teaching tour

When Will Thay Return to Vietnam?

By Brother Chan Phap An Thich Nhat Hanh has taught and led retreats all over the world. Thousands of people have profited from his teaching. But, for over thirty years, he has been unable to return home and teach in Vietnam. Many people-Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad, as well as Western friends and students-ask, "When will the people of Vietnam have a chance to learn and practice with Thay?"

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For more than two years, quiet diplomatic efforts have been made so that Thay might go home and teach, but the efforts have not borne fruit. The government of Vietnam will only allow Thay to visit, stay in hotels, and give small Dharma talks exclusively in temples, with permission from the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCVN). Thay cannot accept these conditions.

During the Assembly of  Buddhists in Hue, Le Quang Vinh, Chairman of the Governmental Committee of Religious Affairs, declared, "The BCVN is the only legal organization of Vietnamese Buddhists in Vietnam. All individuals and organizations acting in the name of Buddhists outside of the BCVN are illegal and must be eliminated." In the history of Vietnamese Buddhism, no church organization has ever controlled the activities and practice of all Buddhists. BCVN does not represent all Vietnamese Buddhists.

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCVN) was established after the fall of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Although outlawed by three consecutive governments, UBCVN is still alive in the hearts of many Vietnamese Buddhists. Thay appreciates his brotherhood with the monks who are skillfully working in BCVN. He also respects and treasures his friendship with the monks who support the UBCVN. To accept the government's condition that he seek permission of the BCVN, Thay must acknowledge that it is the unique representative of all Vietnamese Buddhists. He cannot betray his friends in the UBCVN this way. If Thay's return to Vietnam could provide the opportunity for both sides to be together, Thay would go, but he cannot return under conditions likely to cause disharmony among brothers.

Further, if Thay goes to Vietnam, he and his monastic delegation from Plum Village must be allowed to stay in Buddhist temples, not forced to stay in hotels. Twice, monks and nuns from Plum Village visiting the root temple in Hue were forced to stay in hotels. They were allowed to visit the temple a few hours each day, but prohibited from spending the entire day. They were also forbidden to practice sitting and chanting with the temple Sangha. Never in Vietnamese history have monks and nuns been forced to stay in hotels rather than temples-not even during the most dictatorial and feudal times. If Thay and hi Sangha are allowed to stay in the temples, future visiting monks and nuns might also be allowed to stay in temples, and that would be one step toward freedom.

The restrictions on where Thay may teach are also unacceptable. Thay has taught in many different venues all over the world-Dharma centers, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, retreat centers, university gymnasiums, theaters, community centers, public halls, and even a golf course. But the government of Vietnam forbids monks and nuns from teaching outside temples. Although many Vietnamese people wish to hear Thay, because he is a monk the government will not allow him to speak in the Palace of Culture in Hanoi, the Cultural House in Hue, or Hoa Binh Theater in Saigon. Many lay scholars, artists, and performers-Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese-have been allowed to lecture and perform in these places.

The government's prohibition denies monks and nuns full citizenship, and is an injustice. If Thay is allowed to lecture freely, then other venerable monks will also have this right. That would be another step toward freedom and full citizen rights for monks and nuns in Vietnam.

The government's animosity toward Thay is clear. On October 28-30, 1998, the Fatherland Front (Mat Tran To Quoc) and the Governmental Committee on Religious Affairs summoned 250 abbots in the neighborhood of Saigon Gia Dinh to discourage their enthusiasm for welcoming Thay. The authorities stated that Thay is antirevolution, anticommunist, and antigovernment, and only seeks to return so he might open the way for other anticommunist monks, such as Venerables Tam Chau and Man Giac, to return.

Thay's work is still suppressed in Vietnam. His books and tapes are banned and confiscated. Twice recently, arrangements were made for Thay to give a telephone Dharma talk to student monks in his root temple, but each time, the telephone lines were cut. Teaching materials sent to the temple by fax machine are confiscated, a request to allow his root temple in Hue to publish ten of Thay's books has not been answered, and an application to build a library at the temple was rejected. Thay's books and tapes are only Dharma talks, offering Buddhist teaching and practices of healing, transformation, and reconciliation. When Thay's books, tapes, and talks are treated this way, how can we be sure that Thay himself will be treated differently and not simply arrested upon his return?

The government's animosity toward Thay is evident in other ways as well. Monks and nuns traveling abroad must have the approval of the BCVN and the Governmental Committee on Religious Affairs-Iaypeople do not need this approval. Permission to visit Plum Village is always refused. Monastics who travel to France for tourist, family, or medical reasons, must promise the police they will not go to Plum Village.

In preparation for his visit, Thay also would like a number of his books to be published, announcements to be made about lectures and retreats he will offer, and an office of Plum Village be allowed to set up in the Dinh Quan Temple in Hanoi to make arrangements for his teaching. The office should be allowed to contact monastics and laypeople for necessary help preparing for events.

Thay wishes to invite friends and the press to accompany him to Vietnam. These observers would report to the world whether there is freedom of teaching in Vietnam. Several people, including French Senator Bernard Dussaut, have written to the government of Vietnam expressing the wish to accompany Thay.

The campaign for Thay's return to Vietnam was not initiated by Thay, but by friends in Europe and North America. These influential friends have campaigned skillfully with the Vietnamese government, through Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Manh Cam. French Senators Jean Francois Poncet, Bernard Dussaut, and Phillipe Marini have written letters to the government of Vietnam. On November 9, 1998, Swiss President Flavio Cotti wrote the Prime Minister: ''Thich Nhat Hanh had to leave his country 34 years ago because of his commitment to the cause of peace. He has since become one of the best-known and most respected Vietnamese citizens in the world. It is my belief that the peaceful teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh does not conflict with your country's interests."

On March 24, 1998, United States Senator John McCain also wrote Prime Minister Phan Van Khai:

I understand that Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and scholar living in France, has felt unable to return to Vietnam since he left his war-torn country many years ago. Although I have never met him, my friends tell me that he is an enlightened man whose regard for peace and social justice endears him to those who know him. Indeed, American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize-a high honor indeed for a monk of such renowned humility.

Thich Nhat Hanh is known to be an apolitical leader whose intellectual capacity and spiritual depth would serve his fellow Vietnamese well, should he be permitted to return to his country. Although I am unable to travel to Vietnam personally, a group of friends led by Bruce Morrison, my former colleague in the House of Representatives, is interested in accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh to Hanoi in the hopes of conducting a dialogue with your government.

A number of United States Congressmen, including Representative Rick Boucher, have even visited Vietnam to ask government officials to allow Thay to go home and teach. On July 9,1998, Congressman Boucher and a delegation of the Buddhist Committee on Dialogue and Understanding, composed of Thich Chan Phap An and Pritam Singh, went to the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris. They submitted a formal request for a teaching tour, and provided complete details and proposed schedules. There has been no reply.

The quiet, diplomatic campaign has not succeeded. There must be an open, complete campaign from many people-civil rights leaders, artists, religious leaders, and others. Thay says that he can wait. We need our friends to support such a campaign.

Brother Coon Phap An, True Dharma Seal, is a monastic Dharma teacher in Plum Village. He has been trained by Thay for seven years.

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The Plum Village Sangha in India

Autumn 2008 By Sister Chan Khong

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The Plum Village delegation arrived in New Delhi on 24 September 2008, and the next day the delegation met with some Indian journalists. The Ahimsa Trust, organizers of Thay’s tour of India, had arranged for the press conference at the French Embassy. During this meeting the French ambassador, Jerome Bonnafont, launched the release of two new books by the publishing house Full Circle: The Sun My Heart, and Under the Banyan Tree, a book transcribed from teachings given by Thay at the Krishnamurti headquarters in Chennai during Thay’s India trip in 1997.

After the press conference, the big newspapers of New Delhi publicized the teaching tour of Zen Master Nhat Hanh. For many days the television channel NDTV announced the tour schedule; text scrolling across the bottom of the screen indicated details of where Thay would be teaching or doing walking meditation in New Delhi. Thanks to such publicity the people of India knew all about the teaching tour offered by the Plum Village delegation.

A Retreat for Educators

On September 26, the first retreat of the tour began at Doon School, the most famous secondary school in India. Located in the highlands of northern India, the Doon School is one of the wonders of the Uttarakhand state capital city Dehradun, with its rich past and beautiful architecture. Many famous political leaders of India spent their youth at this school, before going abroad to study either in England or the United States.

Five hundred eighty-five educators, among them many headmasters or directors of well-known elementary or secondary schools, came from all over India, some traveling for two days by plane. The state governor came to the opening of the four-day retreat, titled “Towards a Compassionate and Healthy Society.” The Plum Village monks and nuns had the opportunity to participate in activities and sports with Doon students. The educators learned and practiced wholeheartedly, attended all the activities such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, total relaxation, Touchings of the Earth, and eating in mindfulness. On the third day ninety people received the Three Refuges and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The retreat was very nourishing and brought transformation and joy for everyone who attended, among them the headmaster of Doon School. At the beginning, although he had helped tour organizer Shantum Seth send out invitations to other educational institutions, he admitted he did not have much faith in the effect of the retreat, but by the end he was transformed.

The next day the delegation visited the new Mindfulness in Education Centre, at the foot of the Himalayas not far from the city of Dehradun. Thay did the ceremony for Protecting the Land and planted a bodhi tree, two banyan trees, and several other kinds of trees on the site.

During the rest of the tour, thirty young Plum Village Dharma teachers visited to share the joy of mindfulness practice at a dozen elite schools. The monks included Brothers Phap Dung, Phap Hai, Phap Thanh, and Phap Luu from Deer Park Monastery, as well as Phap Trach, Phap Don, and Phap Chieu. The nuns included Sisters Anh Nghiem, Kinh Nghiem, Luong Nghiem, Chau Nghiem, Tung Nghiem, Dinh Nghiem, and others. The monks and nuns also shared the practice in an educational center with programs for poor children and street children. These children also attended the children’s program in a five-day retreat in Delhi.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Newspaper Editor

October 2 was the International Day of Non-Violence, commemorating the 139th year of the birth of Gandhi. The Times of India, the largest national daily newspaper, invited Thay to be the guest editor for a special Peace edition. Thay went to work with the editorial team, presenting several themes for the journalists to investigate and research:

  1. Who are the Buddhists in India?
  2. Would it be possible to organize a national No-Car Day in India to bring awareness to and educate the people on the problem of global warming?
  3. Are families in India able to sit down to eat together at least for one meal together each day?
  4. Would it be possible for teachers in all the educational institutions in India to have opportunities to train the students how to transform the emotions of anger, violence, and despair?
  5. Has anyone written love letters to a bombing terrorist to help them let go of their wrong perceptions and vengeance in their hearts?

In six hours the journalists had written a multitude of articles. On the front page of the October 2 edition appeared the lead article, “Quest for Peace in Troubled Times.” This article was printed next to the most shocking news of the day: A bomb had exploded in Agartala, killing four persons.

In a related article on the newspaper’s website, “Terrorists are victims who create more victims,” the editorial team reported:

Midway through the news meeting on Wednesday, the grim news came in: Agartala had been rocked by serial blasts. All eyes immediately turned to Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, the Guest Editor for our special Peace Edition. As journalists, what should we do on a day like this?

The Zen master, who has rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, resettled homeless families and for a lifetime advocated tirelessly the principles of non-violence and compassionate action, pondered for a while.

When he spoke, it was with great clarity, “Report in a way that invites readers to take a look at why such things continue to happen and that they have their roots in anger, fear, hate and wrong perceptions. Prevent anger from becoming a collective energy. The only antidote for anger and violence is compassion. Terrorists are also victims, who create other victims of misunderstanding.’’

This, remember, is the monk — now 82 years old — credited with a big role in turning American public opinion against the war in Vietnam — for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And so, his words are not to be dismissed lightly.

“Every reader has seeds of fear, anger, violence and despair, and also seeds of hope, compassion, love and forgiveness,’’ said Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called Thay.

“As journalists, you must not water the wrong seeds. The stories should touch the seeds of hope. As journalists, you have the job of selectively watering the right seeds. You must attempt to tell the truth and yet not water the seeds of hate. It’s not what’s in the story, but how you tell it that’s important.’’

Several other articles appeared in the Times that day and on the website, written by the journalists and the monks and nuns who assisted Thay [and also one reprinted from the Mindfulness Bell].

The Sankassa Story

Legend has it that the 14th of October was the day when the Buddha returned to Earth after a time visiting his mother, Queen Mahamaya, who was in the thirty-third Heaven. When he was back on Earth he took his first steps in the land of Sankassa, where many of his disciples were waiting to greet him.

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Several thousand people of the Shakya lineage came to attend the retreat led by Brothers Phap Son and Phap Do and Sisters Chan Khong Nghiem and Chan Luong Nghiem. The people had been informed that on the morning of 14 October, the third day of the retreat, Master Nhat Hanh would arrive to offer a ceremony of transmission of the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings. And Master Nhat Hanh, too, would be arriving from the sky — in a helicopter.

At Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the morning fog was thick, and it wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that permission to fly was given. In the helicopter with Thay were three lay Dharma teachers: Shantum Seth, Ann Johnston, and Pritam Singh, along with educator Irpinder Bhatia and Simran, daughter of Pritam. Shantum, the main organizer of Thay’s tour, was holding a professional camera with which his younger sister had asked him to record the event at Sankassa. Shantum’s sister Aradna was making a documentary film of the whole tour.

The young people of the Shakya clan were sitting and practicing together with the brothers and sisters in the meditation hall. When they heard the helicopter they could not contain themselves; everybody stood up and ran out of the meditation hall to look up. They had been waiting for the helicopter since 9:30 and now at noon the sun was directly overhead. In this remote part of the country the people live in huts made from earth, without electricity, without pumped water; their way of life is still very primitive, perhaps not unlike the way of life in India over 2500 years ago. They had never seen a helicopter up close.

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The youth stood in line to welcome Thay. After cutting a ribbon to inaugurate a Shakyamuni Buddha statue for the practice centre, Thay went straight into the meditation hall, where there were about 200 monks wearing the robes of the Theravadan tradition. Thay taught the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings and how to apply them in daily life. Thay began as follows: “Queen Maya was still in good health. She was very happy and proud to have a son, Siddhartha, who had attained enlightenment and was able to liberate countless beings. She sends her love to all the people of the Shakya clan. I am also a member of the Shakya clan. I have come to transmit to you the teachings taught by the Buddha Gautama.”

After the transmission ceremony in the afternoon, Thay reminded them to regularly come together to recite, study, and discuss the Trainings. Thay promised that if they practiced diligently there would be a day when we would meet again. Everybody expressed their happiness by applauding enthusiastically.

Time arrived for the helicopter to take wing. Thousands of the Shakyan people came to bid Thay farewell, including many children. Thay wished that some of them could come to Plum Village to learn and practice so that one day they could return to be of service to the Sanghas from their clan. Many people cried, their eyes red.

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From the report by Irpinder Bhatia [see below], we know that hundreds of thousands of the Shakyan people have abandoned their tradition and completely forgotten that within their lineage was someone named Gautama Siddhartha, who had become one of the greatest spiritual masters of the world. Buddhism was suppressed in India starting in the eleventh century, when Buddhist monks and nuns had to flee and find refuge in other countries further north. Some people returned to the Hindu tradition, some converted to Islam; from their rich heritage they retained only their name Shakya. It was less than twenty years ago that they were reminded by the Dalit Buddhists of their Buddhist heritage.

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Today the number of Buddhists in India has risen to about 10 million. However, the teachings that they were given were often about how to fight injustice and the discriminating caste system. Even though they have returned to their Buddhist roots, they have not truly tasted the fruits of the Buddhadharma.

Hopefully the Plum Village Sangha will be able to help train a number of young people from the Shakya lineage to become Dharma teachers so that they may return to their people the spiritual tradition that they lost over a thousand years ago.

For more information about the India tour, go to www.ahimsatrust.org and select “Thich Nhat Hanh.”

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been working side by side with Thay to fight injustice and teach mindfulness since the 1960s. She is a tireless champion for the poor in Vietnam, especially children.

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