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'Everyone Has His Vietnam'

A Vietnam vet-turned-Buddhist monk and peace activist on how mindfulness can heal even the deepest spiritual wounds.

For Claude Thomas, the personal aftermath of the Vietnam War was a war with himself that lasted many years, when he struggled with post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and at times even homelessness. After attending a meditation retreat for Vietnam vets lead by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1991, he discovered in Buddhism a way to deal with his pain. Today, as a mendicant monk, Thomas begs for his food, does not own property, and wanders as a spiritual practice. His spiritual pilgrimages for peace have taken him, by foot, through many countries. He visited Beliefnet's office in New York this past fall, mid-pilgrimage between Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. and spoke with us about how anyone can "tranform" his suffering.

What do you hope to communicate through your book?

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I want to show people, through my book and the way I live my life, that healing and transformation of suffering is possible. It is possible to live differently. It

can

happen.

Look at me. When I was 18 I was killing people. And my life has gone from that place to where it is now. I'm not a good or a bad person because of what I've done. I am responsible for what I've done. Now, how do I work with that responsibility? To blame the government, to blame my parents, is a waste of time. I've committed those acts, now what do I do about that? How do I work with this?

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I'm not trying to convert people to Buddhism. Mindfulness practice is just that place of personal reflection and is not necessarily theologically Buddhist. It's a simple practice that anyone in any tradition can do. So I try to introduce people to that. I say listen, start each morning off sitting: five minutes, every morning, every night, just sit. Create the time and space. If you want things to be different you have to do things differently.

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Vietnam had a profound effect on your life, and you write in your book that spiritual wounds are more significant than physical ones. Can you give an example of a "spiritual wound"?

When I went through military training, I was being taught to dehumanize the Other: in this case it was the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were the enemy. I was taught to see them as less than, and to see myself as separate from them.

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