The River

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Current Reading

Claude Anshin Thomas is a Vietnam veteran who saw combat and killed many. When he returned to the U.S., he found himself internally still at war. He was unemployable and turned to drugs. Finally, he turned his life around by taking one courageous step: by returning to Vietnam for a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thomas is now a Zen monk and teacher devoted to promoting peace and nonviolence.

He’s also an author. I’m two thirds of the way through his 2004 book At Hell’s Gate, and find it to be one of the wisest publications I have had the good fortune to come across.

Excerpts, Chapter 5, Walking to Walk

In December 1994, I began a five-thousand-mile pilgrimage from Auschwitz, in Poland, to Vietnam.


I undertook the walk initially because I was intrigued by the practice of pilgrimage, and because I had an instinctive sense that this was the way that I needed to return to Vietnam. I also wanted to see more, to check my understandings, to get in touch with the conditions of the wider human community. While walking I discovered the pilgrimage also supported me in getting in touch with my own suffering. Ultimately I went on this walk to bear witness, which is one of the core tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order, of which I am a lifetime member.


I was increasingly sensitized to the reality that the policies of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or Nazis, could not have been carried out without the complicity of the countries and societies of Europe (as well as the rest of the world). These policies could not have been enacted without the intense collective denial of German society and the collective denial of the world society. The planning and initiation of this system of abuse, exploitation, torture, and terror, the politics that enabled it to be carried out, were not a secret. All of this was taking place quite in the open, on the world stage.

This pilgrimage also made me more sensitive to the dangers of self-righteousness. Self-righteous action is based on the projection of one’s own suffering onto external sources (people, places, and things). This sort of projection-based decision making is dangerous at whatever level it takes place, and unless we are rigorously committed to looking at the entire, detailed construction of the events that led to the killing of more than fifty-five million people during this period of world history (1939-1945), this cycle will continue to repeat itself again and again. We have witnessed this in the Stalinist Soviet Union, the Maoist Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodian Khmer Rouge; in the early attempts by the United States to eradicate the Native Americans; and even in the continued use of the death penalty as an accepted means of punishment. As I witnessed during this pilgrimage throughout these sites of terror and abuse, laws can quickly become enacted to expand the net and increase the field of qualification for extermination.

We see the results of this kind of righteousness in the ongoing attempts to eradicate indigenous populations throughout the world, in the events in the Balkans and Rwanda, and also in the destruction of the environment. Witnessing the continuing cycle of suffering, I often feel overwhelmed, fearful, and so powerless. I ask myself over and over, “So what can I do?” What is the proper response?”


Over and over, what I kept being confronted with on this pilgrimage is the complicity essential at all levels of the social fabric for such horrors to be enacted and carried out – how I have participated in such horrors and how subtly all this horror begins.

The question then arises, “So what is the appropriate response to these events in our daily living?” I can only say that for me the appropriate response is always one of zero tolerance. Zero tolerance at whatever level and scale I encounter such racism, discrimination, self-righteous action, or abuse of power.

The next question is: “What are the skillful means or methods needed to reinforce and sustain this position?” The response the keeps arising in me is to live my life differently, to live the spiritual reality of life (the knowledge of our interconnectedness), to be uncompromising in this spiritual commitment, and to find whatever means available to support this path. Meditation, the process of knowing oneself intimately and deeply, is for me the core, because mindfulness is the only possible antidote to the mindlessness that leads to complicity with cruelty, violence, and genocide.

At its inception, the NSDAP movement was not taken seriously and for the most part went unchallenged. As I reflect on these circumstances, the only way that I can imagine such horror and terror going on unchallenged is that the governments of all the countries witnessing just couldn’t admit their own guilt. To intervene, to speak up, to speak out, would have meant that they would have to individually and collectively in some way acknowledge their own participation, support, and initiation of like actions.

Comments: Post a Comment