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Struggling For Peace: The Unrecognized Sacrifices of Buddhist Women During the Vietnam War

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 Mai

 215765_200902120317544 [].jpg



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]

            Historians, who 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]

            The enhanced 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 Vietnam’s long history of resistance to foreign invasion.   

             The country’s 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 fianc, 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]

            Women 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 their nation.



Women And 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]

            Hence, when 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 Buddha’s 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 Buddha’s 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 didn’t 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 leader.”[xxiv] 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 Force. [xxix] 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 medical field”[xxxii]

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 Vietnamese prisons.[xxxv]

Cao Ngoc 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 fate. [xxxviii]

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 lion’s 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 people’s 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]

            Eventually the 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]


            Self-immolation, 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 America’s 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 Buddha’s 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]

            During the 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 1.

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 country’s 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 Mai’s 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 (Oxford, 1999).

[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. Nina T.K. 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 Buddha alone.

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.

[xiv] 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), 361.

[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 Lien’s 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 Buddha’s name, Thich-Ca or Shakyamuni. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (New York, 1974), 1. Thich Nu indicates that the individual is a nun.

[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 dissension

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 Phuong’s religious name.

[xxvii] Oral Interview, Dan Thi Lau Anh and Head Nun, Kieu Lien Pagoda, HCMC Vietnam, December 2000.

[xxviii] Elliot, The Sacred Willow.

[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 conflict.

[xxx] Nguyen, "Women and Buddhism in Vietnam," 17-19.

[xxxi] Thich Minh Duc, "Dam Luu: An Eminent Buddhist Nun," undated http://www.jps.net/ducvien/damluu.nun.

[xxxii] Report on Buddhism, 93.

[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 USA, 16.

[xxxvii] King, Engaged Buddhism, 332.

[xxxviii] Hassler, Saigon USA, 13, “The Third Solution,” 3-11and Thi interview.

[xxxix] Stephen Batchelor, The Awakening of the West, (Berkeley, 1994), 360-61.

[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, “Vietnam’s Schizophrenia,” Far Eastern Economic Review 47 (October 29, 1964): 265-67.

[xliii] Kahin, Intervention, 410-11.

[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 True Love.

[xlvii] Kahin interview.

[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 Buddhism, 336.

[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, “Nun’s 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 library.

[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, 450-51.

[lxiii] Forest, The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, 34-41.

[lxiv] Iver Peterson, “Day’s Allied Cease-Fire Marks Buddha’s 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.



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