This past weekend I attended a Christmas Party hosted at the home of one of our Op Ministry Center chaplains. A very nice guy (and a former Marine like myself!), he introduced me to one of his civilian friends in this way:
"This is Chaplain Shin, she's our first Buddhist Chaplain! And...she's the real thing!"
His friend asked, "What do you mean by 'real thing?'" (and by this time I was curious to find out too).
"She's not confused about who she is!"
That was certainly a fascinating insight (to put it neatly), and it left me thinking about what this implied. I was deemed the "real thing" not because I was ordained in Japan, or had a Master's Degree in Buddhism, or because I had an endorsement from the Buddhist Churches of America, but because in our past conversations, I was able to state clearly what I believed, and why I believed as I did...and didn't mumble that I wasn't too sure, or did the "blank stare," I guess! Undoubtedly my chaplain colleague, a devout Christian minister, had met Buddhists before in the service, or rather, persons whom he believed seemed more "confused" rather than a "professing" Buddhist, in his opinion. Now this is an assumption I've encountered among other Christian chaplains and this assumption runs something along the line of: Servicemembers (especially young junior enlisted) who claim to be Buddhist are simply either experimenting with non-Christian religions (this also includes Wicca) out of rebellion against their upbringing in a Christian home (the spiritual equivalent of playing Marilyn Manson in your room, loud), or have rampant curiosity about "Eastern religions" (the result of living away from home for the first time), or are just trying for an "easy out" of their military contract and believe that the act of saying that they are Buddhist will be enough to get it torn up. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to apply to members who are of Asian ethnicity (Buddhism just being a natural part of our ethnic makeup, which is something some academics also believe)!
This is a bit troubling in its way: it implies a belief that there is a certain lack of sincerity, or genuine religious devotion, in American Buddhists, or at least in American Buddhist servicemembers. This is clearly not true for the most part, but I've encountered some of these attitudes myself, so I cannot discard them completely.
This doesn't mean that our chaplains are refusing to facilitate for Buddhists, but it does suggest that they see Buddhists as full of doubt, just going through a phase, and that they are essentially "dazed and confused." Like the Buddhist equivalent of Day One of USMC boot camp!
It shouldn't be a surprise if many Buddhists ARE in fact dazed and confused! As I've pointed out in previous posts, we can find virtually all the different Buddhist traditions that now exist in the world today, here in the USA. We can find them here in California alone! Even more confusing, all these different Buddhist traditions believe and practice different things, the clergy wear different colored robes or no robes at all, and teachers can be Asian, Caucausian, or African-American. Some are strict vegetarians and others eat 100% beef hot dogs. Some meditate for 12 hours a day or more, others reject meditation altogether. Some say that Buddhism is a way of life and not a religion, while others pray for lucky lottery numbers. Some say that Buddhism is an entirely rational philosophy, empirical and scientific, while others pray to Amitabha and Kannon and Ksitigarbha for a better rebirth, and prostrate themselves before images of stone and wood and porcelain. Some Buddhists reject military service, others are dues-paying VFW members. Who WOULDN'T be dazed and confused?
Such apparent contradictions might seem just plain horrific to members of other religions. Instead, we can see this as beautiful. The Buddha said there are 84,000 paths to Enlightenment. Isn't this evidence of the truth of his teachings? Just because there is diversity does not mean that Buddhists don't know what to believe or what to do. Anyone who would describe themselves as Buddhist is, from the very beginning, dazed and confused! We have only just begun to touch the very edge of Lord Buddha's wisdom-compassion. We are working always to lessen our dazed, confused selves.
Education is key: this why we Buddhists must take the time to study for ourselves which path to follow, and take the time to think through what Dharma teachers say and write. Know what you want to learn from Buddha-Dharma. For new Buddhist servicemembers seeking help from a chaplain, be sure that you know what kind of assistance you want: for example, do you want assistance in finding a temple to attend, or just a monk or layperson to speak to? If you are in a personal crisis, do you know if, in that tradition, the clergy have had experience in counseling? Do you want a specific service, like a wedding or memorial service? Do you know what they look like, and what is expected of you? Are you searching for a place to practice sitting meditation, or a place where whole families attend and socialize? Would you be comfortable attending a temple that observes different cultural customs concerning gender, age, social etiquette, etc., and will also expect you to observe them? If you are geuininely seeking conscientious objector status, are you able to clearly explain why to a chaplain? Knowing something of Buddhist practices, cultures, and teachings will help not only you, but also help the chaplain to help you better, and (let's face it) take you seriously.
This is why study is important. Don't read only one book on Buddhism, because not every Buddhist book on the shelf at Borders is necessarily objective, or even accurate. Every author writes with their own agenda in mind, including myself - for example my agenda is pro-military and pro-Jodo Shinshu, obviously! Therefore ensure that your own Dharma study is a study! We can do critical study in Buddhism! Again, remember the teaching of the Buddha to the Kalama clan: put the Dharma into practice for yourselves, and your confusion [over what is a good teaching] will lessen.
Namo Amida Butsu