Buddhist master honours Vietnam war dead

Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam - An influential Buddhist leader opened a three-day requiem here Friday for those killed on both sides of the Vietnam War, on his second return visit since he was exiled four decades ago.

Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh -- who opposed the war and was barred from his homeland by both the former US-backed South Vietnamese and the post-1975 communist governments -- said he hoped to aid national reconciliation.

Thousands attended the start of the chanting ceremony, held under close police supervision in the Vinh Nghiem pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. It is the first of three such events planned during Hanh's three-month Vietnam trip.

The aim of the ceremonies is "to send compassionate and healing energy to all those who died unjustly during the war, no matter what their political views, religions or ideologies were," the 81-year-old master said earlier.

Speaking on the eve of the prayer meeting, Hanh, who is also a peace activist and author of over 80 books, said: "We have to recognize this pain in order to transform it and not to pass it on to the next generation."

Vietnam needs to "reconciliate the men and women still alive," he said.

One follower, 65-year-old Tam Dien from Thua Thien Hue province, said: "We hope that after this prayer all injustices and differences of views and religion will be cleared, for people in this and the other world."

The ceremony that began Friday is open to those of all faiths as well as atheists, and Hanh also invited communists to recite passages of Karl Marx, though no senior government figures were present at the event early Friday.

Hanh said the ceremonies in Vietnam were "not easy to organise" because some members of the communist party were "not ready to recognise the victims of communist people during war," including those who fled Vietnam.

"They don't want us to talk too much about the boat people," Hanh said.

The Zen monk -- considered one of the world's most influential Buddhists after the Dalai Lama -- teaches what is known as "socially engaged" Buddhism. Based in a monastery in France, he has a large following in the West.

A long-time peace activist, he travelled to the United States in 1966 to call for an end to the war but was not allowed to return by either the Saigon regime or the communist government that has ruled unified Vietnam since 1975.

A confidant of late American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, who once nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, Hanh led a Buddhist delegation to the Paris peace talks in 1969.

He first returned to Vietnam two years ago, but both trips have been criticised by the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which is banned and whose leaders have spent over two decades under house arrest.

Paris-based UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai said "Hanh's trip is manipulated by the Hanoi government to hide its repression of the Unified Buddhist Church and create a false impression of religious freedom in Vietnam."

On Thursday, Vietnamese police temporarily arrested a delegate from Norway's Rafto Foundation and two others when they tried to visit the UBCV's deputy head Thich Quang Do, who received the foundation's human rights prize last year.

Hanh said he supported the UBCV's struggle to operate freely in Vietnam but added that his approach was different, based on dialogue.