KYOTO JOURNAL: Some people seem to be able to pull themselves up and realize the ideal. there seems to be a “transcendent will” at work, You have arrived in a place most people would have a hard time getting to. Can you tallk about that?
AIDAN DELGADO: That’s a really good question because I felt like there were two opposing transcendent wills in me when I joined the army. I signed up because I had this shining ideal in my mind of what America was since I had lived my whole life overseas as the son of a U.S. Diplomat and had no real experience of my home country. So, to me, America was this imagined place where all good things were, where movies and music and freedom and culture all came from. So I had this concept that to be part of the army was to serve freedom, truth, justice, the American way. I was 18, and this was my ideal. So, I enlisted and I went through a brutal basic training, and gradually that ideal began to get chipped away. I was beginning to see it for what it was. And then I got deployed and went to war and saw what it was all about. To me, it was essentially violence, oppression, racism, and nationalism. Americans tend to see themselves as the “shining city on the hill,” and everyone else as inferior. Having lived overseas, this was not something I could get behind.
You had a different perspective…
Absolutely. Most guys in my unit were rural southerners who had never left home. So for them, an Iraqi, an Arab Muslim, might as well have been an alien. I had just come from eight years in Cairo where I had an Egyptian girlfriend, spoke Arabic, and lived among Egyptians. So to me, going to Iraq was no big deal.
Arab culture is so different, and Arabic is so far removed from the experience of most Americans that it sounds like gibberish. So it was easy for fellow soldiers to say that Iraqis were not like them at all. That is why there was so much more abuse in Iraq than there might be if we were at war, say, with a European country.
Yet you decided to become a Buddhist. What happened inside in order for you to take that step?
Well, I was already starting to become a Buddhist while I was in basic training. It was growing in me, but I wasn’t very serious about it. Like most Americans, religion was like a Sunday morning thing. But I began to feel like a hypocrite. I remember well, because I’d be reading a Buddhist sutra about peace, non-violence, compassion, and mercy, and then I’d go out for bayonet and rifle training. I am saying, “Okay, this is the life I am living, I have a bayonet in my hands.” But in my mind, I am thinking Diamond Sutra. There was such a disconnect that I felt wicked. I felt like an evil person because in my mind, I knew what was right, but here I was with a rifle and a bayonet.
When I was in the navy, a lot of guys were very religious…
Yes, but Christianity is a religion that is more serviceable to militarism than Bud-dhism is. We have a doctrine of the “just war” and Christianity has been used to justify war. There are chaplains who preach war from the pulpit. Yet with Buddhism, it is almost impossible to subvert the teachings to justify war because it is so explicitly pacifist. It was a big disconnect for me because most of the guys in my unit were Christians.
Then, I go to Iraq, I am deployed. One important moment came when I was at prison camp. I’m a guard, sitting on the other side of the wire, and I am writing a letter home to my girlfriend. It sounds so trivial…I am looking up at this strip of flypaper. All these moths are stuck to it and struggling to get off, and they are struggling so hard that they are tearing their wings off and killing themselves to get free. I am looking up at the flypaper and then I look out the window at these Iraqi guys tied up behind barbed wire with bags over their heads. Here I am, reading a book on Buddhist sutras and writing home to my girlfriend, and I am pouring it all out. I told her I am the worst Buddhist in the world. I am the most sinful Buddhist, because I’m here and I know better. I don’t have any guts. I am just doing what my officers tell me to do: carrying my weapon, being a prison guard. And I am oppressing these people, keeping them in cages. I just wrote how far from my Buddhist ideals I was, so far away that I felt damned, like I was in hell.
I wrote this long letter and afterwards I had this sensation that I could die or I could change my ways. I couldn’t be silent anymore. Either my Buddhist ideals or the army had to go. So I talked to my sergeant and my superior and I said, “Look, I can’t do this, the war is wrong, I can’t do this.”
How did you deal with their reactions?
Both of them were very supportive. Both were Christians, and my sergeant — a big Black southern Christian — took me aside and very kindly told me, “The ideals of Christianity are the same as those of Buddhism. But as long as you are a soldier and you don’t fight with hatred in your heart, it is all right; it’s not a sin.” I turned to him and said that in Buddhism, to do violence, to pull the trigger, that is hatred; there is no difference. And then he told me, “I will support you, but you are going to do the hardest thing you have ever done in your life and know that others are going to crucify you.” I was really frightened and knew they would do whatever they could to me. Yet whatever happened — even if they killed me — it could not be worse than what I was already feeling at that moment. I spent nights awake, staring at the ceiling, and feeling I was the devil. So, I was willing to chance it.
I wrote ‘conscientious objector’ on the official form and turned it in. I felt a liberation; a weight lifted off me because no matter what happened next I was free. And that was when I felt that “ideal” you were talking about, a “transcendent will.” Something was pulling me out of this.
Two nights before I applied for CO, I was in bed and I got to thinking about suffering. Suffering is central in Buddhism, you know. I thought about the real suffering that I had seen in my life — living in the slums of Bangkok, living in West Africa, living in Cairo and then seeing what we were doing in Iraq. The enormity of world suffering crushed me. I couldn’t breathe; my chest was cracking because I was thinking about the suffering in North Korea, the suffering in Iraq, and the suffering at home in America, and it was all more than I could handle. Then, something turned and I had that moment of empathy, like world empathy. Compassion, I felt true compassion for everyone who was suffering. I just wanted them to be okay and I didn’t want to add to the world suffering. And then all the pain went away. I felt free. I was walking around in Iraq at night like I was drunk. I was seeing everything for the first time and that compassion was so strong that it enabled me to survive.
It helped me endure the next eight months in Iraq, which I spent without weapons. Everybody ostracized me. Yet I kept that memory of how much everyone is suffering and how not to be a part of that. You are in a clouded world, and suddenly the sun breaks through and shines on you. There is a vision of what the world could be or what you could be and you know it won’t last, the sun won’t be on you forever but just having a memory of it is enough to sustain you.
That is Buddhist compassion…
I’d never experienced anything like it.
There is an exercise — you meditate on people you love and you wish for their happiness, and then you meditate on the people you don’t know, and then people who are in difficulty, or those whom you are angry with. The meditation gets wider and wider.
Many of us are seeking a place of peace and compassion. What advice would you give to help us get there?
It may be crazy, but like Dante’s Inferno, the way to heaven is through hell… through the deepest pit of hell…then you come out the bottom and pass through it. For me, it was impossible to have real compassion living a normal life, because in America it was so easy to “turn off the volume.” I had to go to Iraq and see suffering, real deep suffering, before I could get to that point. The shell really cracked; I broke through this apathy. Normal mind is like armor, and you have to experience something so traumatic, so emotional, that it breaks it down.
Since my father was a diplomat, I had always been surrounded by real poverty and suffering, but in America most of us don’t know suffering, we don’t know deep poverty. It’s experiencing something so bad, so hellish, that you can’t put it out of your mind. I don’t recommend putting people through trauma, yet it is the door to spirituality, religion, whatever you want to call it. I think people who have seen poverty or been in war zones, people who have been in hospitals, they have a level of connection that is so real. It is not intellectual. You can’t intellectualize yourself into a real understanding of that.
Top image: Korean War Monument, Korea War Memorial Museum, Seoul by John Einarsen