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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 tutoring 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, pretending 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 princess.” But Chan Khong wasn’t concerned about her next life, much less the possibility of a royal pedigree. Her focus was the present moment: the hungry need food, the sick need medicine, and they need it right now.

“You need to study scriptures more and work to become enlightened,” continued her teacher. “After you are enlightened, you will be able to save countless beings.” The idea was that if she practiced Buddhism diligently, she would be reborn as a man in her next life; then she might become a bodhisattva, and later still a buddha with miraculous powers. But again Chan Khong felt alienated by these goals. She didn’t want miraculous powers or to be a man, and to her this enlightenment smacked of both sexism and irrelevance.

In the autumn of 1959, Chan Khong had a conversation with a prominent Buddhist monk during which she asked many questions about the dharma. But he didn’t answer any of them. Instead, for each question he took out a book by Thich Nhat Hanh—a monk who Chan Khong had never heard of—and said, “The answer to your question is in here.” Chan Khong would have preferred talking to the monk in front of her, but she agreed to read the material when she had time. Then a month later, Chan Khong attended a course Nhat Hanh was teaching in Saigon. Impressed from the first lecture, she felt she’d never before heard anyone speak so beautifully and profoundly.

The following year, Chan Khong began corresponding with Nhat Hanh. In his first note, he wrote in his impeccable script about the mountain monastery where he lived—the wet wood he cooked with and the cold, singing wind outside. In later notes he addressed Chan Khong’s concern that most Buddhists didn’t seem to care about the poor and that they viewed social work as mere merit work.

According to Nhat Hanh, it was possible to find enlightenment helping those in need—or doing any other activity—as long as it was done mindfully. He believed that Buddhism had a great deal to contribute to society, and he promised to support Chan Khong in her efforts. He planned to bring together people with the same vision and to establish villages to serve as models for development, as well as founding training centers for workers in education, agriculture, and health care.

Thich Nhat Hanh was the teacher she had been looking for.

Inspired by his teachings and encouragement, Chan Khong organized seventy friends to help her in Saigon’s slums, and they did such work as taking the sick to hospital, establishing adult literacy classes, and on special occasions treating underprivileged children to new clothes, a meal at a restaurant, and a trip to the zoo. At the same time, Chan Khong continued to study the dharma with Nhat Hanh. From May to September 1961, she and a dozen others took a class with him and they became the “thirteen cedars,” a sangha devoted to social change.

Meanwhile, the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam was warming up for a religious crackdown in which they’d try to squelch Buddhism and convert the population to Catholicism. The situation came to a head when the regime forbade displaying the Buddhist flag and celebrating Wesak, the Buddha’s birthday. Peaceful protests sprang up and were met with a violent backlash. The authorities ordered tanks to advance on demonstrators, and tortured suspected protest instigators.

In the face of this oppression, a monk named Thich Quang Duc made a powerful plea for religious freedom; on June 11, 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 nonviolent 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 collaborate with the social workers and construct the school themselves. 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 solutions. 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. Meditation, 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 importance of not making peace, but rather being peace, being understanding, being love—and to embody this way of being twentyfour hours a day. The key, she tells the Shambhala Sun, is to practice 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.”

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