Giving back to our motherland

This letter was written by Thay (then in exile in Paris) to his social workers back in Vietnam, after hearing the news of the tragic passing of Thay Chau Toan, a beloved student and the director of the School of Youth for Social Service. Translated from the Vietnamese.

 July 18, 1974 

My dear younger brothers and sisters of the School of Youth for Social Services, 

This morning I’ve read a letter sent from the homeland, sharing the anxiety about the merit of the land where the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS) was located. Worries about fengshui (phong thủy, địa) always come up when bad things happened to the school. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in fengshui, but I think that the mind is more important than the fengshui. What is the best direction that Phap Van Temple should face? Of course it should face the people. Showing its back toward the people is ridiculous, isn’t it? 

Our homeland has had so many tragedies in the last 30 years. But was it because of bad fengshui? Were the Temple of Supreme Harmony (in Hue), the Chairman Palace (in Hanoi) and the Presidential Palace (in Saigon) placed in the wrong directions? According to the fengshui experts, we probably have to change frontal directions of all administrative buildings of all levels, from the central to the local.

But we know that the mind is more important than the fengshui: wars and tragedies come from people’s mind. “Peace in oneself, peace in the world” – everybody knows that, but not many people practice it. The proverbs “nồi da xáo thịt (fighting among loved ones, cooking our own skin)” and “gà một nhà bôi mặt đá nhau (chickens of the same flock masquerade to fight each others) are known by children but many adults don’t know how to apply those principles to avoid the infighting. Since the founding of SYSS, there have been many losses. Many people died, many people got injured. Once there was a loss, our heart also felt loss and injured. Huong and Vinh were injured and are with me now. They carry the injuries in their bodies, but the injuries in my heart are as painful as theirs. Lien, Huy, Vui, Hy, Tuan, Tho, Lanh, novice monk Nhat Tri his seven teammates, sister Nhat Chi Mai, the monks Thanh Van and Chau Toan, … and Dieu, Xuan, Ke, Ut, Lanh, Ngoc, Nguyen, Trieu, Ky. Who are we that can avoid the loss, while the whole nation has to endure the pain and suffering? We share the loss with the people, paying our dues like everybody else. How many people have died because of war and hatred? Those injured or dead among us, were those who had not spread the hatred. In July 1967, when I heard the news that Hy, Tan, Tho and Lanh were killed, I wrote: 

In your presence, fellow countrymen, brothers and sisters, 
Let me return the flesh of my brothers to our motherland. 
Let me return the blood of my brothers to our motherland – 
This chaste blood and pure flesh that never soiled our name.

Let me return their hands to humanity,
Hands that did not destroy. 
Let me give back their hearts to humanity, 
Hearts that bore no hatred. 

As for the skin of their bodies,
Let me give it back to you, fellow countrymen, 
the skin of four who never cooked an animal’s flesh 
in its own skin. 

Please use the skin of my brothers, 
to mend those open wounds in our people’s flesh –  
the immense body 
that swoons in agony. 

Those who have been injured or passed away accepted the outcome with a mind without hatred. We are lucky that our hands have never been tainted with people’s blood. Our contributions have been small and negligible, but we have known to avoid violence. Knowing that, I have recommended that we do not fall into despair. I recommended that to you, and also to myself.

We love those who have passed away, and also those who are still alive. We have to live with each other with gratitude and generosity. Don’t live in such a way that we will regret when our co-workers pass away. None of us want to live in such a way that we limit their food and drink while they are still alive, but then offer elaborate food and drink on the altar when they die. That food and drink only pleases the flies.

We often live in forgetfulness. Because of small suspicions, we don’t give each other love and care. We serve to satisfy our deepest aspiration, not to boast about our deeds or to gain merit. Even if our co-workers can’t work as we can, that is no reason to reduce our contribution. I’ve heard that you have worked very well, and yet that is not enough for us to be happy about. Working well is not the most important thing. What’s most important is our love for each other and our capacity to live happily together. Working for peace, then surely it is only natural to build peace in ourselves and within our family.

I think SYSS as a family, that’s why I am addressing you as younger brothers and sisters. Otherwise, I would address you as social workers. It is not that I am closer to graduates from the first class than graduates from the second or the third class. There are those whom I haven’t met, but I don’t feel distant when I think about them. I think there probably are members of the 3rd-graduation class who are more open and less attached to their own ideas than those who are members of the 1st-graduation class. Members of different graduation classes are all members of SYSS. Every graduation-class accepts non-violence and reconciliation.

SYSS is only a raft that can bring us to the shore of service. It is not a heritage to cosset, not a statue to respect, and not a “self” to decorate. You shouldn’t be worry about losing SYSS, but you should worry about losing compassion and the will to serve. If you see the atmosphere of SYSS is too difficult to breathe, then it is better to quit SYSS. You can serve your compassionate ideal outside of SYSS. There are many who are no longer belong to SYSS, but their lives still serve their non-violence ideals. 

Dear ones, I am very sad. Thay Chau Toan promised me that he would find some land to create a village for the SYSS, in which each of us would have a parcel of land to build a house and a garden. No matter where we go, we would always have a home and a garden to return to, to remember, to love. I had planned to meet him and tell him to allocate my parcel not far away from his, and to keep all the trees which were beautiful. I also dreamed of the handsome boulders and stream that would be running through the village. Each of you will also have a parcel. So, I will have one, Vinh, Huong, Thay Chau Toan also have one. We will build many small parks. Our village will be fresh and tranquil as compassion. I felt Thây Chau Toan could work with you to create a beautiful village because he’s such a good artist. He was the monk with the greatest talent for flower arranging I ever met. 

In the past, we had Fragrant Palm Hermitage (Phuong Boi Am) as a refuge for the SYSS. When Fragrant Palm was no longer safe, we had Bamboo Forest Temple (Chua Truc Lam in Go Vap). I am sure that you have had the opportunities to spend time peacefully in those spiritual cradles. But now that Thay Chau Toan is no longer with us, a big tree has fallen down. The Village of SYSS, which I would like to name it Persimmon Village (Lang Hong) if we plant many persimmon trees, or Plum Village if we plan many Plum Blossom trees, had not yet been realized, and then he was gone. I am stuck outside of Vietnam and cannot return. I am troubled and feeling sad over it. I can’t help you much, even writing a letter to you regularly, I still can’t do it. 

By one way or another, you will find way to build Persimmon Village, won’t you? I will write to Br. Thieu, the new director of SYSS. We will build a memorial park to honor sister Nhat Chi Mai, thay Thanh Van, Thay Chau Toan and other brothers and sisters. Please find a place with good soil, green trees, rocks and water. I love to have those things. They are the most beautiful things and can help us heal our wounds. Please give me one parcel. I will build a house, and around it I will plant many vegetables and herbs like dill, peppermint, balm-mint, …. I will treat you a bowl of soup with dill spread over it when you visit me. 

Every year, we can have at least a month of practicing without having any projects. Every day we can be in touch with rocks, trees, water and with ourselves. Planting vegetables, playing with the children, we find ourselves, heal the wounds, equip ourselves with compassion in order to serve again. I will guard the village for you. I will go to the village’s gate to greet you, to listen to your complaints and stories. Then I will lead you to your home. That afternoon, we can have a welcome festival, inviting the children to sing. I will read the poems that I wrote in honor of compassion and your hard working and loving hands, as well as praising the fresh flowers that you have planted on the paths of service. I will bring elder brothers and sisters, and mothers to take care of you when you need them. 

I knew Thay Chau Toan when he was 8 years old. He came to my monastery (Tu Hieu) on Duong Xuan mountain to pick some flowers for the ancestral ceremony at Tra Am Temple. He was a young novice named Hoa then. Hoa climbed up the plumeria tree but a branch broken up and he fell down, breaking the shinbone. Thay Mat The (author of the History of Vietnamese Buddhism) brought him to the hospital and stayed with him there for hours. 

Later, Hoa was recommended to study at Bao Quoc Buddhist School in Hue and received the name of Hoang Minh and the Dharma name Chau Toan. In 1952, I invited him to come to the South, to study foreign languages and to live with me. He wrote several short stories. One time, he told me the story “Missed Appointment” that he had planned to write (or had written it but then lost the transcript). The story goes like this.

A poor boy had to leave his mother to earn a living in a faraway place. One day, he received the news that he would go to another village to work, and the train would pass by his old village. The boy then wrote to his mother: “Dear mom, next Monday I will pass by our village for 5 minutes. Please go to the train station so I can see you. I miss you so much. And please bring along some delicious rice cakes that you made, I haven’t have a chance to enjoy them for a long time. The train will stop for 5 minutes.” The boy looked forward to the day. Fifteen more minutes, the train would stop at the village. He became restless. Looking outside, then he walked next to the door. The train made a big noise and stopped. He looked around but his mom was nowhere to be found. One minute, two minutes, three then four minutes. He looked over the dirt road leading to the station. Nobody there.

After five minutes, the train began to pull out. His eyes still stuck to the dirt road. Still nobody there. The train moved faster. He cried. The tears made the bamboo rows and the village road un-seeable. Suddenly he wiped away his tears. On the red, dusty village road, there was a woman with a little basket on her head. It was his mother. Seeing the train pull away, she stopped and looked toward it. He waved to his mom, but the train had move too far. He could see his mother but she could not see him. Standing on the train, he cried and the tears came down like rain. A passenger took his hand and led him inside. 

After a retreat two months ago, Thay Chau Toan wrote to me: “I wish our country can have peace so I can go to Quang Binh to see my mother. I hope that will still be alive.” I don’t know whether his mother is still alive or not, but if she is, the meeting has been missed. Thay Chau Toan passed away on June 24, 1974, the day that I made the appointment to see him in Vientiane (Laos) to talk about establishing Persimmon Village. But I could not meet him. After hearing the news, I locked my door for one day. I felt like a tree being cut down. I sent a telegraph home to console you, but I was not consoled. Why do such painful “missed appointments” exist in this life? 

I read the prayers for Thay Chau Toan, for me, and for you. I write these words for you when it is very windy outside. Please take a few days to rest. Let’s look deeply at each other so we can love each other more.

Sending you all my love and trust, 

Nhat Hanh 

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