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Lions Roar : September 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 53 the wounds that people still suffer from the war. “We will con- duct ceremonies to pray for victims of the war on both sides,” he said. “This is the first time such ceremonies have been allowed. They are very traditional rites, but they are also like a festival, in a way. The people who are still alive come together and think of the dead people. They pray for them and reconcile. The war has left many wounds within each person, and there has been no chance to reconcile the warring parties. This is a collective practice of healing. If we don’t transform the suffering and the wounds now, they will be transmitted to the next generation. They will suffer and they will not understand why. It’s better to do something right away to transform the suffering and the injustice that we have experienced.” What follows is the story, as I experienced it, of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2007 return to Vietnam. HO CHI MINH CITY Thay has a packed three-month schedule of retreats, teachings, and ceremonies, talking to crowds in temples filled beyond ca- pacity, leading groups of up to 10,000 on meditation retreats, and bringing those of us blessed to be around him on a jour- ney into the depths of mindfulness. Although restrictions on religious freedoms have recently been relaxed in Vietnam, one can still be considered anti-Communist for worshipping at a Buddhist temple. But the walls are slowly coming down, and Thay is stepping into the opening by focusing on reconcilia- tion, on helping to transform the lasting suffering of war from pain into love. I land at Tan Son Nhat airport on the day the tour begins and find Thay seated on a bench surrounded by smiling monks and nuns, looking very happy. A bespectacled monk named Thich Phap An, one of his senior monks, approaches, and I explain that I am the Canadian filmmaker who has been invited on the tour to gather footage for my feature documentary, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, which chronicles the rising tide of spiritual activism across the globe. I am three months into my journey, searching the world for contemporary stories of what Gandhi called “soul force,” what Alice Walker calls “the human sunrise,” and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “love in action.” I began this leg of the voyage in New Zealand, visiting a Maori peace village whose early nonviolent civil disobedience inspired Gandhi. In Kenya, I attended the World Social Forum, the larg- est gathering of grassroots change-makers in history. In South Africa, I visited the Phoenix Ashram, where Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was born. In India, I visited with the Dalits (formerly, “untouchables”), who are in a period of change and empower- ment similar to the American Civil Rights movement, and in Sri Lanka, I filmed the Sarvadoyan community, the largest contem- porary Gandhian movement in existence. And now I find myself in Vietnam, with the monastics of Plum Village and Deer Park (Thay’s monastery in southern California), along with a collec- tion of international sangha members, stepping into the heart- land of Engaged Buddhism. Our first stop is Ho Chi Minh City, renamed after what could be called either “the fall of Saigon” or “the rise of Ho Chi Minh,” depending on your perspective. It always comes down to per- spective. Ho Chi Minh City’s wide streets are lined with red ban- ners and swarming with mopeds and pedestrians. Crossing the chaos seems impossible at first, but watching the locals at work, I can see the buzzing bikes part like a school of fish in the face of a pedestrian. All that’s required is trust. After a silent, meditative breakfast with the other international sangha members in our hotel restaurant, we take a bus to the Phap Van temple, the base for Thay’s Engaged Buddhism back in the sixties. A swarm of cameras greets the stately arrival of Thich Nhat Hanh, who leads us on a slow, calming, walking medita- tion. Then we gather in the dining hall to receive our robes and alms bowl. I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity and focus I’ve witnessed in monastics, particularly in the joyous Plum Vil- lage sangha, and I’m thrilled with this opportunity to be a semi- monk for a month. I look around at my new traveling compan- ions—seventy foreigners from around the world—all dressed up in light blue robes, tentative and slightly awed by this sudden transformation. We are no longer civilians. Left: A ceremonial bridge constructed at the Saigon temple for the Grand Requiem Mass, symbolizing a route for departed souls to pass from suffering. PHOTO: KATE CUMMINGS Right: Thich Nhat Hanh arrives at Tu Hieu, the temple where he became a novice monk. PHOTO: DEAN NELSON SEPT 50-57.indd 53 SEPT 50-57.indd 53 6/25/07 5:03:19 PM 6/25/07 5:03:19 PM