Chan Khong was born Cao Ngoc Phuong in 1938 in Ben Tre, Vietnam in the center of the Mekong Delta. As the eighth of nine children in a well-to-do family, her father taught her and her siblings the value of work and humility. She quotes her father as saying: “…never bargain with a poor farmer because for you a few dong may not be much, but for him it is enough to support his children.”
In 1958 she enrolled in the University of Saigon to study biology. She was also involved in political action, becoming the student leader at the University, spending much of her time helping the poor and sick in the slums of the city.
She first met Thich Nhat Hanh in 1959 and considered him her spiritual teacher. In 1963 she left for Paris to finish her degree in biology which was awarded in 1964. She returned to Vietnam later that year and joined Thich Nhat Hanh in founding the Van Hanh University and the School for Youth and Social Service (SYSS). She was central in many of the activities of the SYSS which organized medical, educational and agricultural facilities in rural Vietnam during the war. At one stage the SYSS involved over 10,000 young peace workers who rebuilt many villages ravaged by the fighting. When Thich Nhat Hanh returned to the United States, Chan Khong ran the day to day operations.
On February 5, 1966 Chân Không was ordained as one of the first six members of the Order of Interbeing, sometimes called the “Six Cedars”. Following her ordination, she was given the name Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness. In explaining the meaning of the name, she says: “In Buddhism, the word ’emptiness’ is a translation of the Sanskrit sunyata. It means ’empty of a separate self.’ It is not a negative or despairing term. It is a celebration of interconnectedness, of interbeing. It means nothing can exist by itself alone, that everything is inextricably interconnected with everything else. I know that I must always work to remember that I am empty of a separate self and full of the many wonders of this universe, including the generosity of my grandparents and parents, the many friends and teachers who have helped and supported me along the path, and you dear readers, without whom this book could not exist. We inter-are, and therefore we are empty of an identity that is separate from our interconnectedness.”
The Order of Interbeing was to be composed of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. The first six ordainees were free to choose whether they preferred to live and practice as formal monastics or as laypersons. The first three women chose to live celibate lives like nuns, although we didn’t shave our heads, while the three men chose to marry and practice as lay Buddhists. Among the three women was Nhat Chi Mai, who immolated herself for peace just a year later.
From 1969 to 1972 she worked with Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris organizing the Buddhist Peace Delegation which campaigned for peace in Vietnam. Since then she has worked with Thich Nhat Hanh establishing first the Sweet Potato community near Paris, then Plum Village Sangha in 1982. She accompanies and assists Thich Nhat Hanh when he travels. In addition, she has continued to organize relief work for those in need in Vietnam, coordinating relief food parcels for poor children and medicine for the sick, and helps organize activities at Plum Village.
During the three-month return to Vietnam (January to early April, 2005), Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to thousands of people throughout the country – bureaucrats, politicians, intellectuals, street vendors, taxi drivers, artists. In addition to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks, Sister Chan Khong also taught and conducted additional mindfulness practices. She led the crowds in singing Plum Village songs, chanting, and leading “total relaxation” sessions. Other times, it was her simple application of Vietnamese heritage to modern ways of life that appealed to the people they met. During Tết (Vietnamese new year) celebrations in February, she performed an “oracle reading” for hundreds of Buddhist followers.