The Most Venerable THICH HUYEN QUANG
Fourth Supreme Patriarch
of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam
19 September 1920 – 5 July 2008
“I have lived without a home, will die without a grave,
I walk without a path and am imprisoned without a crime”
(Thich Huyen Quang)
The 4th Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), who died on 5th July at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh, was one of Vietnam’s most beloved and respected spiritual leaders. He was also a determined opponent of tyranny in all its forms. For his uncompromising determination to stand firm, he paid a high price, spending over half his life in prison, internal exile or under house arrest under a succession of political regimes. Together with the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, Thich Huyen Quang waged three decades of peaceful opposition to the Communist regime, becoming a symbol of the non-violent Buddhist movement for religious freedom and human rights. But he was also a great peacemaker and a man of dialogue, seeking every opportunity towards harmony and the healing of divisions in a Vietnam torn by war and conflicting ideologies. In April 2003, he was received in Hanoi by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to discuss the situation of Buddhism. This was the first time a political prisoner had ever been received by a top government official in Communist Vietnam. – Born on 19 September 1920 in Binh Dinh, secular name Le Dinh Nhan, Thich Huyen Quang was a brilliant scholar, winning first place is all his studies. He became a monk at the age of 12, and from a very young age, he vowed to combat injustice and win freedom for his country through the Buddhist ideals of salvation, tolerance and compassion.
In 1945, he took part in the resistance movement for independence against French colonial rule, and was Vice-President of the Buddhist Movement for National Salvation in Interzone 5. Arrested by the Viet Minh revolutionary forces in 1951 because he refused to submit religious activities to Communist control, he was imprisoned for 4 years in Quang Ngai, and released in 1954, just one month before the Geneva Agreement.
In 1963, he took part in the Buddhist struggle against religious discrimination, calling for the abrogation of Colonial Decree No. 10. This Decree, adopted by the 26 French and maintained by President Ngo Dinh Diem, recognized only Roman Catholicism as a “Church”, whilst Buddhism and all other religious were reduced to the status of a mere “association”. Along with thousands of Buddhists monks and nuns, he was arrested on the night of 20.8.1963 in a massive Police sweep launched by the Diem government in Hue and Saigon.
Thich Huyen Quang was released after the fall of the Diem regime on 1.11.1963. Decree No. 10 was then repealed, and Buddhism regained its religious rights. At a Congress in Saigon on 31.12.1963 – 4.1.1964, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) regained its legitimate status. Adhered to by 80% of the population, the UBCV represents a 2000-year tradition of Vietnamese Buddhism and has the unique characteristic of uniting Buddhism’s two principle schools, the Northern School (Mahayana) and the Southern School (Theravada) into one congregation.
Thich Huyen Quang was appointed Secretary-general of the UBCV’s Executive Institute (Vien Hoa Dao, the Institute for the Dissemination of the Dharma) and Commissioner for Lay-Buddhist affairs.
During the Vietnam War, Thich Huyen Quang actively engaged in the Buddhist peace movement. He represented the UBCV at several international conferences, such as the World Conference of Religions for Peace (Japan, 1970), World Council of Churches (Geneva, 1972), the 2nd World Conference of Religions for Peace (Brussels, 1974). In 1974, he was appointed Vice-President of the UBCV’s Executive Institute Vien Hoa Dao.
It was after the communist victory on 30.4.1975 that Thich Huyen Quang embarked on his longest combat, and a cycle of imprisonment and exile that would last more than 26 years. After 1975, the authorities immediately launched a fierce campaign to suppress Buddhism in South Vietnam. UBCV property was confiscated, its institutions dismantled, its followers arrested.
Repression reached such a height that in November 1975 in the province of Can Tho, twelve UBCV monks and nuns immolated themselves to call for an end to religious persecution. Thich Huyen Quang and the UBCV leadership strongly protested against the government’s policy of religious persecution.
On 6.4.1977 he was arrested along with Thich Quang Do, Thich Thien Minh and other UBCV leaders, and detained in solitary confinement in Phan Dang Luu Prison in Saigon for 18 months. Following strong international protests, they were put on trial on 10.12.1978, sentenced to 2 years suspended sentence and house arrest, then released. The same year, Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Irish laureates Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire.
Having failed to suppress Buddhism by force, the government decided to place it under strict government control. In 1981, Vietnam founded the “Vietnam Buddhist Church”, controlled by the Communist Party’s Vietnam Fatherland Front to supplant the UBCV.
Because they strongly protested this, Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do were both arrested on 25.2.1982 and sent into internal exile without any due process of law. Police simply said: “Your religious activities are tantamount to political activities.” Thich Huyen Quang was placed under house arrest at the remote Quang Phuoc pagoda in Nghia Hanh village, Quang Ngai Province, strictly forbidden to exercise religious activities. Thich Quang Do was sent into exile in Vu Doai village in Thai Binh, Northern Vietnam.
Conditions in Quang Ngai were extremely harsh. Thich Huyen Quang lived alone, without any disciples to assist him. During periods of frequent flooding, water inundated his room and he was obliged to sleep on the table. He had no access to medical care. Despite these harsh conditions, he continued to challenge the government on issues of religious freedom and human rights. He was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience in 1990, and declared a “Victim of Arbitrary Detention” by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in Geneva in 2001 and 2005.
On 23.4.1992, the UBCV’s 3rd Supreme Patriarch Thich Don Hau died in Hue. In his will, he appointed Thich Huyen Quang as his successor. In defiance of the government ban, Thich Huyen Quang staged a hunger strike and broke out of house arrest to attend the funeral at the Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue, where he was handed the official seal and solemnly pronounced as the UBCV’s new leader. Before the late Patriarch’s coffin, he solemnly pledged: “Whatever hardships I encounter, I will never be shaken in my quest to re-establish the right to existence of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam”.
The Communist authorities strongly opposed his appointment, and launched a virulent campaign against Thich Huyen Quang. Two “Top Secret” and “Ultra-Secret” Communist Party documents (Ref. 125/TUDV, 17.8.1992 and 106/PA 15-16, 18.8.1992) were issued by top VCP echelons denouncing the “malicious and illegal activities of Huyen Quang and his accomplices” and calling on Police and Party members to “spare no efforts in the struggle against Huyen Quang” and “chop off the arms and legs” (sic) of the UBCV. Police cut off the microphone, but Thich Huyen Quang’s eloquent Oration heard loud and clear.
Following the publication of these documents, Security Police launched a nation-wide crackdown against UBCV clergy and supporters, raiding homes and pagodas and confiscating Buddhist literature. Anyone found in possession of Thich Huyen Quang’s speeches was arrested. This sparked off renewed protests, culminating in a demonstration or 40,000 Buddhists for religious freedom in Hue on 24.5.1993, the largest ever public demonstration in Communist Vietnam. On 20.11.1993, from house arrest, Thich Huyen Quang issued a landmark 12-point “Buddhist Proposal for Democracy and Human Rights”. This was a turning point for the UBCV. Whereas the Buddhists had limited their demands to religious freedom, Thich Huyen Quang called for fundamental political reforms such as free elections, a multi-party system, and the end of the Communist Party’s political monopoly.
“The abolition of Article 4 (of the Constitution on the VCP’s political mastery) does not imply the exclusion or the dissolution of the Communist Party… [it will] stimulate the participation of all sectors of the population, regardless of their political affiliations or religious beliefs [and] foster competition as a mutually reinforcing relationship, not as a race to oust one’s opponents. After all, whether our compatriots be communists or members of any other political party, they are first and foremost Vietnamese. Our common heritage of 5,000 years’ civilization will form the basis for future dialogue and co-operation, and we will be bound together in one common aim – that of forging a place within the community of nations for a stable, flourishing and prosperous Viet Nam” .
Thich Huyen Quang’s Proposal defined the Buddhist vision of a just and open society, and underlined the UBCV’s resolve to struggle not only for religious freedom and Church independence, but also for the fundamental rights and freedoms of Vietnamese people as a whole. He also stressed the role of Buddhism and religious movements this process:
“After 50 years of devastating war waged in the name of conflicting, imported ideologies, religious movements alone possess an unparalleled capacity to temper hatreds, defuse conflict and restore moral values in a society plunged in a spiritual and moral crisis. As such, they have a vital role to play in the reconstruction of our country…”.
The international community made numerous appeals for Thich Huyen Quang’s release. In May 1998, Nobel Peace Prize laureates H.H. the Dalai Lama (Tibet), Mairead Maguire (Ireland), François Jacob (France) and Jose Ramos-Horta (East Timor) formed a “Nobel Laureates Committee for the release of Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do” and launched a joint appeal to the Vietnamese authorities. UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, asked to visit Thich Huyen Quang during an investigative mission to Vietnam, but the Hanoi authorities refused. In 1999, he received a
visit from David Young, Political advisor to the US Embassy in Hanoi. He was the first Westerner Thich Huyen Quang had met in 17 years, since his internal exile in 1982. In 2003, the Czech Foundation “People in Need” awarded Thich Huyen Quang the “Homo Homini Prize”, under the auspices of President Vaclav Havel. Unable to attend the ceremony in Prague, the prize was received by UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai.
On the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in April 2000, Thich Huyen Quang sent an Open Letter to the Vietnamese leadership calling on them to proclaim 30th April (day of the Communist victory) a “Day of Repentance”, on which the Communist Party should publicly apologize for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the North Vietnamese Land Reforms, the Tet Offensive in Hue, in the reeducation camps after 1975, or who perished as Boat People on the South China seas in their flight for freedom. Calling for “sacred rights for the dead, human rights for the living” Thich Huyen Quang also called for the repeal of Decree 31/CP on “administrative detention” and other national security laws.
In March 2003, suffering from a growth on his eye which was feared to be cancerous, he was allowed out of house arrest for the first time to receive treatment in Hanoi. In K hospital in Quan Su Street, he received several diplomatic visits from the US Embassy, the EU delegation, as well as from Vietnamese officials such as the Chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front. He was told that the Prime Minister Phan Van Khai wished to meet him. At this time, 31 Members of the European Parliament and 37 Members of the US Congress wrote to the Vietnamese leadership calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
On 2 April 2003, he was received for talks by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. This was the first time that a political prisoner was received by a top-ranking Communist official. Prime Minister Khai admitted that the Communist Party had made “mistakes” towards Buddhism and asked Thich Huyen Quang to “show compassion”. The meeting was widely covered by the State-controlled press, and seemed like a first step towards dialogue and closer understanding. However, the Prime Minister made no formal promises, and when Thich Huyen Quang asked about the re-establishment of the UBCV, Phan Van Khai replied: “We already have the VBC. One Buddhist Church is enough”.
Thich Huyen Quang made a stop in Hue on his way back to Quang Ngai on 7 April 2003. Although he had not announced his visit, crowds of Buddhists thronged to meet him at the station, and carried him shoulder-high through the crowds. Thich Huyen Quang was hailed as a leader both by UBCV Buddhists and dignitaries of the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. Alarmed by this strong upsurge of public support, the authorities and Security Police immediately cut short his visit and placed Thich Huyen Quang back under house arrest in Quang Ngai. He was later authorized to travel to Saigon, accompanied by Security Police, where he met his friend and Deputy leader Thich Quang Do. Because of his frail health, the authorities allowed him to continue house arrest at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh, which he had founded himself, instead of the remote Quang Phuoc Pagoda in Quang Ngai.
On October 1st 2004, Thich Huyen Quang resolved to test Prime Minister Khai’s promises of dialogue and reconciliation by calling an Assembly at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh. This was the first time in 25 years that UBCV dignitaries had held a meeting in Vietnam, and 60 senior UBCV monks traveled from all over the country to attend. The UBCV appointed new leadership of 41 UBCV monks and nuns, and devised strategies of action to re-establish the Church’s legitimate status and pursue the movement for religious freedom and human rights. As Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and other UBCV leaders left the meeting in a mini-van to travel to Saigon, they were intercepted by Police and prevented from leaving Binh Dinh. Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do staged an immediate hunger strike in the van. As a result of their actions, and the strong international pressure which followed, they were allowed to leave Binh Dinh. However, as they arrived at Luong Son, just 40 kilometers from Nha Trang, their vehicle was intercepted by Police. Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do were interrogated for 8 hours, then accused of “possessing State secrets” and placed under house arrest at their Monasteries, respectively the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh and the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon. Several other UBCV leaders were also detained and placed under house arrest without trial. Thich Huyen Quang was forcibly escorted back to Quang Ngai.
This brutal crackdown triggered off outrage in the international community. Two strong resolutions were issued almost simultaneously by the U.S. Congress (HR 427, 19.11.2003) and the European Parliament (20.11.2003) condemning the crack-down, commending the UBCV’s 2000-year tradition of tolerance and compassion, and calling for the immediate release of all UBCV leaders. This repression against the UBCV was one of the main factors that prompted the USA to place Vietnam on its blacklist of “Countries of Particular Concern” for gross religious freedom violations in 2004, and again in 2005. In the following period, many similar resolutions were adopted in the EP, US Congress and many national parliaments calling for the release of Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, and for the right to existence of the banned UBCV. Because of the crackdown, the decisions taken at the UBCV Assembly in Binh Dinh could not be made public in Vietnam. The UBCV’s Overseas Office therefore decided to hold a Special Congress in Melbourne, Australia from 10-12 October 2003 to announce the UBCV’s new leadership and hold a solemn ceremony to officially proclaim Thich Huyen Quang as UBCV Fourth Supreme Patriarch. Although he received this title in 1992 from the late Patriarch Thich Don Hau, it had been officially proclaimed because of continuous repression. The Hanoi authorities were furious about this, and the Vietnamese Ambassador formally complained to Australia for having allowed the UBCV to hold this Congress on Australian soil.
From 2004-2008, the authorities maintained Thich Huyen Quang in virtual isolation at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery. He was prohibited from traveling, his communications cut, and all visits monitored. Security Police specifically prohibited him from received any visits from Thich Quang Do. Although Thich Huyen Quang was never formally indicted for “possessing state secrets”, the accusation was never lifted, and he was maintained under strict surveillance and control. Thich Quang Do was systematically arrested each time he tried to visit Thich Huyen Quang for the Lunar New Year, or during the Patriarch’s frequent periods of hospitalization in Binh Dinh. Whereas US Ambassador Michael Marine and his wife visited the UBCV Patriarch in the Quy Nhon hospital in November 2004, Thich Quang Do and his UBCV delegation were intercepted by Police in Trang Bom, 50kms from Saigon, as they attempted to visit the Patriarch, and forcibly returned to Saigon.
On 21.2.2005, Thich Huyen Quang wrote an Open Letter to the Vietnamese leadership expressing his indignation that Vietnam continued to repress the UBCV, yet received with great pomp and ceremony the France-based Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his delegation in Vietnam. He also refused Thich Nhat Hanh’s request to visit him at the Nguyen Thieu Monastery. He esteemed that Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit gave the international community a false impression of the situation of religious freedom in Vietnam. In his letter, he said his meeting with the Prime Minister had given him hopes of a new dialogue until the October crackdown. “After that, my doubts turned to bitter disappointment. I saw clearly that the government was continuing the same, immutable policy of religious intolerance”.
While maintaining Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang under isolation in Binh Dinh, the Vietnamese authorities stepped up efforts to entice or pressure him to integrate the State- sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church and renounce the outlawed UBCV. Knowing Thich Huyen Quang’s aspirations for Buddhist unity, they tried to persuade him to play a unifying role by accepting the leadership of the State-sponsored VBC. However, well aware of the VCP’s real intentions to suppress the UBCV, Thich Huyen Quang systematically refused all these proposals. On 5.5.2007. the Vice-Minister of Public Security Nguyen Van Huong visited him in Binh Dinh to re-affirm this proposal. The meeting was falsely reported in the State-controlled press as a positive gesture by Thich Huyen Quang to the communist regime. In reality, as Thich Huyen Quang told IBIB Director Vo Van Ai, the meeting was purely formal. “Don’t believe what you read in the communist press”, he said, adding that he had turned down all proposals to take up a post in the VBC. On 29.8.2007, Major-general Tran Tu from the Ministry of Public Security’s Department A41 (on religious and security affairs) visited the Thich Huyen Quang. He denounced the recent activities of Thich Quang Do in support of farmers’ and peasants’ protests against State confiscation of land, and warned Thich Huyen Quang that the State perceived such acts as “fomenting rebellion”. He prohibited Thich Huyen Quang from receiving Thich Quang Do or organizing any UBCV meetings in Binh Dinh. At the same time, Major-general Tran Tu invited Thich Huyen Quang to become Head of the [State-sponsored] Vietnam Buddhist Church at its 6th Congress in Hanoi in December 2007, and attend the International UN Day of the Vesak hosted by Hanoi in May 2008. The UBCV Patriarch refused.
In December 2007 Thich Huyen Quang again received an invitation to attend the VBC Congress and UN Vesak Day in Hanoi, relayed by Security Police. He again refused, stating that it was “more like a Police summons that a genuine invitation”.
During his house arrest in Quang Ngai, Thich Huyen Quang once said: “I have lived without a home, will die without a grave, I walk without a path and am imprisoned without a crime”. True, this resumes the solitary conditions of his life. But Thich Huyen Quang will not die without a grave. Today, thousands of UBCV monks, nuns and lay- followers are braving government pressure to organise his funeral and bury him as their loved and respected leader. And he did not walk without a path. Thich Huyen Quang’s legacy to the Vietnamese people is precisely this quest for dialogue and peaceful opposition to tyranny that he followed unswervingly all his life. This path will lead to freedom and democracy for the people of Vietnam.
Letter to Vietnam’s leaders on the 25th Anniversary of the End of the
Vietnam War : the Communist Party should make 30th April a
“National Day of Repentance and Commitment”
UNIFIED BUDDHIST CHURCH OF VIETNAM
INSTITUTE OF THE SANGHA
Nghia Hanh, 21 April 2000
Mr. Le Kha Phieu, Secretary-general, Vietnamese Communist Party,
Mr. Tran Duc Luong, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Mr. Phan Van Khai, Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Mr. Nong Duc Manh, President of the National Assembly
Throughout the past month, the [Communist] Party and the State have begun celebrating the Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on 30 April 1975. “Great Spring Victory”, “Liberation of South Vietnam”, “Reunification of the Country”, “Independence and Peace” are the topics of their celebration.
On behalf of the Institute of the Sangha and the Supreme Bicameral Council of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, I am writing to raise issues that the Party and the State will probably not see fit to mention during this 25th Anniversary Celebration.
There are two matters I would like you to think about in particular : the fate of all those who died or were wounded at war, and the rights of all those who are alive, yet who are deprived of their fundamental freedoms, civil liberties and human rights.
According to official State statistics, 3 million people were killed during the Vietnam War and the remains of 300,000 (North Vietnamese) soldiers missing in action have never been found. In reality, the numbers are significantly higher, not counting the millions of wounded and disabled, the millions of families who lost their children on the battlefields and yet have never been offered any gesture of support or adequate compensation.
These figures take no account of the massive numbers of soldiers of the Republic of [South] Vietnam who were killed or disabled in the War – your Government has never considered them as your citizens, even though the war is long over and cold-war bipolarity is dead and gone. Nor do these figures count all the innocent people brutally murdered or tortured during the Land Reforms [in North Vietnam] – at least 700,000 according to the secret admissions of Party cadres in charge of enforcing this policy. Nor the civilians massacred during the  Tet Offensive, particularly the people of Hue. Nor the 100,000 or more people summarily executed in reeducation camps [after 1975] and over one million Boat People who perished on the seas in their quest for freedom. What suffering and sorrow in this simple list of figures !
Those are my concerns about those who have lost their lives, and all those who were wounded and are now condemned to live in exclusion and neglect. As for the rights of those who are alive, and are entitled to enjoy full freedoms and civil rights, I suddenly recall the words of President Ho Chi Minh: “Independence without freedom and happiness is no independence at all”. This apt comment resumes the situation in Vietnam today, where 80% of the rural population and workers live in utmost poverty and hunger. A veneer of affluence is visible in some of the big towns, but this is only part of a decor aimed at luring tourists and Western diplomats with a view to attracting foreign economic aid. This kind of affluence is the product of corruption and fraudulent marketeering, not the stable, prosperous development of a peaceful and caring society.
To evaluate the prosperity and decline of a nation, one needs simply to look at the everyday life of an ordinary citizen, a member of a social group or a religion. In our country today, all [independent] social groups or religions are denied the right of existence by article 4 of the Constitution which enshrines the supremacy of Marxism-Leninism and the political monopoly of the Vietnamese Communist Party. All activities by noncommunist social groups and religions are outlawed and suppressed.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, Vietnamese citizens have the choice between only two options : to go to prison or to toe the Party line.
This is a sad choice indeed. Those who toe the Party line must abandon their true identity. They have mouths, but cannot speak, have brains but cannot think, have hearts but cannot love their people or their country as they choose.
Those who end up in prison or reeducation camp have freedom to think and speak – but only to themselves. They have the freedom to strut and fret within their living tombs, doomed to oblivion, completely excluded from society and the community at large. What kind of freedom is this, where human dignity is totally disintegrated? It is the freedom of worms, writhing and squirming in the depths of the earth.
I, an 83-year-old Buddhist monk, have never been allowed to freely practice the Buddha’s teachings of Compassion and spread them to my people. From the time of the Democratic Republic of [North] Vietnam to the present-day Socialist Republic of Vietnam, I have known nothing but the smell of prison cells.
Why is it that an ordinary citizen, a religious person like myself, is forbidden to live in freedom ? And through my example, a Buddhist Church founded by the people, heir to a 2,000-year tradition, namely the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, is denied the very right to existence, despite the guarantees enshrined in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [to which Vietnam is a state party].
My question does not arise from a personal grudge or complaints about my own religious organization. It is a soul-searching question about the very future of the Vietnamese civilization, a question of life and death for every Vietnamese citizen. As a victim and witness to history over the past 55 years, I want to see my country change whilst I am still alive. I do not wish to leave this world with the image of an intransigent regime which persists in its policies of discrimination, represses freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and all other basic human rights.
In 1950, I was living in Interzone 5 when President Ho Chi Minh launched the Land Reforms. I remember listening to the political cadres and the loudspeakers blaring out night and day, inciting the people to exterminate five elements of society: “the intellectuals, rich merchants, landowners, village notability and religious hoodlums”. We have only ten fingers and they chop off five – what will we have left ?
In 1951, Mr. Nguyen Duy Trinh, Chairman of the Resistance Administration Committee of Interzone 5, representing the Central Government in Hanoi declared : “It’s time to toll the knell of Buddhism”. Mr. Trinh specifically singled out Buddhism and made no mention of the other religions. Subsequently, in 1952, the Resistance Government forced Buddhists to abandon Buddhist structures and join organizations such as the Lien Viet, a satellite organization of the [Communist] Party. I opposed this and was immediately arrested and imprisoned in Quang Ngai. Our “Buddhist National Salvation Association” was disbanded. It was only in 1954, thanks to the Geneva Agreement and the ceasefire that I was released. My release papers bore no inscription of the alleged crime for which I had been detained.
After 30 April 1975, when the Revolutionary Government took power, everybody believed that all components of society and people from all walks of life would be able to live and work freely in a spirit of reconciliation as guaranteed in the Paris Peace Accords. But no, history repeats itself. The Buddhists, who account for the large majority of the population, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), with its vast structure and long-standing popular tradition, became the primary victims of discrimination and repression. This happened despite the UBCV’s unwavering commitment to serving the people, promoting peace and compassion, succoring all those who suffer.
The policy of discrimination and repression took many forms. Monks and nuns were forced to abandon the orders, deported to New Economic Zones, forcibly drafted into the army and sent to fight in Kampuchea or imprisoned in reeducation camps. In Saigon and other cities and provinces all over South Vietnam, Buddhist monasteries, Pagodas and residential buildings were confiscated by the authorities. All cultural, educational, social and economic institutions were dismantled or seized, such as Van Hanh university, the network of “Bo De” primary and secondary schools, the School of Youth for Social Services, all charities, kindergartens and orphanages ; property and land was confiscated, Buddhist sutras were seized and destroyed…. Repression reached such a height that 12 monks and nuns self immolated at the Duoc Su temple in Can Tho on 2 November 1975 to call for and end to persecution and the right to religious freedom.
On 20th September 1975, I wrote a letter on behalf of the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma (Ref. 0278-VHD/VP) to the Chairman of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam c/o General Tran Van Tra, chairman of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Administration Committee. In the letter, I called for an immediate end to the destruction of Buddha statues. I specifically raised three concrete cases, that of : a Buddha statue at Buu Long Temple in Soc Trang smashed to pieces on 2.9.1975 ; a 9-metre statue of Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) on Phu Hai hill, Phan Thiet, blown up by mines on 11.09.1975 ; a statue of Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) at Bien Ho, Pleiku, blown up by mines on 11.09.1975.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, on 17th March 1977, I wrote again on behalf of the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma, to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong to denounce the policy of systematic repression of religion in former South Vietnam. I appendixed a list of 88 concrete cases of repression and forced occupation of UBCV institutions in 29 provinces and cities : Phu Bon, Long Khanh, Khanh Hoa, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Quang Ngai, Binh Thuan, Soc Trang, Chuong Thien, Saigon, Thu Duc, Long Chau Tien, Kien Giang, Tuyen Duc, Gia Lai, Kontum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, Dinh Tuong, Phan Thiet, Binh Tuy, Hau Giang, Kien Phong, Thuan Hai, Dong Nai, Binh Chanh, Bien Hoa, Long An and Minh Hai.
By early 1977, nearly twenty statues Sakyamuni Buddha and Kuan Yin were destroyed by explosives, smashed by hammers, dismantled or thrown into rivers. This happened, for example, in UBCV Pagodas in the provinces of Gia Lai, Kontum, Ban Me Thuot, at Van Hoa Pagoda in Kien Giang, Khanh Minh Pagoda in Can Giuoc, Thien Ton Pagoda in Minh Hai, the Buddhist Meditation Centre in Nguyen Van Nhut hospital, etc.
On his return from North to South Vietnam, seeing the widespread violations of human rights in general and the persecution of Buddhists in particular, the former Supreme Patriarch Thich Don Hau spoke of his exasperation in a tape-recording which I still keep here. His said : “the South Vietnamese people’s solidarity, love and respect [for the Revolutionary Government] lasted just 10 days. After 10 days of “liberation”, solidarity was shattered, love turned into bitter hate, respect gave way to contempt and scorn.”
Despite such devastating repression, the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma continued to think about contributing to the reconstruction of the country after the war. We thought about reunifying Buddhists in the North and South, just as they were before the country was partitioned by the Geneva Agreement [in 1954]. We saw unification as a means of restoring spiritual values, protecting our people’s peace, healing the wounds inflicted by discord and conflict, and eliminating social evils.
Our Institute requested Supreme Patriarch Thich Don Hau to meet Mr. Nguyen Van Hieu, Minister of Culture and put forward the UBCV’s case. Mr. Hieu stated that unification was fine, but not unification with reactionary Buddhists. When asked who the reactionary Buddhists were, Mr. Hieu did not reply. Was it because Mr. Hieu and the revolutionary government did not want Buddhists from North, Central and South Vietnam to unify in the Dharma, but only aimed at forcibly “unifying” them with the political regime ?
Those who refused to transform Buddhism into a political tool were immediately arrested, imprisoned and subjected to all kinds of unjust accusations. That was the situation in 1977 when the high and middle ranking leaders of the Institute of the Propagation of the Dharma, such as Venerables Thich Thien Minh, Thich Quang Do, Thich Tri Giac, Thich Thong Hue, myself and others, were imprisoned at Phan Dang Luu prison.
At the end of 1977, Venerable Thich Thien Minh was tortured to death in prison. Our Church’s request to take his body for funeral arrangements was refused. Two years later, we were all put on trial, but we never found out what charges were laid against us. We were simply allowed to listen to the accusations and verdicts pronounced against us, but had no right to defend ourselves, nor have access to defense lawyers like citizens in civilized, law-abiding countries. Some of us were discharged, some given suspended sentences, some condemned to 2, 3 and 7 years’ imprisonment. At the end of 1981, the Party and State set up a State-sponsored Buddhist organization to serve as a political tool, discarding the spirit of unification which forms the very essence and specificity of Buddhism in Vietnam. Since the launching of the Buddhist Renaissance Movement in the early part of the 20th century and throughout the past 70 years, we had devoted all our energies to the unification of the people’s Buddhism. Yet now, the State had molded and propped up a State-sponsored Buddhist Church against our wish. We therefore protested. Religious matters should be left to members of the Sangha and lay-Buddhists to decide. Why should the Party interfere in the organizing and decision making in lieu of the Sangha and the masses of Buddhist followers? The Party and State-run media rely on a few well-known Buddhist monks as window dressing to placate the people and deceive international opinion. Apart from those who falsely pose as members of the Sangha, almost all the monks [in the State-sponsored VBC] were either pressured into joining, coerced, intimidated, or just feigned innocent so they could carry on [practicing Buddhism] undisturbed. As a result, Buddhist followers all over the country were confronted with the painful scene : that of a State-sponsored Church already dead but not yet buried! And that of the people’s church (the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam), buried alive, but not yet dead!
The Buddhist Church is the assembly of those who share the same devotion to Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and a common determination to liberate all beings from suffering. It should not be the place to vociferate political slogans such as “long live this…” or “down with that…” all day. This is why we Buddhists categorically refused, both in form and in substance, the creation of a State-sponsored Church to be used as a political instrument.
And so, on 25 February 1982, I received Decision No. 71/QD-UB from the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, signed by Mr. Nguyen Minh Dam, Deputy Director of the Municipal Security Police and Mr. Le Quang Chanh, on behalf of the Chairman of the Municipal People’s Committee, expelling me from Saigon. I was arrested and forcibly escorted to the province of Nghia Binh, where I have been under house arrest from that time until now.
The Decision named my crime as “taking advantage of religion to undermine the people’s solidarity (…), endangering the security and public order of the city”. With what authority did the Municipal People’s Committee decide to arrest and exile me, a Buddhist monk and a [Vietnamese] citizen, without any Court judgment? Is this how they demonstrate their respect for the rule of law? At the same time as me, Most Venerable Thich Quang Do was also arrested and forcibly exiled to his native province of Thai Binh in North Vietnam, where he was also placed under house arrest.
In 1992, the Patriarch Thich Don Hau died at the Linh Mu Pagoda in Hue. At the end of April that year, I asked permission to go to Hue for his funeral together with high and middle-ranking members of the Sangha and lay-Buddhists from Southern, Central and Northern Vietnam. At the Funeral, in accordance with the testament of the late Patriarch Thich Don Hau, I was appointed, by the Members of the Sangha there present, to the position of Acting Head of the Institute for the Propagation of the Dharma (Vien Hoa Dao). I, together with the two Most Venerables Thich Quang Do and Thich Phap Tri, were thus appointed to lead the Church. Our tasks were to advocate the right to existence of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and to organize the 8th Congress to reinforce the UBCV’s infrastructure and increase the number of monks and nuns propagating the Dharma and administering the people’s welfare.
Having received the seal and credentials of the Church and the responsibility assigned by the Sangha, and upon my return to Quang Ngai, I wrote the “9-Point Letter of Claims” dated 25 June 1992 with nine specific requests to the Secretary General of the Party, the President of the National Assembly, the President of the State Council, the President of the Council of Ministers, the President of the Supreme Court and the President of the Fatherland Front.
Strange as it may seem, my letters were never answered. Not once did I receive a reply, either to that or to any other letters I wrote before and afterwards. The Party and the State always proclaim that socialist democracy is a million times more democratic than the democracies of the Western capitalist nations. Why, then, do you pay no heed to the people’s cries for help ? Does the propaganda slogan of the Party and the State “the people are informed, the people take action, the people control” still have any meaning ?
However, an indirect reply to my complaints arrived in the form of two documents classified “Top Secret” (Ref. 125/TUDV) issued by the CPV Propaganda and Mobilization Department and “Absolutely Secret” (Ref. 106/PA 15-16) issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 1993. These documents gave directives to the security police and religious cadres to “chop off the arms and legs” of the Unified Buddhist Church and use “religious decrees, and the code of law” to isolate me and oppose UBCV monks and nuns. They referred to us in these documents by the somewhat discourteous and politically ill-contrived term of “reactionary Buddhists of An Quang Pagoda”!
Reactionary or not reactionary is merely the way the Party divides up between friends and foes. In reality, as regards religions in general and Buddhism in particular, no one escapes the controls and prohibitive restrictions imposed by the numerous laws, decrees and directives on religion, which virtually codify repression. Throughout the past two thousand years of Vietnamese history, during the sovereign and independent dynasties, Buddhism has never been subjected to such restrictive religious legislation.
From Decree 297/CP, to Decree No. 69/HDBT of the Council of Ministers of 1991, to Decree 26/1999/NDCP, from Directive No. 379/TTG, Directive No. 500 HD/TGCP to the “Instructions on the Implementation of Decree 26” issued by the Government Board of Religious Affairs on 16 June 1999 – over the past 25 years, religious followers of all denominations have had to line up and listen to the State pontificating, through its Board of Religious Affairs, on matters that have nothing to do with religious belief, enlightenment or liberation from ignorance and suffering. There is no freedom in them at all.
That is the general situation that the people as a whole, and Buddhist Sangha and followers in particular, have been forced to endure in silence and utter desperation for the past 25 years in South Vietnam and for 45 years in the North. Just as the bird on the verge of death sings its most poignant song, so I, an old monk on the threshold of departure from this world, cannot tell a lie: The Party cannot keep on covering up its errors in order to perpetrate inhuman acts. The effects of these acts are disastrous: our people are driven into abject poverty, religions are repressed, intellectuals are denied freedom of thought, journalists lose their freedom of expression, writers and artists are deprived of the right to create, workers forbidden to form free trade unions… It is time for the Party to stop impoverishing the people and wasting our people’s talents and resources.
With respect to Buddhism, we urge you : to guarantee the right of existence of the UBCV and restore its legitimate right to freedom of religious activity as guaranteed by the SRV Constitution, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ; to ensure that all Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns and lay-followers released after serving prison sentences are issued with residence permits, granted full citizenship rights and allowed to resume their religious activities in full freedom; to repeal Decree 31/CP and definitively cease the unlawful practice of “administrative detention”. Under this arbitrary practice, released prisoners have the impression that they have been moved from a small prison into a larger one. They live in a state of permanent insecurity, fearing arrest at any moment ; to release all Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-followers detained in prison or under administrative detention because of their religious beliefs, and lift all restrictions on their freedom. Those suspected of committing a criminal offense should be ensured the right to a fair trial. They should have access to defense counsel of their own choice and be tried publicly, in the presence of the international media. Moreover, we would like to return the “reactionary hat”, the “hat of the saboteur”, the “hat of slanderous opposition elements” back to those who put such false accusations upon our heads. Buddhism is the Path leading to Enlightenment and deliverance from
Suffering. Buddhism is the Path leading to the building of a humane and fraternal world. The aim of Buddhism is not to pit itself against temporal, ideological doctrines, for these doctrines shall perish with the times. Buddhism develops Right Understanding (Samyak- drsti) to dissipate prejudices and fanatical views.
To commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war, I propose that the Party and State undertake a unique, unprecedented act, a feat that only the brave and bold would dare to attempt. I invite you to realize three gestures worthy of a civilized state: First, to definitively cease waging war, both in thought and in action, against Vietnamese citizens from all components of society and religious communities outside the Communist Party of Vietnam. The Party has continuously waged war on the people under pretext of the class-struggle and the proletarian dictatorship.
Second, to proclaim April 30th the “National Day of Repentance and Commitment”. A day of repentance towards the dead, but also a commitment to promote the rights and dignity of the living. In Western democracies, governments are obliged to repent their errors every day by virtue of the people’s right to freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the right to file complaints and seek remedy for their grievances. The same applies to major Western religions. Recently, the Pope publicly apologized for the crimes committed by the Roman Catholic Church over the past 2,000 years against other religions and against humanity.
Can the Communist Party dare to claim it has committed no crimes over the past 55 years ? Can it not hear the cries of all those unjustly killed during the two wars [against the French and the Americans], of all the innocent people murdered in the Land Reforms, in the Tet Offensive in Hue, in the reeducation camps and New Economic Zones? However much the Party denies these crimes, it cannot escape reality, for the spirits of the unquiet dead are legion. If the Party has any pity for these victims, it must guarantee their sacred rights, make a public act of penance and pray for all those who were unjustly put to death, so that their tormented spirits may finally rest in peace.
Sacred rights for the dead, human rights for the living. This is the modern, dynamic meaning of “Commitment to the Living”. Our kings and rulers of yore held the Nam Giao ceremonies each year to invoke the Heavens’ protection for the nation and the people. In our modern world, instead of invoking the Heavens, the State should protect the people by implementing laws to guarantee basic human rights and civil liberties.
Third, to adopt binding legislation to search for the remains of Vietnamese MIAs, without discrimination between North and South. They should be entitled to a decent burial, and their families should be notified, comforted and granted adequate compensation ; to release all citizens deprived of their freedom because of their political opinions or religious beliefs ; to rehabilitate the honour and dignity of all those who died unjustly, and provide adequate compensation to all war victims, whether they be from the North or South, irrespective of their political affiliations or opinions.
If these three acts are accomplished and the right to existence of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam is guaranteed, then the Vietnam war will truly be over. And this 25th
Anniversary celebration will be the first step towards a lasting reconciliation between all people of Vietnam. I count on you to fulfill these requests.
Bikkhu Thich Huyen Quang
Acting Head of the Institute of the Sangha
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam
As Vietnam hosts the UN Day of the Vesak in Hanoi :
UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang issues Vesak Message
urging Buddhists to stand up for freedom and human rights
On 13th May 2008, the Overseas Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam commemorated the Vesak with a great celebration in San Gabriel, California, with the participation of 200 international personalities and Buddhist Sangha from the USA, Burma Tibet, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and 5,000 Buddhists. Leading UBCV monks from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia attended the event.
One of the international speakers, Professor Ananda Guruge, former Ambassador of Sri Lanka in the USA and currently Vice-President of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, told the gathering he had turned down an invitation from the United Nations to attend Vesak Day in Hanoi. “I am here by choice. I would rather stand beside Vietnamese Buddhists in the fight for freedom than attend the commemoration in Hanoi. I am here in recognition of your struggle, not only for religious freedom, but for all human rights for all”.
The highlight of the ceremony was a Message from the UBCV’s Fourth Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang sent clandestinely from the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh, calling on Buddhists to engage in the movement for the UBCV’s right to existence and the peaceful struggle to “defend our country, promote freedom, justice and human rights”. This Message, which will be read out during the Vesak in UBCV Pagodas all over Vietnam and within the 2-million-strong Vietnamese Buddhist Diaspora, sends a strong signal to the Communist leadership of the outlawed UBCV’s determination to pursue its peaceful struggle in spite of government repression.
UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 88, reminded Buddhists that the Vesak is an occasion to “joyously celebrate and embrace Lord Buddha’s teachings with their hearts and minds”, but also to “solemnly pledge to spread his teachings all over the world, to emancipate all beings from suffering… to bring peace to this world and harmonious existence to all people”.
The UBCV Patriarch stressed the specificity of Vietnamese Buddhism, with its unique tradition of social activism: “The two-thousand-year tradition [of Buddhism] in Vietnam is a history of unending engagement to bring enlightenment to all beings, to liberate peoples and nations from oppression, to awaken the Buddha-hood inherent in each person”. Following the Mahayana tradition prevalent in Vietnam, he stressed, “Buddhism does not turn its back on society. On the contrary, Buddhism boldly confronts society’s challenges, restoring peace to societies where repression rules, false thinking dominates and people are driven into perpetual conflict”.
Under Vietnam’s policies of economic liberalization under authoritarian control, he observed: “we can see that Vietnam’s economic development has brought some improvements. But at the same time, the poverty gap is rocketing. This is not just the gap between rich and poor, but the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. Vietnam’s policies have produced a “rich country with poor people”, the very contrary of the prosperity that the government’s slogans claim”… “In terms of human freedoms, we have nothing – all basic rights and liberties are denied. The religious communities cannot act freely, and as a result, social problems are persistent and increasing. It is impossible to bring enlightenment where poverty and lack of freedom prevail”.
Condemning Vietnam’s concession of territorial lands and waters to China, he wrote: “We have virtually lost the Spratly and Paracel islands, to the total indifference of our government. How starkly their attitude contrasts with that of the Dinh, Le, Ly and later Le, Ly and Tran dynasties, where the kings, great Zen masters, Buddhists and the entire population shared a common determination to defend and preserve the nation. Thanks to their efforts to defend our country, the Vietnamese people have a land on which to live. Thanks to their efforts to maintain our independence, the Vietnamese people have preserved their identity and developed the spiritual and cultural values that distinguish Vietnamese civilization today”. By developing their spirituality and fulfilling Buddha’s teachings, Buddhists could serve their country and help to “ensure that the Vietnamese people will never again be slaves”.
“Buddha’s teachings cannot flourish in a country reduced to slavery; human beings cannot enjoy happiness if they are poor and oppressed. The ultimate vow of all Buddhists is to emerge wherever such suffering exists, and show all beings the Path to liberation”.
Following the exodus of millions of Boat People, noted Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, “For the first time in our history, large numbers of Vietnamese people are settled in countries all over the world”. He called upon them to “sow the seeds of Vietnamese Buddhism” in their countries. “This will be our way of contributing to world peace, by stemming the rise of intolerance and the advocacy of violence and terrorism by fanatical ideologies. With the global tendency of today’s world, and its increased trends of dialogue and cooperation, there is more than ever a need for Buddha’s teachings of wisdom and compassion The more radiantly Buddhists overseas can spread this message, the more it will shine back upon our homeland, and one day soon, restore Vietnam’s resplendence once again”.