Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Buddhist Chaplaincy in the US Armed Forces
Here is a picture of myself (on left), Ven. Aroon Seeda (middle) and 2ndLT Somya Malasri, our only Buddhist chaplain for the US Army. This picture was taken at the Operational Ministry Center (OMC) at Naval Station San Diego.
I'd like to present a short history of Buddhist military chaplaincy.
The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the continental North American district of the Nishi (West) Hongwanji sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and the oldest Buddhist organization in the United States, is presently the ONLY endorser for Buddhist chaplains for the US military. All US military chaplains must belong to a national denominational body which can vet that their chaplains are ordained and have a postgraduate degree.
Although Buddhist military chaplaincy is a relatively new institution, it actually had its origins during World War II, when many Japanese-Americans joined the US Army, out of patriotism and the hope of freeing their relatives unjustly placed in the internment camps due to racial discrimination and economic jealousies. At the time, only Christian and Jewish chaplains were permitted in the US military. The Buddhist Missions of North America (the precursor of the BCA) petitioned the then-War Department to commission a Buddhist chaplain, but this request was denied, as Buddhism was not recognized as a legitimate religion, and was confused with State Shinto, the religion of wartime Japan. Therefore, Christian chaplains (who were Caucasians and Japanese-Americans) served these troops in famous battalions like the 442nd (the most decorated unit in US Army history) and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). It is estimated that approximately half of these troops were of Buddhist faith.
Buddhists continued to serve in the military following the end of World War II, although they were still not permitted their own chaplain, or even to put the religious designation, "Buddhist," on their dog tags (this policy has since changed). Finally, in 1987, through lobbying by WWII and Korean War Buddhist Veterans, and Rev. Haruo Yamaoka, then the Abbot (Socho) of the Buddhist Churches of America, the BCA was granted endorser status. However, there were no candidates for military chaplaincy until 2004, when I was commissioned as a LTJG in the US Navy Reserves.
2ndLT Somya Malasri, a Buddhist of Thai background, is the first US Army Buddhist Chaplain. He is also endorsed by BCA. He is ordained in the Theravadin tradition. He is currently a seminarian at the University of the West.
To become a military chaplain, there are certain requirements the candidate must fulfill. A postgraduate degree is essential, for example an M.A. The candidate also has to have an endorsement from a recognized endorser, and be ordained in their tradition. There are also age limits and physical fitness standards which may vary from branch to branch. Basic requirements may be found at the National Conference to the Armed Forces Web site which is linked to this site.