Helping refugees: Engaged Buddhism in action

In 2020, we have heard many tragic stories of lives lost seeking refuge. Sadly, this means that Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues’ experiences of helping refugees in 1978 are still incredibly relevant. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is known as a pioneer of Engaged Buddhism, where mindfulness is the basis for offering practical help to the world. The powerful video Meditation Is Not a Luxury, where he lucidly recounts an illegal mission to help refugees, vividly illustrates Engaged Buddhism in action.

The plight of boat people in the 1970s

‘Boat people’ were refugees who fled Vietnam following the end of the war there, in 1975. Like today, many countries were not willing to help refugees:

So many boat people were dying in the ocean, and Singapore had a very harsh policy on the boat people… The policy of Singapore at that time was to reject the boat people; Malaysia, also. They preferred to have the boat people die in the ocean rather than to bring them to land and make them into prisoners. Every time there was a boat with the boat people [that came] to the shore, they tried to push them [back] out into the sea in order [for them] to die. They didn’t want to host [them].

“And those fishermen who had compassion, who were able to save the boat people from drowning in the sea, were punished. They had to pay a very huge sum of money so that next time they won’t have the courage to save the boat people.

“We did not speak about compassion… We tried to do the work of compassion”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s reaction to the boat people’s situation was not limited to sending them the energy of compassion. In the spirit of Engaged Buddhism, he did what he could to help them in practical terms:

“I went to Singapore to attend a conference on religion and peace and I discovered the plight, the suffering, the existence of the boat people. So I stayed on in order to secretly organise a rescue operation because I knew that the government of Singapore did not want me to do that. I had people from France, Holland, and other countries in Europe to come and help me. We hired a boat to bring medicine, water, and food to the sea, and we tried to rescue people.”

Doing so meant taking risks and breaking local laws:

“In Singapore, we had done something illegal. We went to a fisherman’s house, and we said that… ‘Well, anytime you rescue a boat person, you telephone us. We’ll come and take them so you would not be punished.’ So we gave them our phone number. From time to time, the fisherman would call us and we used a taxi and went there and took the boat people. And then we’d use the taxi to go into town and to go to the French embassy.

“I have to say that the ambassador of France, in Singapore, his name was Mr Gasseau, was a man of heart. He knew what we were doing. We came at night and the embassy was closed. So we took the boat person out of the taxi, and we helped them to climb into the compound of the embassy and told him to wait there. And in the morning the ambassador came with his personnel, opened the gate and saw someone and said ‘Who are you?’ ‘Well, I am a boat person. Someone brought me here.’ [I had told him] ‘Please don’t reveal our identities. Don’t tell them a monk has brought you here. Just [tell them], “Someone just helped us here.”’

“And then the ambassador… he understood. They’d call the police. The police came and recorded the name of the person and bring [sic] the person into the prison. That person is safe. Otherwise, the policy is to push them out and [let them] die in the sea. We did many illegal things like that.”

Mindfulness is essential

For Thich Nhat Hanh, meditation is not a luxury, because it is essential to staying sane in such stressful situations:

You know, in our office we did… sitting meditation every morning, we did sitting meditation in the evening. Because we need that. We need the spiritual dimension so that we can be strong enough, compassionate enough to continue, because it is very difficult.

Thay talks about the incredible tension of waiting to see whether their confiscated passports would be returned and their visas extended while the lives of thousands of people were in their hands:

We rented boats […] to rescue people. We tried by illegal ways to help the victims of discrimination. One night, the police of Singapore came and surrounded our office. They had discovered our underground network.

“At that time, there were three boats loaded with boat people on the sea, and the government [had] just discovered our network. So they arrested one of our boats. In fact, there was the fourth boat, not to carry the boat people, but to… go back and forth and supply them with water, instant noodles and medicine and that [boat] was caught.

“So our people were hungry, miserable on the three boats. And there was a storm! Our boats did not have the authorisation to take refuge [from the storm] in the waters of Singapore and of Malaysia because they wanted [the boat people] to die in the ocean rather than to come [to their shores].

“I was sitting on the solid ground, but I was floating because my life was with the lives of the boat people. Imagine you are responsible for the lives of nearly one thousand people: 300 on one boat, 400 on another boat, and so on. And there was a child being born on the third boat, [the] Leapdal. It’s so difficult.

“If you don’t practice sitting meditation, walking meditation you’d become insane. You cannot be yourself, you cannot help. And that very night my office was surrounded by the police; at midnight, they came and confiscated our passports. Sister Chan Khong was there. Her French passport was confiscated also. I hold a refugee passport. And they gave us the order to leave the country in 24 hours. How can you do that while… almost 1,000 boat people are still… your responsibility? Very difficult.

“So from one o’clock to five o’clock in the morning we all practiced walking meditation. Walking meditation is not a luxury: [it is] to still be yourself, to find the way.

“And finally, at four o’clock, we got the idea. We said we have to go to Ambassador Gasseau… we have to ask him to intervene, so we can stay 10 more days to wind up the operation. And then we were out at five o’clock, but there was no taxi. And the embassy will open only at nine o’clock.

“They were not in a hurry. They didn’t have 1,000 boat people to take care of. So we had more time to do walking meditation! And then we were at the gate of the embassy when it opened and we went in. And we talked to the ambassador and he wrote a letter to the government of Singapore intervening in our favour, asking them to allow us to stay 10 more days to wind up the operation. And then we waited until 11 o’clock to have that letter… We ran to the office of the prime minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. And when he got the letter, he had to convene a meeting with all the cabinet members and we were waiting outside.

“And finally they said yes! They said we should go right away to the Ministry of Interior, to the police headquarters and have our visas renewed for 10 days. We had only 15 minutes in order to go there!

“We went through this kind of situation. And we know that if we don’t have a spiritual dimension our life would be lost.

The words ‘I have arrived, I’m home’ remind us to dwell in the present moment. We have already arrived, we are already home. We can breathe and just be:

“I have arrived, I’m home’ is your practice to survive. It’s not a luxury. If you cannot be yourself, if you don’t know how to handle your fear, despair, anger in you, you are lost. You cannot help any other people. You cannot help your people. You cannot help your country.”

Helping refugees, staying sane

There are ways we can help refugees today, whether volunteering at a day centre or giving time, money, and other resources to organisations that help refugees around the world.

And for the meditation that is essential to keep us sane, there is the Plum Village app, and Plum Village practice groups which can be joined both around the world and online.

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