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A letter To Vietnam from veteran George Evans
This piece is included in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (Koa Books), a new collection of writings from a series of writing and meditation workshops for veterans and their families led by author and editor Maxine Hong Kingston. Poet George Evans served in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1960s as a medical corpsman, stationed in Libya in 1967 and in Vietnam in 1969. In Vietnam, he became involved in various forms of antiwar protest and was eventually court-martialed, ostensibly for disobeying orders; the prosecution was unsuccessful, and he was honorably discharged in 1970.
“Garden of Heaven” refers to Tenshin-en, the Japanese rock garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The author, George Evans, visited the garden with the North Vietnamese writers Ms. Le Minh Khue and Mr. Huu Thinh, both of Hanoi and both combat veterans of the Vietnam War. They were visiting the United States for the first time.
They were talking when we entered the garden, two young people whispering with their hands, mist threads drifting from mountaintops on the raked gravel ocean. Islands afloat on the skin of infinity. The mind without its body.
“The moment I saw your face,” he said, “was like walking into the Hall of a Thousand and One Bodhisattvas.”
She had no idea what he meant, how it is to enter Sanjusangendo in Kyoto for even the fiftieth time and see row upon row of a thousand standing figures, carved, painted, and gold-leafed with a calm but stunned look of enlightenment, five hundred on each side of a larger, seated figure of their kind, miniature heads knotted to their scalps representing the fragments of a time when their heads exploded in dismay at the evil in this world, the way our heads exploded in the war, though we don’t wear our histories where they can be seen.
Each statue has twenty pairs of arms to symbolize their actual 1,000 arms, these enlightened ones who choose to remain on earth and not end the cycle of death and rebirth some believe we go through until we get it right. They pause at the edge of nirvana to stay behind and help us all get through. It’s easy to think they are foolish instead of holy. But each hand holds twenty-five worlds it saves, and because each figure can multiply into thirty-three different figures, imagine the thirty-three thousand worlds they hold, how much distress there really is, then multiply that by a thousand and one and think of what it’s like to stand in an ancient wooden temple with all that sparkling compassion, even for those of us who believe in almost nothing.
It is said, and it’s true, that if you search the thousand faces, you will find the face of someone lost from your life. But the young girl in the garden was bored and looked over her lover’s shoulder at a twist of flowers. Then so did he. The spell was broken.
We are older. There are so many wasted lives between us that only beauty makes sense. Yet we are like them. We are. They are the way it is between our countries. One talking, one looking away. Both talking, both looking away.
We entered the garden by chance. We were like the rocks there, plucked from some other place to be translated by circumstance into another tongue. In the silent crashing of stone waterfalls, and the rising of inanimate objects into music, we remembered there was a time we would have killed each other.
In the future we will think of it again. We might get drunk beneath a great moon and see one another’s eyes in a pool of water, or remember in a glance across a Formica table in a kitchen filled with friends and noisy children, or while walking down the street. But it will not be the same.
It is called realizing you have lived, and it happens only once.