This week, Vietnam’s most famous exile has returned home – to lead prayers for the dead of a war that ended more than 30 years ago but still haunts the country.
He is an 80-year-old Buddhist monk who has lived outside the country for four decades, and massive crowds are expected to greet him everywhere he goes. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnam’s best-known peace activist and, after the Dalai Lama, is probably the most influential Buddhist spiritual leader in the world.
Like the Dalai Lama, he has spent half his life in exile. A best-selling author, he is feted in Europe and the US, but he was barred from his own land by the US-backed South Vietnamese government and the communist regime that displaced it.
It was Nhat Hanh who inspired the Rev Martin Luther King to come out publicly against the Vietnam War. He was a close personal friend of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who captured the world’s attention when he burnt himself to death in front of television cameras in 1963 to protest against the persecution of Vietnam’s Buddhists.
But Nhat Hanh is not going home to lead any protests. The purpose of his visit, according to the monastery where he is based in France, is reconciliation. At the heart of the trip will be three huge prayer sessions for the dead of the war. His followers have called for people of all faiths to join with their own prayers, and even for atheist communists to read favourite passages from Marx.