Friday, August 7, 2009


Communist Vietnam’s sometimes edgy relationship with religious freedom is being tested in a dispute over a monastery inhabited by disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s most famous Zen masters. For four years, the Buddhist monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery in central Vietnam have been quietly meditating and studying the teachings of the 82-year-old Vietnamese sage who is perhaps the world’s best-known living Buddhist after Tibet’s Dalai Lama.

But lately, they are in a standoff that could test the patience of even the most enlightened.

First, local authorities cut off their power, water and telephones.

Then, a mob descended on their compound with sledgehammers, smashing windows, damaging buildings and threatening occupants.

Communist authorities have ordered the 379 Vietnamese monks to leave the monastery in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. They say the standoff stems from disagreements between two Buddhist factions at the monastery.

But Nhat Hanh’s followers believe they are being punished because of their leader’s praise for the Dalai Lama and his call to broaden religious freedom in Vietnam.

The affair represents a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when France-based Nhat Hanh returned to his native land after 39 years of exile during which he developed a philosophy called Engaged Buddhism and sold more than a million books in the West.

In 1966, he had been forced out of what was then U.S.-backed South Vietnam for criticizing the Vietnam War. His return in 2005 made the front pages of state-owned newspapers, and he met with the prime minister.

The abbot at Bat Nha, which belonged to the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam, invited Nhat Hanh’s followers to train monks in their brand of Buddhism at the temple there.

Many saw all this as evidence that the Communist government was easing restrictions on religious freedom. Nhat Hanh’s supporters spent $1 million to buy land for new buildings and a meditation hall that holds up to 1,800 people.

But the harmony began to unravel last year, Nhat Hanh’s followers say. Chinese officials were upset about published comments he made in support of the Dalai Lama and pressured Vietnam to bar the Zen master from addressing an international Buddhist gathering in Hanoi, they say.

In an interview with Italian TV, Nhat Hanh had said that Vietnam should allow the Dalai Lama to attend the Hanoi gathering and China should allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet to meet with his followers there, just as Nhat Hanh was allowed to return to Vietnam.

“I’m sure he knew that speaking out would bring him problems,” said Sister Dang Nghiem, a close Hanh associate who spent six months at Bat Nha.

And soon enough, problems began.

On Oct. 29, the chairman of Vietnam’s national Committee on Religious Affairs wrote a letter accusing Plum Village, Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, of publishing false information about Vietnam on its Web site.

Without mentioning specifics, the letter said the information distorted Vietnam’s policies on religion and could undermine national unity.

The letter also said Nhat Hanh’s followers should leave Bat Nha and stressed that Abbot Duc Nghi, the property’s original owner, wanted them to go.

Mr. Nghi could not be reached, and committee members declined to comment, saying they needed several days to arrange an interview.

Sister Dang said the Plum Village followers were taken by surprise when Mr. Nghi told them to leave because the abbot had visited the monastery in France two or three times and seemed to respect Nhat Hanh.

She theorized that Mr. Nghi must have been pressured from above to ask the Plum Village practitioners to leave. Otherwise, she said, any tensions between the two camps could have been resolved.

However, according to Nhat Hanh’s supporters, some of Mr. Nghi’s followers and other local residents have harassed them intermittently over the past year.

On June 27, the power was cut. Then the compound was raided, and two days later a mob threw rocks and animal excrement at a delegation from the local branch of Vietnam’s official Buddhist church that came to investigate, members of the group said.

Local authorities said it was the abbot who asked for the electricity to be cut, and that it was restored two weeks ago.

But Phap Hoi, a monk at Bat Nha, said in a telephone interview this week that the power was still out.

The animosities may predate last year’s row over the Dalai Lama. A provincial police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused Nhat Hanh of breaking Vietnamese law during a 2007 visit when he suggested to President Nguyen Minh Triet that Vietnam abolish government control of religion.

“He should focus on Buddhism and keep out of politics,” the officer said, adding that the monks have until September to relocate.

Nhat Hanh’s followers say they’re staying put.

“We just want to practice and do good works,” Sister Dang said. “We want to live together in harmony.”

Nhat Hanh denies trying to stir up trouble. In a July 20 letter to his Bat Nha followers, he praised them for remaining peaceful and said any notion that they harbored political aims was a “delusion.”

“If you can master the anger in you,” Nhat Hanh wrote, “you can give rise to understanding and love.”

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