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.
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.
After my recon I went down to the registration desk and asked where the camping area was, because I didn't want to camp where anyone else was camping. I was much too frightened to be near so many strangers. This time each day, sunset, was filled with fear--fear of ambush, fear of attack, fear of war exploding at any moment. Rationally I knew that these things wouldn't happen, but these fears, like the reality of war, are not rational.
I put my tent in the woods, away from everybody else, and I sat there asking myself, "What am I doing here? Why am I at a Buddhist retreat with a Vietnamese monk? I have to be out of my mind, absolutely crazy."
The first night of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh talked to us. The moment he walked into the room and I looked into his face, I began to cry. I realized for the first time that I didn't know the Vietnamese in any other way than as my enemy, and this man wasn't my enemy. It wasn't a conscious thought; it was an awareness happening from somewhere deep inside me.
As I sat there looking at this Vietnamese man, memories of the war started flooding over me. Things that I hadn't remembered before, events I had totally forgotten. One of the memories that came back that evening helped me to understand why I had not been able to tolerate the crying of my baby son years earlier.
At some point, maybe six months into my service in Vietnam, we landed outside a village and shut down the engines of our helicopters. Often when we shut down near a village the children would rush up and flock around the helicopter, begging for food, trying to sell us bananas or pineapples or Coca-Cola, or attempting to prostitute their mothers or sisters. On this particular day there was a large group of children, maybe 25. They were mostly gathered around the helicopter.