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“If you blow up a house, then you build a house” – Reconnecting with my teacher Claude Anshin Thomas

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In the Spring of 2005, I heard about a mendicant Zen Buddhist monk, Claude Anshin Thomas, who in the mid-1960’s killed over 100-200 people as an American soldier in Vietnam. He was going to speak on a Sunday night at the small Sri Lankan Buddhist temple that housed the first D.C.-based Nipponzan Myohoji monk in the 1970’s before his temple opened diagonally across the street. Around three mile down the road, Sixteenth Street, is Lafayette Park, where I had my fateful meeting in 1991 with my friend and peace and life mentor Jun Yasuda. Around three miles up the street was my office, the same neighborhood where my main office still sits. Around two miles up the street was the Walter Reed Army medical center, where so many wounded soldiers have landed before this very dollar-valuable piece of real estate was closed. Geographically and beyond, this evening was full of symbolism and significance.

At some point between deciding to attend and being in Brother Claude’s presence, I decided silently to resist him, this man who had killed so many in war that involved countless atrocities on and by all sides. It was a war that — until I learned when studying the Vietnam War in my college freshman America in the Sixties seminar, that My Lai was not an aberration but .only a more large-scale atrocity by American soldiers — I felt that I was willing to fight in (had I been of age and drafted), having believed communism was evil and the domino theory made sense, not recognizing that the American government ordinarily has agendas beyond such ideals in deciding where to go to war (for instance oil with Iraq). I was, therefore, pre-judging Brother Claude, separating myself from him when we are all connected, perhaps trying to escape my own previous belief that I would have been willing to fight in Vietnam, and, ultimately, avoiding knowing myself better. I had not yet internalized the concept that we all are connected, and did not yet understand the concept of non-duality/non-attachment. I was attaching to my preconceived notions.

So I resisted joining Brother Claude in his warm jocularity as someone stood on a chair before he started talking, to fix a lightbulb. Within ten minutes, my resistance had vanished, as this man talked of his suffering as a child, the suffering of all, the suffering of the oppressors and the oppressed, and of his continuing the soldiering that his father had done in World War II, his grandfather in World War I, and his great grandfather in the Spanish-American War. My father graduated from West Point in 1958, too young to have gone to Korea and too old to be drafted to Vietnam, having retired from the military around 1961. I considered in high school following his West Point path. Fortunately I did not — which is not to say that I would have gotten an appointment there in the first place — particularly in the light of learning about the atrocities in Vietnam, and that atrocities happen in all wars; and my coming to a path that supports non-violence, but still recognizes that war might still sometimes be a viable option, but as a very last resort, if even that. 

As Brother Claude talked of his anger that still can well up into him even as a monk, about his torment from his past that leads him to feel deep discomfort at hearing a baby cry and that prevents a full night’s sleep, and about his ultimately opening himself up to learning from Thich Nhat Hanh and others who had compassion and understanding for him despite all the death he caused in their native country, he spoke directly to me, even though babies crying do not bother me, and I usually sleep the whole night. I still, though, had much anger, including anger at all the injustice in society.

He spoke of returning to center by the ring of a bell — whether his own or even the bell of a telephone — and of his breath. Later, influenced by that, I bought a few small bells; one is in my car, the other in my office, and larger singing bowls at my home and office, helping to send positive vibrations to cleanse over any negativity I feel.

I have written several times about Brother Claude and do not have the time today to write much more. I take time here to re-thank him, and to say how deeply I benefitted from being with him again, last night in Arlington, as part of his two days in the Washington, D.C., area, with his returning next month to Annapolis.

I strongly recommend Claude’s book At Hell’s Gate (available at Amazon), which speaks of the war, the Vietnam, that we all suffer in one way or another. My client suffer, judges suffer, prosecutors suffer, police suffer, and I sometimes still suffer. Brother Claude underlines that if we run away from our suffering, it just catches us all the more. His lessons on dealing with suffering are universal, including for my helping my clients.

The quote in the title today’s blog entry is "If you blow up a house, then you build a house," from Sister Chan Khong, as related in Claude’s book. All of us have caused others and ourselves suffering in the past. We cannot change that, but we can rebuild.

ADDENDUM: Here are some additional thoughts:

– With Brother Claude was Wiebke KenShin Andersen, who apparently usually accompanies Claude on his travels. My Google search about her found little other than that she helps organize his speaking engagements. Claude spoke of a very close — of course non-romantic — relationship between them.  

– He emphasized the five Buddhist precepts, including avoiding all killing and all intoxicants.

– The evening’s having been focused particularly on veterans, Brother Claude did not focus on Buddhism as much as he perhaps might have before an audience interested specifically in Buddhism. He said that Buddhism influences everything he does. I think he said that spirituality is essential for reaching fulfillment in life.

– Brother Claude talked about focusing within ourselves for change, rather than seeking it from others.

– He emphasized the difference between knowing non-violence and being non-violent.

– He underlined the importance of having a quality teacher for learning mindfulness, and not a fly-by-night teacher with insufficient training.

– He is uncomfortable about mindfulness being used to help soldiering. I understand that, but on the other hand, our mindfulness and balance are particularly tested in trying times, including when facing threats of violence. Master Japanese archery warriors and samurai applied mindfulness, as do taijiquan practitioners, including when involved in potentially deadly combat.

– Even today, Claude experiences discomfort talking with groups, and feels more comfortable near the exit. Here is a Zen monk admitting his demons and discomfort, rather than claiming that all is beautiful lotus flowers.

– After returning from Vietnam, he avoided associating with other veterans. He slept with a knife under his pillow, and a handgun or rifle (or else he said shotgun) nearby, when his girlfriend or wife (I forget which) was sleeping there with him.

– He derives substantial benefit from the Diamond Sutra.

– See Brother Claude’s essential video here, He says: "Healing does not mean the absence of suffering… [It] means learning to live in a different relationship with this suffering."