Pax Christi Memphis brings Claude Anshin Thomas, highly decorated Vietnam Veteran / Zen Monk to CBU on Feb 7, 2005

by Linda Raiteri

"I’ve killed people and felt entirely justified in doing it," Claude Anshin Thomas, Vietnam veteran and Zen Buddhist monk, tells the audience gathered at Christian Brothers University’s Spain Auditorium.

The author of At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, Thomas volunteered for the military at the age of 18 and was sent to Vietnam. He served as a crew chief on assault helicopters, and by the end of his tour of duty, had received numerous awards and decorations including 27 Air Medals, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart.

When he returned from Vietnam, he found he was no longer the person he had been. Like many who return to civilian life, he found he could not function in the "normal" world. Indeed, according to a former director of the Veterans’ Administration, over 100,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide in the years since that war. "The social contract," Thomas says, "is ‘don’t talk’. It is not ok to talk about what I witnessed, how afraid I felt, how ashamed I was. I was not supposed to be ashamed. I was supposed to be proud." Claude Thomas, like many veterans, became addicted to alcohol and drugs. For a time, he was homeless. "I wrote this book," he says, "because you wouldn’t listen."

Dressed in the robes of a monk in the tradition of Soto Zen, Thomas paces the carpet in front of the stage as he tells his story. "My military training began when I was born," he says. "My whole experience, growing up male, was learning how to get power… My conditioning is to not look, to not feel, to use social anesthetics - alcohol, drugs", anything that will keep the abuse he experienced in childhood, the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people, the cruelty he witnessed and the terror he felt in Vietnam hidden from his consciousness.

His turning point came when he attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans lead by renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thomas the warrior eventually became a Zen Buddhist monk.

As a monk, Claude Anshin Thomas has made pilgrimages to promote peace and nonviolence across this country and around the world - to Auschwitz, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Vietnam. His message is clear, "War is not the answer". And that the path to peace begins with confronting the wars within each of us. When we become conscious of the casual violence we inflict and suffer – in our families, our workplaces, in our daily lives – and begin to implement the disciplines and teachings of our spiritual and religious paths, then we can bring a more peaceful world into being.

It is through healing the emotional wounds of our individual lives that we can lessen the suffering in the world including the suffering of those currently engaged in warfare.

How can we support our troops, the men and women who are serving in the military? Claude Anshin Thomas says by bringing them home and when they come home, by listening to their stories. Just listening. With love and patience and a willingness to hear.

The Memphis chapter of Pax Christi, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Christian Brothers University and Davis-Kidd Booksellers sponsored Claude Anshin Thomas’s appearance in Memphis. Autographed copies of his book, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, are available at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Laurelwood.