Generating Joy in Vietnam

By Therese Fitzgerald

What a joy it was to gather in the Red Candle Meditation Hall at Plum Village at the end of the summer to meet three nuns from Hue—Su Co Nu Minh Tanh, Su Co Nhu Minh, and Su Co Dieu Dat—who are "pillars" in the social work there begun and sustained by Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong. The nuns were introduced beautifully and movingly by Sr. Chan Khong who said, "Wherever the suffering is, these bodhisattvas go. Even through floods, even among the corpses during the war, through many ordeals, they are there with the suffering people." These nuns, who began their bodhisattvic "careers" with Thay during the Vietnam War, described how they have carried with them photographs taken of Thay during a flood relief mission undertaken in 1964. "Thay's compassion has helped us overcome all obstacles—through waterfalls and over mountains to starving victims of floods. The Dharma is our 'equipment' to relieve the suffering with our compassionate presence."

The sisters explained their work in education, including the support of the teachers and the development of the schools; medical work; care for the elderly who have lost their homes and their relatives; and work with lepers, including setting up temples to nourish the spirit of those who have been isolated for so long. They described their joy in passing on the funds and the love of many people from all over the world to those in such great need.

We watched a vivid video that illustrated the projects. There were scenes of the social workers going to the homes of elderly persons living alone in remote areas and taking time to console and help them.

We saw the faces of children in classrooms throughout the country and heard various renditions of the children's song of the Two Promises. We saw very poor villages in the narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea where only shabbily-built thatched huts existed, where a sturdy building for classes is going up to encourage the education of everyone, young and old. "Although we have already established 100 classes, there is a need for 200 more," the nuns explained. We saw inspiring gatherings of young teachers reinforcing their educational and meditative practice.

Sister Minh Tanh described her journey as an engaged nun. She is in charge of teams of monks and nuns who visit the poorest patients in Hue hospitals, bringing them comfort and some material aid. She has also organized teams of medical professionals who go to remote villages to diagnose diseases and give medical aid. "The more we work, the more we can generate happiness and joy, especially with the support of Thay and the Plum Village Sangha," she said. "I do my best in the face of overwhelming suffering to share the practice of mindfulness with the hospital staff and the patients. This work never ends."

Sister Dieu Dat supervises more than 7,000 children in remote villages in 105 schools. When asked to join Sister Minh Tanh in the hospital work, Sister  Dieu Dat "hid in the bathroom, it was so overwhelming," she revealed. "But I breathed and felt the support and encouragement to join my sister in the Dharma." Sister Nhu Minh and her team are in charge of distributing 300 scholarships for children in remote villages around Hue and day-care centers in Hue.

Sister Chan Khong ended the intimate session by saying, "We want to help people reconstruct their lives so disrupted by the war. Now ex-School of Youth for Social Service workers are helping set up self-support villages and establishing jobs for people, such as manufacturing incense, sewing, carpentry, or growing medicinal plants. The suffering is great, and the help is so small, but we can concentrate on our heart and mind of compassion."

There is now a huge flood covering the four provinces of the Mekong Delta (Long An, Dong Than, Long Xuyen, and My Tho). Many hundreds of thousands of families are without shelter, and 128 persons, including many children have drowned and disappeared. We are supplying the victims of the flood with blankets and medicine. Any help will be gready appreciated. Please send your tax-deductible donations to Community of Mindful Living for "Working Together for Rejuvenation in Vietnam," P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707.

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