Walking in the Direction of Beauty--An Interview with Sister Chan Khong
by Alan Senauke and Susan Moon
Sister Chan Khong ["True Emptiness"] is a Vietnamese nun who works closely with Thich Nhat Hanh, and lives in the community of Plum Village in Southern France. In the fall of 1993 she was on a teaching tour in the U.S. with Thich Nhat Hanh, and Alan Senauke and Susan Moon talked with her at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. We sat together in a grove of cypress trees overlooking the ocean, while gray-robed monks and nuns passed quietly back and forth around us, making preparations for a retreat. (To learn more about Sister Chan Khong's work, read her new book, Learning True Love, reviewed on page 43.)
Susan Moon: The amount of suffering that you've seen and worked with is great. One can never do enough, there is always more work to do. And sometimes you even fail at a task: for example, some boat people you are trying to help end up getting tragically drowned. How do you deal with despair in your work?
Sister Chan Khong: It is a matter of survival. Everyone is capable of serenity when nothing difficult is before them. But when there are bombs dropping, you can be overcome by fear and hatred. When our friends were murdered doing social service in Vietnam, we did our best to calm ourselves. We saw that in order to survive we had to walk in the direction of beauty. We were not yet able to love those who murdered our friends, but should we take guns? If we kill the murderer, how about his wife; his wife will be angry at us. And then his son will be angry at us.
When our friends were killed, the last thing their murderers said to them was, "I'm sorry but I have to kill you." We cannot thank those who killed our friends, but we can try to find some good small seed in them.
In the eulogy read at our friends' funeral, we spoke to the murderers: "Thank you for saying 'I am sorry.' We understand that there were pressures and threats on you and if you disobeyed the order to kill our friends, you could have been killed yourselves." After that eulogy, none of our social workers were attacked. When thousands of boat people were adrift on the high seas, I was filled with despair. I completely identified myself with their suffering, and after many months of meditation, I initiated a rescue project. I rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed up like a fisherman, and went out to sea to "fish" out the boat people. Meditation allowed me to transform the garbage, the suffering, in me into a mercy fishing boat. On the seas, I was fearless, even when faced by pirates, and I was even joyful because I knew I was going in the direction of
SM: What about when it's not a crisis situation? Do you ever feel that you just don't have enough strength or patience to keep going on?
CK: When my close friends died, I suffered a lot. But I kept on reciting The Heart Sutra: "No birth, no death, no increasing, no decreasing. . ." all day long. When I'm discouraged, it helps me a lot.
SM: How has being a woman affected your work and your practice?
CK: In Vietnam, my elder sister experienced discrimination in education. But when I grew up there was much less discrimination. So I feel fortunate. In South Vietnam we are influenced by the French, and there may be more equality for women than in Central or North Vietnam. In Saigon where I attended the French High School, girls were considered equal to boys. But in Buddhist temples we were told that we needed to be reborn several times to become a man. I always said, "Oh, I don't care to be a man. I would not feel superior if I were a man, and I do not feel inferior as a woman."
SM: Even without overt oppression, I think it's still helpful to women to see you as an example of a woman who is acting out of a lot of strength.
CK: Here in the West in the monastery or nunnery I know that they do not have discrimination against women. And so I behave equally. But when I go to Vietnamese Temples where there are male monks, I try to behave according to the tradition. Not because I'm a hypocrite, but I want to give joy to them.
Alan Senauke: Do nuns take the same precepts as monks?
CK: I'll tell you. I asked Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] why women have to take 348 precepts instead of 248 precepts like men. Is there discrimination in Buddhism? In Old Path White Cloud, Thay explains. A woman went home alone through the forest and was almost raped by a man. So from that day on, the nuns kept one more precept than the monks: You're not allowed to go out alone.
The additional precepts are for protecting women, not because women are inferior. The second thing Thay said was that at the time of the Buddha, women were oppressed by the society. When Buddha accepted women in the order, that was a big revolution. But even so, for two thousand years people have continued to believe that woman is inferior to man. And so they think that more precepts for women means that women are inferior. But we have to see that the extra precepts are for protecting women first.
There is a another point that no other teacher has explained but Thay. When the stepmother of the Buddha asked to be ordained as a nun, Buddha at first refused her. She was a queen, and she had even more power over the country than the king. Buddha knew that she was strong and skillful. He said, "I'm worried that if my mother joins the community, she may rule everything."
Then Ananda begged him to ordain her, and the whole community begged him, and Buddha ordained her with the condition that she agree to practice the Eight Observations of Respect that nuns have to observe towards Buddhist monks. That was for controlling her, not because she was inferior, but because she was so strong.
AS: So then these rules became institutionalized.
CK: Yes, but in Plum Village, we do not observe them because Thay says that these Eight Observations were invented to help the stepmother of the Buddha only. He says you need to keep the 14 precepts properly. That's all. But of course he doesn't despise the traditional precepts. And I can accept them just to give joy to the monks who practice in the traditional way. If I can give them joy, I will have a chance to share my insights about women with them, and then they will be unblocked in their understanding.
AS: It's very delicate.
SM: It makes me think of a story you tell in your book about when you first met Thay. You were working in the slums of Saigon at the time, and you were wearing an old dress that didn't fit you very well. Thay said that you should wear a dress that was simple but lovely. You were surprised because you were trying to dress in a way that would make the people in the slums feel comfortable with you. Could you say any more about that?
CK: Thay was not against me going to the slums with a poor dress on. But I wore the same dress everywhere, and I was very proud of working with poor people. Every Sunday I went to hear Thay dharma talk in a huge temple. About 500 students came, and all of them were dressed beautifully. It was not a slum. But I dressed in my old gray, baggy dress. When Thay called me in, I cried, because I was so proud that I worked with the poor.
AS: So wearing poor clothes was a mark of arrogance?
CK: Yes, it was like saying, "I'm not like other people. I work with the poor." But Thay, "You should behave in a normal way." You don't have to wear a fancy dress, but when you are among students you, too, should look decent and simple." But in the slum I could wear the dress of the slum people.
SM: And now you wear your nun's robe and shave your head, and it's appropriate for whatever situation you're in, isn't it?
CK: Yes. Unconsciously, I missed Vietnam and the image of a poor nun in a brown dress walking in remote areas to help children. So, I shaved my head and put on my nun's robe as a kind of going home. Some of my friends in the West say, "I miss your hair." When some Vietnamese monks came to the United States they decided to have long hair and wear American clothes, so as not to shock the eyes of people. At first I did that too, but slowly I changed my mind, because when a monk wears non-monk clothing, it's fake. And when it's fake, it will not inspire confidence. At first our shaved heads may shock people, but if we walk mindfully, beautifully, what is inside will radiate and people will stop and ask, "Who are you?" And humbly we can explain.
SM: You move with a lot of dignity and grace.
CK: We have to, because when you wear the monk's robe you have to behave in the best way you can. If you move in an agitated way, you do more harm than help.
AS: I find that dressing as a priest, shaving my head, raises a very good question. Who is that person? And when you ask, "Who is that person?" you also ask, "Who am I?" So the monk becomes a mirror.
CK: Buddhism teaches that most of our perceptions are erroneous. We may think we understand something thoroughly, but we have to look more deeply. For example, you see a snake and you run away, filled with fear. But when you are angry at your partner, don't think that he is a snake. Look more deeply. Maybe he is only a rope. Too often, with our beloved ones, our son or husband, our daughter or wife, we only see the snake, not the rope.
In meditation we look deeply alone. But sometimes we cannot look deeply enough by ourselves and we have to ask the other person, "If I have hurt you, please try to breathe deeply and calm yourself, first, and then come and tell me, and I will try my best to understand and correct my behavior, so that I will not take you for a snake, but a real rope."
AS: Keeping in mind the snake which is actually a rope, I'd like to ask you a question about the present human rights situation in Vietnam. Because it seems so confrontational. In terms of the communist government there, is there a part of it that's just a rope, not a snake?
CK: Our friends are in jail in Vietnam. And we try to understand that it is because the government takes us for a snake instead of a rope. Our friends in Vietnam have not been able to make it clear enough to the officials that they are not working for political power but for human rights.
AS: They didn't declare it in a skillful enough way?
CK: Maybe. However, if one side, especially the powerful side, is too sure of their wrong perception, it is difficult for the rope to reveal itself!
AS: Do you worry about what Western development will do to Vietnam when the embargo is lifted, which will probably be soon?
CK: The developers are already there.
AS: The country is wide open.
CK: There are many problems. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That's enough. When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.
SM: I have one more question. What is it that gives you the most satisfaction in the work that you do?
CK: Twelve years ago, Thay asked me that same question, and I told him, "I enjoy communicating with the children in Vietnam. I enjoy wrapping the parcels of food and feeling close to them." And Thay said, "You cannot cling to this. You have to be prepared to die tomorrow without regret." And I said, "I am the only one who knows all these addresses, and if I die, who will take care of them?" He said, "Life is prepared the way for others to replace you." And I decided to write the book [Learning True Love] for that reason, so I can share what I have learned. Now I can have joy.
But I don't always feel happy. Even in our sangha in Plum Village we are not always at peace. When one sister or brother is unstable, the whole community is affected. So we try to be always fresh and happy and when somebody is sad, you have the serenity to overcome the difficulty. When the fire inspectors came to Plum Village last February and wanted to close it, I tried to be calm and go slowly. They said we needed to spend about two million dollars to bring Plum Village up to code, or we would have to close. Thay reminded us, If we have to close, we can close. We don't need to run after two million dollars. And now it turns out that we don't have to raise that much money after all. About $500,000 is still needed. And we are just doing what we have to, slowly. I can enjoy everything now. For me, walking is a joy, sitting is a joy. Having something to eat at mealtime is a joy. Touching the light switch and seeing the dark room bright with light is a joy. And I remember that we have a good sangha and a good teacher. My health is also good. There is so much joy for me.