Vietnam Veteran

A Knock on the Door

A Sangha Christmas Story By Jerry Braza

It was three days before Christmas and twenty-seven Sangha members were nestled in chairs and on cushions in our Woodland Chapel practice center. The warmth of the building coupled with the energy of the Sangha, offered us a refuge on this cool first day of winter.

The evening began with a guided meditation in preparation for our Dharma discussion on true love. “Breathing in, I am aware of the presence of the Sangha. Breathing out, I am embraced by Sangha love. Breathing in, I recognize the presence of the other. Breathing out, I am here for you. Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering in others; breathing out, I embrace your suffering.”

Following our practice session, I began to offer a Dharma dis­cussion on the four mantras which Thay recommends we practice in our relationships. The first mantra is, “I am here for you.” One way to be here for another is to practice mindful breathing in order to bring body, mind, and spirit together. The second mantra is to truly recognize the other. We often do this through our eyes, our hugs, and words of affirmation which we selectively choose for loved ones. As I began to explain the third mantra, “Dear friend, I know you are suffering,” a loud knock on the locked side door stirred the Sangha. The door was opened and a man in his fifties appeared, “Can you help me?” he said.

Welcoming a New Friend

A Sangha member asked him to go to the main entrance where he was welcomed into our circle. As he introduced himself, it was clear that he was suffering from the cold and from emotional exhaustion. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and that he lived under the bridge. “Please help me. I don’t know where to turn and I felt the energy of this group as I went by this building. Will you pray for me?”

Instead of just talking about the concept of suffering, in this moment we had a wonderful opportunity to learn this practice experientially. I asked him, “How can we help you?” He told us he needed some money for lodging and food. We listened deeply to his suffering as he told his story. As the formal session ended we offered him a metta meditation. “May you be free from suffering. May you be well. May you find peace.” The evening’s dana was given to him as a parting gift.

The Action of True Love

That night we had a chance to open our hearts and water the seeds of understanding, compassion, and generosity. Homeless­ness and the scars of the Vietnam War came alive for us, and we will not easily forget the face of our suffering friend. We learned that embracing suffering in another will help us embrace our own suffering. I suspect we left with many unanswered questions: What is the best way to help? Is money always the answer? What if he drinks it away?

Every day we have opportunities to learn how to offer true love, sometimes in unexpected ways. It happens whenever our heart opens and we are truly present with another. In that moment, our breath and our practice enable us to be present with the suffering or joy of the moment. In that space, our mindfulness helps us to respond in the most appropriate way.

Several years ago I heard a story about the glove man. Each year at Christmas he walked the streets where the homeless resided and gave away gloves, which he had collected during the year. He never asked, “Should I give?” He just gave. In each moment his heart was open and he watered the seeds of generosity and compassion.

May you find ways to practice the mantras on true love as you connect with your suffering and the suffering of the world. “I am here for you. I recognize you by connecting with you. Dear one, I know you are suffering and that is why I am here for you.”

mb39-AKnock1Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon and practicing with the River Sangha

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Jail Cell, Monk’s Cell

By Judith Toy

Bending to enter the conference room where we held meditation at Countytown Prison in Pennsylvania, Joshua darkened the doorway. He didn’t stand; he loomed. Joshua was a scary-looking six-three or six-four, over three hundred pounds, with a blue anarchist tattoo etched into his shaved scalp. It was a Thursday evening in the second year of our weekly visits to Countytown. A Zen master’s warning flashed in my mind: “Don’t leave a drunk or a bum outside the monastery gate; you might be excluding Lord Buddha.”

We didn’t ask about his jail time. It wasn’t until much later, standing in my living room in North Carolina with Josh, that I learned he was a sex offender. Not long after he began his prison sentence, the doctors had diagnosed him with schizophrenia and placed him on anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps because of the heavy drug dosages, he was a mouth breather, adding to his sinister aura.

Forgiveness Too Late

For two and a half years, my husband Philip and I took our practice every Thursday evening to Countytown Prison. Thanks to the collected strength of the inmates in the prison sangha, my initial fears of walking into the prison were quelled. This was the very place where Charles Grand, the murderer of three members of my family — my sister-in-law Connie and my two nephews, 16-year-old Allen and 14-year-old Bobby — had been held prior to his trial. Some of these young men had known Charles.

After becoming Thây’s student and after practicing mindfulness for five years, through looking deeply, I came to forgive Charles. Still, I was afraid to face him, and I did not tell him of my forgiveness. He had confessed to the crime and was convicted for three consecutive life sentences without parole. One day it was too late for me to tell him “I forgive you.” Charles took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his jail cell. I deeply mourned his passing. Now, at Countytown Prison, I had a chance to give to the living what I owed to the dead.

What I’ll never forget from one of those early nights is the flower. A dear friend had brought us a fresh gardenia as an offering for our home altar. On a whim, we took the perfect blossom with its leaves like wax and laid it on the table in the small, pie-shaped conference room where we met with the men. Its fragrance served as both candle and incense; no fire was allowed.

One of the guys was nicknamed Fiji. Fiji had a voice like a cement mixer. He shared with us during dharma discussion that he was a Vietnam vet, that he had committed multiple atrocities in the war. Because of this he had suffered deeply and continuously in the years since, often becoming obsessed with the urge to kill himself or to kill another.

“I wanna put the war behind me and find peace,” Fiji said.

All of us accepted the prison sounds — metal clanging against metal, the public address system, the frequent shouts — as the ground of our meditation. Each moment unfolded into the next. As Philip and I prepared to leave the room, we noticed the men’s intense interest in the gardenia. They passed it around the room, inhaling its sweet scent, touching its creamy petals and leaves. I keep a mental snapshot of Fiji with his nose in the flower: Fiji and the Buddha, Fiji and the Christ.

Grace of Hugging Meditation

Hugging practice became a ritual. Since inmates are ordinarily prohibited the luxury of human touch, I wondered how many of them attended meditation just for the motherly, fatherly hugs that

Philip and I enjoyed with each of them before saying good-bye each week. We practiced hugging meditation to be truly present to each other through three complete shared breaths. Afterwards, we bowed with our palms joined in a lotus bud. It was not we who initiated the hugging, either; it was the men, these streetwise youngsters whose personalities morphed the moment they walked out the door of the conference room and returned to the prison halls — their street. Out would pop the exaggerated swagger of boys who hadn’t been properly fathered, the street jive. Thus I began to look deeply at some of the peer pressures on these men. As I got to know them as real and vulnerable and even innocent, my fears abated.

Still there were days when a prison destination was not high on our list of evening recreations. The recliner and a good book beckoned. Or after a long day my eyes wanted to close. On the outside, I often noted my resistance to the strict routine of the metal detector or being subjected to the hand-held detector, arms outstretched, making me feel like ... a criminal! Hmmm.

En route to the prison Philip and I sometimes bickered. Yet without fail, once we settled into seated meditation and walking meditation with the men, our moods lightened. Without fail, by the time we gave and received our good-bye hugs, Philip and I were walking on clouds.

We were supported by a friend from Old Path Sangha. Steven was a devotee of the Indian avatar Sathya Sai Baba and an observant Jew. When we told him that the late father of one of the men in our group, Deepok, had been a disciple of Sai Baba’s, Steven asked to join us on Thursday evenings. We were deeply grateful that he was able to stay on, continuing to practice with the men when Philip and I moved away to North Carolina in 1999.

Genuine friendships developed between the two mindfulness groups — our Old Path Zendo Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the sangha at Countytown. We continued the custom of taking a flower and passing it around before saying good-bye. Deepok developed a habit that led to the naming of the prison sangha: as we passed the flower around to the men each week he’d pinch off a petal or a fragment of a petal and file it away in his pocket. He stowed the sweet-smelling bits in his cell as reminders of our times together, as a token of Mother Earth. Later we learned that they were seized as contraband by the guards during a lock-down. They were certainly mistaken for drugs! Deepok told us the lockdown was worth it, and he continued to pinch petals. Such was his longing for what these small fragments symbolized — earth, its flowering, peace, acceptance, new life. We couldn’t find it in our hearts to deny him the petals.

Thus the prison group was named by the men: Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

The Making of a Hermitage

At the close of the first year at Countytown, four inmates were growing solid in their meditation and mindfulness practice. Big Joshua was one of them. Others would come and go, some out of choice and some because they were reassigned or released. They consciously dedicated their practice to the folks at Old Path

Sangha, and we of the Old Path Zendo Sangha sat twice weekly on behalf of Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

We did not ask what their crimes were, whether they were guilty or innocent. We just sat. We enjoyed our breathing. We practiced silent walking meditation, in peace. We smiled. We hugged. We beamed out our love.

Over the months that Joshua attended weekly meditation, I watched with deep happiness as he took to the practice like an eagle to air, making of his jail cell a monk’s cell. He asked deep questions, ordered books on Buddhism and read them cover to cover, recited the Four Noble Truths and the Heart Sutra, studied the five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or habit patterns, and consciousness). Josh was an open vessel, filling, filling.

“I ordered books from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Parallax Press, Zen Mountain Monastery, Richard Gere’s Foundation, and from Bo and Sita Lozoff of the Human Kindness Foundation and the Prison Ashram Project,” he told us at the prison. “The meditation practice makes me look forward to every day,” he said, “breathing in and breathing out, working on my form and lack of form. I’ve found a way to discipline myself, a way to counter the chaos.”

“Minds innocent and quiet take [prison] ...for a hermitage,” wrote the English poet John Lovelace. Josh’s typical prison day began at 4:30 or 5:00 when he sat in meditation for 45 minutes and practiced walking meditation like a cat, pacing the limited confines of his cell. Then he chanted sutras. At 8:00, he went to work in the commissary warehouse, a coveted minimum-security-status job that Joshua attained only after three years of good behavior. After work and dinner in the prison cafeteria, he routinely sat in meditation again for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then he would read from his growing Buddhist library and go to bed.

But it had not always been a monk’s cell and minimum security for Joshua. “I started out my prison time right away getting into trouble for fighting. There was this new guy on the block. He must’ve figured you start with the biggest man and work your way down, because he picked a fight with me. So I just lifted him up with one hand and split his temple with the other. For that I got 28 days in the hole.”

“What’s the hole?”

“Well, it’s a four-by-nine-foot cell that holds a bed, a desk, a toilet, and a sink. The guards take you out every other day for a shower. You have contact with guards only. The officers were actually pretty cool with me.”

“What would you do if that inmate picked a fight with you today?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” Joshua quietly replied.

An Unexpected Visit

About a year after Philip and I bequeathed the prison sangha to Steven and moved south to North Carolina to found Cloud Cottage Sangha, Joshua phoned us to say he was out of jail. We’d stayed in touch, and now he had an important request.

“I want to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings,” he said.

“We’re hosting a dharma teacher from California, Lyn Fine, in North Carolina this September, Josh,” I said. “If you can get yourself here you can stay with us, and we can arrange a ceremony to have Lyn and the sangha offer you the precepts.”

It took a huge effort on Joshua’s part to make the journey. First he secured permission from his halfway house to go on leave for religious reasons. Then he got the okay from his supervisor to take a leave of absence from his job. Finally, he needed money for bus fare; his grandmother complied with a loan, and we set a date for his arrival.

On the long Greyhound ride, Joshua wrote untitled poems:

Impermanence is the only constant. Change is the one true quality. Suffering, joy, hate, love, these too shall pass. Sitting still I center, Quiet my mind, Rest in the joy of my breath.

Josh’s Greyhound bus arrived on time. Back at Cloud Cottage, which is truly a cottage in size, Lyn slept on the futon in the den and Joshua put his giant body down on our living room couch.

“I have to talk to you,” he said. “I have a question. Can someone who’s a sex offender receive the precepts? I...I’m not sure I can do this because of my crime. And Judith, I don’t even remember what I did! I was blacked out on drugs!”

Ironically, just at that moment into our back door came a sangha member who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. Just as she walked in, bearing a gift of soup, I was answering Joshua, “Of course you can receive the Trainings. Your past doesn’t matter.” My mind raced in quick succession to Charles Grand raping my sister-in-law Connie and murdering her, of the Buddha accepting a penitent mass murderer as one of his monks, of Jesus eating with prostitutes.

Fortunately, our friend with the soup at the back door escaped hearing any of this conversation, or it might have made her dinner difficult. Just then, Lyn Fine came out of the other room to join us, and I introduced her to my friend. We served my friend’s carrot soup with a hearty bread. There we were, an unlikely gathering, teachers, perpetrators, victims — no self, no other — gathered for a mindful meal, a true Zen Eucharist. In this way, we practiced interbeing.

One Dharma Journey

Lyn led the retreat that weekend, in a friend’s house set on a vast, tree-dotted lawn in a mountain cove. On a crystal autumn day of marigolds and maple leaves, we held the ceremony for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Tearfully, I watched as Joshua brought his massive body down to touch the earth, receiving each of the Three Refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life; I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness; I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love.

After the ceremony, Lyn gave Joshua his lineage name, Peaceful Light of the Source, linking it to mine and Philip’s, also given by her — Clear Light of the Source and Shining Stream of the Source.

Our linked names mean so much to me, for it was Josh who had transformed my guilt and regret at never having contacted Charles, to say in person, “I forgive you!” It was five years after the murders that I was able to forgive the boy who killed my family -- five years of daily meditation and mindfulness practice. But before I’d been able to tell him so, Charles killed himself. Might I have saved his life by telling him of my forgiveness? Perhaps.

I saw on Joshua’s ordination day that Joshua’s journey was my journey. Joshua and I inter-exist. Despite a long and bumpy ride, I, too, was learning to “rest in the joy of the breath.” Like Josh, I was unfolding my heart to the perfect understanding that transforms hatred and degradation into love and forgiveness.

In the chaos of prison life, Josh had longed for peace. There, he had come to discover his inner teacher, his true self. Back home in Souderton, Pennsylvania, after entering the stream of our Buddhist tradition, he founded Dharma Rain Sangha.

“I met one of the Countytown guards on the outside who told me, ‘I knew you didn’t belong in there,’” he said. But maybe he did belong in there. How else for this gentle giant? How else would Joshua’s dharma journey have begun?

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Minding the Fire, Zen Stories of Forgiveness. Other essays from her book can be found in Best Buddhist Writing 2006, published by Shambhala, and in the new Buddhist quarterly, Right View.

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The Light at the Tip of the Candle

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I 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.

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

Claude 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

From 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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