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Buddhist Leader Returns to Vietnam to Heal War Wounds

The renowned Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has returned to his native Vietnam. Hanh, who has tens of thousands of followers in France and the United States, plans to conduct mass prayer ceremonies. It is Hanh's second trip back to his homeland since the 1960s, when he was exiled from what was then South Vietnam due to his anti-war views. In Ho Chi Minh City, Matt Steinglass has more.

Hundreds of supporters from Vietnam and overseas were on hand at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City to greet the arrival of Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Hanh, 80, and his entourage have come to Vietnam to conduct three large ceremonies, which he calls requiem masses, to honor the country's war dead. One will be held in each of Vietnam's major cities of Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.

Thich Phuoc Chi is a monk at Phap Van pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, where Hanh will stay. He explains the goal of the ceremonies.

Chi says the ceremonies are a Vietnamese family ritual, which Thich Nhat Hanh has carried to a national level. He says they will honor the soldiers who fell on both sides of the Vietnam War, to eradicate hatred and to clear the false accusations against the dead.

Hanh moved to the West after being exiled from South Vietnam in 1966. He was a leader in the Buddhist Peace Movement that opposed the Vietnam War. In the United States, he became close to anti-war religious figures such as civil rights activist Martin Luther King.

In the West, Hanh developed a large following with an accessible version of Zen focusing on mindfulness or concentrating thoughts and actions on the present moment. His monastic group, the Order of Interbeing, has thousands of members, with centers in France, Vermont and California, and his books have sold millions of copies.

His works were banned in Vietnam until two years ago, when he reached an agreement with the government. He returned for the first time in February 2005 and lectured to thousands of curious Vietnamese monks and lay people.

Since then, Hanh's influence among Vietnamese Buddhists has grown. Thich Huan is another monk at the Phap Van pagoda, says both clergy and lay people read Hanh's books widely.

Thich Dam Nguyen, a monk at the Yen Tu pagoda in northern Vietnam, explains that Hanh's form of Zen is something new, especially in northern Vietnam.

Nguyen says Northerners traditionally practice an intensive sitting meditation called Tinh Do, whereas Hanh's Zen method can be practiced while walking around. Nguyen says he used to be afraid of Zen, but since Hanh's visit, he has begun to enjoy it.

Hanh's returns to Vietnam have provoked some dissension among Vietnamese Buddhists. Many of the monks Hanh started out with are now leaders of the Unification Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which is banned by the government.

The UBCV's leaders, Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang, have spent years in prison and under house arrest. Thich Quang Do refused to meet with Hanh when he returned in 2005, fearing the Vietnamese government would use Hanh's trip as propaganda.

In Paris, the UBCV spokesman, Vo Van Ai, said he was shocked that Hanh would visit Vietnam while UBCV leaders are under house arrest.

"I believe Thich Nhat Hanh's trip is manipulated by the Hanoi government to hide its repression of the UBCV and create a false impression of religious freedom in Vietnam," he said.

But the Vietnamese government has raised its own objections to Hanh's ceremonies, which are normally called "giai oan".

Chi says that the phrase "giai oan" means absolving people of false charges. But in the case of those who fought for South Vietnam, the government considers them guilty of betraying the Vietnamese people for what it calls an U.S. puppet regime.

Due to the sensitivity of the term "giai oan", Thich Nhat Hanh's deputy, Brother Phap An, says they have decided to call the rituals "equalization ceremonies".