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Greg Klein / Ajahn Ãnando Biographical
For further details please see commentary – Ãnando, A War Veteran in the Monastic Life’ at the end of this page
Born: Gregory Howard Klein, November 3 1946, 16.54hrs,
EST, Buffalo, NY, the third of four children (Karen, Bob, Greg & Joyce)
to Robert J. Klein and Regina (Jean) Klein nee Howard.
Actively involved in anti-war campaign following discharge from the Marine Corps.
Summer 1970 – travelling in Europe, decides not
to return to US and remains in France until June 1971.
Ãnando, A War Veteran in the
No matter who you are or where you come from, once you put on the uniform in the military or the monastic life you are actively encouraged to die to your former self. In return for shelter and food the individual identity is broken down under strong discipline and remade. Traditionally both disciplines demand sacrifice. In the military the recruit must be prepared to die for his or her country, in the monastery the monks and the nuns are generally expected to give their lives to the study and the pursuit of the sacred ideal. Both disciplines enforce a sense of having renounced the former life in order to be converted into something greater within the experience of the unique sharing and commitment to the brotherhood or sisterhood that becomes home and family. A unprepared return to the civilian or the lay life can be a traumatic experience reflecting in subsequent behavioral patterns typical of those who have been encouraged to seek security in an atmosphere of discipline and regulation and subsequently find themselves without clearly defined boundaries in unknown territory.
Greg returned severely wounded from Vietnam at a time when no provision was made for accommodating the consequences of traumatic experience. He always said that he would have been dead before he was thirty if he hadn’t gone into the monastery. Drugs were ‘not the path of Blessings’ and only afforded a temporary respite from the ‘black, brooding anger, the deep depression I would never admit to and the fear’ that were the collective result of his experience of war.
‘There was only a void with no comfort in it, no sense of belonging,
no joy, no peace… I hated being frightened. It didn't fit in with
how I saw myself or how I wanted to present myself to the world. I wanted
to be strong and capable, aggressive, a fighter and it didn't fit at all
to be frightened.
He saw the monastic life as a viable alternative to suicide where he would be able to die to ’Greg Klein, US Marine, Vietnam veteran, severely traumatized young American white male’ typical of his time and with no future. As it was he chose to enter a Theravadan Buddhist Monastery in Thailand at the beginning of what would become an influx of western men who would eventually unite to bring the Theravadan Forest monastic tradition first to England and then to Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Greg’s ideas of brotherhood had been honed on the battlefield
where brothers-in-arms watched each other’s backs in a life and
death situation. Within the brotherhood of the monastery he found himself
in a multi-national, multi-cultural group of highly idiosyncratic people
concentrating on developing their individual practice within a centuries-old
and essentially alien institution. It was a potentially highly charged
situation that would tested in the extreme when the young monastic community
introduced their assumed hierarchical and male oriented Asian tradition
for the first time into western society in 1977. Far from the security
of their home base in Thailand a group of mostly North American junior
monks and their inexperienced abbot were forced to assume the responsibilities
normally reserved for the Theravadan Elders, usually monastics of more
than twenty years standing. Monks and nuns who have attained ten years
of life in the monastery assume the title ‘Ajahn’ meaning
‘teacher’. When Venerable Ãnando became Ajahn Ãnando
in 1984 he would often comment,
In accepting transference from Thailand to London, England, he missed his vital connection with his teacher, Ajahn Chah and he felt lacking in comparison to the formidable intellect of both some of his peers and members of the western laity. His natural charm and charisma could inspire both admiration and enmity that he schooled himself to endure mostly with dignity and determination. He had an uncanny ability to see to the heart of a situation but his own lack of self worth could cloud his judgment and the ever-present insecurity and fear could stimulate an anger reaction as much against himself as any other. He would later say that from a personal point of view, the essence of his monastic practice diminished in its translation to the complexity of a materialistic world he had essentially rejected after his experience of the Vietnam war.
For the lay people he was an A-list visitor. The Buddhist monastic rule forbidding the intake of food after midday meant he couldn’t be invited out to dinner but there was nothing to stop him being invited for a highly entertaining and inspiring early lunch. Initially people from all walks of life became active members of the developing western lay community. As time went on it became dominated by the educated middle classes and far removed from the simple, unquestioning devotion and support of the Thai village people.
The devotional quality of the practice transferred with difficulty to the first community in England where the implication that only the ordained had any hope of attaining enlightenment, often expounded in public talks given by the monks at that time, suggested an elite which would either inspire or rankle an educated laity. For the first time the monastic community had to deal with a generous but challenging lay society that was not prepared to take everything at face value and was long out of the habit of offering unquestioning support to the priesthood. The monks found themselves under obligation to impress rather than being automatically considered impressive for being whom and what they were.
As one of the most senior monks Venerable Ãnando was soon forced into the front-line and required to assume public teaching and lecturing responsibilities that challenged the traumatised war veteran more than he would ever admit. Throughout his monastic career his under-robes were regularly soaked in perspiration and it took all of his self-control not to shake visibly whenever he was asked to teach. No one realized how self-conscious he was of the disfiguring scar at the back of his shaven head and how he suffered in public places having people turn to look at him as he passed. When he became the Abbot of Chithurst Monastery in 1985 he took on the added responsibility of training newly ordained monks. He carried out these duties in the best and only way he knew, often authoritarian and exacting, his ‘soldier energy’ as Ajahn Chah called it, tempered by his instinctive ability to respond. Under pressure he was a hard taskmaster and hardest of all on himself.
The gung-ho energy that sustained the first ten years of the community evolved into a period of uncertainty followed by what has been most accurately described as ‘melt-down’ during 1991 at a time when the world was dealing with the aftermath of the preliminary phase of aggression in Iraq and the Marine Corps had re-entered the theatre of war in the first major conflict since Vietnam.
The unstable atmosphere of rebellion against the traditional interpretation of the Monastic Rule centered on the Chithurst community during the summer and autumn of 1991 ignited a violent reaction in the war veteran abbot rekindling dark thoughts of despair and self-destruction. In 1967 the high casualty rate sustained by Delta Company on May 12th was generally attributed to the incompetence of the commanding officer. Twenty-four years later Greg Klein/Ajahn Ãnando was once again in a situation where the aptitude of the superior officers had been called into question and this time he found himself included as one of those in command.
His natural pride and faith in the impeccable monastic discipline was fatally eroded during this period. He would never give up on his dream of enlightenment but by October 1991 he had decided that the discipline had failed to support him in his time of great need and was therefore no longer to be supported. As his tenuous hold on security was irrecoverably threatened, in his own words,
‘It was not a question of if I was going to leave the monastery but when.’
He planned his leaving the monastic life over a period of more than eight months in what became a master-class of strategy and subterfuge typical of his military training. He had spent eleven months and six days actively outwitting the enemy in Vietnam and now he made his plans to outwit the enemy that was the brotherhood he had hoped to revere and to serve until the end of his days. He had been wounded and betrayed in the military life and he was not prepared to sustain further injury or betrayal under the fire of critical response as he prepared to leave the monastery.
A strong insight into the possibility of his approaching death in the early hours of the morning of January 16th 1992 brought up his unresolved fear of dying. He had no idea exactly when or how he would die, his only reference was a past and ferocious experience of death. He knew about pain, he knew how life could cling to shattered flesh. He knew what death could look like, what it smells like, what it sounds like. He understood the reality of death and dying like no other monk or nun in the community. He could teach about it in the acceptable Theravadan monastic manner but his reality was not a sterile, intellectual view. His recovery from the head wound was nothing short of miraculous. He had been left untended for more than four hours on the battlefield, conscious and with no pain-killing medication, waiting for the landing zone to be adequately secured before the wounded could be evacuated. During that time he was completely blind but still able to feel, hear and smell everything that was going on around him. He developed a life-long aversion to the smell of his own blood in consequence. He finally lost consciousness after he was shot in the back as the helicopter took off.
There was no special provision for nursing the sick and the dying in the western Buddhist monasteries during the early 1990’s. Extraordinarily, in that hour of trial, his thoughts turned to me as one of the very few members of the lay community who had been fully aware of the details of the crisis of the previous summer and autumn at Chithurst. During that cold January night he decided that of all the people he knew, I was the one he wanted at his bedside in the hour of his passing. He had two years, three months, three weeks and four days left to live. I was in the office at the monastery later that same morning when he took the call from Thailand announcing the death of Ajahn Chah.
I can truthfully say with great love, respect and humour that there is no doubt that I was subjected to some considerable degree of manipulation when it came to accepting his proposal at the end of February 1992 that I should become intimately involved in his life. As my Preceptor he was already aware that I was intending to be divorced that year. That confidential information coupled with my proven abilities to plan, organize and carry out orders and the fact that I had previously made a private study of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made me unwittingly attractive to the Vietnam veteran monk as well as my experiences with the dying that had taken me beyond the fear of death.
My initial reaction to being told of his plans was one of shock and disbelief. As time went on I came to head a small group of lay people loyal to Ajahn Ãnando and to the monastic community who were aware of his situation and agreed that he should be given all the help he needed in order to disrobe rather than be put under the additional stress of being pressurized to stay. His family was equally supportive of his decision to leave. I carried out his orders, he left, I left with him and then we wanted to live forever but it was not to be.
He was heavily criticized after his unorthodox return to the lay life for apparently not taking the trouble to discuss his situation before making such a drastic move. To be fair to him he did try to talk to his fellow senior monks in the aftermath of ‘meltdown’ but they couldn’t hear what he had to say. It was Greg Klein talking and they were only familiar with their perception of Ajahn Ãnando.
It says a lot for his strength of character that he made any attempt to communicate at all. War veterans quickly learn the value of silence. They get out of the habit of talking about difficult things to anyone except fellow veterans. They learn that no one wants to speak about the unspeakable. They know that war is ugly and devoid of morality and no one else wants to know. War veterans are not crazy, they’re just different and they’re like they are because they have had to do things that we don’t want to do. They know what bullets do to bodies and the images haunt them for the rest of their days while we live comfortably in the peace and prosperity bought at the price of their shattered lives. A severely traumatized war veteran is only predictable in a state of crisis in that he or she will inevitably fall back on the indelibly ingrained conditioning of their military training in order to survive.
The monastic and lay communities had their projections of who they thought Ajahn Ãnando was and what he should be, other Vietnam veterans recognized the reality. They would accuse him of being in denial of his deeply rooted trauma; they were not wrong, neither were they wholly right. He had reached a working compromise with his experience of war that sustained him through his years as a monk but would not be enough to take him peacefully into his own death. For that he needed the space and freedom to be able to assess his time in the Marine Corps and his almost twenty years as a Buddhist monk and to that end he dictated his memoirs to me before he died.
It was not easy listening. I heard it all over countless hours of discussion and evaluation and sometimes it took all my courage and fortitude not to react as Ãnando worked through the process of coming to terms with Greg Klein and found love for him.
‘Hearing myself talk on tape for the first time about my own aversion to fear struck a cord in me. By then I knew enough about meditation practice to understand quite clearly that I had touched the heart of the problem. It wasn't so much the fear itself as my lack of acceptance of it that sometimes made me react with anger towards it. Anger in some situations is more socially acceptable than fear. We can use anger as a smoke screen for fear. We can approach people who frighten us with aggression and if we are not clear about what is really going on, we can blame the person we're angry with for causing it. But it's not them, it's us and we have to take responsibility for our own actions, we cannot blame anyone else. If we're frightened or angry or jealous, it's our own doing, no one else's. It is natural to respond to negative conditions of mind with resistance and I really hated fear. I hated being afraid; I also feared it and both responses reinforce and empower it.'
Significantly he had addressed himself to me as Greg from the moment he asked me to help him to leave the monastery. He had no intention of sheltering behind his ordained name and title in the lay life. He had made his decision and all that remained was to carry it out. He hired me to love him and to watch his back as he watched mine. When he became terminally sick, he smiled and handed me ‘the gun’. I had my orders and I fought for what he wanted, what he needed and what he should have. From our first days together we had made a practice of appreciating every moment of every day. Even when we were dealing with the brain tumour there was still the finely tuned awareness, there was still the laughter and the love. We were never complacent and when the time came he died a good death.
Complacency is a luxury not one of us cannot afford in this increasingly fragile world. As the theatre of war expands and the possibility of protracted involvement increases, perhaps there is still something to be learned from Greg/ Ãnando’s life experience.
Our age-old oaths of fealty to ‘warriors, priests and kings’ are lost in our twenty-first century world. The kings are either elected men or movie stars, we no longer bow and make way for our warriors as they pass and our priests have to compete for support on equal terms with an educated laity. In these troubled times our kings must be accountable to history for their actions but our warriors and priests are still in need of our active interest and cooperation. We still need their reality and we need their myth. And they need us. Even in Buddhism where there is no concept of a ‘God’, it is still acceptable and desirable to pray.
Whether in victory or defeat, those who have been or are engaged in active duty in whatever war should be honoured and their sense of worthy vocation should be encouraged to stimulate their most excellent intention and moral view. As the veterans often discover when they revisit the battlefield long after the smoke has cleared, the enemy is just another human being desperately trying to stay alive and go home.
Our priests, including the monks and nuns of whatever religion, have undertaken a worthy responsibility and in threatening their vocation we threaten the very nature of the sacred ideal we expect them to uphold and represent. Just as our warriors should not be expected to shoulder the blame for faulty governmental decision and procedures, our priests should not be reduced to competition with the educated laity as spiritual guides and teachers. If we don’t recognize and respect what it is that our warriors and priests represent in our lives, how can they respect themselves or what they have to do?
Greg was dying of cancer before he realized how much he was loved and
how he had been appreciated. The letters came pouring in. I read them
to him on days when he was too exhausted to read them for himself.