Margaret—Brave Soldier, Brave Soul


Donald Schnell and Marilyn Diamond

Donald Schnell told me a moving story about a very brave woman for my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. Here are excerpts from his story, beginning with his bio.

Schnell authored The Initiation, a memoir of his encounter in India with Babaji, the legendary deathless guru. With his wife, Marilyn Diamond (coauthor of Fit for Life), Schnell coauthored Fitonics for Life, which offers a comprehensive program for total wellness. He took the name Prema Baba Swamiji after being initiated as a swami in India in 1997. Click here to visit his website.

I met Margaret in a Black History night class at Fayetteville State University. She needed the credit for the nursing degree she was working toward. We were both stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, proud members of the 82nd Airborne. She was twenty-four, five years older than me, a divorced, African-American mother of two—four-year-old Joe and five-year-old “Little Maggie.”

Nobody messed with Margaret. She was a loner who had clearly had a hard life. She wasn’t well educated but she was very bright and a good conversationalist. You could see a fire to succeed in her eyes. In attitude and appearance, she reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg, albeit a bit chunkier with a short military haircut.

Did I mention her willpower? After watching me add significant muscle to my frame with a rigorous weight-training regimen, she lost forty pounds in ninety days on a strict tuna-and-water diet. Wow. The discipline it took to be in the military, go to school, raise two kids on your own, and eat nothing but tuna for three months was astonishing.

On top of all that, this was 1974, and while women could technically join the military, the men in charge at Fort Bragg, or “Little Hell” as we grunts called it, made it clear that women were less than welcome. As the only white soldier in an all-black unit, courtesy of the military’s ongoing plan to integrate the army, I could sympathize with Margaret’s struggle to fit in. If it hadn’t been for my roommate, James Bailey, sticking up for me, my time in the barracks would have been unpleasant, to say the least.

So I was glad when James invited Margaret to join the early-morning zazen—or “sitting Zen”—group I had started. Zazen is the practice that Buddha used to attain spiritual enlightenment. The requirements are demanding. The meditator sits Japanese-style on the heels, the weight of the body is held one-half inch off the heels by the strength of the legs, the chin is parallel to the floor, and every effort is made to hold a perfectly erect position. You sit absolutely still and keep the attention focused on the present moment, the breath, and nothing else. It’s a powerful technique used by many martial artists because it sharpens the mind and body very quickly.

Our days were full so we would have to be up by 4 AM in order to get an hour of zazen in. Soon we had five meditating military monks in our zendo—the space where the group practice of Zen takes place. As more soldiers kept joining, we moved from the barracks to a recreation hall, where we practiced around the pool tables. Most of us wore just a T-shirt and combat fatigue pants. It could be quite cold that early in the morning, but in zazen you learn to ignore the needs of the body. What’s a little cold compared to the goal of liberation and spiritual enlightenment?

I used a pool cue as a kyokyaku stick, also known as the stick of compassion, to keep the fires of meditation burning. The roshi, or Zen priest, uses the stick if your posture weakens or you start to fall asleep. He strikes you on either the right or left shoulder. After you are struck, you bow to the roshi in gratitude for keeping you on the path to enlightenment. The loud “crack” of the kyokyaku stick has been known to bring many a monk into spiritual enlightenment. Because the crack happens in the moment, it forces you to awaken into the moment. Remember, Buddha means “the awakened one.” To remind others of the transitory nature of life is an act of great compassion.

The fact that Margaret would get up so early and put the time in to sit Zen with us was exceptional considering all her other commitments. She never missed a morning’s sesshin, as they were called, so we all knew something was amiss when she didn’t show up one day. That afternoon, we found out she had been diagnosed with an advanced case of leukemia. She was in great pain, and the doctors gave her only a short time to live.

Remarkably, Margaret continued to attend sesshin for as long as she could. She said that the meditation helped her manage the pain and get through her day. For all of us in sesshin, Margaret became the Buddha by virtue of her indomitable will. Her inner strength was incredible. Every day, no matter how she was feeling, she asked for an extra dose of the compassion stick from me.

Inevitably, the morning came when Margaret failed to show. I found her in the hospital later that day, practicing her zazen in spite of the heavy pain medication. She asked me if there was a way I could bring the sesshin to her hospital room. “Of course,” I told her. Thereafter, nine of us gathered at the hospital early every morning to keep the sesshin going.

I’m sure our practice inspired a number of double-takes. Imagine a typical military doctor striding into the room with, “Hello, how we doing today?” only to find nine soldiers sitting on the floor in perfect, silent zazen around the bed, in which sat his patient, totally still and erect. When doing a sesshin, we would not even veer from our practice to acknowledge the doctor or anyone else who entered the space. The sesshin was our time to focus on our inner divinity. Often Margaret’s two young children, Joe and Little Maggie, would participate by sitting on the master sergeant’s lap. The kids behaved because their mother had taught them the rules. After a few days, Margaret’s doctor got into the spirit of things. He realized he was walking into a zendo temple. He came in quietly and performed his examination serenely. It was a total shift in typical hospital protocol.

As Margaret grew weaker, she took advantage of her tilting mattress to keep her upright. She would just lie back with the bed tilted at the proper angle. In Japan when a person is dying, a screen is placed in front of them that shows the Buddha traveling to heaven. The screen is used as a reminder about where we are to focus during our final journey. I told her about the screen and its symbolism—and desperately wished I could provide one for her—but we both knew it wasn’t likely that we’d find a Buddha screen in the bible belt of North Carolina. I was touched when she told me that I was her screen, her reminder to look to heaven and follow the Buddha.

The doctors were amazed at how calm and accepting Margaret was about her impending death. Her poise and grace were extraordinary. She was taking about one-third of the pain medication that similar patients would take. On some days, she took none at all. They didn’t understand how that was possible. Since Margaret had no family to speak of, the master sergeant was busy making arrangements with social organizations to take care of Joe and Little Maggie.

One spring morning, we arrived to find Margaret’s bed empty. We learned from the doctor that Margaret had died peacefully around 4 AM. He said she rang the bell for assistance, but when they got there she had already died. They found her bed tilted up and Margaret sitting comfortably with a peaceful look on her face—a Zen Buddhist to the end.

Margaret had a military funeral, disguised as a weapons training procedure. Military funerals for ordinary soldiers are not customary, but all the arrangements had been quietly made by the master sergeant. The chaplain was absent, so the master sergeant read the Twenty-third Psalm. I was given the privilege of folding the American flag that adorned Margaret’s simple casket and presenting it to her children. I walked toward them in the slow, dignified, carefully measured steps of the walking form of Zen meditation known as kinhin. A lump formed in my throat that I couldn’t control.

“Your mother was so strong, Joey,” I whispered as I knelt close to him. His big sad eyes looked directly into mine. “Keep this flag to always remind you of how strong you are and how strong your mother was.” “Is my Mommy coming back?” he asked. With tears streaming down my face, I told him, “She’s with God now.”

As Joe took the flag in his hands, he stood straight at attention while tears rolled down his cheeks. Standing beside him, I rested my palm upon Little Maggie’s head. She reached up for me to hold her, which I did. Her little arms squeezed around me in the tightest grip I’d ever known. She buried her head in my shoulder and sobbed.

Rifle shots rang out, unexpectedly, like the crack of the kyokyaku stick. For me, and I’m sure for most of the zendo group, they symbolized Buddha’s teaching to awaken in this very moment to the preciousness of life.

Click here to view all my posts related to my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything.

Click here to see all my posts related to the military.


Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the one book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.

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