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Roots of War, Seeds of Peace: Claude AnShin Thomas Shares his Transformational Journey from Soldier to Zen Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, April 03, 2013
“If I want the world to be different, I have to live differently,” explained Claude AnShin Thomas, who was the featured speaker at Marymount’s annual Interfaith Forum and luncheon.

A Vietnam War veteran AnShin Thomas sought healing from his war experiences and eventually became a Zen Buddhist monk and an advocate for active non-violent solutions. He established the Zaltho Foundation, which promotes peace and nonviolence, and is the author of At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. AnShin Thomas is also the creator of a retreat workshop for veterans living with post-traumatic stress, The Costs of War, Violence and Denial, which is open to veterans, their family members, and friends.

His visit to Marymount was made possible by a grant from the Public Education for Peacebuilding Support Initiative of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Jim Marshall, USIP president, stated, “USIP is pleased to support organizations like Marymount University and their contribution to the national conversation around international conflict, and methods for resolving those conflicts nonviolently.”

AnShin Thomas pointed out, “We need to wake up to the roots of war in us; they are not external.” He added, “I was responsible for the deaths of a lot of people. I didn’t see their humanity. …When we see the world as ‘self’ and ‘other,’ healing and transformation cannot take place.” His journey has led him to realize, “It’s not just about what I do, but about what I stop doing,” and, “I have to be willing to explore my perceptions from different perspectives.”

As a Zen Buddhist monk, AnShin Thomas sees all life as sacred and interconnected. Guiding his way are the five Buddhist precepts: Don’t kill, steal, lie, or take intoxicants, and refrain from sexual misconduct. Universal themes, they echo parts of the Ten Commandments. He explained that “Buddha” is not a god; the name means “awake/awaken.”

The Bell of Mindfulness
As he spoke, his assistant, KenShin Andersen, would periodically ring a bell. After a brief pause, AnShin Thomas would continue with his remarks. During the question-and-answer session, a student asked the meaning of the bell. He replied, “The bell is a reminder to be present in the moment – to slow down, reconnect with your breath, reflect, and move on. The bell of mindfulness brings attention, awareness, and consciousness.”

The bell, and the idea of pausing to breathe and reflect, struck a chord with students. Chelsea Frederick ʼ15, a nursing major, wrote, “It made me realize we’re always just running nonstop without thinking about where we are. …The silence impacted me unexpectedly. As I focused more during the silences, I felt a lot more peaceful and kind of wanting to feel like that more often.”

Olena Rusanovska ʼ13, a criminal justice major, was fascinated by the idea of each breath representing birth, life, and death. “It’s an interesting way to think,” she remarked. “Every breath is special and isn’t guaranteed.” Ashley Smith ʼ14, a nursing major, added, “It must become a conscious decision to stop, breathe, and absorb that which is happening in the here and now. …If I were able to be completely present during each of my classes I would take away so much more from each, and appreciate more of the conversations I have with my family and friends.”

Working with Veterans
During his visit to Marymount, Claude AnShin Thomas also met with U.S. military veterans and stressed the importance of spiritual healing. He shared his own experience of returning home to rejection and dealing with anger and depression. “People couldn’t empathize, but they wanted to fix me,” he recalled. AnShin Thomas stopped drinking and began therapy, but needed something more. For him, the answer was spiritual practice.

He emphasized, “I have nothing to give people to heal them. I can only give a road map – tools. The rest is up to them. …Healing isn’t the absence of suffering; it’s learning to live with suffering in a different way. I can help vets learn to live in a more conscious way with what they’ve experienced.”

AnShin Thomas explained, “If we want to have a chance of healing and transformation, we have to change the way we think, the way we act. …We need to put ourselves in a position where transformation can take place. There is no healing without spiritual practice.”

He pointed out that “spiritual practice is hard work.” A disciplined spiritual practice with self reflection means that “we can’t hold onto the myth that everything is OK.” He added, “Waking up is not a comfortable process. Turning the light inward breaks those defenses. You have to want to know. And you need a supportive community and a real teacher to have an authentic clear practice.”

Reflecting on his own experience, AnShin Thomas said, “I am responsible for my actions. I knew I wasn’t evil, but what I had done was. There are no inherently evil people. We have all the capacities within us. We’re in trouble if we don’t know that.”

In earlier years, AnShin Thomas said that he used to wish a lot that his life experiences were different. “It drove me into not good places,” he remembered. “I can only change what I’m doing at this moment.” For him, each step he takes, each dish he washes, each person he meets, presents an opportunity to be fully present in that moment. And moments can be building blocks for strengthening our gratitude, compassion, and kindness toward others. AnShin Thomas emphasized, “Peace is not an idea; peace is a way of life. It is fresh and new with every moment.”
Marymount’s Interfaith Forum draws more than 100 students, faculty, and staff each year. The university encourages students to gain a global perspective by learning about different faiths, cultures, and perspectives. Respectful dialogue furthers understanding, bridges divides, and enables us to find common ground with one another.

Intellectual curiosity. Service to others. A global perspective. This is Marymount, and this is our common ground.

– Claude AnShin Thomas speaks to a large Marymount audience.
PHOTO 2 – Claude AnShin Thomas chats with Jessica Butler ʼ15, a history major, and David Quesada ʼ14, a Politics major, as he signs a copy of his book.
PHOTO 3 – Claude AnShin Thomas
PHOTO 4 – KenShin Andersen talks about the life of a Zen Buddhist monk.
PHOTO 5 – Steve Zappalla '10 (M.A.), coordinator of graduate counseling clinical experiences and an Army veteran, talks with KenShin Anderson and AnShin Thomas before their meeting with veterans. A Marymount alumnus, Zappalla is also an Ed.D. candidate in the counselor education and supervision program.