A Vietnamese nun lives out her dream to help the destitute in India

  • People
  • Friday, 06 Mar 2015

Venerable Thich Nu Tri Thuan is happy that she followed her heart and changed the course of her destiny.

AS a young child of five, Thich Nu Tri Thuan was already helping her parents to distribute rice to the poor. Serving the needy was a role she enjoyed so much that when she grew up, she dedicated her life to humanitarian work.

Today, at 69, Venerable Tri Thuan has spent the past 26 years in India, helping poor communities in various parts of the country.

“I feel good when I can help people,” says Tri Thuan, the abbess of Linh-Son Chinese Buddhist Temple in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India.

The second youngest of 13 children, Tri Thuan grew up in Dong Ha, Quang Tri province in Vietnam. Her parents were farmers.

“I left Vietnam for the United States in 1971,” says Tri Thuan. “I was adopted by an American family and lived in the United States for 14 years.”

Although she was comfortably settled in Michigan, her heart was always with the poor.

I feel good when I can help people, says Tri Thuan.
I feel good when I can help people, says Tri Thuan.

“On television, I saw people living in poverty in India and Africa. I thought that if I became a nun, I could help these people,” she says of her calling.

In 1985, Tri Thuan left the United States and went to France to study Buddhism under her Vietnamese master, the late Most Venerable Thich Huyen VI. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1989 and made a vow to dedicate her life to helping others.

Tri Thuan has three distinct marks (made by joss sticks) on her shaven head.

“Each represent a secret vow I made,” she says. She lifted her grey robe to reveal scars on her arm – telltale signs of the vows she made.

Initially, Tri Thuan toyed with the idea of going to Africa to help the poor.

“When I spoke about it to my late master, he advised me: ‘You will not like Africa (due to the language barrier). Go to India instead.’ ”

Tri Thuan (forefront, second from left) at the ground-breaking ceremony of the convention centre in Lumbini, Nepal, early this year.
Tri Thuan (forefront, second from left) at the ground-breaking ceremony of the convention centre in Lumbini, Nepal, early this year.

She heeded his advice and headed for India in 1989. She has been there ever since and made India the base for her humanitarian work.

When she first arrived in Kushinagar, India, Tri Thuan stayed at a temple which was built by a nun from Hong Kong. After the nun’s demise, the temple was passed down to Tri Thuan’s master.

“Over the years, the rundown temple has accommodated monks and nuns who stopped by. My master handed down the responsibility of taking care of the temple to me,” says Tri Thuan.

“The first thing I did was to make a table with my bare hands. Then someone donated a Goddess of Mercy statue to the temple. After that, things started to look up.”

The first three years she was there, the temple had no electricity. She travelled abroad and raised funds to rebuild the temple. Subsequently, the temple has been renovated to include more facilities.

Linh-Son Chinese Buddhist Temple in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Linh-Son Chinese Buddhist Temple in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Tri Thuan jokes: “Snakes are my friends. So far, no one has been bitten by the snakes – which included cobras and pythons – which slithered into the temple grounds. Sometimes they can be seen in the premises but they do not hurt anyone.”

Tri Thuan is the first in her family to be a nun. “Presently, seven family members have become monks or nuns. Two of them have their own temples in Vietnam,” she says.

She admits to being a big influence on her family.

“I supported a few nephews and nieces who went to Buddhist Dhamma schools in India,” she says.

Grateful for her blessed life, Tri Thuan wants to do more to serve the less fortunate.

“I have a happy life. I’m happy to do more dhamma work. If I stay with my family, I can serve only a few people. As a nun, I can serve millions of people,” she says.

Tri Thuan was in Malaysia to grace a charity dinner to raise funds for her cause. Her mission: to build a Buddha statue and convention centre, at an estimated cost of RM7mil, in Lumbini, Nepal. This was her second trip to Malaysia. Her first trip was in 1986.

Ven Kuang Hsin, 65, abbot of Zengkuo Temple in Nantou County, Cingcing, Taiwan, was also in Malaysia for the charity dinner. The monk and six Taiwanese nuns were here for a blessing ceremony. Proceeds from the event went to Ven Tri Thuan’s cause.

Says Kuang Hsin: “We’re touched by Ven Tri Thuan’s compassion (for the people of India). We’ve come to help her (and her cause).”

A Malaysian volunteer, Lindy Leong, formed a 12-member committee to help Tri Thuan raise funds. Leong describes Tri Thuan as an amazing abbess with a heart for the poor.

Indeed, Tri Thuan has transformed the lives of the poor and touched hearts wherever she goes.

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