Contributing to the Social Work in Vietnam An Interview with Sister Hy Nghiem by Sister Steadiness
How did you get involved in the social work in Vietnam?
Sister Hy Nghiem: Even before I was ordained, I really liked to help poor people. Growing up, I learned how to sew. Many people came to me to ask me to sew things for them, and I earned some money that way. I would use that money to give to poor people. One day, my mother wanted to go visit my father in the re-education camp, and she asked me, "My child, do you have some money that I can use to prepare some food for your father?" I said, "Mother, I do not have any money." She did not understand, because she saw that many people came to me, and I sewed clothes for them and earned money. She saw that I didn't go to parties, I didn't have many friends, and I just spent my time going to the temple. She trusted me. I was a good child. However, she could not figure out what I did with the money I earned from sewing clothes. Later, she discovered what I did with my money, and she understood, but she did not talk with me about it directly.
One day, I overheard my mother sharing with one of her friends in the neighborhood about this story. She said she asked me for money, and when I didn't give it to her, she felt sad. Then one day she saw that I used all my money to give to poor people, to donate to the temple, or to buy books for the novices in the temple. She felt very happy, because as a child she did not have the opportunity to do that. She worked hard to take care of her children, and to take care of my father, who was forced to live in the re-education camp. Now she has a child who can practice generosity, and she felt that I did it for her. When I heard my mother's sharing, I also felt happy. I continued on with my offerings to others. When my father was released, our family life became much easier.
Sometimes I had many people come to ask me to sew, and I earned a lot of money. When I left Vietnam, I gave all my extra money to my friends in the Buddhist youth club and asked them to give it to the poor people they met. When I came to America, I bought a commercial sewing machine. I sewed at night, or after I came home from school, or before I went to work in the morning. I sewed for a t-shirt company. When I sewed one line, I earned ten cents. That was equal to 1,000 Vietnamese dong. When I received the money, I sent it all to Vietnam. One day, I read the newsletter from Plum Village and learned that they had programs for poor people in Vietnam. I did not know how to send money to these programs, so I put a dollar bill in an envelope, covered it very carefully, and sent it to the sisters in Plum Village, asking them to send it to Vietnam. I received a thank you letter from Sister Giai Nghiem from Plum Village. I copied that letter, gave it to my friends at school and at work, and asked them to sponsor the poor children in Vietnam. I also sent money directly to Vietnam.
Once I was ordained as a nun, I had the opportunity to contribute to the social work projects in Vietnam. A number of us brothers and sisters worked together. We had a lot of happiness during those times. We would sit together and write letters to the children in Vietnam. We shared the practice of mindfulness with the children. The elder brothers and sisters shared with us, who were new in the practice, how to do the work.One time, Thay asked the whole Sangha to share about our happiness in daily life. Many of my points related to helping with the charity work in Vietnam.
Most young people spend all their money on entertainment and movies and clothes. What made you want to help people?
Sister Hy Nghiem: Now that I have had the opportunity to practice the Buddha's teaching and learned how to look deeply into myself, I think that the seed of helping others came from my ancestors. My mother had a store in the market. Every day she supported handicapped people and homeless children . When she saw them, she would buy food to give to them. When she saw homeless people on the street, she would give them a little money. Even ifs he didn't have any money, she gave them her love, her energy and her sweetness. After I had been ordained as a nun for ten months, my mother shared the following story with me.
One day, she saw a homeless man in the market who had a serious illness and a handicap from the Vietnamese-American war. Before 1975, the government would support him. After 1975, the government changed, and he no longer received any support. He moved around on a cart, because he didn't have any legs. When it rained the market became very muddy, and moving around close to the ground got him very dirty; the smell was not good. My mother asked one lady in the market to help her boil water. After she closed her shop, she came and bathed that man. The man was a little bit shy. She said to him, "Uncle, don't worry. I bathe you as if I am your elder sister or your mother. Please just feel natural."
She shared that story with me, and I was so moved. That was the first time that I knew about it. As a child I didn't know anything about how my mother helped that man. Hearing that story watered the seed of loving-kindness in me. Before that I just wanted to help the people, but I didn't know why I did that. Hearing that story, I could see more clearly that I received the seed of wanting to help others from my ancestors, with my mother being my closest ancestor.
Did you also receive inspiration from your father?
Sisler Hy Nghiem: When my mother was pregnant with me, my father began studying Buddhism. He received the five mindfulness trainings, and he learned about basic Buddhist teachings. My parents named me Minh Tam, which means "brightness of the mind." People usually think it is my Dharma name, given to me by my spiritual teacher, but that is the name my parents gave me.
My father worked for the South Vietnamese government. In 1975, when the communists took over, he was put in the re-education camp. At one point, he felt that he would die soon. He thought, "If I am to die, I wish to die peacefully." He was in a semi-conscious state, and he invoked the name of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. When he woke up, be found himself in a puddle of water; the guards would pour water on the prisoners to wake them up. After that he was never beaten again. He did not know why the beatings stopped abruptly, but he felt that it was due to his sincere prayers. When he came home from prison he told the whole family that story, and it made a deep impression on me.
My father continues to inspire me a lot. He and my mother practice sitting meditation every day. When I go home, we sit and talk together about the Buddhist teachings. Recently, two of my monastic brothers went to Texas, where my parents live, and they visited my father and mother. They said, "Your father is wonderful! " They enjoyed drinking tea and sharing together about the practice. When my Dharma brothers told me about their time together with my parents, I felt happy and grateful to my parents because I know that by their own practice they are always supporting me in my daily practice as well.
What is your relationship with Sister Chan Khong regarding the social work in Vietnam? And what do we do in Vietnam?
Sister Chan Khong began the social work in Vietnam. When she came to Europe and America, she continued the work and got many people to help her. When she began to have many young brothers and sisters in Plum Village, she wanted to transmit the work to us. She encouraged us to continue the work. The monetary support, sent from Plum Village to Vietnam, have helped many places, in South Vietnam, in Central Vietnam and in North Vietnam. We mostly offer help to the remote villages that are hard to reach, such as in the mountains, and to the places that do not have electricity or schools. The parents go to work in the fields or the towns, and they leave their children at home. Those children can have accidents or run away without the supervision of adults. We help sponsor daycare schools for those children. The teacher helps them to wash their faces and hands and gives them soy milk and lunch. They take a nap, and learn how to be aware of their breathing and how to speak skillfully and kindly.
We do not offer help to people in the cities, because many visitors to Vietnam have easy access to the cities. Thus, the needy people in the cities already receive support from many sources. However, people who come to Vietnam to offer assistance do not have the opportunity to go to far away places. As a result, poor places in the countryside remain poor. We also support handicapped people and isolated people who do not have any relatives to care for them. We also sponsor students who come from very poor families, so that they may pursue a higher education. We feel that by helping one person, the quality of his or her life can improve a lot, and the quality of life of the whole family will also improve. When we sponsor the students, we encourage them to practice to be good people. We do not teach them Buddhist teachings specifically, because we also support students who are from a Christian background and others. We just share with them the essential elements of compassion and generosity. We encourage them to help people who are in difficulty. We show them how to deal with anger, by calming oneself and being aware of one's breathing.
We have many social workers in many places in Vietnam. These people work out of compassion and love, but we offer to pay them so they can also support their own families. We pay the very experienced social workers who take care of many areas $50 a month; for those who help, such as the daycare teachers, we pay $25 a month.
Every time I write a letter to Vietnam or to the sponsors, I show it to Sister Chan Khong before I send it. I ask, "Is this letter gentle enough, skillful enough, polite enough?" It is very important to be humble in doing this work. If you are not humble, your idea of yourself goes higher and higher. The people in Vietnam receive your money, but they also receive your practice, your loving-kindness and your understanding. It is not just money that we send there. This is how Thay has taught Sister Chan Khong to regard the social work in Vietnam. Now she transmits that to all her younger brothers and sisters. If we act like a boss towards the people whom we send the money to, it will create a complex in them and in us. That is how I have been trained.
Sister Chan Khong has a big heart. I am like a little piece of sand. I know my practice and my capacity is very small compared to hers. I take care of some projects, and when I receive news that there's some difficulty with the project, I ask Sister Chan Khong how to handle the situation. Sister Chan Khong has so much energy. Her daily life is not her own. Her life is for all the people in the world. One day, I asked her, "Sister, why do you have so much energy? I see you do many things. You help the Sangha and the people in Vietnam and people in many places. I want to learn from you." She said, "It is so easy. When you are able to help people relieve their suffering and to recognize their happiness, their happiness is your happiness. My happiness is their happiness. If you do anything to help people to relieve their afflictions, their anger and pain, and you see their daily lives are lightened, you also receive their energy of happiness." I have learned this from her. I vowed to practice like her.
How do you stay in touch with the people in Vietnam and also with the people who contribute to the work?
Sister Hy Nghiem: The Plum Village monks and nuns stay in contact with the social workers in Vietnam over the phone, through letters and with occasional visits. Every year, lay Dharma teachers connected to Plum Village also go to Vietnam and visit the projects. The social workers send us detailed reports of how the money is spent, and when they want to start a new project they also send a detailed proposal. We look at the whole situation and decide whether or not we can support the project. The money we receive comes from many friends, so we are very careful with how it is used. The teachers wrote us letters on how they teach the children. The teachers share how they respond, using the practice of mindfulness, when children are angry or unskillful in their classrooms. We do not say that the social work programs we contribute to are the work of Buddhists. We do it only in the name of wanting to help and support others. When the students and the elderly or handicapped people receive the money, they send thank you letters to us also. They share about the day they come to the temple, eat together, have activities together, and receive their scholarships. They share about their feelings.
We also have difficulties. There may be a gap in communication with the government in Vietnam. The brothers and sisters in Vietnam may also have difficulties with each other, because they come from many different backgrounds. The social workers share their difficulties with us. Sometimes, their practice is not solid, they get angry and they do not know how to resolve their difficulties. We encourage them to sit together, listen to each other, and practice beginning anew. They listen to each other, and when they are able to understand each other, they can continue with the work. This is known as Engaged Buddhism, what Thay and sister Chan Khong have established in Vietnam. We practice Buddhism without calling it Buddhism.
When I send thank you letters to the people who sponsor the projects in Vietnam, I am aware of the compassion in that person as I write his or her name. I put my whole heart into writing the thank you letter. I try to touch the person's bodhicitta, the mind of love, like that of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who responds to the suffering in the world. I do not meet with the sponsors in person, but I connect with them like that. We have many friends who give large amounts of money, and we also have many friends who give a small amount every month, such as five or ten dollars. When I open a letter, regardless of the amount, I practice equanimity. Sometimes we receive a check for ten or twenty dollars, and looking at the address, I see that the person lives in an apartment. I feel very happy. I look deeply, and I see that these people are not rich, but they want to help other people and they share the money that they have. When they go shopping or when they go to a restaurant, they are conscious of saving some of their money to share with others. I notice this, and I feel very warm in my heart.
Sister Hy Nghiem. True Adornment with Happiness. was ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.
To contribute to the Social Work in Vietnam please contact the Committee for Touching and Helping.
Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France
USA: Green Mt Dharma Center, Box 182, Hartland-4-Corners, VT 05049, USA