Dateline: Vietnam

An Quang Pagoda
  An Quang pagoda in Saigon

Buddhist Activism Alive But Muted

Published in American Report, April 1, 1974

SAIGON — Saigon’s An Quang pagoda is no longer the center of seething anti-government activity that it was a decade ago. But the ideal of an active, socially involved Buddhism has survived in muted form.

An Quang is a modest pagoda, tucked away in a neighborhood of bicycle shops and low-rent apartment blocks. In the mid-60’s it was one center for the Buddhist Struggle Movement. Thich Tri Quang, whose haunting eyes stared out unforgetably from the pages of Life magazine, was one of the leaders of this movement, which helped bring down the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and continued to express its discontent with succeeding governments.

In 1966, when the government of Nguyen Cao Ky was given U.S. support to smash the Buddhist movement, this was taken as a sign that the Embassy had had enough of the merry-go-round governments and wanted Ky to stay in power.

The Buddhist activists have never fully recovered from that blow. Even their social service projects are subject to harassment, because the Buddhists have always tried to work on the basis of their own assessments, even when they have cooperated with Saigon-sponsored programs.

Direct political activity has remained extremely difficult. Many people arrested in the 60’s have remained imprisoned. And the activist wing of the Buddhists, the Unified Buddhist Church, has suffered from serious internal divisions. Thich Tri Quang, who still commands wide respect, is reported by the press to be “disgusted” with the situation and is speaking to no one, not even his closest friends.

Political action has not been completely halted, however. The forum is not the tumultuous street demonstrations of years past, but the message is no less clear.

On a recent Sunday morning, a group of people slowly assembled in the second floor worship hall of the An Quang pagoda. The service, organized by the Buddhist Committee Campaigning for the Release of Prisoners, was to pray for the souls of political prisoners who have died since the signing of the Paris Agreement. Thirty people were mentioned specifically. “This list is still far short of the full number,” said the monk leading the service, “but we do not yet have documentation on the other cases.”

Among those on the list is a Buddhist monk. Thich Hanh Tue, whose picture was also in Life. He was one of the tiger cage prisoners photographed when two U.S. Congressmen visited the Con Son island prison. He died in early 1973. According to information smuggled out of the prison, “The warden would not allow the doctor, who was waiting outside his cell, to go in to help him.”

After a long, solemn prayer, intoned to the accompaniment of throbbing gongs, Thich Phap Lan, chairman of the Committee, read a call. It held to the language of the Paris Agreement, referring to the “governments of the two south Vietnamese parties.” Saigon will not be pleased with that, since they insist they are the only true government in the south. But the statement was carefully phrased, calling on both parties in the south, and on both the U.S. and North Viet Nam to do everything in their power to see that the provisions on prisoners and on democratic liberties are implemented.

This is not the voice of white-hot anger that toppled governments a decade ago. But the cry from An Quang is still one for peace and social justice.

— John Spragens, Jr.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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