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Lions Roar : January 2016
THICH NHAT HANH said that exile from Vietnam felt like being a cell separ- ated from its body. Despite his personal pain, exile allowed him to work for peace freely, and, as it did for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, laid the ground for him to became the world-renowned spiritual teacher he is today. Granted asylum in France, Nhat Hanh became chair of the Vietnamese Bud- dhist Peace Delegation. For the next few years, his activities included establishing the Unified Buddhist Church in France, lecturing at the Sorbonne, and serving as a delegate to the Paris peace talks. When Sister Chan Khong joined him in France, the South Vietnamese government exiled her as well. When the war in Vietnam ended in 1975 with North Vietnamese victory, non-communist Vietnamese—ulti- mately as many as two million—began to flee the country. Hundreds of thou- sands risked the dangerous journey by sea. They became known as the boat people. By 1978–79, the plight of the boat people had become a major humanitarian crisis. They were prey to overcrowded boats, stormy seas, and murder and rape by pirates. If they did make it to another country, they were kept in refugee camps. Sometimes their boats were simply pushed back out to sea. Nhat Hanh and his small group of fol- lowers in France knew they had to help. Sister Chan Khong rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed like a fisherman, and went out to sea to help the boat people. Every time she and her team came across a refugee boat, they gave them food, fuel, and directions to the nearest refugee camp. In a more ambitious plan, Nhat Hanh raised the money to rent two large ships, the Roland and the Leapdal. Within a few weeks at sea they’d rescued more than eight hundred boat people, planning to take them to Guam and Australia. Although that plan was stymied by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Nhat Hanh and his followers continued to bring the plight of the boat people to the world’s attention, convincing several countries to admit more Vietnamese refugees. In 1971, craving the tranquility they had found at Phuong Boi, Nhat Hanh and his followers bought a country property with a tiny, ramshackle house southeast of Paris. They called it Sweet Potatoes, and it became Thich Nhat Hanh’s first practice center in the West. Exile: 1966–2004 Paris, 1974: In exile, Thich Nhat Hanh continued his work for peace in Vietnam. Hundreds of refugees aboard the Roland, a freighter rented by Thich Nhat Hanh’s community to rescue boat people fleeing Vietnam after the communist victory. Sister Chan Khong working in the garden at Sweet Potatoes, a tiny, ramshackle house outside Paris that became Thich Nhat Hanh’s first Buddhist center in the West. When Sweet Potatoes became too small for the growing community, they purchased a fifty-acre farm with five old stone buildings in the Dordogne region. This became Plum Village. PHOTOBYJIMFORESTPHOTOSCOURTESYOFPARALLAXPRESS SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2016 48