Sangha Stories / A True Bodhisattva

To celebrate Sister Chan Khong’s (Sister True Emptiness) continuation day on April 9, we share here glimpses of this remarkable nun through the eyes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Duc, and Sister Dinh Nghiem.

First six OI members
The first Order of Interbeing members – Sr. Chan Khong (Cao Ngoc Phuong) second left

Thich Nhat Hanh on Sister Chan Khong

My students are also my teachers. I learn so much from her. Sister Chan Khong (whose name means True Emptiness) is among the foremost of these. Please allow me to tell you one of the important lessons she taught me. It was in 1966, when the war in Vietnam had become unbearable, and I was so absorbed in working to end the war it was hard for me to swallow my food. One day, Chan Khong was preparing a basket of fresh, fragrant herbs to serve with rice noodles, and she asked me, “Thay, can you identify these fines herbs?” Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened. She had the ability to keep her attention on the herbs, and I realized I had to stop dwelling only on the war and learn to concentrate on the fines herbs also. We spent ten minutes discussing the herbs that could be found in the south of Vietnam and the ones in the central regions, and that encounter took my mind off the war, allowing me to recover the balance I needed so badly. In 1968, when I was in the south of France, I sought out the fines herbs of Provence with my full attention and interest.

Years later, a friend from America asked me, “Thay, why do you waste your time planting lettuce? Wouldn’t it be better to use the time to write poems? Anyone can plant lettuce, but few people can write such beautiful poetry.” I smiled and said, “My dear friend, if I do not plant this lettuce, I will not be able to write poetry.” I did not reveal that my answer came from the encounter twelve years earlier with Sister True Emptiness. Even today when I read the manuscript handed to me by Chan Khong, I continue to learn from her. A teacher should always be at the same time a student, and a student must always be at the same time a teacher. When we remember this, we benefit from each other.

Sister True Emptiness has a great capacity for joy and happiness. That is what I appreciate most in her life.

Sister True Emptiness has a great capacity for joy and happiness. That is what I appreciate most in her life. Her unwavering faith in the Dharma is strengthened each day as she continues to enjoy the fruit of transformation and healing born from the practice. Her stability, joy and happiness are wonderful supports for many of us in Plum Village and in the circle of the greater sangha. Working for social change and helping people are sources of joy for her. The love and concern that underlie her work are deep. True Emptiness is also true love. Her story is more than just the words. Her whole life is a Dharma talk. She is a true bodhisattva.

An extract from the Forward to Learning True Love (Parallax 2007)

SCCK, B&W, dancing with child

A Letter from Sister Chan Duc (“True Virtue”)

Dear Sư Cô (Sister),

There are so many things I want to thank you for, on this your continuation day.

I first met you in March 1986 when I came to greet you at the airport in London. I felt a connection to you even before I had spoken to you. Before that we had corresponded by letter about Thay and Sư Cô coming to England to lead a retreat and give public talks. Your correspondence was always thoughtful and kind.

In England you told me a little about the Vietnamese language and how there was no “I” and no “You”. Sư Cô was “chị” (elder sister) and I was “em” (younger sister). You sang the song Mặt Trời Ý Thức (The Sun of Awareness) as we drove in the car and I began to learn that song.

At the end of the trip Thay said I could come to Plum Village for a month in July and you supported that. After the month of July, you had the idea that I could stay on in Plum Village. My task was to be an elder sister to the young men refugees who were living in the Lower Hamlet. Thank you for that opportunity. I was not such a good elder sister to those young men, but still you let me stay on. When you visited us in Lower Hamlet you would bring western food for me to enjoy: muesli, flour to make bread, cheese.

In 1988, when I heard you were going to be ordained in India, I did not want to be left out. I wanted to be a nun too. You were very supportive and had no reluctance in allowing me to kneel alongside to receive the ordination. I am sure that without your support Thay would not have ordained me and from that time I have had you there as my elder sister in the Dharma. I have not always been a good younger sister. There were times when I was jealous of your position. As I grew in the Dharma mercifully I was able to let go of that and play my role as younger sister better.

Vulture Peak, 1988 November 12

In the last ten or nearly twenty years you have been so kind to me. You have listened deeply to my difficulties without judging and reacting. Whenever I asked to come back to Plum Village you always agreed and allowed me to stay in the Hermitage with you.

What I admire most in you is “vô hành hành” (action of non-action), your “vô tu tu” (practice of non-practice). Maybe it comes from the training you received from Thay over all the years that you assisted him. Your ability to live deeply the present moment and your open, embracing heart impress me deeply. You share very openly about yourself and there is no ego in that. You offer your insight when asked. Your ability to relax totally and to fall asleep for a few minutes helps you maintain your physical and mental energy.

Our neighbour in the Hermitage said that she only has to see you and she feels happy. She is not a practitioner, so how many thousands of practitioners must feel that only to hear you sing or see you smile is enough to make them happy. You have taught me how to be happy not just by telling me once to smile every half hour but by the way you enjoy the present moment, by the way you are able to transform difficult moments by practising the meditation on loving kindness.

Dear Sư Cô, may I wish you a very long life so that you can continue to be a wonderful place of refuge for so many people.

With love and respect,

Your younger sister – Chân Đức.

Hermitage, 26 March 2023

Continuing Sister Chan Khong – Sr. Dinh Nghiem

Serving sweet soup in the early 1980s, Lower Hamlet

The first time I saw Sister Chan Khong was in 1985. I was 15-years-old and my parents brought me to Plum Village for the Summer Opening.

Sr. Chan Khong still had long hair then. She took care of everything: work co-ordinator, shopper, transportation, registration, cooking, guest master … Back then someone would suddenly arrive at Ste-Foy La Grande and right away she went to pick them up, any time of the day, any day of the week! I remember there were mosquitoes in our room and my mum asked her about it. So, she even managed the mosquitoes in our room.

Whenever Thay printed a new book or a new edition of the Plum Village newsletter on his own printing press, Sr. Chan Khong would send a copy to everyone, with a few lines written to every person. It was amazing. My family still keeps and treasures those books.

I have never seen Sr. Chan Khong say “no”. Throughout my novice years, we saw the number of retreatants increasing every year and we were tired and complained that we were overwhelmed. But Thay and Sr. Chan Khong were always very happy – the more people could practice the happier they are. They never complained. Even with her current age and health, whenever we ask her to give a consultation or offer a session of Touching the Earth, she always says “yes”.

What gives her so much energy? She has a very good heart and has so much compassion for those who suffer. And she is very lucky because she has known Thay since a young age and received daily guidance from Thay. Throughout her whole life the best seeds in her were continuously watered. That is why she never burned out, never gave up, and can continue for such a long time on this path.

She has a very good heart and has so much compassion for those who suffer.

The way Sr. Chan Khong transmits the Dharma is completely different to Thay. She uses Vietnamese in a way that is simple, real, and straight-forward so people feel close to her right away. It is not refined and beautiful like Thay’s language but the effectiveness is not less. She has her own audience.

I remember in 2013 when Harvard University invited Thay and the sangha for a conference. Sr. Chan Khong was on a panel with several very eloquent speakers who spoke English as their native language. At the end of the session, many people came to ask – “Who is that nun? She touched my heart!” They were struck by her way with so much love, compassion, and humanity.

Sr. Chan Khong is always so honest and authentic. Sometimes she can hurt people because she’s so straight-forward. More and more she is like our grandma, softer and softer, even more compassionate. Her presence is so soothing and reassuring for us all.

To continue Sr. Chan Khong we need to focus on her practice of love and compassion. She has so much endurance – the constant and continuous desire to help those who suffer.

Sr. Chan Khong with Sr. Dinh Nghiem (left) and Sr. Linh Nghiem

We invite you to write a note to Sister Chan Khong to water her seeds of happiness on this joyful occasion.

Sr. Chan Khong after her Dharma Talk on April 9, 2023

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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