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In 1947 I was in Hue, living and studying at the Buddhist Institute at Bao Quoc Temple, not too far from my root temple where I had been ordained into monastic life and where I normally lived. This was during the French Indochina War.

At that time the French army was occupying the whole region and had set up a military base in Hue. We often heard gunfire around us between French and Vietnamese soldiers. People living high in the hills had set up small fortresses for protection. There were nights when the villagers shut themselves in their homes, bracing themselves against the barrage. In the morning when they awoke, they found corpses from the battle of the previous night, and slogans written in whitewash mixed with blood on the road. Occasionally monks would travel the remote paths in this region, but hardly anyone else dared pass through the area—especially the city dwellers of Hue, who had only recently returned after having been evacuated. Even though Bao Quoc was situated near a train station, hardly anyone risked going there, which speaks for itself!

One morning I set out from Bao Quoc for my monthly visit back to my root temple. It was quite early; the dew was still on the tips of the grass. Inside a cloth bag I carried my ceremonial robe and a few sutras. In my hand, I carried the traditional Vietnamese cone-shaped straw hat. I felt light and joyful at the thought of seeing my teacher, my monastic brothers, and the ancient, highly venerated temple.

I had just gone over a hill when I heard a voice call out. Up on the hill, above the road, I saw a French soldier waving. Thinking he was making fun of me because I was a monk, I turned away and continued walking down the road. But suddenly I had the feeling that this was no laughing matter. Behind me I heard the clomping of a soldier’s boots running up behind me. Perhaps he wanted to search me; the cloth bag I was carrying could have looked suspicious to him. I stopped walking and waited. A young soldier with a thin, handsome face approached.

“Where are you going?” he asked in Vietnamese. From his pronunciation, I could tell that he was French and that his knowledge of Vietnamese was very limited.

I smiled and asked him in French, “If I were to reply in Vietnamese, would you understand?”...

When Thich Nhat Hanh Met a French Soldier - Lion's Roar

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