I AM A CHIEF OF POLICE IN VIETNAM. At first, I believed that the order from my superiors to wipe out Bat Nha must have been justified, that it must have been in the interests of national security. I trusted my superiors. However, as I carried out the order, I saw things that broke my heart. Bat Nha has become a koan for my life. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I toss and turn throughout the night. I ask myself, What have these people done, that I should treat them as reactionaries and threats to public safety? They seem so peaceful – but I have no peace at all. If I don’t have peace in my heart, how can I keep the peace in my society?
The young monks and nuns have not broken any laws. In fact we were the ones who collaborated with those who seized their property. We forced them to leave the place they helped to build, where they had been living peacefully for years. We tried everything to force them out, yet they held their ground. They seemed to have so much love for each other – there seemed to be something that bound them together. They lived with such integrity. Even though they were young, none of them was pulled into smoking, drug abuse or empty sex. They lived simply, ate vegan food, sat in meditation, listened to sutras, shared with each other and did no harm to anyone. How can we say they are dangerous? They have never said or done anything against the government. We cannot truthfully say they are reactionaries or involved in politics. And yet we have accused them of that and driven them out by every possible means: we threatened them, we cut off their electricity and water, we went every night for many months to harass them, demanding to see their identification papers, over and over again; we did everything we could to break their spirit. But they never said a reproachful word, they offered us tea, they sang for us and they asked to take souvenir photos with us.
In the end we hired mobs to destroy their community, to assault them and expel them. We had to be there wearing plainclothes to identify and single out the leaders so the thugs could neutralize and abduct them. Not once did they fight back. Their only weapons were chanting the Buddha’s name, sitting in meditation, and locking arms to stop us from separating them as we forced them into the waiting cars. Central government even sent a Major General to coordinate the attack. Why did we need to mobilize such a massive force, from the central to the local government, to break up a group of young people with empty hands and innocent hearts?
And why did it take us more than a year to kick them out? What was there in the temple that made them so determined to stay? Every day they had just two vegan meals, three sessions of sitting meditation, one lecture and one session of walking meditation. Why were there so many of them, so young and yet living so harmoniously with each other? Some of them had university diplomas, some were sons and daughters of high-ranking officials, some had had careers and high-paying jobs; but they left it all behind for a humble life. What was so good there that it attracted so many young people? How can we just say that they were tricked by the honeyed words of a person living in the West into opposing the government?
My orders came from above and I had to obey; but I feel deeply ashamed. At first I thought they were just temporary measures, for the greater good of the country, for the sake of preserving national unity. Now I know that the whole operation was deceitful, cruel and offensive to human conscience. I am forced to keep these thoughts to myself. I don’t dare to share them with the officers in my unit, let alone my superiors. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back; I am a cog in a machine and I can’t get out. What must I do to be true to myself?
I AM A MEMBER OF THE BUDDHIST CHURCH OF VIETNAM. Bat Nha haunts me night and day. I know those young monastics are practicing the true Dharma. Everyone who has come into contact with them confirms this. So why are we powerless to protect them? Why do we have to live and behave like government employees? When will I realize my dream of practicing religion without political interference? During the periods of foreign colonization, or the Diem and Thieu regimes, Buddhists faced hardships; but monastics were never as tightly controlled as they are now. What the officials want today is a Buddhism based on blind faith and rituals, not a Buddhism that offers true spiritual guidance and has the capacity to promote an ethical way of living. They are afraid of a Buddhism that offers powerful spiritual leadership, and only accept religious organizations that can be controlled and manipulated. But when the Buddha was alive, he refused to submit to domination, even that of King Ajatasattu. During the French colonization and the Diem, Ky and Thieu regimes, our ancestors fought for liberty. Why are we not continuing that work? Why have we allowed ourselves to become the instruments of a policy that is trampling our ideal of service, our noble aspiration of awakening?
At first, I thought that if I went along with the government, I would at least have a chance to do some of the ‘Buddha’s work,’ whereas if I opposed the government totally then I wouldn't be able to do anything. And so I had to silently suffer the criticism and scorn of my colleagues for being in the system. After a while, however, I saw that it was thanks to the ability and courage of those outside the Buddhist Church to voice their protests that I was permitted to do Buddhist work, albeit in a limited way. When the history of Vietnamese Buddhism is written, how will I answer for this? My aim was to revive Buddhism in order to serve the people and the nation, not to become part of a system that exists to monitor and control Buddhists.
That venerable, who was pressured into withdrawing his sponsorship for the monks and nuns to stay and practice at his temple: he did not have the strength to resist. He was compelled to betray his teacher and his friends and break the deep vow he made just a few years ago. It is a tragedy for him. But who is that monk? Is he someone else, or is he none other than myself? He is in me. I am also being pressured, and don’t dare to do or say what I really believe in order to protect my spiritual children and young brothers and sisters. Isn't it my deepest desire to ‘Guide the future generations, and repay my debt of gratitude to the Buddha?’ If so, then how can I justify the fact that I stood by helplessly and watched as the young monks and nuns, my spiritual descendents, were oppressed, humiliated and trampled upon? How can I dare to look my spiritual children, my continuation, in the eyes? What is my true face? Who am I?
We are brothers and sisters, children of the Buddha. Is it because our practice of brotherhood is not solid enough that they have been able to divide us, that we have fallen into blaming and hating each other? According to the Buddha’s teaching of non-dualism, whether we follow the Unified Buddhist Church or the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, we are still brothers and sisters in the same family. We can do what we have to do without fighting or opposing each other, without having to consider each other as enemies. Has this enmity arisen because our practice is still weak? Has this happened because our spiritual power is not great enough? But surely we have learned a lesson: if we can accept each other and reconcile with one another, we can still resurrect our brotherhood and sisterhood, inspire the confidence of our fellow citizens and be role models for everyone. Even though we’ve left it until it’s too late, the situation can still be saved. Just one moment of awakening is enough to change the situation.
It seems the monks and nuns of Bat Nha have learned this lesson. Even when they were attacked and expelled they never showed any resentment toward the venerable abbot who had taken them in during these years. They knew that he was under intense pressure to force them out and that eventually he crumbled. If we in the Buddhist Church have been cornered into betraying our own brothers and sisters it is because our spiritual integrity is not yet strong enough. How can we be wholehearted and determined enough in our daily practice to attain the spiritual strength we need? Only when we understand can we love. When we love each other we cannot see each other as enemies. As long as we see each other as enemies, we will fall prey to schemes of division and separation.
Bat Nha isn't just an issue for the Central Buddhist Church of Vietnam to resolve. Bat Nha is a koan, the challenge of our lives. How can we solve it in such a way that we are not ashamed before our ancestors? Why can’t I share my thoughts and feelings with my friends in the Central Buddhist Church of Vietnam? Why aren't we allowed to harmonize our views? Why do we have to hide our thoughts and feelings?
Vietnamese Buddhists have respected and followed the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for the last two thousand years. But now groups of people were hired who wore shoes into the Buddha Hall, who put up offensive banners on the altar, who yelled and cursed and threw human excrement at venerable monks, who destroyed sacred objects, and who violently attacked, beat and expelled monks and nuns from their temple. It was government officers who hired them and said they were Buddhists. This is an ugly stain on the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. It disgusts us and sickens us, yet why don't we dare to speak out? Can the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, whose members were slandered, falsely accused and framed by the government, shake off this insult and prove the innocence of Vietnamese Buddhists?