Struggling For Peace:
The Unrecognized Sacrifices of Buddhist Women During the Vietnam War
Robert Topmiller, Ph.D
I want to use my body as a
torch . . .
to dissipate the darkness . . . and to bring peace to Vietnam. [i]
- Nhat Chi
In May 1967, a young South Vietnamese Buddhist woman
named Nhat Chi Mai penned a series of letters to the combatants in her homeland and the
president of the United States and then immolated herself in an attempt to stop the conflict in her nation. In her message to
Lyndon Johnson, she asked the US leader, Do you realize that
most Vietnamese in the bottom of our hearts feel hatred towards Americans who have brought
the sufferings of the war to our country? [ii] In many ways, her
self-sacrifice expressed Buddhist distress over the war while also indicating that women
stood at the forefront of antiwar activism in South Vietnam. [iii] Yet, although much
has been written in recent years about the military contributions of American and
Vietnamese women during the conflict, little has been said about
Vietnamese women in the peace movement. [iv] This essay seeks to demonstrate that their toils conformed to a long tradition of feminine service to Vietnam that reflected the highest traditions
of Buddhism while also challenging common stereotypes of southern women as hapless victims, revolutionary fighters or sex workers. Instead, it
shows them actively working to determine the future of their country.[v]
have noted the elevated status of women throughout Vietnamese history, ascribe this
condition to a number of factors. Peasants in the Red River Delta, the cradle of
Vietnamese civilization, practiced a rough form of egalitarianism due to the incessant
labor demands of working smallholdings in one of the most densely populated areas in the
world. Vietnamese women could inherit property and keep their names after marriage. Often
women exercised leadership in commercial and economic ventures because of the Confucian
view of trade as an activity not conducive to achieving social harmony. Males, on the
other hand, dominated politics. [vi]
position of women particularly emerged during times of war and foreign invasion. One
Vietnamese proverb holds, When war comes, even the women must fight,
illustrating the need for every Vietnamese to resist external threats. [vii] The
use of guerrilla warfare to defeat aggressors placed a special burden on women, who had to
support the soldiers in the field, tend businesses, care for families and provide
intelligence for the insurgents. [viii]
The exploits of
heroic women appear throughout Vietnamese history. The Trung sisters stand as the great
cultural heroes of Vietnam. For many Vietnamese, they personify the most powerful symbol
of Vietnamese nationalism since they led a popular rebellion against China in 40 CE,
ruling an independent Vietnam for three years until they committed suicide rather than
submit to an occupying army. Their revolt
carries significant emotional and patriotic weight as an illustration of Vietnams
long history of resistance to foreign invasion.
The countrys foremost
literary work, The
Tale of Kieu, tells the story of a beautiful young woman engaged to be married when
misfortune befalls her family. To fulfill her filial duty, Kieu becomes a prostitute to
save her family from financial ruin. When she finally reunites with her fiancé, they
pledge to remain forever celibate to honor their reunification. Many commentators believe
that Kieu represents Vietnam, a nation forced constantly to prostitute itself to resist
foreign domination. One historian even argues that Vietnamese have developed a feminine
self-image as a result of their heroic characterizations of women. [ix]
participated in the formation of the National Liberation Front (the NLF, better known as
the Viet Cong), and some historians estimate that they made up as much as 50 percent of
the NLF. [x] Women
also fought in large numbers North Vietnam during the war with the Americans. [xi] Since
women performed many critical wartime tasks, it remains unsurprising that some worked to
end the conflict and bring peace to their country as well. In fact, their political and
social activism can be seen as a continuation of their long history of battling to save
the Buddhist Peace Movement [xii]
The three mottos of Vietnamese Buddhism are compassion, wisdom and
involvement, which means that Buddhists cannot ignore pain or suffering, but must actively
work to end it.[xiii] While
non-violence and empathy represent the essence of Buddhism, Vietnamese particularly expect
women to serve humanity. [xiv]
The Vietnamese Bodhisattva of Compassion is Quan The Am. According to some scholars, the
Vietnamese altered her gender from a male to a female to better fit the needs of the
people since a female Bodhisattva has more compassion." [xv] Quan The Am represents the epitome of Buddhist
benevolence in that she remains intensely interested in ending human suffering,
reinforcing the image of women as saviors of the nation.[xvi]
Driven by a desire to practice compassion, South Vietnamese
Buddhists launched a nationwide peace campaign from 1963-67. [xvii] Led
by their charismatic leader, Thich Tri Quang, Buddhists dreamed of sparking a social
revolution that would eradicate poverty and injustice while bringing relief to Vietnamese
whose lives of extreme poverty rendered them susceptible to NLF promises of a future
egalitarian society under its tutelage.[xviii] The growing war in the countryside
particularly concerned Buddhists because of the suffering involved and its potential to
derail their social transformation. They
concluded that a democratic government, reflecting the popular will to end the war,
remained the most effective avenue to peace. [xix]
Buddhist compassion intersected with a desire to save their people, Buddhist women joined
the peace movement in large numbers. Yet,
their entry into the political realm represented a significant departure from their normal
roles, especially on the part of nuns. Vietnamese Buddhism has attracted more women than
men since the Le Dynasty in the 15th Century and has long been considered the
religion of women perhaps because it deals more with the heart and mind and
focuses on compassion, on emotions, [and] on loving and caring. [xx]
Nevertheless, women have traditionally accepted a subordinate position, partially because
of the Buddhas ambivalence over their admission, but also reflecting the secondary
position of many women in Asian society. Most Vietnamese assume that nuns will shun
political activity and worldly concerns since many join Buddhist orders to escape earthly
problems and have little outside contact after they enter a nunnery. [xxi]
Expected mainly to serve Buddha and the people, the status of women
in Vietnamese Buddhism remains one of subservience and ambivalence. Families generally
express regret when an offspring joins the temple because of her lost earning ability and
separation from the family. Yet, they also feel pride that a daughter has decided to work
for their religion. Nuns follow arduous monastic regulations, which include strict dietary
rules and highly structured daily schedules, and have to conform to more policies than
monks in similar capacities. More importantly, they must project love and kindness at all
times and shows no anger or hostility towards any creature. [xxii]
Despite the fact that many felt great ambivalence about entering
the political arena, the Buddhas injunction to always practice compassion forced
them to no longer remain silent and apolitical. As one nun pointed out, when the US
military left, the people were poor but they didnt care, they had what they wanted:
peace, independence and freedom. [xxiii] Although many Vietnamese condemned women
for engaging in political activity, their history, religious and cultural orientation and
belief in their obligation to their people left them no choice. They had to try to stop
the killing. As one Buddhist pointed out, You cannot be silent and be a religious
Hence, Buddhist women participated in demonstrations, helped place family altars in the
streets, led students out of classes to protest against the war, made efforts to lessen
burdens created by the conflict, and volunteered to immolate themselves to call attention
to the plight of their nation.[xxv] While it is never easy to defy long-held
social and cultural conventions, particularly in a tradition-bound society like Vietnam,
thousands did. In the words of Cao Ngoc Phuong, How could we educate young people to
respect life while ignoring the killing of human beings? . . . Even at the risk of arrest
or torture, we had to work for peace.[xxvi]
Women followed countless paths to peace. Tran Hong Lien, a noted
scholar and historian of Vietnamese Buddhism, joined the peace movement to resist a
foreign invader - the US - while Dan Thi Lau Anh, a university professor, claims that many
women went to jail during the war because they wanted to serve the Buddha.[xxvii]
Duong Van Mai Elliot embraced the growing Third Force movement, a group that believed in a
non-American, noncommunist solution to the war. [xxviii] One militant who helped build
temporary homes and . . . collect donated clothes for the war victims in Saigon,
subsequently became an antiwar campaigner at Cornell University and a member of the Third
Another Buddhist woman allied with the movement and gained a stay in prison after
witnessing the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in 1963. She became a social activist
after the Communist victory in 1975. [xxx] One nun joined the 1963 Buddhist agitation
against Ngo Dinh Diem and served a jail term until Diem's removal in late 1963. Later on
as the war expanded, she headed an orphanage until the Communist victory in 1975. After
the war, she came to the US and continued her activities in America.[xxxi]
Another nun worked for four years as a teacher to take out a personal loan, which she used
to open a medical clinic for the poor that also educated young women to work in the
The Government of South Vietnam (GVN) treated members of the peace
movement harshly, often confining them in its worst locations for years. [xxxiii]
Yet, many women talk about their time in prison with a stunning casualness, especially
when considering the horrific conditions that existed within the South Vietnamese penal
system. American peace activist Alfred Hassler argues that the GVN arrested five
thousand Buddhist monks, nuns, lay leaders and students after it crushed the 1966
movement in Danang and Hue. Religious historian
Sallie King claims that in 1968, of 1870 prisoners in Chi Hoa Prison, Saigon, 1665
were listed on the daily census as Buddhists, fifty as Communist. Journalist Stanley
Karnow maintains that the GVN locked up hundreds of peace activists and held them in
prison for years without due process or trial, while Asian political scientist George
Kahin asserts that many Buddhists remained jailed until 1975. [xxxiv]
Moreover, Amnesty International estimated that over 200,000 political prisoners remained
incarcerated in Indochina by the end of 1972, with the majority being held in South
Phuong and the SYSS
The ultimate failure to achieve popular democracy led many
Buddhists to embrace the Third Force concept. [xxxvi] They claimed to be
neither anti-NLF or anti-US but pro-peace since the Buddhists sided with neither [of
the combatants] but with their shared victims: the Vietnamese masses.[xxxvii] Rejecting the idea that the conflict had to be
settled on the battlefield, many saw the Third Force as a way for the US to withdraw from
South Vietnam with its honor intact while allowing the Vietnamese to determine their own
Sensing significant war weariness after a quarter-century of
conflict, in the early 1960s, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh helped found Van Hanh
University, a Buddhist school still operating in Vietnam, and the School of Youth for
Social Service (SYSS). [xxxix]
Yet, he spent most of the war outside South Vietnam, leaving the leadership and dangerous
work to Cao Ngoc Phuong. While Thich Nhat Hanh got the lions share of the credit for
the SYSS, Cao Ngoc Phuong served as its inspirational leader and the person most
responsible for its success. Under her tutelage, women constituted 25 percent of the SYSS
student body. [xl]
In her memoir of the SYSS, Cao Ngoc Phuong lays particular emphasis
on Engaged Buddhism, a tract written by Thich
Nhat Hanh in 1964 calling for radical activism to lessen the suffering of the Vietnamese
people. Despite the fact that the GVN outlawed this work, Buddhists smuggled over four
thousand copies out of Saigon and spread them all over the country. The document
electrified much of the Buddhist organization and a significant portion of the urban
population with the hope that the Buddhists could bring relief to the people.
Cao Ngoc Phuong understood that inchoate
feelings of helplessness and rage had been produced by an extreme demographic and price
revolution, which exerted intense pressure on many people.[xli] The explosive growth of cities had an
especially overpowering influence on Vietnamese society and drove SYSS efforts to relieve
these conditions.[xlii] While the movement of so many people to urban areas
enabled the GVN to maintain better control over the population, it also produced demands
for additional services in the midst of a general deterioration of living conditions
during a time of seeming prosperity, particularly as inflation eroded wage increases among
white-collar salaried workers. [xliii] Growing municipal populations created enormous slums, while a general
breakdown in urban services plagued Saigon, where crime and prostitution soared, garbage
was never collected, roads never repaired and busses never ran on time. [xliv]
The SYSS represented the culmination of Cao Ngoc Phuong's belief in
Engaged Buddhism. Disagreeing with the militancy of Thich Tri Quang, she argued for a
Buddhism bereft of political action that focused on remedying the peoples suffering.[xlv] She saw the SYSS as a Third Force inside South
Vietnam neither supporting nor opposing the GVN or the NLF while training young people to
alleviate the pain caused by the fighting. Eventually, despite the war going on around
them and under her tireless leadership, members of the SYSS opened schools, built
hospitals, fed the hungry, housed the homeless, cared for refugees, arranged for local
truces during natural disasters, worked for peace and tried to keep the light of
compassion glowing in a war-torn society suffering significant economic dislocation. [xlvi]
Cao Ngoc Phuong did not confine herself to social
action, however. Kahin, one of the foremost Southeast Asian scholars in the world and an
outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, visited South Vietnam at the end of 1966 as part of
a US effort to get antiwar intellectuals like him on board. Instead, he traveled around
the country and discovered an active underground network trying to achieve peace and open
talks with the NLF.
At one point,
Buddhists asked Kahin if he would like to meet representatives of the NLF. They instructed
him to go to a pharmacy in Saigon and request a certain prescription. When he did, Cao
Ngoc Phuong escorted him to the meeting. Although an extremely dangerous task on his and
her part, the meeting confirmed to Kahin that large segments of the NLF did not adhere to
Communism and mainly joined the movement to oppose US intervention. Understanding the need
for the American people to hear Vietnamese opinions, Kahin later brought Cao Ngoc Phuong
to Cornell University to give the other side of the story. [xlvii]
Saigon regime threatened to imprison Cao Ngoc Phuong for her peace activities. After
escaping from South Vietnam, she toured the US, calling on Americans to oppose the war and
later joined the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace talks. [xlviii]
Although the Communists branded her a war criminal after 1975, she still attempts to help
her people by leading campaigns to aid victims of natural disasters and displaced boat
people, while calling for human rights and religious freedom in Communist Vietnam. [xlix]
which emerged from traditional Buddhist beliefs on the importance of compassion and
non-violence, remains the most enduring symbol of Buddhist opposition to the war.[l] While
most historians agree that the Vietnamese paid a ghastly price for Americas
obsession with Communism, few acknowledge the presence of an independent peace movement in
the country. Why is it that historians can accept the deaths of millions to fight the war
yet find it so hard to believe that some died for peace?
In many ways,
self-immolation represents the highest manifestation of non-violence since the person
committing the act chooses to harm herself rather than another being. In addition, the Buddhas injunction always
to act with benevolence could be fulfilled by a person willing to sacrifice herself to
call attention to the plight of the Vietnamese. [li] While
the positive karma gained from dying for Buddhism seemed sure to benefit the people,
Buddhists argued vigorously that self-immolation did not constitute suicide. Rather than
the act of a despondent person fleeing the problems of the world, it sought to liberate
the people from a ruinous war.[lii] Moreover, attempts by Buddhist women to end
the war by immolating themselves remained consistent with Buddhist precepts wherein they
felt compelled to sacrifice themselves to end the killing. Seen in this light, it becomes
easier to understand self-immolation, although the grim nature of the act gives further
evidence of the torment felt by Buddhists over the conflict.
The first and
most spectacular self-immolation during the 1963 Buddhist Crisis stamped an image on the
Vietnam War that has never faded away. In June 1963, as the Buddhist rebellion against Ngo
Dinh Diem gained momentum, an elderly monk named Thich Quang Duc calmly sat on a busy
Saigon street and set himself on fire. While his act electrified world opinion, he died
believing that he would become a bodhisattva for calling attention to the desperate
conditions in South Vietnam. [liii] Women
also joined the 1963 protest. In August 1963, an eighteen-year-old Buddhist girl attempted
to cut off her hand as a humble contribution while our religion is in danger,
two other Buddhist nuns immolated themselves and, Do Thi Thea, a member of the Vietnamese
royal family publicly offered to burn herself to support the Buddhist cause. [liv]
Buddhist Crisis of 1966, the most serious Buddhist challenge to the war, women again
sacrificed themselves to express their anguish over the continuing conflict. In May 1966
nursing student Do Thi Bich used her own blood to write letters denouncing the
Saigon regime. [lv] A week later, Thich Nu Thanh Quang set herself on
fire to make the world hear the tragic voice of my people bemoaning the fact
that For twenty years . . . much of the blood of our compatriots has flowed because
of a war without reason. [lvi] The same day, Ho Thi Thieu burnt herself to
oppose the inhuman actions of Generals Thieu and Ky, henchmen of the Americans,
and nineteen-year-old Thich Nu Vinh Ngoc immolated herself. On May 31, seventeen-year-old
Nguyen Thi Van sacrificed herself. [lvii] On
June 4, Thich Du Dien Dinh set herself on fire, twenty-four year old Thich Nu Bao Luan
burnt herself, and Dieu Nu also sacrificed herself. [lviii] On June 17, another girl set herself on
fire. [lix] More
women would have sacrificed themselves, but Thich Tri Quang halted the immolations when he
realized that the GVN aimed to destroy the movement and pursue the war
Yet, women still attempted to bring peace to Vietnam. Although
demoralized by GVN constraints, Buddhist peace advocates gained new life from Nhat Chi
Mai's 1967 self-immolation. Despite severe GVN repression, fifty thousand Vietnamese
marched in her funeral procession, a potent indicator of the antiwar feelings of many and
an acknowledgment of the depth and importance of her sacrifice. [lx] When
the GVN announced plans to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly in September 1967,
Buddhist leaders proclaimed they would boycott the voting since the GVN banned peace and
neutralist elements from running for office. [lxi] The voting set off another round of
immolations, mostly by women, who objected to the "mandate" supplied to a
government that gained less than 35 percent of the vote.
[lxii] In quick succession,
Thich Nu Tri immolated herself on October 3, another nun sacrificed herself on October 8,
Thich Nu Hue committed the act on October 22 and Thich Nu Thuong burnt herself on November
As long as the war continued women showed their disgust with the
ongoing conflict. On June 4, 1970, Thich Nu Lien Tap immolated herself, and in May 1971,
Nguyen Thi Co and Thich Nu Tinh Nhuan sacrificed themselves. In October 1971, Thich Nu
Tinh Cuong burnt herself; in 1972, Thich Nu Dien Han set herself on fire and in 1974 Thich
Nu Du Dieu burnt herself. [lxiii] Buddhist women did not shrink from
committing the most horrible forms of self-sacrifice to bring comfort to their people. At
the same time, other women continued to protest against the war despite extreme GVN
suppression of the movement. [lxiv]
In the four-year period from 1963-67, Buddhist women made
extraordinary efforts to halt the conflict in their country, including no less than
fifteen self-immolations, while others performed additional forms of non-violent protest.
In the end, many suffered imprisonment and persecution because of their beliefs. Despite
the fact that their labors have received little attention, women constituted the critical
core of Buddhist efforts to end the war. Women who joined the peace movement risked
prison, defied social norms, endured enormous pain, placed themselves in jeopardy and made
extraordinary sacrifices to save their country. [lxv] Unfortunately, as Karnow argues, their zeal
could not stop the American and Communist machines that were . . . tearing the countrys
social fabric to shreds. [lxvi] But their struggle to stop the war and end
the suffering remained a valid pursuit for religious figures. Their entry into the
political realm proved unsuccessful. But how else could they stop a war others were
determined to fight?
How should their efforts be judged? As a political movement they
failed because the war continued for many years. Yet, as King argues, theirs is one
of the great examples of courage, altruism, and activist spirituality of all time . . . .
The Buddhists who participated in the Struggle Movement, who worked in the countryside to
help peasants survive, who immolated themselves for peace - these people were moved, in
fact, by the ideals of their Buddhist faith.[lxvii]
[i] From Nhat Chi Mais
final message. James Forest,
The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam: Fifteen Years for Reconciliation (Edinburgh, 1978), 8.
[ii] James Forest, The Unified
Buddhist Church of Vietnam, 8.
[iii] Forest, The Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam, 8. When I refer to Buddhists in this essay, I mean the group
who followed the lead of Thich Tri Quang and the Vien Hoa Dao (Institute for the Execution
of the Dharma). Buddhists in South Vietnam split into a number of major groupings, of
which the Buddhist Movement represented about one million Buddhists in the county.
Internal divisions between moderates, led by Thich Tam Chau, and radicals who followed
Thich Tri Quang, also weakened it. The movement had a regional component as well; Thich
Tri Quang remained most powerful in central Vietnam while Thich Tam Chau retained an edge
in Saigon. Nether side had much influence with the Hoa Hao or the huge number of Buddhists
who lived in the Mekong Delta.
[iv] A good example of recent efforts to depict the role of women in the war is
Karen Gottschang Turner's Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam
(New York, 1998).
[v] Just as Duong Van Mai Elliot wrote her family history to challenge the
common image of South Vietnamese women as bar girls and prostitutes, this essay also attempts to counter common
stereotypes of Vietnamese women. Duong
Van Mai Elliot, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family
[vi] Christine Pelzer White, "Vietnam: War, Socialism, and the Politics of
Gender Relations" in Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism
edited by Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp and Marilyn Young, (New York, 1989): 172-92.
[vii] Turner, Even the Women Must Fight.
[viii] Mark Bradley lectures, "History and Culture of Vietnam," University
of Wisconsin-Madison, 1995.
[ix] Bradley Lecture, H.
Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam, 'Buddha, Hear Me
Suffer,'" Unpublished Manuscript 1996.
[x] Mary Dickson, "Longhaired Warriors," Private Eye Weekly, June 2, 1997 and
"Promissory Notes, 172-92."
[xi] Turner estimates that over 1.5 million women worked in various combat roles
throughout the hostilities, which helped ensure the survival of the DRV. Turner, Even
the Women Must Fight and "Promissory Notes, 172-92.
[xii] Buddhism came to Vietnam in the early part of the Christian era by way of
China and India. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by China, absorbed elements of
Taoism, Confucianism and ancestor worship along with the veneration of local deities. The
emphasis in northern and central Vietnam came mainly from the Mahayana school of Buddhism,
which predominated in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism developed several
centuries after the death of the Buddha, places great emphasis on achieving social justice
and assisting others to reach enlightenment, and worships a multiplicity of deities.
Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia and
among ethnic Cambodians in the southern part of present day Vietnam, is more
fundamentalist and conservative, places greater emphasis on monasticism and focuses on the
One historian has characterized
the development of Buddhism as the greatest period of rational thought in human
history. When the Buddha set out to discover why humans suffer, he concluded that people ail
because they crave things like money, possessions, power, long life or fame. He realized that the
major difficulty for humans is
that they yearn for impermanent things that are in a state of
decay. Thus, these things never satisfy the people who covet them. In fact, the more people get, the more they want,
so that many experience lives of increasing demands and downward spiraling unhappiness.
The Buddha recognized that the key to enlightenment and escape from the endless cycle of
birth, death and rebirth lay in the renunciation of craving. By destroying desire, he
argued, humans could find true happiness. From this great insight, Buddhists developed the
concept of non-attachment to all things, including ideology.
Hence, Buddhist philosophy,
which is shared in varying degrees by about 80 percent of Vietnamese, had a major impact
on their views of the US. Many Buddhists
found American capitalism repulsive and felt that they understood what drove American
actions in Vietnam more than the US did. Some sensed that the war had resulted from US
efforts to protect its wealth and power, which were decaying. Therefore, even though the
US held more riches than any other country, it hungered for more while going to fantastic
lengths to protect what it had. Since Communism threatened American treasure and power,
the US had to combat it to preserve its affluence. Buddhists realized the futility of the
American effort. They could see where American longing for security had led it while
Vietnamese appetites brought on by the adoption of American habits and mores seemed sure
to destroy their society also. Many Vietnamese particularly resented the American
onslaught against traditional Vietnamese values that had degraded the cultural fabric of
the nation. To them, the role of women under the American cultural assault became
especially charged and created huge amounts of bitterness towards Americans. Greed,
increased consumerism, prostitution and the disrespect shown married women by American
soldiers seemed to result from the US presence in Vietnam. Trevor Ling, Buddha, Marx
and God (New York, 1966), Alexander
Woodside, Some Southern Vietnamese Writers Look at the War, Bulletin
of Concerned Asian Scholars 2
(October, 1969): 53-58 and Don Luce and John Sommer, Vietnam: The Unheard Voices
(Ithaca, 1969), 121-23.
[xiii] Thich Minh Duc and Thich Quang Ba, "Women['s] Status in Buddhism,"
April 5, 2001, e-mail message to author and James M. Freeman, Hearts of Sorrow:
Vietnamese American Lives, (Stanford, 1989), 81-86.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding (Berkeley, 1988) and Stephen Batchelor, The
Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture (Berkeley, 1994),
[xv] Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam," 14.
[xvi] Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam" and My Life as a Nun, e-mails to author
from Thich Nu Minh Tam, April-July, 2001.
[xvii] In September 1964, for
example, the Buddhist journal, Hai Trieu Am (Voice of the Rising Tide) published
Urgent Prayers of a Suffering People, which called for a negotiated settlement
and for the combatants to refrain from killing each other. More importantly, the article
referred to NLF cadres as brothers, a powerful indicator of the fratricidal nature of the
steadily expanding war. The GVN promptly shut the journal down, leading Buddhists to
launch a new publication. Increasingly sickened by the rising cost of the war, citizens
launched three different peace campaigns simultaneously in Saigon during 1965. The GVN
crushed all of these efforts, sending a clear signal to Vietnamese of the danger of
outright calls for peace. Nevertheless, as
journalist Takashi Oka argued at the time, the simple, uncomplicated, totally
understandable popular ache
for peace remains. In May 1965, a Buddhist-organized peace
rally in Saigon witnessed the incredible spectacle of thousands of Vietnamese marching
through the streets of Saigon demanding a peace cabinet. In December 1965, the
Patriarch of the UBC, Thich Tinh Khiet implored the contending forces to open talks to end
to war. Otherwise, the people of Vietnam faced destruction. Thich Quang Lien, who founded one of the peace efforts
in 1965, told the author during a visit to the Thich Quang Duc Pagoda in July 1996 that he
did not oppose US intervention, but wanted to end the killing, which he felt was
destroying his country. After 1966, he retired to head a monastery dedicated to the study
of peace. Still a man of principle, he was very outspoken in his condemnation of recent
religious repression by the Communist government of Vietnam. Thich Quang Lien interview,
James Forest, The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, 6- 31 and Kahin File, Thich
Quang Liens Peace Movement.
[xviii] During the war, most American correspondents incorrectly reported that Thich
meant reverend or venerable since all Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam adopt it as a
surname upon ordination. Actually, it comes from the Vietnamese translation of the Buddhas
name, Thich-Ca or Shakyamuni. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (New York, 1974), 1. Thich Nu indicates that the individual is a
[xix] After conducting over eighty interviews with Vietnamese associated with the
Buddhist movement, the author
is convinced that most people in South Vietnam did not want to
fight the war. Almost every person
interviewed made it clear that the Buddhists believed it also and were deeply concerned
with the impact of the war on their people and took extraordinary risks to end the
conflict. The author received further confirmation in his interviews with General Nguyen
Khanh and General Nguyen Chanh Thi, both of whom concluded that the war had to end while
they held power, and George Kahin, who heard the same thing from Buddhist activists during
his trip to South Vietnam in 1966. Even the American CIA sensed the deep desire for peace
on the part of many Vietnamese. It commented in February 1966 that a GVN plan to whip up
more support for the war well may backfire since the generals may find that the
people want peace and not war. Donald
Ropa, a member of the National Security Council staff, had predicted in January 1966 that
the growing refugee problem, and a drastic increase in civilian casualties could generate
resentment against the US or the Saigon government, and pressure for peace-at-any-price by
pacifist elements such as the Buddhists.
Memo, Ropa to Bundy, 1-7-66, Vietnam Volume 45, Vietnam Country File, NSF LBJ Library and
CIA Cable, Intelligence Information Cable, 2-7-66, Comments and Observations
Concerning the 3 February Directorate Meeting, Vietnam Volume 47, Vietnam Country
File, NSF LBJ Library.
[xx] Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam," 31.
[xxi] Their isolation also makes
research on their activities extremely difficult mainly because many refuse to
talk to investigators or have any
contact with outside people. There are many reasons for this situation.
Some women seek peace and solitude
by entering the pagoda and remain very reluctant to be pulled backed
into painful memories about the
conflict. Others fear Communist retaliation for their political activities during the war
while some choose not to revisit old wounds and animosities left over from the internal
that plagued South Vietnam during
its short existence. On the whole they tend to be extremely distrustful
of outsiders and fear that the
government agents who frequent religious sites in present-day Vietnam will
report anything they say.
[xxii] My Life as a
Nun, e-mails to author from Thich Nu Minh Tam, April-July, 2001 and Asia Foundation,
Report on Buddhism, (San Francisco, 1968), 26-27.
[xxiii] Oral interview, Nu Su Nhu Hai, HCMC Vietnam, December 2000.
[xxiv] Thich Nhat Hanh interview with Kahin, 2.
[xxv] Sallie King and Christopher S. Queen, editors, Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist
Liberation Movements in Asia Albany, 1996), 335, George
McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York, 1986), 430, Memo For the President,
6-9-66, Vietnam Volume 55, Vietnam Country File, NSF LBJ Library and Jerrold Schecter, The New Face of
Buddha, (New York, 1967), 240.
[xxvi] Chan Khong, Learning
True Love: How I Learned & Practiced Social Change in
Vietnam (Berkeley, 1993), 89. Chan Khong is
Cao Ngoc Phuongs religious name.
[xxvii] Oral Interview, Dan Thi Lau Anh and Head Nun, Kieu Lien Pagoda, HCMC
Vietnam, December 2000.
[xxix] Letter from former member of the SYSS to author, August 1997. This previous
activist in the organization requested anonymity because she still visits and works in
Vietnam on occasion and fears Communist retaliation over her antiwar activities during the
[xxx] Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam," 17-19.
[xxxiii] Jeffrey J. Clarke, United States Army in Vietnam, Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-73
(Washington, 1988), 143 and Frances FitzGerald, Fire In
the Lake: The Vietnamese and the
Americans in Vietnam (New York, 1972), 387-88.
[xxxiv] King, Engaged Buddhism, 334 and Alfred Hassler, Saigon USA
(New York, 1970), 42.
[xxxv] Richard Eder,
Private Group to Protest Political Prisoners in Vietnam, New York Times
(November 3, 1972): 12.
[xxxvi] Hassler, who visited South Vietnam in 1969, claims that many South Vietnamese, perhaps
the majority, supported the notion of a Third Force to end the conflict. Hassler, Saigon
[xxxviii] Hassler, Saigon USA, 13, The Third Solution,
3-11and Thi interview.
[xxxix] Stephen Batchelor, The Awakening of the West,
[xl] Report on Buddhism, 89-91.
[xli] For example, prices
increased 52 percent in 1965 and 42 percent in 1966, 11 percent of the population (1.8
million people) became refugees while Saigon-Cholon grew from a city of 1.4 million in
1962 to 2.5 million in 1965 to 4.5 million by mid-1967. Twenty-five percent of the
population of South Vietnam resided in the Saigon-Cholon area by August 1967. In addition,
smaller urban areas like Qui Nhon grew by 100,000 people in less than three years and
Danang added almost 90,000
inhabitants. John T. Bennett, Political Implications of
Economic Change: South Vietnam, Asian Survey 7:8 (August, 1967): 581-591.
[xlii] Josef Reisinger, of the Far Eastern Economic Review, illustrated the
effects of thousands of refugees moving to the cities when he characterized Saigon in
August 1964 as a filthy city with garbage and litter lying uncollected, while in the
streets, beggars were everywhere: old men, women, crippled and children. He
described the malaise affecting the Vietnamese; Two decades of terror,
fighting and death have sapped the citizens of this country of their energy and will to
struggle for an unknown freedom. Sickened and demoralized, they have lapsed
into an almost traditional fatalism: What Buddha wishes will come to pass. Josef Reisinger,
Vietnams Schizophrenia, Far Eastern Economic Review 47 (October
29, 1964): 265-67.
[xliii] Kahin, Intervention,
[xliv] South Vietnam: Pilot With a Mission, Time (February 18, 1964): 26.
[xlv] King, Engaged Buddhism, 323-326.
[xlvi] For a more complete account of the work of the SYSS see Chan Khong, Learning
[xlviii] James Forest, "Only the Rice Loves You: A Month with the Vietnamese
Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, undated.
[xlix] Chan Khong, Learning True Love.
[l] Batchelor, The
Awakening of the West, 361.
[li] King, Engaged
[lii] Robert Mole, Vietnamese
Buddhism, (Washington, 1967), A-4.
[liii] Vietnamese history
contains numerous stories of Buddhists who sacrificed themselves by fire. On occasion, Buddhists continued an old practice
of burning off a finger to aid their liberation from the world while, before
the development of gasoline, monks who decided to immolate themselves would eat
fatty foods for a couple of years so they would burn better. Even today, young
Buddhist acolytes place burning incense on their heads for thirty minutes as a part of
their examination process to achieve full membership into monastic society. Certainly, the
Buddhist belief in self-negation and non-attachment to the physical self, combined with
the relationship between concepts of fire and purity could evolve into a belief in the
importance of achieving a state of physical non-self through self-immolation, particularly
after achieving enlightenment. David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, Portrait if the Enemy:
The Other Side of the War in Vietnam, (London, 1986), 141-43.
[liv] 2 More
Buddhist Suicides by Burning In Vietnam Protest, New York Times (August 16,
1963): 1 and David Halberstam, Nuns Act a Surprise New York Times
(August 16, 1963): 3 and David Halberstam, Buddhist Girl, 18, Maims Herself In
Protest Against Saigon Policy, New York Times (August 16, 1963): 1.
[lv] Corcoran to State Department, Radio Hue, May 23, 1966, VN Volume
54, NSF LBJ Library.
[lvi] Schecter, The
New Face of Buddha, 233-34.
[lvii] Schecter, The
New Face of Buddha, 237-38, FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake, 386, Charles Mohr, 4 Buddhists Die As Suicides Rise In Anti-Ky Drive,
New York Times (May 30, 1966): 1 and Buddhist Protest Being Intensified:
Suicide Toll At 5, New York Times (May 31, 1966): 1.
[lviii] R.W. Apple, Jr., Buddhist Warns of Vote Boycott Unless Ky Quits,
New York Times (June 4, 1966): 1 and 2 More Fiery Suicides, New York
Times (June 4, 1966): 3.
[lix] Memorandum for the President, June 18, 1966, Vietnam Vol 55, NSF LBJ
[lx] Ni Su Nhu Hai
interview, HCMC, Vietnam, December 2000. Nhat Chi Mai became an enduring symbol of
Buddhist opposition to the war. One member of the SYSS told me that she visits her home
temple every time she is in HCMC to burn incense to the remarkable young woman. The pagoda
where she ended her life, Chua Tu Nghiem in HCMC, still operates in the 21st century. The
woman who leads the temple has been there since 1949 and knew Nhat Chi Mai well. A large urn
decorates the place where she died and a lovely picture of her sits in a family altar
within the temple. An interesting aspect of the temple is a large painting of the Buddha
with feminine features perhaps indicating that the nuns can become Buddha's through the
practice of compassion. About sixty nuns reside there and have very little contact with
the world. In fact, the head nun emphasized how much the nuns want to remain distant from
the political cares of society so that they can follow the Buddha a stunning
indicator of the unusual nature of their activism in the 1960s. Despite being harassed by
the police and jailed for her antiwar activities, when she was released she returned to
the temple to find herself again.
[lxi] Hassler, Saigon USA, 26, R.W. Apple, Jr., Buddhist
Warns of Vote Boycott: Unless Ky Quits, New York Times (June 4, 1966): 1 and The
Third Solution, 6.
[lxii] The Third Solution, 13 and Karnow, Vietnam: A History,
[lxiii] Forest, The Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam, 34-41.
[lxiv] Iver Peterson,
Days Allied Cease-Fire Marks Buddhas Birthday, New York Times
(May 9, 1971): 1.
[lxv] Schecter, The New Face of Buddha, 211-252, Marjorie Hope and James
Young, The Struggle for Humanity: Agents of Nonviolent Change in a Violent World
(Maryknoll, New York, 1977), 185-220.
[lxvi] Karnow, Vietnam: A History, 449.
[lxvii] King, Engaged Buddhism, 355.