Violence & War: March 27, 2005 Dharma Talk by Claude AnShin Thomas to the Washington Mindfulness Community at the Buddhist Vihara, Washington, DC.

"Living in a culture of violence, we are conditioned to destroy and hate. We avoid our innermost thoughts and unknowingly contribute to a cycle of mistrust and rage. The world becomes our enemy and we lock ourselves into an encroaching spiral of self-destruction."
- Claude AnShin Thomas

Claude AnShin Thomas told us he is a mendicant, a homeless monk 365 days a year, living by the generosity of others for food and shelter and other necessities. He took the vow of mendicancy to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. His mendicant life is also in response to monastic rules and practices which discourage mendicancy. He works to find peaceful means for conflict resolution, and to find peace in the devastating effects of war. He said that the war within each of us is the place to begin this work. And to understand that many of our wars are the results of all the past wars of our ancestors and communities.

AnShin said that many people were generous to him and his students when they ask for food and shelter. They take what is offered to them. McDonald fast food restaurants never said "no" to them when they asked for food. However, since he and his students do not eat meat they would pass on any meat sandwiches they were given to others. To the question of vegetarianism he replied that he does not eat meat, fowl, or fish. He does not label himself a vegetarian because the term vegetarian has many negative and restrictive cultural values and opinions. They avoid homeless shelters because they are unsafe places.

He had visited the Buddhist Vihara a year or so ago when he was in Washington, DC staying at the Mennonite Hostel on 16th Street. And as he walked down 16th St. one day he saw the Vihara and dropped in to pay a visit. This led to his being invited the next day to celebrate the end of the yearly three month monastic retreat (which the Buddha observed during the rainy season). The food served to the monks at the Vihara during the celebration was well worth this chance visit!

He served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967 as a helicopter crew chief, and was shot down on five occasions and wounded once. He received the Purple Heart. He was seventeen years old when he joined the Army, and was responsible for killing thousands in his role as a crew chief and helicopter gunner. He said that helicopter crews during the war would collect money before they left on missions, and for the crew who killed the most confirmed death--the collected money would be given as a winning pot. Since that time he has been working to heal his emotionally, mentally, and spiritually war wounds; and to use what he discovers to help others.

When he returned home from Vietnam he thought those who were killed there were the lucky ones because they did not have to live with the consequences of all the fighting and killing. He tried to deny and escape the consequences of his war experiences, as have so many other soldiers, by consuming alcohol and drugs. Ultimately, he became another homeless intoxicated veteran.

Being ostracized and treated as the cause of the Vietnam war when he returned to the States, he said, was a benefit. No one wanted to know or hear about the war, about the awful thing that war is. The benefit was that the ill-treatment he received woke him up to the true nature of war and all its violence and destruction.

This is how it was with the Nazi concentration camps, the majority of which were slave labor camps, he said. Perhaps 3 or 4 of the camps were killing centers. The trains with the prisoners arrived at night and villagers were told to stay in their houses and keep their window shutters closed, so what was happening could not be seen.

It is the same now with the Iraq war. No one wants to know the awful things that this war is doing. The President and the Department of Defense are doing all they can to keep secret as much about the war as possible. The result is that there can be no pictures of the dead, wounded or crippled. The wounded are brought into Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC only between 9 and 11 pm, so no one can see them.

Soldiers and Present Bush are not the problem, he said. Violence and war is the problem. "We are the problem." Our conditioning for violence and war is the problem. The belief that violence and war solves problems is the problem.

To have peace we each need to practice peace. We need to be peace. But peace is not a fixed phenomena. It is organic and constantly changing. It is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of aggression and violence. It about how we address conflict. Conflict is coming face-to-face with suffering.

When you find yourself not at peace in certain relationships, he said, you need to understand that the other person is not the problem. They are not causing your un-peacefulness feelings; you are. You must learn to live with this un-peacefulness in a different way. When you identify the other person as the problem you become the victim. And victim psychology gives you permission to go to war. In an un-peaceful situation you need to ask: "What is the compassionate thing to do here?" He said that he continues to work on the estranged relationship he has with his mother in himself. They have not talked for seven years.

When asked how to deal with Vietnam veterans or a loved one who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, he replied that they are no different than you or me. Their predicament is Samsara (the wheel of suffering and death). They are teachers. They show us what we don't want. They need our compassion. What you work with is how you are affected by what they are doing. In the case of alcoholism Al-Anon is also recommended.

He joined the Army because his father had fought in the WW Two, and his grandfather in WW One, and his great grandfather in the Spanish-American War, and great great grandfather in the Civil War. He then read a passage on page 4 from his book: At Hell's Gate: a Soldier's Journey from War to Peace (December, 2004, Shambhala Publications). The passage is about conditioning to violence. "War was everywhere." This is why it is so important to know what is going on, AnShin said. Why it is necessary to protest our cultural denial of violence and war.

He was born and raised in Waterford, Pennsylvania, a farming town of 900 people. In him, he said, exits all past generations. "We are the reincarnation of all before us." "And if I want the world to be different I must be different." This does not mean I must think differently, but I must live differently. Thinking differently is very difficult, because the mind is made up of so much conditioning. Made up of all our the collective consciousness from our educational system, media, sports involvements, the communities we live in, and so on. Made up by the 10,000 ways we am conditioned and indoctrinated.

One way to live differently is renunciation. Renunciation is waking up to the world we live in, he said. But people are willing to kill to protect their forgetfulness. To protect the status quo. To not know the violence around them and their contribution to it.

Our practice of the Eight Fold Path is another way to live differently. But it is important to know that Practice is not about form. If you are caught by form you are wasting time. Meditation is a form. Sitting on the cushion is also like sitting on a bomb. Because when we practice stopping and deep looking at our pain and suffering, our problems become strongly manifested.

But meditation also means looking at yourself without judgment. It is not to see yourself as a "good or bad person" and what your conditioning has done. It is simply to know you are responsible for what you have done, as well as your conditioning. Practice is about waking up "to know what to do next, as well as what not to do." Practice is observing the precepts (the MindfulnessTrainings).

"We have the illusion of what happens next." But we don't really know what is in the next moment. We think we will live a certain amount of years based on reports on the average life spans. However, we may be dead in the next hour or minute. "But we can wake up right now." We can wake up to our suffering. To the suffering we have inherited and to the suffering that we cause for ourselves and others.

Meditation is also how we live our life. The still and peaceful mind we all want comes from learning how to live with a mind that does not have stillness and peace. The violence, trauma, suffering we experience does not simply go away with meditation. But sitting and walking meditation can help us to wake up to them so they can be cared for, healed, and transformed. Mindful deep listening, especially to what is not being said, is also important.

Meditation curbs and changes the habit energy to "do", to be productive, to do the next project or activity, to attend to the next need, desire or demand; so you can just "be" in the present moment. We live in a to "do" culture of much violence and war. Each time we do not feed this habit energy to "do," we allow ourselves to just "be." To be with all the wonders in the present moment.

Joy is a by-product of the Practice and waking up. It cannot be manufactured. Fifteen years ago he was not smiling, because he believed to do so would be disloyal to all the suffering in the world, as well as his own suffering. But his commitment to the process of awaking resulted in a deep understanding of the constant change in all things, even suffering. As well as seeing more deeply all the joys in the non-suffering elements in himself and the world.

When asked about healing the past, he said that as you heal in the present, you heal all past generations. He heals himself for all Vietnam veterans. "I want to know what you are for, not what you are against." he said. "If you want your life to be different, you must life differently." You must follow the precepts (the Mindfulness Trainings). You must help others. You must be on the Path to awakening. It is not about your childhood, your problems, your suffering.

To the question on the different forms of violence he replied that violence is violence. How you treat your body can be a form of violence. Each year 27,000 to 39,000 people are killed with guns in the United States, and over time gives a number of killed people greater than some wars. "War is what is going on in the mind. War is repeated cycles of separation."

When asked about coincidences, he replied that there are no magical coincidences. Things are just as they are. This is like this, because that is like that. The mind wants to grasp, to get its mind around things, so it believes in coincidences. But that is not how things are.

For a while he lived with the monastic community at Plum Village, France, the home of Thich Nhat Hanh. Then he studied under Roshi Bernie Glassman, and in 1995 was ordained a Zen Priest at Auschwitz. He is an 83rd generation monk in the Zoto Zen tradition. He said he is his lineage; and that a robe does not make a monk, but how you live your life.

From Auschwitz he walked on a pilgrimage to Vietnam. He has done a pilgrimage walk from Yonkers, NY to San Francisco, California. In Europe he walked a 2,500 miles pilgrimage to all the major concentration camps and other major World War Two war sites. He said he walked these places in Europe to know the suffering, pain, and destruction of the war.

AnShin facilitates retreats for Veterans of War and travels in the USA and Europe working with cultures of violence to help end violence. He help found the Zaltho Foundation, a non-sectarian spiritual organization committed to ending violence by encouraging and establishing peace projects in schools, communities, organizations, and families. The foundation also helps veterans of all wars, especially Vietnam Veterans, and sponsors retreats, public talks, and classes on meditation, conflict resolution, mindfulness and other tools for peaceful living.

AnShin can be contacted through the Zaltho Foundation at PMB 312, 60 Thoreau St., Concord, MA, 01742; tel: 978-369-4342; fax 978-263-9051; email: And the Magnolia Zen Center, 9 Magnolia Dr, Mary Ester, Florida, 32569; tel 850-243-8169; fax 850-243-1167.

AnShin's dharma talk is being transcribed by Mary Hildebrand, and should be available soon on the Washington Mindfulness Community Webpage:

Notes compiled by Bill Menza

return to top

Washington Mindfulness Community
PO Box 11168, Takoma Park, MD 20913.
tel: 301-681-1036.