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
Speaking our truth on behalf of the system we intend to serve. Bridging the individual needs of authenticity and being mindfully present (being fully ourselves) as a pre-condition to all the other practices. What do I (we) need to practice to show up in the world in a way that makes us “warriors” that serve our hearts and serve the world? Reflections from a leadership journey in Zagreb, Warrior of the Heart training, May 25-27, 2012.
The desire to be part of a “Warrior of the Heart” training had been in my mind for a long while. I named 2012 the year of personal transformations, so I committed to go on journey of deep exploration and conducive to bring up authentic conversations for self- and collective discovery.
How beautiful to be in a place that serves the purpose of being mindful, detached from the whirl of events happening out there, and at the same time deeply connected to one another. The place where we all arrived on Friday afternoon is a lovely monastery with rose gardens and a passage through the lawns, secular trees and a path that brings to a small pond populated by restless frogs (really, they were taking night shifts). The welcoming circle brought us all together in the same place and the opening circle spoke of courage in showing up in the world like a warrior –but in a sense that serves the world and uses wholeheartedness as spirit of service as their primal sword.
I arrived to the training with a great sense of trust in the trainers (I know Toke since 2010; I have met Martin last December) and this makes me realize how important trust has become for me in every training. More in general, today I don’t go to any training unless I either know personally the trainers or I got word from my close community of peer learners about the quality of their work and that can be relevant for me. This helped me because the WOH training is a bit unusual in its concept for me: some of the Aikido concepts that we practiced seemed to me a bit on a meta-level kind of training, which is something I am not entirely used to. It is my trust in the trainers and the fact that I can make the teachings relevant in my daily life that helps me to embrace the learning with curiosity and openness.
::Saturday afternoon, Flow Game::
I really like the concept and the design of the Flow Game (more at this link). Everyone placed at the center a very personal question which, through this dialogic card game, was explored through conversations with peers. My question was “What is my deep gladness, that serves both myself and the world?” Most of the learning I got from the game is very personal but what I think I can share is some of the patterns that emerged through our dialogues with my fellow players at the table.
We have been talking in a circle addressing questions around what nourishes us and motivators in life. It is amazing to notice, as a meta-pattern, how often meaningful relationships came up as important to crate motivation and pre-conditions to happiness.
::Sunday, Open Space::
On Sunday we moved into Open Space. I called the question “How to combine the Social Engineer and the Poet in me”. I felt gratitude towards the conveners who initially helped me with the clarification question “which of the two do I need to work on more?”, for I don’t have a clear answer on that yet.
My question, reframed, to me means: How to be most impactful in the world doing something I am passionate about that at the same time creates a potentially big (and good) difference in the world? A crucial learning for me was the confirmation that the two (the inspired and the skillful, the grounded and the intellectual) don’t need to be seen as separated. Perhaps it all starts with the quality of one’s inner condition. (Scharmer got it right when he quoted “The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervener”?) A participant told me the story of a man in a circle who challenged the negative energy that was present in that moment in the circle. This wise man, speaking from a place of courage and authenticity, named the negative energy in a way that let the system see itself in a new, unpredicted way.
This brought me to a deeper reflection about presence, social / emotional intelligence, and courage. When being in a place where meaningful conversations are called forth, it is everyone’s responsibility to speak their truth and operate from a place of authenticity; even if that might compromise a desired sense of wholeness and unity, for there is no unity without truth. Such truth, from a bigger system perspective, may help the system see itself, which to me is related to the question about how to create conditions conducive to a positive impact in a system.
Our capacity to learn must outpace the speed of progress and innovation.#
As the world is moving fast and innovation is quickly changing the landscape of our communication patterns and of our perception of the world, we must learn at the speed of light so that we can deal with this change.
I had this insight –well, it’s fair to say: I learned it- from Mike Hohnen, which I met at the Art of Hosting in Århus. As an avid learner myself, I found it a quite intriguing and challenging idea.
Last year I set forth for myself some goals, framed in a nice vision and some strategic goals along the way, in a one-year plan. In order to accomplish the vision, one of the strategic goals was to increase by far the speed of my learning. Mostly I was referring to books, articles and online publications that I could read and remember as I had them on my fingertips. Now, even though overall I could see some progress, it has been below my expectations. I did read, but not as much as I wanted, and I remember only a few very outstanding articles and publications. Because of this, it has been natural for me go be thinking about how to learn faster. But there was something that overwhelmed me for I could see that I have been exposed to more information during last year (mostly for taking care of this little child @SustainBTH ) but at the same time having the sensation that I wasn’t equally learning new things at the same speed. Or, even trickier, accommodating that new knowledge into my pre-existing background and assumptions about reality.
I believe that there is some potential in exploring the difference in attention that is required for learning, while dealing with different kinds of media that require a different way of “reading”, or listening and memorizing. For my own use, I came up with this idea that I am already using in practice and will see how it works for me.
It’s the metaphor of a learning pyramid. (And you will excuse my handwriting, right?) My assumption is that I should be aware of the building blocks and master each of the blocks at a lower level before trying to master one at a upper level.
The red blocks are about listening, reading and memorizing that are focused ‘outside’ of us (outward-oriented). The black ones are about listening to the self (inward-oriented). I believe the ones focused on the self are fundamental since without this awareness we would simply be not equipped to give our full attention outside of us.
::Body:: A first basic block would be about connection to the body, and checking in with the pre-conditions that can make our brain alert enough to be open to learn.
::Connection to the self:: I call this second one hosting myself. It is quite common to say that in order to host conversations and listen to others one should listen to himself first. This speaks to me about the idea that in an era of attention deficit disorders the most sever hinder to listening is that we can’t pay our full attention and we are not even aware of our lack of attention. Nice article here.
::Listen others with attention:: Once we are present, we can open our senses and listen. Probably our capacity to understand each other and retain information in verbal communication is a quality we should master before other forms of listening, for it calls for our true attention and our capacity to empathize. A nice exercise I used to do after long conversations with a friend was this. After our conversation, I took my journal and started sketching what was his point of view during the chat. First things that came to my mind were my own opinions, not his. Surprise: it’s easier to remember your stance in a conversation than someone else’s. Definitely needs exercise. Wonderful talk by Daniel Goleman on our (in)capacity to listen.
::Read, memorize, map:: This is a very traditional kind of learning. One thing that might help me in the speed of this learning would be to make the mind maps of books, and get used to make summaries. An interesting technique I was using a while ago is called PQ4R (Preview Question Review Recite Reflect Review)
::Long articles on the web:: I would learn these in the same way as learn materials from books. My main difference is to watch out for the potential of distractions while reading online and at the same time use simple ways to archive, connect articles with each other, organize them in semantic categories (I am using bit.ly bundles and a software to organize my bookmarks now)
::Speeches, videos, podcasts:: Absolutely love them. Because in many of them I find inspiration and some little gems and quotes, I have a hard time in memorizing the overall structure of an informative speech (podcast or video). I wonder if it’s worth to use any techniques to try and retain not only the gems but also the structure of the overall flow and content.
::Twitter, Facebook, fast media:: Since you might know they are a waterfall of information, I try to use them in the most selective way. When reading, I am applying continuous filters to the information flow (lists on twitter, hiding some profiles on Facebook, sorting friends by area of interest, etc). I also set the expectations that on twitter I might find the equivalent on a daily newspaper, using my retweets and favorites as the only bookmarks. If something of great interest and worth storing comes up, I would use some categories to archive it such as bit.ly or bookmarks.
Another reason why this idea of the pyramid makes sense to me is that a very traditional education would teach you analytical skills in reading and memorizing texts, and stop there. And is not nearly enough. Maybe it’s true that solid skills in one block can help you a great deal in reading / learning with a critical eye the next.
I will use this concept of the learning pyramid to stretch myself into new learning adventures.