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This article is permitted to contribute by Dr. Quan Nhu, who now resides in Australia. In the past, Dr. Nhu has been a Buddhist diligently peace activist in the Vietnam war-time. The ‘Nhat Hanh’s Peace Activities’ is a chapter of his work "Vietnamese Engaged Buddhism: The Struggle Movement of 1963-66", which was completely translated into Vietnamese and will be printed within this March, 2002. We are joyful to introduce it to the Vietnamese and American readers. GiaoĐiểm

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Nhat Hanh’s Peace Activities
Chapter 8

Quán Như

  Nhat Hanh was a graduate of Bao Quoc Buddhist Academy in Central Vietnam where Thich Tri Quang and Thich Thien Minh served as staff. With his immense intellectual and creative abilities and being younger, he found himself clashing with the older monks whom he labelled as the conservative elements of the Church. So unhappy was he with the Buddhist hierarchy that he and some of his close associates founded Phuong Boi meditation place in the highlands. Phuong Boi means fragrant palm leaves on which the teaching of the Buddha were written down in ancient times. This name expressed Nhat Hanh ideal to strengthen the roots of Buddhist culture (1). What exactly was the nature of the differences with the Buddhist elders was not clearly spelt out, but Nhat Hanh was bitter toward them. He said that the Church hierarchy had not accepted his group because it decided to speak the truth. He commented:Buddhism has much to contribute (to bring about social changes) but we cannot wait for the religious hierarchy to act. They are reluctant to bring about change and they have repeatedly neglected our efforts to create an Engaged Buddhism. Our proposals lie in unopened folders on their desks, gathering dust (2) Nhat Hanh was outside the country on both occasions, when the Church confronted Diem and the U.S. However he contributed a great deal because he was the most successful monk in making the West understand the motives and actions of the Institute and the plights of the Vietnamese peasants. Since he was ten thousand miles away from the decision making of the Buddhist hierarchy, he could not be party to the inner thoughts of the Church leaders. In 1963 Nhat Hanh was in New York working in the PostGraduate School at Columbia University. When Ngo Dinh Nhu directed his special force to arrest all the activist monks, Nhat Hanh was busy translating documents on violations of human rights secretly smuggled out by none other else than the Vietnamese Ambassador to the UN. On October 8 1963, Nhat Hanh presented them to the U. N. Gen eral Assembly during the debate on President Ngo Dinh Diem’s suppression of the Buddhists. As a result the UN agreed to send a fact-finding delegation to Vietnam. No one doubted that Nhat Hanh was the best person representing the Buddhist Institute outside Vietnam to raise awareness in and support of, the West.After Ngo Dinh Diem’s fall, Thich Tri Quang himself sent Nhat Hanh a telegram and a letter asking him to come back home to help the elders to rebuild the Church. Nhat Hanh hesitated. Columbia University then invited him to stay and establish the Department of Vietnamese Studies. His close confidant, Sister Chan Khong, revealed that in the past Nhat Hanh had received no support whatsoever from the UBC leaders. If he stayed in New York, he would not have to struggle with those conservative monks who had given him so much trouble in his efforts to renew Buddhism. (3) It was a difficult choice for Nhat Hanh. Tri Quang’s request was short, humble and straight to the point: "I am too old and too old-fashioned to take care of this big responsibility. Please come back and help". Any one who knew Thich Tri Quang well would have realised this was an extremely rare action by this eccentric monk, but Thich Tri Quang, and along with other Elders obviously recognised Nhat Hanh ‘s enormous talent. Tri Quang was then only forty, and only three years older than Nhat Hanh, but a great deal more conservative in attitude. His cable moved Nhat Hanh and although in the past Tri Quang was one of the pillars of the conservatism he had struggled against. There was another hidden reason that made Nhat Hanh pack up and go home. In his thinking, whether he liked organised religious institution or not, as he saw it, the UBC could be a very effective means in the efforts to seek peace (4) Nhat Hanh flew home on December 16, 1963 and wasted no time in placing his ideas before his fellow monks. In January 1964 he submitted a Three Point Proposal to the Executive Council of the UBC. (This could have been one of the first items on the agenda which were discussed by the Executive Council because the Unified Buddhist Church was only officially formed on 13 January). Firstly, Nhat Hanh requested that the UBC should publicly call for cessation of hostilities in Vietnam. Secondly the UBC should help to build an institute for the study and practice of Buddhism to train future leaders and thirdly, a centre for training Buddhist social workers should be set up. Sister Chan Khong reported that in response the Church elders offered support only for the Buddhist Institute and rejected his proposals for social change. (5) However, a little later on, the Executive Council set up the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies and a School of Youth for Social Service on the 13 March 1964, and the first class started on 17 March 1993. The only proposal that the Church conclusively rejected was the setting up of the Tiep Hien (Inter-being) Order in which laity could be ordained as monks. The image of an ordained monk who was also a married man or woman was just too much to contemplate for the conservative Sangha at that time. The Buddhist Institute did not openly appeal to the two sides to cease hostilities in early 1964 either as Nhat Hanh proposed. But in the preamble to the Church Constitution it spelt out its long term objective: ‘in line with the ideal of World peace in the Buddha’s teachings, the UBC tried to actualise the people’s aspirations by bringing peace to every one, particularly to our people’. (6) It was an unambiguous message proclaimed by the Church leaders about the new direction and actions in the days ahead. As Thich Tri Quang admitted, after Diem’s regime collapsed the Church faced more problems than it had encountered before; and when the tempo of the war heated up, the Church had no choice but to do all it could to stop the war. (7) The Church‘s tactics and approaches have been different from those of Nhat Hanh, but its main objective in the next few years was absolutely clear: to end the war. Sister Chan Khong commented that the Buddhist Church elders could imagine no way that worked for peace nor could social change succeed. But this may have been too harsh and an unjustified criticism. Sister Chan Khong believed that, if Nhat Hanh’s peace proposal had received the Buddhist Church’s support at that time, ‘we, Vietnamese, might have been able to solve many of our problems without such an escalation of the war and our country would have suffered much less. (8) If Sister Chan Khong knew the real reasons behind Pentagon’s decision to remove the Minh’s government, she would not have been that optimistic! The peace movement, whether inside or outside of Vietnam, was denounced quickly or suppressed brutally, because Johnson government was fixated on a military victory and would not tolerate any other solution. Apart from Nhat Hanh, a few monks who had studied in India and Japan also returned home and one of them, Thich Minh Chau, was to become Nhat Hanh ‘s adversary in running the Buddhist Institute. Nhat Hanh’s charisma appealed to a large number of students who volunteered to help him to run the Higher Buddhist Studies Institute. On waiting for the Institute Campus to be built in a nearby suburb, a small temple was used as classrooms and an office. Nhat Hanh proudly described his first achievement, The Van Hanh University, saying:Van Hanh is an unusual university. It bears none of the distinguished marks normally associated with institutions of higher learning. When its rains, students have to wade through puddles to get to class, winding their way through the crowded market stalls! (9). Nhat Hanh almost single-handedly set up the University, raising money from a network of friends and acquaintances. The administration was staffed with volunteers and the teaching staff in the first instance, was mostly monks who provided their service voluntarily. Nhat Hanh assigned himself a humble position in the publication section which was most suitable for such a creative and thoughtful person. The syllabus focused on Buddhist studies, Vietnamese Culture and Languages. Nhat Hanh taught Buddhist psychology (Yogacarins) and Prajnaparamita literature, a principal trend in the Mahayana. The Chancellor was a senior monk, Thich Tri Thu whose position was purely ceremonial. The Vice Chancellor was Thich Minh Chau who had received a Ph.D. at Nalanda University in India. Thich Minh Chau had been married before he was ordained and after spending a long time in India, he wore Theravada robes and was fluent in Pali and Sanskrit. His ability to study sutras written in Pali made him an intellectual gem in the UBC. Van Hanh Buddhist University grew quickly and became the most prestigious private University-actually it was the first of its kind- in Vietnam. When it was moved to a new campus, Thich Minh Chau invited a former director of the Vietnam Press, Ton That Thien, to set up the Faculty of Social Sciences with a syllabus similar to that of an American University. While Minh Chau’s efforts to transform the Van Hanh University into a modernised institution of higher education were warmly welcomed by students as well as by educators, his closeness to a former Diem protégée alarmed the Church leaders. Minh Chau was appointed Chancellor whose duties were equivalent to those of a vice chancellor in a Western University. Minh Chau developed a close relationship with the Asia Foundation, a cultural arm of the CIA, which provided most of the operating fund for Van Hanh University. Although the Church leaders were wary of this dubious action, by then Minh Chau had become a highly respected figure in academic circles, so the Executive Council of the UBC could do nothing. However they insisted in appointing academic staff loyal to the Church. Researchers in the West often give credit for the Van Hanh University to Nhat Hanh, but most are unaware of the rivalry for control of the University between the UBC and a pro-American group of academicians tacitly supported by Minh Chau ’s faction.It is believed that Minh Chau’s father, a provincial chief, was murdered by the communists during the Indochina war, so it was understandable that he was strongly anti- communist. Both Minh Chau and Nhat Hanh were gentle and charmed. Nhat Hanh was more charismatic and had an army of followers amongst young people and artists, while Minh Chau was a profound Buddhist scholar. Nhat Hanh was the founder of the Van Hanh University and Minh Chau was its Chancellor who was skillful in dealing with a hostile government and most importantly, he could muster the support from the American Mission in Saigon. Even so, there was a certain level of animosity between these two leaders, which grew. The rivalry was quite intense and when Nhat Hanh went on a peace tour, their relationship collapsed. Apart from Van Hanh University, another institution that Nhat Hanh and his group were deeply involved in was the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). Although the UBC agreed in principle to set it up, it was not until September 1965 that it was inaugurated. Nhat Hanh and his associates were given a free reign to run this School which was legally a part of the Van Hanh University. Like any other novel projects of his, it was staffed by a dozen of volunteers and headed by a gentle, 24 year-old monk, who had entered the monastic life at the age of seven. He was Thich Thanh Van. Nevertheless Sister Chan Khong took responsibility in almost every area of the school and became sort of commander in chief (10). What worried Minh Chau was that the peace activists at Van Hanh Students Union, of which Sister Chan Khong was President might jeopardise his relationship with Asia Foundation, the main funding agency for Van Hanh University. At a meeting in April 1965, Van Hanh Union students issued a ‘Call for Peace’ statement. Its main call was: ‘It is time for North and South Vietnam to find a way to stop the war and help all Vietnamese people live peacefully and with mutual respect’. (11) Nhat Hanh took this statement with him to Cornell. That was the opportunity Minh Chau had waited for. Only one week after Nhat Hanh left, Minh Chau, without the approval of the UBC, issued an order dissolving the Student Union and severing the link with the SYSS. Minh Chau also sent a copy to the National Police denouncing Sister Chan Khong as a communist. As Sister Chan Khong bitterly attested ‘calling some one a communist is akin to giving him or her a death sentence’ (12). This was the time when Field Marshall Ky was about to send in the Marines to suppress the Buddhist Struggle Movement in Danang and Hue. In the eyes of many Buddhists, Minh Chau ‘s actions were nothing short of a betrayal act to the UBC. From then on Minh Chau changed the direction of the Van Hanh University transformed it into a learning institution with the logo ‘We can only understand our karma with wisdom’. He would not allow any political activities to be held on campus, and he expressly forbad students to bring politics into the learning centre. Ironically, this policy was adopted by Premier Tran Van Huong when confronting the Buddhists in early 1965 and only three years after the Buddhists had engaged in a political campaign to topple President Ngo Dinh Diem. After the Struggle Movement collapsed, the Americans hatched another scheme to break up the UBC a year later. The UBC was substantially weakened and Minh Chau tested the idea of an autonomous Van Hanh University, taking control away from the UBC. Thich Thien Minh, just recovered from an assassination attempt by Premier Ky’s associates, was furious. An insider of the UBC recounted that, it was the first time Thien Minh had been so upset that he wanted to use his walking stick to rap Minh Chau’s knuckles, a symbolic act of Lin Chi Zen masters to wake up their disciples. Somehow Minh Chau backed off and agreed let the UBC appoint some academic monks to a number of important positions, on provision that they promised not to incite street demonstrations on the campus, and so threaten his pro-American stance. Sister Chan Khong retold an incident which may have explained why Thich Minh Chau wanted to distance himself from Nhat Hanh’s activities. In June 1966 after Nhat Hanh made a peace appeal in America and Europe, a U.S. private organisation approached the Director of the SYSS, Thich Thanh Van, offering the school a grant of 100,000 US dollars to build a dormitory for students if he denounced Nhat Hanh’s peace activities overseas and severed any links with him. Being one of Nhat Hanh’s closest confidants, Thich Thanh Van refused. But conversely, Minh Chau accepted this offer and agreed to issue a press release, saying ‘the Rector of Van Hanh University declares that Thich Nhat Hanh has no responsibilities whatsoever in connection with this university". In the same newsletter, Thich Minh Chau offered thanks to the same US private organisation that had approached Thanh Van before, for their generous donation of $100,000 to build a library at Van Hanh University. (13). The Administration used every means possible to undermine Nhat Hanh ‘s call for peace and to discredit him personally. It is not unreasonable to presume that those members of the ‘private’ organisations shadowed him during his peace talks and challenged Nhat Hanh’s connection with Van Hanh University and SYSS, as a part of the attempt to discredit him. (14) Minh Chau had already denied the legal status that caused numerous problems for Nhat Hanh’s group.Nhat Hanh often blamed the Church Elders for their conservatism, but this time his adversary, Minh Chau, was his contemporary. Minh Chau was not in any way a villain, but students did not give him the same affection as they did to Nhat Hanh. He was respected as a profound Buddhist scholar. After the Struggle Movement was broken up, Minh Chau secretly harbored many Buddhist cadres hunted down by the police. He gathered many talented scholars under his wing and he used his good relationship with the American Mission to seek funding to expand Van Hanh University and to support a program to send students to the best universities in America. Credit should be given to him for his efforts to transform Van Hanh University into a modern higher learning institution which could be the envy of many public Universities. Minh Chau has never written any thing related to the time he was the Chancellor and there is no way to know exactly what was the deal he had made with Asia Foundation, the Van Hanh University main funding body, in return for the act of denouncing Nhat Hanh and other peace activists. As Sister Chan Khong speculated, he may have feared losing the University and his position as a Chancellor if he supported the Unified Buddhist Church’s determination to end the War. The monk with a gentle smile similar to that of the future Buddha, Meitreya, as he was called by students at that time, caused more controversy after the communists victoriously marched into the Independence Palace in April 1975. Minh Chau agreed to cooperate with the new regime and was one of the go-betweens monks that the new regime needed, to rally the former leaders of the UBC to form a new, pro government Buddhist Church. (15) The American Embassy in Saigon skillfully applied their policy of divide and rule and eventually penetrated almost every politically active group. The Unified Buddhist Church was no longer unified. The Northern Group led by Tam Chau seceded and formed a rival Church. Student activists who staged anti-American street demonstrations side by side with the Buddhists were also deeply divided. The Embassy spared no efforts and resources to form a pro-American youth group called the Summer Program (Acronym in Vietnamese is CPS). Perhaps Minh Chau and his pro-American faction at Van Hanh University unwittingly served to neutralise or silence peace activists, including the Institute leaders, who trained, ordained and sent him to Nalanda University. We will never fully learn of his motives unless he decides to reveal them. However his decision to revoke the legal status of the SYSS caused enormous damage to Nhat Hanh ‘s group. The fact that the SYSS was in limbo, no doubt, helped incite violent attacks and murders of young and innocent social workers. Sister Chan Khong always tried hard to subdue her hatred, even of the murderers of her staff, but she openly showed her contempt of Minh Chau: ‘Thay Minh Chau ‘s hostile act toward us proves his moral values are not worthy of our association with him. (16) When Nhat Hanh was on peace tour, he was introduced to audiences as the founder of two grassroots Vietnamese institutions namely Van Hanh University and School of Youth for Social Services SYSS). People in the West failed to notice that Van Hanh University had been hijacked by the pro- American group with only the SYSS deserving the status of a grassroots organisation. Nhat Hanh’s SYSS project was approved by the UBC in 1964, but there were two pioneer villages in an outer suburb of Saigon. The School was only officially opened in September 1965. At the time the sustained bombings had been already authorised by President Johnson and 53,500 more troops had been landed. Legally the School was part of Van Hanh University although Nhat Hanh was given a free reign to administer it. He served as a Director of the Board of Trustees while Thich Thanh Van was appointed the Director. Nhat Hanh expressed his novel ideas of a grassroots movement:My friends and I are convinced that a movement to rebuild our country must be based on entirely on different foundation. We want to initiate a war on poverty, ignorance, disease and misunderstanding. (17). The social workers were volunteers who neither worked for money or power, but with love and awareness. These young men were motivated by spirit of self-help and they were to build many self-help villages around the country. They rejected a life based on materialism but sought only the happiness that a life of service could bring. Nhat Hanh believed there were ‘ten of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands’ ready to join a new kind of ‘university’, one that would train community development workers. Nhat Hanh admitted that his group had no money but he had an objective, good will and a lot of energy. (18) As a grassroots organisation, the School relied on donations from ordinary people in 1960 and 1961 Sister Chan Khong had already worked in slum areas in the central part of Saigon City. The students’ welfare work was conducted on a much smaller scale than that of normal sized program for rural development. In student days, welfare work was considered as a way to practise giving and nurture compassion, rather than what gave to the poor and the unfortunate. The aim was to follow the footsteps of a living Bodhisattva named Bac Sieu, who had been riding a bicycle for fifty years to bring rice and care to thousands of destitute in the city of Hue. Sister Chan Khong then asked her friends to donate a fistful of rice every week and they gladly to be obliged. However, when running the SYSS, she had to feed three hundred young trainees, on top of normal running costs of the School. Nevertheless, one thousand and two hundred Buddhist Youth groups came to the rescue by making a monthly donation. Furthermore, the Inter-Being Group befriended thousands small peddlers, cigarette, vegetable and food vendors on the city footpaths as well as rich families who saw it as a way to practise meritorious work. Sister Chan Khong proudly claimed that the SYSS was the only social movement that was funded by public donation rather than by the Government. Not until 1968 when both Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong worked with the peace movement outside Vietnam, the School was funded by certain peace organisations in Europe (19). However the two main fundraisers were Sister Chan Khong and Nhat Chi Mai. Nhat Chi Mai later burned herself to death in an appeal for a peaceful end to the war in Vietnam. When Nhat Hanh was still in the country, money flowed in because of his enormous appeal but as soon as he left Vietnam, particularly when he openly appealed for a cease-fire, a financial crisis arose. The wealthy families started withdrawing their financial support, probably because they were fearful of being harassed by the government. Sister Chan Khong described the effects of this:In July 1966 when our SYSS was at its lowest ebb financially, we were at the beginning of the second and final year of training 300 students, who had arrived without knowing that we had only $1.00 in the bank account. Most of the money that our supporters had given to us had been used for the construction of the forty-room student dormitory on the new campus. When the semester started we ate just rice. Even though we were vegetarian, we could not even afford tofu, mushroom, bean sprouts, or gluten. Two hundred and forty one students slept in the meditation hall and on the verandah around the hall. (20). They had to ask wealthy and generous friends to contribute rice. This way 37 200lb-bags were donated. Market gardeners donated two truck loads of old cabbages and mustard greens to make pickles so at least the school was able to feed a large number of young and hungry trainees for a month. Relatives also helped out! At the same time the School started some self-help projects, like growing mushrooms and raising chickens on a small farm as well as selling rice and soap to supplement its financial shortfall. It was not known if and how the students got their allowances or expenses when practising social work in the villages, but it seems highly unlikely they did so in the circumstances. In 1964 two pioneer villages were set up in outer suburbs of Saigon, ten kilometres from the GPO. At a later stage a few more villages were chosen as pioneer centres, one in Binh Phuoc, a district about 50 kilometres from Saigon, and a few more in Central Vietnam, one in Khanh Hoa, one in Thua Thien and another one in the demilitarized zone, Quang Tri. They were called self-help villages where citizens shared collective responsibility for developing the local economy and provide for education and health care. The main objective of these programs was to get rid of old attitudes of passivity- i.e. waiting for someone else to make a difference. While government rural development staff were mostly concerned with ‘lining their own pockets’, trying to siphon off as much foreign aid as they could, the SYSS workers did not work for wages or power, but with devotion and dedication. Workers stayed in the villages and lived and worked with the peasants until they were accepted. In theory the ideal was sound, but in reality, the war made Nhat Hanh’s dream impossible and brought only death and despair to the social workers. When Minh Chau revoked the School’s legal status and particularly when Nhat Hanh left, SYSS students became the shooting targets for both sides. Sensing that the School was unprotected like ‘a baby abandoned in the middle of a market’, staff and students were harassed, threatened and cold bloodedly murdered. In June 1966 a group of unknown men threw grenades into a campus dormitory, causing seriously injuries to two students, one was permanently paralysed. A grenade was tossed into Nhat Hanh’s room but fortunately, he had left the country two weeks earlier. In February 1967, grenades were again tossed into a school dormitory and two more students died. A student was hit by 600 fragments and another had her liver damaged. In July 1967, five students who worked at Binh Phuoc Village were taken by a group of militiamen to a riverbank and shot in cold blood. Four died instantly and only one young monk survived because he was unconscious and the terrorists thought he was dead. The surviving monk recounted that before executing them, the leader of the militia asked: 'Are you SYSS students?' When the students answered in the affirmative, he said: ‘I am sorry but I have to kill you’. (21)  Also Tra Loc village, near the demilitarised zone, where some SYSS lived and worked, was bombed three times. Each occasion students tried to help rebuild houses, a school, a medical centre and an agricultural co-operative. However when it was bombed the fourth time, villagers began picking up the guns and retaliating. (22) However, the greatest loss and tragedy was the death of Sister Nhat Chi Mai who burned herself in an appeal for peace. In 1963, Thich Quang Duc was the first monk to self-immolate and before the regime collapsed, another eight monks followed suit, but none of the laity were allowed to sacrifice. In the struggle for peace, before Nhat Chi Mai, there were fourteen people who took this drastic action, and despite the ban, at least five laymen took their lives to protest the escalation of the war. In one of her poems, Nhat Chi Mai mentioned the self-immolation of an American:Why did an American self- immolate?Why did the whole world protest again the war?Why have the Vietnamese been silenced?And would not dare to call for peace?She was referring to the burning of an American Quaker, Norman Morrison on November 2, 1965. On that day Morrison took his infant daughter to the Pentagon. He scaled a retention wall, chose a spot, which was only forty feet away from the window of the Minister of Defence, Robert McNamara and proceeded to burn himself to death. What made his act so horrifying but memorable was that he held his child in his left arm while he soaked himself in petrol and ignited a match with his right hand. Even now nobody really knows if Morrison intentionally released the child before striking a match or if he did so in panic, just as the flames were licking up from his shoes’ top. (23). The next morning, when the Herald Tribune‘s headline read, "Human Torch at Pentagon-Baby in Arms" shocked the whole country. It had been only a few months before, in the same city, Baltimore, that President Johnson had addressed the nation about his peace initiative. When the news spread to Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government tried to hide Harrison ’s motives and paint him as a mentally disturbed man. The Vietnamese knew the reason for Morrison ’s act. Only a week after the Morrison incident, a twenty-year old Catholic, Roger LaPorte set himself on fire at sunrise in front of the United Nations. These young men had brought the war home to the U.S. The impact of these deaths was vastly different from the burning of young people and monks in Saigon. These incidents were right in the heart of America, on the doorstep of the Pentagon. The whole of America was shocked including Defence Minister, Robert McNamara who, it is believed, then urged the President to temporarily cease the bombings to induce the Communists to come to the negotiation table. Eventually McNamara resigned when his advice no longer reached the President’s ears The Vietnamese pacifists were also shocked. Morrison ’s last words to his wife were translated into the Vietnamese language and widely circulated: ‘ Dearest Anne. For weeks, even months, I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning, with no warning, I was shown as clearly as I was shown in August 1955, that you must be my wife...Know that I love you but must act for the children of the priest’s village’. (24) The pictures of children of the priest’s village, burned to death by napalm dropped by American bombers, were printed in Paris Match. This magazine also recorded the priest’s testimony: ‘I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits. I have seen all the villages razed. By God, It’s not possible! They must settle their accounts with God’. By emulating the drastic actions of the Vietnamese monks, Morrison was demonstrating his belief that God wanted him to let the world aware of the suffering endured by the Vietnamese people. Fortunately, in the case of Nhat Chi Mai, she had the opportunity to live and to work with Nhat Hanh in social change projects. She herself witnessed her compatriots suffering and the murders of her co-workers. She was one of the first six ‘cedars’ ordained by the Inter-Being Order and one of the main fund- raisers for the School. Coming from an affluent family she did not see the connection between social activism and peace, and she did not seem to grasp the underlining philosophy of social activism. To her, working with the SYSS was just another charitable act to help the poor and less fortunate, so that when asked about Nhat Hanh’s appeal for peace in the U.S., Nhat Chi Mai hesitated and finally chose words to reassure Sister Chan Khong: "Phuong (Sister Chan Khong), you know I love and respect Thay (Nhat Hanh), especially his vision of social service, but his political activities worry me! (25) Out of respect and love to Nhat Hanh, Nhat Chi Mai quickly became active amongst the pacifists. She joined the Van Hanh Students Union‘s underground peace activities, distributed anti-war literature, such as The Lotus in A Sea of Fire written by Nhat Hanh during his peace tour in the U.S. From a comparatively politically naive girl, she became more a radical and determined to act to make others aware of her people’ suffering. Being a child from a rich family and insulated from the brutal outside world, she was somewhat the innocent in dealing with difficulties and crises. Sister Chan Khong recounted that Nhat Chi Mai had many unrealistic approaches to raising fund as well as many novel approaches to attract world attention to Vietnamese plight. She proposed that Sister Chan Khong organise a fast and at the end of which they would declare a statement to call for peace then disemboweled themselves. In her own words, ‘our act could reach many people and it might move them to end this dreadful war! Her novel ideas about fundraising and peace activities sometimes unnerved sister Chan Khong but whether others agreed with her proposals or not, she always seemed refreshed and in touch with her deeper self. (26) Sister Chan Khong refused to go along with the proposal of disemboweling citing her reason there were a few of the ‘cedars’ remaining with the SYSS who were needed to keep the School running. No one know how much Morrison ’s burning effected on her thinking and similar to Morrison’ s last days, she showed no sign that she was going to take drastic action. Perhaps there might have been some subtle indication but her friends in Inter-Being order failed to notice. Here is Sister Chan Khong’s account: of Nhat Chi Mai’s supposed state of mind in her last days:On one Saturday in April, when it was Mai’s turn to read the Precepts of the Order of Inter-being, her voice faltered as she said. "Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and build peace: From that moment on, she spoke so softly so that it was nearly impossible to hear her. As we were putting the precept books back on the shelves, a member of the group, Uyen, asked:"What happened, Mai?" And I added: "You seemed to lose your concentration during the recitation". Are you all right?" Mai just smiled and asked to return to her room early that evening. (27)

On the day before her self-immolation, when practicing meditation with her group, she wore a beautiful dress as if she were going to get married. She also brought a banana cake to share with her friends. She cheerfully invited Sister Chan Khong to join her to celebrate the Vesak on the next day at the nunnery. She promised that ‘there would be something interesting happening there’.

None of her friends picked up any sign of emotional disturbance. She was as calm as ever. She camouflaged her emotions very well. As Nhat Hanh commented, those nuns and laymen who self-immolated, were like Bodhisattvas who willingly endured the greatest of suffering in order to protect other people. (28) Nhat Chi Mai’s mind was lucid and calm as she sat down and wrote ten letters, five personal and five public ones, addressing the leaders of the North and South Governments, the leaders of the UBC, the Vietnamese people and finally President Johnson. She chose Tu Nghiem nunnery for her action where she had received her traditional five precepts, and Vesak day, when the UBC celebrated the Birth of the Buddha and on that year, organised a week of Prayer For Peace. Before striking a match, Nhat Chi Mai sat down in a lotus position, in front of two statutes of the Virgin Mary and Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. A banner hung behind her saying:

Kneeling down with my lotus shaped hands
I ask Virgin Mary
And Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
To help me to have my wish fulfilled.
I offer my body as a torch
To repel darkness
To awaken human beings
To bring peace to Vietnam.

She had also written a few poems. The two lines following express fully the frustration of the peace activists in South Vietnam at the time:

When alive, I was not allowed to call for peace
Only death can allow me to say it.

In an open letter to the leaders of South and North governments, Nhat Chi Mai wrote:

Our people do not need ideologies, we only want peace. I beg you to look for a way out for the Vietnamese people, by negotiating to end the war, by granting the Vietnamese self-determination. Please have a compassionate heart.  (29)

She then explained why she chose self-burning:

I decided to burn myself to appeal for Peace, for human compassion and understanding, as did Mr Morrison and Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc. I hope all human beings will be living in Buddha’s loving-kindness and the love of Jesus Christ. (30)

In a poignant letter addressing President Johnson, Nhat Chi Mai said she wanted to speak out on behalf of ordinary Vietnamese, to express horror of, and disgust at the devastating destruction of the war conducted by a country which had the mightiest military machine in the world. She begged the President to have compassion both for the Vietnamese as well for the American soldiers, sent to Vietnam to fight in a meaningless war. She pleaded with the U.S. government to stop bombing and start negotiating with North Vietnam, requesting that they withdraw troops gradually. Finally she called for a free election under U. N. supervision to help the Vietnamese to rebuild their country.

In a letter to her parents, Nhat Chi Mai asked them to forgive her and allow her to follow in the footsteps of Bodhisattvas. She hoped her death would contribute a great deal to the efforts to bring peace to Vietnam and affirmed that, she was neither insane nor fanatical. At the end of the letter she joked with her parents that they could have some of her crystallized pearl-like remains after the cremation.

Writing to Nhat Hanh, her letter was to the point and gently reassuring as well as optimistic: "Teacher, Don’t you worry too much. Peace will come soon". (31)

After Nhat Chi Mai’s death, the government strictly censored news of her self-immolation, so newspaper editors marked her death by the appearance of a large black band on the front page. The police were ordered to quickly remove the corpse. But news of her death was spreading like wild fire. Students rushed to Tu Nghiem nunnery to guard and prevent her corpse from being snatched away while her parents resisted pressures to have her buried quietly and quickly. Instead they asked the UBC to organise her cremation.

Nhat Chi Mai’s sacrifice moved the hearts of people from all walks of life and helped to swell the peace movement. Her death made people forget their political differences for a time. Students, merchants, well off families who previously accused her group of being pro- communist and withdrew their financial support for the School, now all flocked to her funeral. Representatives from different religions attended as did progressive Catholic factions who also offered help to have her poems and letters published. The Institute leaders, who were previously caught between the pro-peace elements of Thich Nhat Hanh and the pro-American faction of Thich Minh Chau, now jointed to organise her funeral procession which stretched for five kilometres along the way.

Nhat Hanh must have been devastated by Nhat Chi Mai’s and other students’ death. In 1963, on hearing the burning of a young monk during the struggle against Diem, he composed a poem, The Fires That Consume My Brother

The fire that burns you
burns my flesh
with such pain
that all my tears are not enough
to cool your sacred soul  (32)

On that occasion Nhat Hanh had not personally known the young monk, but he did know others and was devastated by their deaths. On hearing of the murder of four SYSS students, he cried. A friend consoled him, saying: ‘Thay (Teacher), you should not cry. You are a general leading an army of non-violent soldiers. It is natural that you suffer casualties". Nhat Hanh answered: "No, I am not a general. I am just a human being. It is I who summoned them for service and now they have lost their lives. I need to cry". (33)

When a group of unknown men had attacked the SYSS dormitories and killed two students, Sister Chan Khong admitted it was very hard not to hate the murderers while Nhat Hanh felt responsible for the death of those young men because he was the one who summoned them for service. But even so he refused to condemn the murderers and showed his followers that the roots of hatred and anger lie in everyone:

But there are more grenades
than those that burst last night.
There are more grenades
caught in the heart of life.
Do you hear me?
There are more that are yet to burst.
They remain
in the heart of men
Unknown, the time of their detonation;
unknown, when they will desecrate our land;
Unknown, when they will annihilate our people. (34)

In a play, The Path Of Return Continues The Journey, in which ‘all the characters were based on real people, and all the events had happened, Nhat Hanh let Nhat Chi Mai repeat what he had been proclaiming for a long time:

Mai: Men kill because, on the one hand, they do not know their real enemy, and on the other, they are pushed into a position where they must kill. So men kill unjustly and in turn, are killed unjustly, and it is their own compatriots who kill them. There were some responsible for the massacre of our people, but they think they have nothing to do with it, because it is not they who hold the guns and pull the triggers. Who are really killing us? It is fear, hatred and prejudice. (35)

People’s emotion were likely to overflow into violence, Nhat Hanh never departed from the non-violent approach that he and his followers had strictly adhered to since he returned to Vietnam in 1964 and which was expressed so cogently in his Peace Manifesto:

Our faith is not built on shaky ground or esoteric understanding. It is the faith in the strength of unconditional love. It asks nothing in return and cannot be shaken even by betrayal. If you take your deepest questions into the core of your being, into your blood and marrow, one day, quite naturally, you will understand the connection between thought and action.... This love arises from the individual psyche, and yet the gradual eroding or sudden destruction of that psyche cannot diminish this love. It is transcendent love. (36)

His followers adopted this non-violent manifesto, not merely as a strategy of action, but also as an ethical guideline. As Gandhi always maintained the most powerful approach to move an opponent’s heart was to endure their mal-treatment and only hate the deed, not the doer. In less than ten years, SYSS workers were strictly adhering to this principle as they faced betrayal, abduction, murder and rejection...When students were killed, maimed or incapacitated by fanatical groups, the Director of the School always held out the olive branch: "I do not know why you attacked us. I think you are mistaking our position". Once a young monk, while participating in a street demonstration for peace, had his head spat on by a G.I standing on an army truck In Vietnamese culture, one’s head is considered as a sacred part of the body not to be touched. The young monk was humiliated and furious and wanted to abandon his non-violent principles to join the communists so he could retaliate against American soldiers. Only after a long discussion, was the young monk persuaded by Nhat Hanh to let his anger go and stay a monk.

In 1964 when joining Van Hanh students doing the flood relief work in a remote area Nhat Hanh learnt first hand how much the Vietnamese peasants suffered. Again here is Sister Chan Khong’s account:

We stopped at the most devastated villages, distributed gifts, and stayed the day with people. At night, we slept on our boats after a simple meal on plain rice. The smell of dead bodies was everywhere, y polluting the air. Although this was a remote mountain area, there was fighting between the nationalists and the guerrillas even up there. When we saw wounded soldiers, from either side, we helped them without discrimination. (37)

The most touching story retold by Sister Chan Khong was when she and students of the SYSS tried to pick up corpses in the Tet Offensive in 1968. The communists had attacked every single city in the South, and as a result, the casualties were extremely high for both sides. Sister Chan Khong decided to come out of the school area to collect the corpses because the Red Cross workers were shot at by the guerillas. The Buddhist flag was safer than the Red Cross’ flag because both warring sides respected the Buddhist flag and so would not fire on the monks and nuns. Sister Chan Khong wrote of the horrors of that time saying:

It was an extraordinarily difficult task. . The bodies smelled terribly! At that time, there were no gloves, work clothes, or chemicals to neutralise the smell, so we put peanut oil on our noses, but that didn’t help at all. That stench followed me for months so that the smell of anything organic brought back the nauseating smell of rotting corpse, and I could only eat plain rice, salted rice for many months. (38).

Buddhist youth became an army of non-violent soldiers, and in the Buddhists’ eyes, they were an army of Bodhisattvas who would go wherever there was human suffering. They practised non-violent action for social change in extremely difficult, if not impossible, conditions. Nhat Hanh assessed results of their efforts at this time:

Despite the results-many years of war followed by years of oppressive and human rights abuse-I cannot say that our struggle was a failure. The conditions for success in terms of a political victory were not present. But the success of a non-violent struggle can be measured only in terms of the love and non-violence attained not whether a political victory was achieved. In our struggle in Vietnam we did our best to remain true to our principles. We never lost sight of that (39)

When invited by Thich Tri Quang to return home in 1963, Nhat Hanh hesitated. Never did he spell out what sort of problems he had had with the elders. He only said vaguely that they had never supported his group in their efforts to create an Engaged Buddhism. Before heading home, he composed a poem expressing his hope as well as his disappointment and pain in the Buddhist hierarchy

Here are my hands
brought back to you
unhealed beneath their bandages
I pray
they will not be crushed again.
And I beg
the stars
to be my witness.

It was strange that Nhat Hanh called the leaders of the Buddhist Church Elders. In fact Thich Thien Minh was only five years older and Thich Tri Quang, three. However, this time they fully supported Nhat Hanh’s projects, among them Van Hanh University and the School of Youth for Social Services. When Nhat Hanh decided to go home probably he had two things in mind: one was to set up a self-help program like that of Sarvodaya, a Buddhist activist group in Sri Lanka and the other was to modernise the UBC. He did not envisage that the tempo of the war would increase so quickly. Certainly the NLF had been formed a few years earlier and the guerrillas worried the South Vietnamese Government. But nobody thought the war would escalate with the lightening speed it did in less than twelve months. In 1963 the Americans were only humble advisers to the RVNA but by 1965 they had almost taken over the combat role from the Vietnamese. Admittedly the self-help projects did not attract many students in time of war. From 1964 until Nhat Hanh left Vietnam, only six cedars were ordained in the Inter-being Order who worked closely with the SYSS. Sister Chan Khong had to admit that ‘we are too few’ and used this reason to try to persuade Nhat Chi Mai not to disembowel herself. (40) Although the life and work of these modern Bodhisattvas was so admirable, the urban students would rather participate in the peace movement in the cities than join the epic, but desperate journey, of the SYSS social workers.

When Nhat Hanh took up the peace cause, not every SYSS student supported his activities in the States. They feared that his appeal for peace would harm the School politically and financially. As Sister Chan Khong disclosed, some even refused to go to the war zone to provide services. When doing relief in remote areas, Sister Chan Khong had to work under the name of Van Hanh Students Union of which she was the President, because lack of support of SYSS students. Not only were students confused about the mixt of social work objectives with peace activities, but also the School Director, Thich Thanh Van, who asked Sister Chan Khong before she left for overseas, to relay his worries to Nhat Hanh:’Please tell Thay Nhat Hanh that we have been cut off from the UBC and Van Hanh University, and tell him that we need to re-establish our legal status. If he keeps making statements calling for peace, we will never be recognised by this regime. Tell him he has to decide between advocating peace and doing social work". (41) The pro-American faction of Thich Minh Chau dissociated the SYSS from Van Hanh University probably because they were wary that Nhat Hanh ‘s peace activities might harm their chances of securing funding. Little wonder why the School Director silently disapproved the peace efforts and wanted to concentrate on social work. (42)

Nhat Hanh’s enormous appeal, however, was not in his rural development project, but in his creative abilities. His writings on Engaged Buddhism were well received by young students and artists. At that time a few monks trained at overseas universities, including Japan, India and America returned home. But these were either too academically or too monastically inclined, and none could be as responsive to the intellectual needs of the younger generation as Nhat Hanh could. He was first and foremost a thinker and an artist. He established La Boi (Fragrant Palm Leaves) publisher and his first two books on Buddhism, Modernised Buddhism and Buddhism In Every Day Life were the best sellers and made him the most authoritative ‘new wave’ scholar. He became a household name and inspired a ‘back to tradition’ movement in which people again studied Asian traditional philosophies and religions. In the colonial period the Vietnamese were brain-washed into believing that Buddhism was a religion of death which no longer played any significant in national affairs. So many Buddhists lost faith in ‘old values’ and were partly to be blamed for Catholics’ patronising attitudes like that of Ngo Dinh Nhu: ‘They (Buddhists) played no part in the intellectual, military or economic progress of the country. The Buddhists are only an obstacle. They have contributed nothing’. (43) Nhat Hanh’s books and essays presented Buddhism in different light that influenced a younger generation who felt that they need not feel ashamed of their traditional heritage for it was in no way negative, withdrawn, pessimistic or superstitious. Nhat Hanh debunked the myths fed by colonialists and made Buddhism relevant for young people. Another work of his, Zen Keys became a classic work on Zen Buddhism. Nhat Hanh also moved into an area where he performed best namely creative writing. He edited a weekly magazine entitled, Sound of the Rising Tide, which became an official herald of the UBC. It had a huge circulation and fifty thousand copies were produced.

However, as the tempo of war accelerated, both the warring sides reached a point of no return. Nhat Hanh changed his focus accordingly to one of how to stop the war. As Nhat Hanh said at the time, he always valued peace and human life above everything else, including the existence of the UBC. His dream of reforming the Buddhist Church and conducting rural development had to take second place. Within two years, with General Westmoreland’s policy of ‘search a and destroy’, ‘body count’ and ‘bombing them back to the stone age’, there would be no more rural area to be developed and no more peasants to work with in the self-help projects! Peasants quickly became urban refugees. It was estimated that in 1966, more than a million and a half people fled to the cities and lived in camps.

When working with a team of students in flood relief in 1964, Nhat Hanh had a first hand account of the peasants’ living conditions in remote areas. This effected him deeply

After finishing the work, we stayed a few days with the people. The shooting was directly above our heads. One disciple of mine jumped into the water, he was so nervous. The suffering was overwhelming. I bit my finger and let a drop of blood fall into the river, saying: ‘this is to pray for all of you who have perished in the war and the flood. The day we left, many young women standing along the shore tried to hand their babies over to us, but we knew we could not take care of them. We felt so helpless, we cried. (44)

Published in The Sound of Rising Waves, a poem of Nhat Hanh relating to what he witnessed, shocked the whole country. Many young people, who were inspired by this poem, joined him in the anti-war movement. The images of the peasants’ unfortunate life touched even urbanite whose war was more distant and less catastrophic:

Please come here
and witness
the ordeal of all the dear ones.
A young father
whose wife and four children died
stares, day and night, into empty space.
He sometimes laughs
a tear-choked laugh.
Her husband is dead,
her children dead,
her land ruined,
her heart cold.
She curses aloud her existence,
"How fortunate," she says,
"those families who died together.

Nhat Hanh saw how the peasants lived and what they thought about the war. When asked which side they supported, they did not hesitate desiring only peace and harmony for themselves and their families:

I hate both sides
I follow neither
I only want to go
where they will let me live
and help me live.  (45)

This was Nhat Hanh’s and the UBC ‘s stance in the struggle for peace for many years to come. Then Nhat Hanh declared his intention to go on a journey for peace. As a consequence, he was forced to live in exile from 1966.

I have come with you
to weep with you
for our ravaged land
and broken lives.
We are left with only grief and pain,
but take my hands
and hold them, hold them
I want to say
only simple words
Have courage. We must have courage
if only for the children,
if only for tomorrow. (46)

Nhat Hanh was undoubtedly the leader of anti-war artists who both overtly and covertly challenged government censorship simply ignoring the publishing regulations. Many successive South Vietnam Governments tried to silence Nhat Hanh and other anti-war intellectuals and artists by proclaiming a state of emergency. Anyone viewed as a threat to national security could be arrested without trial. Interestingly even the head of state, Phan Khac Suu, could not express his peace aspiration and had to twist his tongue to use a different word Thanh Binh (quietness), instead of Hoa Binh (peace) to avoid censure. (47) Artists and intellectuals took great risks to publish anti-war materials. Despite the risk, Nhat Hanh invited five distinguished writers and intellectuals to write bilingual letters addressing six famous counterparts in the West. The book, "Dialogue: The Key to Peace in Vietnam" was an open challenge to the government. Nhat Hanh wrote a letter to Martin Luther King entitled "Searching for the Enemy of Man" which moved the pacifists in the West and secured an audience with Martin Luther King when Nhat Hanh went to the States. After explaining the symbolism of the self-immolation of monks, he asked Luther King to help voice the plight of the Vietnamese in the United States:

...Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives everyday, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggle for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. .You yourself cannot remain silent. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action, and you are in action because in you, God is in action, too. (48)

According to Nhat Hanh, when they met a year later, King came out openly against the war in Vietnam in a press conference, even though King‘s associates thought it untimely and unwise. By then he was a giant figure in both intellectual and literary circles and probably would have been a huge backlash if he had been arrested for anti-war literary works. A number of musicians inspired by Nhat Hanh’s poems composed anti-war music and formed groups, going from town to town to seek support from audiences. The best known musician was Trinh Cong Son whom Nhat Hanh praised as the finest musician Vietnam had produced in years.

With a guitar, Son and his partners sang ballads before thousands of students and youths, telling sad stories of the devastating war. In the opening line of a book written for the young, "Dialogue with the Twenty Year-Old Generation", Nhat Hanh wrote about Trinh Cong Son: ‘I have never cried when listening to music. But I cannot help crying when listening to Son’s songs". One of Son’s songs included in the following:

I have a lover who died at Chu Prong
I have a lover who died floating in a river.
Died on the rice field,
As if he were dreaming.
When peace comes back to my country
Mother will climb up the mountains to look after her son’s skeleton.

Nhat Hanh also won the heart of another talented composer, Pham Duy, who was moved by Nhat Hanh’s poems. Composer Pham Duy wrote "Ten Songs of The Heart", using the words in Nhat Hanh’s poems as his lyrics. One of the ten songs, "Our Enemy Is Not Man", could be heard on every street corner in big cities:

Our enemy is not men.
If we kill men, with whom shall we live?
Our enemy wears the colors of an ideology.
Our enemy wears the label of liberty.
Our enemy carries a fancy appearance.
Our enemy carries a big basket full of words.

Getting the support of Pham Duy was a plus for the Peace Movement because, unlike Trinh Cong Son, Pham Duy was known as a pro-American.

Another poetic work causing controversy was "Let Us Pray for the White Dove To Appear". It was a collection of twenty-four poems written by Nhat Hanh initially printed by zerox and circulated internally among students. Some of the students were quite impressed by them and proposed publishing and circulating them among a larger number of readers. Realising that this collection could never been passed by the government censorship agency, the Buddhist Students Union requested Thich Tri Quang tried to submit it to the Censorship Office in Hue, where Tri Quang still commanded high respect. Three weeks later Tri Quang returned the manuscript and said it could not be passed for publication. He also said if he insisted, the person responsible for censorship would have to obey, but this officer would certainly lose his position. "I do not want to break his pot of rice". Tri Quang said apologetically. The Buddhist Students’ Union had to submit the poems to the censorship office in Saigon. Predictably only seven out of twenty four poems passed uncensored. However with Nhat Hanh’s approval, the book was still printed and distributed as underground literature. Five thousand copies were sold within a month. These poems became the first underground anti-war literature.

The poems were well received by Buddhists, students and, according to Sister Chan Khong, received congratulations from the leftists connected with the NLF. Surprisingly, but not unexpectedly, they were severely criticised by writers on the clandestine NLF radio and Hanoi radio. At first, Nhat Hanh was denounced as an ‘indecisive’ person who could not differentiate between friends and foes. Later stronger words were used to label him such as ‘the lackey of imperialists’. The Front classified Nhat Hanh in the same category as the military junta! To some extent, the Front was smarter than the bureaucrat-writers in the South. The hidden motives of the NLF were to discredit an artist whose charisma and talent appealed to thousands of young intellectuals in South Vietnam and more importantly, because Nhat Hanh was not one of them. In the previous year Nhat Hanh had written an article in a review, exposing the difference between Buddhism and Marxism. He criticised what he saw as the Marxist narrow approach in literature. (49) The NLF also detected the subtle anti- communist tone throughout Nhat Hanh‘s work. The term "Vietcong" was invented by an American historian, Douglas Pike, as was the term Bac Viet, North Vietnam. Their meaning is similar but both imply derogatory overtone. The leftists having connection with the NLF never called themselves Vietcong, but rather they referred themselves as "people of the Front". Nhat Hanh used these terms repeatedly in his books which annoyed "people in the Front" so much. In one of his poems, Nhat Hanh denounced the "revolutionary war" initiated by the Front:

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could, I never will.
I must say this a thousand times before I am killed. (50)

In the meantime the Communists paid attention and understood well the Buddhists’ message which clearly expressed the peasants’ sentiments: "We do not follow either. We follow the one who can end the war and guarantee that we can live". (51)

The Buddhists’ stance was now clearly spelt out. The Front understood that they could no longer expect to secure the support or co-operation from the Buddhist Institute and its leaders, even though the two sides were advocating peace. The NLF also saw the danger that, the Buddhist Church, not the NLF, with its desire to put and end to the suffering of the powerless, would win over the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Vietnamese, the real victims of the war. That is why the Front kept on attacking Nhat Hanh personally and during his peace tour in the U.S. in 1966. Politically, the Front saw the Buddhists as a real threat in the race to win the support of the people. While urban youth and students wholeheartedly supported the peace protests led by the Buddhist Institute, only a few middle-class professionals, so called armchair politicians, supported the Front, as protest against Diem and successive military governments, rather than of the Front’s ideology. Urban youth’s support for the NLF was negligible. Truong Nhu Tang, one of the Fronts organisers confessed that most of the youth, high school and university students, had not supported, nor were they controlled by the Front, and the cadres had to avoid using any terms or objectives related to socialism, otherwise urban youth flatly rejected it:

In 1965 we had resurrected the name Vanguard Youth for what was envisioned as a militant organisation of young people recruited from the high schools, universities and factories ...This effort, however, had failed to generate much enthusiasm and had been allowed to lapse. (52)

On the other hand, the Generals clearly saw the Buddhists as the real threat to their power, because the main objective of the Buddhist Struggle Movement was to have a democratically elected government. The military governments were unrepresentative and installed by the American Mission in Saigon and so no Generals would be elected in any fair and free elections. The Americans neither seemed nor wanted to understand the UBC ‘s motives or position. In February 1965, when McGeorge Bundy, a National Security adviser, was sent to Vietnam for a fact-finding trip, he brought with him biographical data on Tri Quang and Tam Chau, and other Buddhist activists. In a meeting, according to his aide, McGeorge Bundy felt ‘reeling’ because Tri Quang played the mystic and his pronouncements went beyond Bundy’s Western logic! (53) It was time the Buddhist Institute sent a representative overseas, who could explain clearly how the Buddhists viewed the war and how a solution could be found to the conflict. In their view only one person could fit that role namely Nhat Hanh.

Nhat Hanh was essentially a thinker and writer. Besides there was so much he could do at home. The voice of Vietnamese peasants representing by the UBC needed to be heard beyond Vietnam. With a background both as a graduate student and a teaching member at Columbia University, he was the most appropriate candidate as "messenger" of the Church, a person who could match men like McGeorge Bundy in Western logic and so enable them to understand the UBC Church’s motives and actions. Then an appropriate occasion presented itself for Nhat Hanh. A team from the Fellowship of the Clergymen’s Emergency Committee that earlier had appealed to both side to stop the war, went to Vietnam in the summer of 1965 to instigate a dialogue with indigenous religious groups, particularly Buddhists. This group believed that in history and in present conflict, Buddhism had remained loyal to the Vietnamese. The delegation was impressed with Nhat Hanh ‘s poems and essays, which deepened their understanding and respect for the Buddhist Institute’s concern for human lives. Delegation members were also deeply moved by Nhat Hanh’s letters, addressing Martin Luther King, which contained a moving and persuasive explanation of the monks’ self-immolation able to be grasped by Western minds. (54) At that stage it was extremely difficult for any church leader to get a visa to go abroad so it was almost a year later that a group of friends at Cornell University invited Nhat Hanh to lecture on "The Revival of Vietnamese Buddhism". This was to be an innocuous academic tour and such that would not raise any disquiet in the Vietnamese government. From a three-week lecture trip, however it extended to almost three months. Not only did Nhat Hanh travel across the United States, but almost every country in Western Europe invited him to tell the world about the terrible suffering and disillusion of the Vietnamese people and about the meaning of the Buddhist led demonstrations against the Thieu-Ky government. Nhat Hanh explained that the monks were driven to take their actions by their profound compassion for the people’s suffering, and by the fact that there was literally no one who could speak for the war-weary people and their longing for peace. Nhat Hanh’s message was echoed by clergymen, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders in a plea for peace which appeared in the New York Times on January 23, 1966, calling for both sides to stop the war:

We, who is various ways have assumed the terrible responsibility of articulating the human conscience, must speak or, literally, we should expect the very stones to cry out. (55)

In the United States, Nhat Hanh was interviewed on television and radio and in print media wherever he went. He met with prominent religious and community leaders, notables in the world of literature and arts, high officials in the United Nations, members of the Senate and House of Representatives and with Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara. Arranged by the Fellowship’s International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam, he had an audience with His Holiness, Pope Paul VI. One person he did not meet was President Johnson. A spokesman for the President, who recently declared that he would meet any one to discuss a solution for the Vietnam War, had designated a lesser official to see Nhat Hanh. The lesser was no one else but William Bundy, whose brother, McGeorge Bundy, had complained that the UBC leaders were too mystic for him to understand. William Bundy, in turn, designated another lesser official to see Nhat Hanh. Interesting enough, on the day Nhat Hanh was supposed to see the President, Johnson was busy taking a group of passing tourists around the White House!

The Fellowship Committee was extremely efficient in promoting Nhat Hanh tour with the public, concerned politicians and other religious groups. Nhat Hanh left for the United States on May 22. On June 1 he was immediately introduced to the public in a press conference in Washington and presented his Proposal for Peace, which was reprinted in the Congressional Record on the next day. On June 9 his article on underground literature in Vietnam appealing for peace was printed in the New York Review of Books. He was introduced to influential spiritual leaders like Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton who persistently supported the Buddhist objective to end the war. In his Memoirs, McNamara did not record the meeting with Nhat Hanh. Johnson and William Bundy refused to see Nhat Hanh and it proved that the Administration had made up their mind to seek a military victory. What chance did Nhat Hanh and the Buddhist Church have when the White House ignored all the international efforts for peace? But it is necessary to make a content analysis from Nhat Hanh’s proposals in order to understand how the Vietnamese and the Buddhist Institute see the war.

Called A Proposal for Peace, Nhat Hanh mainly tried to address issues that worried the United States the most. On the day that Nhat Hanh conducted a press conference in Washington, June 1 1966, there was a student demonstration in front of the American Consulate in Hue in which students turned out to be violent and burned down the American Library. Nhat Hanh quickly reassured the Americans that the Buddhists were not anti- American. They were only against U.S. policies of war. On the contrary, most of Vietnamese ‘do have a great respect and admiration for America for her democratic and freedom tradition. The Vietnamese just showed their frustration of being excluded from participation in the determination of their country’s future. If anti-American sentiments were simmering because the American Administration continued to support the unrepresentative and submissive Saigon government to govern without a popular mandate and to follow policies contrary to the people ‘s aspirations’. (56)

At the time Nhat Hanh presented his proposal for peace, the U.S. Mission in Saigon provided Ky with tanks and logistics support to brutally suppress the Buddhist-led Struggle Movement, Nhat Hanh‘s mind was naturally occupied with this event and tried to persuade the U.S to withdrew support for Ky.

The United State chooses to support those elements (ie Thieu Ky. government) in Vietnam that appear to be most devoted to the U.S. ‘s wishes for Vietnam future. However, the Vietnamese people have never accepted these military leaders as their representatives. Diem was not, nor were Diem’s successors. Thus, it has been the U.S. government’s antipathy to popular government in South Vietnam, together with its hope for an ultimate military solution, that has not only contradicted the deepest aspirations of the Vietnamese people, but actually undermined the very objective for what we believe Americans to be fighting in Vietnam. (57)

As a graduate from a U.S. University, Nhat Hanh had faith in the American commitment to defend democracy and freedom for South Vietnam. Apparently the American objectives in Vietnam were to preserve an free and independent South Vietnam and to help the South Vietnamese to guide their own country in their own way as affirmed by President Johnson in his Johns Hopkins University Speech. But in fact, there were other objectives that the American public was never told. The Assistant Secretary of Defence, McNaughton, in a memorandum to the President, weighted the U.S. objectives in Vietnam as follows:

70% ‘to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat’,
20% to keep South Vietnam territory from Chinese hands, and
10% to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better and freer way of life. (58)

Secondly Nhat Hanh wanted clarity the political stand of Buddhist activists. The fight to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people was a trio contest: the NLF, the anti- communists and the non-communists. It was convenient for the military governments to label the Buddhists, the urban intellectuals, students as neutralist or pro- communist because these activists openly challenged the military authority and wanted the unrepresentative and corrupt generals replaced by a democratically elected government. But the peace activists were truly nationalists who dared to speak their mind and had been subject to persecution and arrest by Diem and successive governments. These activists may come from different political spectrum from urban intellectuals, self esteemed politicians who refused to identify with anti- communists elements, students, anti-war artists and of course Buddhists.

Nhat Hanh believed this group would play an important role in confronting with the NLF when the final show down would come: the election time:

The force of Vietnamese nationalism is such an alternative. Indeed, this is the sole force that can prevent the complete disintegration of South Vietnam and it is the force around which all Vietnamese can unite. (59)

But unfortunately the truly nationalists could not develop its potential in the current political climate, where if they joined the opposition to the government, they would be persecuted; if they identified with the corrupt and unrepresentative government, they would be discredited in the eyes of the people. That was why they did not like to call themselves "anti- communist", but non-communist or just nationalist. The repressive measures used by Diem and successive junta governments actually drove them into the arms of the Front even though they were wary of hard liners manipulated behind the scene. One of the Vietcong who was the first organiser to establish the NLF admitted that ‘had Ngo Dinh Diem proved a man of breadth and vision, the core who filled the NLF and its sister organisations would have rallied to him. (60) A majority of Buddhists chose to stay back because they maintained strong faith in their religious values. Except for a minority Catholics from the North, most of urban activists chose religions over the Front. This was true with most believers in religious sects that showed an anti-colonialist past, like Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, particularly Buddhism. The UBC in the struggle against Diem and the Generals could mobilise thousands of faithful members from all walks of life and social strata at will, and up until 1966 the Buddhists were an influential political force as opposed to military governments and the NLF. Most of urban activists answered the call for peace under the Buddhist banner, rather than to the NLF. In 1968 when the NLF attacked all the cities in South Vietnam, uprising that the communists expected to happen, never materialised: Buddhism became a symbol of hope:

Today, the mean for nationalist expression rests mainly with the Vietnamese Buddhists, who alone command sufficient popular support to spearhead a protest for popular government. This is not a new role for Vietnamese Buddhism, for in the eyes of the Vietnamese peasants, Buddhism and nationalism are inseparably entwined. The historic accident that made the mass conversion to Catholic in Vietnam coincident with France’ subjugation of Vietnam created this image. (61)

It was quite clear now that there were three forces participating in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. While the junta government and the anti-communists backed by the Administration, the NLF backed by Hanoi and the UBC and the non- communists representing the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the Vietnamese people.

The Americanisation of the war inevitably brought social upheavals in South Vietnam. When the American GIs flooded the cities, hundreds of services were needed to satisfy a new and unexpected demand in housing and recreations. In turn thousands of job were created for the whole army of American employees and contractors who saw the war as a profitable business. Actually the most vocal anti- communists were the ones who made huge profits from the war. In other words, anti- communism had become Vietnam’s most profitable business. The military commanders, who were supposed to kill more Vietcong as requested by president Johnson, busily lobbied positions for themselves and their own cronies and used these positions to conduct big businesses like heroin traffic while their wives ran open-secret businesses selling rice, medicines for the NLF. The Catholics moved to South Vietnam in 1954, clustered in ghettos on the fringe of Saigon, which was a well-known protection heaven for those who wanted to dodge the draft. Those who possessed wealth and power could afford to buy off the draft or send their children overseas. Nhat Hanh summed up this irony:

The most vocal anti-communists in fact, are doing very little against Communism. On the contrary, by their support of the existing government and the American effort, they succeed in perpetuating the situation that strengthens Communism. Thus the people with whom the government deals with as ‘good’ anti- communists are in fact those who causes much hatred of government and contribute more than any one else to support of the NLF. (62)

The longer the war dragged on, the richer they became. They were comfortably housed and lived safely in the big cities, had neither desire to give up their way of life or to end the war which was the source of their wealth.

The urban activists were well educated enough to understand what went on in Russia and China. If they come from the North, they probably heard or experienced the short reign of orthodox communism. Obviously they did not like Marxism yet they did proclaim themselves anti- communists, simply because they did want to be identified with the parasitic elements who benefited from the war. The pacifists saw the struggle movement led by the Buddhists was the only chance of grouping non-communists who were able to fight the NLF in the political front on an equal footing. They were able to rally the support of peasants because they were determined to end the roots of their suffering. They would appeal to a majority of people, from the urban activists to peasants, the third force, to form a government that combined the genuine will of the people for independence with the profound aspirations for peace. This group could unite the whole spectrum of a non- communist force which would gather enough political strength to negotiate with the Front and Hanoi for a peaceful solution. In order to win the war on the political terms, instead of supporting the corrupt and incompetent government, and a vocal group of anti-communists, the United States should have supported this non-communist force.

Nhat Hanh’s mission in the States was now much clearer. He came to the States to persuade the Johnson Administration to support the non-communist elements rallying in the Buddhist Struggle Movement. Supporting the corrupt and unrepresentative military government and the anti- communists was backing the wrong horse. He re-assured the U.S. government that the Buddhists did not consider Americans as their enemies, but as friends, as an ally for peace not for war. Nhat Hanh articulated so well the UBC’ s policies and objectives. That was the third possibilities that the Buddhist had been pursuing for at least three years from 1964 to 1966. The UBC had tried to build up a politically strong non-communist force that could negotiate with the NLF on an equal footing.

They (the Vietnamese People) do not agree that there is no alternative to a military dictatorship. The force of nationalist Vietnamese is such an alternative. Indeed, this is the sole force that can prevent a complete disintegration of South Vietnam, and it is the force around which all Vietnamese can unite. But nationalism cannot attain its effective potential in the present Vietnamese political climate, where opposition to the government invites open persecution upon oneself and identification with it (corrupt military dictatorship) discredits oneself in the eyes of the people (63)

The Buddhist Struggle Movement during the years of 1964 and 1966 used their grass roots support to bring down, or to boost up many governments, not because they wanted to grasp naked power, but their main concern was the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese Government. Or as in Nhat Hanh own words, a government that combines the genuine will of the people for independence with their profound aspiration for peace. (64). Had there been an popular elected government, this coalition government would command respect from every one and the NLF had to reason to refuse to negotiate with it. If it did, the NLF would lose the support of a majority of Vietnamese peasants and urban activists who longed for nothing but peace. Nhat Hanh optimistically predicted that if such a democratically elected government came to power, it would have the support not only of the vast majority of non- communist Vietnamese, but of those who supported the Front and even of many who were in the Front.

In a press release on June 1, 1966 Nhat Hanh revealed a five-point proposal which addressed directly Johnson Government. In the first three items he requested that the Administration to cease bombings, reduce military actions, or declare a cease-fire and if the NLF responded positively, later the U.S would show intention to withdraw troops in the future. The fourth item Four was the core of Nhat Hanh’s proposal:

4- A clear statement by the U.S. of its desire to help the Vietnamese people to have a government truly responsive to Vietnamese aspirations, and concrete U.S. actions to implement this statement, such as a refusal to support one group over another. (65)

What Nhat Hanh insisted was Johnson government should stop support the parasitic elements like Ky who, ironically, with tanks and logistics provided by the Americans, was about to suppress the Buddhist Struggle Movement in Danang and Hue in the summer of 1966.

Nhat Hanh did not mention the NLF and seemed to continue annoying the NLF analysts by calling them the derogatory term, Vietcong. Neither did he talk of negotiations because the NLF and the non- communists which he saw it as a ‘internal affairs’ of the Vietnamese people. He advised the American Administration to sidestep the issue and let the Vietnamese people exercise their right of self-determination. Only at the end of the peace tour, he took some time out and wrote The Lotus in the Sea Of Fire to sum up his proposal and the Buddhists’ political stand in details.

Nhat Hanh said it was time for the U.S. government to change its policies. Americans could not win the war militarily, because the root of the problem was in the heart of the Vietnamese peasants. The undiscriminating bombings and killings intensified the hatred of the peasants for the Americans and the longer the war went on, the more the Vietnamese would support the NLF. But if the U.S government sought a negotiated settlement, which acceptable and legitimate South Vietnamese Government would come to the negotiating table with the communists? The negotiation must be conducted between the Vietnamese themselves and the South Vietnamese at large must be included in any negotiations. The incumbent military leaders represented no one. They were there because the U.S. wanted them to be there. The urgent task must be done was (1) to establish an interim government that would represent the religions and political paries with national stature, because these were almost the remaining centres of loyalty of the population. (2) The interim government would request both sides to accept a cease-fire, or at least to cease offensive actions, until a popularly elected government comes to power. (3) The elected government would request the U.S government to withdraw a number of small units as a token of good faith to the Vietnamese people and the communist side. The new government would ask the NLF to form a coalition government for South Vietnam and also request the North Vietnam withdraw a token of their troops and (5) the coalition government would negotiate with North Vietnam to establish normal relations of trade and diplomacy. The discussion for reunification would be held but there was no rush, the two Vietnams would be re-unified whenever both sides felt comfortable with each other, in the distant future perhaps. (66)

Nhat Hanh humbly admitted that he was not a politician, nor his proposal was a rigid blue print, but these were first steps toward a peaceful solution, or at least, it could offer a chance for the adversary sides to sit together for preliminary talk. Indeed it could have saved thousands of lives if Johnson Administration at least listened to this gentle monk. And ta least Johnson did not have to anywhere to talk to any person about peace, as the President promised in his Baltimore address. This gentle peace-loving monk came to Washington and requested an audience with the President. What would have happened if the President, instead of taking the tourists around the White House on that day, could have granted Nhat Hanh some time to present him the Buddhist viewpoint? Or at least the National Security Adviser, William Bundy, could have seen Nhat Hanh to find out whether this graduate from Columbia did have a logic that his brother, McGeorge Bundy could understand. The Secretary of Defence, Robert, McNamara did see Nhat Hanh, but his proposal for peace left no trace in his memoir, In Retrospect, The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Only one person saw Nhat Hanh’s vision of peace and did not hesitate to nominate Nhat Hanh as a candidate for Nobel Peace Prize, it was Martin Luther King. Perhaps these two people, Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, communicated with each other by the same language, the spiritual language. Perhaps the White House advisers used different kind of logic which George Ball, the Under Secretary of State called ‘logic on its head’. What the President and his men did was history: more bombings were ordered, more troops were sent in, more bodies were counted. Until one day they realised what Nhat Hanh said was prophetic: the continuance of the war was more likely to spread communism in Vietnam rather to contain it. (67) And two weeks after Nhat Hanh had presented his proposal for peace, the U.S. government provided tanks, ammunitions and logistics for Ky’s troops to suppress the Buddhist Struggle Movement in Danang and Hue. The last hope for the non- communist Vietnamese to restore peace was finally dashed.

Chapter Eight
  1. Nhat Hanh, Fragrant Palm Leaves, p. 9
  2. Ibid., p. 150
  3. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 44
  4. Chan Khong, Footprints On The Sand, p. 264
  5. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 50
  6. Tue Giac, Ibid., p. 428
  7. Tri Quang, AutoBiography, Chuyen Luan, The Buddhist Review, Issue 4, p. 17
  8. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 50
  9. Ibid., p. 158
  10. Ibid., p. 72
  11. Ibid., p. 88
  12. Ibid., p. 89
  13. Ibid., pp. 94-95
  14. Ibid., p. 93
  15. Do Trung Hieu, Xay Dung Magazine, Issue 67, March 1995, pp. 4-21
  16. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 90
  17. Nhat Hanh, Fragrant Palm Leaves, p. 149
  18. Ibid., p. 151
  19. Chan Khong, Footprints On The Sand, p. 190
  20. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 93
  21. Queen & King, Ibid., p. 122
  22. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 109
  23. Ibid., p. 88
  24. Henrickson, Paul, The Living and The Death, p. 188
  25. Ibid., p. 215
  26. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 96
  27. Ibid., p.100
  28. Ibid., p. 101
  29. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p. 45
  30. Thien Hoa, Fifty Years Of Vietnamese Buddhism Revival, p.193
  31. Op. cit., p. 195
  32. Op. cit., p. 194
  33. Nhat Hanh, Call Me By My True Name, p. 48
  34. Ibid., p. 25
  35. Ibid., p. 23
  36. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p. 32
  37. Nhat Hanh, Fragrant Palm Leaves, p. 199
  38. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, p. 62
  39. Ibid., p. 112
  40. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p. 4
  41. Chan Khong, Learning True Love, P. 103
  42. Ibid., p. 127
  43. Ibid., p. 127
  44. Schecter, Jerrold, The New Face of Buddhism, p. 184
  45. Nhat Hanh, Call Me By My True Name, p.14
  46. Ibid., p. 12
  47. Ibid., p. 10
  48. Nhat Hanh, The Lotus In The Sea Of Fire, p. 88
  49. Ibid., p. 110
  50. Chan Khong, Footprints On The Sand, p. 197
  51. Nhat Hanh, Call Me by My True Name. p. 37
  52. Nhat Hanh, quoted in C. Queen & S. King, Ibid., p. 332
  53. Truong Nhu Tang, Journal of A Vietcong, p. 105
  54. Prados, John, Ibid., p. 95
  55. Nhat Hanh, Lotus, p. 197
  56. Ibid., p. 109
  57. Nhat Hanh, Love, p. 50
  58. Ibid., p. 51
  59. Kahin, Intervention, p. 313
  60. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p.52
  61. Truong Nhu Tang, Ibid., p. 70
  62. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p. 53
  63. Nhat Hanh, Lotus in the Sea of Fire, p. 80
  64. Ibid., p. 80
  65. Ibid., p. 53
  66. Nhat Hanh, Love in Action, p. 55
  67. Ibid., pp. 96-97
  68. Ibid., p. 52


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