Claude AnShin Thomas, Zen Buddhist Monk and Author, born 1947. He served in Vietnam from 1966-67. Since that time he has been working to heal the wounds from that war: emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, using these experiences to help others. He was ordained in the Japanese Soto Zen Tradition in 1995. In 2004 his book AT HELL’S GATE, A Soldier’s Journey From War To Peace was published by Shambhala. Today he focuses on the topics of the roots of violence, transformative change, and the embodyment of active nonviolence.
“What has been long neglected cannot be restored immediately. Ills that have been accumulating for a long time cannot be cleared away immediately. One can not enjoy oneself forever. Human emotions cannot be just right. Calamity cannot be avoided by trying to run away from it. Anyone who has realized these five things can be in the world without misery.” (A letter to Master Xiang from Huitang in Zen Lessons–The Art of Leadership, published by Shambhala and translated by Thomas Cleary. Included in this interview by Claude AnShin Thomas.)
Reading through the works and the talks of Claude AnShin Thomas you begin to sense that his experiences have led him to be a vehicle for transformation and change, to, in his own way help the rest of us stumblingly find our way towards who we are. His contributions to nonviolence seem to take up the space and energy of a full life. They are ceaseless and his commitment profound, particularly the work he does through the Zaltho Foundation.
Last December he did a talk at Center for Transformative Change (CXC) called “The Real Cost of War,” which stripped down, layer by layer, the many ways in which we perpetuate violence. There are the obvious ways: physical and verbal aggression, war itself. And the not so obvious ways: the way we intellectualize right and wrong; our general belief that war is violent while creating separation (us vs. them) is not. Thomas’s point to the audience seemed to rest on maintaining the awareness of our constant choice to practice violence or nonviolence. (His own awareness of the impact violence can have is so acute that after 27 years of practicing and teaching martial arts–which he did before embarking on a Buddhist path–he let his practice in the martial arts go. He realized the impact it had on others.)
I don’t think it’s far off to say that Thomas’s life and the impact he’s experienced from war have shaped much of the course of his life. And that’s the great value of what he has to offer to those who will listen and are ready to learn.
Claude AnShin Thomas is a combat veteran as well as an a ordained Zen Buddhist monk. Given that, my first question to him was, “What are some of the things veterans might be able to teach others about nonviolent action versus violent action?”
Initially he responded with, “I think that it is important to realize that we veterans, I am also a veteran, cannot teach anyone anything if they are not predisposed to learn.”
He followed that by saying, “In relation to your question, what I think important to realize is that those of us who have experienced combat and who have become conscious of the valuable lessons available to us through this experience–namely that Violence is never a solution, that Violence only gets more Violence–have the opportunity, through the ways in which we live our lives, to model a more effective method of conflict-resolution based in the tenet of Active Non-Violence. This tenet clearly states that we know that we have the capacity in any given moment to act violently and that we make a conscious choice not to. We have the opportunity to model for our families, our friends, our societies and the world that we can be in conflict without that conflict degenerating into aggression and war!”
But instead of making a conscious choice most of us avoid being aware of how our aggression spills out on others. We avoid having to look at ourselves, our history, and our patterns, we also avoid having to look at the enormous harm we’ve caused others.
As social change activists who want to make change happen, nonviolence is a route that offers not just choice, but significant transformation. The choice to live committed to the tenets of Active Nonviolence means we have to face our own forms of aggression and violence so that we must learn how to be different in relation to the roots of war and violence that each and everyone of us carry. And as we learn how to be different it follows that we learn to have an impact on our world.
In an essay called: “Zen at War,” which you can find on the Zaltho Foundation Web site, Thomas also writes about the way we are conditioned to shape our world in order to make things more agreeable for our own self-centered needs:
“Having grown up in a Christian culture that espouses a belief rooted in the 10 commandments passed through Moses. With the 5th commandment being, THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The institutional response to that commandment as I grew up with was understood and professed in the terms of; except when the government or the state requires you to–kill. It was here, at precisely this point, that I began although at first not so coherently, to understand the power of the intellectual self, the intellectual mind, to shape the world in any way that it wants. And that this process simply continues to perpetuate the never ending cycles of suffering.”
In reading or listening to Thomas talk about violence, he uses the word “war” often, which at first lands as a big, aggressive conflict involving tanks, soldiers, and guns, but as the conversation continues you realize that violence equates to war. Violence meaning aggressive conflict: one child bullying the other, a woman hitting a dog, a barroom fight, child abuse, domestic violence, racism, sexism, etc. War is not just a battleground in a far away place that few of us will ever see or understand. War has a thread that winds around ALL of those incidents and brings them right into the line of our own hearts. In fact, during the talk Thomas gave at CXC he said, “We must see that war is more than combat. So that we can see the roots of war.”
Those roots are often veiled because we think of violence as something that happens out there (unless it is happening to us personally). But someone wise I know once pointed that political leaders are only capable of creating more harm because they have more power, but we all carry the capability of causing great damage to others–of being violent.
To be more specific Thomas has said, “War is a collective expression of our individual aggression, it is a collective expression of our individual suffering.” I asked him to expound upon that by asking how an individual incident spreads into something as enormous as a world war?
“When I say that War is a collective expression of Individual Suffering, I am not referring to any particular incident but to the more important and substantive matter which is that the roots of war exist in each and every one of us individually–in gross and in subtle ways. To bring an end to war, because we can, demands our wholehearted commitment to turn our attention inward. To search out the darkest and innermost recesses of our conditioning so that the roots of war that we all carry can be illuminated by the light of awakening.”
“In the light of awakening exists the possibility of transformation, the possibility to wake up to our individual responsibility to the wars that are being fought in our own person, in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, and in the various other hot spots throughout the world then have the possibility to be transformed. Being very mindful that transformation is not the absence of a particular type of condition (as in the roots of war) but discovering a new and more conscious relationship with this suffering so that this suffering no longer has the possibility to control us in the many ways that it has.”
So in some way we can find renewal for ourselves and for our communities through changing our relationship with suffering by facing, not avoiding, what’s most painful. Suffering is tricky for most of us–experiencing it is painful and yet we don’t really want to let go of it either. Activists have their own particular relationships with suffering. Many of us believe, whether directly or indirectly, that suffering is equivalent to making effective change happen; in other words, we work too hard and for that our wholeness suffers.
Corresponding with Claude AnShin Thomas I mentioned that most people are a little in love with their suffering and not as in love with discipline or compassion or other actions/emotions that might allow for the kind of rebirth so many of us are seeking. How do you get folks, ordinary folks, to see the value of leaving suffering behind as a way to bring a kind of renewal to themselves? The planet?
His response was, “While I do agree with you that people do become attached to and therefore identified by their suffering. While I do agree with you that many people that I have met have an aversion to discipline, I will also write that I have experienced many people being attached to their ideas of things. Their ideas of Compassion, or other such things like Love, Peace, etc. What I have experienced is that without a disciplined spiritual practice, rooted in a community of Like Minded people (not ideologically glued together) and that community (or the individual) is supported by an Authentic Teacher then it is simply too easy to get lost in the realm of ideas where no one is correct and no one is wrong. To experience compassion requires the giving up of the ideas of compassion. It is only in this place of surrendering to the reality of [the] unknown that the nature of Compassion, of Peace, of Love, of Joy, of Hate, of War can be realized because these great matters are not static, they do not have one face but are constantly reflecting.”
Thus, making renewal itself seem like not such an easy fix, but work that requires constant awareness. Then again, change itself is constant. Perhaps if we make choices in alignment with our nonviolent selves we can alter what those cycles bring to us and to those around us.
Learn more about Claude AnShin Thomas
Check out At Hell’s Gate
Watch Claude AnShin Thomas on Vimeo: After the War