Sangha Building in the West
In May 1966, when I left Vietnam, I did not think that I would be gone long. But I was stuck over here. I felt like a cell precariously separated from its body, like a bee separated from its hive. If a bee is separated from its hive, it knows that it cannot survive. A cell that is separated from its body will dry up and die. But I did not die because I had come to the West not as an individual but with the support of a Sangha and for the sake of the Sangha’s visions. I came to call for peace. Our work in Vietnam at that time had strong momentum in the areas of cultural development, education, and social development. We had established the Van Hanh University, a university for higher Buddhist studies, the School of Youth for Social Service, the La Boi Printing Press, and the weekly newspaper Hai Trieu Am (The Sound of the Rising Tide). We also had a campaign calling for peace within Vietnam. I came to the West with all these things in my heart, so I was not in danger of drying up. If I had come as an individual, looking for a position, for a bit of fame, then I surely would have dried up. The life-and-death issue was Sangha. That is why I began building a Sangha with the people who were helping me to call for peace. The people who came and helped me were pastors, priests, professors, schoolchildren, and university students. I met with them, befriended them, and invited them to join the path of service for peace.
From 1968 until 1975, I established and led a delegation in Paris of the Vietnamese Buddhists for Peace. Many young people volunteered to help us. They would work, and at lunch-time we offered them a simple meal. After dinner, they stayed on to practice sitting meditation. We shared who to practice walking meditation, Deep Relaxation, and singing. When we were working for the Delegation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Paris, we organized sitting meditation sessions for Western practitioners in Paris once a week at the Quaker Center on Vaugirard Boulevard. By offering the practice to the young people who came to help, many seeds were sown. This may be one reason why many young people came when we organized the first Summer Opening in Plum Village.
When I was in touch with individuals and communities doing peace and social work, I saw they had difficulties. After a period of time, they became divided; they grew tired and abandoned the cause. To prevent this, when meeting with any organization or individual, I shared my practice. Before we had the Sangha gathered together in one place, we already had the Sangha as individual elements in many places.
Pastor Kloppenburg, a Lutheran pastor from Bremen, Germany, was someone who loved me very much. He organized occasions for me to give talks in Germany calling for peace and helped me translate and publish Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire in German. He also raised money for me to send to Vietnam so the School of Youth for Social Service could continue its work. He helped me organize the peace talks in Paris. In Holland, Minister Hannes de Graff, of the Dutch Reformed Church, supported me immensely. In my journeys to call for peace in Vietnam, I made many friends in the religious circle, in the human rights circle, and among the younger generation.
Living Simply and Happily
When we first established the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, we faced many difficulties, like getting residential permits and finding enough food to eat and clothing to wear. Our headquarters was small but housed many people. There were nights when Sister Chan Khong, who had been a professor at a university in Saigon, had to ask to sleep overnight at a restaurant because we ran out of space. Instead of buying regular rice at a supermarket, we bought the cheaper broken rice, usually sold as bird feed, from the pet store. One day the man who was selling the broken rice asked us, “Why do you come and buy so much rice? You must have a lot of birds in your house.” We said, “Yes, many, nine in all, and each one is very big!” We showed with our hands how big those birds were. But our life was full of happiness. I found a place to teach, and I received one thousand French francs as salary every month. Other people in the delegation also had to find work. Sister Chan Khong used to teach mathematics and tutor young students to add to our income.
I took a course on printing as a trade. I am still a good printer and can bind books quite well. We had a printing machine and produced books for refugees to help them suffer less and to help them learn a foreign language so that they could settle in other countries. I always printed and bound books in mindfulness, breathing and smiling as I printed. I never let the machine run at full speed, always slowly and always a smile every time I changed pages. I have printed several dozen books and I have bound thousands of books.
I have never wanted to build a luxurious, beautiful monastery here. When I am able to sell my books, that money has been used to bring relief to the hungry and to victims of the floods in Vietnam. There are still many people in our Sangha who sleep in sleeping bags. Sister Chan Khong still sleeps in a sleeping bag. In Plum Village, I used to sleep on a very thin mattress on a plank of wood on top of four bricks. That did not prevent me from being happy.
In all the years of exile from Vietnam, I have never felt cut off from my Sangha in Vietnam. Every year, I compose and send manuscripts to Vietnam, and our friends in Vietnam always find ways to publish our books there. When they were banned, the books were hand copied, published underground, or published under different pen names.
From being like a cell separated from my Sangha body in Vietnam, I was able to practice cloning; and, not only did I not die, from a cell I have become a body. That body has become the Sangha body we see today. If, wherever we go, we go with our heart full of our Sangha, then we will not dry up and die. If you come to Plum Village, you have to take home with you no less than Plum Village in its entity. Bringing Plum Village home, you will be able to survive longer. The teaching and practice of “I have arrived, I am home” always complements the teaching of “going as a river and not as a drop of water.” If you are a drop of water, then you will evaporate halfway; but if you go as a river, you will surely reach the ocean. I have never gone as a drop of water. I have always gone as a river.