Buddhist Leader, Back from Exile, Holds Requiem in Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen monk who built up a following in the West after being exiled from South Vietnam in 1966, is back in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City Friday morning, he began the first of three mass rituals intended to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War. As Matt Steinglass reports from Ho Chi Minh City, the ritual drew an audience of thousands.

Thousands of Buddhist monks and lay people packed Ho Chi Minh City's Vinh Nghiem pagoda on Friday to see Thich Nhat Hanh open a three-day ritual of healing for the dead of the Vietnam War.

In a sermon before the ritual began, Hanh said the prayers would be directed to the dead of both sides in the war, north and south.

They are our fathers, our brothers, our sons, Hanh said. He spoke of how they fought heroically to defend the country, but that some died in dark circumstances, accused of false charges. The remains of hundreds of thousands have never been found.

In today's increasingly prosperous Vietnam, where most of the population was born after the war ended in 1975, the war is rarely mentioned. But for many older Vietnamese, bitterness has been buried, not healed.

The ceremonies are based on an ancient ritual of Vietnamese Buddhism called "Giai Oan," which forgives false accusations against the dead.

Vietnamese émigré Dien Nguyen, a nun at a Buddhist monastery in Vancouver who attended the ceremony Friday, explained the meaning of the ritual.

"'Giai' means liberate. 'Oan' means… like you're not supposed to be dead, but you're dead. That's why 'giai oan' means to liberate all the spirits who still feel attached, the sometimes homeless spirit, hungry ghost," said Dien Nguyen. "The spirits still remain in this realm, and they still pray for something, for love, and that's why it's very heavy."

The Vietnamese government objected to calling the ceremonies "giai oan," which implies forgiveness for false accusations. The government is willing to forgive dead Southern soldiers, but considers them guilty of betraying Vietnam for an American puppet regime. As a result, Hanh is calling the ceremonies "binh dang," meaning "even-handed" or "egalitarian."

Friday's events combined elements of Western and Vietnamese Buddhism. The opening chants by dozens of followers from Hanh's monastic communities in France and the United States sounded Western.

But the ceremony was distinctly Vietnamese.

Hanh plans to lead three ceremonies, this one in Ho Chi Minh City, followed by one in Hue, and one in May near Hanoi.