The Border Pilgrimage

On Thursday, March 29th, Claude AnShin Thomas and five companions walked into El Paso. I mean that literally. They had walked from Brownsville, Texas, more than 1,000 miles along the U.S./Mexico Border. They had averaged 20 miles a day, walking between seven in the morning to 1pm. That’s about a 3½ mph clip. Every day. But walking is AnShin Thomas’ his job description. He’s a Zen Buddhist mendicant monk, meaning that he wanders and he begs for his food and lodging. He and his fellow walkers were on a border pilgrimage to learn about the border. The other pilgrims at his side— Wiebke KenShin Anderson (Germany) who is AnShin’s assistant, Gabriella Mura (Italy), Bill Butler (California), John West (Fredericksburg, TX) and Mike from Portland, Oregon—are Zen students, and the four men are all Vietnam veterans. They without money. They beg for food and lodging from the people they encounter, explaining who they are and their purpose. (See Endnote 1) If their request is refused, they bow, their hands together in gassho, and offer thanks to the person. This is the ancient Buddhist practice of “takuhatsu.” The pilgrims are on their way to California.

They stay away from the freeways, preferring instead the state roads which hug the Rio Grande. Every day they get stopped by some form of armed authority, men with their hands on their guns, some even with their guns unholstered and ready—the Border Patrol, the sheriff, the local police and the National Guard. A ritual is repeated each time:

“Do you people have ID?”
They give them their papers, but first they ask permission to reach into their pockets. The men, remember, are Vietnam vets. They’ve carried guns before, they’ve pointed guns at others, they’ve pulled the trigger. The authorities look through the papers—four men from the United States, two women from Europe. AnShin Thomas explains that he and his fellow pilgrims are on a pilgrimage.
“Where did you cross?”
“Cross? We didn’t cross.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where are you going?”
“No way?”
“Yes. Way.”

The very presence of these pilgrims on the border, especially presenting themselves to the law enforcement and explaining who they are, changes the complexion of the border. People ask them, why are you doing this? There’s no good answer. They’ve read about the border—the illegal immigration, the Minute Men, the smugglers of drugs and humans, the militarization, the violence and the exacerbated separation of countries and peoples and families and culture by bad laws—and they wanted to see for themselves. There’s no good answer for why. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: AnShin Thomas is a mendicant, a wanderer, an advocate for non-violence. That’s what he does. Sort of like a poet writes a poem, not for the result but for the experience of the language. If something good comes of the journey, then, that is of course well and good.

One thing they have learned for sure—the people along the border are very generous people. They welcome the pilgrims, they feed them, they lodge them. And they have found here and elsewhere that the people who have the less are the more generous and open-hearted. Much more accepting of people who are walking and going really nowhere for no reason in particular.

(For an article by Ramón Rentería and photo essay by Mark Lambie
from which the above photo is taken,

Claude AnShin Thomas wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read about the practice and power of non-violence, At Hell's Gate, A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace (Shambala). It documents Thomas’ personal journey from his youth as an abused child, his service in the killing fields of Vietnam, his return to the United States where he was spat upon for being a veteran, his turmoil of heart and mind as he struggled with anger, paranoia, extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs and alcohol, his search for peace within himself and finally to his ordination as a Zen mendicant monk, becoming in this last few years an internationally recognized advocate of non-violence.

In 1991 Thomas showed up at a veterans retreat on a motorcycle and dressed in black leather. The teacher was the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. Claude Thomas carried some serious hatred and fear for the Vietnamese. In the service he had been taught to hate them, he had seen the Vietnamese kill his friends and fellow soldiers, and he had killed Vietnamese. He sat on the cushion with his hatred and he listened. He was invited to Plum Village in Europe to continue his studies. He spent several years there, and they asked him to accept ordination as a monk. He didn’t want to be a cloistered monk, he wanted to be out in the world and so he returned to the U.S. He almost immediately met Roshi Bernie Glassman, and Glassman ordained him as a mendicant monk.

He requested that his ordination be at Auschwitz. He sat and meditated for three days at the cross in the roads where the Nazis made the final decisions about death and life—this person can be a worker, this person should die. Like the children’s game, pulling petals off a daisy, “I love you, I love you not.” A children’s game gone completely insane.

AnShin Thomas said: “An important moment for me was seeing the execution wall at Auschwitz. I walked up to this wall and faced it, and then I turned my back to it. I spent some time standing there, seeing myself as one of those who faced execution. Then I walked forward, turned and stood where the executioners stood, to see myself as one of them. Because in reality I am both. In war there is no separation. It is true that the Nazis and the Jews were different, but I must also see how they are not different, how each of us has the potential to become both the persecutor and the victim.”

He began his first pilgrimage after his ordination, walking from Auschwitz to Vietnam. Since then he has walked in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East, among other places. When he and his comrades finish their Border Pilgrimage, he would have walked almost 20,000.

The pilgrims spent four days in El Paso. Our city is a little bit more than halfway on their journey. On Friday they went to City Hall to give a copy of At Hell’s Gate to John Cook, the mayor, who is also a veteran of the Vietnam War. The mayor was out of town, so AnShin Thomas made his presentation to Susie Byrd, Council Woman from District 2. Susie is my daughter. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I was proud and honored to be there with them. After City Hall they went to the weekly Peace Vigil sponsored by the El Paso for Peace Coalition at the corner of San Antonio and Campbell. Then on Saturday night AnShin Thomas spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Center in El Paso. About 50 or 60 people showed up, a good crowd for El Paso, especially at such short notice. He’s an intense and inspiring speaker. Using his Border Pilgrimage as a place of beginning, he spoke of realizing the seeds of violence within oneself and working mindfully to resolve them. This is his path to practicing non-violence in the world; and his own journey, as documented in his book, has been witness to this practice.

Sunday my wife Lee and I hosted the pilgrims and a few others at our home. One of the guests was Roshi Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert from the Las Cruces Zen Center in El Paso where I have been sitting and attending services for the last five years or so. SoDaiho is likewise a veteran of the Vietnam War (See Endnote 2). He and AnShin had very much in common, and they bonded immediately. It was good to see.

Early on Tuesday morning the pilgrims began again, walking down NM State Road 9 toward Columbus. Wiebke KenShin Anderson called me a few days later from Columbus. All was well. People, she said, are so generous along the border. She was happy to be walking again.
Endnote 1. They do have a truck. It’s purpose is to carry only water. John West and Bill Butler took turns driving, but the other pilgrims were to walk the whole way. Also, in El Paso Mike left the pilgrimage, his time was up. A few days later Bill left off in Columbus, his wife picking him up. Cameron, a young man and a veteran of the Iraq War, had joined them in El Paso.
Endnote 2. As a soldier in Vietnam Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert was shot in the head and almost died. He lay there in the jungle muck wishing for help. No help came. The stars and the universe swirled around him. It was that night, he has said, that he became a Buddhist, although he knew nothing at the time about Buddhism. He only had his experience of letting go and accepting the world as it is. Only much later he would find the "painted cakes" of Zen Buddhism and begin his study.