Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam by Chan Khong, 258 pages, 1993, US $16 paperback. Parallax Press, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, USA.
reviewed by Shelley Anderson
This book by Vietnamese Buddhist nun Chan Khong (formerly Cao Ngoc Phuong) will be of interest to many people: to peace activists, to researchers in women's studies or those interested in women and Buddhism, but perhaps most of all to everyone interested in women activists. It is a simply written and completely engrossing account of one woman's life. Sr. Chan does not like to describe her memoirs as an autobiography, as it is not her story alone that she describes. Nevertheless, Learning True Love is a very valuable addition to a too-small category of writings--the lives of Asian women, telling their own story.
Born in 1938 to a middle-class Vietnamese family, Phuong was greatly influenced as a child by the generosity and kindness to others of her grandparents and parents. She reflected this upbringing as a girl, when she would spend her pocket money on buying noodles for street children. Defying tradition, she was sent first to an all-girls school and then to university for an education. It was while studying science at the University of Saigon that Phuong's interest in social change really developed. Along with her classes, she worked in Saigon's slums, setting up day care centers, arranging for medical care, distributing rice and helping to educate the children.
This interest in politics came naturally, too. The war with the French colonialists was raging as she grew up; her father, detained when Phuong was seven, was almost killed at one point. The suffering caused by war could be seen all around. Phuong would frequently try to enlist the help of Buddhist monks in her work to relieve this suffering, only to be told that social work was ´merit work' that would never lead to enlightenment. "Even though Catholics are in the minority in our country," she would ask monks, "they take care of orphans, the elderly, and the poor. The Buddha left his palace to find ways to relieve the suffering of people. Why don't Buddhists do anything for the poor and hungry?" She was told that she should reach enlightenment first, then work for the poor; if she practiced hard enough, she might be reborn as a man, then, perhaps dozen of lives later, a bodhisattva (an enlightened being, or a buddha). "I did not want to become a man, or even a Buddha," she wrote about this period of her life. "I just wanted to help the children whose suffering was so real."
In 1959, Phuong was to meet a monk with a different answer. The meeting would change her life. Thich Nhat Hanh was a radical young monk who coined the phase ´engaged Buddhism'--social action based on Buddhist principles. Thich Nhat Hanh (or ´Thay'--´teacher', an informal word many Vietnamese use to address a monk) encouraged her work for social change, saying that enlightenment could come by living daily life in the deepest, most mindful way possible. He also explained his own work in village development. "From that day on, I knew he was the teacher I had been looking for," she writes. Slowly, a group of other university students formed, under Thay's leadership. This group continued working in Saigon's slums and established night schools for poor workers, while continuing to study Buddhism.
The work grew increasingly difficult as the war between south and north Vietnam increased. By 1963 the south's Diem regime, controlled by Roman Catholics, declared that the Buddha's nativity could no longer be celebrated as a national holiday, and outlawed flying the Buddhist flag. Protestors, including many students, monks and nuns, were arrested and tortured.
Phuong's work in the underground nonviolent resistance to this--and to the Diem regime's many other human rights abuses, and to the war itself--would ultimately mean exile for her. Throughout the suffering--the murder of her co-workers, the self immolation of her friend Nhat Chi Mai, the repeated bombings of medical clinics and schools she had helped to build--Phuong takes refuge in Buddhist teachings and in her social activism.
Her commitment to both sustain her through her work in the early 1970s with Thich Nhat Hanh as part of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris peace talks; through their later efforts to save Vietnamese boat people; and in her continuing work with the Hungry Children Committee, which continues working in poor communities in Vietnam. Phuong lives now as an ordained nun in Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat center in France, where she teaches meditation and directs the work of the Hungry Children Committee, providing scholarships for poor Vietnamese children, and establishing mobile medical teams to help villagers.
Learning True Love saddens and inspires in turns. There is tremendous sadness at the waste and suffering of the Indochina war; there is also great inspiration at what one determined woman can accomplish. Learning True Love is a handbook for anyone who wants to learn how to remain calm in the midst of suffering, who wants to address the world's pressing problems by being in the world, but not overwhelmed by the world.
For information about Sister Chan Khong's work, write to : Hungry Children Committee, c/o Plum Village, Meyrac, 47120 Loubès-Bernac, France.