Vu Lan

Below is a holiday interview that I had originally intended to post a couple weeks back. My interviewee for the Vu Lan (盂蘭盆節) or Ullambana holiday is my friend Thao, who currently studies at a prestigious Southern California university. I am deeply grateful to her for sharing her thoughts and experiences of the Vu Lan festival, which concluded last week.

Who are you?

I am a youngin’ trying to find balance between college life and the Buddhist path.

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I grew up knowing this holiday as “Ullambana.” My mom was the first person to tell me the significance of this holiday. She told me a story of a son who made offerings to the temple sangha on a particular day of the moon calendar so his mother could be liberated after she had passed. Ullambana is similar to Japan’s Obon ceremony, honoring one’s ancestors who have passed as well. As I grew up, I came to learn that Ullambana was a holiday honoring filial piety, “one of the virtues to be held above all else: a respect for the parents and ancestors.”

What does this holiday mean to you?

This holiday reminds me of my roots. My name directly translates in both Vietnamese and Chinese (孝) as the less common English words of “filial piety.” Since Ullambana is centered around this concept, it humbles me and especially makes me want to let my parents know how much I appreciate them.

What do you plan to do on this holiday?

My current plan, while I’m back up North, will be going to celebrate this holiday at a temple called the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas on Sunday, August 14th. We will be reciting the Ullambana Sutra three times, and there will be a big lunch of vegetarian food. In addition, I will be able to show my parents my metta for them and express my gratitude for all parents alike ☺

Work has kept me busier than usual as of late, but I will make an effort to try to publish a few more posts this coming week.

White Buddhist for Asians

Over on Dharma Folk, kudos posts about largely Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County who have “hired a white American man to teach Buddhism to their kids.” This man is a Buddhist monk, Ven. Kusala Bhikshu.

There are a number of white Buddhist teachers who have ordained and now minister to multicultural communities, especially here in the United States. There’s Ven. Heng Sure and Thanissaro Bhikkhu to name just two. What sets Kusala Bhikhsu apart, in my opinion, is that he has not made the same effort to thoroughly immerse himself in another culture. While Ven. Heng Sure speaks flawless Mandarin and Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks fluent Thai with a mastery of slang that would make my own mother blush, Kusala Bhikshu is a happily monolingual American Midwesterner—who also happens to reach out to Asian American Buddhist communities.

In my opinion, this is a most beautiful manifestation of Western Buddhism, where Western Buddhists of different stripes and colors come together in spite of—even because of—their differences. Here are people who are leveraging their community’s diversity to strengthen it! Kusala Bhikshu’s not the only white guy working in this vein. For example, I often talk of Richard’s assistance to a local Lao temple. My hope is that, one day, self-styled Western Buddhist institutions can outgrow their cultural insularity and follow in the steps of these multiculturally-minded individuals.

You can listen to the full story at PRI’s The World. (Photo credit to PRI’s The World.)

Khmer Krom Buddhists

Here’s an issue very dear to my heart, but I’ve very few minutes to write about it. From my Buddhist Channel feed, I saw a link to an article about Khmer language classes at a village in Vietnam. (You can check out the source link here.) For those who know little about Vietnam and Vietnamese history, the Khmer Krom are one of the persecuted Buddhist minorities of Vietnam. The region of South Vietnam was originally part of the Khmer empire, which the Vietnamese began annexing piecemeal from around 1700. (For comparison, the Vietnamese colonization of South Vietnam is along roughly the same timeline as European colonization of North America.) Cambodians still refer to Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn) by its Khmer name: Prey Nokor. Ethnic Khmers constitute a significant minority in Vietnam, but their historical claims to the land are completely glossed over. The Khmer Krom still speak Khmer and still maintain Theravada Khmer temples—but they also face significant cultural, economic and political repression as non-Vietnamese. I’ve obliquely referred to the situation of Khmer Krom a couple times before (as in this post). More on this after I get back. It’s a Kathina weekend!

An Opportunity to Lead

The Wall Street Journal hosts an opinion piece by Thich Chan Phap Dung on the situation of monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam.

The government of Vietnam now must respond. Will it disband a peaceful Buddhist organization, or move to fully protect religious freedom as required by international covenants and treaties to which Vietnam is a party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as Vietnamese citizens demand? Vietnam is currently serving as president of the U.N. Security Council and chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010. There is no better time to show the world its leadership on these important issues of human rights.

The monks and nuns still wish to return home to Bat Nha monastery. If this is not possible, the government, through its established Buddhist church, could at least reaffirm the monks’ and nuns’ legal right to practice together as a religious community at another location. These young monks and nuns want nothing more than to serve their country and humanity and are fine examples of the true beauty and determined spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Thay Dung provides some context on the situation that I hadn’t seen elsewhere (such as Hoang Hung’s petition, also in English). Hopefully this piece on the WSJ will spark enough interest to pressure Hanoi to finally fulfill its self-proclaimed commitments to religious freedom.

Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh

Over on Wikipedia, user YellowMonkey has changed the page Nhat Hanhback to Thich Nhat Hanh. Thank you! Thank you! Cam on!* The whole discussion around “Thich” is one of my major pet peeves. As written by Thich Nhu Minh (former librarian at the university cofounded by TNH):

Regarding Buddhist names in Vietnamese tradition; because all monastics take the word “Thich”, a shortened form of “Thich Ca” which means “Sakya”, as their surname to indicate that they are “sons of Sakyamuni the Buddha”, and belong to the same family clan named “Thich”, we have to honor this practice. That is to accept “Thich” as a surname and record as such in the cataloguing process.

The confusion over Thich Nhat Hanh’s appellations are rooted in his ambiguous identity as a Western/Asian teacher. He uses his name in the West as he would in Vietnam, whereupon unworldly Western Buddhists impose their Eurolinguistic assumptions on a 1600 year old Asian convention… and voilà! Thich is recast from an ancient Buddhist name to a modern Buddhist title. The West has already colonized Vietnam and bombed it halfway to being a tropical parking lot. Please, at least let us have our language. (*Xin loi la van ban nay khong co dau!)

Bat Nha on the Wall Street Journal

A Wall Street Journal opinion suggests the US State Department add Vietnam to its “list of countries of particular concern for religious-rights violations.”

Hanoi was listed from 2004 to 2006, and then removed as a reward for limited liberalization. Vietnam remains the only country that has changed its laws explicitly to get itself removed from the roster. The government made it easier to register religious groups, dropped some egregious policies such as forcing believers to renounce their faith, and improved its relations with the Vatican.

The Bat Nha example exposes how prone to backsliding Hanoi is if it’s not forced to follow such early steps with further progress. Now is a good time to ratchet up the diplomatic pressure again.

In a coupleprevious posts, I linked to differing views on the Bat Nha situation—the whole back-and-forth can be found on the Buddhist Channel(see herehereherehere and here.)

Bat Nha Back and Forth

Ven. Kobutsu Malone writes on the Buddhist Channel to offer another perspective on the events at Bat Nha monastery.

It appears the “Buddhist world” is getting behind the Thich Nhat Hanh followers without question. There are however, a lot of questions: It is obvious that the Thich Nhat Hanh people have a well-oiled propaganda machine going. The site purported to represent the monastery only represents the voice of the Thich Nhat Hanh clergy at the Bat Nha Monastery. The site is registered to Deer Park Monastery, Thich Nhat Hanh’s facility in Escondido, California. Is it possible that this perhaps inflames the local residents who may feel that the Thich Nhat Hanh followers had taken over their temple?

His thoughts drew a quick reply from Visakha Kawasaki.

Cracking down on Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers might just prove that his work for human rights and community development is proving too successful for the Communist party to tolerate. If the monks and nuns who look to Thich Nhat Hanh as their leader are being beaten and humiliated by police and mobs, does it make sense to blame them rather than see them as victims whose human rights are being violated? Perhaps the rulers of Vietnam regret loosening the rules and allowing Thich Nhat Hanh to return at all. Perhaps they just want to reassert their control and remind everyone who is really the boss.

The discussion over the situation at tu vien Bat Nha involves local, national and global issues and relationships. I am personally most concerned with the individual rights of monks and nuns. I’m much less concerned about the political exchanges between Thich Nhat Hanh and the Vietnamese authorities. But I need to have a grasp of both situations (and more) to have a better understanding of what exactly is going on at this monastery in central Vietnam—especially if I’m only reading news reports in English.

More Background on Bat Nha

Reuters’ Faithworld blog provides a broader picture behind the situation of monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam.

A local government document from last month obtained by Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers and shown to Reuters stated that the group was not recognised by the state or the official Buddhist congregation and was staying at Bat Nha illegally. The roots of the problem may go back, in part at least, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s late 2007 visit to Vietnam. During that trip, he told Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet that the government should abolish the arm of the police that tracks religious groups and disband the government’s Religious Affairs Committee, which regulates religious activities.

In the same shoes, I probably would have avoided giving a Communist leader unsolicited political advice, although I heartily agree that Viet Nam would be better off without the Religious Affairs Committee.

Bat Nha Perspectives

Not long after my previous post, Dr. Scott Mitchell relayed a comment he received in an email, which presents another side to the events at Bat Nha monastery.

The criticism is, in short, that there may be more going on here than meets the eye or that we are only getting one side of the story. This person suggests that the monks and nuns in Vietnam may be “making nuisances of themselves” and that the locals had had enough, driving off the “elitist followers” of Thich Nhat Hanh.

The government press releases that I’ve seen don’t exactly piece together an alternative narrative. But it’s important to understand that this situation can be viewed from multiple perspectives, and they’re all worth honestly discussing. My real concern here is that the monks and nuns—regardless of their affiliation—should be entitled to due process under the law, which is apparently not an option being afforded to them. I have never been all too enthusiastic about Thich Nhat Hanh or the Order of Interbeing (another story for another time), but this situation really hits home for me. For some reason, I cannot silently condone the breach of human rights against the monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery. It’s them today, but who’s next?