Soaring Spirit with Tears


The Tet Offensive

by Ingrid Naiman

At this point, if you are still reading these essays, you might wonder what I was doing in Vietnam. I was an economist working for the State Department in a large office that had people who were career diplomats (embassy), USAID economists, and economists recruited specifically for Vietnam, some from the "outside" such as myself and some seconded from the military. A few of these people went on to become quite well known and a few probably remain obscure.

These people were mostly young and unmarried because every effort was made not to separate men from their families; and families were not permitted to be in Vietnam. This said, there were, in fact, quite a number of married men. Initially, I was the only professional woman in this office, but later I had an assistant, a lovely Vietnamese economist who had studied economics in Tasmania. Lily was extremely popular with the men in our office, but she had her sights set very high. . . and much as many were queuing up to see her, I am reasonably certain no one won her heart.

Lily and I were a remarkable team, but the story would take a long time to tell. In war, everything is hugely intensified so even a bowl of noodles or look on the face can sometimes remain engraved in your memory for what seems like eternity.

Lily and her brother and sisters and father went to visit family during the Tet holidays; they were trapped during the Offensive. Her mother stayed in town. I visited her every day and though I brought food, she refused to eat, so deep was her fear of never seeing her family again. I was also worried sick.

Unlike most of our closest working relationships in South Vietnam—I mean the employees of the U.S. Goverment—Lily's family was from the South. They were not dislocated in the same way that refugees from the North were. Their roots were in South Vietnam and there is always a special grace about people who have roots, who know where their homes are, and who love the land with a reverence that sometimes seemed like a curious mixture of earthy aristocracy and ancient Confucianism. The longer Lily was missing, the harder work was for me. I looked at the empty desk and every day that went by without Lily seemed longer and longer. I cared that persons as totally innocent as Lily and her sisters and brother were all missing. Her brother was still young, fortunately too young to draft, but not too young to be seen as a liability by Viet Cong.

In writing this, I am not taking sides. I think all warring parties are in error. It's my personal point of view that all important actions should be consensual so just as I do not think it right to take a woman by force simply because men have stronger muscles, so I also do not think politicians or generals have a right to actions that are brutal and nonconsensual. Killing is killing whether it is done lawfully or criminally. For me, it's the same, and there are no moral ways to destroy, no moral ways to terminate lives, and no moral ways to seize property or territory or prerogatives. These have to be granted in accordance with mutual agreements that are entirely voluntary, not coerced.


When I asked my teacher to interpret the spiritual vows he was accepting from me, he defined stealing as taking anything that is not freely offered. I have had much occasion to reflect on this definition and have concluded that what is not offered in the spirit of true giving never really belongs to the supposed recipient because the recipient has not, in fact, relinquished his attachment to the "gift." In this case, the karmic cycle is not completed and the repercussions will come when the opportunity for harmony presents itself.

Similarly, every conflict is an opportunity to create harmony and every waste of such opportunity merely ups the ante so that each subsequent effort to establish some meeting of the minds (and hearts) requires more effort because there are more issues to address and redress. In the case of murder, it is my deepest belief that the killer will one day have to restore opportunity to a deserving person who has the right to ask any sacrifice needed in order that the former victim be permitted the opportunity to finish his education, find a fulfilling career, watch his children grow up, and experience all that might have been had he not been cut down in a former lifetime.

Those who kill suffer the psychological repercussions of apparitions seeking balance from the very ones who robbed them of the precious gift of life and love and the opportunity to fulfill destiny. Granted, I admit that not everyone who fires a gun is aware of the depth of the discord and its ramifications for the future, but whether there is a conscious attempt to make sense of insanity or merely blind obedience to orders, there is karma. . . and as Nechung Rinpoche explained, the more intent there was in the murder, the worse the karma. He had every reason to know, for he had been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese who sought his assistance in persuading Tibetans to accept their dominion. He refused, and like many others who do not take the line of least resistance, the price was steep, but he did not have the fears that those who perpetrate the abuses have . . . for deep inside everyone, the desire for balance is such that we all know that the piper will be paid.


Lily and her family lived under the floor of a house for many days—I no longer remember exactly how many, but I want to say around two weeks. Happily, however, they were eventually able to return to Saigon, shaken and exhausted but alive. Lily came to the office and grabbed my arm so instinctively and firmly that her fingerprints remained for several days. She said her mother had told her about my visits and that the family wanted me to come to dinner.

We had a delicious celebratory dinner at which, among others things, they adopted me into their family and gave me their family name. It was a long and wonderful evening, relaxed, trusting, warm, and deeply symbolic. Marshall law was, of course, still in effect so it was obvious from the beginning that I was staying until morning. Seeing Lily's mother eat again made me very happy. I fully believed she would have starved herself to death and died of grief had everyone not returned.

That was many years ago, and I have had more than thirty years to ask how it was that they were spared, all of them, not just some of them. It has to be karma.


As dreadful as the Tet Offensive had been, this night was a happy one. We were all so grateful to be together, to be safe, and yet this joy was tarnished by the knowledge that the neighbor's little boy had been killed in his sleep when a mortar round came through the roof of their home straight into his tiny body.

Now a member of the family, I was to hear the stories that would never have been shared with someone less trusted. Anyone who has been permitted into the inner sanctum knows the shift in reality that occurs when one knows, when one really knows and feels and realizes that this knowing transcends all other semblances of knowing.

Most of our lives, we wander aimlessly, seeing nameless faces, faces we recognize but do not truly know, and then miraculously, a few people touch us in ways that open the doors to infinity, and what is so remarkable about these experiences is that the moment you have them, you realize this same inner wealth of personal history and emotion is within the heart and soul of every living creature in the Universe.

It is not enough that some fingers leave their mark on your arm; the eyes must engrave your soul and change how you see life. If you have never had this experience, you perhaps do not know that all love is mystical and all who love are blessed by Divine Love in such a way that they acknowledge their oneness with everything and everyone.


When America 911 brought senseless violence to our own shores, I felt these same heartbeats in the spirit of many Americans as well as people all around the world who responded in shock to the horror of what had happened and how it might escalate.

"Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me."

For me, the message is the same in all religions: love, act with compassion, and offer yourself in service to the Divine.



Poulsbo, Washington