From the Book
RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War
By William T. Hathaway
Published by Trine Day 2010
A young Buddhist novice contributed this account, which we then revised together. To protect the people who have protected him, he wishes to be nameless.
Back in high school I'd been good at languages but couldn't afford to go to college, so I joined the navy for the language training. They have a program where if you pass an aptitude test, they'll send you to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for an intensive course that's worth almost a year of college credit. Plus they have an active-duty education program that offers college courses. I figured after my discharge I could finish my education on the GI Bill, and with my language skills, I could get a job in international business.
The other military branches offer programs like this too, but the navy seemed the best way to stay out of the fighting. I was hoping for a major language like Chinese, Russian, or Spanish, but they assigned me to Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After training, I'd be stationed on a ship in the Arabian Sea monitoring phone calls and radio broadcasts, listening for key words that might give a clue about where the Taliban were, so the planes from the aircraft carriers could bomb them. I didn't think about this last part, though. I was focused on my future.
The study itself was a real grind -- drills, exercises, and vocabulary all day long and a couple of hours at night. But no classes on weekends, so we could take off.
I couldn't afford weekends in San Francisco, but in a bookstore in Monterey I saw a poster for a two-day retreat at a Zen Buddhist center nearby. It sounded weird enough to be a good break from the military, and the price was right, so I signed up for the first of a two-weekend introductory course.
The place was beautiful, deep in the mountains and forest. The course was called Buddha Breath, Buddha Mind and was led by a bald-headed woman. Instead of an orange robe she wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt. She said first we were going to learn how to breathe. I thought, What have I got myself into?
We spent an hour just breathing in and out, and you know, it turned out to be pretty interesting. When thoughts came up, we were supposed to just nod to them, then let them go and return to our breathing. Thoughts and breathing, thoughts and breathing, and then as I kept doing this, I noticed something more, some part of me that I hadn't known before, that was watching all this going on, a quiet, wise old part who was just looking at it all and nodding OK. He'd been doing that all along without my knowing it. I thought of him as an old guy with a white beard. But he was me, that was my Buddha mind.
The next hour we were supposed to keep breathing and watching our thoughts, but at the same time notice everything happening around us right here and now. That turned out to be quite a lot. It's amazing what all is going on that we don't pay attention to because we're shut off in our thoughts -- worrying about what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. Esther, the group leader, called this our monkey mind because it's always jumping from one thing to another. It gets lost in each thing and doesn't have any perspective on itself. But the Buddha mind, that silent witness, can give us a peaceful perspective on ourselves and the world.
From that deeper level I noticed how much beauty shone in simple things: a beaded curtain of eucalyptus buds swaying in the breeze, dust drifting through sunlight, a fly walking on the wall. Watching these while quietly breathing in and out, I could tell the buds, the dust, the fly, and I were all part of the Buddha mind. It wasn't just my mind but something we shared. This was a bit spooky because it meant there was more to me than me, or there was less of me than me, depending on how I looked at it.
Esther said each of us isn't an autonomous monad but an aspect of a larger wholeness. She compared the Buddha mind to the entire light spectrum, which is mostly invisible to us, and individuals to the colors we see. Colors and individuals appear to be different, but they're just sections of the overall spectrum. Continuity is more basic than differences, but we don't see it that way. The same analogy works with the ocean. We are waves that think of ourselves as self-contained units, but we're really just water that has temporarily taken on this form. Our true identity, the water, isn't born and doesn't die. It just is. The wave suffers because of its delusion of individuality, the water doesn't. This principle simultaneously destroys our concept of ourselves and gives us a greater one.
What she was saying was heavy-duty stuff, but it clicked in me because it described how I was feeling just sitting there breathing and paying attention. I signed up for the next weekend.
During the week I practiced mindful breathing and awareness as much as I could, which wasn't very much. It was almost impossible while I was listening to Pashto in the language lab. I could sort of do it during the regular classes between having to give answers. I could do it best when I was alone, but I was hardly ever alone. We did everything as a group. At meals people wanted to talk, and if I would've told them I just wanted to pay attention to my breathing, they would've thought I was crazy. Finally I came up with the trick of putting my MP3 in my ears but with no music. During meals I could eat in silence, and no one bothered me because they thought I was listening to rock songs and that they could understand. Some of the people I usually ate with did think I was being unfriendly, but I didn't know how to explain it.