Stories of Survival

By The Irrawaddy 15 December 2014

Two years ago, before the Heho crash, Allan Lokos, 73, was enjoying a late-blooming career as a meditation teacher in New York City.

His recently published books on cultivating patience and equanimity had found an audience in the fast-growing American market for insights drawn from Buddhism.

The New York Times had solicited the former Broadway singer’s ideas for a story on how to have a peaceful travel experience. Dozens of people were showing up each week for talks at the community meditation center Mr. Lokos founded on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The center’s other teachers included well-known figures from the Buddhist fraternity in the United States, including Stephen Bachelor and Mr. Lokos’ friend and teacher Sharon Salzberg.

Along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and its influential retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, in 1976.

The three had each come to Buddhism after spending time in monasteries in Southeast Asia where their teachers included figures such as Sayadaw U Pandita and S.N. Goenka from Myanmar. Together with Tibetan and other monks and figures such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Epstein, the IMS founders are credited with helping drive the remarkable rise and adaptation of Buddhist thought in the United States in recent decades.

As later arrivals with a growing place in that broad church, Mr. Lokos and his wife Susanna Weiss were excited in 2012 to be visiting a country with long-held Buddhist traditions.

And then Heho happened. All Mr. Lokos’ earlier thinking and training to do with cultivating higher mental qualities would be put to a terrible test.

Because of what Mr. Lokos has referred to as the “benevolent brain,” he had no awareness at the time of the horrific injuries he had sustained from the flames that engulfed the plane. Parts of his septuagenarian body had been burned away to the bone. Swathes of fried flesh flapped about when he moved, horrifying onlookers at the scene. The first doctors to see him said he would not survive.

But there was no escape from awareness during the subsequent ordeals in burn units in hospitals in Bangkok, Singapore and New York as surgeons and others worked to patch him back together.

In a new book due out in early February 2015, Mr. Lokos describes how qualities such as mindfulness that had been instilled in him during Buddhist practice helped him to pull through.

“Through the Flames: Overcoming Disaster Through Compassion, Patience and Determination,” will be released in the United States by Penguin/Random House.

Mr. Lokos says the book is generating a fair share of “excitement,” perhaps for the same reasons more people are attending his talks this year.

“I think it’s about the fact that someone actually survived what all logic and all medical opinion said could not be done. Perhaps it’s reassuring for people to know that if something really bad happened to them, they too could survive.”

He hopes the book will prove helpful to others struggling in tough situations against the odds.

The point, he says, is that people “can come back.”

Telling the story was “essential” for two reasons.

“One, I’m asked about it constantly. Secondly, it establishes that I really have been there with you [the reader]—you who are going through chemo right now, you who has suffered a great loss in an accident.”

This is one advice book unlikely to make readers think, “Well yes, this is all well and good, but you don’t know what it’s like to go through this.”

Yet Mr. Lokos realized that though he came through his shattering experiences fairly positively, not everyone in a crisis will be that fortunate.

So he interviewed four others suffering traumatic events whose experiences were different.

“I wanted to be able to talk through those people as well. My view is, we’re all in this together.”

The story may be stirring but Mr. Lokos’ words are measured.

“What happened was, I went on a vacation, I got on a plane, the plane had an accident, I was injured. Those are the facts. There was a lot of disruption after that but the reality is pretty straightforward, even though it’s dramatic.”

His personal struggle was not that unusual, he says. “I don’t take any credit for that, I did exactly what anyone else would do… I tried to survive.”

Like Mr. Lokos, some Myanmar survivors also harbor no blame today for their misfortune and take refuge in Buddhist teachings.

Tour guide Ma Toe Toe Khin, who suffered leg burns and a damaged vertebra, said of herself and a fellow female injured guide, “We are Buddhists. We believe we experienced bad luck because of our karma.”

She added: “The thing which had to happen, has already happened. All we need now is to take care of ourselves and try to recover fast. As in the Buddha’s sayings, everything happens for a reason.”

Ma Toe Toe Khin, who is still not well enough to return to work, commended the airline for assisting with the guides’ medical expenses.

Tour guide Ko Myint Htwe, who experienced what he called minor head injuries, felt similarly. “I just took the incident as my karma. After the accident, I went to the pilots and gave my thanks to them. Everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps, if not for them and how they landed the plane, everyone on board could have died.”

Recovery, still a work in progress for the survivors, isn’t all about religion and philosophy. Humor may also be a part of the medicine.

Says Mr. Lokos: “My hands are what I deal with mostly. I wear compression gloves that help to reduce the scars. I have no finger prints on either hand. If I were a criminal I’d be in great shape.”

Simon Lewis and Zarni Mann contributed reporting.

This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine, alongside this feature.