Thursday, 25 September 2014

Good Book: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

I'm not sure he'd appreciate the label, but Claude AnShin Thomas is the most prominent hermit of our generation. Though an ordained priest in Bernie Glassman's Zen Peacemaker lineage, his practice is in the tradition of Basho. In his own words:
"I made the decision to take the vows of a mendicant monk primarily because I wanted to live more directly as the Buddha had. […] Also, in witnessing the evolution of Zen Buddhist orders in the United States, I wanted to evoke the more ancient traditions of those who embarked on this spiritual path and to live my commitment more visibly."
AnShin specialises in walking ango – long voyages on foot, without money, living off the Dharma and the compassion of others. He calls them peace pilgrimages, and to date he's walked from Auschwitz to Vietnam; across the US and Europe; in Latin America; and even the Middle East. He also leads street retreats, a unique Peacemaker practice wherein Zen students take the Buddha at his word and become Homeless Brothers in the urban core of a large city for a specified period of time.

Where, you wonder, does a guy get gravel like that? Well…

In At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace, AnShin describes his military service in Vietnam, where he clocked 625 combat hours in US Army helicopters, many behind an M60 machine gun. By his own recollection, he was in combat virtually every day from September 1966 to November 1967. He was, in short, the classic "badass American fighting man" so beloved of Hollywood.

Except it wasn't as fun.

He came home, like all war veterans, to a society desperate never to hear about those not-fun parts, or to pay for the care he now required for life. The tale that ensues has been told a hundred times, and each time is the first.

Re-reading At Hell's Gate (one of my all-time favourite Zen books) I was struck again by the sense that the author would rather not be writing it at all. There's a reticence in AnShin's prose, a tone of compelled confession, that suggests modesty, circumspection, and discomfort with the writer's art, at which he clearly doesn't feel proficient. Which is exactly why he is. You're not reading a writer; you're reading a veteran, in much more than just the military sense.

Interspersed among terse, almost telegraphic accounts of his past is some of the best how-to on practical meditation I've found. His themes are universally relevant: depression and despair; atonement and redemption; suffering and transcendence. All from a guy who speaks with thunderous authority.

His eremitical bona fides are equally evident. He writes:
"Anyone can come with me on a pilgrimage. It's not necessary for a person to become a student of mine or to spend time with me to learn this practice. It is open."
In these angos – which he defines as "just walking" – he's revived a practice largely abandoned in the era of institutional Zen:
"There is no escape from the nature of your suffering in this practice. When you walk, you are constantly confronted with your self, your attachments, your resistance. You are confronted with what you cling to for the illusion of security."
Should anyone require more evidence of AnShin's hermitude, his Further Reading section includes Zen at War, The Cloud of Unknowing (a classic of Christian contemplation), and the Gnostic Gospels, though none of them are cited in the text.

My lone criticism of At Hell's Gate is its light treatment of those incredible pilgrimages. In fact, I wish AnShin would write a whole 'nother book just about them. I appreciate his desire to avoid the odour of self-glorification; first-person journalism is a hard beat for a non-narcissist. And as a mendicant, he likely doesn't have time or space to sit down and write. But it's badly needed. I hope AnShin's sangha convince him someday to transmit and preserve these vital experiences, for the benefit of future generations. After all, where would we be if Basho had remained silent?

Nevertheless, the book we already have is all by itself a repository of rare and hard-earned wisdom, a chronicle of unusual violence and damage, leading to unusual insight. The man himself puts it best:
"Everyone has their Vietnam. Everyone has their war. May we embark together on a pilgrimage of ending these wars and truly live in peace."
If you're suffering – whether firearms were involved or just plain-old heartbreak – read this book.
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