The Buddha Smiles in Hell

by Mark Chmiel

A Reflection on Claude Anshin Thomas, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. Shambhala Publications, 2004.

In one of the most fascinating pieces I’ve read on the U.S. war in Iraq, the litany-esque, What I Heard About Iraq, Eliot Weinberger states, “I heard that seven percent of all American military deaths in Iraq were suicides, that ten percent of the soldiers evacuated to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, had been sent for ‘psychiatric or behavioral health issues,’ and that twenty percent of the military was expected to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Let me presume that Weinberger’s statistics are accurate. An estimate this past July put US troop levels at 150,000. Here’s a math problem: What’s 20% of 150,000? But then think of how many more tens of thousands of US troops had already served time or will yet serve time. What’s 20% of, say, 300,000?

What is going to become of these men and women when they return to the United States–after the parades, the parties, and the reunions? Who is going to listen to that 20%? Who is going to be ready and willing to listen? Who is going to be able to stay with them, when they are in the throes of suffering here?

For anyone who has pondered these questions, I’d recommend reading Claude Thomas’s memoir/spiritual manual, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. Thomas is both laceratingly blunt about the devastating impact of the violence on soldiers as well as hopeful that transformation and healing are possible.

In his youth, Thomas was conditioned to the normalcy of violence, both by his parents and later by the training he received in the Army. Family life was full of denial and repression. His father was emotionally withdrawn; he beat Claude as an act of “love.” In high school, he became a car thief for kicks, which was one way to escape from the pain of his often absent father. He was a jock in school and saw the military and war as just another game.

However, he had the proverbial rude awakening in his first months in the Army: A drill instructor urinated on him. His world was marked by hearing and using obscenities, drinking excessively, and being hustled by other soldiers. He learned to focus his increasingly growing rage on “the enemy.” He soon got his chance to cut loose in Vietnam. About his own time in Vietnam, Thomas wasn’t sustained at all by any motivation along the lines of traditional patriotism or hatred for Communism. He asserts, “My job in Vietnam was to kill people. By the time I was first injured in combat (two or three months into my tour), I had already been directly responsible for the deaths of several hundred people. And today, each day, I can still see many of their faces.”

After being immersed in hell on earth in Vietnam, Thomas comes back home, decked out in military uniform and there he is in an American airport being approached by a beautiful young woman, circa 1967. Thomas is intrigued, anxious, expectant, his mind racing with possibilities at this imminent encounter. Indoctrinated by too many Hollywood movies, Thomas expects that she is going to plant a kiss on him, so full of gratitude is she for what he has done and instead …she spits at him.

His reaction: “I was flooded with feelings and impulses, the strongest of which was to annihilate the enemy, since she had committed an act of violence against me, she was the enemy.” You still hear a lot about the spitting on the Vietnam vets that took place in the 60s and 70s. A while back while on a book tour, Jane Fonda was spat on by a Vietnam vet while she was signing books. All these decades later, this man still seethed with rage at this woman he deemed a traitor, given her befriending the North Vietnamese. For him, the Vietnam war is not over.

Thomas admits how messed up he was when he came home: Too much booze, too many drugs, and heartless, promiscuous sex. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, and ended up living on the streets for awhile. “I never lived in one place for more than six months because I could not stand to have anyone get close to me, get to know me, because I thought if anyone really knew me, they would hate me. And the message was clear; it was given to me daily: because I was a soldier from Vietnam, I was not worth anything.”

In the early 1980s, Thomas stopped running and hiding and became sober. He went on a retreat with Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, the first of his most influential teachers. He began to learn the practices of mindfulness and compassion, such that he was able to begin to heal his fractured self. He came to see that “[e]very act in life can become an act of meditation and a pathway to compassion. To drink water, to speak with a friend, to look at a tree, to listen to the trucks passing by, to blow your nose, to cough, to go to the toilet–everything.”

Thomas eventually became a monk in the Soto Zen lineage, and continued his learning with teacher Bernie Glassman. Thomas used Buddhist practices to face his own suffering and work to relieve the suffering of others, whether in Vietnam, Bosnia, or on our urban streets. (He gives instructions on several practices in an appendix.) Thomas has sought to work for inner peace and bear witness, often by taking pilgrimages and living as a mendicant, which is a conscious practice of voluntary poverty and renunciation of materialism.

He also returned to Vietnam. Mindful of his earlier confusion, madness, and violence while there, he came to this aspiration that cuts through nationalism’s dualism of worthy and unworthy life: “For every American soldier who died, for every South Vietnamese soldier who died, for every civilian who died, for every Vietcong soldier who died-for ever person who’s ever died in that war or any war, I feel an intense responsibility, because they are in me.”

Thomas has lived out the Buddhist adage, “Go to the places that scare you.” He and his community have traveled in Europe to the sites of former concentration camps. They have gone to Israel-Palestine and Cambodia. He has worked in hospitals and mental institutions, on the street, and on war’s front lines, where he talks to soldiers and those suffering from war. Throughout these sometimes trying explorations, Thomas has practiced mindful breathing to stay rooted in the present moment.

On one peace pilgrimage across the United States, Thomas and his friends lived off of people’s donations and their willingness to offer them shelter at night. One day, the group came to an evangelical church, knocked at the door, solicited shelter, and was summarily turned away.

Echoing the famous teaching of “perfect joy” by St. Francis of Assisi in a similar circumstance, Thomas had this realization: “In this moment of rejection they provided me with a perfect opportunity to embody my practice. I would place my hands together and bow (in the traditional manner of my lineage, called gassho), thanking them for hearing our request, and then we would move on.”

Now, well over thirty years since he came home from Vietnam, Claude Thomas gives retreats on mindfulness and encourages others to learn to sit with their pain. Although some may find his Buddhist practice simplistic, for Thomas, this path is not complicated, though it is demanding. He acknowledges, “I didn’t know what to do for those I had killed in Vietnam until Thich Nhat Hanh taught me: ‘Just practice. Because when you walk, you walk for all those who have ever been abused, exploited, terrorized, crippled, maimed, or killed under any circumstance. When you walk, you walk for all veterans. When you sit [in meditation], you sit for all veterans. So you wake up, and as you heal, you heal them in you.”

“Support our troops”– the presumed time frame for this slogan is now, when the troops are in the field. Too often the slogan is blurted out by some to stifle discussion or to prevent any critical questioning of the war and occupation. To be critical of the war, it is alleged, is to not support the troops, is to somehow dishonor or endanger them.

And when the troops come home? We may each have some opportunities to support the troops when they return, some of them no doubt troubled by what they did, what they experienced in Iraq. For those of us nonveterans, Claude Thomas offers us a challenge: “When I talk with other veterans… I hear the same story. They say that they are not understood and that non-veterans avoid contact with them, resisting all but the must superficial connection. I believe that nonveterans don’t make the effort to understand us because to touch the reality of our experience would mean that they would have to touch the same sort of pain and suffering inside themselves and consequently recognize their responsibility.”

We can take heart from Thomas’ own example: Move closer, practice breathing, stay with the discomfort, notice the arising of our own self-righteousness, and learn how to listen: “As we listen, let’s just offer our openness and companionship. This is the beginning of the journey toward healing. Though we may think that we know how to listen, often when other people talk, we don’t manage to really listen. We tend to judge what’s being said, defend ourselves, react, offer advice, or seek to control the situation in some way. So a disciplined practice of listening will be helpful.”

See Claude Thomas’s project, the Zaltho Foundation.

Also, see the documentary, The Ground Truth.

Claude Thomas

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