Nan-Yueh, a Ch'an (Zen) master of eighth-century China, once came upon a student meditating earnestly. Without a word, the master picked up a tile that happened to be lying nearby and began to rub it vigorously. The student's concentration was broken. He looked up and asked, "Master what are you doing?" Nan-Yueh replied, "I'm making a mirror." "But," the student protested, "you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile." "That's right," said the master. "And you can't make a Buddha by sitting in meditation." As this Zen anecdote reveals, meditation practice by itself cannot bring anyone to full spiritual maturity. There also must be bodhisattva practice where one actively serves others with compassion.
This autobiography by Sister Chan Khong, whose birthname is Cao Ngoc Phuong, covers a time frame from her birth in a Vietnamese village on the Makong River Delta in 1938 until 1993 and her spiritual work in Plum Village, a community-in-exile established by Thich Nhat Hanh.
The author's grandfather once told her: "We have no money to leave you, but we bequeath you the merit we have earned from helping people in need." Cao Ngoc Phuong began working at age 18 helping poor people in slums. In 1964, she joined Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in founding the School of Youth for Social Service which set up medical, educational, and agricultural facilities in rural Vietnam. Throughout the civil war in the country, she fed the hungry, built communes, buried the dead, and tried to be a serene presence in the midst of terrible violence.
"Social action is itself a kind of meditation and can be a great ripener of compassion and equanimity," Zen teacher Philip Kapleau has written. Learning True Love is a remarkable portrait of an extraordinary woman whose entire life is peace and justice in action. It is also a testament to the single-mindedness that characterizes engaged Buddhism at its best. The Dalai Lama once said: "We should have this compassion from the depths of our heart, as if it were nailed there." Sister Chan Khong is a living example of that lovingkindness.