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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 39 1963 he immolated himself. “No one had informed me that he was going to do this,” writes Chan Khong in Learning True Love, “but just at the moment he set himself on fire, I happened to be driving by the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet Streets on my motorbike, and I witnessed him sitting bravely and peacefully, enveloped in flames. He was completely still, while those of us around him were crying and prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk. At that moment, a deep vow sprang forth in me: I too would do something for the respect of human rights in as beautiful and gentle a way as Thay Quang Duc.” A year later, Chan Khong threw herself into working on the experimental villages that she and Nhat Hanh had envisioned. While she had been completing her biology degree, Nhat Hanh had begun training social workers to help bring about nonvio- lent social change and had spearheaded the founding of the first village. For the second, he asked Chan Khong to take the lead, and Thao Dien—eight muddy kilometers from Saigon—was the chosen location. In July 1964, Chan Khong and a team of other young social workers held a meeting with the villagers to propose building a school. The government would have funded the construction if there were at least two hundred children who would attend, but in Thao Dien there were only seventy-seven children. To Chan Khong’s delight, the villagers agreed to col- laborate with the social workers and construct the school them- selves. Some even donated building materials—palm leaves for the roof and bamboo thicket. Because the villagers were involved with this school from the ground up, they were proud of it and took good care of it. In contrast, government-built schools in Vietnam often required guards to prevent vandalism. In the experimental villages, Chan Khong and the other social workers also tackled medical care, horticulture, and child care. These projects also were successful, with the social workers respecting the villagers’ points of view and involving them in solu- tions. Saigon’s intellectuals took notice of the successes and, as a result, when Nhat Hanh announced the founding of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), more than 1,000 people applied for training. Chan Khong and five others became its leaders. It seemed like real change was possible, and then the bombs fell—the Vietnam War was in full and violent swing. Tra Loc, a new experimental village, was heavily damaged. The SYSS helped the villagers to rebuild each house, the medical center, the agricultural center, the school. But again the village was bombed. This happened over and over—the village was bombed and rebuilt, bombed and rebuilt. Frustration tempted the workers to take up arms. Medita- tion, however, kept them calm. “People think that engaged Buddhism is only social work, only stopping the war,” Chan Khong says. “But, in fact, at the same time you stop the war outside, you have to stop the war inside yourself.” Over her lifetime, Sister Chan Khong has learned the impor- tance of not making peace, but rather being peace, being under- standing, being love—and to embody this way of being twenty- four hours a day. The key, she tells the Shambhala Sun, is to prac- tice mindfulness. “When your body and mind are not one, you do not see deeply,” she says. “You are in front of your brother, but your mind is on many other things, so you don’t really see your brother. Maybe he is having some trouble, but you don’t see it, not even when you share the same room. But mindfulness brings you there, to the present, and then you see. Train yourself all day long to bring your mind to your body and to be present with your food, your friends, your work, everything, because the more you concentrate, the deeper you will see.” That said, says Chan Khong, don’t expect that insight will come all at once. “Maybe you want to help your young brother Above: Chan Khong (center) on the day of her ordination. Right: Sister Chan Khong with Thich Nhat Hanh