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Light From a Rising Soul

Light From a Rising Soul

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Light From a Rising Soul

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Dec 18, 2020


In this rich and nuanced book, the spiritual writer, Dr. Donald Vessey, presents many of his ideas in the form of a fictional character, Daniel Beck. As a member of the U.S. Army Rangers in the Vietnam War, Dan is captured and ends up a POW housed in a small-town jail in North Vietnam. There he meets Bac Thay, a wise and compassionate Buddhist Master who is jailed for protesting the war. During their incarceration and his subsequent stay at Master Thay’s monastery, Thay opens Dan to a deep understanding of the divine nature of humanity, and helps him develop his experience of the spiritual dimension. This leads to a new appreciation for his Catholic upbringing. Dan returns home determined to help people find the love, joy, and meaning of authentic living beyond all conditioning and belief. He feels that being a Catholic priest would offer a way to impart this to people. As a result, Dan enters Catholic Seminary at the end of the war and becomes a priest. In his role as Father Dan, he helps a variety of people deal with difficult problems in very wise ways. However, he struggles to reconcile Buddhist teachings and his own personal understanding with the rigid doctrine of an organized religion. In his first full assignment as a parish priest, he encounters a variety of characters, both lovable and difficult. The story of the mysterious departure of his predecessor also unfolds. His attempts to unravel questions surrounding his experiences with an old girlfriend helps him examine his attempt to live a whole life. Full of practical spiritual wisdom, humor and heartwarming situations, as well as unforgettable characters, it is a book that is hard to put down all the way to its dramatic conclusion.

Dec 18, 2020

Sobre el autor

Donald A. Vessey has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was a Professor of Biochemistry (Medicine) at the University of California at San Francisco, and a Career Scientist at the V.A. Medical Center in San Francisco. Throughout his more than 40-year research career, he also included the spiritual dimension in his search for understanding. This dual endeavor compelled him to try to reconcile the scientific and the spiritual, and led him to a search for what rang true in the rich and rapidly expanding spiritual literature. The results of his threshing for truth are contained in this book.

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Light From a Rising Soul - Donald Vessey

Light from a Rising Soul is an engrossing story of a veteran’s spiritual journey as he heals from the trauma of war and then explores ways to impart his discoveries about the deeper meaning of life to others. In this novel, Don Vessey draws from the heart of Eastern and Western teachings. Reading it evoked a lot of reflection and feelings about my own spiritual journey. Seekers will find that it is a fun read as well as thought provoking and spiritually enriching.

— Judy Leshefka, meditation instructor

and retreat leader

I live my life in growing circles

That stretch across all things.

I may not complete the circles

But I give myself to it.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Light from a

Rising Soul


Donald Vessey

Plowshare Media

La Jolla, California

Copyright © 2020 by Donald Vessey

All rights reserved


Publication date: March, 2020

Library of Congress Control Number: 2020931811

Vessey, Donald

Light from a Rising Soul

Cover derived from a photograph by Kabir Bakie, June, 2005

Copyrights remain with the original holders

Other books by Donald Vessey:

The Unfolding Discovery of the Truth of Our Being,

Plowshare Media, 2018;

Soul Work: A Daybook of Encouragement & Guidance for the Spiritual Journey,

Plowshare Media, 2015;

Biochemical Pharmacology and Toxicology, (with David Zakim),

John Wiley & Sons, 1985.


This is a work of fiction.

While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are

based on experience, all names, characters, places and incidents either

are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously,

and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,

business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

No reference to any real person is intended,

except for the obvious, recognizable, public figures.

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,

no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced

into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means

(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise)

without the prior written permission of the author.

For information about permission to

reproduce selections of this book, please write to:

Plowshare Media, P.O. Box 278, La Jolla, CA 92038


This book is dedicated to our grandchildren

(in their order of appearance)

Kaden, Taya, Madelynn, and Abigail

Table of Contents

The Day the Music Died

Homeward Bound

First Sermon and Board Dinner

Second Sermon and Clerical Rounds

Forgiveness and Confession

Fading of Fall

Christy and Jerry

First and Last Rites


Father McBride

Amy Appears

Saved by Jesus Sermon and Backlash


The Power of Love / The Power of Mind

Good & Evil / Last Confession

Hello Father Bryan / Goodbye Lucy

Amy’s Disclosure

Time for Goodbyes

The End / The Beginning



About the Author

The Day the Music Died

If you had met Danny Beck in 1968, at the time of his graduation from college, you would have discerned no indication that he would someday become an inspirational and innovative spiritual teacher. That summer of ’68, he was just another young man traveling a path to nowhere in particular. He was the youngest and most sexually precocious of three boys born to William and Mary Beck. Though raised a marginal Catholic, he had happily stopped attending at age 13, when his parents left the church in an internal power struggle that fractured the congregation—in short, his spiritual training was next to nil.

During his four years at college, his primary pursuit was coeds, although he also achieved fleeting fame at his fraternity for his prank of pouring the chemical that accounts for the stench in skunk spray into the ventilation ducts at the Omega Chi sorority house. This not only forced the evacuation of the building, but the smell clung to the women’s clothing, leading to odd looks and weeks of embarrassment.

His one substantive accomplishment in college was the successful completion of four years of Army ROTC training. He would have happily remained in college forever, but graduation forced an unpleasant confrontation with reality. All he had to fall back on was his military training. Being a rather naïve pseudo-patriot and supporter of the Vietnam War, seeking the laurels of that war seemed the logical next step. He was the perfect candidate for recruitment as an officer in the Army Rangers, which he considered to be more macho than the regular Army. He also thought he looked impressive in a Ranger beret. He even requested assignment to Vietnam, and that is exactly what he got. It was the making of him, but first it nearly killed him.

After a couple of months in Vietnam, Dan had experienced so much of the horror and terror of war that all the glory was gone and an intense fear had set in. He sent the following letter home to his intermittent girlfriend, Amy:

Dear Amy,

I was an idiot, the kind of gung-ho moron that the Army is looking for to go kill people. I guess I watched too many war movies and only imagined the glory of it all, complete with stirring background music. Well, there ain’t no music here, only endless horror. How I wish I was home. Just over nine months to go—I hope I make it.

I was put in charge of a platoon of 44 last month, and already we have had to replace five men. I lost my first sergeant yesterday while we were walking down a rural road. He was a little ahead of me on the opposite side of the road when he stepped on a mine. He just disappeared. It was shocking! And it happens just that fast. Stuff like that occurs every day.

Tomorrow, I’m supposed to lead the platoon on a mission in which we will be airlifted deep into the heart of what may be Viet Cong controlled territory. We will be dropped onto a barren mesa surrounded by forest to establish a base camp from which to probe the area, which is undoubtedly filled with bad guys. I’ve been having terrifying dreams about something like this. I frankly admit that I’m afraid, but I don’t dare let it show. The squads under my command are mostly composed of very young men, boys really, and they look to me to put them at ease. I lie a lot, and try to look calm and unconcerned, but it’s all bullshit. I’m paddling like hell inside trying to keep my head above water.

That’s all for now. I’m sorry for such a dreary letter. I’ll try to write you again from my hilltop accommodations. It was great to receive a letter from you. It transports me to a place that is happy and good everytime I read it. I would love to hear from you again. All I can add is: enjoy the wonderful peaceful life you’re living and appreciate how lucky you are. No one in this part of the world is that fortunate.

Missing you,


Dan had correctly judged the gravity of the situation that faced his platoon. On arriving at the area known as Bien Pu, they were dropped onto a relatively barren, short plateau that was barely higher than the surrounding trees. In size, it was only about one to two square blocks, and formed a strange anomaly, being ringed by four to five foot high brush that began at the edge of the mesa and was continuous all the way down to the surrounding dense forest. It was as if it had been constructed in this way for some purpose. After assessing the perimeter, it was painfully obvious to Dan that there was little hope of surviving any assault. The gently sloped sides were easily negotiable on all flanks by an attacker under cover of brush. The platoon was already experiencing sniper fire from the forest at the edges of the mesa, so the enemy was there. And, in the event of an attack, they were nearly an hour away from any help from central command.

Later that day, Dan received a call from his commanding officer, a ‘5-foot-6 captain with a 6-foot-5 attitude.’ When the captain asked for an assessment of the situation, Dan tried to explain to him that the enemy was there and already harassing them with sniper fire. Further, he stressed that it would take weeks of work to build even marginally adequate defenses around the mesa. We are sitting ducks, Dan explained. In any attack, we will all surely die.

To his horror, the captain’s response was That’s what soldiers do. This ain’t no pony ride at the fair son, it’s war, and war is hell. Don’t try to fancy it up and stick a fuckin’ lollipop on it. There are reasons for this deployment; we need to know what’s out there. Is it VC or NVA, what’s their strength, how are they equipped, what are they doing there? Your job is to follow orders, establish the camp, and get that information. Future missions in the area depend upon your assessment. So stop whining and get your sorry ass to work on protecting the base. We’ll provide support if needed. Do your duty, son. Then the captain hung up in apparent disgust.

Dan looked out over the flat, wide-open mesa. He was overwhelmed. It would take weeks to cut back the brush and surround the entire mesa with razor wire, trip wire, and mines; and all of this while under sniper fire. He became filled with certainty that the enemy wouldn’t wait that long. They would surely attack before any such defenses were established. He was suddenly overcome with the sense that he was going to die—soon. In his mind, this war experience was supposed to make him more of something, a hero. He had not planned on it annihilating him, removing him forever. He couldn’t even imagine a world without himself in it. It was impossibly sad. He felt as if he was coming apart at the seams. That night, he dreamed he did just that, exploded in all directions into a mist of nothing. It was a flashback to his sergeant, who had stepped on the land mine.

By morning, Dan was numb, only semi-aware of what was going on around him. He was in a mental fog the whole day. He did manage to dig a deep foxhole for the command center in the middle of the mesa. It was shared with the radioman, Kent, and the radio equipment. It felt to Dan as if he was digging his own grave. He had his men dig foxholes in a circle surrounding the command center and a supply dugout. Dan continuously walked the perimeter of the area looking at all it would take to secure it. With the remaining daylight, he put the men to clearing back brush that encroached heavily on one side of the mesa. But there was not enough time or adequate equipment to make much progress.

Then, that night, before they had a chance to establish anything more than just the beginning of a defensive network, it happened. It was a moonless night, illuminated only by the occasional overhead flare. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) waited until just before dawn to attack. Taking advantage of the last of the darkness, they began their strike. Over a hundred NVA, with their bodies covered in charcoal and grease to make them nearly invisible in the darkness, stealthily came crawling out of the brush and slithered along the ground like evil serpents. They quickly and quietly penetrated the outer perimeter from two sides and then infiltrated the interior. Undetected, they approached the line of foxholes. With the first gunshot, the night suddenly exploded in unspeakable chaos and terror; a furious pop-pop-pop of rifle fire on all sides and the intermittent blasts of grenades. The NVA was on top of the platoon before they were even noticed. They methodically attacked each foxhole with intense gunfire and grenades, stomping out life in one after another. Another fifty NVA hid in the brush at the opposite end of the mesa to create diversionary fire and trap any of Dan’s platoon trying to escape out the back door into the forest.

Dan had been lying against the wall of his foxhole trying to get anything resembling rest. As the first gunshots pierced the air, he jumped to his feet and looked over the rim of his foxhole, out across the field in all directions. He could see only the flashes of light from rifle fire and the sporadic explosion of one foxhole after another from grenades. He dropped back down and shouted for his radioman, Kent, to put in a call to command. Dan desperately requested help, We have been overrun from the north and the west by several platoons of NVA with explosives. Another platoon or so is in the brush down below on the east and south to block escape. Can’t hold out for long. It is urgent!

After calling for help, Dan grabbed a couple of flares and shot them optimistically into the dark night sky. He then lept up and started firing back in the direction of the gun flashes in the dark. Bullets ricocheted off the dirt beside him. Suddenly, he was stung in the shoulder by a bullet and it spun him halfway round. Immediately, he was struck in the back by another bullet. It sent him reeling to the ground. Meanwhile, Kent was up and firing blindly into the poorly illuminated darkness until a bullet to the head collapsed him in a dead heap.

Dan drug himself to the edge of the foxhole and propped himself up against the wall. He was unable to hold his gun but braced the butt of it against the wall and generally aimed it in the direction of the lip of the foxhole. He laid there in a mixture of shock from his gunshot wounds and utter terror. Pop-pop-pop it continued, and Dan, shaking uncontrollably, waited for that inevitable something to appear at the edge of his foxhole. Instead, there was the thump of a hand grenade hitting the ground behind Kent’s body. Before Dan had a chance to react, there was a bright flash-bang and a chunk of shrapnel struck Dan in the head. His mind went blank.

Within a space of less than 30 minutes, the entire platoon was wiped out and Dan was lying unconscious on bloodstained earth at the bottom of his foxhole. The attack was so sudden and well organized that no support could have arrived in time. In fact, it was nearly two hours before any did arrive. And when this modicum of help finally appeared in the early morning, they found only deathly quiet, a field strewn with bodies, and the body of one member of the platoon hanging from a tree at the edge of the surrounding forest in full view of the mesa. It was an agonizing and surreal scene to behold. This obvious spectacle, when combined with the discovery that two men were missing, was seen as bait to lure them into the forest and another attack. Since this was a small rescue detachment, the hunt for the final two bodies was abandoned. Instead, they spent the day collecting and trying to identify the bodies of the other members of the platoon. One of the two missing soldiers was Dan.

Two days later, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, Bill and Mary Beck received a knock on their door. Mary answered it. Seeing two men in army uniform, she instinctively recognized the situation. All she could do was scream, Bill!

Bill ran to the door, and seeing the notification team could only gasp, Oh no!

They were met with the crushing news that their son, Lt. Daniel Beck, had been trapped in an ambush that appeared to have no survivors. He had been officially declared ‘Missing In Action.’ The news was more than Mary’s system could bear; she collapsed. Bill was standing behind her and caught her as she fell, though he was barely able to hold himself up. The notification team explained that his status was the result of an unforeseen attack on a mountain fortification at Bien Pu. The report stated that, despite an intensive search of the area, no survivors were located. However, a couple of bodies, including Dan’s, had not yet been found, so he was still officially listed as ‘Missing In Action.’ The two soldiers departed, leaving a deepening cloud of misery in their wake. A more detailed report was released a week later, after a thorough search of Bien Pu. It indicated that a second body had been discovered hanging from a tree deeper in the forest, leaving Dan as the sole MIA.

However, in actual fact, despite two gunshot wounds and a glancing shrapnel blow to his head that knocked him unconscious, Dan was not dead—he survived. As the dawn began to illuminate the field on that fateful morning, the NVA initiated a search of the battlefield. They recognized the command post at the center of the mesa and determined that Dan was the senior officer, and still alive. So he was not killed, but kept alive for interrogation. They then quickly and quietly disappeared back into the jungle, dragging Dan with them.

The NVA were interested in discovering the reason for such a seemingly pointless operation. After weeks of interrogation, they became convinced that Dan was as perplexed as they were regarding why he was there. So he was sent off as a POW to a prison camp outside Hanoi.

In a strange twist of fate, the NVA unit with which Dan was being transported north to the POW camp was suddenly recalled before it reached Hanoi. Dan was dumped at a jail in a nearby town named Song Cuoi. In the turmoil of war, the NVA forgot about him, and there he remained for the next three years.

A few days after he was left in Song Cuoi, a family in town was informed that their two boys were killed in the war, so the town decided to drag Dan out into the central square, where the family members were allowed to vent their anger by whipping the ‘American dog’ with bamboo sticks. This episode then became common practice. Whenever a family lost a member to the war, they were allowed to beat the American prisoner to help assuage their anger and grief. Dan became an instrument of ‘public retribution,’ and this was how his life proceeded—desperate, painful years, during which, early on, he nearly died of dysentery and starvation.

Providentially, after a number of weeks, his life was changed by a fortunate turn of events. On one typically hopeless day, a small, elderly Vietnamese Buddhist priest was carefully brought to the jail and, almost reverently, placed in the cell opposite Dan’s. He seemed a very gentle soul; a smile was the default look on his rather round, happy face. He moved with a great sense of calm and ease of being. He thanked his jailer, who bowed to him as he locked the jail door and left. The priest looked across at Dan and smiled warmly. Putting his hands together in front of his face in blessing, he gave Dan a slight bow. He then sat down cross-legged on his cot, closed his eyes, and never moved again for the rest of the day.

This was Bac Thay, a Buddhist master and abbot of a mountain monastery. He was jailed for interfering with the war effort. He would turn Dan’s life upside down in a way that was transformative. He kept Dan alive physically by feeding him, attending to his health, and ultimately helping him escape from jail. More importantly, he nurtured Dan spiritually and showed him the way to an understanding of his Christian religion, and this ultimately led to his interest in a vocation as a Catholic priest.

The details of his transformation are of an enlightening nature, and are revealed in his experiences as chronicled by him to members of his new congregation, his family, and in his mysterious past relationship with a certain young woman.

Homeward Bound

Thus it was that the events of the war led Dan to enter Catholic seminary upon his return from Vietnam. After four years, he emerged as a Catholic priest. If seminary had taught him anything, it was that he did not truly resonate with traditional Catholic theology. He felt he had a new fresh message to deliver and he was anxious to begin the next step in his journey. His first assignment out of seminary was at Saint Anthony’s, a large church in Des Moines, Iowa.

And so here he was, Father Daniel Beck, or as he preferred, Father Dan, a young priest, serving as an associate pastor. It was a simple and undemanding post as social director, marketing manager, and priest’s minion. Unfortunately, it offered little opportunity to connect with people at a spiritual level. It was a rather unfulfilling role for someone with Dan’s goals.

This is a lesson in patience, Dan kept telling himself. In the meantime, he wasn’t under undue scrutiny, which gave him ample opportunity to surreptitiously read a wide range of books outside the suggested clerical reading list, mostly on Eastern religions and Western psychology. These had to be carefully spirited from the university library and kept under wraps. The Bible was considered more appropriate reading for a young priest in his position. On his nightstand he kept a diversionary copy of The Priest is Not His Own by Bishop Fulton Sheen, which was passed out at graduation from seminary. It was considered to be part of his ongoing formation, but in fact, it bored him to tears. It was, however, large enough to cover his copy of The Three Pillars of Zen.

When Dan first heard that there was a temporary opening for a priest at Saint Mark’s in his hometown of Vista Springs, he felt a twinge of excitement. Foremost, he was feeling unfulfilled in his current position and anxious to move on from being an associate pastor, even if just for a short time. Added to this was

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