Zen 101

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

With palms together,

Veterans Day.  What can I say?  Millions of American men and women have left the relative safety of home in order to serve in the Armed Forces. Sworn to protect the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, these citizen soldiers learn the skills necessary to close with, kill or capture the enemy. Its a scary thought on the one hand,  to turn a citizen into a human being that can, if need be, hunt fellow human beings. On the other hand, defense of our nation and way of life is crucial in a world gone mad with zealots, dictators, and insurgents willing to kill themselves in order to kill others.

This said, as a Zen Buddhist priest, I am ambivalent about this whole thing. We vow not to kill, but make exceptions for self defense.  We vow not to slander others, but easily refer to those who would harm us in dehumanizing ways, ways in which it makes it easier to kill. and if any of us believe we would not —-or could not—- kill, let me say this: you are deluding yourself.

For me, Veterans Day is a reminder to be grateful for those citizens willing to take up arms and move into harm’s way to defend us. These are people willing to offer their lives to defend us and, perhaps more importantly, they are willing to set aside their civilian and religious values in order to do so. But, at what cost?  

As a therapist I have treated a huge number of traumatized veterans: ordinary people like you and me, who have endured something extraordinarily dangerous and lived to tell about it.  Yet, here’s the rub: combat trauma changes us in unimaginable ways. No longer able to forget it and move on, these veterans suffer from intrusive thoughts, exaggerated startle response, feelings of anger, feelings of deep guilt, and a desire to be “normal.”  Yet, they are not able to do so, hence they see themselves trapped in nightmares that, for them, are as real as the sting of my kyosaku if I were to smack you with it.

Much of the hoopla around this national holiday is downright offensive to me and many veterans, veterans who see the use of the emotionally charged remembrances as methods to increase sales.  The sentiment is touching and embracing: we veterans are “heroes” simply because we put on a uniform.  Really?  For me, this sort of thing diminishes true heroism and true patriotism.  Moreover using patriotism, American flags, and so on to profit is a cheep trick done on the backs of those who have sacrificed so much. Its disgusting.

Many of us who survived combat do not feel as though we are heroes and are uncomfortable being referred to in that way.  There are true heroes in war, people who risked their lives to protect or care for their brothers and sisters under hostile fire.  True patriotism requires us to engage in serious dialogue about the nature of war, its use value in protecting us, and our nation’s motivations in entering into hostile relations with others.  

For me, I prefer a quiet period of Zazen, perhaps at our Veteran’s park, to honor my fellow veterans.  Or perhaps a visit to a Veteran’s home or VA hospital. To me, this is an engaged practice.  No words need be said, just a compassionate smile and hug will do.