Monk's return tests Vietnam's religious tolerance

Four decades after leaving his homeland to preach nonviolence in the US – a nation then at war with his own – Vietnam's foremost Buddhist emissary to the West is back for what could be his final peace mission.

How Vietnam's rulers handle the visit by Thich Nhat Hanh, a scholar and bestselling author who teaches "socially engaged" Zen Buddhism, will offer an insight into the space for religious expression here. It could also show Vietnam's abiding adoration for an octogenarian monk who rose to fame in the turbulent 1960s and is trying to engage with a new generation of Vietnamese youths.

In recent years, Vietnam has eased restrictions on public worship while sticking to a policy of recognizing only six state-controlled faith organizations. Last year, the US State Department removed Vietnam from a list of countries of particular concern for religious freedom, citing improvements in the treatment of Protestant churches and other faiths. The move drew flak from human-rights groups that cite continued repression of worshipers, particularly in highland communities.

Buddhists are among those who have felt the sting of government coercion. Leaders of the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which refused to join the official Buddhist organization after the defeat of US-backed South Vietnam in 1975, have been detained and harassed. Observers say the Vietnamese government recognizes the proclivity of temples for fomenting political activity; policymakers haven't forgotten how monks led antiwar protests in the 1960s,

Mr. Nhat Hanh was among those opposed to the war, an opposition he continued in exile in the US and France after he was barred from returning to Vietnam in 1966. He inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to take a stance against the war and led a Buddhist delegation to the 1969 Paris peace talks.

His 10-week visit to Vietnam, which began Feb. 20, is only his second since 1975 and was subject to six months of negotiations with authorities. Much of his schedule is devoted to teachings and monastic retreats, such as a recent gathering at a hillside temple in Bat Nha, about 87 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Far more ambitious and attention- grabbing are mass requiems being held in three cities, starting March 16 in Ho Chi Minh City. The chanting ceremonies are open to all faiths and to nonbelievers. Organizers say Nhat Hanh's aim is to heal the pain and suffering on both sides of a nation torn apart by decades of civil war.

"This meets the needs of Vietnamese people. It's time for reconciliation, for the real unification of the country," says Phap An, a monk and senior aide to Nhat Hanh.

The invitation extends even to Vietnam's Communist – and nominally atheist – rulers. "Marxists are invited to recite passages and statements from Marx which reflect his spirituality and his love for humanity," reads a statement from the organizers.

Aides say that they have received private encouragement from government officials who support his teachings. But few are likely to attend. Officials say overt displays of faith, while no longer taboo, are frowned upon by the ruling Communist Party.

Communist hard-liners aren't the only ones suspicious of Nhat Hanh. Exiled UBVC supporters have criticized his visit as lending credibility to a regime that jails dissident clergy. His aides argue, however, that backing the UBVC would end his ability to preach his message of reconciliation and peace.

Aides say the Zen master wants to seed a new wave of teachers in Vietnam who can spread his practices to a generation that may see Buddhism as old-fashioned. The newly ordained are between 16 and 32 years old – a deliberate policy, says Chan Kong, a nun, who calls them a young "Peace Corps" for Vietnam. "Our spiritual heritage has been lost to war and communism. We can bring it back," she says.

Still, the taboo against marrying Marxism and Buddhist spirituality remains. At one of Nhat Hanh's dawn ceremonies at the Bat Nha temple last week, a university student said he was was leery of telling his parents about his spiritual interests – or allowing a reporter to publish his name. His parents worked for the city government in Ho Chi Minh City, he said, and want him to follow suit.

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