Hanoi

The Long Walk from War to Peace

By Larry Calloway mb49-TheLong1

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in May for several retreats followed by a United Nations conference was a triumph for his “engaged Buddhism.” Not only was his global influence evident at the conference, but he and four hundred retreat participants (most of us Westerners) were warmly received on a dramatic slow walk in the center of Hanoi.

Triumph perhaps is too military a term for the vindication of an eighty-two-year-old monk who teaches “peace is every step,” but his young life was defined by war, as was his ancient nation. Not until 2005 was he free to return after thirty-nine years — exiled first by the anti-communists, then by the communists.

Sponsoring this year’s UN Vesak Conference was a significant move for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which has been criticized for religious repression but is encouraging tourism and the recovery of ancient cultural traditions. The conference at Hanoi’s proud new National Convention Center included formal workshops on a variety of issues addressed by Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic representatives. But because the world continues to suffer from “the scourge of war,” and perhaps because the conference was for the first time in Vietnam, the issues of war, conflict, and healing were foremost.

In his opening address, Phra Dharmakosajarn, one of the most prominent monks in Thailand, made the connection between world peace and Buddhism saying, “No doubt meditation and moral principles contribute to peace, since war begins in the minds of men.” Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it in his keynote address, “The roots of war and conflict are in us!”

Thay proposed “the idea of engagement,” he told us, in his first published article in 1954. It was “a time of great confusion” in Vietnam. (The French colonialists, defeated at Dien Bien Phu, were exiting and the Americans, covert sponsors of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, were entering.) As war formed in the minds of McNamara, Rusk, Bundy, the joint chiefs, the Kremlin, Mao, and others, the Vietnam Buddhists countered, in so many words: Leave Vietnam alone!

Perhaps because this was Vietnam, Thay’s Dharma talks in the eight-day retreat dwelt on the American war, as it is known there. The people of the small nation were

caught between foreign ideologies. “Everyone was willing to die for ideologies,” he said, but Buddhism teaches freedom from ideology. The fighting was with ideas and weapons from the outside. “How can you fight such a war? Brother against brother?”

In the early sixties Thay went often to the United States, where he would eventually study at Princeton, lecture at Cornell and teach at Columbia. He was a powerful multilingual anti-war speaker. But sometimes there was a problem. At a huge anti-war rally in 1966 a young man suddenly yelled, “Why are you here? You should be in Vietnam fighting the American imperialists!” In other words, Thay said, the man wanted him to fight, to kill Americans. He answered, “Well, I thought the root of the war was here — in Washington — and that’s why I have come.”

No Ordinary Protester

In Hanoi I met Paul Davis, who had a similar thought at an anti-war march in New York in the sixties. People started yelling, “Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh, you’re the one who’s gonna win.” That was never the point.

Paul was no ordinary protester. He had joined the United States Marines two weeks after his high school graduation in rural Ohio and landed at Da Nang in 1965, when the U.S. under President Johnson began direct combat operations. Davis was wounded in 1966, and while recovering in the U.S. appeared as a Marine on a panel at a college. Someone asked him if the Vietnamese wanted us there. He spun out a long response, and his interlocutor said, “You have not answered the question.” In a Zen-like, koan-like moment, Paul’s whole mental being suddenly dissolved. He held back tears. Somehow his life had changed forever.

More than ten years ago, after his son died in a car crash, Paul began attending Thich Nhat Hanh retreats. He now counsels Iraq war veterans and their families. In 2003, Paul obtained his Marine casualty report and followed the coordinates to the point where he was wounded. He recognized the distant horizon that he saw as he waited for evacuation. This was on Marble Mountain, near Da Nang, named for a pure white quarry. In the village below, dozens of shops now sell sculptures to tourists.

The War Remembered

The first morning in Hanoi I went walking around the lake (not the one John McCain dropped into) near the big government-built Kim Lien hotel that Plum Village had booked. I took photos of people walking, fishing, or just sitting by the pretty lake. There were young lovers. I was generally ignored except that some children were delighted to see their digital pictures and some old men stared at me coldly.

Later I told my discussion group that I felt the Vietnamese had forgotten the war, had moved on. Two Americans disagreed. But an expatriate Vietnamese man said the Vietnamese had not forgotten but they were used to war. The Americans were just another invader in a long history of warfare to which the nation is inured. This is a sentiment often heard in Vietnam.

One day I went to the National Fine Arts Museum and saw the artistic record of the war. There were a dozen impressions of Viet Cong guerrillas set in villages with women and often children looking on. The pictures carried a mood of grim determination and suffering. Americans were depicted as large and authoritative, including a captive pilot who was being beaten.

Hanoi also has a war museum that displays wreckage of American planes shot down, although it is not promoted for tourists. Near Saigon, however, a park called the Cu Chi Tunnels is on the tourist circuit. Here you can crawl forty feet in a dark, claustrophobic representation of the hundred miles of tunnels from which the Viet Cong attacked and vanished, unaffected by constant B52 bombardment and undiscovered by ground patrols. There are displays with mannequins representing the ingenious tricks of camouflage and cruel demonstrations of pitfalls and traps made from sharpened bamboo.

Once, our bus went through a crowded slum near the center of Hanoi and a Vietnamese woman who worked as a tour guide said, “I hate this neighborhood. It was destroyed in the Christmas bombing. There is a monument here to the dead.” The NixonKissinger bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong from December 18 to 30, 1972 was described by the Washington Post as “the most savage and senseless act of war ever visited ... by one sovereign people over another.” Senate Leader Mike Mansfield called it “a stone age tactic.” Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator at the Paris peace talks, called it “barbarous and inhumane.” It was the last desperate U.S. air offensive in a war that had already been lost. Sixteen of the one hundred B-52s were shot down. The Paris Peace Accords would be signed January 27, 1973.

Morning at the Lake

Early one morning during the retreat, we boarded buses and took a walk along the shore of the central lake, Hoan Kiem, in downtown Hanoi. People were already out doing their morning jogging and aerobics. We left the buses and gathered at the tall statue of Ly Thai To, who moved the capital to Hanoi. There were the four hundred of us in gray robes, plus thirty or so monks and nuns in brown robes with conical reed hats. We walked along the old section of Hanoi and past the historic water puppet theater and turned around near the rock pile monument with the Chinese character for heaven and passed the red bow bridge that goes to an island shrine.

Funny thing, I thought. No police. No wise guys making nervous comments. No angry motorcycle drivers urging our slow-walking meditative line to clear an intersection. Just people watching, curious. Then, about half way through the demonstration, I noticed some of them were lining up along our way. And they were standing respectfully with their palms together at their hearts.

Back at the foot of Ly Thai To sat Thich Nhat Hanh, diminutive and smiling. Many of us sat around him, as if waiting for a lesson. Without comment, he took in the air and the morning sun and the trees and the birds and the lake, which was at our backs. He suggested that we all turn around, that the view was much better that way. He smiled. He was home.

Larry Calloway lives in the high mountains near Crestone, Colorado. A retired journalist, he recently received a Master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College of Santa Fe.

PDF of this article

The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha

In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.

3 May — Returning Home Again

Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was filled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.

I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.

5 May — A Dream Come True

Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outfit.

We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing  me  with  his tender love.

This was a promise that I made to  him  before  his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.

Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries.  I  looked  around the  room filled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”

9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World

The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.

The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.

After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room filled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.

12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners

The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.

Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”

Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!

Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difficult for most of the people here, but they accept and find peace in their lives.

16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace

Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.

I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the first time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.

Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.

18 May — Ha Long Bay

Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.

People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the first step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.

20 May — Proud to Be Both

We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top floor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.

Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.

In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.

Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released fish back to the river under the light of the full moon.

This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.

24 May — Visiting Ancestors

Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.

Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice fields ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.

Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.

Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.

Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.

1 June — Memories and Gratitude

After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I finished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.

Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.

After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not find our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an office building.

The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-five years.

Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.

I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.

Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.

PDF of this issue

War, Conflict, and Healing in Belfast

By Bridgeen Rea This talk was presented at the Vesak Conference in Hanoi in May 2008.

mb51-War1

I first went to Plum Village for a week of the summer retreat in July 2005. Sitting with Thay and the Sangha around the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet — following my first-ever walking meditation— had a massive impact on me. Maybe it was the strong French sunshine or the beautiful pink lotuses, which I’d never seen before in my life, but I was deeply touched by the peace and the happiness all around me in Plum Village. I had a joyful, wonderful time and I felt lots of love. I decided to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings that week.

Back in Northern Ireland I went to meditation once a week in the Belfast Zen Centre, which follows the Soto Zen tradition. I feel like the Mindfulness Trainings worked on me, rather than me working on them. I was training to be a yoga teacher and tried to be as mindful as I could — when I remembered!

In August 2006 I went to the Neuroscience Retreat at Plum Village, where I met a psychologist from Dublin who told me I should go to Vietnam. I thought it was impossible, but I went! Many friends supported me to go and even my family were happy for me.

For the whole three weeks of segment two, I shared a room with Gladys from Hong Kong, who has now been ordained as Sister Si. I felt so happy to have met such a beautiful person. In Vietnam many of the lay friends encouraged me to start a Sangha in Belfast. In Belfast it’s not really possible to be Buddhist — if I say I practice Buddhism, people say ‘but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?’ and it’s only half a joke!

Growing Up During “the Troubles”

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1974, five years into what is known as “the Troubles.” Growing up in a divided society rife with sectarianism, hatred, and fear was the norm, but I had a happy childhood and enjoyed school.

The Troubles did penetrate my life though. I was born on July 8, which is right in the middle of the ‘marching season’ — the guaranteed time for trouble in Belfast. Belfast used to shut down and become a ghost town. I have memories of people protesting out on the streets when a hunger striker died around my eighth birthday and I didn’t get to go on a planned outing. When I was much older and wanted to have a party or an evening out in a local place, often my friends couldn’t come because of trouble in parts of the city.

mb51-War2

As a teenager I had to be aware of going to places wearing my school uniform because it identified me as Catholic. I had to be careful about going out with Protestant boys. Also I was very aware that my name, Bridgeen, labels me as a Catholic, unlike my sister’s neutral name Jenny, which can be either Catholic or Protestant.

My family doesn’t understand the practice. They ask, “What is it you do, worship Buddha?” My parents and friends understand that Buddhism is a peaceful thing, but they worry that I’m too into it. They say, “Why don’t you just go on a ‘normal’ holiday?”

In April 2007 I told my friend Sinead about the idea of Sangha — she is a poet and very open to new ideas. She thought it was wonderful! She had just had a baby and thought that Sangha would be the perfect thing to help her balance her life. So with her encouragement I called a couple of friends who were interested or at least open-minded towards Buddhism and meditation. The Tall Trees Sangha started in my apartment. After a year five of us are still practicing once a week. It is very wonderful and brings all of us many blessings.

How to Be at Peace?

By coincidence when the Sangha started in May 2007, Northern Ireland installed its first power-sharing executive. Ten years after the historic Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland finally has a locally elected government. This is something that my Granddad didn’t live to see and would never have believed could happen. Belfast has been transformed. In some ways the peace is still tenuous and people are now having to learn how to live in a new situation after forty years of conflict.

How to be at peace? My friend Sinead says: “I think there is a psychosis in the society here — there has to be, given our history — and it will take a long time for this to be resolved, even though we are witnessing miracles. They say for every year of conflict you need another year of reconciliation. And I think this affects people who live here on all sorts of levels.”

I work in the new government administration as a Press Officer — for a Minister who belongs to a party that my community once saw as the enemy. But in spite of the many positive events, sectarianism and fear are still rampant. The society is still very much divided in terms of where people live and the schools they go to. There are many social problems of deprivation, depression, and suicide.

My mindfulness practice and Sangha can’t do much on a large scale but on a micro scale five us are learning a lot from Thay and trying to nourish our good seeds. Every week we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to Thay speak on CD and we have a Dharma discussion. Two of us come from a Catholic background, one was brought up Protestant, one was brought up with no religion; there’s also a German guy whose religious background doesn’t really count in the Northern Ireland context!

Forgiving and Moving On

We don’t discuss politics or the state of society, rather our personal problems and challenges. I really believe in Thay’s saying “peace in oneself, peace in the world.” I aspire to follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, though sometimes I don’t find it easy to live up to them.

Another Sangha member in his fifties with five children says gratefully that the Sangha nourishes the spiritual aspect inside him and that it makes a space in his week. He remembers being angry and depressed during the Troubles and shouting at the TV. I think every family experienced that.

He says: “Sangha is a space where people can express themselves without upsetting anyone. It is open-minded, far from my dogmatic Christian upbringing. I always feel uplifted after it. It also helps me to relax as I am often an anxious frightened person. As I lived through the Troubles the fear in the community was palpable and people were steeped in it, and they weren’t allowed to question it. The atmosphere was full of tension, hatred and anger — sectarianism and bigotry everywhere. You were constantly waiting on something bad to happen.”

When I am out socialising and people find out I practice meditation they ask me all sorts of questions. There is a lot ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding about anything that comes from the East. There is fear that it’s some kind of cult or it’s against Christianity. Yet Belfast people are the salt of the earth; they are warm and friendly and funny! If you ever visit Belfast you will find people go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome.

Because of our history we may have a dark sense of humour, but there is also awareness of the importance of forgiveness. People understand about changing and moving on for the sake of future generations.

Bridgeen Rea, Peaceful Gift of the Heart, hosts Tall Trees Sangha in her apartment in Whiteabbey Village, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

PDF of this article