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 But although the United States had withdrawn its support of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese still received support and arms from Russia and China.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.

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Getting Better, not Bitter

The Dharma in Tanzania

By Karen Brody



Thay’s teachings have been words deeply etched in my heart for years, but this summer was the first time I encountered their true meaning. My husband’s work for an international non-profit took us to Arusha, Tanzania. What luck, we thought, that we had found a location in Africa that was suitable to live in with children. We had lived in Nairobi, Kenya and had complete clarity that Nairobi’s routine aggressive violence was not an atmosphere in which to raise our children. Johannesburg, similar in its extreme violence, where people not only lived behind gates (routine in Africa) but talked about how many levels of security they had before intruders could get to them, also felt like an unacceptable life to me. But Arusha — a small yet rapidly growing town an hour from Mount Kilimanjaro, protected by Mount Meru, and the gateway town to the Serengeti, where five years ago security companies didn’t even exist — it seemed perfect.

Here’s what happened ten days after arriving in Arusha with our sixand eight-year-old boys.

My husband returned home just past midnight after dropping off a friend at her hotel after she had dinner with us that night. The night guard opened the gate; my husband drove in, got out of his car, and went to the gate to lock it from the inside with a padlock. He heard a man say, “Open,” so he opened the gate. Three gunmen were holding the guard, guns to his head. Two guns immediately went to my husband’s head and the gunmen led him and the guard to our house, ordering my husband to open the door. I was downstairs when the door opened and at first I noticed just my husband walking in, very pale. Then I saw the gun. A second later I saw the first gunman. I gasped in a whisper, “Oh my God!” as one of the gunmen ran over to me and pointed his gun at my head. In that instant the words of the Dharma popped into my mind:

Life is impermanent.

These words bathed me. I felt clear and strangely calm as the gunmen sat us down on the couch, took our wedding rings off and tied my husband up on the floor with wire. I repeated to myself:


The tallest gunman led me upstairs. As we approached my children’s bedroom he put his gun to my nose and told me if I did anything stupid he was going to shoot me and my children. I breathed deeply thinking:

Breathing in,
Breathing out,
I am free.

As I repeated to myself “Breathing, Free” my thoughts became illogical in a Western sense. Logic would have told me to hate this gunman; instead I felt deep compassion. Thay’s teachings flooded my body and mind.

“Where Are the Dollars?”

In my bedroom the gunman shouted at me, “Where are the dollars?!” We actually only had fifteen dollars in the house that night. I emptied my wallet. He was getting angrier. “Where are your jewels?” he demanded. I gave him the few things I carried with me. No diamonds, nothing expensive. “Where’s your husband’s gun? Get the gun!” The gun? It had never dawned on us to get a gun. Even my husband, not a practicing Buddhist, felt that violence is never solved with more violence. There was no gun.

Unhappy with what I had produced the gunman put his gun to my head and told me I must find him some money and jewels. So I ransacked the room, and as I threw our belongings on our bed another mindfulness moment occurred.

Breathing in,
I see the goodness inside of you,
Breathing out,
I smile at your goodness.

It was obvious to me at that moment that the gunman wasn’t looking for money or jewels; what he was really looking for was love. So I watered the flower in him. As I dropped my clothes on the bed I imagined each piece of clothing filling the robber with love. Fifteen minutes later he brought me downstairs and tied me up on the floor next to my husband and the guard.

Tied up on the floor, my hands and feet tightly wired together, I thought: I should be scared. But then I heard Thay’s voice whisper to me: Call them by their true name. So this is what I did. I recited:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Lying on the floor, face down, I repeated to myself, “Wake up, Compassion” as the gunmen put all of our computers and electronic equipment in bags to steal.

The Open Door of Compassion

Our Kenyan friend, Rose, was staying with us. Rose is a poor African woman who had been our maid in Nairobi years ago. She came down to help us settle in and meet our boys. I consider her a member of our family, which is why she was living in our home, not typical in Africa. The tall gunman spotted her room and asked me, “Who’s in here?” “Our friend,” I replied. He walked in. Rose later told me she wasn’t sleeping, and because our floors were concrete and the gunmen spoke to us in a whisper she did not know anything was happening inside the house, but of course she was shocked to be taken out of bed in the middle of the night. They tied her up also in the living room, searched the house again for money and jewels and then untied her, took her into her bedroom … and raped her.

Breathing in,
Breathing out.

I didn’t know at the time she was being raped, but that’s what the tall gunman did. He raped her. And then, twenty minutes later, after talking for a while about taking me with them in one of our vehicles that they stole to get away, the gunmen tied heavy cloth over our mouths so we would not scream and put all four of us in Rose’s room, tied up, in the dark.

Untying wire is not easy, but I got free first. Then the guard, then my husband, and finally after I shouted out “Rose, are you okay?!” she slowly sat up. “Thank goodness they did not hurt the kids,” were the first words from her mouth. It was only later that she told me she had been raped.

I expected logic to rise up in me; I expected to feel mad. How could they have done this to Rose? Yet, again, instead the Dharma surfaced and I found myself not angry at the gunmen. The news that she was raped just made me want to water the seeds of love in the gunmen even more. My intellectual self thought, this is crazy, how could I not be mad? It felt like a betrayal of Rose to not be mad at them. Surely, Rose was mad.

Two nights after the incident, with my family and Rose settled into the safety of a hotel room in Arusha, Rose slipped a note under my door that I discovered at bedtime. She wrote of moving on from the experience. And at the end she wrote, “Let’s get better, not bitter. ” At that moment it was clear to me that she was watering the same seeds I was. The Dharma lived in her as well.

We left Tanzania one month later having lost over $30,000 from the move to Arusha, and we returned to the United States without a home, job, cars, or a school for our children to attend.

Thank you, Thay, for your teachings. Love and compassion is the only way forward. Of this I am clear.

Karen Brody is a member of the Budding Flower Sangha in New Paltz, New York.


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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

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