Buddha Comes Home from War
Buddha Comes Home from War:
An Interview with Joe Bobrow
Turning Wheel/Mushim: There are Buddhists serving in the U.S. armed forces. A blog for this community states in their mission statement that they “Recognize and promote honorable military service as in accord with the Eightfold Path’s Right Livelihood.” Since you’ve worked with many vets, what do you think of that statement?
Joe Bobrow: Although war is hell and nearly every war I know of was disastrous and avoidable, in itself, military service is honorable and carries its own dignity. The intention of the vast majority of those who volunteer or sign up is benevolent and protective. They have earned our respect, gratitude, and care. Is the choice to serve in the military in accord with the Eightfold Path and with the Precepts? Without getting into theological hair splitting, with right intention I will say yes. Is the carnage that war inevitably brings with it in accord? No. I think war is an absolute last resort. But, we must end the need for war. And help veterans, their families , their caregivers, and all citizens, wake up together from the fog of war and heal. Then we can touch and share and grow the peace that passes ideology.
Turning Wheel/Mushim: Please tell us more about your relationship as a Buddhist teacher and socially engaged activist to what you have called a “broken system that neglects many of the needs of U.S. military veterans and their families, wastes U.S. Taxpayers’ money, and is driven in part by greed, hatred and delusion.” You’ve chosen to direct your energy and skills as a psychotherapist and Zen meditation teacher to retreats for U.S. war veterans and their families. While most people would probably agree that this is compassion in action, does it contribute to dismantling or transforming the military complex? If yes, how?
Joe Bobrow: I see the work that my friends and I have been doing at Coming Home as peace work, making the peace after the war. Not one of the thousands of people I’ve met and worked with over the past six years would eschew inner peace. Everyone wants equanimity and peace. This is a good quality to foster, no matter what the context. The lotus grows in the midst of the fire. Knowing Thich Nhat Hanh for the past 30 years, I am certain his dharma was forged in the heat of battle, in the belly of the beast that was the Vietnam War. I do not want to become ideological and turn my gaze from those who can benefit from what we offer.
However, it is true that dishonesty, hidden self-interest, short sightedness, pig headedness, bureaucratic dysfunction, infatuation with power, outright cruelty (including sexual harassment and abuse) and hypocrisy are rampant. It is all too easy to wrap yourself in the flag of patriotism for personal gain while ignoring the deeper needs of our war veterans. I believe that peaceful means of resolving differences are most efficacious, even if they don’t seem that way in the short run. But I’ve also come to see that the warrior archetype has a necessary place in the human psyche. It is part of serving, being a fire fighter or a law enforcement officer, or … a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coastie. It is linked to protection, keeping safe, serving the community. I have been amazed at how many I have met in the military at all levels and ranks who know war and its horrors first hand, and are not casual about it at all, to the contrary. One former commander in Fallujah routinely calls war “obscene.” Many see themselves as peacemakers.
But I have realized that I am not a complete pacifist; there is a place for protecting and defending ourselves. In terms of substantively changing broken systems, ughh, that’s a job for Sisyphus. I’ve valued Coming Home’s independence in developing our programs and demonstrating their value in people’s lives. Maybe we can undermine toxic systems by showing their members how to take good care of people, including the providers and leaders. Maybe change will come from the inside out, or, from the example Coming Home and others on the “outside.” I don’t know. Sometimes I and friends in the field whom are in the know think it might be better to (figuratively) “blow up” the systems and start from scratch.
The best way to prevent and treat war trauma is to find peaceful ways to resolve our conflicts. Here’s a true story taken from a blog I wrote about in the HuffPo, The Costs of War, Collective Amnesia, and Learning From Experience:
Last year I attended the annual Memorial Day commemoration at a military cemetery. A retired general officer was among the speakers. I had seen him over the years in various settings and he was always super patriotic and indefatigably upbeat. This time his presentation sounded different. He spoke of how acutely he felt the burden, more than 20 years on, of having sent men and women into harm’s way, and how deeply he felt responsible for their injuries and deaths. You could hear his voice tremble. Then he said something that startled me. With complete conviction, this patriot’s patriot said that the costs of war are so great that we just have to find ways to solve our problems that do not involve killing one another.
Turning Wheel/Mushim: BPF’s initiative for 2013 is called “The System Stinks.” It’s looking for proposals for radical actions for systemic change. When you think about what you know about the U.S. military, VA, corporate, legislative complex, if you could unify and mobilize everyone in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s extended network right now, what would you direct us to do, collectively? What paths of action and activism do you think would be most useful for us to take?
Joe Bobrow: Meet a vet, talk to a vet. To a sister, brother, mother father, grandma, grandpa, child or teenager of a vet. Develop cultural competency. Feature stories of vets and families, maybe focus on military kids. Vets are a marginalized population; live your multiculturalism. Learn about the extensive costs of war by human to human community-building. Put aside ideology and make contact with real folks. Create civilian-veteran dialogues where, through heartfelt conversation and art, the awful divide between the 1% of those who served over the past 11 years and the rest of us can be bridged. Make common cause. Help build social support networks, based on forged affinity, a proven — — and radical — alternative to the some of the existing compartmentalized, medical model approaches. Link up with interfaith groups working to raise consciousness about the moral and spiritual injuries of war. As my Army Colonel and Commander / Social Worker buddy David likes to say: Isolation Kills and Community Heals.
Editor’s note: We’ll be featuring more on The Coming Home Project this month, stay tuned.
Joseph Bobrow is a Zen master, psychoanalyst, and community organizer. For 40 years he has been integrating Buddhist mindfulness and western psychology to create healing environments. In 2006, with therapists, chaplains, vets, and family members, he founded the Coming Home Project, a non-denominational community service of Deep Streams Institute. Since 2007, the Coming Home Project has helped 3,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, service members, their families and their caregivers from 45 states transform the traumas of war, reintegrate, and enjoy genuine wellbeing. A Dharma heir of Robert Aitken Roshi, Joseph joined BPP shortly after its inception, building an interfaith coalition and helping organize the first Hiroshima Day commemoration on Maui. Later, he provided consultation to the BPF Board. Two summers living at Plum Village in the early 1980’s strengthened his conviction in the healing power of community. Joseph’s book, Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation, has received acclaim from Buddhist teachers and trauma researchers and therapists alike. He is working on a second book, Waking Up From War: How Our Veterans, Their Families, and Our Nation Heal The Unseen Wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is transmitting what he has learned over these four decades about trauma, mindfulness, awakening and healing with Turning Ghosts Into Ancestors, a workshop that distills these insights and weaves in pioneering research on post-traumatic growth from Coming Home retreats. To read more, check out Joe’s blog on Huffington Post. For information on new workshops, contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org