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Claude Anshin Thomas by Paul Turgeon.jpg
Claude Anshin Thomas
Religion Zen Buddhism
School Soto
Nationality American
Born Claude Anshin Thomas
Religious career
Website Zaltho Foundation

Claude Anshin Thomas (born 1947) is an American Zen Buddhist monk and Vietnam War veteran. He is a vocal advocate of nonviolence and an international speaker, teacher and writer. Thomas was brought to Buddhism by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and was ordained in 1995 by Tetsugen Bernard Glassman of the Zen Peacemaker Order. Thomas brings Buddhist meditation practice and dharma teachings directly to the public through social projects, talks, and retreats. Since 1994, Thomas has walked 19,000 miles (31,000 km) on peace pilgrimages throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States. While walking, Thomas carries no money and begs for food and shelter in the mendicant monk tradition. He is the author of At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace (2004) and founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence.


Early life

Thomas was born in November 1947 in the state of Pennsylvania and grew up in the town of Waterford. His father was a teacher and veteran, while his mother worked odd jobs as a barmaid, waitress, and house cleaner. Thomas experienced an abusive childhood, with his mother responsible for much of the physical abuse in his home, and his father emotionally distant. In one incident, his mother threw him down a flight of stairs, and in another, his father severely beat him. His relatives spoke glowingly about their war experiences, talking about it as a "great adventure" and influencing the young Thomas. When he was 11, his parents separated.[1] Thomas began studying Korean style Karate (Hapkido) at the age of 14; His teacher worked closely with Thomas, practicing a secular form of Zen that did not include the teachings of the Buddha. In school, Thomas was a competitive athlete, and was influenced by the warrior mentality he found on the playing field.[2][3] In addition to his relatives and school sports, Hollywood sold him on the idea of going to war.[2][4] Thomas was offered an athletic scholarship to attend college, but turned it down; His father convinced him he wasn't ready for college and was afraid he would "flunk out". At the time, Thomas would often steal cars for joyriding and lived by his own rules.[5] Thomas joined the U.S. Army in 1965 after graduating from high school, and later, with the permission of his father, volunteered to serve in Vietnam at the age of 17. As a soldier, Thomas followed in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran, and his grandfather, a World War I veteran, and his great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish–American War.[6]

Vietnam War service

"The war is never over. War does not begin with a declaration and ends with an armistice. Wars can not exist unless we support them. War is a collective expression of our individual aggression, it is a collective expression of our individual suffering. - This is an example of the interconnectedness of all things -. If a bag of rice falls in China, it has an impact on my life whether I see it or not, whether I touch it or not. And if I am not willing to wake up then this reality of aggression will continue."

Claude Anshin Thomas[7]

From September 1966 to November 1967, Thomas served as a helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War. He began as a door gunner with the Ninetieth Replacement Battalion in Long Binh and was next assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company in Phu Loi where he began using the M60 machine gun during their runs. On one ground patrol, Thomas and four other men in his unit were fired upon by what appeared to be Buddhist monks carrying weapons beneath their robes; All five men were wounded in the attack, and three American soldiers died.[8] As a soldier, Thomas killed several hundred Vietnamese people.[9][10] The helicopter crews he worked on contributed to betting pools on soldiers who could rack up the most kills.[6][11] Thomas survived being shot down five times. On the fifth time, in the summer of 1967, he was shot down in the Mekong Delta. The pilot and commander were killed and the gunner and Thomas were both wounded.[10] In addition to injuries to his shoulder and face, Thomas broke his jaw, cheekbones, ribs and neck, and split his sternum.[11] Thomas received 25 Air Medals, the equivalent of 625 combat hours, and the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart military decoration.

Coming home

Thomas was rotated back to the U.S. and spent nine months in physical therapy recovering from a shoulder injury at the Ireland Army Community Hospital in Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was released from the hospital and honorably discharged from the Army on August 23, 1968, at the age of 20.[12] Thomas came home to a country that still supported the war, but wouldn't hire veterans, and he had difficulty finding a job.[6] Although he tried to forget about the war, and didn't speak much about it, he could not stop thinking about it: "Everywhere I looked there was the war." Thomas eventually got married and enrolled at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania where he studied English Education, but soon found himself homeless, unemployed and addicted to drugs and alcohol, trying to cope with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Horrific images of the war replayed themselves in his mind, leading to the disintegration of his marriage and the abandonment of his wife and son.[13][14] PTSD made it difficult to sleep, and at night he would relive old memories from the war, "being shot down, the cries of the wounded, screams of the people I'd killed, screams of the dying." For two years, Thomas lived out of a burned-out car in the Strip District in Pittsburgh.[15] He began traveling outside the U.S. in 1970, and in 1974, Thomas bought a one-way ticket from London to Iran.[10] He eventually returned to the U.S. to stay, and by 1983, he had successfully completed drug rehabilitation and stopped using drugs and alcohol. Around this time, Thomas stopped carrying a gun, concluding that it was no longer helping to keep him safe.[16] Although he had studied and taught martial arts for 27 years, he realized that martial arts was contributing to the "seeds of violence", and he stopped his involvement in 1989.[8] Thomas later received a master's degree from Lesley College in Management[17] and reconciled with his son.


In the beginning of the 1990s, Thomas was residing in Concord, Massachusetts. At this time, he was still experiencing the symptoms of severe PTSD, confined to his home and afraid to go outside. When he did leave, jets flying overhead would bring him back to the war, and he would think he was under attack; If he went grocery shopping, he would imagine that the canned goods were booby-trapped.[18] To deal with these feelings, he began working closely with a social worker in Cambridge. The social worker recommended visiting a retreat for Vietnam veterans, which later turned out to be run by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.[19] Thomas traveled to Rhinebeck, New York to attend the retreat at the Omega Institute.[8][20] Several months later, a nun invited Thomas to come to Plum Village in France to work directly with the Vietnamese community. Thich Nhat Hanh invited Thomas to become a monk in 1992, but Thomas wasn't ready and turned it down. Actor and Zen Buddhist Michael O'Keefe introduced Thomas to Tetsugen Bernard Glassman in 1994.[21] While participating in a peace pilgrimage in Auschwitz, Thomas took vows as a peacemaker from Glassman on December 6 at the Birkenau extermination camp. During the ceremony, Glassman gave Thomas two new names: Anshin ("Heart of Peace") and Angyo ("Peacemaker"); Thomas also took sixteen peacemaker vows.[22] Less than a year later, Glassman ordained Thomas as a Zen Buddhist monk in the Japanese Soto and Rinzai Zen tradition in Yonkers, New York, on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 1995.[1]


Thomas began publishing essays, poetry, and books about his experience as a veteran and Buddhist after combining mindfulness meditation and writing, a practice he learned after participating in the Veterans Writing Workshop organized by author Maxine Hong Kingston.[23] In 1996, he wrote an account of "Finding Peace after a Lifetime of War", and it was published in a collection of works about Engaged Buddhism by Parallax Press. His poems were published in 1997 as part of the poetry collection, What book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, and in 2004, Shambhala Publications released his first book, At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace.


"The act of giving itself is of immeasurable benefit to the giver: for it opens up the heart, diminishes for a moment one's self-absorption, and places value on the well-being of others. The simple gesture of offering a flower, or an act of service, a kind thought or a simple meal is in fact a sincere form of practice. The size or value of the gift is of almost no importance - the act of giving itself generates a thought-moment devoid of greed and full of loving kindness."[24]

Thomas participates in and organizes peace pilgrimages that take him around the world. Clothed in nothing more than robes and carrying no money, Thomas leads groups of Buddhists from town to town begging for food and lodging, a practice known as takuhatsu.[25] This practice of generosity is rooted in the Buddhist virtue called dāna, the first of the ten pāramitās. Buddhists like Thomas are trying to keep the practice of dāna alive, as they believe that the act of giving benefits those who give.[24] Since 1994, Thomas has walked 19,000 miles (31,000 km) around the world on peace pilgrimages.[26]



In December 1994, Sasamori Shonin and other Japanese monks active in the Nipponzan-Myōhōji lineage of the Nichiren Buddhist sect helped organize and lead a convocation of 200 people at Auschwitz for an Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, an eight month peace march from Auschwitz to Hiroshima. The peace march was timed to honor the memory of the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.[27] The march began in Berlin at the Brandenberg Gate, partly retracing a route concentration camp prisoners followed before the end of World War II.[27] Thomas helped lead the march, beginning a 5000 mile walking peace pilgrimage that would allow him to "bear witness to major sites of war and violence" through 27 countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. He began at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and continued on foot through Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally, Vietnam, where Thomas was accompanied by his son.[28] Because of closed borders and government interference, there were times where he was unable to walk and had to travel by alternative means.[29]

New York–California

In 1998, Thomas and an international group of Zen Buddhists walked 3000 miles from New York to California in the tradition of mendicant monks, carrying no money or supplies, and relying only on the generosity of strangers they met along the way.[30][31][32] When the group arrived in a new town they would visit local religious organizations and ask them for a place to sleep and eat. If the answer was no, they would sleep outside and go hungry. The group averaged about 15–30 miles a day, walking about 16 miles in 4 hours and 20 minutes, or 17 minutes a mile with large packs on their backs.[33] The group encountered few problems except in the Eastern United States, especially in the state of Ohio where they were stopped more often by the police.[34] Nevertheless, the group was helped by strangers throughout the country. Some invited them into their homes in an act of "selfless giving". In Boulder, Colorado, the group began relying on a truck to carry their water through the desert.[35]


Thomas and six core participants walked more than 1000 km across Germany, with dozens more joining them for part of the trip from August to October 1999. Buddhist retreats and services were held at different sites of "terror, abuse, degradation, torture and killing" throughout the country, with hundreds of people participating in the events.[36]


From August to October 2002, Thomas made a pilgrimage from Budapest, Hungary to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp and then finally to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. This pilgrimage retraced the death marches made by Jews during the Holocaust.[37]

Massachusetts–Washington, D.C.

From September to October 2004, Thomas and a small group walked from Concord, Massachusetts, through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, until they reached their final destination, Washington, D.C.[38]


From March to June 2007, Thomas was accompanied by eight Zen Buddhists on a 1650 mile walking pilgrimage on the border between Brownsville, Texas and Border Field State Park, Imperial Beach, California. Support was provided by the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Brownsville.[25][26][39][40] It took a month to walk from Brownsville to El Paso. During this time, the group (with Thomas leading them in front) was often stopped by law enforcement several times a day, sometimes by the Country Sheriff, the National Guard, or even the Border Patrol. Each time they were stopped, the officers would often approach the group with loaded firearms, expressing concern for the group. Thomas would use these incidents as an opportunity to practice nonviolence. When asked if there was anything law enforcement could do for the Zen Buddhists, Thomas would answer, "We're ok, we have plenty of water, but could you take your hands off your sidearm?" According to Thomas, 87% would remove their hands from the gun. He would then ask them if he could share information about their pilgrimage with them. While passing through West Texas, the group encountered a dust storm; 68 days later, they arrived at the Pacific Ocean.[41]

Veteran outreach

For more than a decade, Thomas has participated in meditation retreats with veterans and their families in the United States and Europe.[27] He is often asked "what can we do to support those who are coming home?"[41] Thomas responds:

Wake up to the roots of war in you. And, allow them to be your teacher. Because we can't do anything for them, not really, unless they ask us, unless they want that. But, we can't hear what they're saying, we can't hear what people are saying, unless we're willing to wake up to our conditioning. Because it was my conditioning, it was the karma that I inherited, and then the karma that I was creating that kept me deaf. I couldn't hear. I did not have the gift of Avalokiteśvara, of kanzeon, bodhisattva. I didn't have the gift of hearing. I couldn't hear the sounds of the world.[42]

Zaltho Foundation

Thomas started the Zaltho Foundation in 1993. As a non-profit organization, Zaltho is "committed to ending violence by supporting socially engaged projects in schools, communities, organizations, and families, with an emphasis on the most important ingredient, the individual." Programs include pilgrimages, talks and retreats, and outreach to veterans, prisoners, substance abusers, the homeless, and refugees. The foundation operates two Buddhist teaching centers: the Magnolia Zen Center in Mary Esther, Florida and the Clock Tower Practice Center in Maynard, Massachusetts.[43]


  • Thomas, Claude (1996). "Finding Peace after a Lifetime of War". in Arnold Kotler. Engaged Buddhist Reader. Parallax Press. ISBN 0938077988. 
  • Thomas, Claude Anshin (1997). "Claude Anshin Thomas". in Gary Cach. What book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. Parallax Press. pp. 74–78. ISBN 0938077929. 
  • Thomas, Claude Anshin (2004). At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-59030-134-X. 

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Trachtenberg, Peter (May/June 1998). "Walking with Claude AnShin Thomas". Tikkun 13 (3): 73. 
  2. ^ a b Thomas 2004, p.11
  3. ^ Rothschild 2005: For example, chanting Kill! Kill! Kill! at the opposing team.
  4. ^ Ferguson, Keith (2007-10-14). "Vietnam veteran, who is Buddhist monk to speak in Walpole". The Daily News Transcript. 
  5. ^ Thomas 2004, p.10
  6. ^ a b c Rothschild, Matthew. Claude Anshin Thomas The Progressive The Progressive Radio Show. (2005-06-14). Podcast accessed on 2009-02-05.
  7. ^ Thomas, Claude Anshin (1997-05-28). "Healing Aggression: Public Talk, Solingen, Germany". Zaltho Foundation. 
  8. ^ a b c Glassman 1998, p.62
  9. ^ Thomas 2004, p.xi
  10. ^ a b c Thomas, Claude (1996). "Finding Peace after a Lifetime of War". in Arnold Kotler. Engaged Buddhist Reader. Parallax Press. pp. 98–103. ISBN 0938077988. 
  11. ^ a b Glassman 1998, p.61
  12. ^ Thomas 2004, pp.26-27
  13. ^ Lindgren, Suzanne (2006-08-31). "Meditation on War". Utne Reader. 
  14. ^ Piasecki, Joe (2006-08-31). "Mindful Living". Pasadena Weekly. 
  15. ^ Marinello 2007: "I was attempting to make my history disappear, make my life disappear. There isn't any one way to do this but how we wrap ourselves up in an effort to avoid the karma that we've inherited. In ignorance of the karma that I inherited, then, I continued to repeat these cycles in unawareness. I keep the cycle of war, violence, and suffering alive in unawareness thinking that I'm not, in contrary to the teachings that exist, the fundamental teachings in the Diamond Sutra, which tell me that just because I believe or think of things so, doesn't make it so."
  16. ^ Pauly, Sarah. Peace by Peace: Claude Anshin Thomas KUCI. (2005-12-23). Podcast accessed on 2010-02-11.
  17. ^ "Claude AnShin Thomas Biography". Zaltho Foundation. 
  18. ^ Thomas 2004, p.3
  19. ^ Sensenbrenner, Lee (2005-03-10). "Vietnam Vet Finds Peace in Becoming Zen Monk". The Capital Times. 
  20. ^ Steinfels, Peter (1993-09-19). "At a Retreat, a Zen Monk Plants the Seeds of Peace". The New York Times. 
  21. ^ Glassman 1998, p.60
  22. ^ Glassman 1998, p.19: The sixteen vows are as follows: "I vow to be oneness; I vow to be diversity; I vow to be harmony; I vow to penetrate the unknown; I vow to bear witness; I vow to heal myself and others; I vow not to kill; I vow not to steal; I vow not to be greedy; I vow not to tell lies; I vow not to be ignorant; I vow not to talk about others' errors and faults; I vow not to elevate myself by blaming others; I vow not to be stingy; I vow not to be angry; I vow not to speak ill of myself and others."
  23. ^ Shan, Te-Hsing (2009-02-18). "Life, Writing, and Peace: Reading Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace". Journal of Transnational American Studies (American Cultures and Global Contexts Center, UC Santa Barbara) 1 (1). ISSN 1940-0764. 
  24. ^ a b Thomas, Claude Anshin. "German Pilgrimage: Interview with Claude AnShin Thomas". Zaltho Foundation. 
  25. ^ a b Williams-Dennis, Leslie (2007-02-27). "Walking west for peace; Zen Buddhists begin journey to California on Thursday". The Brownsville Herald.  See also: Williams-Dennis, Leslie (2007-03-02). "Pilgrims begin journey". The Brownsville Herald. 
  26. ^ a b Fenger, Darin (2007-04-28). "Monk walking Mexico border to learn, pray, medidate [sic]". Yuma Sun. 
  27. ^ a b c Queen, Christopher S. (2000). Engaged Buddhism in the West. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0861711599. 
  28. ^ Glassman 1998, p.64
  29. ^ Thomas 2004, pp.99-109
  30. ^ Mims, Bob (1998-07-04). "Buddhist Monk Finds Peace In Pilgrimage". The Salt Lake Tribune. 
  31. ^ Anderson, Leslie (1998-03-08). "Zen Buddhism on the Move in Suburbia". Boston Globe. 
  32. ^ "S.L. is stop on spiritual journey". The Deseret News. 1998-07-04.  See also: "'Wandering' Buddhists Crossing U.S.". The Deseret News. 1998-07-4. 
  33. ^ Thomas, Claude Anshin (1998-08-02). "Green Gulch Farm: American Pilgrimage Reflections". Zaltho Foundation. 
  34. ^ Thomas 2004, p.113: "Ohio was the most difficult state that we walked in. In the more than two weeks we spent walking there, only four churches opened their doors to us. But it wasn't the only state where we were turned away. In one town in Pennsylvania, all the churches said no in the middle of a freezing rainstorm that was turning into snow. We ended up sleeping outside in a pig barn at the fairgrounds. And it was one of the most wonderful nights we had. I was so thankful for that shelter."
  35. ^ Thomas 2004, pp.109-122
  36. ^ Thomas, Claude Anshin. "Reflection from a Zen Pilgrimage through Germany". Zaltho Foundation. 
  37. ^ "Zen Buddhist Pilgrimage - Traces of Tears Budapest, Hungary to Bergen-Belsen, Germany with Claude AnShin Thomas 15 Aug - 30 Oct 2002". Zaltho Foundation. 2004. 
  38. ^ Thomas 2006 [2004], pp.155-156
  39. ^ "Border Walk: March 1 - June 1, 2007". Zaltho Foundation. 
  40. ^ "Buddhist Monk war veterans stop in Columbus on journey". The Deming Headlight. 2007-04-05. 
  41. ^ a b Marinello, Genjo. Claude Anshin at Chobo-Ji Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji. (November 2007). Podcast accessed on 2010-02-05.
  42. ^ Marinello 2007: "Hearing the sounds of the world" refers to the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara or Guan Yin. Avalokitasvara can be translated as "he who looks down upon sound", describing the cries of sentient beings who need his help. The female form, Guanyin, is short for Guanshiyin which is also translated as "observing the sounds (or cries) of the world".
  43. ^ Thomas 2004, pp.167-168

Further reading and resources


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