PAGODA SIEGE

Vietnam’s communist government intensified its crackdown on the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC) when more than 200 armed security forces raided a 400-year-old pagoda in Hue and arrested two prominent monks there in November. The International Buddhist Information Bureau, a foreign organ of the UBC, said that the raid was part of a government plan to evict UBC monks from the Linh Mu pagoda, a treasured monument and longtime center of Buddhist activism, and place it under the charge of the state­sponsored Vietnamese Buddhist Church. Both monks arrested in the siege, Thich Hai Thinh and Thich Hai Chahn, had already served time in Vietnamese jails for supporting the UBC in a 1993 march for religious freedom.

Once South Vietnam’s largest Buddhist association, the Unified Buddhist Church was dissolved in 1982 and forcibly merged into the Vietnamese Buddhist Church. Since 1992 its leaders have revived the campaign to win recognition as an independent religious institution. Their efforts have met with harsh resistance from the Hanoi government, including seizure of church properties and the wide-scale arrest of the church’s most prominent figures.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

The Chinese government hammered another nail in the coffin of Tibetan human rights when it sentenced a 30-year-old exiled Tibetan scholar to eighteen years in prison in December. In an announcement on Radio Tibet, Beijing said that Ngawang Choepel was convicted for spying on behalf of “the Dalai Lama clique” and “a certain foreign country,” a thinly veiled reference to the United Stares. Choepel, who was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in America from 1993 to 1994, returned to Tibet in July 1995 to film traditional Tibetan folk songs and dances for a documentary. He disappeared a month after his arrival. Fourteen months later, after U.S. Senator James Jeffords (R-Vermont) petitioned the Chinese Embassy in Washington to disclose Choepel’s whereabouts, Beijing finally admitted to detaining the scholar.

“This is simply outrageous,” said Tempa Tsering of the Central Tibetan Administration. “The Chinese authorities haven’t come up with even a shred of evidence that Ngawang Choepel is actually engaged in espionage for Tibet. Dharamsala did not even know that he was in Tibet until the news of his arrest.”

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

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The proposed site of Moscow’s new Buddhist Temple, courtesy of Eddie Shapiro.

Moscow’s 3,000 Buddhists may soon have a temple to call their own—the first since the fall of Soviet communism. Sasha Lakovleva, a Russian student of Tibetan master Lama Yeshe, is spearheading an international fund-raising campaign to create Moscow’s first nondenominational Buddhist temple. The sangha is trying to raise the $1 million needed to purchase and restore a three­story building in central Moscow near the Kremlin. The building will provide space for retreats, lectures, and meditation practice. So far, the campaign has raised about $90,000.

The proposed temple is modeled after Samye Ling, the Tibetan Center in Scotland founded by Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Tulku Rinpoche. Lakovleva first visited Samye Ling in 1993 as publisher of Inward Path, a dharma journal that she founded in 1990. Back in Moscow, she has been recruiting prominent dharma teachers—among them Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Lama Yeshe—to give ongoing talks and retreats for a growing body of Russian practitioners.

CLINTON UP A TRIE

The controversy surrounding Asian-American political contributions that embroiled the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, has cast a shadow over another Buddhist group. This time the imbroglio involves $460,000 in contributions that were submitted to President Clinton’s legal defense fund by Charles Yah Lin Trie, a Chinese-American businessman and an initiated devotee of Suma Ching Hai, the leader of a Buddhist sect based in Taiwan. Officials of the Clinton fund quietly returned the money after an investigation raised concerns that the donations might violate self-imposed rules limiting individual contributions to $1,000 and requiring that donations come from U.S. citizens and from clearly identifiable sources. The investigators traced a large number of the contributions to Ching Hai devotees and concluded that many of the donors appeared unable to afford their $1,000 gifts. They also noted that many of the postal money orders had sequential numbers, bore signatures in the same script, and included the same misspelled words.

Ching Hai, regarded as an enlightened master by 100,000 followers worldwide, has said that she encouraged the contributions after Trie informed her of Clinton’s legal troubles. “I want to help [the President] so he can be cleared of his mind to help the nation and the world,” she said. Ironically, she also advised her disciples to “just help quietly, don’t blow trumpet about it.” But ultimately it was the press who sounded the horns when Trie, entrusted with the Ching Hai donations, was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Pacific Trade and Investment Policy just two weeks after delivering the funds to the President’s defense fund.

LETTING GO

On December 15, after thirty­seven years as the spiritual leader of the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, Robert Aitken, Gyoun-ken Roshi, retired. Hawaiian custom dictated the red ginger, green ti, and fern wrapped around the doorposts and stairways of Diamond Sangha’s Palolo Zen Center for the retirement ceremony. And Western custom dictated the many tributes given that Sunday morning for Aitken, who, at 79, has left his teaching duties to move from Honolulu to the island of Hawaii to be near his son, Tom.

Aitken’s introduction to Zen came in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, where he met R. H. Blyth, the author of Zen in English Literature, and began studying haiku. After the war Aitken returned to Japan often to pursue his interests in Zen and poetry. He befriended D. T. Suzuki, and studied with Nagakawa Soen Roshi and Yasutani Hakuun Roshi. In 1974, Robert Aitken was given the title “Roshi” and authorized to teach by Yamada Koun Roshi.

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Aitken Roshi at his retirement ceremony, courtesy of Tom Haaro.

Kubota Roshi of Kamakura, Japan, remembered studying with Aitken in the late forties and fifties. “Retirement is a brave decision,” Kubota said. “It means you have full confidence in the younger generation.” Longtime student and builder of the Palolo complex, Don Stoddard, said, “Thirty-seven years ago you and [your wife] Anne opened your doors for Zen practice and some very strange people showed up. Some of us are still here.” Former Hawaii Lt. Governor Jean King recalled how she and Aitken had been student activists at the University of Hawaii in the late l940s-and how they had been branded as communists in the local newspapers. “Only a few years ago,” she recalled, “Bob and I held a silent vigil outside the state capitol to protest the international violence of the Gulf War.” Norman Fischer Roshi, Abbot of Green Gulch Zen Farm in Marin County, California, called Aitken’s retirement “the careful and compassionate way you have found to let go.”

Eight other speakers reminisced about their lives with Robert Aitken before he himself addressed the gathering. “The rest of my life,” he said, “will be spent trying to live up to the kind things said about me today.” In the shosan, or dharma dialogue, that followed the tributes, a student looked up at Aitken from the floor below his raised teaching cushion. “Why are you sitting up there so high, Robert Aitken?” she asked. “Still trying to get rid of my self-doubt,” he responded in the modest way so typical of Robert Aitken Roshi.

JAIL JUSTICE

An inmate at an Ohio correctional institution has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Buddhists in the prison are not given the same freedoms as practitioners of other religions. In an impassioned statement, the inmate, Gunaratna Sarika, a Zen Buddhist who has formally taken precepts, wrote: “We seek nothing more than what is already permitted to other religious beliefs of a more traditional Western adherence, namely to follow the teachings of the Buddha, to be allowed to keep shrine materials, and to observe Buddhist holidays.” His most urgent request was that prisoners be allowed to gather as a group with Zen teacher Michael Bonasso of Cloud Water Zendo in Cleveland, Ohio. Bonasso has been meeting with several inmates individually since Gunaratna wrote to him last spring.

The lawsuit was filed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states that a government entity cannot place a substantial burden on an individual’s freedom of religion unless there is a compelling need or the government’s interest is being furthered. The central issue in this case is whether compliance with Gunaratna’s requests will pose a threat to security in the prison. According to Sarah Poston, an attorney in Cincinnati who has agreed to represent Gunaratna pro bono,

“The restrictions being imposed on this prisoner’s religious freedoms are not justified by the government’s security concerns. The Buddhists have been forbidden to gather with their teacher even though Christians are permitted to congregate during Mass.”

Nevertheless, the policies of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) officially contradict these claims. In a written response to Tricycle inquiries, a representative of the ODRC said that group worship is allowed in the prison but that “scheduling is based on inmate need, ability to have a qualified person conduct the worship service, the nature of the worship service, meeting times, and other similar management concerns.” The representative also said that inmates are permitted to have religious items such as malas and small statues on their person and as personal property in their living quarters.

The trial will be held in May.

TROUBLED WATERS

The Buddhist tradition of liberating captive animals has environmentalists in upstate New York alarmed. According to an article in the New York Times (January 11, 1997), residents of New York City’s Chinatown regularly arrive at Chuang Yen, a Buddhist temple outside the town of Kent, with as many as 2,500 live goldfish at once. Following a ritualized acknowledgment of gaining merit through acts of kindness, the fish—and often turtles—are taken to the “releasing pond.” But the water that feeds the city’s reservoirs depends on a delicate balance of native species, including perch, sunfish, and catfish, which are endangered by the reproductive powers of the heartier goldfish. Turtles pose an even greater problem. Sold in Chinatown for “cooking or release,” they carry, according to Dr. Klemens of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, a host of diseases, caused by crammed living conditions, that threaten the state’s native population of twelve species, half of which are on the endangered list.

While everyone acknowledges the good intentions of these Buddhist believers, the outcome can be fatal sooner rather than later. Pathologists have identified exposure as the cause of death to turtles released by Buddhists in some of the state parks.

The situation may provide endless discussions on the polemics of karma, cause and effect, intention and result. But it may provide as well an area where Western advocates of Green Buddhism and other Buddhist conservationists can work with the immigrant communities to continue this tradition in ways that are not only neutral but helpful to the environment. Any suggestions?

COMPASSION IN FASHION

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Fashion statement: a hangtag.

Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham, Anna Sui, and other fashion designers have added a new accessory to their lines: a saffron and crimson tag on their clothing containing information about human rights abuses in Tibet and China. The tags—produced by the Tibetan Freedom Coalition (TFC)—are designed to raise awareness of the current situation in Tibet and call attention to the link between human rights, trade, and manufacturing. The three designers, together with other fashion celebrities, hosted a party during New York City’s Fashion Week to promote the hangtag campaign, which, according to a TFC spokesperson, “gives shoppers a message that when they buy items produced outside of China, they are making a decision not to support the Chinese government’s brutal and oppressive rule.”

CRITICAL PALI

In 1924 a group of scholars housed at the University of Copenhagen released the first fascicle of the Critical Pali Dictionary Project, a herculean effort to compile a comprehensive description of the Buddha’s native tongue. Expected to span an entire century, the project takes yet another stride forward this spring with the publication of fascicles four and five of Volume 3. Ole Holten Pind, the project’s current co-editor, has said the dictionary will require at least ten volumes and as many as 70 additional fascicles. “I don’t expect to live to the end of it,” he said. “There’s simply too much groundwork to be done. Unfortunately, the oldest Buddhist tradition has never received the attention it deserves in the perspective of the religious history of Buddhism.” Pind and his colleagues are working hard to rectify the imbalance, one painstaking fascicle at a time. With full financial sponsorship and a small group of committed scholars, the Critical Pali Dictionary should be completed in about twenty years.

THE WHEEL

The College of Chaplains has certified Soto Zen monk Madeline Ko-i-Bastis as the first Buddhist chaplain in the United States. Sixties icon and Maharishi alumnus Donovan, the first Western musician to use the word “zen” as a lyric, continues his folk-rock dharma transmission with his new album Sutras, available on American Recordings. Also chiming in is Rockapella, whose CD primer includes a track on the mythic land of Shambala. Aikido actor and Buddhist practitioner Steven Seagal gave a somewhat unexpected discourse on the nature of shunyata during a November episode of Roseanne. The Vajrayana Foundation announced the official opening of its Shedra (Buddhist College) in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. The curriculum is based on a 13-volume Tibetan text called The Jewel of Sutra and Tantra. For more information, call (408) 761-6283. Nitartha International, the Tibetan teachings preservation project, has added an on-line dictionary of Tibetan Buddhist terms to its website at http://www.nitartha.org/. The oldest monk on the planet, a 108-year-old Cambodian known simply as Bhante (“monk”), will join the 600-mile “March for Tibetan Independence” from Toronto to New York to be held this spring. Peter Matthiessen, Bernard Glassman, Robert Thurman, Tsultrim Allione, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Joan Halifax were among the dharma stars that attracted 650 people to the first independent Buddhism in America Conference in Boston last January.

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