April 20, 2007 / 8:39 AM / 12 years ago

Monk leads thousands praying for Vietnam war dead

HANOI (Reuters) - Internationally renowned Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh on Friday led larger-than-expected crowds in a ceremony intended to heal wounds of the Vietnam war that ended 32 years ago this month.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was exiled from Vietnam because of his anti-war views, waves to the believers as he walks during the requiem mass at the Vinh Nghiem pagoda in Ho Chi Minh city March 18, 2007. Nhat Hanh on Friday led larger-than-expected crowds in a ceremony intended to heal wounds of the Vietnam war that ended 32 years ago this month. REUTERS/Kham

In a sermon near Hanoi, Nhat Hanh advised thousands of monks and lay people to pray equally for those who fought and died on both sides, the communist north and the U.S.-backed south.

“We know that you fought courageously for our nation,” said Nhat Hanh, a resident of France who gave similar sermons in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in March and in the central city of Hue in early April.

“And we are proud of you. We will not distinguish between north and south or discriminate by race, religion, party or ideology,” the 80-year-old told the crowds at the Non pagoda.

The rituals from Friday to Sunday 40 km (25 miles) from the capital of the communist-run country are part of Nhat Hanh’s three-month visit that began in February and ends on May 9.

The series of three remembrance ceremonies are the first allowed since the war ended in April 1975. The organizers invited President Nguyen Minh Triet, but so far he has not attended.

After Nhat Hanh’s sermon, a phalanx of monks in brown robes and yellow sashes and carrying golden parasols and staffs, looked on as Thich Bao Nghien, abbot of Ly Trieu Quoc Su Pagoda in Hanoi, led the congregation in hours of chants.

Non pagoda is the location of the government-affiliated Vietnam Buddhist Institute. It is also the site of a 6.5-metre (21-foot) high bronze statue of Buddha, the country’s largest.

Nhat Hanh, who left Vietnam in 1966 and lives in France, was first allowed to return in 2005 by the government, which permits several religions under state supervision.

The government’s senior official on religious affairs was quoted as saying by the state-run Vietnam News Agency this week that Hanh’s visit showed Vietnam welcomed religion.

WOUNDS OF WAR

Hanh has been trying to bring his philosophy of “mindfulness” to a Vietnamese audience and his books are sold in Vietnam.

In the 1960s he was a leader in a movement of Buddhists in South Vietnam that called for a negotiated end to the war. The movement’s church, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), is outlawed and refuses to operate under state supervision.

The UBCV’s international spokesman in Pairs denounced Hanh’s return to Vietnam.

Friday’s ceremony had been expected to draw 1,500 people, but the crowd was several times that size.

The ceremony, known as “Giai Oan”, is intended to liberate the souls of those who died unjustly or whose bodies were never found.

On the surface, Vietnam appears to be over the war, but for older Vietnamese, the wounds have never entirely healed.

Pham Minh Toan, 60, became a nun at Hanoi’s Dinh Quan pagoda in 2003. Relatives of hers were killed in U.S. bombings of the north and other relatives in Saigon “were afraid of the communists” and fled after the war ended on April 30, 1975.

The monk’s message of reconciliation between Vietnamese who fought on different sides resonates with her.

“It’s like Hanh says,” said Toan. “Two chickens with the same mother don’t fight each other.”

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