Iraq

Peace Is Every Step

How the Mindful Walk with Thich Nhat Hanh in Los Angeles Became an International Day of Mindfulness and Peace By Beth Howard

mb41-Peace1At the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, someone asked Thich Nhat Hanh what could be done to bring peace to the situation in Iraq. He responded by saying that there are many wrong perceptions on both sides. We must begin, he said, by looking deeply at our own practice. To have peace in the world, we must first have peace within ourselves. Thay also suggested that we share these practices with others, teaching them to look deeply and helping them to find peace within themselves. “There is much in the peace movement that is not peaceful,” he stated.

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Participants at the retreat organized a Peace Affinity group to discuss these issues. At the meeting, Sister Susan from Deer Park Monastery began by reiterating that the peace movement lacked peace at its core. When asked how Thay might participate and help us, Sister Susan said that Thay would support our efforts, but we needed to do the work.

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And so the Peace Is Every Step project was born.

An Alternative Peace Movement

Peace Is Every Step formed as an alternative to the currently fractured peace movement. Its purpose is to use deep listening, deep looking, and loving speech to foster peace in each individual and in the world. It is a peaceful organization for individuals and organizations who wish to create peace from a nonviolent, non-angry place by using peaceful means. As Thay teaches, to have peace in the world, we must start at home, within ourselves.

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Specific suggestions by participants at the meeting included local, state, and national initiatives and actions; advertising campaigns; and networking with a number of peace organizations. A large peace rally was already planned in Washington, D.C., which seemed a perfect opportunity for a mindful, peaceful presence. Melissa O’Neil and Kelly Osborne, human rights and environmental activists and organizers, volunteered to work with Sister Susan to create a database that would allow the Peace Affinity group to stay in touch and share ideas and information. Jeremy Williams offered to build the Peace Is Every Step Website.

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Susan Skog, a writer and inspirational speaker, presented a synopsis of the Peace Affinity meeting to the larger Sangha at the retreat. “Peace is still alive in America,” she said. “We just need to water the seeds of peace.”

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Two weeks after the retreat, Peace Is Every Step was online at www.peaceiseverystep.net. The first e-mail was sent out to inform the group of a Peace Walk in Los Angeles, led by Thay and organized by Deer Park Monastery. Skog, Williams, and Janet Jackson were instrumental in networking with and inviting peace groups and media. Many existing peace organizations put out invitations and e-mails to their members announcing the Peace Walk, including True Majority, United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, and Nonviolence International. Almost immediately, people responded from around the globe, with plans to have simultaneous events that would coincide with the L.A. Peace Walk, thus creating an International Day of Mindfulness and Peace.

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Walking for Peace in Los Angeles

On Saturday, October 8th, Thay led over three thousand people in a mindful, silent Peace Walk. Thay requested that we walk together in silence, with no banners or signs; the walk was not a demonstration against anyone. He said, “If you are a Buddhist, please come. If you are a Christian, please come. If you are Jewish, Muslim, or belong to or identify with any other religious creed or peace organization, please come. If you are white, brown, black, yellow, red, or any other color, please come. We shall learn together that wrong perceptions of self and others are at the foundation of separation, fear, hate, and violence, and that togetherness and collaboration is possible.”

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Thay explained from an open stage before the walk, “We don’t think shouting in anger can help. If you make other people angry and fearful, then you cannot reduce violence and fear.” He encouraged participants to practice deep listening and loving speech.

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The two-hour silent walk and prayer for peace proceeded serenely through the streets surrounding MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in the war in Iraq, attended the walk. (See Sheehan’s comments on page 14). For many, the walk exemplified A.J. Muste’s often quoted phrase: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

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The walk was widely covered in the local media. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Thay stated, “I don’t think shouting angrily at the government can help us end the war. When we are able to change our own thinking, the government will have to change.”

A Peaceful Homecoming Parade

On the same day, across the globe, people gathered to support Thay’s message. Peace Walks or vigils were held in a dozen cities, including Lafayette, Indiana; Portland, Oregon; Atlanta, Georgia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Helena and Lewistown, Montana; Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder, Colorado; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada; and Sydney, Australia.

The Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, practiced mindful walking in Colorado State University’s Homecoming Parade. Before the parade some Sangha members expressed concern because of recent clashes between pro-war and antiwar protesters in their city. But after the walk, what many recalled were the smiles of the people along the parade route, reminding them of Thay’s saying, “A smile is the most basic kind of peace work.” Susan Skog, who lives in Fort Collins, remembers best the hands of children, reaching out to receive bright yellow bookmarks printed with the calligraphy, “Peace is every step.”

Future Plans

Currently, plans are underway for additional peace projects. One proposal is A Long Walk for Peace, a mindful walk covering as many as 200 miles that would also offer the opportunity to practice engaged Buddhism, perhaps by helping to build housing for hurricane victims.

For further information about Peace Is Every Step events, go to www.peaceiseverystep.net. If you have questions or suggestions, contact info@peaceiseverystep.net, and if you would like to be on Peace Is Every Step’s listserve, please send an e-mail to sangha-subscribe@peaceiseverystep.net.

Beth Howard, Peaceful Source of the Heart, practices with the Bird & Bell Meditation Group in Cheyenne, Wyoming and with the Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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A Conscientious Objector is Asked,“First Time in Vietnam?”

By Brian McNaught mb48-First1

The question is asked frequently of middle-aged American male visitors, “Is this your first time in Vietnam?” It generally means, “Did you fight in the war?”

My spouse and I were asked the same question by the U.S. Senator who sat next to us at breakfast in the Hanoi hotel in which we were all staying. The depth of our answers depends upon the questioner.

With Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who was visiting Southeast Asia with his Vietnamese wife, and who offered that he had fought in DaNang, our next destination, we simply said, yes. I explained that I was in Hong Kong to do a series of presentations to Wall Street executives on gay workplace issues, and that we came to see Vietnam and Cambodia because we had heard they were beautiful countries. That was the truth, but the answer was incomplete.

We didn’t want to agitate his painful memories, evidenced by the ever-so-subtle wince I witnessed when we mentioned DaNang. Knowing how emotionally torn and scarred Vietnam vets can be, I generally say very little in their presence about my early and consistent perspective on that war.

To our Vietnamese questioners, however, I quickly and gladly explained that yes, this was our first visit, and that we both had actively and vigorously opposed the war. I, in fact, was a conscientious objector, a status that was achieved after a hard-fought battle with my draft board and with my family, that was inspired by my spiritual beliefs, and that I have never regretted. The Vietnamese, regardless of age or gender, always smiled and enthusiastically said thank you.

A Difficult Position

It was remarkable and surprising how good their response made me feel. It was nearly forty years ago that I passionately marched, wrote, and voted against the war. I had imagined that my feelings about the personal and national conflict would have been forgotten or irretrievably buried.

My unflinching public opposition to the war in 1970 was conceived and nurtured by, among other factors, my attraction to the Sermon on the Mount, the lives of Gandhi and Francis of Assisi, the books Mr. Blue and Hiroshima, the protest folk songs of the 1960s, the courage of the Berrigan brothers, and the selfsacrifice of Thich Quang Duc, the sixty-six-year-old Buddhist monk who self-immolated on the streets of Saigon. My idealism at the time felt very strong, pure, and just. Yet, my position was painfully called into question by my love for a cousin who was a helicopter pilot in the war, by friendship with fraternity brothers who were in ROTC, by romantic patriotism, by admiration for the sacrifices made by those who fought against the atrocities of the Nazis. I also harbored doubts about my answer to the draft board that I couldn’t respond to their hypothetical question: would I use force to stop someone from raping my mother?

Spending several days in DaNang, reflecting on what Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War, can be a deeply challenging, but nevertheless healing process both for those Americans my age who fought in it and for those of us who fought against it. But they are feelings that we have rarely talked about to each other. I’m just assuming that Senator Webb would have been pained by my early resistance to the war, just as I’m assuming that he lacked any awareness of how deeply affected people like me were by those times.

Losing Peace

When I walked in the surf outside our luxury hotel, among teenagers playing soccer, I tried to imagine what it might have been like for my peer group in 1970 when I did my alternative service at a Catholic newspaper in Michigan. Many of them served and died where I was now vacationing.

My father walked in the surf with me during my silent reflections. Though he has been dead for a dozen years, I felt his presence powerfully. Dad was so completely embarrassed and ashamed by my refusal to fight in the war that at age fifty-seven he threatened to either commit suicide or re-enlist in the Navy. His very angry glare at me at that moment remains one of my most enduring memories of him.

Though I didn’t lose my life, a limb, or my sanity as a result of the war, as so many others my age did, I lost the respect of my father and of many of his generation. I also lost the peace in my own life that I sought to secure for others by my actions. Once I left the comfortable environs of my socially conscious, Catholic college campus and entered the multi-generational work world, I was immediately immersed in an emotionally-fractured culture populated by friends who had lost friends or sons in the war. Debating the war’s merits with them or with others never seemed like a mindful thing to do. I lived in fear of exacerbating the pain of others in my youthful need to justify my position. I thus lived alone with the most soul-searing and divisive public position I had ever dared to take.

As I made my way down the beach at DaNang, imagining battleships and machine-gun fire, I wondered if my father’s perspective on the war and on my decision had changed with time. We never talked about it. It seemed no one wanted to talk about it. The past was best left in the past.

Even though reminders of the war abound in this country, from the concrete bunkers that dot the landscape to the 400,000 children disabled by Agent Orange, Vietnam is healing and thriving. The war that did so much damage to their families and to mine is not on the minds of those who are thirty years old and younger. These “baby boomers” talk enthusiastically about their futures, wave and smile happily in response to friendly gestures from Americans, and refer excitedly to what they recently read on AOL about US-Vietnamese economic cooperation. The past is indeed past for them, even if they are curious about that of their middle-aged male visitors.

From Vietnam to Iraq

Here at home in the States, young ones are thinking about the Iraq war, which our government calls “nation building” and the Iraqis call the “American occupation.” There is no draft today, so young people in the U.S. are not forced by law to make life-altering moral decisions about the war in Iraq or any other military venture. They don’t have to fight to prove to a doubting draft board that they are truly conscientious objectors. This is a good thing in many ways, as it frees them to pursue countless other means of making a contribution to society. On the other hand, being forced to take a personal moral position on war is not bad for the soul.

If today I was forced to make a decision about fighting in Iraq, my position would be guided by the Tao Te Ching, the teachings of the Buddha, the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron, and by my personal experience of creating my own suffering and my own happiness. I would still choose to be a conscientious objector but at age sixty, I’m far less romantic and idealistic than I was at age twenty, far more able to see the shades of gray. I can see how situations can dictate personal ethics. I would, for instance, now state clearly to the draft board that I would protect my mother or any person from being raped or assaulted, by any

means possible, even if it meant losing my conscientious objector status. On the other hand, I’m far more conscious and careful today about protecting the life of spiders, flies, ants, and worms than I was in my late teens and early twenties.

Though I don’t have children of my own, I do have a young nephew who has decided to enlist in the Marines as soon as he graduates from high school next year. David’s decision does not embarrass or anger me. He will never have to recall a searing glare from me. But I do feel that he is far too young to make a mature decision about participating in a war and I’m at a loss on how to help him understand the lifelong emotional ramifications of that action.

I don’t know how David feels about the prospect of going to Iraq, or what prompted his decision to become a Marine. We’re not that close. I do know that he’s really good at paint ball competition and that he imagines he will be very good with a gun. He’s the product of a single-parent household and he needs discipline, a college education, and a secure financial future, like so many of his peers who enlist not to fight in Iraq but to survive in the United States.

For whatever reason one decides to fight or not fight in a war, regardless of whether or not there is a draft, the effects of the choices we make in our youth will impact us profoundly for the rest of our lives. Forty years from now, when my nephew David visits the Middle East as a middle-aged tourist, he will undoubtedly be asked, “Is this your first time in Iraq?” It’s my hope that his answer, and those of his generation, brings forth in him and in his questioner feelings of peace.

Brian McNaught is a best-selling author and a corporate diversity consultant on gay and transgender issues in the workplace. He and his spouse, Ray Struble,divide their time between Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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My Responsibility for the War in Iraq

By Bruce Campbell What Sacrifices?

But I haven’t really done anything about it. My lifestyle has not changed one bit since the war started. I have not had to make any sacrifices as a result of the war. I have not attempted in any way to help those who have been impacted by the war. And I haven’t gotten involved in the political process to help shape the U.S. government’s position on the war. So, I’ve decided that it is time for me to do a few things with respect to the war in Iraq.

First, I am determined to keep in touch with the suffering of the U.S. service men and women in Iraq and with the suffering of the Iraqis and others impacted by the war. This does not mean that I can’t enjoy my idyllic life in Boulder, or that I should be remorseful or angry. But it does mean that I need to cultivate a sense of connectedness to what is happening. And I will try and find a way to have some direct interaction with those who are suffering.

Second, I am determined to find a way to help those who are impacted by the war. I will need to explore this in coming months, but it will at least include donating time and/or money to charities that are involved in assisting veterans and Iraqis.

Finally, I am determined to get more involved in the political process in the U.S. I am still feeling my way around this one, as I don’t want to create more aggression through political action. I do not believe in denouncing others for their views. I am not interested in action that encourages anger or division, but I would like the voices of non-violence and compassion to be heard.

Taking Action

I am still in the process of exploring how I can best turn my expressed intentions into action. As a first step, I shared my concerns by e-mail with family, friends, and members of the wider Sangha. It was difficult to open up in this way to so many people, especially to people outside the safety of our local Sangha meetings.

But the results have been heartening. I have initiated dialogs with people that I might not have otherwise considered as sources of information and support with respect to these issues. Many people shared their own experiences and heartfelt thoughts on Iraq and war in general. Perhaps most importantly, the public expression of my aspirations strengthened my resolve to take action.

I also received some practical feedback about people and organizations that I could contact to help me turn my expressed intentions into action. Here are just a few:

  • The List Project (www.thelistproject.org) aims to resettle Iraqis that have become targets of violence due to their support of the U.S. effort in Iraq.
  • The American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org/iraq/default.htm) is sponsoring a “Wage Peace Campaign,” which offers direct assistance to Iraqis (including resettlement of refugees) and resources to support political action for peace.
  • The Coming Home Project (www.cominghomeproject.net) offers mindfulness-based retreats and counseling for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
  • The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is developing a directory of sanghas for veterans; it also has resources available to help educate sanghas about working with veterans (www.bpf.org/html/current_projects/peace_pages/wc_info.html).

Through his contact with Thay and time spent at Plum Village, Anshin Thomas experienced how a mindfulness practice and a supportive community could help to transform the suffering from his violent past. And although I cannot pretend to understand the depths of Anshin Thomas’ suffering, I have touched in my own life the transformative power of Thay’s teachings and the Sangha’s love.

So, over the past couple of months, I have focused my efforts on making the practice and community we share accessible to veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our greater Sangha, I have talked to Vietnam veterans and a veteran of the Gulf War who are willing to share their practice with our most recent veterans. In Colorado, we are organizing a group of Sangha members that want to help facilitate programs for veterans. We have the Mindfulness Trainings to guide us, and decades of collective experience in peace work through engaged Buddhism.

I am a part of the Iraq war, and the Iraq war is a part of me. I am, therefore, responsible for healing the suffering it has caused— in myself, in those around me, and in those far away. I am deeply grateful that so many resources are available to help me heal and transform that suffering and to prevent more wars from happening.

Bruce Campbell, Freedom of the Heart, lives in Boulder, Colorado where he practices with Mountain Stream Sangha. He is an attorney and a core member of the Colorado Community of Mindful Living. He can be reached at Bruce.Campbell@bdclaw.com.

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