Plum Village And Its Three Obstacles In Vietnam

Will Plum Village become another extension of the Vietnamese government?

Lee Nguyen

This article was first published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 30, 2022. The English translation is done by Lee Nguyen.


During the funeral of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh at the end of January 2022, several Buddhists were ordained as both monks and nuns at the Tu Hieu Pagoda to join the Plum Village community, even though their practice has yet to be approved by the Vietnamese government. [1]

On the first day of Master’s wake, Buddhist nun Chan Khong, the first fully-ordained disciple and the new de facto figurehead of Plum Village, affirmed, “I vow that I will not forget your teachings. Your words and actions molded me into the person I am today and they will remain the foundation of the legacy you’ve left behind.” [2]

This ordination is surprising because for the past 17 years, from Master Thich Nhat Hanh's return to Vietnam until his death, Plum Village has not been able to operate freely in the country.

The Tu Hieu Pagoda is Plum Village’s only spiritual base in Vietnam. However, the abbot of this temple is Venerable Thich Dao Tu, a monk of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha sect, which is considered to be controlled by the government. [3]

In February 2022, the representatives of Plum Village directly met with the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Vu Chien Thang and the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Vu Hoai Bac, to discuss the legalization of their operations in Vietnam. [4]

“Returning to his place of origin” is perhaps the greatest desire of Master Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village. However, his disciples may encounter the following three obstacles with the authorities and the monks of the two other Buddhist associations.

Stuck Between the Conflict of Two Religious Organizations

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was founded in 1981. Since then, it has been the only Buddhist organization recognized by the Vietnamese government. However, another Buddhist organization, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was established in 1964 and this was where Master Thich Nhat Hanh began his profession.

After more than 40 years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha has been severely politicized by communist ideology while the government continues to suppress the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam because of its desire to function independently of the government and not be involved in politics.

Operating in Vietnam will put the disciples of Master Thich Nhat Hanh between two difficult choices.

Plum Village can immediately start operations if it joins the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. However, this is a religious organization with no credibility with Vietnam’s Buddhist community, and with its reputation within the country already seriously deteriorated; it has become so dreary that the Government Committee for Religious Affairs recently planned to organize the direction of its activities. [5] Joining the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha also means surrendering partial control of Plum Village to the State.

Meanwhile, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam is deeply rooted in Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal history and played an essential role in founding Plum Village. On his first return to the country, Master Thich Nhat Hanh asked Prime Minister Phan Van Khai about the possibility of recognizing and legalizing the activities of this religious group. [6] However, Vietnam still views the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam as an illegal organization. If Plum Village chooses to stand with this organization, it will mean it is going against the State.

Another option for Plum Village is to persuade the government to allow it to operate in Vietnam without having to join the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha.

If Plum Village's proposal for independent operation is approved by the government, it will open a new chapter in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. It will eliminate the religious monopoly of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, and other Vietnamese Buddhist institutions will be established following the true nature of Buddhism as independent, diverse, and free - how it used to be during the era of the Republic of Vietnam.

However, this choice is fraught with difficulty and hardship as it convinces the government to go against its current management model with Buddhism.

The Conflicting Religious Beliefs Between Plum Village and the State

The Vietnamese government challenges the fundamental beliefs held by the Plum Village monks and the main tenets of Master Nhat Hanh.

In his 2006 Dharma talk, Master Thich Nhat Hanh expressed his feelings about the government and the monks of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha during a trip home in 2005.

“The second thing that I noticed on my return trip is that everyone who works in the government and in the Sangha seems to have two faces. [...] Without those two faces, they cannot work and live. [...] Why do they have no desire to show their true selves? Why do they have to live in deception if they want to be successful, even on the Buddhist path?" [7]

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s words were later printed in Plum Village Letter No. 30, which was banned from public distribution by the Vietnamese government. [8]

Master Nhat Hanh’s commentary is relevant to the proper observation of the Noble Eightfold Path, a teaching that he considers to be the core of Buddhism. This theory will supposedly lead people to wisdom, mercifulness, and freedom. However, the Noble Eightfold Path is seemingly not practiced in the country.

A 2008 article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle stated that in “Vietnam if you practice the ethical core of Buddhism—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—you will likely end up in jail for 'propagandizing against the state.'” [9]

The article also comments on the situation of Buddhism in Vietnam:

“Today, the Vietnamese government prohibits [the] independent practice of Buddhism; only state-sanctioned Buddhism is allowed. While people are now allowed to attend [Buddhist temples], perform rituals, and burn incense, the intellectual and emotional heart of Buddhism has been cut out by the Vietnamese government.”

The above statement also occurs simultaneously with Master Nhat Hanh's comment after the Bat Nha Monastery incident in 2009, where Plum Village monks were forcibly dispersed from a Vietnam Buddhist Sangha pagoda in Lam Dong Province:

“During French colonial rule, the Diem era, and the Thieu era, although it was difficult to openly practice religions, it was not as strictly controlled as the present. People just want a Buddhism of belief and worship; they do not desire a Buddhism that can lead the nation spiritually, ethically, and culturally.” [10]
The belongings of the Plum Village practitioners were thrown into the courtyard of the Bat Nha Monastery during the incident in 2009. Photo: RFA.

The Bat Nha incident occurred after state media criticized Master Thich Nhat Hanh's views on the Vietnamese government’s harsh religious management. This incident highlights the State’s response to a Buddhist organization because of a simple criticism from one of its monks.

The Manipulation of Plum Village’s Overseas Facilities by the Vietnamese Government

Plum Village's operation in Vietnam cannot escape the control of the State. It is also worth mentioning that the government's influence will not stop at domestic institutions but can also reach Plum Village's bases abroad.

The Magnolia Grove Monastery, an establishment of Plum Village, was founded by Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2005 in Batesville, Mississippi. Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation

For decades, the Vietnamese state has viewed religion as a tool for social control. Buddhism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, and Cao Dai are the religions most significantly persecuted by the government; both local and international institutions of these religions must comply with the directives of the Vietnamese government.

In 2019, Vu Chien Thang, the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, announced that Vietnam would consider establishing a Coordinating Board of Vietnamese Buddhism and Cao Dai temples in Cambodia. [11]

The following year, Vu Chien Thang, now the deputy minister of Home Affairs, alleged that some overseas Vietnamese organizations took advantage of domestic religious issues to divide the significant national unity bloc so that they can condemn the lack of religious freedom in Vietnam with the international community. He affirmed that fighting these overseas groups is considered one of the most critical tasks for the country's defense. [12]

Currently, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is still implementing a five-year plan with the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese (SCOV) regarding around 5.3 million overseas Vietnamese religious activities. This cooperation is based on Resolution No. 36-NQ/TW of the 9th Politburo on work with overseas Vietnamese. [13]

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, the executive director and president of Boat People SOS (BPSOS) in the United States, an organization with a long history of advocating for religious freedom, said that Resolution No. 36 could lead to the clandestine infiltration of government agents in the religious communities of Vietnamese living in the United States. [14]

Plum Village is the perfect target for such an intrusion because this organization has a large number of overseas Vietnamese followers. Moreover, Plum Village also has a specific influence on the international community. When Plum Village is allowed to operate in Vietnam, its overseas facilities will, sooner or later, fall under the purview of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.


More than 30 years after its establishment, Plum Village can be considered Vietnam's most successful Buddhist organization, and this was only possible due to its flourishing abroad where politics do not dominate religion. If Plum Village wants to replicate its success in its home country, the State has to loosen its control on all religious institutions. While this is unlikely to happen,  Plum Village still remains the sole Buddhist association in the most suitable position to fight for this change in Vietnamese society.


Reference

1.  Làng Mai. (2022, January 28). Khóa tu tâm tang: Lễ xuất gia cây mimosa. https://www.facebook.com/langmai.org/posts/2109429832549038

2.  Làng Mai. (2022b, March 21). Lá thơ Làng Mai số 45. Trang 30. http://langmai.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/lathulangmai45-2022-cap-nhat-ngay-21.03.2022.pdf

3.  Làng Mai. (2022b, February 19). Tổ đình Từ Hiếu, Thư cảm tạ. Làng Mai. https://www.facebook.com/langmai.org/photos/a.174037022755005/2125445397614148/

4.  Luật Khoa. (2022, March 12). Tôn giáo tháng 2/2022: Làng Mai gặp Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ, bàn về việc hoạt động tại Việt Nam. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2022/03/ton-giao-thang-2-2022-lang-mai-gap-ban-ton-giao-chinh-phu-ban-ve-viec-hoat-dong-tai-viet-nam/

5.  The Vietnamese Magazine. (2022, February 12). Religion Bulletin 12/2021: Government Committee For Religious Affairs Wants To Determine Direction Of The Vietnamese Buddhist Church. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/02/religion-bulletin-december-2021-government-committee-for-religious-affairs-wants-to-determine-direction-of-the-vietnamese-buddhist-church/

6.  Làng Mai. (2005, March 25). Bảy điểm đề nghị của Thiền sư Nhất Hạnh về chính sách của nhà nước Việt Nam đối với Phật giáo. https://langmai.org/cong-tam-quan/thong-bach/bay-diem-de-nghi-cua-thien-su-nhat-hanh/

7.  Làng Mai. (2007, January 24). Lá thư Làng Mai số 30. Trang 9. http://langmai.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/LaThuLangMai30-2007.pdf

8.  Làng Mai. (2008, February 4). Lá thư Làng Mai số 31. Trang 14. http://langmai.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/LaThuLangMai31-2008.pdf

9.  Tricycle. (2008, August 27). Buddhism, Under Vietnam’s Thumb. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/buddhism-under-vietnams-thumb

10.  Văn Tâm. (2022, January 23). Cuộc đời của thiền sư Thích Nhất Hạnh. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2022/01/cuoc-doi-cua-thien-su-thich-nhat-hanh/

11.  Báo Nghệ An. (2019, April 6). Đoàn đại biểu cấp cao Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ thăm và làm việc tại Campuchia. Web Archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20220325024628/https://baonghean.vn/doan-dai-bieu-cap-cao-ban-ton-giao-chinh-phu-tham-va-lam-viec-tai-campuchia-239212.html

12.  Luật Khoa. (2021, March 31). Cánh tay của Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ vừa được nối dài vươn ra hải ngoại. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/03/canh-tay-cua-ban-ton-giao-chinh-phu-vua-duoc-noi-dai-vuon-ra-hai-ngoai/

13.  Ibid [12].

14.  Ibid [12].

ReligionThich Nhat HanhPlum Village