Boat People

by Christine Dawkins


During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh and the young members of the School of Youth for Social Service braved the mine-laden fields of the embattled countryside to bring food, clothing, building materials and medical supplies to the villagers whose homes and families had been destroyed. Later, Thay wrote in Lotus in a Sea of Fire that all that is beautiful contains suffering, and that all suffering can bring forth great beauty. The sea of fire that was the war in Vietnam brought forth the lotus of Plum Village, its sister monasteries in the United States, and the many practice centers and Sanghas that have grown all over the globe. It has also brought the Vietnamese and Western worlds together into a family that is beautiful and diverse.

My guilt, grief, and anger towards my government have been held in the arms of the forgiveness, faith, and resilience with which the Vietnamese people I met have embraced their lives. I can only hope my listening to their stories also brought them a small measure of the peace and healing they brought to me.


On January 27, 1972, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending the ten-year presence of the United States military in Vietnam and giving the U.S. sixty days to withdraw all troops and dismantle all military bases within South Vietnam. For most Americans, this ended the long and futile nightmare of a costly war. While there would be many social, political, and economic consequences, most of us in the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief and tried to put the war behind us.

Although the Paris Peace Accords provided for the reunification of Vietnam, it was common knowledge that the invasion of South Vietnam by Viet Cong military forces was now inevitable. The accords also provided that the unification was to be accomplished without foreign interference. But although the United States had withdrawn its support of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese still received support and arms from Russia and China. No longer fettered by U.S. presence in the South, and in direct violation of the accords, Communist soldiers marched southward through the devastated countryside, occupying town after town, until they reached their final destination, Saigon.

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Aware that their days of freedom were numbered, thousands of South Vietnamese attempted to flee the country in the weeks prior to the fall, but only a lucky few had the connections to obtain exit visas. Life under the Communists was intolerable for many, especially high-ranking South Vietnamese military officials. I met one man who had been told that he just needed to go to a few classes explaining the new regime’s rules, but ended up in a reeducation camp for five years. These so-called camps were really prisons, where the inmates were forced to perform hard labor under inhumane conditions.

Thus were the Boat People born, hundreds of thousands of courageous men, women, and children who entrusted themselves to the China Sea in the hope of finding a better future for themselves and their children. In 1986, it was estimated that one million Vietnamese refugees had taken to the China Sea in small boats. Many of these people relocated to the United States, Australia, Canada, France, and other European countries. There is no way to know how many never made it. Some believe another million died on the way by drowning, starvation, dehydration, or at the hands of Thai pirates who routinely attacked, robbed, tortured, abducted, raped, sold into prostitution, or murdered the refugees.

The Boat People began their exodus in 1975. By 1979, the number of people braving the China Sea had mounted significantly. Unfortunately, so did the number of pirates. These pirates were Thai fishermen who had learned that piracy was more lucrative than fishing. Because the Vietnamese had been forced to leave everything behind, many of them sold whatever they could to bring gold for their new start in life. In small boats that easily capsized, filled way beyond their capacity with passengers with little or no seafaring skills, the boat people were easy prey for the pirates.


Just getting a space on a boat was no small task. Vietnam was even more divided after the war than during it. Sometimes there were Communists and freedom fighters in the same family. Under the Communist regime, it was very important to keep up the appearance of a humble hard-working Communist. This meant knowing who could be safely approached to arrange for escape.

One couple, Cuc and Xe Dang, made several attempts before they managed to get on a boat. During one attempt, the family had to split up. Xe went with one group while Cuc was scheduled to take off with another. It was nighttime and the group Xe was going with was being ferried out to the fishing boat in a small rowboat. Xe insisted on going last, as three years in a re-education camp had taught him to listen to his instincts. Half the group had already been ferried out when the Communist police captured the escapees. Xe was able to intercept his wife and then had to hide for several months, having already been singled out by the Communists for the harsher treatment given to those who had worked for the Americans.

In the meantime, Cuc’s father was approached by someone who asked if his son-in-law might be interested in going in a boat with him and some others. This is the boat that finally carried them to freedom. The journey was not an easy one. They had a one-yearold and a four-year-old child and traveled with some young nieces and nephews. During the eight-day trip, their boat was attacked by pirates eight times.

The first time, the pirates took everything, including food, clothes, watches, and jewelry. Even their spare engine was stolen. They were made to strip and were searched. Other times they were left alone when the pirates saw they had nothing. But one time, the pirates took three young women onto their boat and raped them. “We were very scared,” Cuc said, “and thought we would be next. But then a friend, who knew a little English said, “Pray to Buddha.’” Cuc laughed, “I did not know who Buddha was. But I prayed with the others out loud. ‘Please, Buddha, help us, Buddha! Please help us, Buddha!’ over and over again. It turned out the pirates were Buddhist and they got scared when they heard us calling Buddha, so they left!” Cuc asked her friend, “Who is this Buddha we called to?” “It is But!” her friend answered. “I had no idea that Buddha was the English word for But. I thought I was praying to some strange God.,” Cuc said.

But their difficulties were not over. When they finally made it to Malaysia, they were told the refugee camp could not accept them. They stayed on shore during heavy rains in a place without a roof and only a pit dug into the ground for a toilet.

After several days, an official told them they were going to be taken somewhere in preparation of being sent to the United States. They were told to get into their boats, which were tied in a chain and attached to a Malaysian ship. Cuc and Xe’s boat was the last boat of eight. The ship took to sea, going too rapidly for the small fishing boats to withstand the ocean waves that poured in from the ship’s wake. Xe told the others in his boat, “We are going to sink unless we untie ourselves.”

It had become apparent their destination was not the United States, but the middle of the ocean. The boats were being watched by the Malaysian officials on the ship’s deck, but since it was dark and Xe’s boat was last in line, someone was able to crawl out to the prow and cut the line. Solemnly, they watched as the other boats were towed helplessly out to the open ocean, their hulls filling with water.

One of the first things Cuc did when she finally made it to the United States was commission a painting depicting the boat that carried Cuc, her husband and two children over the turbulent China Sea from Vietnam to freedom. “When we finally arrived in the United States, we had lost everything,” Cuc recalls. She glances over at the large oil painting above her fireplace. “The painting, done by a famous Vietnamese artist, was very expensive. But I did not care about the cost.” In the painting, the small fishing boat bobbing precariously in the foaming waves is emblazoned with the number of the boat they escaped on. “I bought it so we would never forget our escape, so that my children will always know: We are Boat People! When they do poorly at school, when some difficulty comes up for us, we stand in front of this painting, and I remind them. We are Boat People!”

Christine Dawkins, True Wonderful Mind, practices with her daughters, Siena and Chiara, at Deer Park, with the Still Water Sangha in Santa Barbara.

PDF of this article

In Memoriam: Thay Giac Thanh



Last fall marked the fifth anniversary of the passing of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery. In his honor a beautiful stupa was built above Solidity Hamlet, and a ceremony of dedication brought together many of those who had known and loved the gentle monk. In this special section we feature several of Thay Giac Thanh’s poems from Scattered Memories, the complete collection of his poems published in 2006 by Parallax Press and excerpted here with permission.

Thay Giac Thanh was born in a quiet and remote hamlet in Rach Gia Province in southern Vietnam. Eventually his family moved to Rach Gia City where he learned to read and write and became an excellent student. Thay Giac Thanh expressed love for his country in his first poem, “Tears for my Homeland,” written when he was in the twelfth grade.

He became a novice monk in 1967 at Thanh Hoa Temple in Long Xuyen Province, where he received his Dharma name Giac Thanh (Awakening Sound) from his teacher, Venerable Pho Hue; in 1970 he was fully ordained in Giac Vien Temple. In 1971, he attended the University of Van Hanh in Saigon (co-founded by Thich Nhat Hanh several years before) to further his studies in Buddhism.

Although he was not a permanent resident there, Thay Giac Thanh spent several peaceful years at True Emptiness Monastery on the peak of Tao Phung Mountain. But all that changed in 1975 when the Communists took over all of Vietnam. Everybody now had to work hard in the fields under the hot, burning sun.

In July of 1981, he escaped out of Vietnam by boat, crossing the Gulf of Thailand. Like many other Vietnamese people enduring dangerous escapes, he was not able to avoid pirates. Seeing the cruel raping of women and grabbing of jewelry, angrily he asked, “Do you have a heart? How could you be so cruel to your fellow humans?” The pirates were angry and threw him into the ocean. Fortunately, the head pirate, in a flash of sympathy, tossed him a rope and pulled him up onto the boat.

After many months in a refugee camp in Indonesia, Thay Giac Thanh was sponsored by Venerable Thich Man Biac to come to Los Angeles. During Thay’s brief stay at Phat Biao Vietnam Temple, like a tender and caring mother the Venerable helped heal the wounds in the wanderer’s heart. In 1982, at the Venerable’s request, Thay moved to Nam Tuyen Temple in Virginia to help Thay Tri Tue; they lived happily together until 1989.
In 1986 he met Thich Nhat Hanh at one of his North American retreats; in 1990 Thay Giac Thanh attended the summer retreat at Plum Village and in 1991 began residing there. At the end of 1991, he received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma Teacher, for which he wrote the poem “Formless Samadhi.” Thich Nhat Hanh offered him a small wooden hut on the forest edge beside his own. There was a vast space in his heart; he walked freely and solidly, and his smiles and words carried a profound peace to people around him. Wherever he went — France, the U.S., Australia, Canada — from the beginning of his teaching to his last breath, all of us received his tender, fresh, and peaceful energy. He was respected and deeply loved by all of us.Thay Giac Thanh contracted tuberculosis in 1995 and his diabetes worsened. He took care of his illnesses like a mother loving her child, never complaining no matter how demanding the child was. In 1997 Thay Giac Thanh became Head of Practice at Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and in 2000 he became abbot of the new monastery in southern California. He knew that this place would be the last one of his life. He arrived at Deer Park Monastery in the summer of 2000 and left us in the autumn of 2001. A kind, gentle, and loving voice, a joyful smile until the end of his life, a deep and clear wisdom, great compassion, and peaceful steps, all revealed his profound understanding of no-coming, no-going.

The day before he died, he received a telephone call from his teacher in Beijing, China. Thich Nhat Hanh read him a poem he had just written, and added the second stanza later:

That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone
The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished
When your stupa has just been raised on the hillside
The sound of children’s laughter will already be heard

One maple leaf has fallen down and yet you continue to climb
The hill of the twenty-first century with us
Thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom and the
Earth continues to be with the sky
Singing the song of no-birth and no-death

Adapted from “Biography of the Author” by Thich Puoch Tinh in Scattered Memories

PDF of this article

Together We Are One

Excerpted from Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery
September 10, 2011


Question: Dear Thay and dear community, as a survivor of rape, how do I forgive my attackers?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The criminals, those who have made us suffer, also are victims. They were born and raised in an environment that was not loving enough to nurture them. And they had difficulties, but no one, including their parents, could help them. So they are victims of their environment. If we had been born and raised in that same environment, we may have become like them. That’s why, when we look deeply, understanding comes and compassion arises in our hearts. We can forgive.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates.

The sea pirates were often born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand or the Philippines. They heard that when the boat people fled their country, they may have had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So if the sea pirates could rob them of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.


Your grandfather was a poor fisherman. Your father also was a poor fisherman. And you are a poor fisherman, and you have no opportunity to get out of this situation. Your father and your grand­father couldn’t get good educations, so they had no opportunity to get jobs that would enable them to live easier lives. So if your mother did not know how to read and write, and your father was drunk every day, then it is very difficult for you to get an education and get out of this terrible cycle. It’s difficult for you to learn to have a loving heart. So when people tell you that if you go out one time and rob the refugees of their gold and their money, this will get you out of your desperate situation, you are tempted. In this way, the poor young fisherman becomes a sea pirate because of his ignorance, because of his background, because of his desperation.

I was in France when I heard stories about boat people. Many of us tried to go to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to help. They encountered a lot of suffering.

Suppose you are on the refugee boat. Of course, you can protect yourself. You can shoot the sea pirate. Otherwise, the sea pirate will throw you into the ocean, rape your daughter, and take your valuables. Every time you hear that a boat person has been raped and killed by a sea pirate, you suffer, and you believe that if you had a gun and you were on a boat, you would be able to shoot that person. But if you shoot the sea pirate, he will die and you will not be able to help him. He’s a victim of his environment, and he did not have any education, any opportunity for a better life. So the sea pirate is also a victim.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born on the coastline into these poor families. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we are born and raised in that way, we too may be­come sea pirates. That kind of meditation allows us to understand, to see that these criminals are also victims of their environment, and that allows the nectar of compassion to be born in our hearts, and we can forgive. Not only do we not want to kill them or punish them, but we are motivated by the desire to do something to help them. We can see that those who rape us are also victims. With that kind of understanding, we know that there are things we can do to help rapists and to prevent people from becoming rapists.

That is something parents, teachers, educators, and politicians have to meditate upon. We have to take the kind of action that will help change the situation and prevent these babies from becoming sea pirates and rapists.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot for­give if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that that person is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. And you don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue like that, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear, and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of medita­tion, namely, the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help.

Edited by Barbara Casey

PDF of this article

To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact The Mindfulness Bell at