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“Everyone has their Vietnam”- Claude AnShin Thomas

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Claude AnShin Thomas became a mendicant Buddhist monk years after killing hundreds of people in Vietnam. I met Brother Claude in 2005 during his speaking tour, and was taken by his dual approach of not denying or suppressing the anger that he still lives with — which for quite some time led him to soak himself in drugs, alcohol, and sex — but also doing his best to dissipate and reduce the pain and anger. When he is about to get angry, he accepts the feeling, but tries to dissipate it by focusing on his breath and on the sound of a bell, which I suppose helps get him back to concentrating on his breath and calm rather than on anger.

Brother Claude was heavily influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh in his healing process. He was long out of the military at the time, which was sixteen years after the United States military finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1975.

A new documentary film about Brother Thomas is in the works entitled After the War. If you are unmoved by this trailer to the documentary, please let me know.

I have written about the atrocities during the Vietnam War from the American side, and they of course came from the Viet Cong, too. I have not asked Brother Claude about the extent that he was or was not involved in those atrocities. Thich Nhat Hanh deals with those who have committed atrocities as follows: He once met an American Vietnam veteran who admitted having booby-trapped a sandwich that a child ate, causing the child to writhe in pain (and die, if I recall correctly). With his amazing height of compassion, Thich Nhat Hanh responded that the veteran now had a chance to help children in need who were still living. 

Here are some of Brother Claude’s most striking quotes from After the War:

– "Every time it rains, I walk through war."

– "I can see the faces of everyone who I’ve ever been responsible for killing. Those images just flood my mind."

– "Only after re-experiencing all of that can I come to the awareness that right now it’s just rain."

– "How does a Vietnam combat veteran become a Zen Buddhist monk?" "The mendicant lifestyle suits me." "Everyone has their Vietnam."

For more on Brother Claude’s essence and how he experienced, confronted and transcended his wartime trauma — including his discussion about the many soldiers who repress their trauma — read his riveting autobiograph At Hell’s Gate.

Further short videos with excellent discussions by Brother Claude are here, here and here. I have blogged about him several times, including here.

Bowing in thanks to Claude AnShin Thomas.

ADDENDUM: Thich Nhat Hanh is extraordinary in focusing the Vietnam veteran who booby-trapped a sandwich, on the present and future good he can do. With me, I try to focus on not causing others unnecessary suffering, and know I have done so in the past with my words, and to the countless animals and fish I ate before becoming a vegetarian.