Fifteen years ago when I began writing books, I had high hopes that someday I would be “discovered” and that “my message” would thereby reach millions of people and change the world for the better.
That ambition began to disintegrate soon after, when after years of labor The Ascent of Humanity found no takers in the publishing world. So I self-published, still hoping that word-of-mouth would propel it to best-seller status. That would show all those publishers! I remember looking at the sales numbers in August 2007 – its fifth month, about the time it should have been gaining momentum. Total sales that month: five copies. Around the same time I was evicted from my apartment (having pinned all my hopes and income on the book) and spent the next half year living temporarily in other people’s houses, children in tow.
It was a painful yet beautiful clarifying experience that asked me, “Why are you doing this work? Is it because you hope to become a celebrated intellectual? Or do you really care about serving the healing of the world?” The experience of failure revealed my secret hopes and motivations.
I had to admit there was some of both motivations, self and service. OK, well, a lot of both. I realized I had to let go of the first motive, or it would occlude the second. Around that time I had a vision of a spiritual being that came to me and said, “Charles, is it really your wish that the work you do fulfill its potential and exercise its right role in the evolution of all things?”
“Yes,” I said, “that is my wish.”
“OK then,” said the being. “I can make that happen, but you will have to pay a price. The price is that you will never be recognized for your role. The story you are speaking will change the world, but you will never get credit for it. You will never get wealth, fame, or prestige. Do you agree to pay that price?”
I tried to worm my way out of it, but the being was unyielding. If it was going to be either-or, how could I live with myself knowing in my heart of hearts I’d betrayed my purpose? So I consented to its offer.
Of course, time would tell that it wasn’t actually either-or. What was important in that clarifying moment was that I declare my ultimate loyalty. Once that happened, recognition and prestige might or might not come as a byproduct, but it wouldn’t be the goal. After all, the work I do isn’t “my” work. These are ideas whose time has come and they need capable scribes. Our true wages in life consist of the satisfaction we get from a job well done. Aside from that, well, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.
That was part one of the disintegration of my ambition. The first part was the disintegration of personal ambition. The second part was the disintegration of the ambition to do big things to change the world. I began to understand that our concepts of big impact versus small impact are part of what needs to be healed. Our culture validates and celebrates those who are out there with big platforms speaking to millions of people, while ignoring those who do humble, quiet work, taking care of just one sick person, one child, or one small place on this earth.
When I meet one of these people, I know that their impact doesn’t depend on their kind action going viral on the internet and reaching millions of people. Even if no one ever knows and no one ever thanks them for taking in that old woman with dementia and sacrificing a normal life to care for her, that choice sends ripples outward through the fabric of causality. On a five hundred or five thousand year timescale, the impact is no smaller than anything a President does.
Certain choices feel significant to us, unreasonably. The heart calls us to actions that the mind cannot justify in the face of global problems. The logic of bigness can drag us into feelings of irrelevance, leading us to project importance onto the people we see on our screens. But knowing how much harm has been done by those very people in the name of bettering the world, I became wary of playing that game.
The calculating mind thinks that just helping one person has a smaller impact on the world than helping a thousand. It wants to scale up, to get big. That is not necessary in a different causal logic, the logic that knows, “God sees everything,” or the logic of morphic resonance that knows that any change that happens in one place creates a field that allows the same kind of change to happen elsewhere. Acts of kindness strengthen the field of kindness, acts of love strengthen the field of love, acts of hate strengthen the field of hate.
Nor is scaling up necessary when we trust that the tasks life sets before us are part of a larger tapestry, woven by an intelligence that puts us in exactly the right place at the right time.
I attended a funeral recently for a central Pennsylvania farmer, Roy Brubaker, among several hundred mourners. One of the testimonials came from a young farmer who said something like this: “Roy is the one who taught me what success really is. Success is having the capacity to always be there for your neighbors. Any time someone called with a problem, Roy would put down what he was doing and be right over to help.”
This farmer had been Roy’s intern. When he went into business for himself and became Roy’s competitor, Roy helped him along with advice and material aid, and even announced his new competitor’s farm share program to his own mailing list. At the end of his speech, the young farmer said, “I used to think Roy was able to help so many people because he was a successful farmer who had it made. But now I think he was probably more like me, with fifty vegetable crops all crying for attention and a million things to do. He was there for people anyway.”
Roy didn’t wait until he had it made to start being generous.
This is the kind of person that holds the world together. On a practical level, they are the reason society hangs together despite its pervasive injustice, poverty, trauma, and so on. They also anchor the field of love that helps the rest of us serve our purpose rather than our personal ambition.
As I run into more such people and hear their stories, I realize that I don’t need to worry about the size of my audience or about reaching “people of influence.” My job is just to do my work with as much love and sincerity as I can. I can trust that the right people will read it. I am awed and humbled by people like Roy whom I meet in my travels and in my community. They live in service, in love, with great faith and courage, and unlike me they don’t have thousands of people telling them how important their work is. In fact, quite often the system and culture we live in discourages them, telling them that they are foolish, naïve, irresponsible, impractical, and giving them little financial reward. How many times have you been told a life dedicated to beauty or nurture or healing is unrealistic? Maybe after everything on your farm is all ship-shape, maybe after you are personally secure with a solid career and secure investments, maybe then you can afford a little generosity. So I admire people who are generous first, generous with their precious lives. They are my teachers. They are the ones who have eroded my ambition to make it big – even with the excuse of serving the cause.
I am reminded of a Zen teaching story in which the Zen master is approached by a messenger from the emperor. “The emperor has heard of your teaching and wants you to come to court to be the official imperial teacher.”
The Zen master declined the invitation.
A year later the invitation was repeated. This time the master agreed to come. When asked why, he said, “When I first got the invitation, I knew I wasn’t ready because I felt the stirring of excitement. I thought this would be a great chance to spread the Dharma throughout the realm. Then I realized that this ambition, which sees one student as more important than another, disqualified me from being his teacher. I had to wait until I could see the emperor as I would any other person.”
Thanks to the humble people who hold the world together, I am learning no longer to favor the emperor over any other person. What guides me is a certain feeling of resonance, curiosity, or rightness.
Ironically, having lost my careerist ambitions, this year Oprah Winfrey invited me to tape an interview with her for (even more ironically) the show Super Soul Sunday. Five years ago my heart would have been thumping with excitement at the prospect of making it big, but now the feeling was one of curiosity and adventure. From the God’s-eye perspective, was that hour to be more important than the hour I spent with a friend in need? Or the hour you spent taking a stranger to the emergency room?
Yet my response was an immediate yes, accompanied by feelings of wonderment that my world was intersecting with hers. You see, Oprah occupies nearly a different universe from my own countercultural fringe. Could it be, I think with leaping heart, that the gulf between our worlds is narrowing? That the ideas I serve and the consciousness I speak to are ready to penetrate the mainstream?
I think the conversation with Oprah is a marker of changing times. I was amazed that someone in her position would even take notice of my writing, since it lies quite outside any familiar discourse within the mainstream. (At least I’ve never seen anything in mainstream media remotely similar to my election article that attracted her attention.) Our meeting is perhaps a sign that our country’s familiar, polarized social discourse is broken, and that her people – the vast and fairly mainstream audience she serves – are willing to look outside it.
By this I do not mean to diminish her extraordinary personal qualities. I experienced her as astute, perceptive, sincere, expansive, and even humble, a master of her art. But I think her reaching out reflects more than these personal qualities.
I sometimes see myself as a kind of receiving antenna for information that a certain segment of humanity is asking for. A use has been found for the weird kid in high school! On a much larger scale, Oprah is something akin to that as well: not just herself, she is an avatar of the collective mind. Deeply attuned to her audience, when she brings something into their view it is probably because she knows they are ready to see it.
During our conversation I sometimes had the feeling that she personally would have liked to geek out and dive much deeper, but that she disciplined herself to remain the antenna of her audience and stay within the format of the program, which doesn’t lend itself to my usual long disquisitions. I meanwhile was trying to frame ideas for a mainstream audience that I expect isn’t familiar with some of my basic operating concepts. Our conversation felt a bit awkward at times, groping for a structure, as if we were trying to furnish a very large house with a motley mix of beautiful but odd furniture. Nonetheless I think we created a habitable enough corner to welcome people into a new perspective.
In the years since my encounter with the spiritual being, I’ve become comfortable in the cultural fringes where my work has found its home. I have scaled back on traveling and speaking in order to spend more time with my precious loved ones and to connect with the source of knowledge in nature, silence, and intimate connections. I’m with my family at my brother’s farm right now, doing farm labor part of the day and writing during the other part. The flurry of publicity that might follow the Oprah appearance (or might not – it could just be a blip on the radar) poses me with another question, the complement of the one my initial “failure” posed. If it serves the work, am I willing to sacrifice the reclusiveness I am coming to love? If it serves, am I willing to be on other programs where the host may not be as gracious as Oprah? Am I willing to be more of a public figure and deal with the attendant projections, positive and negative? Do I have the strength to remember who the real super souls are – the Roy Brubakers, the dolphin rescuers, the hospice workers, the care givers, the peace witnesses, the unpaid healers, the humble grandfathers taking a child berry-picking, the single moms struggling to hold it all together not imagining that their monumental efforts at patience have an impact on the whole world?
Let me be honest with you: if I hadn’t been facing the total collapse of my success fantasies already, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the spiritual being’s offer. And by the way, it is an offer that is constantly renewed. Every day we are asked, “What will you serve?” I had not the strength on my own to say yes to a life of service. Nor do I now, save for the help I receive from others who hold the field, the people who humble me every day with their generosity, sincerity, and selflessness. To the extent I am effective at what I do, it is because of you.
If I am right that my Oprah appearance is a marker (however small) of the unraveling of once-dominant worldviews, then it only happened because the emerging worldview I speak for is being held so strongly now by so many. Take it then as an encouraging sign. Whether or not it proves to be a breakthrough moment for the concepts of empathy and interbeing we discussed, it suggests that they are coming closer toward consensus reality. We will not be alone here much longer. I thank all who have held the field of knowledge I speak from, who believe my words even more than I do myself, and who therefore uphold me in the work that upholds you. That is how we transition from the Age of Separation to the age of We Need Each Other.
When Padma ( this is how we affectionately call our guru Sharon Gannon) enters a room, she likes to greet everyone by making eye-contact and bowing gently, her face lit with a smile. This can take a while (like during this Jivamukti tribe gathering where hundreds of yogis come to learn from her). All the chitter-chatter stops and silence fills up the room. The atmosphere clears up. It is magical to be part of that.
Every year, at their home in the Wild Woodstock Forrest sanctuary, Sharon Gannon and David Life teach daily classes in August. It is my favorite time of the year.
Last year, on August 18th, she was just about to greet us her natural way and stopped. And gave us a short teaching instead:
« You know things happen in life and you adjust accordingly…It’s a good thing. It’s like rivers. Rivers are master adjusters, adapters. They are steady and flow. When they have to go around something, they go around something.
Sometimes, they get very intent on reaching their goal, they just push everything…. So there’s it that.
Isn’t it annoying when the teacher speaks cryptically? » [laughter] ~ Sharon Gannon
This world is a better place because of this gentle and mighty river!
Please join me in showering my guruma with love and abundant blessings to celebrate her birthday
Focus Of The Month – July, 2017
Om purnam adah purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate
purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavashishyate
That is whole. This is whole. From the whole the whole becomes manifest. From the whole when the whole is negated, what remains is again the whole.
Yoga practices are magical practices. Magic happens when there is a shift in perception—what you thought was real drops away to reveal a more expanded enlightened reality. Yoga practices, fueled by a sincere intention for Self-realization, will transform habitual ways of seeing – of relating, to ourselves and others. Our thoughts, words and deeds are all interconnected with our relationship – it is what life is about. But, to the enlightened yogi, there are no “others.” In the yogic state of samadhi, the boundaries that separate you from God, as well as the world around you, the world of otherness, all dissolve. It takes some heavy-duty magic to accomplish a shift in perception like that!
The word perception means “to see.” But it means seeing with more than just the physical eyes. It means more than just to understand, but “to realize.” The English word “understand” implies a duality, as if you’re standing under something. But to really realize something is to immerse yourself and have a complete experience of it—to become with that something. And what is realized, or perceived, during samadhi is the one-ness of being. Otherness disappears as you see your own Self in others, revealing that only Love is real.
The chakras are doors of perception into new dimensions of reality. The bija mantras are the passwords or keys that open the doors to each one of these chakras, to each one of these worlds. Bija means “seed” in the sense of a potency or distilment, where something very large is compressed into something very small, compact and essential. Having something in a compact form is very good for traveling! That’s what we are doing in life. Our souls are journeying, traveling through dimensions of reality to our true home.
All of the yoga practices are purification practices that help us lighten our baggage so our travel is smoother. The system of asana has been very particularly designed to help purify our bodies, which are made of our karmas that come from our relationships. Yoga gives us the tools to purify our perception by removing the only dirt that really is: ignorance or avidya. That ignorance is caused by misperception, not being able to see or perceive ourselves, others and reality clearly.
We purify our perception through the only cleanser that is known to have the most wondrous results with absolutely no side effects. It’s like Clorox bleach without any chlorine. It’s like the most incredible detergent that doesn’t pollute any water system and doesn’t wear out the clothes in the washing machine. The magical cleanser I am talking about is love. When you can truly love others and yourself you can love God. Forgiveness of others and ourselves, as well as letting go of blaming, complaining and explaining, is necessary to allow love to work its magic.
Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described yoga as “the state where you are needing nothing.” You realize that you are a holy being—that you are whole. Eventually, as the dawning of this wholesome yogic enlightenment appears, you find yourself letting go of selfish tendencies and less compelled to blame others or see yourself as the victim of any type of abuse or circumstance.
Because we carry in our bodies our unresolved karmas, sometimes negative emotions can arise during the asana practice. Emotions such as fear, jealousy, anger, vengeance, cynicism, doubt and lack of faith are the results of karmas or actions we have done in our past that were not guided by love. These dark emotions are obstacles that cloud our vision and can stop us from feeling connected to our eternal true nature. We can address those troubling emotions through love and start to shift our perception away from disconnection and toward stability and joy—in other words towards sthira and sukham.
This way of thinking, where we as an individual do our best to enhance the lives of others and even the Earth herself, is quite new in a culture that is based on the assumption that the Earth belongs to us, and that to be happy, we must take from others. Fear causes us to feel that if we give we will lose – that there will be less for us. Through the practice of yoga we become fearless and daring. Instead of feeling incomplete, motivated by the need to take from others to feel whole, we might dare to ask, “What can I do for others? How could I live in such a way that my life enhances planet Earth?” This kind of shift in perception can be a huge turnaround, freeing us from cultural conditioning that may have been distorting our perception of reality for many years, even lifetimes. But selfless actions motivated by love are the kinds of actions that will lead to samadhi, living liberated, as a jivanmukta living in the light of love as joyful whole, holy beings.
Essay by Sharon Gannon
Restraint, Observance, Seat, Breath Control, Sense Withdrawal, Concentration, Mediation and Ecstasy are the eight limbs of Yoga.
In the practice of pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, we draw the senses inward to bring attention to the inner world instead of expending energy exclusively on the outer world. What we perceive in the outer world is just one part of our whole consciousness. Pratyahara provides a bridge from the outer practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama (from the gross) to the inner practices of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (to the subtle). The energy freed from focusing outward, freed of the desire to act and to collect information can be wisely channeled instead to the realization of who we really are, which is pure consciousness.
Where do we put our energy most of the time? We give our precious attention to the outside world, invariably, through identification with sensory inputs as well as identification with conditioned personality. For example, take our self-image, how we want to present ourselves to the world. How do I look? How do people see me? How do I want to be perceived? This kind of behavior exhausts a lot of our energy throughout the day. Pratyahara, as a practice, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or that we shouldn’t embrace beauty. It means to be aware of how much attention we give the outer image and to reduce the energy wasted in creating it. Satsang is a potent and helpful yoga practice in this regard. To be surrounded by people who are interested in yoga and self-realization instead of sticking to a carefully crafted outer image supports us to liberate ourselves from false identification.
To be able to turn the focus inward we need to minimize outer disturbances to the extent possible. What do we feed our minds all day? Information from news media, television, emails, social media, magazines and advertising, all of which trigger our emotions and tell us what we need next. What is our strategy to deal with all this information? Some may turn to alcohol, drugs and gossip. We talk and think more in an effort to digest all that input. Unfortunately, it only makes things worse. We should rather make an effort to calm our mind! We have to be able to digest what happens to us and everything that we say and think and do. Choose that which gives you less new things to deal with. As a practice, write down what distracted you during the asana or mediation. What made concentration difficult? By putting it into words you can realize what you are chewing on while you wanted to focus on something higher than your daily distractions. Then you start getting a sense of what is really important to you and what kind of external sensory input you would like to minimize.
To understand what is happening during the process of pratyahara, for me the philosophy of Samkhya is very helpful. We get an exact breakdown of how the human being functions, what has an influence on our behavior and how we perceive the world. We all know our five senses, referred to in Sanskrit as buddhendriyas. There are also the karmendriyas or “senses of action” (talking, grasping, moving, eliminating and procreating). These are almost always immediate, unconsciousness, automatic, spontaneous, and learned reactions to the sensations. I see something I like, for example, a brownie. For others, it would be a cigarette, a steak, a sexy person or a new pair of shoes. I see the brownie, I want to have the brownie and my hand grasps the brownie. To understand why we act like we do, we need to observe the connection between sensation, mind and action. Then we have the chance to change something. Being aware of what drives us to action makes it easier to let it go and calms down our lives. Conscious behavior reduces distraction and increases the ability to concentrate. Focusing inward we discover the three parts of our mental activity. The dominant parts are the thinking part, the mind (manas) and the part having an opinion, our ego (ahamkara). The pure observing component (buddhi) is slightly hidden, but always present. Through training the mind we can interfere and stop our prompt action. We then have time to reflect and act consciously. Do I need the brownie? Am I hungry? Do I need more sweets? What did I eat all day? What are the ingredients? What are the consequences for me and for others? Does my action lead to more suffering of others? What are my ethical and moral beliefs? How do I want to act, instead of just react? Addressing these questions will lead to different behaviors, which are based on a freely made decision, with hopefully less ego involved. Selfless and nonviolent behavior reduces the dominance of the ego and brings more peace to the world and to the mind.
A practical aspect of the training of the mind is to observe things consciously like a witness. Practice observing without judgments, without words, just watching. For example, watch thoughts arising during the Yoga Practice. We don’t have to stick with the thoughts, we don’t have to describe them and we even don’t have to think about where they come from. We can realize this is the mind thinking a thought, and let go of the thought. This will bring us closer to the buddhi, our intelligence, which allows realizing the higher Self, which is pure consciousness.
The practice of pratyahara shows us, how much influence the culture has, the outer circumstances, our experiences, our personal behaviors and characteristics and, of course, our preferences and antipathies. Going inward reveals a sophisticated vision of our entire consciousness. The ego — or better the “maker of our small self” — can be identified and eliminated, revealing the buddhi, a clear and free perception. As Sharon Gannon and David Life say in Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul, “Through pratyahara we can journey from the outer fixation to inward revelation.”
She’s best known as Thich Nhat Hanh’s invaluable collaborator, but Sister Chan Khong is also a dedicated activist and gifted teacher in her own right. Andrea Miller tells her extraordinary story.
Death permeated the whole trip. The flood victims that the volunteer relief workers had come to help were either on the verge of death — starving, shivering, and homeless — or else they were dead, bloated and rotting. The volunteers themselves were also in danger. They knew that at any moment they could be killed in the crossfire.
This was Vietnam, 1964. The country was at war and now it was slammed by disaster, this flood. The people in the conflict areas were the hardest hit, yet no one dared to go to them with supplies. No one except this one small team of volunteers, including Cao Ngoc Phu- ong, better known today as Sister Chan Khong, and her teacher, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Over a period of five days, the volunteers gave away the food in their seven loaded-down boats. Then, when they went to leave the area, young mothers followed them, begging them to take their babies because they saw no other hope for their children. To this day, Chan Khong remembers crying—her heart breaking for the mothers, for the babies. She could not take them with her.
Later Chan Khong organized other trips in which she and groups of students, monks, and nuns would travel to remote, impoverished areas and distribute rice, beans, clothing, cooking utensils, and medical supplies. Once, in a village where the fighting was particularly brutal, the volunteers were settling in for a night of sleep on their boat when suddenly they heard shots and screaming. Many of the young volunteers panicked and a few of them even attempted to avoid the bullets by leaping into the river. But Chan Khong stood her ground — breathing deeply in and out to find calm. This eased the panic in the others and then the whole group came together. On that dark night in the midst of war, they chanted the Heart Sutra.
It can even be said that her life itself is a teaching.
Today, sister Chan Khong can count more than fifty years of working closely with Thich Nhat Hanh. He is now a bestselling author and has centers and students across the globe, and she is recognized as being a major force that has helped him to grow his community. But Sister Chan Khong is an accomplished teacher in her own right and it can even be said that her life itself is a teaching.
In her community, Chan Khong is well known for leading the practice of beginning anew. A four-step process, it is an opportunity to look deeply and honestly at ourselves and to work on our relationships through mindful communication. The first step is to express appreciation for the person we’re speaking to; the second is to acknowledge any unskillful action we’ve committed against him or her; the third is to reveal how he or she has hurt us; and the fourth is to share a difficulty that we’re having and to ask for support. At Plum Village, the practice center in France where Chan Khong resides, beginning anew is practiced collectively every two weeks and practiced individually as often as necessary. Chan Khong urges lay people to practice it at home.
“Begin anew to refresh your relationship with your children,” she says. “Even when they’re five years old, children feel pain,” and frequently parents are unaware of the ways in which they hurt their children. For example, says Chan Khong, maybe a mother has hurt her son’s feelings by saying that she won’t buy him the toy he wants. If, through beginning anew, she gives her son an opportunity to express his hurt, the mother will know to explain to him why she can’t afford the toy. Then the boy will understand and resentment will not build between them.
In romantic relationships, beginning anew can be invaluable. Frequently, says Chan Khong, people are disappointed in their partners. At the beginning of the relationship, a woman might see that her mate has many wonderful qualities and so she presumes that he has various other qualities that she finds desirable.
But as time goes on, she notices all the ways in which he is not her ideal. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not good,” says Chan Khong. “Maybe she presumed that he was a magnolia and would behave as one. But he is actually a lotus. He is still beautiful in his way.” “When you ask your partner kindly, he will reveal his wounds, and as he reveals them more and more, you will accept him as he is—with his education, his culture, his way of being—and he will accept you more, too,” she says. “You will grow closer and suddenly you will not be two, but one. You will have entered the world of each other. So beginning anew is a way to make your relationship good with your partner, your children, your parents.”
Touching the Earth and Total Relaxation
Brother Phap Hai, an Australian monk in the Plum Village tradition, says that in addition to beginning anew, “total relaxation” and “touching the earth” are important dharma doors for Sister Chan Khong. Total relaxation is practiced sitting or lying down and is an opportunity to rest the body and mind. Touching the earth, a series of meditations that Thich Nhat Hanh developed, is based on traditional Buddhist prostration practice.
“All dharma teachers,” says Phap Hai, “learn the basic practices, the basic framework. Then we’re encouraged to make the dharma our own—to allow the dharma to express itself through us. And Sister Chan Khong does that beautifully. One example is her beautiful singing voice, which she offers in total relaxation. She also has a great skill for improvisation. In touching the earth or total relaxation, she’ll pick up on energy in the room or something that’s been going on, and she’ll address that. Sister Chan Khong’s touching the earth and total relaxation are not scripted. She’s giving a living dharma talk. That’s the way that she expresses her caring.”
Phap Hai says Chan Khong never says no when somebody asks her for something. “I’ve never seen her close down her heart,” he says. “For me, that is one of the qualities that I admire most in Sister Chan Khong, and one that I want to develop in myself too. Sometimes I feel tired and even though I might not say no to a request there’s still an energy of no. But Sister Chan Khong is always there for people, and in such a loving way.”
Sister Chan Khong’s Early Life in Vietnam
Sister Chan Khong was born in 1938 in a village in the Mekong River Delta, a lush land of rice fields and coconut groves. Her parents were, in her words, like oak trees that sheltered twenty-two “birds” — nine children of their own, plus twelve nieces and nephews and one girl from a poor family. “Mother and Father cared for all of us equally,” Chan Khong wrote in her memoir Learning True Love. “Feeding twenty-two mouths was a strain, but we were taught to be satisfied with and share whatever we had.”
Her father rented plots of land to various farmers. Yet whenever there was a drought or flood he waived the rent. He also helped farmers to buy their own land and he sometimes gave farmers money to support their children. Chan Khong’s mother was similarly generous. She gave loans to the poor to set up their own businesses and only if they were successful did she ask for repayment.
In her early teens, Chan Khong caught a little boy trying to pick her pockets. He told her he had no other choice. His mother beat him whenever he came home empty-handed. “Where is your father?” Chan Khong asked, but the boy said he had no father. Then, following him to his house in the slums, she asked about his studies. “We don’t have enough to eat,” he told her. “How could I go to school?”
Chan Khong decided to find a way to help poor families such as the little boy’s. But since her own family was — as she says — “not so rich, not so poor,” she didn’t ask her parents for money. Instead, being gifted academically, she raised funds by tutoring wealthy students who were struggling in math. Then, after enrolling at the University of Saigon, she branched out in her humanitarian efforts.
Chan Khong has written, “I knew that if I went to the slums as a middle-class young woman, the people there would know I did not belong to their world, and they would not trust me. They might even try to con me. So, I always went wearing a frayed dress, pretending that I had a relative living there: ‘Do you know my Uncle Ba, the bicycle rickshaw driver?’ Then I would sit and listen to people talk about their hardships and think of ways to help them.”
“You have a good heart,” Chan Khong’s first Buddhist teacher told her. “With all the generous work that you do, you will be reborn into a wealthy family. Perhaps you will be a princess.” But Chan Khong wasn’t concerned about her next life, much less the possibility of a royal pedigree. Her focus was the present moment: the hungry need food, the sick need medicine, and they need it right now.
“You need to study scriptures more and work to become enlightened,” continued her teacher. “After you are enlightened, you will be able to save countless beings.” The idea was that if she practiced Buddhism diligently, she would be reborn as a man in her next life; then she might become a bodhisattva, and later still a buddha with miraculous powers. But again Chan Khong felt alienated by these goals. She didn’t want miraculous powers or to be a man, and to her this enlightenment smacked of both sexism and irrelevance.
Meeting Thich Nhat Hanh
In the autumn of 1959, Chan Khong had a conversation with a prominent Buddhist monk during which she asked many questions about the dharma. But he didn’t answer any of them. Instead, for each question he took out a book by Thich Nhat Hanh — a monk who Chan Khong had never heard of — and said, “The answer to your question is in here.” Chan Khong would have preferred talking to the monk in front of her, but she agreed to read the material when she had time. Then a month later, Chan Khong attended a course Nhat Hanh was teaching in Saigon. Impressed from the first lecture, she felt she’d never before heard anyone speak so beautifully and profoundly.
The following year, Chan Khong began corresponding with Nhat Hanh. In his first note, he wrote in his impeccable script about the mountain monastery where he lived—the wet wood he cooked with and the cold, singing wind outside. In later notes he addressed Chan Khong’s concern that most Buddhists didn’t seem to care about the poor and that they viewed social work as mere merit work.
According to Nhat Hanh, it was possible to find enlightenment helping those in need—or doing any other activity—as long as it was done mindfully. He believed that Buddhism had a great deal to contribute to society, and he promised to support Chan Khong in her efforts. He planned to bring together people with the same vision and to establish villages to serve as models for development, as well as founding training centers for workers in education, agriculture, and health care.
Thich Nhat Hanh was the teacher she had been looking for.
Inspired by his teachings and encouragement, Chan Khong organized seventy friends to help her in Saigon’s slums, and they did such work as taking the sick to hospital, establishing adult literacy classes, and on special occasions treating underprivileged children to new clothes, a meal at a restaurant, and a trip to the zoo. At the same time, Chan Khong continued to study the dharma with Nhat Hanh. From May to September 1961, she and a dozen others took a class with him and they became the “thirteen cedars,” a sangha devoted to social change.
Meanwhile, the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam was warming up for a religious crackdown in which they’d try to squelch Buddhism and convert the population to Catholicism. The situation came to a head when the regime forbade displaying the Buddhist flag and celebrating Wesak, the Buddha’s birthday. Peaceful protests sprang up and were met with a violent backlash. The authorities ordered tanks to advance on demonstrators, and tortured suspected protest instigators.
In the face of this oppression, a monk named Thich Quang Due made a powerful plea for religious freedom; on June 11, 1963 he immolated himself. “No one had informed me that he was going to do this,” writes Chan Khong in Learning True Love, “but just at the moment he set himself on fire, I happened to be driving by the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet Streets on my motorbike, and I witnessed him sitting bravely and peacefully, enveloped in flames. He was completely still, while those of us around him were crying and prostrating ourselves on the sidewalk. At that moment, a deep vow sprang forth in me: I too would do something for the respect of human rights in as beautiful and gentle a way as Thay Quang Due.”
A year later, Chan Khong threw herself into working on the experimental villages that she and Nhat Hanh had envisioned. While she had been completing her biology degree, Nhat Hanh had begun training social workers to help bring about nonviolent social change and had spearheaded the founding of the first village. For the second, he asked Chan Khong to take the lead, and Thao Dien — eight muddy kilometers from Saigon — was the chosen location. In July 1964, Chan Khong and a team of other young social workers held a meeting with the villagers to propose building a school.
The government would have funded the construction if there were at least two hundred children who would attend, but in Thao Dien there were only seventy-seven children. To Chan Khong’s delight, the villagers agreed to collaborate with the social workers and construct the school themselves. Some even donated building materials — palm leaves for the roof and bamboo thicket. Because the villagers were involved with this school from the ground up, they were proud of it and took good care of it. In contrast, government-built schools in Vietnam often required guards to prevent vandalism.
In the experimental villages, Chan Khong and the other social workers also tackled medical care, horticulture, and child care. These projects also were successful, with the social workers respecting the villagers’ points of view and involving them in solutions. Saigon’s intellectuals took notice of the successes and, as a result, when Nhat Hanh announced the founding of the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), more than 1,000 people applied for training. Chan Khong and five others became its leaders.
The Wars Outside and Inside
It seemed like real change was possible, and then the bombs fell — the Vietnam War was in full and violent swing. Tra Loc, a new experimental village, was heavily damaged. The SYSS helped the villagers to rebuild each house, the medical center, the agricultural center, the school. But again the village was bombed. This happened over and over—the village was bombed and rebuilt, bombed and rebuilt. Frustration tempted the workers to take up arms. Meditation, however, kept them calm.
“People think that engaged Buddhism is only social work, only stopping the war,” Chan Khong says. “But, in fact, at the same time you stop the war outside, you have to stop the war inside yourself.”
Over her lifetime, Sister Chan Khong has learned the importance of not making peace, but rather being peace, being understanding, being love—and to embody this way of being twenty- four hours a day. The key, she tells Lion’s Roar, is to practice mindfulness. “When your body and mind are not one, you do not see deeply,” she says. “You are in front of your brother, but your mind is on many other things, so you don’t really see your brother. Maybe he is having some trouble, but you don’t see it, not even when you share the same room. But mindfulness brings you there, to the present, and then you see. Train yourself all day long to bring your mind to your body and to be present with your food, your friends, your work, everything, because the more you concentrate, the deeper you will see.”
That said, says Chan Khong, don’t expect that insight will come all at once. “Maybe you want to help your young brother who is drawn away by drugs, but you cannot communicate with him easily. You try to be present with him in the moment but still you don’t see how to help him.” That’s okay, says Chan Khong. “If you train yourself to drive your car in the present moment, to walk in the present moment, to prepare your dinner in the present moment, eventually — perhaps while chopping vegetables— you will have deep insight into the way that you can handle the situation with your brother in a skillful way. You will know how to touch what is wonderful in him.”
The precepts for monastics were formulated in another age — more than two millennia ago — and Thich Nhat Hanh saw they needed to be revised. He crafted fourteen new precepts, which he felt were both true to the deepest teachings of the Buddha and appropriate for the modern world. Then he invited Chan Khong and the five other leaders of the SYSS to receive them. This ordination made these six the first members of what Nhat Hanh termed the Order of Interbeing, a community committed to service and mindfulness. But it did not make them formal monks and nuns with shaved heads. Nhat Hanh gave each member of this new order the option to either live like a monastic committed to celibacy, or to live as a lay Buddhist with the freedom to marry. The three women all chose celibacy, while the three men chose marriage.
Nhat Chi Mai, a close friend of Chan Khong’s, was one of the original six members of the Order of Interbeing. She was the protected, youngest child of a well-off family, and she feared the consequences of political activity. Nonetheless — like Chan Khong — she undertook the dangerous task of spreading the word of peace. Chi Mai hid copies of Nhat Hanh’s book Lotus in a Sea of Fire in her Volkswagen and delivered them to schools. Then, just one year after taking the fourteen precepts, Chi Mai placed two statues in front of her—one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Avalokitesvara — and she set herself on fire. Chi Mai’s poems and letters urged Catholics and Buddhists to work together for peace and after her death they were widely read, inspiring many people. Still, for Chan Khong, losing Chi Mai was one of the greatest sorrows of her life.
It was not, however, the only loss Chan Khong faced in 1967. A monk friend of hers was abducted that year from Binh Phuoc Village, along with seven other social workers. Though their bodies were never found, it is presumed they were killed; working for the poor was considered a communist activity and the social workers had many enemies. Only luck prevented Chan Khong from not being made the ninth victim. She had been in Binh Phuoc Village but had left that night to visit her mother.
When Chan Khong boarded a flight to Hong Kong, she planned to be gone for five days. She never imagined it would be almost forty years before she again set foot in her homeland.
In 1966, two years prior to Chan Khong’s departure, Nhat Hanh had also left Vietnam believing he would only be gone for a short while. But at a conference in Washington, he presented a proposal urging Americans to stop bombing and to offer reconstruction aid free of political or ideological strings. The South Vietnamese nationalist government declared him a traitor, making it too dangerous for him to go home, so he moved to Paris. By 1968, however, he wanted to know whether his friends and colleagues in Vietnam needed him to risk returning. Was it more important for him to be on the ground in Vietnam or to be in the West promoting peace? This was not something that could be addressed freely in letters entering and leaving his country — they were too heavily monitored by the government. So Nhat Hanh asked Chan Khong to meet him in Hong Kong.
There, over cups of oolong tea, she told him that she’d met privately with various Buddhist leaders in Vietnam and that they’d unanimously agreed. Nhat Hanh should not return; his skill in communicating with the West was too valuable. Nhat Hanh decided that to more effectively spread the word about what was going on in Vietnam, he needed an assistant. Would Chan Khong be willing to take on that role? At first, she said no—she had responsibilities in Vietnam. But after reflecting further, she decided Nhat Hanh was right. She would be able to effect more change in her homeland while living abroad.
In January 1969, Chan Khong joined her teacher in France, and they got involved with organizing a conference to present the views of Vietnam’s voiceless majority — those people who were neither communist nor anticommunist, who just wanted peace. Out of this conference, came the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, and Nhat Hanh was nominated to be the chair. For her part, Chan Khong was to help with the administration, and she both lived and worked out of the delegation’s modest office, a rental in a poor Parisian neighborhood. The projects that they took on were varied and included raising money for orphans in Vietnam and producing a newsletter in French, English, and Vietnamese. Chan Khong traveled throughout Europe and the United States speaking to audiences about the need for an immediate ceasefire.
Finally, on April 30, 1975, the war came to an end. The suffering, however, did not. Terrified of communist rule, refugees began risking everything to flee Vietnam. If the government caught them trying to escape, they were either imprisoned or shot. If they succeeded in making it to sea, they were prey to pirates. And if they reached a foreign shore, they were often turned away—their rickety boats pushed back out into the water.
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 beauty.
Chan Khong’s despair was intense. There seemed to be nothing she could do to save her compatriots from the raping and robbing and killing. After months of meditation, however, she determined her path of action and initiated a rescue project. Chan Khong rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed up like a fisherman, and went out to sea to “fish” the boat people. Every time she and her team came across a refugee boat, they gave them food, fuel, and directions to the nearest refugee camp. In an interview with Alan Senauke and Susan Moon, which appeared in Turning Wheel, Chan Khong said: “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 beauty.”
In 1988, Chan Khong formally ordained as a nun. “Shaving the head, all attachments are cut off,” Thich Nhat Hanh said as he snipped her hair.
A Nun in the West
Of being a monastic in the West, Chan Khong has written: “I do not carry undernourished babies in my arms, but teenagers and adults do cry silently as they share the stories of their childhoods of sadness and abuse. By listening attentively to their pain and helping them renew themselves, I am able to help heal many of these wounded ‘children,’ and this is very close to my ideal of holding the village children in my arms. I am grateful to be able to help in this way.” As a nun in the West, Chan Khong has played a key role in developing Thich Nhat Hanh’s international community. In 1982, they moved to what is now known as Plum Village, two bucolic parcels of farmland in France. For the center’s first retreat, the 107 attendees used wooden planks as beds and sleeping bags for blankets, and they did not have a sufficient number of restrooms. In a dharma talk published in the book I Have Arrived, I Am Home, Chan Khong said: “There was only one restroom for the entire Lower Hamlet, one for both showering and using the toilets! It was the same at the Upper Hamlet. Seeing the situation, the male retreatants took up shovels and dug two ‘combat’ latrines.”
Yet attendees were not put off by the conditions, and at subsequent retreats the numbers grew exponentially. Today Plum Village is less rustic, but still simple, and people from all over the world go there to practice. They also go to other centers in the Plum Village tradition: Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York State, and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.
In 2005, the Vietnamese government permitted Sister Chan Khong and Thich Nhat Hanh to visit their homeland for the first time since the sixties. While there, they traveled the country accompanied by members of their sangha and made connections with the Vietnamese people, especially the young. Two more visits were permitted — one in 2007 and the other in 2008. Since then, however, they have not been welcome. The Vietnamese government felt threatened by the large number of educated youth drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.
According to Nhat Hanh, Chan Khong came to him as a student but she also has been a teacher for him. When the Vietnam War was raging, Nhat Hanh was so preoccupied with how to stop the fighting that it became difficult for him to eat. One day, Chan Khong was preparing herbs to serve with rice noodles, when she asked Nhat Hanh if he could identify them. “Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened,” he has written. “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 fine herbs also.” They spent ten minutes talking about the herbs of Vietnam, and that encounter took Nhat Hanh’s mind off the war, allowing him to recover the balance he needed.
“A single person is capable of helping many living beings,” Nhat Hanh said in his book, Be Free Where You Are. “My colleague Sister Chan Khong has been working with poor people, orphans, and the hungry for many years. She has helped thousands and thousands of people, and because of her work these people suffer less. This brings her a lot of joy and gives her life meaning. This can be true for all of us anytime, anywhere.”
original version by Andrea Miller here
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD
yad-yad ācarati śreṣṭhas / tad-tadevetaro janaḥ / sa yat pramāṇaḿ kurute / lokas-tad-anuvartate
A great person leads by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.
The streets of Calcutta were dangerous and dirty. Thousands were infected with leprosy, cholera, and other contagious diseases. At overcrowded hospitals, nurses were forced to turn away dying patients onto the cockroach-infested streets. A group of activists, led by Mother Teresa, risked their own health to treat the sick and poor, even though most could not be saved. Why would Mother Teresa dedicate her life to working in the most unsettling conditions for people who did not have anything to give in return? She responded by saying, “I see the divine in every human being. When I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”
The great leaders of the world – Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai – all share certain characteristics. They are clear communicators as well as great listeners. They have a firm and steady grounding that reflects an unwavering commitment to their cause. They inspire and empower. They are also confident, honest, and discerning. There is another quality each great leader has, that perhaps outshines all the others – humility.
Business philosopher Jim Rohn says, “Humility is almost a God-like word. A sense of awe. A sense of wonder. An awareness of the human soul and spirit. Humility is the grasp of the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we are part of the stars.” In other words, humility is seeing yourself in others; it is seeing all life as holy.
The word humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is translated as “grounded” or “from the Earth.” The Chandogya Upanishad teaches tat twam asi or “you are that.” This mahavakya, or great saying, relates to the idea that everything is Brahman, that the supreme Self and the individual self are one and the same. If you are Brahman, and the tree is Brahman, then you and the tree are one. The yogi has the humility to understand they are the same as all that exists on Earth. Its natural resources support life, so it is our responsibility to support the Earth just as much.
According to Vedic scripture, we are currently living in the Kali Yuga – an era of conflict and struggle – and great leaders are especially needed. If we want to see peace and happiness in the world, then we must live the kind of life we want to see. There was a point in time when humanity lived in harmony with nature. We only took from the Earth what was necessary to survive. Now, each year, humans kill billions of animals and destroy millions of acres of land. We are fighting wars over natural resources and the Earth can no longer sustain us. The business of taking all the earthly resources we want was once thought of as progress. We have instead regressed, causing billions of humans, animals, and plants unhappiness.
A great yogi offers strength to others so that they too can learn to be steady and joyful. Humility allows the yogi to be the change they want to see in the world. We can consider progressing in a different way, one that would help us rediscover our higher consciousness and realize that we are the same as the stars and shine just as bright. We can also lead by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.