IT WAS extremely hot and humid the night I stayed in a farmhouse in Hue, South Vietnam. Hue, an old city with a tradition of religious faith comparable to those of Kyoto and Nara, is located near the seventeenth parallel, which, at the time, divided North and South Vietnam. Many bloody battles were fought in this region. But when I was there, the war had bogged down. No automobile sirens were to be heard. At first, the only sounds were the small cries of the geckos on the walls and ceilings of the house. Stillness wrapped the town, the forest, and the fields like a thick blanket of fog. But later, we began to hear the distant thundering of artillery. Five or six shots, and the sound of the cannons stopped. Then, after a short lapse of time, the groan of the earth rumbling passed through the dark night sky. As I heard this ominous sound, I realized that the fighting was coming closer.
At the Kyoto conference, we resolved to strive for the peaceful conclusion of the Vietnam war; and as a step in that direction, each participating nation decided to send delegations representing the various religions to Vietnam on an observation mission. The delegation from the Japan Religions League arrived in Vietnam in December, 1970.
Our group of five people left Tokyo on December 18 and landed at Saigon airport at nine in the evening. I was the head of the delegation. Our plane had been three hours late, and some of the people who had come to welcome us had probably given up and gone home. Nonetheless, there was still a group from An-Quang Pagoda to greet us.
At our departure from Japan, friends had warned us to be careful and to take all necessary safety precautions to ensure that we could carry out our tasks without trouble. The people who gave us this advice were especially concerned because of the war going on in Vietnam; but when we arrived, Saigon was quiet.
Still, signs of war were plentiful. The national assembly building, located in front of the Caravel Hotel, where we were to stay, had a temporary roof because Viet Cong rockets had ripped the permanent one away. Sturdy barricades surrounded the presidential residence and the American embassy. Sentinels armed with machine guns patrolled the streets. Nonetheless, pedestrians and the people riding on Japanese-made motor bicycles did not seem to suffer under the threat they lived with. Worries about our safety seemed unfounded.
On the day after our arrival, we called at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain the nature and purpose of our visit. We then went to An-Quang Pagoda, where we were greeted by the Venerable Thich Thien Hoa, chief priest; the Venerable Thich Thien Minh, the assistant chief priest; and hundreds of representatives of the Buddhist faith. Thich Thien Minh, who had represented the Vietnamese religious world at the Kyoto conference, was especially elated by our visit. In the afternoon, we called on the Venerable Thich Tam Giac of the temple Vinh Ngiem Tu and then visited the Buddhist youth center.
On December 20, we left Saigon for Hue. When our plane landed there, a large group of local Buddhists and members of the youth society and the Boy Scouts came to greet us. When our delegation drove away to go to the temple Dieu De Quoc Tu, we found ourselves accompanied by about forty automobiles and over one hundred motor bicycles driven by a protective escort of young people. On each vehicle fluttered a Buddhist flag. Along the way, hundreds of people, young and old, stood by the road shouting friendly greetings and waving Buddhist flags. Thich Thien Minh told us that the people at the airport and those beside the road had been awaiting our arrival since eight in the morning. We arrived at three forty in the afternoon.
We were told that eighty-five percent of the population of Vietnam is Buddhist. The enthusiastic welcome afforded by these representatives of that broad segment of the population gave us all the feeling of having touched the strong religious pulse of the people. About ten thousand people were waiting for us at Dieu De Quoc Tu.
On the following day, we visited Song My Pagoda, in the hamlet of My Xuyen, where we distributed relief packages to three hundred people. These parcels were part of ten tons of rice, clothing, and medical supplies donated by the various churches of Rissho Kosei-kai and by other religious organizations. A group of people who had arrived in Vietnam somewhat earlier than our delegation had distributed the supplies in seven parts of the distressed Hue area. But these were not the first donations of the kind made in that part of the world: for a number of years, faithful Kosei-kai members had been sending similar relief to Vietnam.
In the afternoon of the same day, we traveled to Quang Tri, which, located less than thirty kilometers from the seventeenth parallel, was the northernmost town in South Vietnam. Our way there was dangerous because the road was - or was said to be - mined. Nonetheless, over one hundred motor bicycles driven by members of the Buddhist youth center and decorated with Buddhist flags once again provided us with an escort. Watching these brave young people, I said to myself, "Even in a land aflame with war, the teachings of Shakyamuni are alive; and I am grateful."
Arriving at a small village temple in Quang Tri, we found ourselves surrounded by about five thousand people. As we gave out relief packages and shook hands, I made the following remarks.
"We have visited your country in the name of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. All of the participants of that conference - and especially Japan, a fellow Asian country - have vowed to work hard for peace. Of course, political methods and negotiations are important, but it is equally important for all people of religion to join hearts and hands and to stand up for the cause of peace."
I could feel the eyes of all the people on me. I wanted to talk with and to encourage each of them, but the exigencies of our schedule made this impossible. With regret, we moved on to the next village, where we saw deep traces of the kind of war fatigue we had not encountered in Saigon. At the small temple where we stopped, there were a thin old woman and some poverty-stricken farmers' wives and children. I saw a man limping, probably from a bullet wound received in the fighting. The faces of all these people were deeply shadowed by oppressive weariness.
War had been raging in Vietnam for twenty-five years. Someone estimated that the people killed in the war amounted to one in thirty-five of the entire population of Indochina and that the people wounded accounted for one in fifteen of the same population. The number of bombs dropped in Vietnam was three times the number dropped in World War II. The farther we went upland from Saigon, he more intense became the scars and signs of this horrendous war.
Not far from the second small village temple we visited was the Thai Lok Orphanage, operated by the Unified Buddhist Congregation of Vietnam. We called on the orphanage, where nuns were looking after the welfare of three hundred children ranging in age from tiny infants to young people sixteen years old.
At one point in the fighting between South Vietnamese government forces and the Viet Cong, the orphanage had been in the path of fire. Artillery shells burst around the frightened and screaming children, one of whom was killed by a stray bullet.
The fighting grew more intense, and the sounds of exploding cannon shells threatened to burst the eardrums of the nuns and the children. But there was no place to which they could escape in the constant rain of gunfire. Driven to desperation, the nuns decided to plead with the soldiers to halt fighting long enough for the children to find refuge. Both sides declared a one-hour cease-fire. The nuns and their charges fled to safety, but by that time three children had lost their lives.
Later, bombs dropped in raids by American forces destroyed the orphanage buildings. At the time of our visit, the nuns had managed to rebuild only a single one-story building. As I watched the children playing innocently without toys of any kind in a bare room, I had a painful feeling that I understood how the dying parents must have reacted to the sorrowful knowledge that they were about to leave defenseless young ones behind. It is estimated that there were five hundred thousand war orphans in Vietnam.
After leaving the orphanage, we passed through a village that had been occupied by the Viet Cong and then through a refugee camp on our way back to the farmhouse in Hue where we were staying. As we drove through devastated villages and places where fighting had occurred only a few hours earlier, I realized that the fears of our friends in Japan had some foundation in fact after all.
Our trip to Vietnam lasted only a brief week; but it produced rich results, for we had an opportunity to talk with many people in the war-torn regions and to discuss peace with them as we distributed relief packages. In addition, we were able to discuss peace and other matters with leaders of the Buddhist, Catholic, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao faiths and with representatives of the universities, the press, and the peace movement.
On our return from upland to Saigon, we were told by the Japanese ambassador that the head of the Asian Department of the South Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs was angry because, by not reporting our whereabouts to his office, we had caused grave concern about our safety. Our travels near the border had upset the southern government and had distressed the staff of the Japanese embassy. I apologized to the embassy and expressed my intention of going at once to apologize in turn to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The head of the Asian Department was angry and sharp with me when he asked why we had traveled into a danger zone without permission. He added that had we done as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told us a helicopter and cars would have been provided for us but that our going to such a place without approval was a source of great trouble to the government.
I said that I was sorry, but I did not actually care how much he scolded me. I knew that we had been able to light a small lamp of hope for peace in the hearts of people in the combat area. That was our real intention in going to Vietnam in the first place. I remembered the happy faces of the people who received the relief packages. I also remembered the courage of the members of the Buddhist youth center who accompanied us on motor bicycles decorated with fluttering Buddhist flags.
When I left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the powerful evening sun was casting long shadows on the ground. Though it was my first experience of a tart reprimand by the government of another country, I did not take it too seriously. My ears were too filled with the rumbling and the roaring of the cannons I had heard that night in the Hue farmhouse, and my heart was too full of the hope of bringing peace to the good people of the country with maximum speed for me to pay attention to a scolding.
Copyright © 2009 by Rissho Kosei-kai. All right reserved.