'The Light at the Tip of the Candle'

When I first saw Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, I was confronted with a harrowing memory from my 1967 tour in Vietnam.

Claude Anshin ThomasOn the day Claude Thomas returned to the States from the Vietnam War--where he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart, among other awards--a beautiful woman he encountered in the airport spat on him. He was in uniform, and she was a peace activist (and it was 1967). This incident came to represent for him the welcome the country had for soldiers returning from the war. In the years following his military service, Thomas' life spiraled downward into post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.

Thomas' life turned around when he discovered Buddhism. Zen, he found, offered him a path toward healing, a practical way to cope with his suffering rather than run from it.

Thomas was ordained a Zen priest in 1995 and took the vows of a mendicant. Today he works to promote peace through his spiritual pilgrimages and the nonprofit Zaltho Foundation.

The following took place in 1991, when Claude Thomas attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans, led by Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The excerpt from "At Hell's Gate" by Claude Anshin Thomas, is reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.


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I drove to the retreat on my motorcycle. At that time I was riding a black Harley Davidson. I was dressed in a typical fashion for me: black leather jacket, black boots, black helmet, gold mirror glasses, and a red bandanna tied around my neck. My style of dress was not exactly warm and welcoming. The way I presented myself was intended to keep people away, because I was scared, really scared.

I arrived at the retreat early so I could check the place out. Before I could think about anything, I walked the perimeter of the whole place: Where are the boundaries? Where are the dangerous places where I'm vulnerable to attack? Coming here thrust me into the unknown, and for me the unknown meant war. And to be with so many people I didn't know was terrifying to me, and the feeling of terror also meant war.

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