Buddhist pilgrimage by unrecognized ‘monk’ goes viral in Vietnam

Thich Minh Tue follows Buddhism, but not in the way that the state prefers.
By RFA Vietnamese
2024.05.17
Buddhist pilgrimage by unrecognized ‘monk’ goes viral in Vietnam Master Thich Minh Tue
Facebook Thinh Nguyen

A man appearing to be a Buddhist monk, in patched attire with bare feet and shaven head, holds an electric rice cooker as a makeshift alms bowl, and he plans to walk all around Vietnam.

Thich Minh Tue does not claim to be a monk but he has become a symbol for many Buddhists by drawing attention to what many people say is the lack of religious freedom in Vietnam.

Freedom of religion is technically enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution but Tue does not belong to a Buddhist sect that is recognized by the state. Without recognition, religious groups are not allowed to organize.

He practices a form of Buddhism that requires followers to own only three sets of clothes, to subsist by collecting alms house to house, and to live a low-impact life in outdoor places like forests, mountains, or even in graveyards.

As Tue walks from town to town, his travels are documented by several YouTubers who follow him, recording his journey.

Thanh Do, a former head of a Buddhism research organization and a lecturer at the Paris Buddhism University, told RFA Vietnamese that Thich Minh Tue was popular because he adheres to certain Buddhist principles.

“The core of Buddhism for a clergy person consists of precepts, determination, and wisdom,” he said, adding that by following the precepts, clergy become more determined, which means they gain wisdom, which in turn inspires followers. 

State meddling

A journalist in Vietnam told RFA that monks who follow the state-sanctioned forms of Buddhism do not inspire followers.

“The monks backed by the state preach in a wrong way,” said the journalist, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely. “They just ask for donations, creating superstitiously insane theories to manipulate followers into deep holes of lethargy.”

Thich Minh Tue’s circumstances are transparent and his practices are completely different from those of the state-backed church, the journalist said, adding that people who are fed up with state-backed Buddhism support him.

State-backed monks also ask for too many donations, said Buddhist follower To Nga.

 “[That’s why people] idolize Thich Minh Tue who does not ask for donations. They deem him an authentic monk,” she said. “The common people who live under the totalitarian regime with deteriorated education, manipulated religions become distrustful in state-backed churches.”

State-backed clergy are critical of Tue.

Thich Chan Quang, head monk of the Chan Quang Pagoda in Ba Ria-Vung Tau, and head of the finance committee for a state-backed Buddhist organization, said in a sermon that Thich Minh Tue was a “thug who wears ragged attire and holds a rice cooker.”

A social media post containing a video of the sermon was taken down after an online uproar.

On Thursday, the state-backed Buddhist organization told media that Tue was not a Buddhist monk, and the government agency for religions issued a notice asking provincial and city authorities to be vigilant about Thich Minh Tue and not to follow him because that would lead to the disruption of social order.

Translated by An Nguyen. Edited by Eugene Whong.

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