The Life and Teachings of Sister Chan Khong

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

Andrea Miller
8 May 2017
zen monk
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

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 Phuong, 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.

Beginning Anew

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 Duc 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 Duc.”

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.

Leaving Vietnam

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.”

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.