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.
I just finished reading this really good book by Willis Harman.
I wrote on Amazon my invite to read this book
For everyone who is working with sustainability and is trying out new, deep, participative forms of leadership in order to create together meaningful future scenarios, this book is a must. Also recommended for those fascinated by the emergence of the ‘new’ scientific paradigm (from Einstein and Bohr, onwards) with all the implications about the role of consciousness in the new science.
Willis Harman was an authentic futurist, in fact in his pages originally written in 1985 he hits the heart of the matter in so many key points of today’s civilization: the link between economic growth and environmental degradation, the perception of nature as a mere ‘resource’, the eroding sense of meaning that today’s societies are facing despite an apparent wealth of scientific knowledge. Lastly, it gives many good insights in the type of leadership that was emerging in the early 80ies (still very relevant today).
From page 101 on there is a nice dissertation about the old idea of causality in science. [Causality for beginners – If I let a drop of black ink fall on a white sheet of paper and one second after the sheet has changed its color I can say beyond doubt that A caused B. Simple, no? Well, not so simple]. The mechanistic worldview, on which modern science is grounded, has given us so many benefits and helped us so much in our exploration of nature and our capacity to predict and control events. But the implication was that a worldview rooted in the concept of causality and the aim to predict and control was in essence seeing the relationship with nature as an exploitative one.
So here a big question arises. How much do we owe to the old, carthesian, mechanistic worldview? How much of it is still relevant today, taking into account all its positive implications (it makes our life easier to know that water boils at 100 °C, that time on this planet can be counted in standardised ways, to know the table of elements, etc)?
And how much do we blame this worldview for the negative (say, unwanted?) side effects? Have our worldwide troubles happened because of such worldview? Despite it? Or it didn’t make any difference?
And here comes Harman to help:
“Perhaps the mistake of modern society has been to assume that, ultimately, reductionist ‘scientific’ causes should explain everything”. So for one thing this science has led us to believe that was all encompassing, able to “explain everything” but at the same time was leaving at the door values, consciousness, and a conversation around the implications of this worldview. The paradox is that this science has given us gret powers to manipulate nature, harm each other as a human species, and flip the balance of some key ecosystems thresholds on which we depend. So science (defined in this old, traditional sense) has continuously eroded the ground for values and the ‘spirit’ (human consciousness) leaving those who didn’t agree with this mechanistic worldview dispute with poets, the Church and the dreamers.
Small wonder there is a spiritual crisis and a value crisis today -in a time where the most fundamental problems are not about science but the values that will suggest where to direct our attention and efforts.
Well spotted some twenty years ago by Willis Harman. Who at the beginning of this great book wrote, looking into an issue extremely relevant today as well:
“If the world that science tells us about is reality, how does it happen that we don’t feel more at home in it?”
“No economic, political or military power can compare with the power of a change of mind” – Willis Harman #
Reading “Global Mind Change” by Willis Harman great link between the old and the new paradigm #