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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.

Death 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 rotting. 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 Phuong, 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 supplies. Once, in a village where the fighting was particularly 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.

In her community, Chan Khong is well known for leading the practice of beginning anew. A four-step process, it is an opportunity to look deeply and honestly at ourselves and to work on our relationships through mindful communication. The first step is to express appreciation for the person we’re speaking to; the second is to acknowledge any unskillful action we’ve committed against him or her; the third is to reveal how he or she has hurt us; and the fourth is to share a difficulty that we’re having and to ask for support. At Plum Village, the practice center in France where Chan Khong resides, beginning anew is practiced collectively every two weeks and practiced individually as often as necessary. Chan Khong urges lay people to practice it at home.

“Begin anew to refresh your relationship with your children,” she says. “Even when they’re five years old, children feel pain,” and frequently parents are unaware of the ways in which they hurt their children. For example, says Chan Khong, maybe a mother has hurt her son’s feelings by saying that she won’t buy him the toy he wants. If, through beginning anew, she gives her son an opportunity to express his hurt, the mother will know to explain to him why she can’t afford the toy. Then the boy will understand and resentment will not build between them.

In romantic relationships, beginning anew can be invaluable. Frequently, says Chan Khong, people are disappointed in their partners. At the beginning of the relationship, a woman might see that her mate has many wonderful qualities and so she presumes that he has various other qualities that she finds desirable. But as time goes on, she notices all the ways in which he is not her ideal. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not good,” says Chan Khong. “Maybe she presumed that he was a magnolia and would behave as one. But he is actually a lotus. He is still beautiful in his way.”

“When you ask your partner kindly, he will reveal his wounds, and as he reveals them more and more, you will accept him as he is—with his education, his culture, his way of being—and he will accept you more, too,” she says. “You will grow closer and suddenly you will not be two, but one. You will have entered the world of each other. So beginning anew is a way to make your relationship good with your partner, your children, your parents.”

Brother Phap Hai, an Australian monk in the Plum Village tradition, says that in addition to beginning anew, “total relaxation” and “touching the earth” are important dharma doors for Sister Chan Khong. Total relaxation is practiced sitting or lying down and is an opportunity to rest the body and mind. Touching the earth, a series of meditations that Thich Nhat Hanh developed, is based on traditional Buddhist prostration practice.

“All dharma teachers,” says Phap Hai, “learn the basic practices, the basic framework. Then we’re encouraged to make the dharma our own—to allow the dharma to express itself through us. And Sister Chan Khong does that beautifully. One example is her beautiful singing voice, which she offers in total relaxation. She also has a great skill for improvisation. In touching the earth or total relaxation, she’ll pick up on energy in the room or something that’s been going on, and she’ll address that. Sister Chan Khong’s touching 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 similarly generous. She gave loans to the poor to set up their own businesses and only if they were successful did she ask for repayment.

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