Responding to Suffering
Working in Paris, the Vietnamese Buddhist Delegation was able to sponsor more than nine thousand children who were orphaned because of the Vietnam War. We didn’t support the building of orphanages, but we tried to find relatives of the orphans to take care of them. At that time, I was very busy, but every day I spent time translating twenty files on the orphans. The files were sent to us by social workers in Vietnam. There was a photograph of each orphan, the name of the father and the mother, and information about how the father and mother died. We had to translate these files into English, Dutch, French, German to find sponsors for each child. The sponsor would donate twenty-five francs for each child. I used to hold up the file with the photograph of the child. Looking at the face of the child, I would smile and breathe. The energy of compassion would come up in me, and my heart was full of love. Then I would be able to translate easily. The translation was very poignant because there was a lot of love and compassion flowing out of my pen. There was a Danish lady living in Holland who was so inspired to help us with the program for orphans that she took a course to learn Vietnamese. Her Vietnamese became good enough to help translate the files.
In 1975, when the Americans left Vietnam and the North took over the whole of Vietnam, our Sangha in Paris retreated to a hermitage in the countryside outside of Paris, Sweet Potato Hermitage, where we had gone every weekend to rest and renew ourselves. At Sweet Potato Hermitage, I wrote The Moon Bamboo, The Sun My Heart, and the second and the third volumes of The History of Vietnamese Buddhism. Sweet Potato Hermitage is still there, near the forest of other. We should organize a pilgrimage there one day as a fun outing. It is very beautiful, and the climate is colder than Plum Village.
During the time at Sweet Potato Hermitage, from 1975 until 1982, Sister Chan Khong and a number of others in the Sangha organized relief work for the refugees, the boat people, escaping Vietnam at that time. We rented three boats, The Leopold, The Roland, and the Saigon 200. Our aim was to pick refugees up on the ocean and secretly take them to countries like Australia.
Once, we rescued five hundred and fifty people on our boat, but our underground work was exposed. Both Sister Chan Khong and I were driven out of Thailand and our secret headquarters there. Our work was exposed by journalists scouting for news. If this had not happened, the refugees would have been taken to Australia. But instead, we had to turn them over to UNESCO of the United Nations, and those boat people had to stay in refugee camps for three, four, or five years before their cases were finally reviewed and processed for immigration. So unfortunate!
Before Sister Chan Khong left Vietnam to come help me, she worked in high spirits with the School of Youth for Social Service. She has been with me from the beginning of 1968 until now, supporting all the work for peace. Since 1968, she has worked constantly, never once having the idea of giving up. Of course, I have had many other friends and many other disciples, and some have given up because there are many dangers, difficulties, and obstacles on the path of calling for peace, human rights, and building up Sanghas. Others have abandoned the cause because of a variety of difficulties. But Sister Chan Khong always accompanied me with great dedication.
Creating a Teacher-Disciple Relationship
Early on I trained several generations of monks and nuns in Vietnam. I looked after them with all my heart, and I thought taking care of them was enough, that I didn’t need disciples of my own. When I came to the West, I still had that idea. Then, one day, I saw clearly that if I didn’t have a direct teacher-disciple relationship, the practice of the disciple would not deepen. When I taught students in meditation centers in North America and in Europe there was a link, a relationship between teacher and disciple. But after I left, the relationship weakened, and students never really matured in the practices I offered. Because of the lack of the teacher-disciple connection, the students did not practice continually and ceaselessly. I saw that the relationship between teacher and disciple is very important, not only for the disciple but for the teacher as well. After than, I decided I would have monastic and lay disciples. I have learned a lot having disciples living and practicing with me. I have grown up a lot in my way of teaching and caring for my disciples. In the beginning, I did not have as much courage or patience as I do now. Traveling and offering teachings have also helped me grow a lot.
The relationship with my students has helped me see ways of teaching that can most likely ensure success. It brought together the teachings, the practice of Mindfulness Trainings, and fine manners, so they are not separated from each other. We have been able to discover wonderful Dharma doors, or practice methods, which many people can use. For instance, the idea of the Sangha body, using the Sangha eyes, Shining Light, Touching the Earth, and the Second Body system are the fruits and flowers of our practice here in Plum Village. They are not only used by monks and nuns, but also by laypeople. The presence of monks and nuns in Plum Village has brought me much happiness, because of their commitment to the practice and their determination to follow our ideal together. In Plum Village, monks and nuns vow to live together as a family for the rest of their lives.
In the past I taught several generations of monastic disciples, but I was never as happy as I am now, with teacher and disciple living together and practicing together. Every day I find ways to transmit all that I have realized for myself to my disciples, like the first banana leaf transmitting to the second and the third. The happiness that monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles, and twinkling eyes. I don’t know if they were so beautiful before they became monks and nuns or whether they became beautiful afterwards. Or is it just because, like any other father and mother, I see my own children as more beautiful than other people’s children? I do see them as beautiful, whether they are from North America, Europe, or Asia. I think some of you must agree with me. Just a few hours after the ceremony transmitting the Novice Precepts, their faces are so much more radiant, their eyes more bright, and their smiles fresher. That has to do with their determination, their commitment, and with the precepts’ body. Sitting with the monks and nuns to drink tea or to have Dharma discussion, to talk about happiness in the present and the future, is one of the things I like doing best of all. I spend a lot of time with the monks and nuns and that brings me great happiness.