Religious Freedom in Vietnam – Help Bat Nha

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong and Kenley
Image by kenleyneufeld via Flickr

Do you believe in religious freedom? It is something we almost take for granted in our nation and in our world. However, there are places where religious freedom is a precious gift that must be struggled for to make a reality. This is the case in Vietnam.

For 39 years Nobel Prize Nominee and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) has lived in exile in France because he challenged the status quo of violence in his Motherland. Even after the “American War” ended, Thay was not allowed to return. That all changed in 2005 when he returned home to tour the country and give talks and share the dharma. He returned again in 2007 and 2008. I was honored to be a part of the initial delegation in 2005 and experienced the elation and joy of the Vietnamese people and the apparent opening up of the nation to new ideas and newfound religious freedom.

The trip also coincided with Vietnam’s desire to join the World Trade Organization, which has since happened. On a related note, the President of Vietnam just assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council.

During that initial trip in 2005, and in subsequent trips, a home was established for students of Thay to practice as monastics in the tradition of Plum Village. Approximately $1 million was spent to build up the monastery, including a meditation hall for 1800 people. The land was a gift of a local abbot, who maintains ownership, in the Lam Dong province and it was called Bat Nha Monastery (also known as Prajna Temple). The monastic sangha grew to 400 young monks and nuns, mostly under the age of 25. It is my understanding that this is the largest independent monastic community in Vietnam not under the direct control of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

On October 29, 2008, the Government’s Committee on Religious Affairs (GCRA) accused Thich Nhat Hanh of distorting Vietnam’s religious policies and stated that the monastic and lay practitioners at Prajna no longer have legal rights to stay at Prajna and have to leave the monastery.

Unfortunately, it appears the government’s objective was to breakup the community of monastic practitioners rather than allow them to find another location in Vietnam. The monastics chose to remain together at Bat Nha Monastery. In June 2009, the power and water was shut off at the monastery. State-linked religious authorities had given Thay’s followers until September 2 to leave the monastery but they had refused to go. On September 27, 2009 a siege to evict the monastics took place. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured during the eviction but the monastery was damaged, several monastics were arrested, and the approximately 379 young monastics have taken refuge in a temple in the neighboring district.

Since taking refuge at the Phuoc Hue temple, the police have continued to attempt to remove them. At this time, the Phuoc Hue Abott has been able to allow them to stay and resist governmental pressure. Local reports suggest the police have stepped up their campaign, placing the followers under 24-hour guard and ordering them to leave Phuoc Hue temple.

In a gesture of religious solidarity, the local Catholic Church has offered to provide refuge to the monastics if they are evicted from Phuoc Hue temple too.

Much of what has occurred has been covered in the international press and on the Help Bat Nha web site. This is a complicated matter and I’ve attempted to give a birds eye view of what is happening in Vietnam.

In our local community, we are supporting the young monks and nuns of Bat Nha Monastery by participating in the Global Sit for Bat Nha on Sunday, October 4. If you would like to join us, we’ll meet at the Being Peace Zendo at 9:00am. Located at 308 Drown in Ojai. We will have a silent sit for 30-minutes. Please bring a small strip of yellow cloth for a picture we will send to Vietnam.

If you are interested in doing more, please read how you can help.

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