Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery Under Siege

In the early 90s, I experienced a kind of spiritual blossoming while reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the beginning of a life-long affair of the heart-mind with Thay, as he is known to his students. He became one of my main teachers and inspirations as the powerful beauty and transformative simplicity of the Buddha's teachings opened up to me.

Thay had been forced into exile from his beloved Viet Nam in the 60s for being a peace activist during the war. In fact he pioneered a form of Engaged Buddhism that showed how true Buddhism must always manifest as peace, compassion and wisdom ... even you are living in a war zone.

In exile, Thay lived and taught the path of peace in the United State [during the Viet Nam War] where he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. Eventually, he settled in France where he established a community for mindful living called Plum Village.

After 40 years in exile, in 2005, the Vietnamese government invited Thich Nhat Hanh to return to his native land for the first time. It was an incredible blessing to have been able to accompany him on that trip.
By then Thay was considered to be the senior-most Buddhist teacher in the Vietnamese Zen tradition and his home coming was seen as a chance to re-introduce the living teachings of the Buddha into a country whose Communist Government was beginning to acknowledge its failings - especially in relation to its young people.

While we were there, though already quite elderly, Thay worked very hard day and night. He taught many times all over the country and I personally witnessed teachings in fields in the middle of nowhere which were attended by thousands and thousands of people.

Buddhism, it transpired, had fallen into obscurity and decay during those 40 years thanks to the Communist clampdown on religion and the emergence of a secular society consumed by its ever-increasing poverty. Although most monasteries were allowed to remain, they were government-controlled and the senior monks and nuns nolonger fulfilled their spiritual duty to their fellow monastics and to the lay people in general.

Monasteries had become relics of an ancient past, only frequented by old ladies who still wished to make offerings and light incense at the temple as a kind of ritual to make positive merit for their loved-ones. Meanwhile, meditation and the living teachings of the Buddha were rarely taught and senior monks notoriously broke their vows. When we arrived in Viet Nam they were discovered to be openly having lovers, expensive cars, alcohol and so on.

Thay's back-to-basics approach was gentle but firm. The senior monks were all invited to renew their vows - which they did. How could they refuse such a public invitation with its implied admonishment. At the same time, without exception, they offered their monasteries and temples to Thich Nhat Hanh who would continue to be their guide.

On the evening TV News, senior communist politicians declared themselves to be Buddhist and how Thay would be their inspiration for future policy-making. It was a glorious, if surprising, moment in Viet Nams's history to be part of. But, it seems, it was to be short-lived.

On June 29 this year, one of Thay's monasteries came under siege by protesters. It is impossible at present to clearly understand what it was all about, but it seems the protesters included lay people and monks affiliated to those 'established state monasteries' who do not wish to reform afterall.
Thay's senior monks have been attacked and the monastery in question - Bat Nha - is surrounded and without water or electricity. What little food the locals can spare is all the monastics have received for a month now.

You can read a fuller account of the episode here.

Although the article portrays the incident as a new form of Buddhism being ousted by the older 'etablished' form, it is really not that at all. Quite the opposite in fact. It is more like a backlash against the more mainstream, authentic teachings of the Buddha because they challenge the corrupt behaviour of the minority.

Truly Engaged Buddhism is by its very nature political. It will radically and inevitably be a great challenge to the status quo. And that is what we are seeing now.
Furthermore, the current government seems to have changed its stance on Buddhism in Viet Nam and are keeping out of the situation. Some claim they are actually behind the protest. Either way, police have not protected the monks of Bat Nha from attack and the ongoing siege.

A senior spokesperson for Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the country's young people are flocking to Thay's reformed monasteries and dharma centres in favour of the established ones [which appear to be taking too long to change their ways], and that this is the root of the current discord.

On top of that, the government [by definition] dislikes whatever they cannot control. And this is certainly the case here. Perhaps they fear they have created a situation, however positive, that is running away from them altogether and they simply cannot allow that to continue.

The teachings of the Buddha invite us to go beyond all isms and established structures whatsoever.
Ultimately it is about the boundlessness of human potential.
Unfettered people-power was never going to sit well with the government and religious establishment of Viet Nam. And this is the latest evidence ... 'too fast, too soon'.

I suppose it was to be expected afterall.
A quiet revolution of the heart and mind is a revolution nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bruno,

    I'm a student of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche's from Bouddha, and also a doc filmmaker. I'm writing you bc I'm looking for a picture of the cave at Maratika for a piece about Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche's yangsi enthronement. I need to explain more but would rather do so outside of your blog post/ Can you please contact me by email? I'm at laurajbeatty [at]

    Many thanks and peace,