Although he would have preferred to be off contemplating on a mountaintop, Thich Giac Duc had a clear relish for his task. The Buddhist monk, whose temple is two miles up 16th Street from the White House, haa assembled about 40 of his countrymen in a prayer room to talk about the boat people of his homeland.
It was the day last week that President Carter, in Tokyo, brought honor to the United States by doubling - from 7,000 to 14,000 - our monthly quota of Inodochinese refugees. Thich Giac Duc, an educated man of refined sensibilities who is president of the Buddhist Congregational Church of America, said that however humane Carter might be, this was also a moment for the Vietnamese already settled in America to come forward.
In this religious setting - candles, an altar, burning lights before the statute of Buddha - Duc's spiritual message had an obviousness that did not demand the force of a full sermon: We must take care of our own. The heart of holiness is in the daily things, the immediacy of the next person's need.
Most in the room didn't need to be told. One Vietnamese father had helped settled 89 refugees in America. A Vietnamese Catholic priest, who works for the Archdiocese of Washington and is stationed at Sacred Heart Church a few blocks away at 16th and Park, is ministering to hundreds of newly arrived families. A husband and wife said they had eight people in their two-room apartment but by sleeping and working in shifts five more relatives were taken in.
Some of the families are staying at the temple, which is fine with Thich Giac Duc. At 45, he has been through enough chaos and torment not to mind in any way a crowded house of refugees. Currently the Buddhist Congregational Church of America has about 3,000 members in the Washington area and 40,000 nationally.
Most of Duc's monastic studies were at the Bao Quoc temple in Hue. In January 1964, he was one of the leaders that brought together about 80 percent of South Vietnam's population into the Unified Buddhist Church. Many of these, including Duc, had been in the resistance movement against the Diem government in the early 1960s.
Duc, a Mahayana Buddhist, which is the progressive wing, is a descendant of the Tran clan, one of the larger Vietnamese families who were rulers from 1225 to 1398. In August 1964 he went to Columbia University for a year of studies in English and philosophy. He went on for a Ph.D. in government at Clarement Graduate School in California. In 1970 he returned to teach at Van Hanh Buddhist University and at Dalat Catholic University in Saigon. He returned to the United States in late 1975.
As one of the original peace workers in the Vietnamese war, Thich Giac Duc's current work of resettlement is part of the vocation he began as a young Buddhist. The significance of the meeting at the temple the other evening was explained by Frank Sieverts, a State Department specialist on refugee problems who sat next to Duc: "This was the best kind of small deed democracy in action. It was self-help humanitarianism. The Vietnamese were saying that this was their responsibility, too, and that those who already had a footing in America were bound to help those still in flight."
It is always in lower levels of human exchange - in the neighborhoods, factories, church meeting halls - that the love for others can flower. Gestures like Jimmy Carter's in Tokyo are crucial, but they can only create the conditions by which humanitarianism means the hand of one human being reaching out to another. A Buddhist proverb says: "A man's virtue should not be measured byu his special exertions but by his habitual acts."
Religious and secular agencies that are working with Indochinese resettlement report that in all parts of the country the newcomers from Vietnam have proved to be hardworking, self-supporting and persevering. They have suffered mistreatment for so long - 30 years of war in Vietnam under one regime after another, endless political chaos, hand-to-mouth existence - that merely to arrive in a country of laws and stability means that the hardest part is over. Working, learning English, enrolling children in school, contributing to the community: These are the joys of life, not its problems.
It is easy for Americans to overlook this. We have come to think that refugees are little more than another gimme group, no better than "the lazy and shiftless" on the welfare rolls and on the make. Besides, through our foreign aid, we're already doing enough for the world's poor.
On this last point, our largess is open to question. The Agency for International Development is spending $2.4 billion this year in 60 Third World countries, a sum that is not so grand when put against the $3.8 billion that just one American city - New York - allots for public assistance. It is shamelessly small next to the $38 billion Americans spend every year on alcohol.
Instead of seeing the monthly arrival of 14,000 Indochinese as still another strain on America's goodwill, we ought to keep the numbers in perspective. Last year, federal officials located one million undocumented aliens in the United States, most from Mexico. The estimated number of illegal aliens crossing te southern border may now be exceeding 10,0000 daily. Against that, absorbing 14,000 people a month from Indochina should not be so difficult.
There is also the larger and, for some, unpleasant matter of restitution and reparation. It isn't as though the Indochinese come to us now as chance strangers. We visited them first, between 1961 and 1975 when the tonnage of our bombs exceeded all records for modern military violence.
Agent Orange, the presticide we spread over thousands of acres of Vietnam's cropland, is said to have caused 10 times the number of cancer cases and birth defects among the Vietnamese as is now showing up among American veterans and their children.
Even a mild sense of shame and remorse would lead us to open our country to the refugees. Jimmy Carter, whose spiritual nerves are alive, did not need to have this spelled out for him. This is not so far other national figures, like Henry Kissinger, whose policies caused incalculable suffering in Indochina and who is unable to make the connection between American guilt and the need for national redemption.
It appears as if we are stuck with Kissinger in his lofty critic-at-large, role, as he tells us what Carter is doing wrong while beautifying his own actions.
That we are acting in meaningful ways to aid the boat people should be a source of nations pride. We are ahead of other nations in our resuce work. For once we can say "We're Number One" and have it mean something.