Articles From the May 1995 Unification News


Learning True Love

Contributed by Manuele Mayer, Vancouver, WA.

I borrowed from Manuele the book Learning True Love, by Sister Chan Khong. The author is a Buddhist nun, of whom Manuele says,

"She is very powerful, energetic, selfless, and intensely focused on her work. She recently opened up to the beauty of Christianity when she had a kind of enlightenment experience while in a Catholic church in Rome."

I wanted to share my experience of the book with you, beginning with a memory:

It was like a scene in a movie. I was in a London restaurant with my Japanese friend, Dr. Bong Ho Lee. It was December 1968, around the height of the Vietnam War. Bong Ho and I were both studying in different London universities that year. He had spent the previous year doing postgraduate work at Harvard, with a focus on the Vietnamese War. I was still searching for the "truth" about the war, and felt he might be best able to provide it, since his country wasn't involved and he had just done an academic study of the war. His goal was to be Secretary-General of the United Nations, and I trusted his insight. Calmly he explained the different forces involved, drawing on a napkin to try to clarify his points. I don't remember the details of what he said, but his main point devastated me: it was that basically the war was a tragic mistake and that we should have supported the Vietnamese Buddhists, because they could have helped end the civil war which the U.S. took sides in. At the time I didn't really understand what role the Buddhists could have played; I just felt miserable that, as with most wars, millions of lives were horribly impacted--and it was a mistake.

Now, after entering the world of Sister Chan Khong, as she recounts some of her many experiences trying to bring peace, love, and change to her beloved Vietnam, I more understand the power the Buddhists could have had, if they had been properly supported not only by the U.S., but also by the South Vietnamese government. As Maxine Hong Kingston writes in her foreword,

"Sister Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh, and twelve other monks and nuns established and held a position that was neither nationalist nor communist, neither North nor South. They were a means and a hope for enemies to communicate and to end the war. This miraculous, strong pacifism did not die though its practitioners were jailed, tortured, murdered.

"I am amazed and grateful that Sister Chan Khong teaches us how to access strength from the invisible. The Buddhists, trained in non- duality, were able to see that there are not two sides to Vietnam, and thus act wholeheartedly, a vision of the entire country in mind."

Sister Chan Khong provides a beautiful example of rising above mediocrity and of applying spiritual wisdom to politics (see "Toward True Intimacy and Hope," p. 13). --VC

Here are a few scenes from her path toward learning true love:

A grenade thrown into the campus temple where many Buddhist social workers lived killed or seriously wounded 18 people. Her eulogy for them:

"We cannot hate you, you who have thrown grenades and killed our friends, because we know that men are not our enemies. Our only enemies are the misunderstanding, hatred, jealousy, and ignorance that lead to such acts of violence. Please allow us to remove all misunderstanding so we can work together for the happiness of the Vietnamese people. Our only aim is to help remove ignorance and illiteracy from the countryside of Vietnam. Social change must start in our hearts with the will to transform our own egotism, greed, and lust into understanding, love, commitment, and sharing responsibility for the poverty and injustice in our country."

In 1973 she was able to meet with the Swedish Prime Minister, Olaf Palme.

"I invited him to be 'inside the skin' of a young person growing up in our war-torn country: when she looks around, she cannot seek help from the French, the Americans, or the communists--all those governments are perpetrating the violence. The only people she can trust are the Buddhist monks and nuns. I told him that we had started a movement among monks and nuns to help poor people, without taking money from any warring party."

When she was later told that the Swedes' rule was to fund programs only through government agencies, and it would be difficult for their government to support a religious group, she said,

"Rules are invented by humans to serve humans. If you see that a rule prevents you from serving humans, why don't you break it?" They found a way.

When dealing with representatives of the U.S. State Dept. or the peace workers, she often felt completely frustrated.

"Then I remember the Buddha's teaching that knowledge can be an obstacle to understanding. These people were so sure of their knowledge about Vietnam that they were unwilling to open themselves to any other description of reality."

Sadly, after the war ended in 1975, the communists seized all the resources she had solicited for the Vietnamese poor from all over the world, and she heard that if she came back into the country, she would be jailed or killed.

"How desperate I felt! Since the age of eighteen, I had worked to bring relief to the poorest people, and thousands of young friends had become involved in this work. My dreams had been realized--the bombing had stopped, the Unified Buddhist Church was helping poor peasants, and thousands of hands were reaching to remote areas of Vietnam to support hungry and orphaned children--and then, overnight, the fruits of all my efforts vanished completely.

"I had not joy or energy to live. Every time I thought of Vietnam, I wanted to die or to sleep and never wake up. I felt as if my heart were being squeezed by strong, violent hands. For months, all I could do was practice going back to my breath, following each in-breath and out-breath with my mind, because I would sink into deep despair every time I stopped doing that. Returning to Vietnam was still impossible. After decades of war, all the country had to show for it was a dishonest, totalitarian government! I could never fulfill my dream of real social change in my country."

However, she did go to the Vietnamese embassy in Paris to try to persuade the new government to allow their project of sponsoring orphans to continue.

"I had not great hope, but as I entered the room, I did my best to view the Secretary of the Embassy as a future buddha. The Buddha taught that everyone has the capacity to become an awakened, enlightened being, so I thought, 'I have come to try to work with this difficult, future buddha.'"

She did receive permission, but in fact, no money ever reached the orphans.

Still, over the years she has continued her work for her country and also helped to bring an understanding of "mindfulness" and practical ways to build peace for oneself and for the society to many people in the West.

"We never wish to 'convert' anyone to Buddhism. We only wish to offer everyone the light of awareness ("buddh" means aware) to shine onto their own roots so that they understand themselves better and more deeply."

She learned that American "children here, even though most do not suffer from hunger, suffer greatly from psychological, physical, and sexual abuse inflicted by alcoholic or mentally disturbed parents and other adults. . . . Reports of childhood sexual abuse and even involvement in the 'sex industry' have moved me deeply. After listening to such stories, I have to practice walking meditation for several hours to restore some calm.

"Without having bombs dropped on their heads, these people's hearts are like fields devastated by 'bombs' of cruelty and ignorance. I have learned how to relieve suffering by listening attentively to these friends and discussing with them ways to transform their lives. I now see this kind of suffering can be even greater than the suffering from lack of food."

Though she is officially seen as a war criminal, she concludes,

"I don't feel any anger or hatred towards the rulers of the country. Instead, great pity and sadness arise in me. Their perceptions of millions of Vietnamese are far from reality. Because of erroneous views, they have already killed, tortured, and mistreated millions of people. When will I have a chance to share with them the arts of listening and looking deeply that I have learned from studying with Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh]? When will all the world's children, and adults, learn to live together in peace?"

Following her ordination as a nun, she was given the name Chan Khong, True Emptiness.

"In Buddhism, the word 'emptiness' is a translation of the Sanskrit sunyata. It means 'empty of a separate self.' It is not a negative or despairing term. It is a celebration of interconnectedness, of interbeing. It means nothing can exist by itself alone, that everything is inextricably interconnected with everything else. I know that I must always work to remember that I am empty of a separate self and full of the many wonders of this universe, including the generosity of my grandparents and parents, the many friends and teachers who have helped and supported me along the path, and you dear readers, without whom this book could not exist. We inter-are, and therefore we are empty of an identity that is separate from our interconnectedness."

She concludes,

"Dear readers, I thank you for your patience in reading all of these pages. I am with you just as you have been with me, and we encourage each other to realize our deepest love, caring, and generosity. Together on the path of love, we can try to make a small difference in someone's life. What else is there to do?"

Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam, by Chan Khong, (Cao Ngoc Phuong), Parallax Press, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, 1993.


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