“In Buddhism, the word ’emptiness’ is a translation of the Sanskrit sunyata…
It means ’empty of a separate self.’ It is not a negative or despairing term. It is a celebration of interconnectedness, of interbeing. It means nothing can exist by itself alone, that everything is inextricably interconnected with everything else. I know that I must always work to remember that I am empty of a separate self and full of the many wonders of this universe, including the generosity of my grandparents and parents, the many friends and teachers who have helped and supported me along the path, and you dear readers, without whom this book could not exist. We inter-are, and therefore we are empty of an identity that is separate from our interconnectedness.”
― Sister Chan Khong, Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War
Sister Chan Khong is the first fully-ordained monastic disciple of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the director of his humanitarian projects since the 1960’s.
Born in 1938 in Ben Tre in Southern Vietnam, Sister Chan Khong began social work in the city slums as a teenager. After meeting Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1959, she helped him set up the School of Youth for Social Service, training thousands of young social workers to bring aid to remote war-devasted villages.
She organised the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace Talks in 1969, and in the 1970’s assisted Thich Nhat Hanh on his world tours calling for peace, and was instrumental in directing emergency humanitarian efforts to rescue Vietnamese Boat People from the high seas, as well as leading sponsorship programs for over 14,000 orphans in Vietnam.
Since the 1980’s Sister Chan Khong has helped Thich Nhat Hanh establish Plum Village Monastery in south-west France, and is today the Elder nun of the International Plum Village Sangha.
The deep mindfulness practices she has pioneered and developed (which she calls “social work of the heart”) have brought reconciliation and healing to couples, families, communities and workplaces worldwide.
In her community, Chan Khong is well known for leading the practice of beginning anew. A four-step process, it is an opportunity to look deeply and honestly at ourselves and to work on our relationships through mindful communication. The first step is to express appreciation for the person we’re speaking to; the second is to acknowledge any unskillful action we’ve committed against him or her; the third is to reveal how he or she has hurt us; and the fourth is to share a difficulty that we’re having and to ask for support. At Plum Village, beginning anew is practiced collectively every two weeks and practiced individually as often as necessary. Chan Khong urges lay people to practice it at home.
- “Begin anew to refresh your relationship with your children,” she says. “Even when they’re five years old, children feel pain,” and frequently parents are unaware of the ways in which they hurt their children. For example, says Chan Khong, maybe a mother has hurt her son’s feelings by saying that she won’t buy him the toy he wants. If, through beginning anew, she gives her son an opportunity to express his hurt, the mother will know to explain to him why she can’t afford the toy. Then the boy will understand and resentment will not build between them.
- In romantic relationships, beginning anew can be invaluable. Frequently, says Chan Khong, people are disappointed in their partners. At the beginning of the relationship, a woman might see that her mate has many wonderful qualities and so she presumes that he has various other qualities that she finds desirable. But as time goes on, she notices all the ways in which he is not her ideal. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not good,” says Chan Khong. “Maybe she presumed that he was a magnolia and would behave as one. But he is actually a lotus. He is still beautiful in his way.”
- “When you ask your partner kindly, he will reveal his wounds, and as he reveals them more and more, you will accept him as he is—with his education, his culture, his way of being—and he will accept you more, too,” she says. “You will grow closer and suddenly you will not be two, but one. You will have entered the world of each other. So beginning anew is a way to make your relationship good with your partner, your children, your parents.”
Book to Hang Out With
Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War
Sister Chan Khong’s autobiography, Learning True Love, tells the story of her spiritual and personal odyssey through the many years of her life. The book’s centerpiece is her moving account of her return to Vietnam, her homeland, after 40 years of exile. She describes in refreshing detail her emotional reactions, the reunions with many old friends and fellow activists, and her impression of the “new Vietnam” where Buddhists still struggle for religious freedom. Often compared to The Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, this memoir connects to larger themes, especially when the author discusses the life and teaching of her fellow exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, gives an overview of the development of the European and American peace and human rights movements, and introduces readers to the Vietnamese style of Buddhism. Learning True Love is a testament to the power of tenacity and faith.