This is a story about courage, mindfulness, selflessness in the face of war. May it serve as an inspiration and reminder for the incredible potential of the human heart to selflessly give in the face of adversities.
During recent travels, I scheduled to stay for a few days in Saigon, Vietnam, around New Year’s. By the virtue of following the work of the Plum Village and its founder Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn, I came in touch with stories about his peace work during the Vietnam War. Upon an email sent to the Plum Village to know if there were any activists from that time who were still living in Saigon, they kindly put me in touch with some of the heroes that had practiced non-violent activism based in mindfulness precepts of their Zen master. This below is an account of a meeting I had where I interviewed six of these men over many cups of tea in early January in a neighborhood north-west of Saigon.
The School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) was an initiative started in the mid-sixties to apply the practice of Engaged Buddhism to alleviate the suffering that came with the war. After the French war, Vietnam was struck by poverty. In 1964 the SYSS was beginning to be built with an intention to support people in the countryside, but by the time the school was established one year later, a second war was erupting with the U.S. escalation of violence, and the school shifted its main focus to provide relief to people most affected by the conflict.
Between 1964 and 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the prospect students built the premises of the school by themselves. The buildings consisted of a central pagoda and a dormitory, plus a farming land where to plant cabbage and mushroom while learning about agricultural practices. By the time the school launched its first installment of a two-year learning program, it could only take in two hundred participants out of the three hundred who wanted to join. A majority of these students were lay practitioners who followed the teachings of Engaged Buddhism, while a few others were monks and nuns. The gentlemen I had the luck to talk to (one monastic and five lay people) are all grads from that first iteration, class of 65-67.
Their curriculum was built around four pillars:
1 Education: SYSS students learned how to organize free classes for people in need, and how to help children both read and write, and to score well in tests to increase their chances in getting accepted to government schools.
2 Household economics: students had an up-to-date understanding of farming, breeding animals, and overall methods to help peasants to improve their livelihood.
3 Living: based on Buddhist teachings, the students practiced basic foundations for a happy life and rightful living. This was instrumental to have inner peace while carrying on their own works and lives, and also helped people who were suffering in improving their spiritual lives.
4 Health and medicine: students were equipped knowledge about vaccination, hygiene, how to build toilets, etc.
An integral part of the school was the practice camp, which was a time of application of the SYSS curriculum by students who went into rural areas that were in need.
The school and its social workers faced multiple challenges from the very beginning. They took a strong, unconditionally pacifist stance, which meant they would not take side in the conflict, and held true to the precept to never retaliate if harm was inflicted upon them. This made them be seen with suspicion by many, and the school suffered many attacks. As of today, it has never been known who attacked them, as perpetrators acted in incognito and covering their faces. All students ran great risks, no matter if they were monastic or lay people, working in Saigon or in the countryside by rural villages. Soon after they begun their activities they got attacked a first time. In 1965 a mine into the SYSS school left 2 people injured; a few months later an attack by mine into the female dormitory killed 2 teachers and injured 16 others social workers. In 1967, at a practice camp, 8 people went missing and nothing has ever been known about them since. That same year, 5 social workers were kidnapped and got shot by the Saigon River. 4 died under the shots and only one of them survived, who recalled they got asked if they were indeed SYSS students, which they didn’t negate, and the kidnappers said they did not want to kill them but had received orders from above to do so. As our conversation unfolded, I asked a few questions.
Q: What made you want to join the SYSS?
A: A few shared that Thay’s invite to action made them feel called to participate. One told me he was moved to alleviate conditions of poverty in the villages. It was a vicious cycle they intended to break: the poor could not afford to study, which meant no education, which kept them in poverty, eventually illnesses, and even more poverty. To break the cycle you first need knowledge, which compelled SYSS to teach household economics, how to build houses, how to dig wells, and so on.
Q: Weren’t you afraid, with all the risks involved?
A: Many times, one of them recounts, we social workers felt afraid, and with good reason: our fellow workers were getting kidnapped, hurt, killed, but we kept moving. But we always believed we were doing the right thing.
They recollect a story of how the social workers rebuilt over and over again the village of Trà Lộc, that was bombed and rebuilt four times. You can hear the story from the words of master Nhat Hanh here.
Q: How did you keep your hope alive?
A: All of them agree in pointing to Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual leadership as a key factor in keeping their hope alive. We have learned to be very respectful towards our master Thay -one of them fondly recollects. Because of him, we have grown love and nurtured the good inside each of us. Another one shares that they learned from Thay to cultivate hope and belief inside of us, because when we have that, we can still believe in the capacity of everyone to create happiness. One of the men at our table (a monastic who lives in the same pagoda where the SYSS was once located) told me he kept his hope alive because since the age of 15 he received a lot of wisdom from master Thay, and respected a person that had created something that affirmed the value of life. The fourteen mindfulness trainings taught the social workers to understand and love, and to help by freely giving all the energies of body and mind. The youth followed the ideas of practicing a Buddha mind, unconditional loving, and attaining peace and happiness in the present moment while wishing it to everyone else. All of these ideas made them fearless. One of them tells me Vietnamese saying to illustrate the point: “When you do the right thing, life or death don’t matter. When you do the wrong thing, death matters a lot, because you feel that you haven’t finished your work.”
I explained how inspiring their stories were, and how relevant their wisdom seemed to the challenges we are facing today. Whether it is wars, environmental destruction, or injustices, a lot of people are working with passion to make the world a better place and at times are struggling with despair, anger, grief.
Q: What can today’s movements learn from you?
A: One of the alumni pointed to the importance of the five essential mindfulness trainings, as he suggested that if everyone practiced them, there would be no more wars. The trainings are: 1) show respect for the living 2) true happiness 3) true love 4) loving speech and deep listening 5) nourishing and healing. Another shared that in his view the youth of today is very intelligent and very good at science, so they understand what is going in the world. We need to build on that scientific knowledge, and add the wisdom that our happiness is interdependent. We hope that young people today could see that your happiness is my happiness, and also that creating happiness for others will make the giver happy, too, because we become happier from giving than from receiving.
It was late afternoon when we eventually went to the nearby pagoda where the SYSS was originally erected. My hosts showed me around the temple, the gravestones of some of the students who had died under the attacks, and recounted the story of self-immolation of sister Nhat Chi Mai, who in the morning of May 16, 1967 lit herself on fire in front of the pagoda as an act of political protest against the Vietnam War.
Leaving the pagoda and waving goodbye to my hosts, I left with a sense of profound admiration and humbleness towards the incredible work that these heroes have performed during times of profound suffering. It has been especially humbling to witness their peace, and the way in which they recounted stories of suffering, including of when their fellow students have been attacked, without resentment towards the perpetrators of such violence. They have practiced staying mindful, compassionate, and forgiving in the face of great adversities, while selflessly helping others to relieve their sufferings. While today’s world is quite different than in the 60’s, some questions seem timeless: how to stay present in times of war, how to cultivate inner peace when so many voices encourage us to hate, how to give without falling into despair. Elders like them have so much wisdom to share.
If you want to know more:
Chan Khong, Sister. (2007). Learning True Love. Berkeley: Parallax Press
Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken about the SYSS in many videos including this one and this one.
A beautiful graphic novel that covers the peace activism work during that time https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-secret-of-the-5-powers/id621548560