Author Paul Kendel’s spiritual awakening came in the crosshairs of a combat zone

Staff Sgt. Paul M. Kendel was deployed to Iraq in May 2005. Within months of his arrival, he experienced the horror of losing eight of his fellow National Guardsmen to IEDs. He witnessed the insanity of religious intolerance, as Sunni and Shi’ite civilians urged American infantrymen to shoot their rival neighbors on the streets. But nothing prepared Kendel for the decree from the high command: an order to shoot and kill all dogs on sight.

The family dog is the equivalent of a home security system for many Iraqis, and soldiers’ attempts to catch suspected insurgents off-guard were invariably quelled by the sounds of barking. Hence the order.

“I wasn’t really into that,” admits Kendel, of his company’s task of killing these literal dogs of war. “I didn’t even take it that seriously. Except for that one time with the grenade launcher.”

That particular incident is part of Kendel’s new memoir, “Walking the Tiger’s Path — A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq,” in which the Jacksonville-based special education teacher chronicles a year that changed every aspect of his life. In that particular account, some fellow soldiers unsuccessfully took aim at a mangy hound absentmindedly sniffing its way along the desert floor. As the dog fled the M16 fire, Kendel — in a moment born of boredom as much as duty — raised the barrel of a high-explosive launcher skyward. Failing to factor the difference in elevation between him and his target, Kendel watched in horror as the round exploded in the front yard of a family home, mere feet away from a group of children. The soldiers climbed back into their vehicles and sped away. Writes Kendel, “That was the last time I made any pretense of attempting to shoot a dog.”

A spiritual awakening can take many forms, yet by definition implies being stirred from slumber. A pampered Indian prince, fed up with the hollowness of existence, embarked on a lengthy meditation only to awaken as The Buddha — literally, “awakened one.” Theologians argue whether Christ was born of divinity or was somehow “awakened” after 40 days spent in isolation in the desert.

A devout atheist, Paul Kendel doesn’t believe in God and is openly skeptical of organized religion. Speaking to him at a Mandarin-based sports bar, it’s clear that the 43-year-old California native would cringe at being compared to any religious figure. And he’s no self-abnegating Buddhist. When I suggested conducting the interview at a nearby bookstore, Kendel opted for this particular location for other spirit-based reasons. When he sits down for dinner, he orders steak.

But Kendel isn’t a typical soldier, either. When readying for deployment, he packed several books: “The Iliad,” “The Koran,” Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” — and one slender volume that was almost an afterthought: “Turning the Mind into an Ally” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The 49-year-old Rinpoche (or “precious one” in Tibetan) is the head of the Shambhala branch of Buddhism, as well as Shambhala International, a global network that includes dozens of meditation centers, retreats and, most famously, Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. — the first Buddhist-inspired academic institution to receive national accreditation. Sakyong is the son of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a celebrated and controversial teacher who galvanized the West by combining Tibetan Buddhist practices with what he called “crazy wisdom.” A notorious alcoholic who was also a sage-like teacher, Rinpoche Senior drew equally radical followers, including beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Kendel was drawn to the secular approach to the Shambhala tradition; he is openly skeptical of what he calls “some God running the show.”

“When I was a kid, my mom vacillated from Catholicism to the Protestant church,” he explains. “The Catholic churches were prettier, so she liked that, but the Protestants were nicer.”

Kendel grew up in the Huntington Beach area of California, eventually enlisting in the Army for three years. After getting his BA in history at California State Long Beach in 1994 (“Where Kevin Costner graduated,” Kendel jokes), he signed up for the National Guard to help finance his education. While earning masters degrees in anthropology and history, with an emphasis on the Middle East, Kendel traveled in some of the areas where he’d later serve. “I guess I wanted to be Indiana Jones,” says Kendel, with a roll of his eyes. Amid his travels and academic pursuits, he also found time to marry his sweetheart Robin, a union that produced two sons, Alex and Sean.

After 9/11, Kendel was deployed to Saudi Arabia. He moved to Northeast Florida in 2003 to commute to his National Guard’s infantry unit in Valdosta. Four months after arriving in Jacksonville, Kendel was informed that he would be serving in the combat zone. By the time he was sent in ’05 for an active tour of duty in Iraq, Kendel says, he was ready.

“I was actually looking forward to meeting the people and seeing some cool stuff,” he says. “I had already traveled extensively on my own to places like Syria, for the culture. So all of the Arabs I had always met were totally friendly and cool. Granted, all of my travels took place pre-9/11.”

The Middle East that Kendel found himself in was not one that encouraged much sightseeing, nor were the locals greeting soldiers with open arms. But if Kendel was surprised by that reception, he was also caught off-guard by the impact Sakyong Mipham’s book had on him as he read on his military-issued cot. The Shambhala teaching is layered in warrior and battle imagery, with a key teaching about the “Tiger’s Path,” which urges controlling one’s mind like a tiger in the jungle, by practicing mindful awareness. The belief is that this practice leads to compassion and wisdom and, eventually, enlightenment. Key to this is the recognition that “every decision we make has repercussions.”

What read like spiritual niceties on paper were translated by the language of actual war, where karma is delivered in the form of exploding ammunition shells. Sgt. Kendel found himself trying to approach a frequently hostile citizenry with a helmeted head filled with Buddhist principles.

This personal journey became the basis for his narrative, which combines unflinching reports from the battlefield with Kendel’s hit-or-miss attempts at spirituality. Some scenes in the book roll by with dark humor and surreal gore: A widowed Iraqi woman wails over her dead husband, as soldiers snicker at the fact that the man’s testicle was blown off in the gunfire. An alleged WMD factory is saved from annihilation after Kendel and his fellow soldiers discover it’s actually a funeral home. One sequence describes Kendel and his men stuck with the unsavory task of moving the corpses of two men they dub “Chico and Esteban.”

“The men were fat, clearly well-fed. In fact, they had to be the fattest Iraqis in the whole country,” he writes. It takes four men to drag the bodies to the Humvee, where they discover that Chico has somehow developed an erection during rigor mortis. “’There’s ?no way I’m riding in the gunner’s seat near a dead Iraqi with a hard-on!’” hollers one exasperated soldier.

Yet for every grotesque field report, Kendel balances the story with his burgeoning sense of compassion. In one poignant segment, Kendel carries a child with Down syndrome, after he sees another soldier verbally and physically abusing the confused Iraqi boy. While it is doubtful Kendel’s experiments with empathy softened the hearts of either his enemies or allies, his book is a compelling spiritual travelogue.

“Over there, you had to find amusement in so much of this craziness, because you really had no other choice.”

After finishing reading Sakyong’s book, Kendel fired off an email back home to Shambhala International, explaining his frustration over trying to balance his newfound spirituality with his combat duties. He received a response from a representative of the center, and soon after was in contact with Sakyong himself.

“Since the purpose of your being there is wrathful compassion,” wrote the teacher, “the more force you have to apply, the greater your compassion should be.”

Kendel took the guidance to heart. While many soldiers were aggressive and even abusive to the local children who sold cans of soft drinks and candies, Kendel was a loyal repeat customer. And he consciously tried to counter the military’s indoctrinated indifference to different cultures. “It wasn’t like we ever had a class on the difference between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis,” he says. “I mean, George W. Bush himself invaded Iraq and he had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on. He didn’t even read a 50-page ‘Islam 101’ before he invades an ancient culture.” Kendel was equally disturbed by the “Kill for Christ” mentality of some soldiers, who looked at their active service as a religious campaign. “It’s all black and white,” he says by way of characterizing their perspective. “They are the bad guys — let’s ?get them.”

Yet Kendel’s attempts at practicing Sakyong’s lessons — even with those people who would love to see him blown to bits — managed to diffuse some heated moments among the troops and even between locals. One instance of “wrathful compassion” was his habit of having tea with the local villagers. He and a fellow soldier would approach a home and knock on the door and essentially demand, or at least strongly suggest, that the U.S. military would be open to enjoying a respite of bread and hot tea.

“It’s not like they worked,” he laughs. “They were basically squatters. But they took our visits almost like we were dignitaries. They’re really hospitable.”

In the book, Kendel describes kicking his feet up on coffee tables and firing up a cigar as his hosts bring him tea and sweets. “I did pretty much invite myself in.”

Throughout “Walking the Tiger’s Path,” it’s clear Kendel is no Dalai Lama. He’s involved in near-fistfights with other soldiers, makes near-fatal errors in judgment and displays a tacit understanding that he would kill anyone who committed an act of aggression. “I never forgot that I was in a war,” he says. Kendel also immortalizes the eight soldiers from his battalion who were killed just a week apart, their names and faces on the overleaf of his book the strongest reminder of the reality of his own perilous journey. Yet even within this tornado of bloodshed, the Shambhala teachings changed Kendel, opening his mind as it softened his heart.

By the end of Kendel’s tour of duty, he had survived many proverbial and literal bullets. Two of the most profound moments in his story, however, involve the changes in his family. After 10 months in the desert, Kendel was given leave to return to the bedside of his dying mother. His description of those last days spent with her, as he self-medicates with beer and Xanax, argues with the medical staff and watches her die before his very eyes, are some of the more gripping scenes in the book. Not long after his mother’s passing, Kendel’s wife Robin informed him she was dissolving their decade-long marriage and taking their two sons.

“There were issues in the marriage before the break-up,” says Kendel. “But either way, it was painful.”

Throughout his experience, Kendel gives credit to the direct encouragement and guidance given by Shambhala International. And in a powerful sense of closure, within a year of traveling the serpentine path from combat to the dharma, Kendel eventually finds an audience with Sakyong Mipham in person at the Shambhala center in Boulder. Since the publication of the memoir, Shambhala has been directly encouraging Kendel in his meditation practice and even booking him as a lecturer for their teachings at various centers. Richard Reoch, the president of Shambhala, tells Folio Weekly that he believes Paul Kendel’s story is ultimately one of amazing transformation.

“The story of Paul’s spiritual journey in Iraq shows that there is timeless wisdom ?that can be accessed even in the most ?extreme conditions.” Rather than seeing a paradox in Kendel’s practicing the dharma ?in war, Reoch sees symmetric and almost poetic possibilities. The Buddha taught of meditating on death by literal example, sitting among decaying corpses at the charnel grounds. Reoch sees a similarity in Kendel’s experience and finds it most apropos that the author had this awakening in the middle of a sea of death.

“Any valid spiritual path has to be able to embrace the totality of human existence,” Reoch says. “It has to make sense both in peace and in war.”

Buddhism has become a decidedly 21st-century trend and pop-cultural phenomenon. “Namaste” and “Free Tibet” bumper stickers are as ubiquitous as Starbucks and Wi-Fi connections. Yet the essential teachings of the Buddha, those same principles of mindfulness and compassion that somehow found Paul Kendel in war-torn Iraq, have permeated Western thought in weirdly roundabout ways. Eckhart Tolle’s best-selling book, “The Power of Now,” is essentially Buddhist principles directed at an Oprah-enlightened audience. Progressive religious scholars Thomas Merton, Karen Armstrong and Richard Rohr are but three well-known theologians who find obvious parallels between Buddha and that other radical spiritual misfit, Jesus Christ. The acclaimed psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn has turned the Buddha’s basic teachings into a practical method of reducing stress, illness and even physical pain — no burning incense or chanting required. Buddhism has even slipped into the world of 12-step programs, with recovery authors like Kevin Griffin and Tom Catton guiding souls from the methadone clinics to the meditation halls.

Nearly six years after his initial glimpse of the Buddha, Paul Kendel has now found a new path as a teacher of Combat Veteran Dharma. He’s actively involved with the Veterans Peace of Mind Project, an organization that helps veterans and their families deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. And barely six months after publication, “Walking the Tiger’s Path” is being gradually embraced by the greater Buddhist community, with internationally known dharma teachers Pema Chödrön, Susan Piver and Khadro Chagdud praising Kendel’s curious journey from violence to compassion. Kendel recently returned home from yet another tour of duty — this time, from a lecture at the Shambhala center in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

He has not, however, embraced Northeast Florida Buddhist groups, disparaging what he half-jokingly describes as “strip mall Buddhism.”

“I guess I just feel more at home in a Shambhala meditation hall.” While the Shambhala mandala, or network, is a global web with dozens of centers the world over, those centers are conspicuously absent in Northeast Florida.

Kendel says he has found some semblance of peace with his now ex-wife, and is still involved in the lives of his sons. He has started dating a woman who also practices the Shambhala teachings, and is finishing his second book, a prequel of sorts to his war story.

“As crappy as that year was,” Kendel concedes of his tour in Iraq, “it may have been the best year of my life.”

Out of much suffering, Kendel discovered a sense of peace and acceptance that, earlier in his life, would have seemed as foreign as the most tongue-tying esoteric mantra. “You have to learn to practice loving kindness and realize you are a good person, all of this shitty stuff that happens isn’t always your fault, and from there you can find true self-discovery.”

Dan Brow

[email protected]

Paul Kendel has a book signing on Saturday, Dec. 10 from 2-4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 11112 San Jose Blvd., Jacksonville. 886-9904, and again on Saturday, Jan. 7 from 2-4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble at St. Johns Town Center, 10280 Midtown Parkway, Jacksonville. 928-2027. More at walkingthetigerspath.com?

About FOLIO