Early this morning, from a variety of places, I found out about Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam which is, at present, the subject of some sort of oppression from either the government or local population or both. What’s happening on the ground, in Vietnam, is obviously a little outside my area of expertise, I will freely admit. Regardless of what I know, don’t know, or think I know about Vietnamese Buddhism or the various organizations under Thich Nhat Hanh’s umbrella, it seems pretty clear to me that monks and nuns being forced from their monastery is an event that should give us pause, that we should take notice.
I decided to write something, very briefly, as a way of alerting people to what’s happening in the hopes that they would take the ball and run with it however the chose, whatever their prerogative. I wasn’t planning on taking a particularly strong stand, one way or the other, because, like I said, this isn’t my area of expertise. But, then again, knowledge is power.
Shortly after posting that piece, however, someone sent me an email providing a different point of view. The person who contacted me is someone whom I have deep respect for and generally find to be a well-intentioned, well-informed and compassionate individual. So, the criticisms raised I think are worth taking a look at, regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
The criticism is, in short, that there may be more going on here than meets the eye or that we are only getting one side of the story. This person suggests that the monks and nuns in Vietnam may be “making nuisances of themselves” and that the locals had had enough, driving off the “elitist followers” of Thich Nhat Hanh.
The claim that Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers are “elitists” doesn’t particularly surprise me. He is, after all, a “famous” monk. And fame can be a blessing and a curse. It also doesn’t surprise me that there are folks out there who are skeptical of his pure spiritual intentions or the intentions of people who claim to be his followers. I am sure that for every pure-hearted, right-dharmaed Thich Nhat Hanh follower in the world there’s at least one dilettante, one self-centered narcissist who believes himself to be better than someone else by virtue of the fact that he calls himself a “Buddhist.” It would be somewhat apt to call someone like this an elitist, and I can certainly see how this this person would become a nuisance.
Are these the sort of people who are being forced from their monastery right now in Vietnam? I have no way of knowing that. I have no way of assessing the intentionality of some three hundred individuals seven thousand miles away.
As a sort of general criticism about an abstract or hypothetical group of people, this may be a valid criticism or argument. If we were to create a typology of Buddhists in the world, the narcissistic elitist would certainly be one category on my list, a type who would, no doubt, show up in a plethora of Buddhist traditions, Vietnamese Zen or otherwise.
And from this typology of Buddhists, coupled with a healthy dose of sectarianism, one could argue that this class of Buddhists aren’t particularly Buddhist at all and don’t represent the right-dharma. In the genre of religious polemic, I find this line of reasoning perfectly valid. (In the genre of religious polemic, mind you.) And it’s certainly worth discussing.
But is this a fair criticism of what’s happening in Vietnam? I have no way of knowing.
I don’t know what’s happening on the ground in Vietnam. I am not a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh. And so I remain steadfastly ambivalent about the whole affair. Nevertheless, I am a big believer in presenting all sides of an issue. (My whole project with this blog has been to present a different side of the “face” of American Buddhism, different from the usual Zen-centric portraits offered up by either the mainstream press or other bloggers.) To that end, I thought I would offer up this criticism I received for somewhat public review. I invite anyone interested in debating the issue to offer forth their own perspectives, either here or in their own online spaces. (If you do it here, please take note of my comment moderation policy and play nice.)
Lastly and most importantly, I want to say very plainly that I am a firm believer in the intrinsic value of knowledge. Regardless of the circumstances of the current situation in Vietnam, regardless of the veracity of any claims, I believe that we are all benefited from the open sharing of information and perspectives, especially perspectives that seem contrary to our own viewpoints or prejudices. Personally, I think forcing monks and nuns from their home is wrong, even if they are elitist nuisances. But I respect others’ opinions and viewpoints and want to encourage debate.
While my thoughts are with those who are suffering under various forms of oppression in Vietnam, my thoughts are also with those of us here who are suffering under the oppression of our own viewpoints and opinions.