'Everyone Has His Vietnam'

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

BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider

 
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?

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?

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.

And whenever we're taught to dehumanize the other we must then therefore lose contact with our own humanity. Because we are

not

separate from the "other." This awareness I have now; I did not have it then.

So in losing contact with one's humanity, one loses contact with one's ability to form any kind of intimate connection with anyone or anything else. Which for me is a most profound spiritual wound.

Do people ever say to you, "The Vietnam War was decades ago. Why don't you just get over it?"

People have said that. My response is simple: you never get over it, there is no getting over it. Some say, "Well I'm over it." Well I hope so, but my experience is different than that. I'm not going to argue with them.

What I'm making an effort to do is live in a different relationship with my suffering. It doesn't mean my suffering goes away; it means I'm not consumed by it. I will be challenged again and again. Then when I'm challenged I'll have some tools that enable me to live differently.

You say everyone has his or her Vietnam, and that no one can be happy without "touching" his suffering. What do you mean?

Suffering can be defined as either the craving for something outside of us to make us complete or detachment to something outside of us as a cause of our difficulty. Suffering in itself never goes away; my relation to it can change.

How can a person change his relationship to suffering?

Through a disciplined spiritual practice-whatever that means-in my case, it is the rituals and commitments of a Zen Buddhist monk in the Soto Zen lineage. This is what supports me.

Continued on page 2: »

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