'Everyone Has His Vietnam'
A Vietnam vet-turned-Buddhist monk and peace activist on how mindfulness can heal even the deepest spiritual wounds.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?
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. Itcan
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?
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.
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.