Saturday, June 6, 2009

Accepting What Is - Being Peace

I just finished a book I highly recommend: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War to Peace. The author is American Buddhist monk and Vietnam vet Claude AnShin Thomas.

I met AnShin more than a year ago. He was speaking at a conference in NYC and I went down to interview him. He is a mendicant monk, meaning he travels, lives on offering's he's given, and accepts no payment for work he does.

He has walked across the United States. He has walked across the scenes of war and war crimes all over Europe and done services at cemeteries, at former prison camps, at former death camps.

We hit it off, this thoughtful man and I. Perhaps it was because I knew enough from a weekend Buddhist retreat to make him comfortable that I understood the basics of what he is doing and why. Or perhaps it was just a case of finding each other sympatico. After a long chat about his workshops with veterans and their families, I found myself telling him about my idea for the Everyday People Project. His enthusiasm for it was surprising and sincere.

AnShin has the look of a Buddhist monk, but there is a sense of coiled energy under careful control that doesn't fit the "still waters" stereotype Hollywood sells. His own story is one of learning to embrace life's suffering, of accepting that pain as a path to finding peace with it and letting it go.

After all this time, and even after speaking with him to help publicize scholarships available for his workshops at the Omega Institute this year, I still hadn't read his book. But I opened it this week and ended up reading for an hour or more as I drank my coffee in the morning.

I like AnShin even better now.

At Hell's Gate is a powerful story, simply told, of one man's attempts to transform his life while discovering who he is and learning to accept what he finds.

AnShin doesn't preach, he doesn't try to get anyone to embrace Buddhism, spirituality or even discuss the politics of war. What he does talk about are the roots of violence, and how each of us must accept the fact that war begins within us. Each of us, he points out, has our own personal Vietnam.

I've been confronted with the anger and fear that people I care about, smart people, display over issues that, to me, seem about nothing more than basic human rights. The right to marry. The right to have access to health care. The right to decent working conditions. And my reaction has been anger, too. Anger at what I consider a Darwinian view of humanity, anger at the conviction that everything on this planet was put here to serve a small, superior group of humans. Anger at the increasingly strident and nasty tone of the debates, both in my own life and on a national level.
I react to anger with hopelessness.

AnShin offers techniques to help deal with anger, with fear and with the emotional scars of violence. He doesn't suggest you chant it away or smoke it out with sandalwood incense. He urges you to breathe - to notice the anger, watch it gather strength, then, observed but unexpressed, watch it dissipate. Note where it comes from. Act on it only from a place of compassion and connection...not a place of superiority. It is a mighty workout - and one that could change the world if we each participated. AnShin writes that we cannot wait for the rest of the world to join in - all we can do is change ourselves.

At Hell's Gate ends with one of the most powerful paragraphs I've ever read - a paragraph urging each of us to find and accept the roots of suffering in our lives, understand them, and embrace life as it is, not as we wish it was or wish it might be.

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