Exiled Buddhist leader makes second Vietnam visit to promote reconciliation, healing

Hanoi, Vietnam - An exiled Vietnamese monk, one of the world's most famous Buddhists, has returned to his homeland to lead mass prayers promoting reconciliation in a nation still nursing memories of war.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a best-selling author who has lived outside Vietnam for four decades, made his first homecoming in 2005 after being forced to live outside the country during the Vietnam War.

Now he is back for a second visit, planning three "Grand Requiem Masses" intended to unite people across regional, religious and political lines.

The Zen master arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday and plans to travel around Vietnam visiting temples until May 9.

Hanh, who lives in France, is the most famous Buddhist monk in the West after the Dalai Lama. He has traveled frequently in the United States, where several of his books have become best sellers.

A proponent of peace, Hanh was shunned by the leaders of both the former South Vietnam and the government of eventually victorious North Vietnam.

U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although religious freedom has recently increased in Vietnam, the communist government still strictly controls religion, recognizing just half a dozen official faiths.

Vietnam is quickly modernizing, and two-thirds of its 84 million citizens were born after the war ended in 1975.

But memories of the conflict endure for the older generation.

Plum Village, Hanh's retreat in France, issued a statement encouraging believers to recite prayers from whatever faith they embrace. For those with no religious faith, they offered another suggestion.

"Marxists are invited to recite passages and statements from Marx which reflect his spirituality and his love for humanity," the statement said.

The prayers are meant to comfort the souls of the more than 3 million Vietnamese believed to have died in the war.