In Print

At Hell's Gate

From war to inner peace

By Julian Wise - March 8, 2007

"Hell's Gate," by Claude Anshin Thomas. Shambhala. 2006. 184 pages. $12.95, paperback.

As the Iraq war debate enters a tedious stage of public bickering between 2008 presidential candidates, congressional blowhards, and White House loyalists, Claude Anshin Thomas's "At Hell's Gate" deserves to be required reading. Subtitled, "A Soldier's Journey from War To Peace," it chronicles one man's journey from Vietnam to the Buddhist peace movement. Along the way, it offers a lucid and compelling argument for pacifism.

In the book's preface, Thomas writes, "At the age of 17 I enlisted in the United States Army and volunteered for service in Vietnam. By taking up arms, I was directly responsible for killing several hundred people, and the killing didn't stop until I was honorable discharged and sent home with numerous medals, including the Purple Heart. But as I pieced together the shrapnel of my life and discovered the heart that had been shattered by combat, I discovered that there is no justified killing, no clear separation between good and bad violence, and no rectitude in war. War is just the act of acting our suffering."

Thomas left Waterford, Penn. in the 1960s to join the conflict in Vietnam, deluded by popular culture and machismo into believing war was a man-making experience. In Vietnam he encountered mind-numbing violence and upon his return to the United States he descended into a personal hell of drug addiction, homelessness, and social isolation. Through a fortuitous chain of grace and redemption, he discovered the Buddhist peace movement and embarked on a healing journey that led him through Bosnia, Afghanistan, Auschwitz, Cambodia, and back to Vietnam as a peace pilgrim. In telling his story, Thomas provides a glimpse into the inner transformation necessary to convert a fractured psyche from agony to peace.

Thomas's turning point came after attending a retreat with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh at the Omega Institute in Rheinbeck, New York. When Thomas entered the workshop room he describes a visceral reaction.

"The moment he walked into the room and I looked into his face, I began to cry. I realized for the first time that I didn't know the Vietnamese in any other way than as my enemy, and this man wasn't my enemy. It wasn't a conscious thought; it was an awareness happening from somewhere deep within me."

Upon return from Vietnam, Thomas had a son, yet the baby's crying stirred him into extreme agitation, forcing him to flee the house. Within several years the relationship with the child's mother was over. During the Omega retreat, Thomas was assaulted by a suppressed memory in which his soldiers had come upon a crying baby in a Vietnamese village. When one of his comrades picked up the baby, it exploded. Three of his colleagues were killed by the booby trap and Thomas was covered in viscera.

After grappling with the enormity of his pain through the first workshop, Thomas began traveling to Hahn's Plum Village monastery in France. At first he was terrified of being surrounded by the Vietnamese at the village, hiding in a tent in the woods outside the dormitories and placing booby traps around the perimeter. As he began to experience the nonjudgmental acceptance of the Vietnamese in the community, his physical and psychic defenses fell away.

"What the Vietnamese community did is love me," he writes. "They didn't put me on trial. They offered me an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of my self, to walk with them in mindfulness and begin the process of healing and transformation."

In time, Thomas would become ordained as a novitiate monk in the Japanese Zen Soto Buddhist Tradition and undertake a series of pilgrimages across the globe, spreading his message of peacemaking. He started the Zaltho foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence. The later chapters of "At Hell's Gate" give him the opportunity to articulate his concept of peace.

"I hold the position that violence is never a solution," he writes. "I have been led to this view by my own experience, by our collective history, and by the truth of cause and effect. Every action brings an equal and opposite reaction - a fundamental law of physics."

"I know, unwaveringly, that violence is never the solution to humanity's problems and that the real solution resides in the ethic and value of nonviolence.... Nonviolence is not, however, to be confused with being passive or complacent. Passivity, like its opposite, aggression, is a behavior of those controlled and dominated by fear. I also know that the commitment to nonviolence requires an almost complete overhaul of our conditioned nature. It requires us to live differently and demands great courage and great sacrifice."

While there is merit to the efforts of the soybean-and-facial-hair crowd to promote peace by strumming acoustic guitars in coffee shops and holding up antiwar posters at peace rallies, there's a greater resonance within the quiet, powerful words of Thomas, a man who has experienced the wrath of war and consciously chosen the path of peace. With his deliberate tone and honest, unvarnished writing style, Thomas has crafted a small masterpiece that should make its way into the hands and minds of anyone seeking a more thoughtful perspective on the specter of war.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.