My feeling of being an outsider as I looked in on the monks at Wat Shri Thep grew to include much of my life as I became increasingly unable to accept or rationalize my participation in what increasingly seemed to me to be an unwise and immoral war. I think partly this was due to my greater understanding of the people of Southeast Asia as I grew in my understanding of Buddhism.
Buddhist teachings explicitly supported the pacifism that I had long felt, and as I grew more convinced of the rightness of that position, at least in the case of that particular war, I felt I had to do something. I won’t go into the whole involved story here – it’s in my War Journal on the original Shunyata’s Apprentice if you’re interested – but suffice it to say my change of heart was not embraced by the US Air Force.
My (polite) request for discharge got me about ten days longer in country – and a warm welcome at my stateside assignment. After about six months there, they got tired of me and allowed me to resign my commission. The only penalty was that I would never be allowed to serve in the US military again. Oh darn.
Although it was all a very difficult and painful process, I now see the whole thing as an essential element in my karmic path. My service in ‘the war’ was a crossroads on that path, one where I encountered the Dhamma, and it has “made all the difference,” as Frost famously said of his crossroads in the woods.
After I got out of the Air Force, I was a mess. I was very angry, completely lost as to what to do next, and totally disgusted with American society in general. All my pre-war ambitions and relationships seemed empty and meaningless, so I just wandered. But I continued to think of myself as looking for the Buddha’s path. Somewhere along the way – in a little cabin in North Carolina – I found a book on yoga, and for the first time I made the connection between the ideas and a physical practice. The book said that the point of yoga was to prepare one’s body for meditation, so I decided to try it.
Of course, ignorant and lost as I was, I immediately began to do yoga postures like I saw in the photos, even trying the headstand and other advanced postures. The next day I began having all kinds of strange sensations, pains, disorientation and general weirdness. When I complained, a friend suggested that I might want to take it a little slower, as the yoga postures created powerful changes in one’s body. Huh. Who knew.
A few months later I enrolled in a yoga class at a university in Arizona and began to experience a little peace and calmness. I went on to enroll at the yoga studio and began to develop some kind of practice, but the focus, as in most yoga classes I’ve been around, was mainly on the postures as physical cultivation. Meditation was relegated to a very few minutes at the beginning or end of the hour of postures. But it did teach me how to sit in the lotus and half-lotus, focus on my breathing, and let the mental activity subside.
Which was nothing short of miraculous for me. I think I began to experience what is called by some “the joy of meditation” very early on, because I remember being very happy to have found this path. I don’t remember wondering how it was related to Buddhism, I just knew that it was meditation.
And it made me happy.