PTSD

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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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had flak jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

Fierce Bodhisattvas

By Daryne Rockett mb66-Fierce1

If you ask my ninety-six-year-old grandfather about his participation in World War II, he might tell you that he was disqualified from service because of his flat feet. His wife, Laura Blackwood, is another story. Fit enough for the typing pool, my grandmother served as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the United States Navy during the war. She died two summers ago. My grandfather will tell you that he gave the Navy the “best years of my wife.”

If you ask my dad about his participation in the Vietnam War, he might tell you that he would rather not discuss it. It was thirty-five years after his service when I learned he had been awarded a Purple Heart, because he does not believe that he should be in the same company as those who lost a limb or lost their life in that war. He served in the “brown water” Navy (a term used for a Naval force carrying out military operations in a river) in Vietnam. The very little information that I have about my dad’s service I learned from my mother. I am respectful of his preference for privacy. His is not my story to tell.

If you ask my first husband about his service in several modern wars, there will be very little that he is able to say. He was a pilot of the U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, and most of what he did prior to his retirement, and in the years since as a contractor, is highly classified. He and I met in South Korea during my service in the Air Force. The nation was still legally at war with its neighbor to the north, functioning under a cease-fire since 1953. We were there together in 1994, on the first of many occasions that North Korea announced it would no longer abide by the armistice agreement. I was a Korean linguist, and there is very little that I am permitted to say about my service in the Air Intelligence Agency or the Air Force Information Warfare Center. We both might say that we have lost a number of close friends in U-2 crashes.

If you ask my clients about their service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they may tell you painful stories of loss. They may describe horrible memories from their service––memories of suffering, shame, or death. They might tell you about the losses of relationships, connection, and peace of mind that result from fighting. The losses that bring them to our Vet Center are the ones that hurt the deepest. What many of them will say is that they wish that the military, which taught them so effectively how to fight, had also trained them how not to fight. I had been longing for something similar when I first became familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

I had learned from my father how to fight to win, because he loved me and wanted me to be safe and successful. There was much arguing in my home as I was growing up, and the seeds of aggression were watered. During my military service I learned many wonderful skills, including how to speak Korean, but I was also taught with fear and intimidation, and I was encouraged to see a separation between “us” and “them.” The seeds of disconnection and enmity were watered. By the time I began my studies as a clinical social worker at the age of thirty-four, there was a wake of angry tirades and broken relationships behind me. A beginning meditation class introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, and my studies told me to find a teacher and a community of practice.

It Is Not in Our Nature to Fight

Without being trained, our first impulse is to freeze when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. Something in the most primitive part of our brain knows that predators see their prey as movement against a background. This is very likely the reason that a deer will freeze in the road as a car speeds toward it. Believing the car to be a predator, the deer stays still to avoid being seen, sometimes until it is too late. The second option that we will choose when in peril is to flee. That same ancient part of our brain understands that when we are no longer invisible to the predator, we should hurry away in order to avoid harm. Our last choice is to fight, and without training we will naturally avoid aggression because it is very risky. Our survival instincts tell us that if we stay to fight and sustain even a minor injury, there exists a very real possibility of infection, sepsis, and death.

So, in order to overcome our nonviolent nature and survival instincts, the military has developed very specific training techniques for fighting and surviving in a war. For instance, because weapons have been developed to kill, sicken, or incapacitate people with airborne chemicals, military members are trained to be able to retrieve a gas mask from its carrying pouch, place it over the head, clear it, and seal it completely to the edge of the face within nine seconds. This is not a process that we innately know how to do. It must be practiced repeatedly and under duress in order to be learned in such a way that the gas mask will be properly used even if the soldier is waking from a deep sleep, or disoriented by an explosion, or otherwise in a situation where clear reasoning is less likely to occur.

One of the methods used to teach these military skills is called an “Immediate Action Drill.” In the case of the gas mask, soldiers are taught how to use the equipment, and then the process is repeated a number of times in the classroom. Once it has been practiced formally in this way, trainees are warned to be ready for unexpected tests of their skill with the gas mask. At random times, a drill instructor will enter a room and yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” If the trainee does not don the mask within nine seconds, he or she is punished. Fear becomes a very compelling motivator to learn. These Immediate Action Drills are used to teach soldiers how to throw a grenade, fire guns, launch mortars, and bayonet an enemy.

In my own life and in my social work practice with war veterans, I sought a way to undo my conditioning to fight. I found guidance from Thich Nhat Hanh on retreats, in his books, and through my home Sangha, Stillwater Sangha in Maine. I found other teachers who were integrating mindfulness practice with psychotherapy, and I attended workshops and seminars and read more books. I received training in Non-Violent Communication from Peggy Smith, a member of the Order of Interbeing. And I practiced. I discovered that the best of my social work practice occurred when it was also a mindfulness practice.

A mindfulness bell is a kind of immediate action drill. First, in our formal sitting meditation, we learn to return to the present moment and bring awareness to what we are experiencing right now. Then, we have the informal practice of stopping and spending time with the breath in the present moment whenever a bell rings. In the treatment groups that I facilitate for post-traumatic stress disorder, we practice mindfulness of the breath formally in periods of sitting meditation. Then, I set a timer with random bells that sound during the ninety-minute group session. Regardless of where the discussion is going, when the bell sounds, we all stop for two mindful breaths. Only now, instead of being motivated by fear of punishment, we are guided by a desire to live freely in the present moment.

Only This Breath Now

Post-traumatic stress disorder is driven by experiences from the past imposing on the here and now, often triggering anxiety about how things might go badly in the future. In our groups, we practice mindfulness of the breath as a way to return from painful,

unplanned trips into the past or future and resume present moment awareness. I cannot breathe a breath in the future or re-breathe a breath from the past. I may only breathe this breath now.

In my practice with my clients, if a veteran comes in feeling angry and argumentative, I may be reminded of my father’s anger and get caught up in my habit of debating. And when this happens, I am no longer able to be compassionate with my client because I am no longer present. I am anticipating what my client will say next and how to counter the argument. After a decade of practice, I am usually able to notice when this habit energy is rising and stop to take a breath. I remind myself that this veteran is in pain and trusts me enough to let me see that she or he is hurting. When I am once again aware, I am able to be compassionate again, and deeply listen in a way that helps to relieve that veteran’s suffering. Because I am no longer fighting an old battle with my father, over and over again, I am also able to heal old hurts and hold both myself and my father with care and gentleness. When this happens, I think of Thay’s teaching about holding your anger like a baby and taking care of it.

My clients are happy to have a new kind of boot camp, where they learn skills to reverse the military’s programming to fight. We practice sitting, eating, breathing, and walking mindfully. We practice mindful speaking and deep listening. We practice empathy and courageous communication (another term for Non-Violent Communication). Over the past decade, as my mindfulness practice has deepened, my therapy practice has also deepened.

“I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends, and all beings. I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower, helping living beings be free from their suffering.” These words from the Refuge Chant are a loving map, reminding me to recognize the fierce bodhisattvas who courageously put down their weapons and remove their armor in my presence. Though we never call it the Dharma in our sessions, it is undoubtedly the way of joy and freedom from suffering, and I am grateful for my many beautiful teachers.

mb66-Fierce2Daryne Rockett, Blossoming Music of the Heart, plays the harp and practices with Stillwater Sangha in Orono, Maine. She is a clinical social worker at the Bangor Vet Center, where she has enjoyed working with veterans and their families for nearly ten years.

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Beginning Anew

Reflections on the Practice of Touching the Earth By Larry Sipe

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I have an eighteen-year-old son who is emotionally and verbally abusive. My relationship with him has been tumultuous. From affable and good-natured to explosively angry in the blink of an eye, he has punched holes in the wall, thrown objects (including a quart-sized Mason canning jar), and destroyed his bedroom with a baseball bat. His anger goes on and off like flipping a switch. It radiates, filling the room with its presence. I am the focus of intense, often violent and irrational outbursts of anger in which he swears unrelentingly, alternating with periods when he is down to earth. Walking on eggshells around him, I adopt a careful living style. I am on edge constantly while waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during the good times. His expectations of me are never clear. Feeling frightened, unsettled, and off-balance, I anxiously await his next outburst or mood swing.

The stress at home is palpable. My son’s anger has nearly torn the family apart on more than one occasion. I love him, but I cannot live like this. Every day he grows angrier. He is highly unpredictable. He projects the blame for all his problems onto me. (He would not get angry if only I would do what he wants me to do.) He has an overwhelming need to dominate my actions in order to get his own way, resulting in jealousy of his sister based on perceived parental favoritism, manipulating situations to his own advantage, and threatening to do harm. More than once he has threatened my life — he has pulled a knife on me, threatened to beat me to death with the baseball bat he was holding, and menaced me with a hatchet during a confrontation at home. He has even threatened to kill me while I sleep.

Becoming a Person with PTSD

Faced with unavoidable stress sustained over years of caring for him, I was frequently, then constantly, on guard. Such conditions took their toll. Feelings of hopelessness developed, triggering depression. Avoidance of contact with all reminders (including my own thoughts) of my son became paramount. Contact set off intrusive, vivid flashbacks and nightmares in which I relived everything over and over again.

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Gradually withdrawing and isolating myself more and more, I experienced a restricted range of emotional response. I felt disconnected, spacey, and unaware of what was going on around me. Misperceptions resulted from my confused thinking. I was not fully present for myself, let alone my son. Relationships were not being nourished. I was losing balance, falling apart, and becoming increasingly fearful. In this state the cycle of daily conflict with my son triggered an internalizing of the stress reaction. My severe and continuous emotional reaction to the traumatic events was subsequently diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That was how I saw myself — as a person with PTSD.

At River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, I was introduced at that time to a restorative practice: Touching the Earth. It is based on the Lotus Sutra with its elements of compassion and loving-kindness. My experience with this practice has been transformative. It is with a deep bow of gratitude that I offer the merits of this practice. In Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When we touch the Earth, we take refuge in it. We receive its solid and inclusive energy. The Earth embraces us and helps us transform our ignorance, suffering, and despair.” This practice offers the opportunity to begin anew moment by moment.

To Touch the Earth

Joining my palms together to form a lotus bud, I kneel mindfully, and rest my feet, hands, and forehead on the floor. Palms are turned face-up in an attitude of openness to the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Thay instructs me to follow my breathing and touch the Earth, releasing all my instability, fear, anxiety, and anger. I communicate gratitude, joy, and acceptance to Mother Earth. The Earth neither reacts nor judges me as it absorbs my negativity. This teaching resonates with me as I am prone to pull in rather than run toward challenges. Thay teaches peace is the way, and that it is available to all beings right here, right now. “With this practice, we cultivate a relationship with the Earth, and, in doing so, we restore our balance, our wholeness, and our peace.”

The practice of Touching the Earth is instrumental in allowing me to stop reacting to the self-destructive pattern of my PTSD and start responding to it. Touching the Earth affords me the opportunity to look deeply at past events, changing my experience of and relationship to the stressors that affect my well-being. The seeds of joy and happiness are watered, change is possible, and I am arriving home with each breath, even though I still experience PTSD. The changes occur in my mind. I evolve from seeing myself as a person with PTSD to seeing myself as a whole person. My feeling of being alive is restored!

To echo Joanna Macy in her classic memoir Widening Circles: “[Touching the Earth] did not alter the circumstances of my life, it removed no hardships. Yet it changed everything.” I am transforming into a peaceful warrior through the practice of Touching the Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The energy of mindfulness and concentration produced by Touching the Earth has the capacity to awaken us to the nature of reality, to transform us, to purify us, and to restore joy and vitality to our life.”

Touching the Earth affords an opportunity to heal and reconcile relationships, beginning with the relationship to one’s own heart and rippling outward to include all beings in all directions. Through this practice I am now more understanding and compassionate of my son. I open my heart to him as he has made me suffer. With awareness of this understanding and compassion, comes love. I know that he has had his own suffering to face — anger, pain, and hatred. His suffering has spilled over causing suffering to those around him. I want him to be open to life, to be happy and healthy. I do not want him to suffer or to cause others to suffer. The practice of Touching the Earth touches this relationship deeply, as well as all relationships. The interbeing nature of all beings is nurtured through such practice: connection with my son, the clouds, the blue sky, the earth, and all beings, is only possible in this moment — now.

Touching the Earth impacts my personal relationships and awakens me to the potential for beginning anew in the present moment. The opportunity is available for forgiveness and healing. Reconciliation is possible. Personal relationships, such as those with my son and Mother Earth, are nourished with this restorative practice.

mb47-Beginning3Larry Sipe, Insight Embodiment of the Heart, lives in Salem, Oregon, where he works for the local school district and community college, and attends and co-facilitates River Sangha.

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The Light at the Tip of the Candle

mb48-TheLight1I was deeply touched recently by a book called At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. The author, Claude Anshin Thomas, describes in detail the suffering he has experienced as a Vietnam veteran [see below]. The description of his suffering made me look more deeply into the experiences of a soldier. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be trained as a killer at the age of eighteen. How it would feel to kill another human being. How it would feel to watch my friends die in front of me, or to watch children die as a result of the military action in which I was involved. How it would feel to live in fear of violent death on a day-to-day basis.

Looking deeply at these things helped me to understand the suffering on a different level. I realized, for example, that I could not even begin to think of how I would reconcile the thoughts and emotions around killing another human being, let alone many human beings. I know that labeling the people I killed as “enemy” would not bring me comfort in the long run. I know the energy of those actions would continue with me in some form as long as I lived.

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Anshin Thomas also offers his opinion that the United States, as a people, never really took responsibility for the Vietnam War. Most people viewed the war as distant and unconnected to their day-to-day lives. They did not recognize that it was their lifestyles that supported the institutions of war. And, for the most part, they did not offer support for the veterans of the war, or for the victims of the war in Vietnam.

All of this got me to thinking about the war in Iraq, and my connection to that war. I realize that I have not really taken responsibility for my connection to that war. I follow the news about Iraq, and frown at it. I think from time to time about the tragedy of the war, and how I disagree with the U.S. government’s position on the war.

The Light at the Tip of the Candle

By Claude Anshin Thomas

mb48-TheLight2Claude Anshin Thomas came home from the war in Vietnam in 1967. In the years following his military service, his life spiraled downward into post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness, but his 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. The following took place in 1990, when Thomas attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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 set 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.

As the number of children grew, the situation became less and less safe because often the Vietcong would use children as weapons against us. So someone chased them off by firing a burst from an M60 machine gun over their heads. As they ran away, a baby was left lying on the ground, crying, maybe two feet from the helicopter in the middle of the group. I started to approach the baby along with three or four other soldiers. That is what my nonwar conditioning told me to do. But in this instance, for some reason, something felt wrong to me. And just as the thought began to rise in my head to yell at the others to stop, just before that thought could be passed by synapse to speech, one of them reached out and picked up the baby, and it blew up. Perhaps the baby had been a booby-trap, a bomb. Perhaps there had been a grenade attack or a mortar attack at just this moment. Whatever the cause, there was an explosion that killed three soldiers and knocked me down, covering me with blood and body parts.

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 .…

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.

* When Thay gives teachings he does not normally say that nonveterans are more responsible than veterans for the war, but nonveterans are just as responsible as veterans. — Sister Annabel

mb48-TheLight4From At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, by Claude Anshin Thomas, © 2004, 2006 by Claude A. Thomas. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.

Claude Anshin Thomas is a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence.

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