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Buddha Comes Home from War

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

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Comments (12)

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I am most grateful for this post. It’s a much needed perspective on important and urgent matters. It was a wonderful, insightful and moving interview. Many words of wisdom and pointers for compassionate practice.

  • David Stevenson

    I am writing to express my strong disagreement with Bobrow’s comment that “military service is honorable and carries its own dignity.” Serving in the US armed services is putting yourself in the role of serving the American Empire to make the world profitable for Capitalism. It is not about being “benevolent and protective”. To accept such a role is to contribute to the immense suffering that comes from violence. The responsibility of a Buddhist is to say no to war , and no to military service. That is right action.

  • Jeff

    Military chaplains in imperial armies have a much harder job than their counterparts in popular armies of national defense. Every spiritual caregiver to warriors must sanctify killing, but empire-building forces must justify aggression against indigenous peoples by painting them as inferior and incapable of solving their own problems as well as salve the tortured bodies and consciences of mercenaries.

    Joe Bobrow is a good, compassionate man – American war vets did not sign up because they want to slaughter natives. The vast majority are not war criminals. Most joined the armed forces because there are no other decent jobs for young people, and those who are wounded deserve our support.

    Two hundred years ago, a healer like Mr. Bobrow would have been caring for injured American troops who massacred the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Creek peoples and re-enslaved escaped blacks in the War of 1812. Two thousand years ago, a civic-minded Roman would have helped wounded legionnaires returning from genocide against the British Iceni tribe in modern-day Norfolk. Those men also deserved care, but I agree with David Stevenson that calling their intentions “benevolent and protective” and deserving of “gratitude” serves only the ambitions of profit-vultures who seek to dominate the world while sometimes easing the trauma of soldiers who have been duped or coerced into their armies.

    However, Mr. Bobrow is right when he says, “there is a place for protecting and defending ourselves.” Even if most Buddhists abhor violence and killing, I cannot see Masters of the System giving up their global thieving, lying, murdering ways without escalating the carnage to defend their power. Passive resistance may not change things before our planet becomes carbonized and uninhabitable over the next hundred or so years. I hope I am wrong, but even after Gandhi and his allies peacefully forced the British Empire out of India, exploitation and dire poverty remain. Saying no to war and avoiding all strife is not enough. If we are ever to have true peace, it will take a huge, multiracial, international movement which is not going to settle for anything less. We need to begin that kind of progressive Right Action right here and right now.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    To pay taxes, indeed, to live in the United States inextricably involves one in “the American Empire.” There is no imminent prospect of abolishing the military and the vast majority of the people support the armed services…. Who is going to serve in the military? Only the poor, or those with bleak employment prospects? Only those lacking in such enlightened knowledge as those of us who understand, as it were, the nature of the beast? If one lives in this country one is privileged to experience the myriad obvious and not-so obvious benefits of this empire and yet is it possible to completely disentangle oneself from all such ties? Hardly. I may say “no to war” in the abstract, but if war comes do I stand aside and let others do the fighting for me? If one believes in self-defense on the interpersonal level, why does that not apply at the collective level? Would you stand aside and let someone slaughter your family because you believed in nonviolence? Don’t get me wrong, I believe the U.S. has often been the aggressor in conflicts and the military has often been used for all the wrong reasons and ends, but that hardly need mean we abandon the notion of military service. The problem here is that a service member cannot pick his or her battles (or wars), as the status of a soldier precludes such behavior. Nonetheless, as a soldier, one is free to follow one’s conscience and duty bound to adhere to the “rules of war” as articulated in the just war tradition (including the Geneva Conventions). The idea of a “soldier’s honor” involves being given a license to kill within constraints, just as in self-defense, where one may be morally and legally justified in defending oneself and others with a force commensurate with (or proportionate to) the force or violence directed against one. A soldier may sacrifice his or her life (and, yes, kill others) so that others may live, thereby leading to a real reduction in violence and human suffering. OK, as a Buddhist, I may refuse military service or conscription (personally, I believe in conscription, not a volunteer army, with allowances for conscientious objection), but one is thereby not necessarily any purer or holier or nonviolent than those who may need to kill others so that you and your loved ones or compatriots may live (interestingly, Gandhi thought a passivity that arose out of a lack of courage or fear of violence was worse than violence itself). Violence, and even more so, suffering, comes in sundry forms and war is only one glaring or conspicuous example of such violence and suffering. Unless one believes in principle that there can be no such thing as “just war,” than one should allow for the need for military service. I myself can envisage examples of a just war fought against aggressors in which the majority of those involved are not Buddhists and, as a would-be-Buddhist, find it troubling to imagine those non-Buddhists fighting so as to save my ass while I remain “pure” and “holy” in my refusal to fight, in effect, letting others suffer on my behalf. As long as we have a military, we will have soldiers, and some soldiers will be fighting and dying while we live in relative peace, and so such service is indeed honorable and with its own peculiar form of dignity: if one cannot in good conscience live with that, so be it: I myself am not entirely comfortable, to put it feebly, with that reality.

  • Muhamed

    War is Hell and the United States is now the Great Satan, directly or indirectly in charge of most of the world’s wars. By and large, American soldiers are not the real devils. Yes, many have innocent blood on their hands, but they did not design the global imperialist system they serve. I commend Joe Bobrow for his dedication to their welfare and for helping them adjust back to a life without thought of inflicting “shock and awe” against small countries which happen to have regional strategic value or desirable natural resources. Americans would have to imagine their own city suffering widespread Boston Marathon bombings, unrelenting house-to-house fighting, and roving kidnap-and-murder squads to get some idea of the terror required to maintain an Empire.

    Soldiers and police are truly honourable and protective when they turn their guns away from crowds of people and join the struggle against violent oppression, as has happened in many revolutions in the past. Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your dialogue.

  • Hugh Martin

    Fascinating interview with very honest, fresh, logical avenues to stop the Sisyphean routine of war, and American wars, especially. I do think he makes a strong point that complete pacifism isn’t effective. Security is important and vital in order to have a safe society. People need to defend themselves from being hurt. That being said, the real issue here is obviously America’s complete carelessness over the last decade or so. We have to be better.

    Hugh Martin
    Iraq War Veteran

  • Emory

    “Serving in the US armed services is putting yourself in the role of serving the American Empire to make the world profitable for Capitalism. It is not about being “benevolent and protective”. To accept such a role is to contribute to the immense suffering that comes from violence. The responsibility of a Buddhist is to say no to war , and no to military service. That is right action.”

    Now, at 33 years old and having spent several years working toward some understanding of what was really going on with the Iraq war, and beginning to come to terms with my own place in it, I comprehend and agree with this statement.

    In 1999, when I enlisted in the Navy at 19, I didn’t have even the slightest clue about anything possibly empire-like about America, or anything negative and harmful about serving in the US military. What I knew and used to make my decision were ideas like “serving my country,” “honor, courage, commitment,” humanitarian aid missions played up in the news and by recruiters, and getting to see more of the world, plus get out of the small town I was stuck in after high school. (Oh, and the G.I. Bill!) More than anything, I knew that I didn’t want to be like the guys who had graduated the year before me and were doing nothing better for the world or with their lives than smoking weed on their breaks at McDonalds. I was uneducated in most practical ways and unaware of other possibilities for making a difference in the world instead of living a dead end life. I don’t think this state of being was, or is even now, as uncommon among teenagers and young adults as we all might wish it were.

    To the best of my knowledge as a foolish 19 year old, I was legitimately choosing the only option I knew of at the time through which to serve the greater good and protect others. The first Gulf War was what I’d grown up with, a very different war from the one I ended up serving in. So much has changed about the world since then, and so much has changed in the options widely available and widely publicized for idealistic 19 year olds who have an itch to serve something greater than themselves. Now, I would have chosen something like Americorps instead of the military, I think.

    Where, when, around whom I grew up conditioned my understanding of America and the military. Gaining experience and age, getting out into the world, education and associated exposure to various forms of critical theory, and spending a great deal of time learning and thinking about, for example, America as empire, has meant that my understanding now is very, very different.

    I don’t think it’s very useful to flatly condemn so many people who may well be like my younger foolish self, and likewise I don’t think it’s very useful to assume that everyone joining the American military up through now has been educated enough, experienced enough, aware enough, privileged enough, to make an informed and free, maturely responsible decision.

    This doesn’t erase our responsibility for having made such a decision. It does mean that our karmic load or issues of conscience or whatever all we may bear as a result of that decision is something that conditions our existence and informs our sense of right action from then on — and none of that load is up to another person to define the existence or extent of, just as right action isn’t up to any one of us to absolutely dictate for another. (My younger self had never heard of Buddhism except in name, as a side note. I was exposed to it in various forms, bit by bit, over the course of my military service. As many paths…)

    For me, it’s much more useful to work on myself as I am in the here and now, and reach out as much as I can, however I can from here. And to make future decisions based on the information and resources that I have available to me at the time — the best possible decisions I can make as the person I am at that moment. That’s my working concept of right action. (And thank you for leading me to think about it this much and articulate it! :D)

  • Joe Bobrow

    I’m glad for the comments and discussion the interview has spawned. To clarify: I wrote that the intentions of the majority of veterans (i worked with) were benevolent. Emphasis on intentions, to serve a greater good. The impacts of military service are multidimensional and carry their own weight. And many veterans struggle with these impacts.

  • Katherine Martin

    I agree with Patrick O’Donnell and, of course, Hugh Martin, who succinctly summed up my thoughts on this topic. Good article, Pat!–nice idea to tie Buddhism to serving our country in the military.

  • Mushim (Pat / Patricia) Ikeda

    This is a timely and nuanced discussion, and I am pleased to be part of it, having played a modest part as the interviewer. As a Buddhist, social justice activist, diversity consultant, and as someone who grew up in a military family, I deeply appreciate Joe Bobrow’s invitation and challenge to all of us: “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.”

    The historical Buddha is said to have taught that there are four kinds of clinging, all of which lead to suffering. Among these are clinging (or attachment) to views. In my understanding this doesn’t mean that we don’t have views or that we shouldn’t have views, and that we sit around on our butts meditating and saying, “Everything is empty so I don’t need to do anything about poverty, war, injustice, global climate change.” Inaction produces as many results as does action; yet wise action cannot be based on separation, and demeaning or condemning thought and speech. I believe that, in order to grow wiser together, we need to grow wiser together — with all our contradictions, all our complexities, our shadows and our luminosity — because no individual can determine what is beneficial for the many. I want to hear real stories of real people.

    As a U.S. citizen and resident, I know I’m part of the wars being carried out far from my home, and I know I’m part of the structural violence of racism and poverty that is happening here in Oakland, California. And, like Hugh Martin, who is a veteran and award-winning poet (see his recently published book of poetry on his experience in Iraq, The Stick Soldiers), I know that I and we have got to do better.

  • Kali_mon

    It doesn’t really surprise me that someone, some people out there serve the militaristic culture (almost always based on nationalism or religious ideology) hiding behind some lofty ideals. To encounter the audacity that makes one utter the statement “Vets are a marginalized population” is not a surprise neither. It is the cognitive dissonance that tries to balance some spiritual ideals with being a logistical tool for the babykilling institution of an empire that distorts reality for “Zen masters” like these. In the midst of a dystopian society that is soaked in banal nationalism, every bit of effort to humanize the people who exchanged their humanity for a paycheck and some silly uniform simply serves the very system that victimizes the populations the globe over and the misery, pain and suffering of the tools of the Empire serves as a warning to coming generations of the supreme reality of individual responsibility for one’s actions. I deplore the evil done in the name of compassion and love and serving the vicious, callous, inhumane designs of the empire by adding to the momentum of condoning the babykilling cult and culture is exactly the case in point.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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