I first laid eyes on Bhikkhu Danassaro, or Bhikkhu Dan as he called himself, when he showed up at one of our fortnightly Buddhist Meditation for Westerners classes.

Bob Kalish observes life from a placid place on the island of Arrowsic (motto: You’re not in Georgetown yet). You can reach him at [email protected]

Classes took place on Monday evenings in a small room in Bangkok’s notable temple, Wat Bowonniwet, led by a small American woman dressed only in a white sheet, which I learned later was not a sheet at all but nun’s robes. My wife and I had been in country for a couple of months, it was the early 1970s, everything seemed to be in flux, the times were changing. Strange words were appearing in public, words like meditation and enlightenment. Meditation was no longer a mystery since Time Magazine had put the Beatles and their teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on the cover.

That first night Sudhamma introduced us to the farang (the Thai word for a non-Thai), saying only that he grew up in California and had an “interesting” story to tell about how he stumbled onto the Dharma (The Teaching).

There were about 18 of us in the group. The routine was the same every session and included a short reading from the Buddhist sutras and then the hard part – sitting on the floor for 40 minutes, with the help of small cushions to ease the discomfort of a long sit. Bhikkhu Dan didn’t say much, but went around helping the others be comfortable in their pain. Then it was Q&A time, and when it came to the farang monk’s turn he said, “I’ve killed way too many people.”

As a Navy helicopter pilot, he said he never thought about what he did. It was his job to protect his Marine Corps buddies and that he did well. Now he wore the robes of the Buddhist monk and had vowed not to kill any living creature.

When he was in his chopper, he said, the people on the ground weren’t real. The only reality was the sound of shells exploding and screams. He knew little of the truth of suffering.

Then Dan met an Air Force chaplain who gave him a book about the Buddha just in time for his last mission. It was a routine back-up of a ground patrol and Dan was soon to be free from the karmic chains that bound him.

A boy ran out of a cootie just as Dan unleashed his bullets and the boy fell to the ground. Bikkhu Dan didn’t know if the boy lived or died, but knew he could not kill again.

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