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Lions Roar : May 2012
35 SHAMBHALA SUN M AY 2012 D EATH PERMEATED the whole trip. The flood victims that the volunteer relief workers had come to help were either on the verge of death—starving, shivering, and homeless—or else they were dead, bloated and rot- ting. The volunteers themselves were also in danger. They knew that at any moment they could be killed in the crossfire. This was Vietnam, 1964. The country was at war and now it was slammed by disaster, this flood. The people in the conflict areas were the hardest hit, yet no one dared to go to them with supplies. No one except this one small team of volunteers, including Cao Ngoc Phu- ong, better known today as Sister Chan Khong, and her teacher, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Over a period of five days, the volunteers gave away the food in their seven loaded-down boats. Then, when they went to leave the area, young mothers followed them, begging them to take their babies because they saw no other hope for their children. To this day, Chan Khong remembers crying—her heart breaking for the mothers, for the babies. She could not take them with her. Later Chan Khong organized other trips in which she and groups of students, monks, and nuns would travel to remote, impoverished areas and distribute rice, beans, clothing, cooking utensils, and medical sup- plies. Once, in a village where the fighting was particu- larly brutal, the volunteers were settling in for a night of sleep on their boat when suddenly they heard shots and screaming. Many of the young volunteers panicked and a few of them even attempted to avoid the bullets by leaping into the river. But Chan Khong stood her ground—breathing deeply in and out to find calm. This eased the panic in the others and then the whole group came together. On that dark night in the midst of war, they chanted the Heart Sutra. TODAY, SISTER CHAN KHONG can count more than fifty years of working closely with Thich Nhat Hanh. He is now a bestselling author and has centers and students across the globe, and she is recognized as being a major force that has helped him to grow his community. But Sister Chan Khong is an accomplished teacher in her own right and it can even be said that her life itself is a teaching. Path of Peace The Life and Teachings of Sister Chan Khong She’s best known as Thich Nhat Hanh’s invaluable collaborator, but Sister Chan Khong is also a dedicated activist and gifted teacher in her own right. ANDREA MILLER tells her extraordinary story. PHOTOBYDAVIDNELSON