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.
This incident had been so overwhelming that my conscious mind could not hold it. And so this memory had remained inaccessible to me until that evening in 1990. As I sat there looking at this monk, Vietnam just came rushing back to me. All the unaddressed, repressed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. I understood for the first time how the war had taken away my ability to have relationships. How the effects of war had prevented me, like my father before me, from having an intimate relationship with my son, or with anyone. I had left my three-year-old son and his mother not because I couldn't stand to be with them, which is what my suffering was telling me, but because I couldn't stand to be in my own skin.
Being in the presence of this monk and his assistant, a nun who was also Vietnamese, memories of the war continued to rush through me, and I was terrified all over again. In one instance, people from the retreat were standing in a circle, doing some exercises. I wouldn't join the circle because it didn't feel safe. When Sister Chan Khong began to walk away from the circle, I started to panic because I didn't have a gun. I was confronted by the memory of walking into that "pacified" village and the [men disguised as] monks opening fire on us with their automatic weapons. And now here I was observing a Vietnamese nun leaving a group of American veterans who were unarmed and vulnerable. I was so frightened I thought that I might explode. Who could be trusted? Who?
At the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh said to us, "You veterans are the light at the tip of the candle. You burn hot and bright. You understand deeply the nature of suffering." He told us that the only way to heal, to transform suffering, is to stand face-to-face with suffering, to realize the intimate details of suffering and how our life in the present is affected by it. He encouraged us to talk about our experiences and told us that we deserved to be listened to, deserved to be understood. He said we represented a powerful force for healing in the world.
He also told us that the nonveterans were more responsible for the war than the veterans. That because of the interconnectedness of all things, there is no escape from responsibility. That those who think they aren't responsible are the most responsible. The very lifestyle of the nonveterans supports the institutions of war. The nonveterans, he said, needed to sit down with the veterans and listen, really listen to our experience. They needed to embrace whatever feelings arose in them when engaging with us-not to hide from their experience in our presence, not to try to control it, but just to be present with us.
I spent six days at the retreat. Being with the Vietnamese people gave me the opportunity to step into the emotional chaos that was my experience of Vietnam. And I came to realize that this experience was--and continues to be--a very useful and powerful gift. Without specific awareness of the intimate nature of our suffering, whatever that suffering may be, healing and transformation simply are not possible and we will continue to re-create that suffering and infect others with it.
Toward the end of the retreat I went to Sister Chan Khong to apologize, to try to make amends in some way for all the destruction, the killing I'd taken part in. I didn't know how to apologize directly; perhaps I didn't have the courage. All I could manage to say was: "I want to go to Vietnam." During the retreat they had said, if we who had fought wanted to go to Vietnam to help rebuild the country, they would help arrange it. And so I asked to go to Vietnam; it was all I could say through my tears.