Very young, you worked in the service of the poorest in the slums around Saigon. How did this desire to get involved so early in the social field come about?
I have always wanted to help others, from a very young age. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I had been nurtured as a child by the words of my paternal grandfather, highly respected in his community, who kept repeating to his grandchildren: "We don't have no money to leave you, but we leave you the merits we have reaped by helping those in need". My maternal grandfather also marked us a lot with his actions. When it was cold, he asked us to go and visit the homeless, bringing them straw mats and warm clothes. He also invited us, several times a year, to prepare meals for the prisoners. In my family, I have always seen my mother and father, like strong oaks, taking care of many nephews and nieces in addition to their nine children. My mother also granted small loans to poor people around her so that they could start a micro business and live off their earnings.
Your first meeting with Thich Nhat Hanh, in 1959, was it decisive?
I must have been a Buddhist nun in past lives. When I read my first book on the life of the Buddha, I immediately had the impression of having found my way.
When I had the opportunity to listen, for the first time, Thich Nhat Hanh speak at a conference, I was very impressed by his remarks. What he said stirred me to my very core. He was the master I had been waiting for for a long time. His teaching was so profound. All his life, he worked to wake us up, he never stopped calling us not to live like automatons.
“Thich Nhat Hanh's designs went well beyond traditional notions of charity of providing food, medicine and money to the poor. They aimed to help the peasants improve their living conditions on their own without resorting to outside help. »
When I met him, I shared my life between the faculty, where I was studying biology, and social work in the slums. I coordinated about sixty young university students who worked voluntarily to try to improve the lives of homeless people around Saigon. Thich Nhat Hanh shared the same social ideals, but he also wanted to work for peace. When he learned that I had formed a team of seventy people to do social work in the slums around Saigon, he immediately thought that I could help him in his social mission, to promote a form of engaged buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh insisted that the social work that you collectively did during the Vietnam War should have a spiritual dimension. What is a social commitment underpinned by a spiritual dimension?
In the Youth School for Social Service that we created in 1965 in Vietnam, there were, at the start, three hundred young volunteers who volunteered to serve the poorest. Thich Nhat Hanh's designs went well beyond traditional notions of charity of providing food, medicine and money to the poor. They aimed to help the peasants improve their living conditions on their own without resorting to outside help. He wanted to convey the idea that social work and rural development were means of personal and social transformation. By the end of the war, 10 voluntary social workers were working alongside us. Without a spiritual dimension, actions initially carried out with compassion and insight end up resembling the plans of a commercial enterprise. If our work is devoid of any spiritual dimension, we risk gradually forgetting the objectives of our actions in the service of others.
In your book The strength of love, you talk about a humanitarian expedition during the Vietnam War, in the midst of fighting and shooting, and "a kind of magnetism and energy of kindness" that would have protected you from bullets. Could you be more precise ?
If you are Catholic, you invoke God when you are in distress. Buddhists appeal to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. In 1964, we organized an expedition to bring food, clothing and medical supplies to peasants in a region at war, which had been devastated by floods. We had to cross combat zones caught in a pincer movement between belligerents on both sides, communists and anti-communists. I told my friends who were by my side that Avalokiteshvara should be invoked: “Avalokiteshvara, I let you borrow my body, my arms and my hands to accomplish this mission”. When you let go and let it act for you, the fear leaves you. And the danger moves away from you. I sat in one of our five boats, reciting the Heart Sutra as the bullets whistled around us. I was convinced that bombs, grenades and bullets would not touch us, the fighters of love, because we would be protected by Avalokiteshvara. Suddenly we didn't hear a single shot. Compassion had won. We continued our mission, in religious silence, helping the wounded on both sides.
Another time, another crisis. What first lessons could you draw from the Covid-19 pandemic, which seems closely linked to the environmental crisis?
This pandemic is the result of a spiritual crisis. I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh say about the earthquakes and other tsunamis of recent decades, such as the one that occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004, that it was a defense reaction from Mother Earth, furious at the dilapidations, pollution and looting committed against it. We have one planet. Let's not forget that throughout history great advanced ancient civilizations died out suddenly. The Coronavirus crisis is an extremely important signal sent to us: the signal to stop destroying the Earth. At the same time, as this health crisis has progressed, discrimination has multiplied. We must learn to love as the Buddha taught us in the four elements of true love: we must bring happiness and kindness to others (“maitri”), relieve suffering (“karuna”), cultivate joy and a benevolent and altruistic love (“mudita”), and also the equality of spirit which is called equanimity or inclusiveness. This period of confinement offers the opportunity for women and men, who are normally too invested in their work, to find themselves and reconcile with their bodies and with their minds. It offers us the opportunity to put an end to the flood of thoughts that too often carries us away, and to indulge in spiritual and bodily gymnastics, in peace, with a smile on our lips. Freed from these intrusive thoughts, our thinking will be deeper and clearer. This is called deep gaze in Zen Buddhism. As one calms down, clarity of mind arises.
It's time to devote more time to your loved ones, to your family. The time to pick up the phone to tell those who are far away that we love them and that we care about them.
But, before calling them, we must first get rid of resentment or fear, which too often make us make mistakes that we later regret. When you are angry or if you are afraid, you must try not to speak or act in the moment, concentrate on your breath and calm yourself down by focusing your attention on your breathing, on the inspiration and expiration. The breath brings the spirit back to the body. I calm my heart, my lungs, my face, my brain, my arms, my legs, my whole body. I am a specialist in total relaxation and earth touches, which allow us to get rid of the limitations inherited from our ancestors, and to let go of the idea that I am this body, and that my lifespan is limited. We are all One. The planet needs to hear this message of unity today, in this time of the Coronavirus crisis.