Since 1975, when South Vietnam fell under the Communist yoke, many Vietnamese, finding life in their country intolerable, made the heart-rending decision to leave their homeland, the tombs of their ancestors, and ~ in more cases than not ~ their families, to brave the dangers of crossing the sea in small, overcrowded and leaky boats, in order to find freedom and a better life. No-one will ever know how many of those who escaped thus now lie on the sea-bed; it cannot be calculated, but must be well into the hundreds-of-thousands after all these years. And still the exodus goes on.

Those who survived, and reached ‘free’ shores, were put into Refugee Camps to await resettlement in other countries. The Camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, In-donesia, Philippines, Macau, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Japan varied in many ways, such as the degree of freedom, friendliness, and living-conditions accorded the refugees by the host-countries; some were much better than others; some have a terri-ble record as regards the treatment of the refugees.

Internationally, governments, private organizations, and individuals responded to the situation, and provided humanitarian help in many forms. Numerous religious groups sent well-funded missions to the Camps, and did immeasurable good work. Sadly, how-ever, some could not resist the temptation to take advantage of the opportunity to prose-lytize, knowing, perhaps, that according to their culture, the people of South-East Asia find it difficult to give a straight refusal to anything, out of consideration not to offend anyone. Their suffering, poverty and uncertainty were thus exploited by unscrupulous people in order to gain converts. Some over-zealous missionaries offered money and other material inducements ~ like bait on a hook ~ to those who would convert to their particular sect; at one time, the ‘market-rate’ in the Camps in Thailand was 400 baht (about US$20) per convert; in Philippines, it was 200 pesos (about US$25, at that time). And it was funny to see the various sects of the same religion not working together, but competing with each other to ‘catch fish.’

In January 1979, I went to the Philippines, thinking to stay there perhaps three months, so as to visit some of the psychic-healers for which that country is famous. I ended up staying there for five years straight, and never visited any of the healers. In February ’79, I learned that there was a refugee-ship by the name of Tung An in Manila Bay, so, together with a group of local Chinese Buddhists, I went out to visit it. This formed my introduction to the World of the Refugees. We found 2,300 refugees living in terribly-crowded and unsanitary conditions, badly-treated by the Philippines Navy per-sonnel, and given such meager food-rations that ~ if I remember correctly ~ one banana had to be divided between three people! I was appalled by the suffering of these refu-gees, and resolved that, since I was not involved in anything else, I would do what I could, within my limited capacity, to alleviate their suffering in some way. I visited this ship as often as I could get permission, which was not very often, in order to extend sol-ace to the refugees, who were made to stay on that rotten old hulk through rain and shine, and not allowed to come ashore. It was never easy to get permission to visit, and involved going to two or three government offices for applications, signatures and ap-provals; it became harder with each attempt, and I had the feeling that the authorities wished to deter me from going, as they didn’t want people to see how poorly they were treating the refugees; they had that much shame, anyway.

Finally, after keeping these refugees on the Tung An in Manila Bay for eight months, the authorities transferred them to a tiny island in the south, named Tara, an uninhabited place where almost nothing edible grew, and where the well-water was brackish, so that everything had to be brought in by ship. It was very difficult for the delegations to get there to interview refugees; however, some refugees were resettled from Tara Island.

Eventually, the authorities realized that they had made a mistake, and in January 1980, transported the remaining refugees to the newly-opened PRPC ~ Philippine Refu-gee Processing Center ~ in Bataan, about 200 kms north-west of Manila. This Camp was a project of the-then First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, although funded by the UNHCR, and rumor had it that by setting up this Refugee Center as a ‘show-case,’ she hoped to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Be that as it may, the PRPC was a vast improvement on the Tung An ship, Tara Island, and the ‘Jose Fabella Center’ in Manila, which was another crowded, dirty and rat-infested refugee place that I used to visit and nick-named ‘Mosquito Hotel’ because of the swarms of mozzies there.

In September ’79, I began to visit the Manila City Jail, to bring the Dharma to some of the inmates there. This became almost a full-time job to me, and I had many interesting experiences there. One evening, in March ’80, as I came back from the jail to the temple where I was staying, in the semi-darkness at the top of the stairs outside my room, I no-ticed a strange monk, but since he didn’t speak to me, I thought he was waiting for someone else, so went into my room. After a few minutes, when I came out to go to the bathroom, he was still there, so I asked him who he was waiting for, and he told me, in his broken English, that he was looking for me. He said he was a Vietnamese refugee who was staying at the PRPC, and had heard from someone in Jose Fabella Center that there was a Western monk in Manila who was concerned about the refugees, so had come alone to Manila to look for me. But, since he didn’t know my name or address, he wandered around Manila until he came to Chinatown, where he began asking people if they knew where he could find a ‘European monk.’ Finally, he was lucky; someone who had seen me and knew where I was staying, directed him to the temple, where I found him waiting. He told me that he had been in PRPC since January, and would like me to pay a visit, but I said that I was very busy at the jail and wasn’t free. “Maybe next time,” I told him. He went back to Bataan, somewhat disappointed, but two weeks later, he came again, with a friend, and this time, I agreed to go with them, “but just for one day, okay?”

My visit of ‘just one day’ to Bataan, however, was enough for me to decide to go to stay there; I told Thich Thong Hai ~ for such was the monk’s name ~ ”Just let me round off my work in Manila, and I will come.” By the end of March, I was in PRPC to stay, but I never realized then that my sojourn in that Camp would last, unbroken, until November ’83. Thich Thong Hai left there for resettlement in the U.S. in July 1980.

To recount a few of my experiences in Bataan Camp would need a book for them-selves, so I will restrict myself here to saying that my main purpose in going to stay there and in remaining for so long had to do with the suffering of the refugees. Having realized that Suffering is the First and Foremost Teacher ~ Guru Dukkha ~ on the Way, I felt that an attempt should be made to show some of these people how it can be turned around and something gained therefrom, otherwise, if nothing were gained, it would be an even greater tragedy than the suffering itself. This was, and still is my main purpose. To a Buddhist, the Buddha is not our First Teacher, but the Second. Suffering is the First Teacher, because without Suffering, nobody would be interested in the Buddha’s Teach-ings about how to deal with and overcome Suffering.

Many refugees were persuaded, by fair means and foul, to change their religion. I objected to this, not because I am against people changing their religion, but because they were pressured and influenced into changing. I do not blame the refugees them-selves for changing, but consider the missionaries highly reprehensible for using what-ever means they could devise to convert these poor, suffering, trusting and gullible unfortunates, many of whom had little left to call their own except the traditional religion of their ancestors; it was cruel, callous, calculating and ruthless of the missionaries to exploit them in this way. Certainly, I know that many Buddhists understand little or noth-ing about Buddhism, and that therefore, one name ~ Christian ~ is just as good as an-other ~ Buddhist ~ but still, that is no reason to pressure them to convert; these people risked everything to be free, and should be left alone to choose for themselves some-thing as personal as religion. I had little choice, therefore, but to oppose such proselyti-zation, and to encourage the Buddhists to keep their religion, and most of my talks in the Camps were given for this purpose. How much success I had in this, no-one could say; perhaps very little, if any. On the other hand, no-one could say what would have hap-pened had I not exhorted people as I did. My words were seeds, freely scattered, in the hope that some of them ~ a tiny proportion, perhaps ~ would grow. Have any of them grown so far? That is not for me to say.

The Vietnamese Refugee Center ~ VRC ~ in Palawan, South Philippines, was opened in 1979, and from ’81 to ’87, I visited there periodically, a total of ten times. While there at the end of ’83, I gave talks in the temple covering several evenings, and these talks were later transcribed from tapes made at the time, and typed-up in book-form under the title: “LOTUS PETALS.” Recently, in Melbourne, I met Nguyen Van Cam, the man who, together with Dr. Tuan, had translated those talks in VRC, and he showed me the “LOTUS PETALS” he had typed. Reading through it, although there were quite a number of mistakes, I felt that, if the biggest mistakes were corrected, to make it easier to understand, this collection of talks might be worth publishing as a book. I told Mr. Cam about this, and we agreed to work on it; I would correct the more-obvious mistakes, and he would translate it all into Vietnamese.

At first, I thought to correct it and make it as grammatically-correct as my writings, but upon second thoughts, decided that it would be wrong to do so, as they were talks, not writings, and talks ~ my talks, at least ~ differ from writings, in that there are errors and breaks in the flow of the speech, particularly when it is being translated; this is to be ex-pected, as I do not prepare my talks, and in fact, seldom know what I’m going to talk about beforehand, so it is usually spontaneous. I have therefore decided not to modify these talks too much, but just to correct the most-obvious mistakes, and leave the rest as it was spoken, without apologies, feeling that what my words indicate matter much more than the words themselves. There are some breaks where tapes were turned over, or where the recording wasn’t clear, or where neither Mr. Cam, Dr. Tuan or myself re-member what was said; I don’t want to fill those breaks with new words.

Those refugees who were in Palawan at one time or another may visualize the scene of the talks out in front of the temple there, in the open air, with the moon and stars shin-ing down through the coconut-palms, the frangipani and bougainvillea trees, and the sound of the sea in the background.

Abhinyana, Melbourne, July 2533/1989.

Home  -   Against The Stream  -   As It Is  -   Because I Care  -   Behind The Mask  -   Boleh Tahan -   Just A Thought -   Let Me See  -   Lotus Petals  -   Not This, Not That  -   Parting Shots  -   Ripples Following Ripples  -   So Many Roads  -   This, Too, Will Pass  -   Wait A Minute!  -   Your Questions, My Answers  -   Download  -   Funeral  -   Links  -   Contact