The Power of Example

for Michelle Conley

For years in my Social Justice course at Saint Louis University, I assigned the 1993 paperback by Cao Ngoc Phuong entitled, Learning True Love: How I Learned & Practiced Social Change in Vietnam. Phuong’s story is of a young woman growing up in Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s. From a young age, her passion is to be of assistance to poor people; she also wanted to be a Buddhist, but didn’t have very inspiring teachers. This changed when she met Thich Nhat Hanh, who became her mentor, a relationship that is now in its fifth decade.

What made that book so compelling for me (and many of my students) was Phuong’s unbelievable stamina, inspiring cheerfulness, and serene courage in the midst of repression, poverty, and war. I used to say to the Social Work students in the class: “Please tell your friends who are studying to be Social Workers to read this book!” But really, the book is for all of us–a resource for understanding what it means to remain human in an inhuman time.

Just this past April, Parallax Press published a second, revised, and updated edition of the book, with this new subtitle: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War–A Nun’s Journey from Vietnam to France and The History of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist Community. At the age of 50, Phuong became a Buddhist nun, taking on the name Sister Chan Khong (True Emptiness). The new edition of Learning True Love details the life and work at Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery and meditation center in France, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh and Chan Khong’s recent return to Vietnam after living in exile since the 1960s.

In her preface to the book, Maxine Hong Kingston accurately observes, “Peacefully, lovingly, in the midst of war in Vietnam, Sister Chan Khong built communes, pioneer villages, started schools and taught in them, nursed the wounded and sick, fed the hungry, buried the dead, all the while organizing people to raise funds and do work that changes the warring world.” As our country continues to make war (Afghanistan, Iraq) and threaten war (Iran), we would do well to learn how one woman and her community survived and continued to extend compassion in all circumstances.

From an early age, she relativized the importance of religious ritual and doctrine in the face of human suffering: “The monks and nuns told us to release our anger, for example, “because life is an illusion,” but they never told us how to do it. For me, life was not an illusion–the injustices and suffering of life in the slums were very real, and I wanted to learn how to cope with these realities, not deny them.{1} [15] For those familiar with recent Christian history, particularly in Latin America (but also our indigenous Catholic Worker communities), Chan Khong’s youthful intuition anticipates the “preferential option for the poor.” It is the response to the searing experience of those who suffer injustice and oppression that is the test of religion’s credibility.{2} Chan Khong noted that it was the Catholics who seemed to care for the poor of Vietnam; the Buddhist monks and nuns were distant from the realities of the poor. However, by studying devotedly with Thich Nhat Hanh, Chan Khong came to see how Buddhism and social work fit together perfectly. In fact, she says that the 14 precepts of her religious order, the Order of Interbeing, are her primary teacher.

In his teachings for that religious community, Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the need for direct contact with suffering.{3} Chan Khong has sought out that contact and allowed it to transform her, as she comments on her speaking tours outside of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s: “Because I had lived the war, [Nhat Hanh] said, I would be able to communicate the innocent message of the poor, illiterate peasants who were under the bombs. I would not need to speak in the sophisticated language of the intellectuals who supported one side or the other, but in the plain, simple talk of the country people who were the victims.”{4} [122] Chan Khong here reminds me of Kathy Kelly and her companions who, for many years, visited the Iraqi people afflicted by U.S./U.N-imposed economic sanctions and returned home to try to communicate to their fellow citizens in plain, simple talk of the lethal effects of a policy made in this country.

Chan Khong offers us an important reminder with a national election 16 months away: “I told my fellow students that there were two kinds of politics: partisan politics to gain power and fame for ourselves, and the politics of reconciliation to bring peace and happiness to the country. We should avoid the former, but how could we ignore the poor soldiers who had been drafted into the army to kill or be killed? Even at the risk of arrest or torture, we had to work for peace.” [86] Her words are piercing when we consider the serious work ahead of us—beyond the partisan politics—to work for peace and oppose the military machine. Such partisan politics predictably resorts to demonization of opponents and indulgence in vitriol. Chan Khong is a radical in that she and her fellow Buddhists wanted to get to the fundamental roots of the situation: “We want more than just a change of policy. We want the spirit of love and understanding to inspire and transform the hearts and minds of all people, including those in government.” [35]

I’ve long favored Allen Ginsberg’s aphorism: “Appreciation is the sacrament.” After she spent some time in a Vietnamese jail, Chan Khong had this reflection: “At mealtimes, the prisoners received only old rice and rotten, salted fish. I dreamed of hot, tender white rice and boiled vegetables dipped in soy sauce with a few drops of fragrant lemon, and slices of green and red peppers. Eating had been something I did only to be of some use to others, but now I realized that if given a chance to go home, I would eat very mindfully, enjoying each taste of tender rice and every morsel of delicious vegetable.” [75] How often do we live amid crowds, noise, and speed, which three are, according to Carl Jung, manifestations of the demonic in our modern world. Appreciation and mindfulness are the antidotes to the demonic. Chan Khong reminds us of the wonders that are available in the present moment, if we could only see and savor them. She notes several times in the book that when she was in perilous situations, she practiced conscious breathing to calm herself. It is her commitment to her Buddhist practice that has allowed her to never “burn-out” and to continue to reach thousands of poor people in need in Vietnam. Central to her vitality is the nurturance of a sangha, or community that practices in harmony and awareness.

Chan Khong’s autobiography deals with horrible suffering, from political persecution to the U.S. bombing of Vietnam to the dangers faced by the boat people to the disorientation faced by many Vietnamese refugees in their exile. Yet, she also describes concrete, creative, and constructive initiatives such as the School of Youth for Social Service, the Order of Interbeing, Plum Village, and networks of transnational solidarity with the people of Vietnam. Her heart has been broken innumerable times. And her heart has been opened and expanded countless times. Near the end of her book, Chan Khong writes, “A living example often can have a stronger effect than thousands of theoretical teachings and rules.” [286] She herself has had this effect on people that I know at Saint Louis University.

Alice Walker once posed the following: “The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?’” Chan Khong’s Learning True Love is an account of how she has tried, decade after decade, to respond to this simple question. By reading about her life and practice, we may be led to ask, “Why are the children of Gaza, Baghdad, and Saint Louis crying?” Like Chan Khong herself, may our lives be a deep response to this question.


{1} Compare Amos 5.21-24: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

{2} She writes, “Since the age of fourteen, buying dinner for street children and sharing my earnings with poor high school students has given me more peace and joy than any efforts towards “enlightenment.” [15]

{3} The 4th precept of the Order of Interbeing reads: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

{4} Nevertheless, such tours had their pains: “My tour of Switzerland took place just three weeks before Christmas, and the peace, wealth, and luxury of this country at such a beautiful time of year made me feel overwhelmingly sad. How could the world be so unfair? Vietnamese peasants would not need much to be happy—just some moonlight, fresh air, songs, and the smells of a new harvest. Our aspirations were simple, but the bombs continued to drop on our desperate land, while I was traveling in some fairyland.” [148]

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