Maxine Hong Kingston

Veterans Visit Plum Village

By Carole Melkonian On November 21, four American veterans of the Vietnam War—Jim Janko, Ted Sexhauer, Jerry Crawford, and Dan Thompson—and Earll and Maxine Hong Kingston arrived at Plum Village. This symbolic return to a Vietnamese Buddhist village in the Dordogne region of France, was the conclusion of a three-year Mindfulness and Writing Workshop for veterans led by Maxine.

After the long train ride from Paris, on a sunny, windy autumn afternoon, the group arrived and were warmly greeted by the whole community. A small tea meditation was offered by Brother Sariputra and Sister Chan Khong. After dinner, the veterans introduced themselves to the community. Early the next morning the veterans participated in the recitation of the Five Wonderful Precepts. This ceremony gave them the opportunity to begin anew, using the precepts as guidelines for living peacefully.

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Later that day, Sr. Chan Khong, Maxine, and the veterans met to explore ways of healing the wounds from their war experience. Sr. Chan Khong recounted a story of the pain experienced during the war when she held in her arms a young child covered with blood. "Many years later, in 1993,1Iwas able to release this pain. While walking in the streets of Florence, church bells would ring from time to time helping me live fully and deeply the present moment. Slowly, my mind became concentrated. I saw the street vendors selling postcards, the pigeons, the children playing in the streets, and myself as one. There was no distinction between Italians, French, or Vietnamese, between Christians and Buddhists. When I entered a Catholic cathedral, I really felt I was home. All the discriminating concepts and notions about self and nonself, Buddhism and Christianity disappeared. Suddenly, looking at the stained-glass windows with images of angels on them, I saw that the smile on the angel's face was the smile of the dead child I held in my arms so many years ago. It was the smile of liberation. There is no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We are all here in this wonderful reality."

Moved by this story, Jerry Crawford spoke of his experience with a Vietnamese woman guerilla seriously wounded and slowly dying in front of him. He took the hammock that belonged to her back to the United States and kept it for 25 years as a constant reminder of this woman's death. In 1991, Jerry attended a retreat for veterans which Thay led at Omega Institute in upstate New York. From the many group discussions and exercises for veterans, he was able to release this pain by burning the hammock in a bonfire on the last night of the retreat as part of a "letting go ceremony," where veterans wrote down and burned what they wanted to release in order to heal the wounds they suffered from the war.

On Thanksgiving Day, Thay gave a Dharma talk on not running away from our home which only exists in the present moment. That afternoon, Thay and Sr. Chan Khong met with the veterans. Sr. Chan Khong told the story of Angulimala, a murderer who became a monk. Tea, prepared by Thay' s gentle attendant, was passed to participants, including the film crew. The interview continued with a question from Jim: "Regarding your talk this morning about not running away and returning home, before I went to Vietnam, I felt a lot of pride in the democratic process in the United States. As a medic in Vietnam, I saw indescribable suffering of both people and land. Returning to the United States, I felt stripped from my culture. I feel that no connection can nourish a relationship between me and my culture. The only good thing that came from my Vietnam War experience was that it led me to a deep spiritual home. However, that took many years. Is there anything in the American culture that can truly nourish people?—anything that is not just an advertisement, another plug for materialism?"

Sr. Chan Khong: There are hidden treasures in America. Many groups of people there have learned to respect people and the earth. There are more groups forming in America to support people who practice mindfulness, and learn of other spiritual traditions than in any other country.

Maxine: We are the product of America! One thing our country has given us is the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, I take as a precept. Practicing freedom of speech—practicing assembling— is the same as bringing the Sangha together.

Sr. Chan Khong: In countries like Vietnam or China, you do not have the liberty to assemble in large groups. You would be imprisoned.

Jim: I agree. Still, the U.S. is a powerful cause of suffering in many other parts of the world.

Thay: The American culture is an open society. It is open to other influences. It is not old yet so it can renew itself easier than other societies. Suffering is important. If we look deeply into the suffering, it will lead us to wisdom and compassion. If Americans know how to look deeply at suffering, they will understand the roots to stop suffering in America and in other countries.

There is a growing consciousness among Americans about what they are consuming. They know that certain foods cause suffering to their bodies and consciousness. Tofu is a protein that is far safer than protein from meat. It is easier to digest, and the making of tofu is less damaging to the environment. Tofu is much easier to find in America than in France. The consumption of alcohol has caused many families to be broken. Young people suffer because of this. Sexual misbehavior has destroyed many families and society, too. To protect ourselves and our families, we have to practice the third precept. We know this. We have to practice as a society, as a nation. By doing so, other nations will benefit from ourpractice. Consume less meat and alcohol, and take care of your families. All the jewels are buried in your tradition. Go back and rediscover them. You'll bring happiness to yourself and to other people.

Jerry: I have trouble being calm when chaos is going on in my head. Although I try to be mindful, I have trouble doing so. Today, during walking meditation I heard gunshots from hunters in the area and it immediately brought back memories from the war. I felt angry and afraid.

Thay: Don't try so hard to be mindful. Just be in touch with what is around you and you will be healed. Look at the people around you who are able to smile and walk calmly. If you do this you will have peace and joy. Just be yourself. Don' t try too hard. Just allow yourself to be.

Sr. Chan Khong: When fear arises, smile to it and say, "Hello, fear. The gunshots are from hunters. We are not in Vietnam anymore, we are in France. We are in Plum Village."

Ted: I have a similar problem with noises. As a medic, when I heard a loud noise I had to stay in control. Now when I hear a loud noise, I still maintain control but afterward I feel angry.

Sr. Chan Khong: Still we must say hello to the anger. We have to develop the habit of saying hello to fear or anger when it arises in order to be free from it. It may be also useful to talk to the brothers and sisters who are here with you. Sometimes being deeply heard by others can help you let go of your suffering.

Thay: Sometimes we don't need to suffer but we are attached to it. There is a garden with many beautiful trees and flowers. One of the trees is dying. You cry over that one and ignore all the others. You are unable to enjoy the beauty of the other trees. It's the same situation. You are walking with us here in Plum Village. We are supposed to be one body making peaceful steps on Mother Earth. The hunters' guns can touch seeds of suffering in you and many friends around you. But it is important to say, "I am walking with many friends in Plum Village." However, you may want to imprison yourself in the memory of the past, but sticking to your suffering is not good for yourself and is not good for humanity. Suffering is not enough. We can learn a lot from suffering, but life has many wonderful things too. Don't make the dying tree the only reality.

You are a veteran, but you are more than a veteran. All of us are veterans, both Vietnamese and Americans. We have suffered. I have to be able to not only help myself, but also my sisters, brothers, children, society. You cannot imprison yourself in your own suffering. You have to transform it.

Ted: It's true what you're saying about hanging on to suffering. Yet I believe that if I pretend that my experiences of suffering do not exist, they will come around and surface in another way. We are taught by psychotherapists to look at our suffering.

Sr. Chan Khong: Observing your fear is good to do. We cannot pretend that the fear is not in us. But to only observe the fear is not enough. Practice seeing the joy that arises in each moment, too. Today you are with Thay and many friends in Plum Village. Be aware of this, and of the fact that you are still alive, in good health, with good friends, and that you are able to be here. Maxine has spent a lot of energy on this project. Years ago, she spoke to me about this dream of bringing veterans to Plum Village. She wondered how she could realize this dream. B ei ng aware that you are here as a miracle is enough to make us all very happy.

Thay: When I talk about the garden, I recognize that the tree is dying in my garden. I also see the many nonsuffering elements that are in the garden. If you can see the entire garden, the suffering and the nonsuffering elements, your suffering will be transformed.

During the course of the interview, Thay asked Maxine to sing a song. She refused at first, laughing and denying her ability to sing. Then she reconsidered and said, "With mindful breathing, anything is possible." She then sang "Amazing Grace," with the veterans singing along in support.

Maxine: Today is Thanksgiving, and I feel thankful for you, Thay, and for Plum Village, and your welcoming us here. The first day our group arrived, one nun greeted us at the train station, saying, "Let's go home." Another nun greeted us in the Lower Hamlet saying, "Welcome home."

In America, many veterans are homeless, even the ones living in a house. I am very happy to bring these veterans to a place where they can find home both in a place and a spirit.

Order member Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is spending the winter in Plum Village. Traveling with the veterans was a BBC crew thatfilmedthe veterans' "return " to Plum Village as part of a documentary on journeys to be aired on British television in April 1996. They filmed Thdy's talks and interviewed Sr. Chan Khong about the history of Plum Village, her humanitarian work during the Vietnam War, and her work today to help people heal from the wounds of war.

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Writing Breakthrough

By Richard Gilman From the age of six, I knew that I would design computers. My whole life has been about science, math, and statistics. I only wrote to put a few words between the formulas, postulates, and theorems, so they would flow better. Arts and literature were not for me.

But, something happened last year that allowed me to begin to focus on what had been bothering me deep in the recesses of my being. I found myself at a writing workshop, sitting in a semicircle, surrounded by an eclectic group of people, listening to a tiny grey-haired woman whose strong, yet gentle, voice commanded my attention. I had been hot, scared, uncomfortable, and ready to exit at the first opportunity, but the melodiousness of her tone said stay for a while, listen to us, and feel welcome here.

At that introductory session, we paired off and talked with the person next to us for a few minutes, and then listened to them for a few more minutes. Meeting Jim Janko was the most powerful, overwhelming, and bonding experience of my life. Somehow this person knew my fears, trepidations, and issues even better than I did—and in only a couple of minutes. Very powerful stuff.

I was still too uptight to participate for very long though, and left before the end of the session. I felt intimidated by all these people who seemed like professional writers looking to just get a few pointers from the master writer. But as I rode my motorcycle out the long driveway from Green Gulch Farm, instead of turning right to go home, I turned left toward the ocean. I stopped at this magnificent spot with all of the Pacific in front of me, and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. When I stopped, seven hours had passed! Nothing in my life had ever fueled me that swiftly and with such passion. I wrote about people I had met in Vietnam, about many of the events that I had been part of there, and about some of my feelings of what went on during the war.

At the second gathering I attended, thoughts flowed out faster than I could write them. I had said to myself that I needed some experience from Vietnam to write about. Ten minutes later, I had 36 major events listed, at least 30 of which I hadn't thought about in 20 years!

The Veterans Writing Workshop opened a new path for me. The thought that I would leave engineering to write and listen to new ideas, and experience literature—wow!

Richard Gilman, a Vietnam war veteran, lives in San Francisco, and now writes full-time.

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Veterans of War and Peace

By Ted Sexauer How did we get into this? For the four-plus years that we of the Veteran Writers' Workshop have been meeting, our mentor, the noted writer Maxine Hong Kingston, has gently insisted that she has not only been instructing us in writing, and in listening, but also, ultimately, in how to lead such a workshop ourselves. "No, no, no, Maxine," we said, "we are veterans. We have learned too well that we must never volunteer."

But this past September, necessity finally forced our hands. Because the retreat at Santa Barbara took place during the first week of classes at DC Berkeley, where she teaches, Maxine would be able to attend only the last day of the retreat. Feeling the need to continue the program that has been so important to us, two brave souls stepped forward: my friend Dan Thompson of the East Coast group, and myself, of the West. We were assisted by Fred Allendorf from the Montana Sangha, a veteran who hadn't previously been part of a writers' group. (It's a well-kept secret, but this always happens in the military, too. Someone always volunteers, or at least is volunteered.)

Our first task was to define ourselves. Because there had been little advance publicity, we didn't start with an established group of participants. We wanted to be inclusive; we opened the group not only to war veterans, but essentially to anyone who wanted to participate-anyone who felt that they had been affected by war or by military experience. As a result, we wound up with the most wonderfully diverse blend of voices: Vietnam combat veterans; protestors against the war, male and female; a World War II veteran; veterans of non-combat service; wives and widows who had lost their husbands in combat, lost them to Agent Orange-induced disease long after the war, lost them to divorce.

Also because of the lack of advance notice, only a few of us had come prepared to write. And only a small number had prior training in writing. Writing our stories has been a central focus of the veterans' group practice because we have seen that it is the formal telling of our stories-writing them down and reading them, not just oral recitation-that brings about catharsis and change. Writing one's personal experience and reading it to a mindful, accepting audience retrieves the story from the nebulous nature of memory and validates it, validates the writer/reader. Makes it real.

Authenticates it. Prepares one to move on. So we pressed the group to write. We gave instruction on basic memoir writing; my contribution was to relate how I had taught myself to feel by writing poems about each incident in the war when I could remember going a little more numb. We guided the group in the spiritual practice of compassionate listening, which is fully half the work we do.

The results were remarkable. The writing that was produced on such short notice was striking in its power, depth, individuality, and honesty. These were not rote exercises. Because of the spiritual quality and intention of the gathering, members of the group were able to go to the heart of some of their deepest experience.

On Friday afternoon, the next-to-last day of the retreat, we graduated. We were given a five-hundred-seat lecture theater, which was filled to capacity with retreatants. Maxine Hong Kingston graciously moderated, and for two hours we read our stories to the most wonderfully attentive audience imaginable.

At the beginning of the retreat, I was very much afraid of failing in this undertaking. I was afraid of the organizational difficulties we had to face-the leaders of this unprecedentedly large I,200-person retreat had their hands full; they could not give us much attention. I was afraid that in our inexperience as teachers, Dan and I wouldn't be able to hold our diverse group together; that some would want more spiritual training than we had to offer, that others would find the writing instruction inadequate; that they would rise up in mutiny, or defect in large numbers. I found that the combination of old military discipline enhanced by the spiritUal ability to remain emotionally present, together with the soundness of Maxine's approach to writing instruction, carried us through. Not only carried us through, but made it a great success. I think we made a difference, not only to the twenty-two of us in our group, but to the entire Sangha.

The success of the group was also secured by the mindfulness of the participants, and by the practices we followed together. We sat in meditation together at each session, and observed the guidance of the bell in remembering to be present. With the help of an able tea master discovered within our ranks, Roger Voight, we enjoyed a lovely, grounding tea ceremony. And we were charmed and refreshed by a visit from the Children's Sangha, who persuaded us to sing wonderful songs with them, and who made us laugh.

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(On September 29,1997, Maxine Hong Kingston received the National Medal for the Humanities from President Clinton for her contribution to the nation's culture.)

Ted Sexauer lives in Sonoma, California, and practices with the Community of Mindful Living. He is a member of the Veteran Writers' Workshop, West Coast Group, which meets quarterly at Sebastopol, California.

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