Drops of Water

By Julia Riley

During the 21-Day Retreat: Vulture Peak Gathering at Plum Village in June 2016, the Sangha gathered for a question-and-answer session at the New Hamlet. Among the topics discussed was a devastating environmental disaster in Vietnam.

Since early April, the people, animals, and ecosystem of Central Vietnam had been suffering from the harmful effects of a toxic waste spill from a steel factory. Immense numbers of fishes and other sea life died,

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By Julia Riley

During the 21-Day Retreat: Vulture Peak Gathering at Plum Village in June 2016, the Sangha gathered for a question-and-answer session at the New Hamlet. Among the topics discussed was a devastating environmental disaster in Vietnam.

Since early April, the people, animals, and ecosystem of Central Vietnam had been suffering from the harmful effects of a toxic waste spill from a steel factory. Immense numbers of fishes and other sea life died, and many people and families in the area lost their livelihoods and were facing extreme poverty and hunger.

Thuc Quyen (Chan Dieu/True Wonder), a dentist from Vietnam who now resides in Munich, Germany, offered her opinion regarding the disaster. She felt that it would be most meaningful for the people in the affected area to get help from the world community to have an independent, international investigation of the situation.

Sister Chan Khong, the eldest sister of the Order of Interbeing, joined in the discussion and shared her wisdom from a lifetime of mindfulness practice and work to alleviate suffering. She drew attention to the interbeing nature of our planet’s waters and life forms. She emphasized that the disaster in Vietnam was a matter of grave concern both locally and globally.


In early July, Sister Chan Khong wrote and published an open letter titled “A Desperate Call for Help from Mother Earth,” which expanded on her remarks from the Q&A. At the heart of the message are passages written as though in our planet’s own voice:

“Billions of fish, dolphins, sharks, shrimps, crabs, and exotic rare species from the depths of the ocean have been washed ashore, dead and lifeless, across 140 miles of coastline in Vietnam, from Ha Tinh along the coast of Quang Binh, and the coasts of Thua Thien and Da Nang Quang Nam. What terrible poisons have you poured in my waters? There is only one great ocean, and poison in one ocean is poison in my whole body. The South China Sea is also the Pacific Ocean, it is the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

“My dear children, please listen! These beautiful fish are also your brothers and sisters, they are also crying for your help. If living species in the oceans are dying, how long will you last? Please remember, my beloved ones, that you cannot take any steel, gold, and bauxite with you when you die.” (1)

The message highlights actions taken by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and others for the cause of protecting our planet. These actions include issuing the 1970 Menton Statement (one of the first international statements by scientists about environmental destruction), establishing the non-governmental organization Dai Dong The Gioi (World of Great Togetherness), helping prepare the ground for the 1972 United Nations Stockholm Conference (the first UN conference to focus on international environmental issues), and transmitting the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

As Sister Chan Khong writes, each person who receives the mindfulness trainings “makes a vow to contribute to building a small beloved community (‘Sangha’) near their home, and to live in a compassionate way to protect all species on Earth as the many thousand arms of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.” (2)

The message lists concrete ways in which we can each take action to protect the planet and all species, such as by going closer to a vegan diet, looking deeply at our lifestyle, and making changes to reduce our consumption and simplify our life. We can also encourage governments to find sustainable renewable energy sources, to adopt sustainable development practices to minimize waste and pollution, and to move away from meat and fish production.


During recent months, the international Plum Village community has been raising funds to help victims of the disaster in Vietnam.

By mid-August, Plum Village had raised enough to distribute monetary gifts to more than 2,500 families whom social workers identified as the poorest victims of the disaster. The gifts, each in an amount equivalent to $14, were provided to help the recipients start new businesses, such as growing, preparing, and selling vegan foods, to make a living and feed their families.

In a letter to the gift recipients, Sister Chan Khong explains that the gifts are contributions from the hearts of Thay’s spiritual children who are praying for his health after his stroke. She likens the gifts to the drops of water that the Buddha sprinkled on a burning forest in a previous life when he was a little bird.

Her letter relates the story of the little bird. He flies over the forest, sees that it is on fire, and hears millions of living species calling for help. He flies to a creek, dips his wings in the water, and flies back to the forest, shaking drops of water from his wings to try to extinguish the fire. He keeps flying back and forth, collecting water from the creek, and shaking drops of water on the fire. Although the fire continues to grow, the loving kindness and compassion in the little bird continue to grow also.

The little bird’s compassion helps to transform him. He and the universe are one, with no more separation. Rain pours on the forest, and the fire is extinguished. The forest becomes peaceful again.

Nobody sees any trace of the little bird anymore. He has become the rain, and his great love has extinguished the huge fire.

Like the story of the little bird, Sister Chan Khong’s letter expresses loving kindness and compassion for all life. She conveys the hope that the gifts will touch the heart of everyone, and that people will find a solution to protect Mother Earth and her children—all species on the planet, including ourselves. The letter presents a peaceful vision of fishes having a chance to survive in clean water, of fishermen and small vendors on the beach having a chance to make a different living with dignity, and of all living harmoniously together.


In October, Sister Chan Khong visited Santa Barbara, California, and spoke at a public event titled “Being Peace in Divisive Times.” During a Q&A at the event, an audience member thanked her for coming to Santa Barbara and then told her, “I am wondering if there is anything that we can do for you.”

As part of her reply, Sister Chan Khong described the disaster in Vietnam, summarized the story of the little bird, and mentioned her work of making a “drop of water on the wing of the bird” to help victims of the disaster. She said, “You can make a drop of water on the wing of the bird too.”

A large bowl-shaped bell was put into service as a basket where audience members could make donations toward the work of helping victims of the disaster.

Between mid-August and late October, more than 175 people made donations to the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation to support this work. The total amount of these donations was more than $35,400.

Trish Thompson (Chan An Dinh/True Concentration on Peace), a US-born Dharma teacher who lives in Vietnam and is involved in various humanitarian projects, has shared her reflections as to how the Sangha can help to alleviate the suffering caused by the disaster: 

I believe our practice is to stay awake to the suffering in the whole world, including in Vietnam, as well as to the suffering inside each of us. Our teacher has given us the practice of reflecting, of seeing everything, including this event, as interbeing. We know how to stay in touch with the suffering in ourselves, with the toxins in ourselves. We know that with our practice, we can transform those energies in ourselves. And of course, offering ways for individuals in our community to become directly involved supports their practice while contributing to healing the suffering in others.

Thay has taught us that when a drop of water allows herself to be transported by a river, she will arrive at the sea. May each of our loving and compassionate actions, as individuals and as a community, flow together beautifully for the benefit of Mother Earth and her children, so that our precious planet and all who live in her waters, in her skies, and on her lands can enjoy well-being, peace, ease, happiness, and freedom.

1 Sister Chan Khong, “A Desperate Call for Help from Mother Earth,” plumvillage.org/news/can-you-hear-mother-earth/.
2 Ibid.

Julia Riley, Joyous Awakening of the Heart, is a writer, a vegan, and a person who works for peace, human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability. She practices with the Los Angeles Compassionate Heart Sangha and the Earth Holder Sangha, and she is an Order of Interbeing aspirant.


Please help the victims of the disaster through a kind donation to:

Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation

2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA  92026

760-291-1003 ext 104



When making a donation online, please select Love & Understanding/Humanitarian Program as your gift designation, and specify in the gift designation note box that your donation is intended for victims of the toxic spill.


Thich Nhat Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society (Parallax Press, 2012)

Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth (Parallax Press, 2013)

Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching the Earth: 46 Guided Meditations for Mindfulness Practice (Parallax Press, 2004)

Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (Parallax Press, 2008)


Join the Earth Holder Sangha, an affinity group within the Plum Village International Community of Engaged Buddhists. We engage in mindful Right Action to protect the Earth and support sustainable communities. Find out more at: earthholder.org/about

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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