By Nick Gier, Unfiltered 5-06-10
Vietnamese are Confucians in peacetime,
but Buddhists in times of trouble.
–Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake
Buddhists all over the world will be celebrating their founder’s 2,573rd birthday on May 21, and we should remember with sadness the deaths of nine Vietnamese Buddhists who were shot by U.S.-armed troops on the Buddha’s birthday in May of 1963.
What struck me most about Vietnamese Buddhism during my recent visit to the country was the strong influence of Confucianism. In addition to Buddhist altars many Vietnamese homes also have ornate temples to their ancestors.
The Citadel at Hue is a smaller version of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and at Nam Giao the Vietnamese emperor would perform animal sacrifices as the “Son of Heaven.” These burnt offerings were banned in China in 1911, but were continued by Emperor Bao Dai until 1945.
While in Saigon I visited the famous Giac Lam Pagoda built in 1744. After admiring the beautiful statues and side panels devoted to the life of the Buddha, I walked around back, fully expecting to see more Buddhas. Instead I saw hundreds of “spirit tablets” of esteemed ancestors.
At the Giac Lam Pagoda I also witnessed a service with monks and laypeople chanting the sutras. As in China and Japan, the most popular Buddhist denomination in Vietnam is the Pure Land sect. By chanting the name of the Amida Buddha with a pure heart, devotees are promised a life of bliss in Amida’s Pure Land (=Heaven). Contrary to what you hear on Fox News, this Buddhist sect is a religion of grace and redemption very much like Christianity.
At the Dong Thuyen Monastery in Hue I ate the best vegetarian food of my life. I also visited the Minh Tu Orphanage, where Buddhist nuns have nurtured thousands of children and have taken great pride in their success in school and their chosen professions.
After lunch one in our group asked one of the nuns “What is the purpose of life.” I loved her answer: “Always be true to yourself,” an answer that Gandhi was fond of giving as he constantly criticized the authority of the British over him and his fellow Indians.
When Frances Fitzgerald described the Vietnamese as “Confucians in peacetime” but “Buddhists in times of trouble,” she pointed to the tendency of Confucianism to merge with and support the reigning authority. Buddhism teaches a personal morality that can, if the devotee chooses, be used as a norm to protest an oppressive state.
Although just 10 percent of population, the Roman Catholics were favored by the French colonists, who passed laws that discriminated against Buddhists. On May 8, 1963, South Vietnamese troops opened fire on Buddhists in Hue, the old imperial capital. The reason was that they were flying religious flags in violation of the law.
The murders in Hue led to massive protests by the Buddhist majority against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a weak leader and devout Roman Catholic. Hundreds of Buddhists were either killed or “disappeared.”
The protests culminated in six monks burning themselves to death. The first monk was 66-year-old Thich Quang Duc who to committed suicide on June 11, 1963. Before striking the match, he chanted a prayer to the Amida Buddha.
World opinion was solidly against the suppression of the Buddhists, and the Diem government was hanging by a thread. On November 2, 1963, the CIA gave several South Vietnamese generals the green light to overthrow the Diem government. Diem and his brother were shot at point-blank range, but his successors were no better as the U.S. sank deeper into its Vietnam quagmire.
The most famous Vietnamese monk today is Thich Nhat Hanh, who is better known for his bestselling books than for his role as political activist. He was banned by the South Vietnamese government and is also persona non grata for the current Communist government. In September of 2009, 380 monks and nuns, followers of Nhat Hanh, were evicted from their monastery in Lam Dong province.
Both Chinese and Vietnamese authorities are fooling themselves if they think that they can satisfy their citizen’s spiritual needs by being such control freaks. Religious liberty has little meaning if it means free to join only those churches or temples sanctioned by the government.
Nick Gier was co-president of the Student-Faculty Committee to End the War in Vietnam from 1965-66 at Oregon State University. He taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read or listen to all of his columns at www.NickGier.com
Categories: Politics, Religion
Tags: 1963, 2, 573rd birthday, Buddhists, Communist government, Dictators, Dong Thuyen Monastery, Lam Dong, May 21, Minh Tu Orphanage, monk, Ngo Dinh Diem, Nick Gier, oppressive state, South Vietnamese generals, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Quang Duc, Vietnamese Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhists