Helping Our Sisters and Brothers in Vietnam By Eva K. Neumaier
For a period that seemed longer than it really was, we were squeezed together in a small bus, rocking along over a pothole-strewn gravel road on the way to a village near the Vietnamese coast. After a wonderful retreat under the guidance of Thay, our much honored and beloved teacher, and a splendid celebration of Vesak 2008, we were eager to learn more about Thay’s native land and her people. We were about to visit a poverty-stricken area where the Maitreya Fonds (Maitreya Funds) supports children’s day care facilities.
Sitting near me on the bus, fellow retreatants asked about the Maitreya Fonds. Everybody on the bus was interested in learning more about this aid project. I explained that the Maitreya Fonds was created by the late Karl Schmied in Germany in 1992, in response to the poverty widespread among rural communities in Vietnam. Under the leadership of Christian Kaufl, a small group of dedicated volunteers—all students of Thay—has come together, working hard to raise funds to finance various projects in Vietnam. I promised to provide my fellow retreatants with more information once I returned to Germany.
Kindergarten Is a Privilege
With a sharp jolt our bus came to a stop and retreatants from all over the world poured into the tiny coastal village of Phu An. Children crowded around us, eyes wide with excitement. Sister Chan Khong provided the basic facts about the kindergarten and the dire circumstances of life the parents and their children face.
The kindergarten consists of one room with tables and benches made from roughly hewn boards; a thatched roof provides minimal protection from the scorching sun and constant downpours. There are no extra amenities in this room, nothing that is not absolutely necessary, and yet for the village children it is a privilege to attend the kindergarten. It means that they are not left to their own devices to forage for edibles in the fields while their parents look for work wherever they can find it as hired laborers.
The children formed a circle and, led by their teachers, sang several songs. We returned to the bus, leaving with a mixture of feelings. On one hand, we were happy that the children were able to enjoy some education, care, and love, but on the other hand we were saddened by the magnitude of poverty and need in this country.
When I returned to Germany, I decided to be one of the volunteers working for the Maitreya Fonds, providing help to those so greatly in need in Vietnam—a humble way of showing my deep gratitude to our teacher and our spiritual ancestors. It took almost a year for me to pull together the information for my fellow retreatants on that bus. Assuming most of them will read the Mindfulness Bell, I am summarizing our work for them and any other readers here.
Where Help Is Needed
The Maitreya Fonds is a charitable association registered with the German government. All the work is done by eleven volunteers. Some of them visit the various projects in Vietnam on an annual basis, covering all their travel expenses themselves. Therefore only two percent of raised funds are needed to cover administrative costs, which consist mostly of banking fees for transferring money. On his annual visits to Vietnam, Christian Kaufl meets with social workers who are members of the Thien Hiep (Interbeing) Order, to learn about the progress made with some projects and newly-arisen needs in other areas.
The work of the Maitreya Fonds is possible only through the close cooperation of the volunteers in Germany with Plum Village and the social workers in Vietnam. The Vietnamese social workers understand where the need is most severe and where help is needed and possible, and propose projects for funding to the Maitreya Fonds accordingly. In mutual consultation with the social workers in Vietnam and Plum Village, the Board decides which projects will be funded. The work of the German volunteers consists primarily in raising the necessary money to fund the projects. On average we raise about $420,000 annually.
Our work is firmly grounded in the principles of engaged Buddhism as taught by Thay. Our basic philosophy is to assist people in gaining self-sufficiency. We believe that education and vocational training are the basis for improving one’s life. A severe problem in Vietnam is that teachers and social workers are paid less in rural areas than in urban ones, resulting in widespread teacher migration from the villages to the big urban centers, leaving rural communities destitute of educators. Therefore, a signifi portion of Maitreya Fonds money goes to covering the salaries of teachers and social workers so that they may remain in rural areas where they are urgently needed. We also provide vocational training in sewing, carpentry, and computer technology, so that individuals will be able to support themselves and their families.
Another big project consists of providing children with supplementary food while they attend school or kindergarten. In general, parents must pay for the lunches their children get at school, but many parents lack the money. As a result, some children remain unfed while watching their peers eat. The Maitreya Fonds tries to cover this inequity, but sadly, at present we cannot provide adequate food for all the children in the schools and kindergartens we support.
Facilitating children’s education also requires basic physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings which are sturdy enough to withstand the regular flooding during the annual rainy season. The Maitreya Fonds offers modern know-how to local builders and craftsmen to ensure that financial aid is spent in the most efficient and sustainable way.
While in general the Vietnamese honor and care for their aged parents and grandparents, there are situations in which elderly people cannot rely on the help and love of younger ones. In addition, lepers, shunned by most as outcasts, cannot look after themselves and are without hope. The Maitreya Fonds provides basic care for these two groups to ensure that these unfortunate people have a decent, humane life.
Without doubt, the material aid is much needed and also highly appreciated. But more precious than the material support is the education of children according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. In every kindergarten, the children are gently introduced to the practice of mindfulness. Teachers and social workers celebrate a monthly Day of Mindfulness with the children, an occasion of singing and joyful togetherness. Beginning at a tender age, children learn to abstain from opinionated and biased behavior, replacing anger with love and understanding. Thus the ideological rift that has caused so much pain to the people of Vietnam finds no breeding ground among this younger generation. The aid provided by the Maitreya Fonds is based on the practice of mindfulness, love, and understanding, setting it apart from other charitable operations in Vietnam.
Among our first efforts at the Maitreya Fonds was the creation of an informative website in German, which was later translated into English and Vietnamese. All of the vital information is available there (www.maitreya-fonds.de) in all three languages, including past and present budgets and annual reports. The website provides all the necessary details for an easy, secure means, grounded in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, of supporting children and other destitute people in Vietnam. We welcome your support of Plum Village or the Maitreya Fonds, to reduce poverty in the home country of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Eva Neumaier, Peaceful Spring of the Heart, was born in Germany in 1937. She has studied Indian and Tibetan languages and taught in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.