By Carole Melkonian
On November 21, four American veterans of the Vietnam War—Jim Janko, Ted Sexhauer, Jerry Crawford, and Dan Thompson—and Earll and Maxine Hong Kingston arrived at Plum Village. This symbolic return to a Vietnamese Buddhist village in the Dordogne region of France, was the conclusion of a three-year Mindfulness and Writing Workshop for veterans led by Maxine.
After the long train ride from Paris, on a sunny, windy autumn afternoon, the group arrived and were warmly greeted by the whole community. A small tea meditation was offered by Brother Sariputra and Sister Chan Khong. After dinner, the veterans introduced themselves to the community. Early the next morning the veterans participated in the recitation of the Five Wonderful Precepts. This ceremony gave them the opportunity to begin anew, using the precepts as guidelines for living peacefully.
Later that day, Sr. Chan Khong, Maxine, and the veterans met to explore ways of healing the wounds from their war experience. Sr. Chan Khong recounted a story of the pain experienced during the war when she held in her arms a young child covered with blood. "Many years later, in 1993,1Iwas able to release this pain. While walking in the streets of Florence, church bells would ring from time to time helping me live fully and deeply the present moment. Slowly, my mind became concentrated. I saw the street vendors selling postcards, the pigeons, the children playing in the streets, and myself as one. There was no distinction between Italians, French, or Vietnamese, between Christians and Buddhists. When I entered a Catholic cathedral, I really felt I was home. All the discriminating concepts and notions about self and non-self, Buddhism and Christianity disappeared. Suddenly, looking at the stained-glass windows with images of angels on them, I saw that the smile on the angel's face was the smile of the dead child I held in my arms so many years ago. It was the smile of liberation. There is no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We are all here in this wonderful reality."
Moved by this story, Jerry Crawford spoke of his experience with a Vietnamese woman guerilla seriously wounded and slowly dying in front of him. He took the hammock that belonged to her back to the United States and kept it for 25 years as a constant reminder of this woman's death. In 1991, Jerry attended a retreat for veterans which Thay led at Omega Institute in upstate New York. From the many group discussions and exercises for veterans, he was able to release this pain by burning the hammock in a bonfire on the last night of the retreat as part of a "letting go ceremony," where veterans wrote down and burned what they wanted to release in order to heal the wounds they suffered from the war.
On Thanksgiving Day, Thay gave a Dharma talk on not running away from our home which only exists in the present moment. That afternoon, Thay and Sr. Chan Khong met with the veterans. Sr. Chan Khong told the story of Angulimala, a murderer who became a monk. Tea, prepared by Thay' s gentle attendant, was passed to participants, including the film crew. The interview continued with a question from Jim: "Regarding your talk this morning about not running away and returning home, before I went to Vietnam, I felt a lot of pride in the democratic process in the United States. As a medic in Vietnam, I saw indescribable suffering of both people and land. Returning to the United States, I felt stripped from my culture. I feel that no connection can nourish a relationship between me and my culture. The only good thing that came from my Vietnam War experience was that it led me to a deep spiritual home. However, that took many years. Is there anything in the American culture that can truly nourish people?—anything that is not just an advertisement, another plug for materialism?"
Sr. Chan Khong: There are hidden treasures in America. Many groups of people there have learned to respect people and the earth. There are more groups forming in America to support people who practice mindfulness, and learn of other spiritual traditions than in any other country.
Maxine: We are the product of America! One thing our country has given us is the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, I take as a precept. Practicing freedom of speech—practicing assembling— is the same as bringing the Sangha together.
Sr. Chan Khong: In countries like Vietnam or China, you do not have the liberty to assemble in large groups. You would be imprisoned.
Jim: I agree. Still, the U.S. is a powerful cause of suffering in many other parts of the world.
Thay: The American culture is an open society. It is open to other influences. It is not old yet so it can renew itself easier than other societies. Suffering is important. If we look deeply into the suffering, it will lead us to wisdom and compassion. If Americans know how to look deeply at suffering, they will understand the roots to stop suffering in America and in other countries.
There is a growing consciousness among Americans about what they are consuming. They know that certain foods cause suffering to their bodies and consciousness. Tofu is a protein that is far safer than protein from meat. It is easier to digest, and the making of tofu is less damaging to the environment. Tofu is much easier to find in America than in France. The consumption of alcohol has caused many families to be broken. Young people suffer because of this. Sexual misbehavior has destroyed many families and society, too. To protect ourselves and our families, we have to practice the third precept. We know this. We have to practice as a society, as a nation. By doing so, other nations will benefit from our practice. Consume less meat and alcohol, and take care of your families. All the jewels are buried in your tradition. Go back and rediscover them. You'll bring happiness to yourself and to other people.
Jerry: I have trouble being calm when chaos is going on in my head. Although I try to be mindful, I have trouble doing so. Today, during walking meditation I heard gunshots from hunters in the area and it immediately brought back memories from the war. I felt angry and afraid.
Thay: Don't try so hard to be mindful. Just be in touch with what is around you and you will be healed. Look at the people around you who are able to smile and walk calmly. If you do this you will have peace and joy. Just be yourself. Don' t try too hard. Just allow yourself to be.
Sr. Chan Khong: When fear arises, smile to it and say, "Hello, fear. The gunshots are from hunters. We are not in Vietnam anymore, we are in France. We are in Plum Village."
Ted: I have a similar problem with noises. As a medic, when I heard a loud noise I had to stay in control. Now when I hear a loud noise, I still maintain control but afterward I feel angry.
Sr. Chan Khong: Still we must say hello to the anger. We have to develop the habit of saying hello to fear or anger when it arises in order to be free from it. It may be also useful to talk to the brothers and sisters who are here with you. Sometimes being deeply heard by others can help you let go of your suffering.
Thay: Sometimes we don't need to suffer but we are attached to it. There is a garden with many beautiful trees and flowers. One of the trees is dying. You cry over that one and ignore all the others. You are unable to enjoy the beauty of the other trees. It's the same situation. You are walking with us here in Plum Village. We are supposed to be one body making peaceful steps on Mother Earth. The hunters' guns can touch seeds of suffering in you and many friends around you. But it is important to say, "I am walking with many friends in Plum Village." However, you may want to imprison yourself in the memory of the past, but sticking to your suffering is not good for yourself and is not good for humanity. Suffering is not enough. We can learn a lot from suffering, but life has many wonderful things too. Don't make the dying tree the only reality.
You are a veteran, but you are more than a veteran. All of us are veterans, both Vietnamese and Americans. We have suffered. I have to be able to not only help myself, but also my sisters, brothers, children, society. You cannot imprison yourself in your own suffering. You have to transform it.
Ted: It's true what you're saying about hanging on to suffering. Yet I believe that if I pretend that my experiences of suffering do not exist, they will come around and surface in another way. We are taught by psychotherapists to look at our suffering.
Sr. Chan Khong: Observing your fear is good to do. We cannot pretend that the fear is not in us. But to only observe the fear is not enough. Practice seeing the joy that arises in each moment, too. Today you are with Thay and many friends in Plum Village. Be aware of this, and of the fact that you are still alive, in good health, with good friends, and that you are able to be here. Maxine has spent a lot of energy on this project. Years ago, she spoke to me about this dream of bringing veterans to Plum Village. She wondered how she could realize this dream. Being aware that you are here as a miracle is enough to make us all very happy.
Thay: When I talk about the garden, I recognize that the tree is dying in my garden. I also see the many nonsuffering elements that are in the garden. If you can see the entire garden, the suffering and the nonsuffering elements, your suffering will be transformed.
During the course of the interview, Thay asked Maxine to sing a song. She refused at first, laughing and denying her ability to sing. Then she reconsidered and said, "With mindful breathing, anything is possible." She then sang "Amazing Grace," with the veterans singing along in support.
Maxine: Today is Thanksgiving, and I feel thankful for you, Thay, and for Plum Village, and your welcoming us here. The first day our group arrived, one nun greeted us at the train station, saying, "Let's go home." Another nun greeted us in the Lower Hamlet saying, "Welcome home."
In America, many veterans are homeless, even the ones living in a house. I am very happy to bring these veterans to a place where they can find home both in a place and a spirit.
Order member Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is spending the winter in Plum Village. Traveling with the veterans was a BBC crew that filmed the veterans' "return " to Plum Village as part of a documentary on journeys to be aired on British television in April 1996. They filmed Thay's talks and interviewed Sr. Chan Khong about the history of Plum Village, her humanitarian work during the Vietnam War, and her work today to help people heal from the wounds of war.