in sight. He also told Ambassador Burghart that political pressures had led to discord amongst a small faction of Buddhists. The only way to solve this, he said, was to establish special Statutes for Buddhism which would guarantee its independence from political control.
This morning (Monday 7th April), Venerable Thich Huyen Quang arrived in the city of Hue, where he is making a stop on his way back to Quang Ngai. Although no official announcement had been made, news of the visit spread rapidly by word of mouth throughout the Buddhist community last night. When Venerable Thich Huyen Quang arrived in Hue on the night train from Hanoi at 10.13 a.m. today (Vietnam time), over a thousand Buddhists, including many senior dignitaries from the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) thronged to greet him at the railway station, carrying flowers and waving Buddhist flags. Local Buddhists were joined by bus-loads of Buddhists from Quang Tri, Quang Nam and Da Nang who set off last night after hearing the news. Buddhists were especially moved to see 95-year-old Thich Nu Dieu Tri, head of the State-sponsored VBC community of nun’s in Thua Thien – Hue, leading a large delegation of nuns to greet the UBCV Patriarch.
As Venerable Thich Huyen Quang stepped off the train, Buddhists followers lifted him bodily and carried him in triumph outside. When he emerged from the station, the crowd of over one thousand monks, nuns, members of the Buddhist Youth Movement (Gia Ðình Phật tử) and lay-Buddhists knelt down in the road and bowed down before him. Despite his age and fragile health, 86-year-old Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, visibly very moved, insisted on walking the 200 yards to his car between the rows of Buddhist monks, nuns and followers lining the road outside the station. Buddhists carrying two yellow ceremonial parasols shaded the UBCV leader from the burning sun. He was taken by car to Tu Dam Pagoda. Security Police were present in large numbers, but made no attempt to intervene.
A further crowd of over a thousand Buddhists were waiting for Venerable Thich Huyen Quang at the Tu Dam Pagoda. UBCV Buddhists told the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) by phone that many Buddhist followers and clergy were sobbing with emotion as they heard the UBCV Patriarch speak for the first time in over 20 years. They told IBIB that UBCV Buddhists placed great hopes in the recent meeting between Premier Phan Van Khai and Venerable Thich Huyen Quang. <>“We realize that the Prime Minister has made no concrete promises. But he has made an important gesture which has raised the hopes of Buddhists all over the country. We cannot believe that he will go back on this. We count on him to release our leaders Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, and restore the right to existence of the UBCV”.
The arrival of UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Hue is a highly symbolic event for Vietnamese Buddhists. Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, is also the capital of Buddhist dissent against the Communist regime. In 1992, following the death of Venerable Thich Don Hau, former UBCV Patriarch and Superior monk of the Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue, a conflict broke out between the authorities and the UBCV. The Government attempted to turn the funeral into a political event by pronouncing political speeches and posthumously awarding Thich Don Hau the Ho Chi Minh medal of merit. UBCV Buddhists took to the streets in protest, forcing the government to step down. In his will, Thich Don Hau appointed Thich Huyen Quang, then under house arrest, to succeed him as head of the UBCV. The Communist authorities fiercely opposed this, and launched a wide-spread clamp-down against the UBCV. Tension escalated, a young Buddhist immolated himself at the Linh Mu Pagoda, and protests culminated in a demonstration of 40,000 Buddhists on 24, May 1993, the largest-ever public demonstration in post-war Vietnam. Four monks from Linh Mu Pagoda, including Superior monk Venerable Thich Tri Tuu, were sentenced to 3 – 4 years hard labour and incarcerated in Ba Sao Reeducation camp in Nam Ha Province, northern Vietnam. Since then, Linh Mu Pagoda has been under strict Police control, with several Security Police disguised as monks in permanent residence.
Tu Dam Pagoda, which is currently the Headquarters of the State-sponsored VBC in Thua Thien – Hue, is also a place of historic significance for Buddhists. In 1951, Vietnamese Buddhists from North, Central and South Vietnam met at the Tu Dam Pagoda and founded the first ever Unified Buddhist body, the “General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists” (1), fore-runner of the UBCV (2). In the 1960s, Tu Dam Pagoda was also the centre of Buddhist protests against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. In the late 1950s, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang was Superior monk at Tu Dam Pagoda and President of the Association of Buddhist in Hue.
Tomorrow, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang will go to Linh Mu Pagoda to visit the stupa of the late UBCV Patriarch Thich Don Hau.
(1) At the time, under Colonial Decree No 10, only Catholics were granted the status of “Church” – all other religions had the mere status of “Association”.
(2) The concept of « unification » is unique to Vietnamese Buddhism. It not only designates the unification of three regions of Vietnam, but particularly the unification of the Sangha (community of monks and nuns) and the laity, and the unification of different schools of Buddhism – notably the Mahayana and Hinayana schools, into one body. Vietnam is the only Buddhist country where this tradition of unification – initiated by the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam – exists. The Communist authorities have attempted to forcibly “unify” UBCV Buddhists with the State-sponsored VBC, but the UBCV has resolutely resisted this forced political alliance.