2016-06-30
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.

For me the practice of sitting meditation brings qualities of concentration and reflection into every aspect of my life. For example, when I use the bathroom in the airport and finish washing my hands I clean the sink, I wipe it down. People say, "You're crazy, why do you do that? Someone else is going to do that for you." I'm not obsessive-compulsive. It's a gesture of respect and it's also part of the discipline.

Without a disciplined spiritual practice it is impossible for one to just sit still, to recognize, "What is my condition and how does that condition control my reactions to the environment around me?" Then I have the courage to stop and the process of healing and transformation can begin to take place.

You say your walking has no point, no destination, no goal. What does it mean to you as a spiritual practice?

It's pretty easy to get comfortable in a monastic setting, in a cloistered setting. When I'm out walking, I'm endlessly challenged.

Let's say I've been fortunate enough to be hosted for the night and fortunate enough to get something to eat. I have a dry place to rest. But in the morning when I get up to walk, it's pouring down rain. I know I have to walk, I know I've got 15-20 miles in front of me. My mind is saying, "What are you doing? You don't have to do this! What's the point?" My mind then becomes my adversary. And I have to say to myself, "You know, I have this commitment and I'm just going to do it." I just take the next step.

Unlike Vietnam, many people regard World War II as a necessary, "good," even glorious war. How do respond to this perspective?

This is my answer: Six million Jews were killed. The Holocaust was stopped by violent means. Have holocausts stopped? This is the point.

I don't think we can look at the Second World War, or the Korean War, or Vietnam, as isolated points in history. We have to be willing to look at each of them as part of an interconnected reality, to say, "O.K., this happened. Can I look at all of the events leading up to this point, and can I look at the consequences following that point?" America after the end of the Second World War went right into Korea. They went from Korea right into McCarthyism. Before the escalation of troops in Vietnam there was Haiti. And the Dominican Republic. Then they went from Vietnam into Panama then Grenada, then the first Gulf War, then Afghanistan, then the next Gulf war and I just know that they're contemplating military action against Iran-it's endless.

So to say that the Second World War had this final, wonderful result is naïve.

Do you think a nation should defend itself against attack?

Defending itself-what does that mean? If we think about defense only in terms of the military I don't think it's necessary. I think the Second World War could have been ended through nonviolent means. It would have required a lot more courage. And it would have required a unified response and people would have died.

But the consequence of resolving something through nonviolent measures isn't then the perpetuation of the cycle of suffering. We get trapped again and again into this cycle of suffering. Because we lack the courage to do something different. If we don't do something different we're setting ourselves up for catastrophe.

What would you say to soldiers coming back from Iraq now?

I think the most important thing I can do is to encourage them to speak directly and honestly about their experiences. If you've seen people killed or if you've killed people or if you've been in threatening or dangerous situations then you need to talk about that.

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