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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 37 the earth and total relaxation are not scripted. She’s giving a living dharma talk. That’s the way that she expresses her caring.” Phap Hai says Chan Khong never says no when somebody asks her for something. “I’ve never seen her close down her heart,” he says. “For me, that is one of the qualities that I admire most in Sister Chan Khong, and one that I want to develop in myself too. Sometimes I feel tired and even though I might not say no to a request there’s still an energy of no. But Sister Chan Khong is always there for people, and in such a loving way.” SISTER CHAN KHONG was born in 1938 in a village in the Mekong River Delta, a lush land of rice fields and coconut groves. Her parents were, in her words, like oak trees that sheltered twenty-two “birds”—nine children of their own, plus twelve nieces and nephews and one girl from a poor family. “Mother and Father cared for all of us equally,” Chan Khong wrote in her memoir Learning True Love. “Feeding twenty-two mouths was a strain, but we were taught to be satisfied with and share whatever we had.” Her father rented plots of land to various farmers. Yet whenever there was a drought or flood he waived the rent. He also helped farmers to buy their own land and he sometimes gave farmers money to support their children. Chan Khong’s mother was simi- larly generous. She gave loans to the poor to set up their own busi- nesses and only if they were successful did she ask for repayment. In her early teens, Chan Khong caught a little boy trying to pick her pockets. He told her he had no other choice. His mother beat him whenever he came home empty-handed. “Where is your father?” Chan Khong asked, but the boy said he had no father. Then, following him to his house in the slums, she asked about his studies. “We don’t have enough to eat,” he told her. “How could I go to school?” Chan Khong decided to find a way to help poor families such as the little boy’s. But since her own family was—as she says— “not so rich, not so poor,” she didn’t ask her parents for money. Instead, being gifted academically, she raised funds by tutor- ing wealthy students who were struggling in math. Then, after enrolling at the University of Saigon, she branched out in her humanitarian efforts. Chan Khong has written, “I knew that if I went to the slums as a middle-class young woman, the people there would know I did not belong to their world, and they would not trust me. They might even try to con me. So, I always went wearing a frayed dress, pre- tending that I had a relative living there: ‘Do you know my Uncle Ba, the bicycle rickshaw driver?’ Then I would sit and listen to people talk about their hardships and think of ways to help them.” “YOU HAVE A GOOD HEART,” Chan Khong’s first Buddhist teacher told her. “With all the generous work that you do, you will be reborn into a wealthy family. Perhaps you will be a prin- cess.” But Chan Khong wasn’t concerned about her next life, much less the possibility of a royal pedigree. Her focus was the Above: The School of Youth for Social Service Above right: SYSS staff. Chan Khong is second from the right. Right: SYSS campus dining area