facing the reality of war - interview with claude anshin thomas

Recently Claude AnShin Thomas was interviewed by an Italian journalist about his experiences as a soldier and his views on war and peace. Here are excerpts from that interview.

You say that your father’s generation, a generation of men who’d fought in the Second World War, were not able to tell the truth about their experience. Why? 

This is how they were taught and conditioned to deal with adversity, with difficulty: If you don’t talk about it, it does not exist.

Do you still believe that before we reach a peaceful place in our life, we have to experience our suffering and accept it? 

Yes. We also have to give up all our ideas of what a “peaceful place” is, of what it’s supposed to feel like or look like. 

How did you react when you found out as a soldier that the war in Vietnam was not really about freedom and democracy? And what did you think at the time of the anti-Vietnam war rallies that were being held in the US and in Europe? In other words, what did you think of pacifism while you were still fighting and right after you got back home? 

About the first part of your question, when I got to Vietnam and realized the senselessness of the war, my purpose simply became keeping myself and those around me alive. My experience of the anti-war movement was, by and large, that it was just another type of war. Those advocating for peace treated the other side, those who did not share their worldview, as the enemy. They displayed a lot of aggression in the name of “peace.”

Do you believe war is inevitable? 

Conflict is inevitable, war is not. Through a disciplined spiritual practice grounded in self-reflection, we can come to see that the roots of war exist within each and every one of us. When we commit to acknowledging that and to healing the wars that exist within us, then conflict does not have to degenerate into war and violence. 

Italy was a fascist society. You’ve commented that a lot of Italians still refuse to come to terms with that difficult past. How did you come to that conclusion? Frankly, I think you are correct, but I am interested to know how you discovered it. 

I noticed the unwillingness of many Italians to openly acknowledge their shared role in the rise of fascism and in the suffering that was the Second World War. Italians like to talk about the partisans who resisted, but few, if any, speak about the San Sabba Risiera in Trieste, for example.

In October 1943, as part of the military operation Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland (OZAK), buildings in Trieste that had been used for rice husking became a detention camp where prisoners were tortured, particularly Jews, who were then deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. In addition, many members of the political opposition and partisans of different nationalities were killed in the Risiera. During a 1976 trial it was hypothesized that there had been at least 2,000 victims, though some historians put the figure between 4,000 and 5,000. We can’t heal the wounds of the Second World War and truly move forward until we face this history.

What suggestions do you have for young people today, based on your experience? 

I am not in the suggesting business. What I emphasize and live out in my own life is the understanding that the causes of my suffering are not external to me and the solutions are also not external. If I want the world to be different, then I have to become the difference I want to see in the world. 

training and study retreat-reflections

Reflections on 10-Day Year-Transition-Retreat at the Magnolia Zen Center

From December 27th until January 6th the Zaltho Foundation hosted the 2023-2024 10-day Year-Transition-Retreat at the Magnolia Zen Center. This annual retreat is for those who want to deepen their daily practice and those who are continuing their Zen training and study under Claude AnShin Thomas.

Here are some short reflections from some of the participants!

“During the retreat I found it difficult in community with other retreatants with the invitation to step up in providing more direction to those newer to the practice. At one point I raised my voice in a way that was unusual for me but also necessary to communicate my wishes and offer correction. Not so comfortable for me to stand out in that way but also a good practice to be and act in ways that are not comfortable.  
I valued the time and attention to the practice that others gave which encouraged me to go further with my own practice. I found the bell nerved me some, but eventually I relaxed into the position of ‘bell-master’.”

"I am thankful for the inspiration and support that I received from everyone in the retreat.
It was difficult for me to realize that my fear of being punished for making mistakes can invite others to punish me." 

"It was difficult to maintain a steady mind and not get lost in discursive thinking. That got much easier after day 7."

"The year-transition retreat supported me in slowing down and noticing more about how my thinking, shaped by my conditioning, tends to run my life, causing suffering for me and those around me. In the silence I had many opportunities to see and refrain from my usual habits of thought, speech, and action. Sitting still, breathing consciously, slowing down in all my activities, and paying full attention to detail, while in community for more than ten days, had a wondrous impact on me. I emerged with an even deeper trust and faith in Zen practice. 
What was most challenging for me on this retreat was to refrain from my habits of monitoring, correcting, and controlling my family members. I needed a lot of support with that."

"The coping with so many (mostly unknown) people in a foreign language at an unfamiliar place was for me the hardest challenge. Especially because I felt so raw and vulnerable during that transition retreat, and I have Issues with trusting people. Interestingly these interactions during the retreat are also one of the things, that I am deeply grateful for. By getting to know strangers that intimately through their actions and during deep listening, I just opened my heart and accepted whatever feelings, thoughts and insights were coming up. These interactions, that I was so afraid of, helped me to get to know myself more intimately, and I am very thankful for all the gifts, that were presented to me during that process in that very special sanctuary. It made the term ‘interconnectedness’ visible for me."

transition back to amsterdam - kelby angyo marks

I have a funny story about my timely, albeit tight, transition on my return travel from the year-transition retreat in Mary Esther, Florida to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I currently live and work.  The arrival to work went quite smoothly, although it was a long day with little sleep.  Right after work I went directly to a birthday dinner of a friend of mine (although I had not really settled into my home yet).  The friend is just a few blocks from my apartment so afterwards, I was walking home - very eager to sleep.  I stopped at the corner store to get a few things to eat as I knew my house would be empty of food.  When I went to pay for the groceries, I could not find my wallet.  The owner knew me and let me agree to come back and pay later, so I went out in the minus two degrees darkness with my phone in flashlight mode and trying to retrace my steps to find my wallet.  I retraced all the way back to the main road which I had crossed right in front of my friend's building.  Right there, in the middle of that road, I could see my wallet.  Very obvious and easy to spot under the streetlight.  I started to cross the road to collect it and just then I heard a loud -DIING! DING! The #17 tram rolled in front of me and directly over my wallet.  I watched the slow steel wheels roll smoothly over my wallet and completely bisect everything inside: Euros, US Dollars, Credit Cards, EU ID cards, my museum card, coins, driver's license, a picture of my daughter, etc

Something about it made me laugh.  While laughing out loud and chasing bits of torn currency that were being whipped around in the freezing wind, I could not help but be amazed at the 10,000 coincidences and convergences that had made up my day.  The departure from Magnolia Zen Center, the air flights, the airport connections, the bus ride to from the airport to work, the dinner at my friends, and then my wallet lying exactly on the tram rail.

I also recognized my tendency just then to try and find symbolism or meaning in the events.  But I remembered a teaching from the retreat, a comment from a friend right after jumping into a swimming pool of freezing water together: “Hey - it's okay.  We don't have to think or talk about it.”  

It is just a coincidence.  But I am grateful just the same.

taking vows in concentration camp site - keith daishin goffin

Hello Sangha,

I had the auspicious event of receiving novice ordination (Jukai) from Claude AnShin Thomas, with Marion GenRai Lukas assisting, on November 22nd, 2023 and the ordained name DaiShin which translates into Change/Convert HeartMind. The ceremony took place at the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in Germany.  The reason for this location to receive my novice ordination was twofold. First, sadly I had thirteen members of my father’s immediate and extended family who were murdered in Dachau during World War II.  Second and a bit conversely, I was honored to receive Jukai in Dachau as it is a symbol for me of the cyclical journey of birth, life, and death. It also meant for me that those who were murdered live on in me.

Taking Jukai has been a very personal journey for me. I had visited Dachau three times prior to this event.  Every time feels like a first because I am always unsure of what feelings will arise.  What arose for me during the ceremony is the profound feeling of responsibility to live my best life.  Practice with Claude AnShin, the Sangha, and the Dharma brought me to living an engaged, sustained, committed spiritual practice – one with an authentic teacher and authentic practice.

get to know the veterans in our sangha - travis szewczyk

What year/how old were you when you joined the military?
I joined the U.S. Navy Delayed Entry Program (DEP) in 1995 while still in high school. I graduated high school on May 23, 1996, and left to attend basic training three days later, when I was eighteen.

Why did you enlist in your branch of service?
To learn a technical trade, explore our world, and gain maturity.

How many years did you serve and what unit/units?
I served in the Navy for nearly 22 years. First as an Aviation Electronics Technician, then as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Pilot, Camera Operator, and Mission Commander. My duty stations included Hawaii, Italy, Iraq, Africa, Maryland, Louisiana, and California.

Which meditation practice forms (sitting, walking, working, eating, or Deep Listening and Mindful speech) have been important and supportive in your daily life?
Sitting, walking, working, and eating are the supportive and essential daily practice forms, especially when I first started practice. Now, I would answer this question: how can these practices be something other than everyday life?

What drew you to Zen practice?
I’m sure exactly what initially drew me to Zen practice. It seemed there was something more to it than what the mind tells you there is. And so, having a curious nature, I set off to find whatever was beyond the words about it.

How does Zen practice influence your daily life?
Zen practice influences daily life tremendously because it’s not different from everyday life. If anything, its influence makes even the dullest days of life intimate. Practice really allows one to recognize the stillness between thought and action, and in that stillness, lies freedom.

What does it mean to you to be a part of this practice community?
Being part of this practice community is important because it’s a constant reminder to return to life, directly—no matter the thoughts that arise about it.

Who is/was the most inspirational person in your life and why?
My father was the most inspirational person to me. He came from a wealthy farming family, yet he saw through all the material wealth and all the problems we can create for ourselves with it. He also taught me kindness through his actions because he was kind to anyone who engaged with him. He didn’t care if you had 2 cents or 2 million dollars in your bank account. It didn’t matter to him if your clothes were old or new, clean or dirty. It seemed he saw everyone the same and lived out his life that way.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
A wildlife photographer. Even still, being outdoors and immersed in nature seems to bring about a joy that’s hard to describe. I often wonder if that joy is because nature doesn’t talk to itself. It’s never being anything other than what it is.

What one word would you use to describe your Zen practice?