Memorial Day Dharma Talk
A dharma talk at the Village Zendo on May 28, 2017. My father-in-law is a soldier and my mother is a peace activist. Buddha’s Middle Way allows us both to honor veterans and to oppose war.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, which is a day when we will honor all veterans of all wars, throughout space and time and also, as Buddhists, recommit ourselves to peace and to practicing peace to ending all war and violence so that there need not be any more veterans. I think that in the realm of politics, we can get sort of twisted up in the ideological contradictions where we think that there is some reason why we can’t both honor the sacrifices of veterans and be opposed to war. But Zen trains us to leap clear of that sort of trap. This makes us effective peace activists, that we don’t get twisted up in ideological contradictions. We know that we can make connections across these kinds of differences. We have a way of doing that. It’s not that we believe in peace; belief has got nothing to do with it. We have a way of peace, which is the middle way. I’ll explain in a little bit what I mean by that.
My mother is here and my mother is a peace activist. In the ’60s and ’70s, she worked hard in opposition to the war in Vietnam. She worked alongside some of the central figures of the peace movement like David McReynolds and David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin and A. J. Muste, and named me after A. J. Muste. Decades later, in 2004, Mom visited Vietnam with me. Partly, we were just going there to see the place, meet the people, eat the food; we’re both big travelers. Mom, especially, is a big world traveler. I also wanted to go then because I had been practicing Buddhism for a couple of years at that point, and I wanted to go to a country with an ancient Buddhist tradition. I wanted to visit temples and talk to monks. It was actually in the Vietnamese tradition that I first started meditating. I learned to sit at a Thich Nhat Hanh sangha in Texas, I wanted to go see the place where that lineage was rooted. At that time, I had already switched over to the Japanese Zen tradition that the Village Zendo is in, and I was living in a monastery and I wanted to go to Vietnam and see other monastics. Mom had another reason for going, which is that she wanted to see the place and meet the people that she had worked so hard 30 years before to protect from our military.
We came up with a plan that we were going to perform a Hungry Ghost ceremony there, which is one of the oldest Buddhist ceremonies. It’s a way of inviting in all hungry ghosts, all suffering beings, and offering them our compassion, so that they can be satisfied and freed. We went to My Lai, which is the site of a horrific American war crime, where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds and hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, families, men, women, children, the elderly. The place is a memorial now to that crime. The huts and store rooms and ditches where they tried to hide, where they died, are marked by plaques that say what their names were, which families were there, what happened there. Mom and I stopped at a market on the way there to get the supplies that we would need for the Hungry Ghost ceremony. We got tea and soda and incense, and if I remember right, we got some oranges. And we got dragon fruits, which are these incredible Vietnamese fruits; they’re bright red with leathery skin and a purple, fleshy crown. In My Lai, they had set up some altars for ceremonies. There were little stone altars on the ground where we could place incense. So, we arranged the fruit and the soda and the tea and we lit some incense and we invited all the hungry ghosts to come and take the food and be satisfied. Whether they were soldiers or civilians or American or Vietnamese; whether they had good intent or evil intent; whether they were innocent or guilty, wise or foolish or insane; all of these hungry ghosts, we invited. And we also invited the ghosts of peace activists, like Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963, to protest the war. And the ghost of Norman Morrison, an American Quaker, who set himself on fire in 1965 outside the pentagon, within sight of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s office, to protest the war. We invited all of these ghosts in and we chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo for them.
Kan Ze On
Na Mu Butsu
Yo Butsu U In
Yo Butsu U En
Bup Po So En
Jo Raku Ga Jo Cho Nen
Kan Ze On Bo Nen
Kan Ze On Nen Nen
Ju Shin Ki Nen Nen
Fu Ri Shin
I know a lot of peace activists, but I don’t know a lot of soldiers. The one I know best is Keishin’s father, Ron Armstrong. He is a Vietnam Vet, infantryman, combat veteran, and whenever I’ve seen him, he is wearing his full Vietnam Vet regalia. He’s got a black hat that says, ‘Vietnam Vet’ on it, and it’s got the name and insignia of his cavalry division. He usually wears a black military sweater with epaulets and combat boots. The first time I met him was when we’d been dating for about a year. We were getting ready to go to visit Keishin’s family in Chicago for Christmas and spend a week with them. I was nervous about meeting him for the first time and introducing myself as Keishin’s boyfriend. I’d heard about everything he had been through. He had a really hard war and a really hard peace. He came back suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) which led to alcoholism and anxiety and depression. So, I wasn’t sure what he’d think of me and what I was supposed to say to him, and I was expecting to be intimidated by him. What I didn’t expect was that he turned out to be really funny. The first name we spent together, we were having dinner, Keishin and me, and her mother and father, in the house. While we were eating our salad, somewhere in the neighborhood, somebody set off some firecrackers. Pop! Pop! And I looked up at Ron to see how he was going to react and Ron knew that I was looking at him. He just said, “Incoming.” And kept chewing his salad.
I don’t know any details about Ron’s time and Vietnam. Keishin and her family know more, but nobody knows all of it. He saw something terrible or something terrible happened. He did something, or he failed to do something, that made him ashamed. He said one point that he didn’t deserve to be loved because of this. In the years that immediately followed the war, he would sometimes get out of bed in a nightmare and punched the wall, I hear. Keishin tells me that when she was younger, Ron would never talk about the war. It was forbidden. There was no memorabilia, he never told any stories. There was one incident where Jennifer and her mother were watching the movie, Born on the Fourth of July and Ron was enraged, because it had nothing to do with what the war really was. Nobody else was allowed to have a view of it. But living that way didn’t work for him, and the effort of that denial probably led to his alcoholism and that in turn led to a series of strokes, and somewhere around there was rock bottom for him and he transformed. He started going to therapy, he stopped drinking, and he created an identity that, instead of being created as a denial of his time in Vietnam, was centered around his time there. He joined the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), he started going there every week, hanging out with other Vietnam Vets, and also World War 2 Vets. He started wearing his military gear all the time. He developed this identity and made a connection with this community, and it saved him.
Keishin told me the funniest thing that when she was a teenager, it suddenly occurred to her one day to ask, “Hey, Dad. How long were you there?” And he said, “Eighteen months. One extended tour.” I don’t know if that seems long or short. To me, it seems short. A short time for something to happen, that a man can spend the entire rest of his life struggling with the karma of.
I was on that same first visit that we did in December 2011, that we witnessed something really beautiful that Ron does. He had joined a squad that served at the Lincoln National Cemetery and rural Illinois, outside of Chicago, and they received dead veterans who died in war or simply died of age and present the family with the honors that they are due. They fire a 21-gun salute and play “Taps” on a bugle, and fold the American flag and present to the bereaved. It was bitterly cold; this was December, and Chicago Decembers are just vindictive. I was photographing it. Ron had secured me permission to take pictures of the ceremony. My hands in the cold were killing me, and I had the circulation of a 35-year old. I cannot imagine what Ron’s hands must have felt like at the age of almost 70, standing still for long periods, holding a rifle. He must have heard me complaining about my hands, because he rushed out the next day to get a really great pair of warm, supple gloves and gave them to me for Christmas the day after that.
Ron Armstrong died in his sleep Thursday morning of a heart attack. He was doing great. He planned to join his squad at the cemetery that day. Keishin and I are going to fly tomorrow morning to Chicago to be with the family. And this Thursday, Ron will be received by his squad at the Lincoln National Cemetery, and they will fire a 21-gun salute, play “Taps” on the bugle, fold up the flag and present it to Keishin’s mother.
Ron and I were very careful never to talk about politics. I think that in the realm of ideology, we would have disagreed on every single thing; left and right, war and peace, Democrat and Republican. In fact, Ron’s last trip out of Illinois was to Washington D.C. to stand on the Mall and see Trump inaugurated. He is very proud of this, and posted all over Facebook about it. But really, it doesn’t matter that we were so opposed ideologically. It never bothered me for a second because, I had such absolute respect for him, and for what he had undergone, and for the transformation that he was causing in himself. If we Buddhists are going to practice peace, this is the skill that we need to practice. of connecting across these differences. We have to see each other objectively, and we have a way of doing that, which is Buddha’s Middle Way.
The Middle Way is between two extreme views of what we are. There’s one view which says that, if we’re different, we are absolutely different and that is permanently and essentially so. A soldier is always a soldier, a pacifist is always a pacifist. In Buddha’s time, people even thought there was a magical soul called an “atman”, which lived on from reincarnation to reincarnation, but you don’t have to think of it supernaturally. This is sort of the default way we view each other, that if I think that person is wrong, that person is essentially, permanently wrong forever.
And then there’s another extreme view, which is that none of us exists at all. There’s no self. We’re just a cloud of atoms that happens to all be in the same place for a little while, but we make no choices. Everything we do is just a product of the laws of physics, morality is an illusion. This view is easy to fall into now, in this scientific age, but that view was also present in Buddha’s time 2,500 years ago. And Buddha rejected that view also.
Buddha taught by the middle. He said that we are the product of the things that cause us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make choices. We are constrained by our upbringing and our circumstances, but we can still make decisions and we can still be liberated from the causes and effects that produced us. This is what this Middle Way means, and when we see each other in this light we can see each other objectively and compassionately. Each of us is struggling with karma, but each of us has the potential to be liberated, and each of us wants to be free. We’re not completely in control of our lives, but neither are we permanently doomed to repeat the same patterns. We’re in the middle. When we see each other this way, we can meet each other for real, because we are all in the middle.
The last time I saw Ron was last December when we were there for Christmas again. The whole family was just hanging out, watching TV for hour after hour and at some point, a Vietnam War documentary came on, and we didn’t change the channel. We just watched together.
I asked Ron, “Have you ever thought of going back to visit?” And Ron said that he knew some guys who had, and he would like to do that someday. I mentioned that I had been there with my mother once, and in fact, at that time, my mother was there again for another trip.
Ron said, “Oh.” Then he said, “Why is she interested in going there?”
I didn’t really hesitate, I said, “Well, my mother’s a peace activist and she was opposed to the war, and she wanted to visit the place that had been such a powerful influence on her when she was young.” And Ron said, “Oh.”
I was completely comfortable. We understood each other perfectly.
Image © A. Jesse Jiryu Davis