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.
During Vietnam, which we say because the name signifies more than a place—it is an epoch, a paradigm, a memory, a mistake—during Vietnam, things were the same as they are now for those who are young and poor. We were standing around. There was no work, it was the beginning of our times as men, we were looking to prove ourselves, or looking for a way out. Some were patriots, and many were the sons of men who had gone to another war and come back admired. I don’t remember any mercenaries. We were crossing thresholds, starting to lie to ourselves about things, and because we were there and ambitious or desperate, when they passed out weapons, we took them. We didn’t understand the disordered nature of the universe, so disordered humans must try to arrange it, and if they get you young enough, you will help.
I’m grieved but not guilty. Sad but not ashamed.
That does not mean I lack compassion. It does not mean I sleep at night, or don’t sweat at night. It does not mean it is easy to live.
In parts of my country, I’m considered insane.
Thinking of it in terms of your country, I could say I was the son of peasants. We earned or made everything we had. I learned to honor people for what they do, not for their positions. I’ve never been able to escape the rightness of that. To explain it in terms of my country, it means: if I didn’t have enemies here, I would choose to live in exile.
We want the bones. We want all the bones. You will hear this. Good people will say it. They are all good people. They say it. They say: We want the bones. And they mean it, they mean what they say. They carry it into sleep, into their children, into the voting booth. We want the bones. That’s what we want. We don’t want the ghosts. You keep the ghosts. We don’t want them. Just the bones.
Your ghosts are driving us out of our minds.
In my country we shift blame. After the war, those who went became pariahs. Not the ones who started it, not the ones who carried it. And because not everyone can overlook rejection or memory, more who went have died by their own hand than by your mines or bullets. There are more suicides among us now than names on our monument in the capital, our broken dash against the landscape, scar that would span the city if it listed the actual dead, black river that would surge across the country if it listed everyone ruined on every side.
I want this remembering to end, yet cannot let it. It’s like drinking the ocean, but someone must remember, someone refuse to be tethered.
I visited your country at the wrong time, but if I had not I still would not understand the nature of things, would still think my country is paradise, which in many ways it is, but which it is not. It is built on graves, on bones, on promises broken and nightmares kept, on graves that howl deep in the earth, on skulls crushed with religious objects, on human skin used as rugs, on graves upon graves of graves. And we are always busy conquering ourselves.
Whatever it is holds us in a spell of wonder when we are children, abandoned me when the war began. I don’t mean just me or just youth, I mean something about this country. But I don’t mean just this country, I mean the world. I’ve spent my time searching for what it is, like a suicide who refuses to die, an optimist who is empty, a buoy on the sea.
In the dry garden where we walked, where stone represents water as well as itself, the Chinese characters of which mean the center or heart of heaven, there is a mountain represented, Mount Sumeru, the highest peak of every world, every world a bodhisattva holds in its hands, every world in the universe, and every world we live in, but it also represents the center of infinity, and because infinity has only centers, we were standing everywhere at once, and exchanged what could not be stated except in language which could never be spoken.
But we must speak it. The question is, how many heads do we have and how many arms and how many worlds do we hold, and just how far will we go to end our war.
The order of the universe is that there may be none, not like glasses lined up, each dish upon its shelf. And what we think is wild is not.
I want to be reasonable, it is something that interests, even haunts me, but given certain knowledge, how to be is more hellish.
The room here is small, and at times the way wind kicks up over the fence lip reminds me of animal howling and that in turn of an even smaller room, a box of sorts within a building stilted off the ground beneath a tin washboard roof hammered by rain in your country.
Our rooms there were like boxes really, perimeters not unlike the skin, and came to mean everything for each one, for each had the need to live in containment where there was none, to confine ourselves, as one might a crazed dog until it calms.
Perhaps it is not the past I should concern myself with, but not to speak of it and face what is still happening is not possible.
The double bonds of living for something and dying for something are ribbons that trail from us, drag behind or flap from us, and if I could understand it now or ever this business would be done.
I want to be reasonable, it is something I crave and wish I knew how to pray for but cannot pray, not having the faith of it, having seen.
We have friends, then we do not have them because we reach some border across which words cannot manage, across which silence will not bridge, and in the manner of children we stand without explanation or understanding, and there is no necessity that we question it. We learn to ignore those events which remove things in the way that we know of as “Before their time.” It’s another weapon we aim at our heads.
When we stood in the garden and looked at the stone bridges connecting islands on the gravel ocean, I felt the war lift from us in flames, inch by inch flowing into stone like a river on fire.
We ended something walking together, and started something.
I’ve read the war is over for you, but have never believed it. Victory is no balm for loss. Any of us may celebrate a moment, but we live a long time, and finality is not what we need, compassion is what we need. Let the future think about the war being over, because then it will be. We can’t afford to heal. If we do, we’ll forget, and if we forget, it will start again.
We’ve destroyed too much to be sentimental. We know that those above and those below the jungle canopy killed anything that got in the way, and we’re all guilty of something. Wars are always lost. Even if you win.
I returned to San Francisco sorry about some things I was unable to explain, especially the army of beggars in our streets, and how badly we treat the poor. The coldness of it, you see, is a symptom of killing nations at a distance, or even up against their breaths. It has also to do with how freedom can be like the end of a rope. It pollutes all notions of beauty, this living in the streets. My wife in those days pointed out that Americans do help one another during floods, earthquakes, and conflagrations. “That’s not compassion,” I said, “it’s convenience—only generosity when there is no disaster counts.” I’d become so wise, righteous anger made me happy. We sat in silence after that. Actually, one was washing dishes and one was peeling potatoes, we could hear the rattle of a bottle gleaner digging through the recycle bin on our sidewalk, a jet was passing over, John Lee Hooker was singing on the radio, the neighbors were having a horrible fight, there was a crash in the intersection, one of our cats spit at the other, and the phone rang but we ignored it, so it wasn’t really silent. Then she said, “We would all be wealthy if people were born honest.” So. Not all understanding comes from the barrel of a gun.
Stretched flat in deep grass resolute about the sickness of pursuits watching a moth on a beer can lip swing its curled tongue like an elephant trunk across the water dots. The only thing I know about fame and success is that they are stumbling blocks when they commandeer my attention. My real function is to think about things and listen, drunk and lazy, to the buzz in the grass, the millions of insects who do not care what I think. I’m tired of the world of people—they’re not to be trusted on the whole because they don’t understand death. It’s not that they’re unhappy, it’s just that they don’t understand death. I’m not above or beneath them, I’m just sometimes not one of them. I’ve seen too much to be fooled into thinking we know what we are doing. Maybe I’m getting too arrogant for my own good, but even that sounds stupid in the face of death. I understand the insects in the deep grass, even if I can’t repeat what they say.
I’ve come out to the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean before sunset. I told you my childhood friends were all killed in the war, and you told me similar things. It wasn’t difficult for me to also tell you I was never angry at your country. What was difficult was to tell you how angry I am at my own.
Pelicans overhead. The rose-colored hood of a finch in the bushes. I sit on a railroad tie post on a high cliff at the edge of North America.
Tourists drive up, take pictures, go home.
A cormorant. Sailboat. An Army gunship choppers over the beach.
Behind me, an Army base. In front of me, the sea.
I’m waiting for the sun to set, but it will not.
From Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, copyright 2006 Maxine Hong Kingston, editor, from Koa Books. First published in The New World, copyright 2002 George Evans. Reprinted by arrangement with Curbstone Press, curbstone.org.