No trace left behind


Her ordination name means 'true emptiness', but Sister Chan Khong, a close aide to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, has had a very rich, fulfilling life

Bangkok, Thailand -- How long and shiny and black it must have been - the hair that is no longer there. Those who knew Cao Ngoc Phuong, the previous incarnation of Sister Chan Khong, invariably recall her long silky tresses. They would flow in the wind as she rode her motorcycle around the city of Saigon, or nearby villages, on her numerous charity and peace missions. While penning countless petitions on behalf of the Boat People, migrants from her homeland, the ever-buoyant Phuong might gather her hair up into a bun, using nothing fancier than a pen to hold it in place; helping others always meant far more to her than personal beauty.

<< "Hair which is the colour of precious wood
is now offered as incense.
Beauty becomes eternity.
How wonderful the awareness of

Two physical features seem to have defied the passage of time, however. Her youthful, some would say angelic, voice, and her eyes - eyes that still shine, as luminous as those of a child. Floods of tears have flowed from them on countless occasions; tears of joy as well as tears of sorrow. But those eyes miraculously maintain their vigour - their unextinguishable zest for life.

Now in her mid-sixties, Sister Chan Khong is as busy as ever. A close aide to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for over four decades now, she has been the driving force in various peace campaigns, dharma classes and the day-to-day running of Plum Village, the religious community in southern France. One follower went so far as to say, "That Plum Village has become what it is today, and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay's [Thich Nhat Hanh's] teachings is to a great extent a result of Sister Phuong's enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay's teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath."

Others, including Thich Nhat Hanh himself, put it more simply: Sister True Emptiness is a bodhisattva, a saint of compassion.

"My students are also my teachers. I learn so much from them. Sister Chan Khong (True Emptiness) is among the foremost of these. [She] has a great capacity for joy and happiness. That is what I appreciate most in her life. Her unwavering faith in the dharma is strengthened each day as she continues to enjoy the fruit of transformation and healing born from the practice. Her stability, joy, and happiness are wonderful supports for many of us in Plum Village and in the circle of the greater `sangha'. Working for social change and helping people are sources of joy for her. The love and concern that underlie her work are deep. True Emptiness is also true love. Her story is more than just the words. Her whole life is a dharma talk." ? THICH NHAT HANH

Labels, praise, accusations of wrongdoing, even - the Buddhist nun has weathered them all and remains seemingly unperturbed. Her autobiography mentions an "amusing" anecdote about two friends discovering a photograph of her captioned "war criminal" at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in the early '90s. Shortly after her ordination in 1988, she told a lay practitioner, "I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference between us."

Elsewhere, she wrote: "Who is Chan Khong, Sister True Emptiness? Who is Cao Ngoc Phuong? She is made of her ancestors, the land called Vietnam, the air, the suffering, the friendship, the teachings, the cruel ignorance of the war-makers, and the love and understanding of several previous teachers and friends during her first 30 years in that spot of the world, and then another 20 years among many bodhisattvas in the West."

Which comes first: Humility or awareness of how everything is inter-connected? Can the two qualities be separated at all? In the same memoir, Chan Khong explained why it took her such a long time to become ordained as a bhiksuni (a nun of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition). Having notched up major achievements from a very young age, she had come to a realisation that there were many "seeds of arrogance" within her.

"I knew that if I was not mindful, I could become arrogant. With my shaven head, people could admire me more than my real value [merited]. So I decided not to shave my head, but instead to continue as a 'formless' nun in order to avoid being treated well by some people without earning their respect. I would give my seeds of arrogance a chance to wither and transform themselves."

In a way, the journey made by Cao Ngoc Phuong - from a secular to a monastic life - parallels the transformation that has swept through her homeland over the last four decades. And her story, more powerful than any epic drama, is a hopeful one. Amidst the ravages of human cruelty, there remains a selflessness, a devotion, and a capacity to share; surely, the very best thing one can offer to fellow beings on this Earth.

Born in 1938 into a well-to-do family in Ben Tre, a town in the centre of the Mekong delta, Phuong learned very early on about the spirit of giving from those around her and, in particular, from her father who taught his nine children (she's the eighth) never to exploit the poor: "If you can afford his produce, buy it, and if you cannot, don't buy it. But never bargain with a poor farmer because for you a few dong may not be much, but for him it is enough to support his children," she quoted him as saying.

World War Two ended with the Communist Party, under Ho Chi Minh's leadership, attempting to wrest power from the French colonial authorities. Hundreds of people classified as "dissidents" were persecuted, one of them being Phuong's father. Testimony about previous kindnesses he's shown to his tenant farmers helped his case, however: while other landlords were killed, he was spared, and after being detained for three weeks he was set free to rejoin his family. Not the husband of Phuong's grade-school teacher, though; he was summarily executed. That incident prompted the young girl to question if battling suffering and injustice by the use of force, whatever the ideological pretext, was the right path to follow.

Nor was she impressed with the Buddhist establishment. "Growing up, I never met a good Buddhist teacher. They [the monks] just chanted at funerals and received donations - it seemed to me that they were more concerned about death than life." Even when she came across a respectable monk, this sceptical young lady still felt that there was a wide gap between the conventional interpretations of Buddhist practice and that of social work.

<< Sister Chan Khong with a young girl in the early 1980s.

That was to change. In late 1959 Phuong attended a series of lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh at a temple in Saigon. After having exchanged views with him about how best to strive for social change while keeping within the spirit of Buddhism (thoughts later to blossom into the concept of "Engaged Buddhism"), she said she realised that the Zen master "was the teacher I had been looking for".

Thus began a most fruitful teacher-disciple relationship, one that continues to guide, balance and enrich the dharma practice of both participants. In his introduction to Sister Chan Khong's book, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled an important lesson he learned from his student:

"It was in 1966, when the war in Vietnam had become unbearable, and I was so absorbed in working to end the war that it was hard for me to swallow my food. One day, Chan Khong was preparing a basket of fresh, fragrant herbs to serve with rice noodles, and she asked me, 'Thay, can you identify these fines herbes ?' Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened. She had the ability to keep her attention on the herbs, and I realised I had to stop dwelling only on the war and learn to concentrate on the fines herbes also. We spent 10 minutes discussing the herbs that could be found in the south of Vietnam and the ones in the central regions, and that encounter took my mind off the war, allowing me to recover the balance I needed so badly. In 1968, when I was in the south of France, I sought out the fines herbes of Provence with my full attention and interest.

"Years later, a friend from America asked me, 'Thay, why do you waste your time planting lettuce? Wouldn't it be better to use the time to write poems?' I smiled and said, 'My dear friend, if I do not plant this lettuce, I will not be able to write poetry'."

Children take part in Sister Chan Khong's `Love and Understanding' programme in Hue.
From Sister Chan Khong's perspective, the inclusive, non-discriminating mind of her teacher allowed her ample freedom and trust, as they worked together to rescue the destitute. Unlike other monastic and lay leaders who were critical of the powers-that-be at the time, Thich Nhat Hanh opted for a pacifist, non-partisan stance in his campaigns for peace. Phuong was also one of the first six "cedars" ordained into the Tiep Hien (Inter-Being) Order, an innovation of Thich Nhat Hanh's. Breaking away from the tradition-bound Sangha, the monks, nuns and lay people of the Tiep Hien Order vowed to live their lives in accordance with the "14 precepts" while engaging in public service.

Those were hectic but fulfilling days. Given an opportunity to put forward his ideas on religious reforms for the first time in 1964, Thich Nhat Hanh submitted a three-point recommendation to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (then the dominant institution). Basically, the progressive monk suggested that the Buddhist clergy play a more active role in peace campaigns and in training future leaders and social workers in the practice of engaged Buddhism and non-violent struggle. Here, "charity" goes beyond giving and receiving. Social work and rural development, in the monk's scheme, can and must be "the work of personal and social transformations".

Although church elders were hesitant to carry out these proposals, Thich Nhat Hanh successfully pushed for the establishment of the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies (later renamed Van Hanh University) in 1964, and, a year later, its offshoot, the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). Cognisant of Phuong's vast experience working with slum dwellers in Saigon, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to her - she was then in Paris finishing a thesis on biology - asking her to come back and help him with SYSS activities. Little did they realise that less than four years later the Zen master would be making a similar request - but this time that his student leave Vietnam to serve as his assistant on an international peace mission, a move that resulted in both of them being exiled from their home country for almost the next four decades.

But during the years that came in between, both Phuong and her teacher devoted themselves to often-perilous crusades to end the war and help its victims. Every now and then they had to risk their lives working on the front line, like the time they carried food supplies to villages near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the most intense fighting was going on between the communists and the nationalists (from South Vietnam).

"We stopped at the most devastated villages, distributed gifts and stayed the day with the people. At night, we slept on our boats after a simple meal of plain rice. The smell of dead bodies was everywhere, horribly polluting the air. When we saw wounded soldiers from either side, we helped them without discrimination.

"Seeing such immense suffering, Thay Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let a drop of blood fall into the river [saying]: 'This is to pray for all who have perished in the war and in the flood'."

Despite their relentless efforts to restore peace, the war escalated. The US increased its military aid to the southern regime while the (Hanoi-based) National Liberation Front escalated its attacks. Even the Unified Buddhist Church was split - and a rival church, supported by the government of North Vietnam, emerged, a state of affairs that continues to the present day.

Similar tensions were evident in the campaigns initiated by Thich Nhat Hanh. A week after the Zen master's departure from Vietnam (to hold a peace conference in Washington, DC, which prompted the Saigon regime to denounce him as a "traitor"), the dean of Van Hanh University issued a statement dissolving the student union, which had been under Phuong's presidency, and nullifying its links to the SYSS.

Phuong was personally targeted. She recalled how the same dean reportedly told SYSS supporters: "I don't know whether Thay Nhat Hanh is communist or not, but certainly Cao Ngoc Phuong is."

Later on, she recalled that, "In the context of Vietnam at that moment, calling someone 'communist' meant killing him or her even without a weapon."

The following years were to prove a real test of her will-power and tenacity. Phuong was jailed for a week, had to shoulder heavy responsibilities with scanty resources (at one time the SYSS had to take care of training 300 students with only $1 in the bank), faced a series of losses as friends of hers were either abducted, or murdered, or sacrificed their lives in the quest for peace. The fate of Nhat Chi Mai, a fellow member of the Tiep Hien Order who immolated herself in 1967, was one of her biggest "sorrows" - and yet it inspired Phuong to work harder "to find ways to end the suffering of Vietnam".

Which she did, in many ways. Cut off from her homeland, Phuong continued her campaigns to raise awareness about the plight of her compatriots, and for the unconditional withdrawal of US troops from her homeland. Following the end of the Third Indochinese War in 1975, she and Thich Nhat Hanh embarked on several other aid programmes: to help Vietnamese refugees (the Boat People); to petition successive communist regimes about human rights violations; and to plant in future generations, in Vietnam and elsewhere, the seeds of love and peace. From modest beginnings, the Tiep Hien Order now boasts several thousand followers who live as far apart as Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. And this extended community continues to grow.

Returning to Vietnam after a lapse of "37 and a half, almost 38 years", Sister Chan Khong confided, was like coming to a virtually "new nation". Everything seemed much better, she said, compared to the massive destruction she had witnessed during the war. She can still recall the gruelling period when she and SYSS colleagues had to scramble to provide relief and shelter for 11,000 war victims in Saigon.

"All the houses [in the vicinity of the SYSS campus] were destroyed. The bombs also bombarded the cemetery, and the coffins exploded. But now ... the cemetery has long been dismantled and become a very beautiful commercial trade centre. And I couldn't recognise anything."

The improved economic situation and growing affluence aside, Sister Chan Khong is doubtful whether there have been any improvements in public morality, however. While Vietnam was being torn apart by successive wars, there were many girls who sought to live a peaceful, monastic life, but couldn't. Circumstances forced them to become "tricky and dishonest" in order to save themselves and their siblings, she lamented.

But three decades on, Vietnamese people are still running after money and fame - often, at all costs. "It breaks our heart," the Zen nun remarked on hearing that 16- and 17-year-old girls are now willing to sell their bodies in order to buy brand-name motorcycles. "The bankruptcy of morality" has become a increasingly worrying phenomenon in today's Vietnam.

"And it is not only the lay people, this [bankruptcy] also infects the monastic [circles] as well. People talk about how big their temple is, but they don't really care how many people are practising [dharma]. They talk a lot about impermanence, but everyone has such a big self!"

Ever optimistic, Sister Chan Khong said it may be late, but "never too late" for reforms. Thus her tireless efforts to campaign for Thich Nhat Hanh's return to Vietnam (see sidebar).

During his three-month pilgrimage to Vietnam (January to early April, 2005), Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to thousands of people throughout the country - bureaucrats, politicians, intellectuals, street vendors, taxi drivers, artists. But in between Thay's dharma lectures were Sister Chan Khong's unique, and invaluable, methods of imparting Buddhist teachings.

Sometimes it was her lucid, soothing voice which served as a channel of dharma during various meditation retreats. For hundreds of participants, Sister Chan Khong's chanting of Plum Village songs during "total relaxation" sessions was akin to stumbling upon a gurgling, refreshing spring.

Other times, it was her simple, yet shrewd application of Vietnamese heritage to modern ways of life. Over the Tet (Vietnamese new year) celebrations in February, she performed an "oracle reading" for hundreds of Buddhist followers.

"During those three days, I sometimes had to stay up until 11pm," she said with a laugh.

"Many cab drivers came to tell me, 'I've been to hundreds of [dharma] talks, but Sister's [Chan Khong's] way of teaching is so simple. Now I can be reconciled to my wife [or mother]'."

The secret to achieving such popularity? The Tale of Kieu by the early 19th-century poet Nguyen Du, Vietnam's answer to Shakespeare, is well known to locals. But instead of just deriving worldly pleasure from this literary classic, Thich Nhat Hanh came up with Buddhist interpretations that have proved intriguingly accurate and which fit situations faced by individuals who consulted him. More importantly, her two-line oracle readings have provided insights into how one can lead a rightful, happy existence.

Indeed, one of the ideas the Zen master proposed to the Establishment is for Communist Party members to be able to "become closer to Vietnamese culture". Ironically, those in the corridors of power have been deprived of their right to worship their ancestors ("they have to hide the altars in their bedrooms," Sister Chan Khong said), or even to visit temples. But proper integration of Buddhist (or any other religious) teachings with the conduct of state affairs could be beneficial. "Even communists have 'Buddha's nature' too," she remarked, with another laugh.

For Sister Chan Khong herself, the opportunity to reconnect to her homeland has been an overwhelming experience. Apart from her first three days there, when she was seriously ill, the three months she spent in Vietnam was one of continual juggling of numerous, pressing tasks. But that serene composure of hers, those smiles of contentment, never waned. It was a long wait, but well worth it.

"Upon our arrival, we found ourselves in front of a thousand Buddhist [followers]. They chanted the [Plum Village song with] name of [the bodhisattva] Avalokiteshvara. While listening, I sent my whole energy to the millions of Vietnamese who have died for this land. Tears were flowing from my eyes.

"I looked at every face there, and [from] my heart sprang this: 'All of you are the fathers and mothers of Vietnam. You have given birth to wonderful children. You have given such great love and care to keep our country safe throughout thousands of years. I thank you all'."

This article is the final in a two-part series on Thich Nhat Hanh's recent pilgrimage to Vietnam. It is based in part on Sister Chan Khong (Cao Ngoc Phuong)'s autobiographical 'Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam', on 'The Mindfulness Bell - Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village', and on a chapter entitled 'Nhat Hanh's Peace Activities' from Quan Nhu's book 'Vietnamese Engaged Buddhism: The Struggle Movement of 1963-66'.

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