newsletter on international buddhist woman's activities
To describe the situation of Buddhist women in today's Vietnam, one hasto look back at the changes this country has beengoing through, and is still going through, as muchin the very recent past, as in the past centuries.
Individual and collective destinies areinterwoven in a very concrete way throughhistorical events. Also, the destiny of women isvery much linked to the political, cultural andsocial changes a society is going through.
Vietnam for sure has been in the heart ofradical and brutal changes for quite some time.
Buddhist women confronted with thesechanges, brought about a very specific, sociallyengaged Vietnamese Buddhism.
Of course I can only share some of thecomplex situations and destinies these women had to face and also only someof the "streams of Buddhism" in thiscountry that has a very wide spreadcultural and religious history.
Buddhism came to Vietnamdirectly from India, from the firstcenturies of the Christian era on. Indian merchant ships brought along with them, Buddhist monks, as much as to protecttheir perilous journey, as to dispel thenew Buddhist doctrine to the countriesthey were travelling to.
Indian and Chinese influenceare very present in Vietnamese Buddhism. Thiswhole area has long time been called, Indochinabecause of these two big cultural streams thathave come together in this part of Asia.
But of course Chinese influence has beenvery strong through 1000 years of Chinese domina-tion. (from the III rd to the X th century AC)
During this time 2 historical feminine figures, the Trung Sisters (4th AC) have greatly influencedVietnamese women, as they had conquered theChinese oppressors and had declared themselves queens and had established an independent country for two years.
Until now they are worshiped throughfestivals that take place every year. Every city ofVietnam has a street "Hai Ba Trung" (the two Trung sisters), or a monument in their memory.
Politically and socially engaged womencertainly have in the two Trung sisters their ancestral models. Throughout Vietnamese history you can find politically engaged women or even women in thebattlefields, in all different periods.
Since the XVIth century the Europeanmerchants came to Vietnam and in 1884 Vietnambecame a French colony.
Christian influence became very strong during this period and until now the Christian communityis representing 8% of the population. It is a veryactive community in which the religious identityplays an important role.
Many Christians have later fled the Communist North and have settled in the South. When crossing such "Christian villages" one is impressed to see every morning, before school or work time, the whole village gathering to go to the daily mass. The girlsin their white dress, the boys with white shirts anddark trousers, men and women all together, a fewhundred per village, in a fervent religious procession towards their often very big and impressive church.
It was also very much the Christian monastic Orders that introduced a certain kind of socialwork. It was the Catholic nuns who were activein the schools, orphanages, worked with the lepers,handicapped people and with the poor.
Until now the religious vocations are verymuch alive and many young Vietnamese womenchose to become Christian nuns, even though it isnot at all encouraged by the government.
The anti-colonial war against the Frenchended with the famous Dien Bien Phu battle in 1954 and was followed by the sadly well known "Vietnam War" with the US.
The war ended in 1975 with the entering of Saigon by the northern communist troops.
French Colonialism, Communism, War andnow Economic Globalisation all these tremendous changes and challenges have influenced the livesof the Vietnamese people, of the Vietnamese women.
Women and children always are the firstvictims of war. Women are also those who maintain coherence, a social tissue, traditions, family bonds,in a time of destruction and deconstruction. Whilethe men are on battlefields it is the women whomaintain the social life of a society. Who is looking after the children, teaching them, who is looking after the old people, the sick and the wounded people?Who is maintaining the family and the religioustraditions? Who is honouring the deceased? It is in great parts the women of a country in war.
During the Vietnam War, many youngBuddhists felt the need for action and the needto relieve the suffering they were confronted within such an extreme way.
Thich Nhat Hanh founded it in 1964, theschool for youth and social service, where manyyoung women and men travelled their country during the rages of war to come and help where everhelp was needed without any political or religiousdiscrimination. They proposed "the third way",neither communist, nor pro American. Many got killed, wounded or were persecuted and for those whosurvived not to hate or take sides became a realpractice of every day.
Sister Chan Khong describes this very movingly in her book: Learning True Love (Parallax Press, Berkley,1993)....
Thich Nhat Hanh had written a poem for the social workers going in the dangerous war zoneswhere they risked their lives every day to help them to prepare themselves to die without hate.
Thich Nhat Hanh lives in exile since 1964.
The war is over since quite some time now. After some years of extreme isolation and poverty, Vietnam is recovering economically and opening politically.
My husband, who is partly of Vietnamese origin and myself, have started coming back to Vietnam since 1982. The country was still extremely poor and thewounds of war were visible everywhere.
We were very fortunate to meet some of themembers of the School of Youth and Social Servicethat have maintained their social actions through allthese terrible times.
For many the end of war did not mean the endof hardship as the communist government was keepingall religiously inspired action under strict control.
Now that the economic situation of the countryis certainly improving, there is also a certain politicalopening and more freedom of action is possible.
During all these years of our "humanitarianwork" in Vietnam, I was extremely impressed and moved by the wonderful women, I had the chance to meet.
My first "meeting with a remarkable woman", which was also the meeting that started our commitment to our humanitarian work in Vietnam, was the meetingwith a catholic sister in Hue, during an official presenta-tion of the situation of the lepers in central Vietnam. This meeting took place in the town hall of the city of Huein the presence of many "officials" who made long speeches, in Vietnamese, that I could not understand and that seemed endless to me. I started to look aroundand my eyes met with those of a catholic sister sitting opposite from me. We started smiling to each other. We smiled "back and forth", until my cheeks started hurting from so much smiling! At the end of the meetingwe fell into each other's arms, knowing that we havefound a sister of heart in each other.
This sister worked together with a Buddhist nun, with the very poor families of lepers. Through her our first "humanitarian" action was inspired, inhelping these poor families and their children.
During all these years I met so many coura-geous women, who through all these years ofterrible hardship continued their social work andkept their inner practice alive on the soil of thesuffering of their land and people.
I once asked one of the Buddhist nuns with whom we work in Vietnam, who has been ordainedby Thich Nhat Hanh during the war period, why she never thought of marrying and having a family. She answered that having seen all the suffering hercountry was facing, she knew that she wanted to give her whole life to the relief of suffering of her people. She also knew that a husband or mother in law, orif she had children, her children, would not make it possible for her, to walk from morning till nightthrough the countryside bringing relief to the poorand wounded and devoting her life to meditation.She now, besides her enormous charity work, runs a school for mentally disabled children and youngsters. Her young novices are being trained next to theirBuddhist training, in special education at theUniversity.
Another Buddhist nun, who's monastery islocated in a very often flooded area and who lately counted many dead in her district after a big flood, had risked her life rescuing many people. Shedescribed the undeterred conviction that her lifewould be consecrated to meditation, practice andsocial action. She now has a vocational trainingcentre with 60 youngsters of poor families and afew disabled youngsters that receive training insowing and embroidery. The nuns teach part timeand look after the young people on a human level.
These nuns still now travel the poor country side, bringing food, caring for the sick and disabled, listening to the suffering of the people, where ever their presence is needed.
Truly Quan Am (the Bodhisattva of Compas-sion) is present in them.
In the Vietnamese Mahayana tradition the nuns receive the full Bhiksuni ordination which gives thema very respected and fully acknowledged recognition in the Buddhist hierarchy. There are many very well known and respected nuns, throughout the country.
Vietnamese Buddhist Women have beenconfronted with such challenges that demandedchoices that have nothing to do with "comfortable and secure" tradition. Being a nun or a practising Buddhist woman in today's Vietnam is still acourageous statement.
In the new society that is striving after money and western style success, doing social work or to devote one's life to inner practice is not regardedas very "modern". Also the government, who on one hand allows a certain religious freedom, but onthe other hand wants to keep all initiative undercontrol, brings about many restrictions and a lackof freedom of action.
But quietly and bravely these women follow Quan Am's footsteps, listening carefully to thesuffering of the world and trying to bring comfort andhealing through their presence and their practice.
Lisi Ha Vinh
(Chan Dai Kieu)