Excerpt from the Foreword by Thomas Merton
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese scholar and a poet, a contemplative monk who has felt himself obliged to take an active part in his country’s effort to escape destruction in a vicious power struggle between capitalism and communism. While many of his countrymen are divided and find themselves, through choice or through compulsion, supporting the Saigon govern-ment and the Americans, or formally and explicitly committed to communism, Nhat Hanh speaks for the vast majority who know little of politics but who seek to preserve something of Vietnam’s traditional identity as an Asian and largely Buddhist culture. Above all, they want to live and see an end to a brutal and useless war. He speaks for his people and for a renewed and “engaged” Buddhism that has taken up the challenge of modern and Western civilization in its often disastrous impact upon the East.
This new Buddhism is not immersed in an eternal trance. Nor is it engaged in a fanatical self- glorifying quest for political power. It is not remote and withdrawn from the sufferings of ordinary men and their problems in a world of revolution. It seeks to help them solve these problems. But at the same time, it struggles to keep itself independent of massive pressures—whether American or Chinese or Russian—in order to assert certain claims which have never been clearly apprehended or understood in the West. These claims issue from a state of mind which is widespread all through Southeast Asia. To ignore this state of mind is fatal. It must be known and understood.
Thich Nhat Hanh has given us the first really clear and articulate expression of this peculiarly Asian viewpoint. His book is not a piece of inspired agitation but a reasonable, care-fully documented, and authoritative exposition of historical and cultural evidence. From this book we may perhaps begin to understand why so many fantastic errors and confusions have so far characterized Western adventures in Southeast Asia. Westerners apparently have no idea whatever of the com-plexity of the social and cultural problems they are wrestling with in Asia. They are evidently entirely out of contact with the Vietnamese people themselves—dealing almost entirely with stooges who tell them what they themselves want to hear. As a result, in order to “destroy communism,” they destroy more non-Communist elements who are working for social reform and who offer some reasonable hope of an alternative to Com-munist revolution. This is true not only in Asia but also, and above all, in Latin America.Excerpt from Part I: The Lotus in a Sea of Fire
The world first began to give real consideration to "the Vietnamese problem" and the role of the Buddhists only after the Venerable Thich Quang- Duc burned himself on Phan-dinh-Phung Street in Saigon on June 11, 1963, to call the attention of the world public to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Ngo Dinh Diem’s oppressive regime. The Venerable Thich Quang-Duc’s self- immolation had a far greater emotional impact on the West than on the East because of the great difference in religious and cultural backgrounds.
On a trip from New York to Stockholm, I met an American woman doctor on the plane. She asked me many questions about Vietnam. Although she agreed with the motives behind the movement to end the Vietnam War, she was quite unable to accept the Venerable Thich Quang-Duc’s self- immolation, which seemed to her the act of an abnormal person. She saw self- burning as an act of savagery, violence, and fanaticism, requiring a condition of mental unbalance. When I explained to her that the Venerable Thich Quang-Duc was over seventy, that I had lived with him for nearly one year at Long- Vinh pagoda and found him a very kind and lucid person, and that he was calm and in full possession of his mental faculties when he burned himself, she could not believe it. l said no more, realizing then that she could never understand. She could not understand because she was unable, though not unwilling, to look at the act of self- burning from any angle but her own.
Since then, the world has nurtured many doubts and invented a great many hypotheses about the Buddhists in Vietnam. Most Westerners have very little knowledge of what seems to them a strange, unorthodox religion. They tend to accept the stereotype of “monks” as uneducated, superstitious indigents who shave their heads, forgo meat, and recite prayers for salvation from rebirth. Some see them as having caused trouble and disorder in South Vietnam and hindered the war against the Communists. For these people, the monks seem to be either men ambitious for power or dupes of the Communists, or, perhaps, simply naive in the belief that they can cope with the Communists, as a sheep might think it could outwit a wolf.
A numbers game became popular, with guesses about the percentage of Buddhists among the population of South Vietnam and full of efforts to distinguish practicing Buddhists from nominal ones, militants from moderates. In the end, however, most people do not seem to get very far in their understanding of Vietnamese Buddhism, and consequently they cannot comprehend the Vietnamese problem. It is, in fact, a complex matter to which easy answers are impossible and simple formulations misleading.
Early in 1966, I met an Italian reporter in Saigon. He told me that, after the first few days at Hue, he had felt quite able to understand the nature and meaning of the struggle in the clash of students and others in Hue and Da Nang. But then he said that the more deeply he inquired into it, the less clear it became to him, and that when he finally left the former imperial city two weeks later, his mind was in a state of utter confusion. The fact is that even those who live in Saigon and Hue have much difficulty in grasping what has happened; why not then a foreigner such as he who knows hardly anything about Vietnam? Furthermore, spies of all sorts abound in Vietnam, and our reporter may well have been mistaken for a foreign agent, which would have cut him from reliable sources of information. Not long before, I myself had traveled to Hue. I am a native of Vietnam and have been associated with Buddhism here for twenty years, yet it took all of five days in Hue to search out the nature and objectives of the struggle movement. Even then, I had to work hard to be able to answer questions that bothered our friend the foreign reporter later in Saigon.
After twenty years of war, Vietnamese society now approaches the ultimate in disintegration. The needless killing and dying that occur every day, the destruction of property, and the venal use of money to erode human values have resulted in widespread doubt and frustration among the Vietnamese. Nearly everyone is prey to venality, so that money seems able to purchase women, politicians, generals, and intellectuals alike. In such a situation the peasants, who constitute up to 90 percent of the country’s population, turn for help to their religious leaders. They, then, in turn, are all but forced to act: the Buddhist population may often be found complaining about their spiritual leaders’ silence in the face of the nation’s suffering.
In a river current, it is not the water in front that pulls the river along but the water in the rear that acts as the driving force, pushing the water in front forward. The image may serve to explain the engagement of the Unified Buddhist Church in worldly affairs and help to reveal the nature of reality in present-day Vietnam. Objective conditions in Vietnamese society have compelled the Buddhist religion to engage itself in the life of the nation. To explain that engagement otherwise, as by the militancy and ambition for power of a few monks, leads to tragic oversimplification of the whole matter.
For this reason, what follows is an outline of the history and nature of Vietnamese Buddhism, together with a survey of the relationships between it and other social realities present in this country. Only against this background can the role of the Buddhists in Vietnam be understood and evaluated.
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