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A Buddhist Poet in Vietnam

NOTE:

The essay and poems that follow are by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Director of the School for Social Studies in Saigon and one of the most popular poets in Vietnam. The poems were translated by Nhat Hanh himself and the essay was written by him when he arrived in New York in the middle of May to lecture on the Vietnam crisis and on the work of the School of Youth for Social Service he describes below.

Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in Dalat and became a novice at sixteen. He was a student of literature and philosophy at Saigon University and of the philosophy of religion at Princeton in 1961. He lectured on Buddhism at Columbia in 1963 and then returned to Saigon to play a leading role in the Buddhist political and social movement. He is Editor of the principal Buddhist weekly paper and the author of ten books, including Oriental Logic, Actualized Buddhism, and Engaged Buddhism. He also contributed a letter, “In Search of the Enemy of Man,” addressed to Martin Luther King, to the symposium Dialogue, which reflects the attempt of young Buddhists to formulate a synthesis of Buddhism and existentialism appropriate to the problems of Vietnam.

The few poems published here are not typical of my own poetry or of Vietnamese poetry generally. The tradition of poetry in Vietnam is very old and complex. It draws on early Chinese poetry, on the French Romantic and symbolist poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, in my own case, on Zen Buddhist writers. Much of my poetry could be called “philosophical” and friends have found it in some ways similar to the work of Tagore: at least, it is extremely difficult to translate it into English.

But the poems published here are different. They are popular poems in free verse and when I write them I feel I am trying to speak very simply for the majority of Vietnamese who are peasants and cannot speak for themselves; they do not know or care much about words like communism or democracy but want above all for the war to end so they may survive and not be maimed or killed. I wrote the poems first for myself; when I read them over I can regain once more the state of intense feeling in which I composed them. But they have now been read and heard by many Vietnamese; and they have been denounced by both sides fighting in the war. A few days after they were published last year government police came to seize them from the bookstores, but by then they had all been sold. They were attacked by the Hanoi radio and by the radio of the National Liberation Front. They have since been read in public along with the peace poems of other Buddhists and they have been sung with guitar accompaniment at student meetings, much as songs of protest are sung in the United States.

I RISK MY LIFE publishing these poems. Other Buddhists who have protested the war have been arrested and exiled, and now they are being killed in Danang. It was because of this great risk that the Buddhists who demonstrated this spring were reluctant to advocate openly an end to the war through negotiations: instead they called for elections and democracy. We have been placed in an impossible dilemma. If we openly call for peace, we are identified with the Communists and the government will try to suppress us. If we criticize the Communists, we find ourselves allied with those Vietnamese who have been the paid propagandists of the Americans for years and whose words against Communism are soiled and discredited because they have been paid to say them. To be honorably anti-Communist has been to remain silent, and, being silent, we have been called innocent of the dangers of Communism; but we are not. We are very well aware of the restrictions on Buddhism in the North. We have studied what has happened in China. We know there is no place for spirituality in Marxism. We are ready to undertake a peaceful political struggle with the Communists if only the destruction of the war can be stopped. We are confident that the South Vietnamese can protect themselves from Communist domination if they are allowed to carry on their political life in peace.

The tragedy of American policy is that it has made such a peaceful political struggle all the more difficult. For the Americans could have helped to reconstruct the country peacefully if they had cooperated with, and strengthened, the Buddhists and others who had the respect of the people. Instead they tried to divide the Buddhists and prevent them from becoming an organized force. This was disastrous. Catholicism came to Vietnam with the French and the Catholic leaders backed by the United States were suspect from the first; the Buddhist tradition is closely linked with nationalism and it is unthinkable to the broad mass of the people that the Buddhists would betray them to a foreign power. At the same time, Vietnamese Buddhism is syncretic in character; there are Catholic priests who are closer to us on the question of peace than some Buddhist priests who are old and have lost courage. (A few months ago, eleven Catholic priests issued a strong statement calling for peace. They were attacked by the Catholic leaders.)

NOW THE UNITED STATES has become too afraid of the Communists to allow a peaceful confrontation with them to take place; and when you are too afraid you cannot win. Sending 300,000 American troops to Vietnam and bombing the countryside have only caused the Communists to grow stronger. American military operations have killed and wounded more innocent peasants than Vietcong, and the Americans are blamed and hated for this. The peasants are not violently antagonistic to the Vietcong: The strong anti-Communists are mostly people in the cities who fear loss of their property, cars, businesses, and homes, and rely on the foreign army to protect them. The American soldiers, moreover, are not well educated and do not understand the Vietnamese: Every G.I. will make a small mistake that offends a Vietnamese every day, even when he is not drunk or in search of women—at least 300,000 mistakes a day. And the continual roaring overhead of planes on their way to drop bombs makes people sick and mad.

So it is understandable that the people in the villages distrust those who are connected with the government and the Americans. Along with others, I have organized a Buddhist School of Youth for Social Service at Cholon to train teams of young people to work at “community development” in the villages. About two hundred have already been trained. We have refused to accept money from the government or the American Military Assistance Group. That would have been ruinous. Instead 1,200 Buddhists each contributed the small sum of fifty piastres to start the school in a Buddhist convent. We went into the villages carrying no weapons, owning nothing of our own but our robes, and have been welcomed. The peasants we have worked with tell us that the government officials assigned to “assist” them kept thousands of piastres a month for themselves and did nothing for them. They have come to dislike the Vietcong and they fear the Americans, whose artillery, bombardments have fallen upon them.

If the United States wants to escalate the war, nothing that the Vietnamese can do will matter. A change of government will make no difference. The war will go on. The Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang believes that we may attain peace indirectly by means of political maneuvering and through elections. He is a man of action, and of courage and intelligence, whose life is good: he is not bound by money. But there are other Buddhists who have chosen a less “activist” political role who have high prestige and whose views will also be influential. There is, for example, the group of young monks and writers who publish the magazines Giu Thom Que Me (To Help the Motherland) and Thien My and other publications of the La Boi publishing house in Saigon, and who are trying to create a new Buddhist ideology emphasizing ways of helping the people who live on the land.

I DOUBT myself that much will be gained by indirect political maneuvering against the government and the Catholics, so long as the United States is determined to continue the war. Underlying the struggles with the government in Danang and other cities is the unstated question whether the war will go on; and this the United States will decide. I believe that the most effective thing we can do is to follow the open and direct way of advocating peace, however dangerous this may be, by telling the world that we do not accept this war; that the Communists grow stronger each day it is fought; that a cease fire must be arranged with the Vietcong as soon as possible; that we would then welcome the help of Americans in the peaceful reconstruction of Vietnam. Only America can stop this war which is destroying not only our lives, but our culture and everything of human value in our country.

CONDEMNATION

Listen to this:

Yesterday six Vietcong came through my village.
Because of this my village was bombed—completely destroyed.
Every soul was killed.
When I come back to the village now, the day after,
There is nothing to see but clouds of dust and the river, still flowing.
The pagoda has neither roof nor altar.
Only the foundations of houses are left.
The bamboo thickets are burned away.

Here in the presence of the undisturbed stars,
In the invisible presence of all the people still alive on earth,
Let me raise my voice to denounce this filthy war,
This murder of brothers by brothers!
I have a question: Who pushed us into this killing of one another?

Whoever is listening, be my witness!
I cannot accept this war.
I never could, I never shall.
I have to say this a thousand times before I am killed.

I feel I am like that bird which dies for the sake of its mate
Dripping blood from its broken beak, and crying out:
Beware! Turn around to face your real enemies—
Ambition, violence, hatred, greed.

Men cannot be our enemies—even men called “Vietcong”!
If we kill men, what brothers will we have left?
With whom shall we live then?

PEACE

They woke me this morning
To tell me my brother had been killed in battle.
Yet in the garden, uncurling moist petals,
A new rose blooms on the bush.
And I am alive, can still breathe the fragrance of roses and dung,
Eat, pray, and sleep.
But when can I break my long silence?
When can I speak the unuttered words that are choking me?

OUR GREEN GARDEN

Fires spring up like dragon’s teeth at the ten points of the universe.
A furious acrid wind sweeps them toward us from all sides.
Aloof and beautiful, the mountains and rivers abide.

All around, the horizon burns with the color of death.
As for me, yes, I am still alive,
But my body and the soul in it writhe as if they too had been
set afire.My parched eyes can shed no more tears.

Where are you going this evening, dear brother, in what direction?
The rattle of gunfire is close at hand.
In her breast, the heart of our mother shrivels and fades like a dying
flower.She bows her head, the smooth black hair now threaded with white.
How many nights, night after night, has she crouched wide-awake,
Alone with her lamp, praying for the storm to end?

Dearest brother, I know it is you who will shoot me tonight,
Piercing our mother’s heart with a wound that can never heal.
O terrible winds that blow from the ends of the earth
To hurl down our houses and blast our fertile fields!

I say farewell to the blazing, blackening place where I was born.
Here is my breast! Aim your gun at it, brother, shoot!
I offer my body, the body our mother bore and nurtured.
Destroy it if you will,
Destroy it in the name of your dream,
That dream in whose name you kill.

Can you hear me invoke the darkness:
“When will these sufferings end,
O darkness, in whose name you destroy?”

Come back, dear brother, and kneel at our mother’s feet.
Don’t make a sacrifice of our dear green garden
To the ragged flames that are carried into the dooryard
By wild winds from far away.

Here is my breast. Aim your gun at it, brother, shoot!
Destroy me if you will
And build from my carrion whatever it is you are dreaming of.

Who will be left to celebrate a victory made of blood and fire?
—Nhat Hanh

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