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That said, says Chan Khong, don’t expect that insight will come all at once. “Maybe you want to help your young brother who is drawn away by drugs, but you cannot communicate with him easily. You try to be present with him in the moment but still you don’t see how to help him.” That’s okay, says Chan Khong. “If you train yourself to drive your car in the present moment, to walk in the present moment, to prepare your dinner in the present moment, eventually—perhaps while chopping vegetables— you will have deep insight into the way that you can handle the situation with your brother in a skillful way. You will know how to touch what is wonderful in him.”

The precepts for monastics were formulated in another age—more than two millennia ago—and Thich Nhat Hanh saw they needed to be revised. He crafted fourteen new precepts, which he felt were both true to the deepest teachings of the Buddha and appropriate for the modern world. Then he invited Chan Khong and the five other leaders of the SYSS to receive them. This ordination made these six the first members of what Nhat Hanh termed the Order of Interbeing, a community committed to service and mindfulness. But it did not make them formal monks and nuns with shaved heads. Nhat Hanh gave each member of this new order the option to either live like a monastic committed to celibacy, or to live as a lay Buddhist with the freedom to marry. The three women all chose celibacy, while the three men chose marriage.

Nhat Chi Mai, a close friend of Chan Khong’s, was one of the original six members of the Order of Interbeing. She was the protected, youngest child of a well-off family, and she feared the consequences of political activity. Nonetheless—like Chan Khong—she undertook the dangerous task of spreading the word of peace. Chi Mai hid copies of Nhat Hanh’s book Lotus in a Sea of Fire in her Volkswagen and delivered them to schools. Then, just one year after taking the fourteen precepts, Chi Mai placed two statues in front of her—one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Avalokitesvara—and she set herself on fire. Chi Mai’s poems and letters urged Catholics and Buddhists to work together for peace and after her death they were widely read, inspiring many people. Still, for Chan Khong, losing Chi Mai was one of the greatest sorrows of her life.

It was not, however, the only loss Chan Khong faced in 1967. A monk friend of hers was abducted that year from Binh Phuoc Village, along with seven other social workers. Though their bodies were never found, it is presumed they were killed; working for the poor was considered a communist activity and the social workers had many enemies. Only luck prevented Chan Khong from not being made the ninth victim. She had been in Binh Phuoc Village but had left that night to visit her mother.

When Chan Khong boarded a flight to Hong Kong, she planned to be gone for five days. She never imagined it would be almost forty years before she again set foot in her homeland.

In 1966, two years prior to Chan Khong’s departure, Nhat Hanh had also left Vietnam believing he would only be gone for a short while. But at a conference in Washington, he presented a proposal urging Americans to stop bombing and to offer reconstruction aid free of political or ideological strings. The South Vietnamese nationalist government declared him a traitor, making it too dangerous for him to go home, so he moved to Paris. By 1968, however, he wanted to know whether his friends and colleagues in Vietnam needed him to risk returning. Was it more important for him to be on the ground in Vietnam or to be in the West promoting peace? This was not something that could be addressed freely in letters entering and leaving his country— they were too heavily monitored by the government. So Nhat Hanh asked Chan Khong to meet him in Hong Kong.

There, over cups of oolong tea, she told him that she’d met privately with various Buddhist leaders in Vietnam and that they’d unanimously agreed. Nhat Hanh should not return; his skill in communicating with the West was too valuable. Nhat Hanh decided that to more effectively spread the word about what was going on in Vietnam, he needed an assistant. Would Chan Khong be willing to take on that role? At first, she said no—she had responsibilities in Vietnam. But after reflecting further, she decided Nhat Hanh was right. She would be able to effect more change in her homeland while living abroad.

In January 1969, Chan Khong joined her teacher in France, and they got involved with organizing a conference to present the views of Vietnam’s voiceless majority—those people who were neither communist nor anticommunist, who just wanted peace. Out of this conference, came the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, and Nhat Hanh was nominated to be the chair. For her part, Chan Khong was to help with the administration, and she both lived and worked out of the delegation’s modest office, a rental in a poor Parisian neighborhood. The projects that they took on were varied and included raising money for orphans in Vietnam and producing a newsletter in French, English, and Vietnamese. Chan Khong traveled throughout Europe and the United States speaking to audiences about the need for an immediate ceasefire.

Finally, on April 30, 1975, the war came to an end. The suffering, however, did not. Terrified of communist rule, refugees began risking everything to flee Vietnam. If the government caught them trying to escape, they were either imprisoned or shot. If they succeeded in making it to sea, they were prey to pirates. And if they reached a foreign shore, they were often turned away—their rickety boats pushed back out into the water.

Chan Khong’s despair was intense. There seemed to be nothing she could do to save her compatriots from the raping and robbing and killing. After months of meditation, however, she determined her path of action and initiated a rescue project. Chan Khong rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed up like a fisherman, and went out to sea to “fish” 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 an interview with Alan Senauke and Susan Moon, which appeared in Turning Wheel, Chan Khong said: “Meditation allowed me to transform the garbage, the suffering, in me into a mercy fishing boat. On the seas, I was fearless, even when faced by pirates, and I was even joyful because I knew I was going in the direction of beauty.”

In 1988, Chan Khong formally ordained as a nun. “Shaving the head, all attachments are cut off,” Thich Nhat Hanh said as he snipped her hair.

Of being a monastic in the West, Chan Khong has written: “I do not carry undernourished babies in my arms, but teenagers and adults do cry silently as they share the stories of their childhoods of sadness and abuse. By listening attentively to their pain and helping them renew themselves, I am able to help heal many of these wounded ‘children,’ and this is very close to my ideal of holding the village children in my arms. I am grateful to be able to help in this way.”

As a nun in the West, Chan Khong has played a key role in developing Thich Nhat Hanh’s international community. In 1982, they moved to what is now known as Plum Village, two bucolic parcels of farmland in France. For the center’s first retreat, the 107 attendees used wooden planks as beds and sleeping bags for blankets, and they did not have a sufficient number of restrooms. In a dharma talk published in the book I Have Arrived, I Am Home, Chan Khong said: “There was only one restroom for the entire Lower Hamlet, one for both showering and using the toilets! It was the same at the Upper Hamlet. Seeing the situation, the male retreatants took up shovels and dug two ‘combat’ latrines.”

Yet attendees were not put off by the conditions, and at subsequent retreats the numbers grew exponentially. Today Plum Village is less rustic, but still simple, and people from all over the world go there to practice. They also go to other centers in the Plum Village tradition: Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York State, and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government permitted Sister Chan Khong and Thich Nhat Hanh to visit their homeland for the first time since the sixties. While there, they traveled the country accompanied by members of their sangha and made connections with the Vietnamese people, especially the young. Two more visits were permitted— one in 2007 and the other in 2008. Since then, however, they have not been welcome. The Vietnamese government felt threatened by the large number of educated youth drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.

According to Nhat Hanh, Chan Khong came to him as a student but she also has been a teacher for him. When the Vietnam War was raging, Nhat Hanh was so preoccupied with how to stop the fighting that it became difficult for him to eat. One day, Chan Khong was preparing herbs to serve with rice noodles, when she asked Nhat Hanh if he could identify them. “Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened,” he has written. “She had the ability to keep her attention on the herbs, and I realized I had to stop dwelling only on the war and learn to concentrate on the fines herbes also.” They spent ten minutes talking about the herbs of Vietnam, and that encounter took Nhat Hanh’s mind off the war, allowing him to recover the balance he needed.

“A single person is capable of helping many living beings,” Nhat Hanh said in his book, Be Free Where You Are. “My colleague Sister Chan Khong has been working with poor people, orphans, and the hungry for many years. She has helped thousands and thousands of people, and because of her work these people suffer less. This brings her a lot of joy and gives her life meaning. This can be true for all of us anytime, anywhere.”

Andrea Miller is a deputy editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the recently released anthology Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness Into Our Relationships.

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