Friday, October 30, 2009

U.S. Army Sending First Buddhist Chaplain to Iraq

A few posts back I mentioned a military chaplains documentary by Ms. Lee Lawrence called "Chaplains Under Fire." She recently posted a series of interviews with Chaplain Dyer, and a Buddhist former employee of Blackwater. The link to her site is listed under "Helpful Links."
Also another good article from Fox News:

Friday, October 30, 2009
By Lauren Green

All Army chaplains wear the same uniform, and all of them answer to the same calling: to provide comfort and to relieve the suffering of American soldiers.

But one chaplain stands out from the crowd. Thomas Dyer is the first and only Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.

Dyer will be deployed to the Middle East in December along with the 278th Armored Calvary Regiment. Although his faith is grounded in pacifism, the 43-year-old Dyer says war has become a necessary part of peace.

"My teacher has concluded that without the military, without civil protection, the world would enter into a very dark place very quickly," Dyer told Fox News. "There aren't that many caves to run to, there aren't that many mountains to go to anymore. And if we don't have protection, we suffer greatly."

A former Baptist preacher, Dyer found his new faith a few years ago through the practice of intense meditation. Born in Nashville, Tenn., he says his Christian background gives him an advantage in meeting the demands of a military with diverse spiritual needs.

“It has made me kind of like someone who is bilingual, where they can speak two languages, or bicultural,” he said. “I am kind of like a bi-religious person, so I am able to make connections with soldiers in a way that is very familiar to them, so I don’t look so scary or ... strange.”

Less than one percent of the United States population is Buddhist, and Buddhists make up only three-tenths of a percent of the military. But Dyer has quickly gained the respect of his Christian colleagues, who make up the vast majority of military chaplains. He has also fostered a close relationship with his chaplain assistant, Spc. Jonathan Westley, who's trained specifically to protect him.

"It definitely was something different when I got to meet him for the first time last year,” Westley told Fox News. “Fortunately, we clicked right from the start."

Dyer will be a spiritual guide to all soldiers, not just Buddhists. He says no matter what their faith, all soldiers at war have common spiritual needs.

"They have a lot to bear. The training is tough. The environment is rough at times ... and as a result of this they will come to someone who wants to help," he said.

Religion aside, he says, soldiers face death daily, and what matters most to them is that someone who knows what they’re going through cares about their fate.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Response to Rev. Senauke

In response to Rev. Senauke's concerns regarding Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status, I would like to add that the availability of Buddhist chaplains is very unlikely to affect any such application. Chaplains do not decide whether a C.O. application will be accepted (this is a common misconception), chaplains merely assist the commanding officer (of the applicant) with his/her evaluation of the validity of the application i.e. whether the applicant is an actual and practicing member of that faith which he or she has to be (as opposed to, for example, just reading a few books and proclaiming oneself an adherent). Any chaplain can write a letter for a C.O. application, it doesn't have to be a chaplain specific to the faith of the applicant. A civilian clergy's opinion can also be added (as Rev. Senauke has done). It is up to that commanding officer and the Naval Personnel Board (in the case of the USN and USMC) whether or not a discharge is granted. There may be other factors involved also. Each C.O.application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In my experience as a chaplain, actual C.O. cases are rare and unlikely to go through; most individuals with a history of being unable to adjust to military life are simply administratively separated. In my 5 years (so far) of active and reserve service I've only seen 1 applicant (and that person was not a Buddhist).
For additional information reference MILPERSMAN 1900-010.

The concerns expressed by Rev. Senauke and others that the presence of Buddhist chaplains might deter commanding officers from taking C.O. claims seriously, can, in fact, be seen as a positive development on several fronts. First, Buddhist scholars, and certainly some Buddhists(!) may be aware that Buddhism is not a monolithic entity, but is extremely diverse in beliefs and practices, but most non-Buddhists are simply not aware of this. We can describe this as a "teaching moment" for others, including other chaplains, who are in fact growing in awareness of the rich diversity of Buddhism. Just as there can be vast differences between Christians like Southern Baptists and Quakers regarding military service, there is similar diversity in Buddhism. The presence of Buddhist chaplains now on active duty and in training (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada) reflects this. Second, it maintains the integrity of the C.O. process. Believe it or not, C.O. can be seen as an "easy out" by individuals simply wanting to get out of their enlistment contract; it may not have anything to do with moral or religious beliefs, but can be for reasons such as to enroll in a school a semester early or get an available job. However, the military commitment has to be honored first and genuine C.O. applicants (Buddhist or otherwise) have to be respected. For those individuals believing that all they have to do is claim to be "Buddhist" and that will get them out the gate, the fact of Buddhist chaplains in the military now makes this belief untenable. It may reduce the bogus applications, in any case. There is NO one religion that can release someone from service just by adherence, especially in the era of the all-volunteer force. I have known of Quaker and even Jain servicemembers!

I've worked with Rev. Senauke in the past, and would like to thank him here for his wisdom and understanding in assisting Buddhist servicemembers, whatever their need. While others may dismiss Buddhist military chaplaincy as unnecessary, even wrong, he is correct in stating that there is a need for chaplains simply because of the presence of Buddhists in the Armed Forces. They self-identify as Buddhists, so this fact cannot be dismissed, certainly not by the Chaplain Corps of the various armed forces branches, which is mandated to respect the freedom of worship guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and therefore provides for Buddhist military chaplains, places of worship, and material. We should also be mindful that chaplains may assist persons of all faiths or no faiths, and not just servicemembers, but also includes their dependents (family members). The most crucial emphasis for chaplains is not on theory and doctrine, but on core counseling: PTSD, stress and anger management and treatment, marriage and family counseling, and clinical pastoral education (CPE).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Chaplaincy in the U.S. Military: Hozan Alan Senauke, Clear View Project

An interesting article by Rev. Alan Senauke, from the Upaya Zen Center newsletter:

This week an NPR story announced the creation of a Vast Refuge Dharma Hall in the basement of the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is the first dedicated Buddhist chapel in the U.S. military. At the chapel’s dedication, the Reverend Dai En Wiley Burch of the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen school said, "Without compassion, war is a criminal activity. Sometimes it is necessary to take life, but we never take life for granted."

The academy's Buddhist program leader, Sarah Bender Sensei of the Springs Mountain Sangha, asked herself how Zen Buddhism fits with the military path.

"People in the military come up — for real— against questions that most of us just consider abstractly," Bender says. "The questions of Buddhism are the questions of life and death. So, where else would you want Buddhism than right there where those questions are most vivid?"

My first response to this was positive. A Buddhist chapel is a good thing. Even more so at the Air Force Academy, where year after year there have been complaints of intolerance and religious discrimination. But several days ago, a friend and collaborator, a lawyer working with conscientious objectors within the military raised questions that gave me pause. My friend, a dedicated and observant Jew wrote:

I’m of course concerned about its impact on CO clients for whom Buddhism is their route to their beliefs against participation in war in any form. The more deeply Buddhism becomes entrenched in military life, the harder it is for that to be the accepted religious source of a CO applicant’s beliefs. It is already such an uphill battle for Christians – I can see that happening how for those who articulate Buddhist values or beliefs in support of their CO applications. “Soldier, the Air Force has a Buddhist Chaplain and a Buddhist Chapel. How can you sit here and say to me that Buddhism is against participation in war in any form?”

In an email response, I wrote very quickly:

This question of Buddhist chapel and chaplain is a real conundrum. There are several thousand Buddhist personnel (actually more than 5000) in the military. They need day-to-day resources and ministry. But as you point out, the presence of these resources argues against the explicit position of Buddhist "nonviolence."

A group I work with designing Buddhist chaplaincy materials ran up on this question from another angle. Do we include the Buddhist precepts, all versions of which begin with the vow or prohibition against taking life. I think I won that round, insisting that they remain in the materials, because to omit them is to undermine the moral basis of Buddhist teachings. But how individual chaplains will work with this, I don't know. I would not really like to be in their shoes. However this does not seem vastly different from the role of chaplains of other faiths, themselves in the position of counseling men and women within a context that may be fundamentally not moral.

I sent this out to a couple of list-serves I participate in — the American Zen Teacher’s Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association — and got some responses, both challenging and supportive. Here is my reading of several of these questions.

Is it truly possible to keep the first precept, not taking life? I was asked whether I thought all military and police were “immoral.” What about the military of “Buddhist” nations like Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka? Were conscientious objectors using Buddhism as a pretext for escaping the military, or whether these were serious practitioners. And then, am I substituting my personal sense of morality for another, and is this itself transgressing the Buddha’s precepts?

So, let me try to clarify some of my thoughts, maybe not in a completely logical sequence.

• This comes first. I believe in nonviolence as a way of life and as a dedicated and disciplined way of resolving conflicts, whether between individuals or countries. I believe in what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” a place that is not free from inevitable conflicts, we one can turn away from weapons and violence as the means of resolving conflict. Nonviolence is not, for me, being nice. It has to be tough and flexible. It is a practice and it can be a strategy.

At another time, we could talk at length about active nonviolence, which calls for rigorous training and an ability to counter violence simultaneously resisting it, receiving it, and not retaliating. It does not always work, but it is surprising how effective it can be. One could tick off numerous recent historical examples.

For the sake of transparency, I should say that in the 70s I was part of a group that came to espouse violence as a necessary and inevitable means of social change. This never sat right in my body back then, but, like others, I thought my self into a dark corner in which violence was the answer. Delusion! And, it was more or less a disaster. I deeply regret this.

And, of course, I am aware that one cannot live without taking life. For those who may not know me, I am hardly a strict constructionist on the precepts. We have to look at intention, awareness, the whole picture. If I am caught in rigidity, then in keeping a “rule” I have failed to keep the spirit.

• Yes, there have always been armies and police, and there has to be some provision for defense. Even were we living in a world of wise rulers, protection is necessary. The Buddha speaks of this, as does Dogen. Aggression exists within each of us. But our wars today day wars are hardly the work of wise rulers (Neither were most wars in the past.). Whatever the issues may be, however just, the killing is fed by arms dealers and vast corporations who profit from the various technologies of killing. And by politicians driven by self-interest in raw form. And even by ourselves in a willingness to preserve privilege over groups and people elsewhere in the world.

• Having said all that, I would add that military personnel and families I have met often embody the highest principles of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice. They try to live according to what I might call “practice,” for the sake of their country and people. It is essential to hold this in mind.

• I mentioned chaplains “in the position of counseling men and women within a context that is fundamentally not moral.” This word ‘context’ has meaning for me. Just in our own historical memory, I consider the following U.S.-sponsored wars fundamentally not moral: Vietnam, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the first Gulf War, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If you or I thought a bit, we could probably add to this list.

This does not mean that there were not perhaps moral issues involved in some of these conflicts (though many might question that), but our readiness to go to war seems only to create the basis for more violence, planting trauma and hatred ever more deeply. I mean, have these wars worked out for anyone’s benefit and real safety?

• If there is going to be a military—and there will be--there must be chaplains, compassionate and wise women and men who are capable of helping soldiers in need, in suffering, in the moment of leaving this world. Chaplaincy is an ancient and honorable calling. Even if we had a “shantisena,” a peace army of well-trained nonviolent defenders, we would need chaplains.

At the same time, I think back a year or two, in a working group developing Buddhist chaplaincy materials for the military, I was struck by a comment from an active-duty Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. military. She came back from a Navy/Marines annual training and said the head chaplain was quite direct about the Marines’ mission. I remember the words she quoted. “Marines kill people and blow things up.” There was no glorification or justification of this mission, just a painful statement of fact.

Along with chaplains, the availability of chapels and places of worship within the military also seems essential. I think it is a good step, especially, as I noted earlier, in a place like the Air Force Academy, which has been accused of religious discrimination in the recent past.

• The conscientious objectors Deborah and I have worked with are enlisted men and women (one or two, I think, in the reserves) who are Buddhist practitioners of various kinds, who find their enlistment was a serious error, and feel unable to carry on as a member of the military. I think most of them did somehow think they could join the military and avoid the mission of killing. In other times, this was possible, or one could convince oneself so. Not now. And many of them were channeled into the military by financial need. These are moral people, usually troubled, too, at the thought of being in circumstances where their beliefs and conscience might create risk for fellow soldiers. In each case I have had extensive discussions and written exchanges with them. For my part I need to be convinced about their practice, understanding, and sincerity. If called for, I point them to nearby Buddhist centers, and strongly urge them to take part in sangha. Often I have later had to answer on their behalf to a hearing officer.

• The fact that so-called Buddhist nations--Japan, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.—have armies is problematic in several ways. First, in the case of Japan (in WWII), Burma, and Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist military has actually put forward a badly distorted and nationalistic interpretation of dharma to justify their brutality and ethnic domination. Buddhists killing non-Buddhists.

Second, I have deep mistrust of any nation where “church” and state are aligned with each other. Could I call this an unholy alliance, one that inevitably corrupts the very religious principles it claims to uphold? If any of you can point me towards a historical setting—modern or ancient—where this has worked out, I would be interested.

• My last point comes down to “not knowing.” Having said all the above, I confess to not knowing about the absolute application of nonviolence. I come to nonviolence because I am aware of the violence within me and find that its use has never worked out well for me or those affected by it. But in the face of a totalitarian regime, Burma for example, nonviolence has been crushed again and again. I believe it will triumph in time. But meanwhile, I have never counseled Burmese activists or ethnic groups simply to throw away their weapons. I do not judge them, nor would I or have I hesitated to offer them spiritual words. But the disproportionality of resources and guns in the hands of the Burmese military doesn’t make a good argument for armed insurrection.

Nor do I pretend to know the “best policy” for our country in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Total withdrawal? What will come of that? More troops, what will come of that? Sometimes one has implacable enemies, who control their own people with fear. (One could argue that is how the U.S. government has tried to control its own people these last eight years.) How does one stand up against this implacable wish to do harm? So now we have a tangled mess.

For my part, I practice with fear and try to be aware when self-righteousness is arising. These are dharma gates, right?

Still, as I have written before, I can’t help wondering, maybe naively, what would come of a policy that replaces retribution with generosity, that uses even a portion of the trillions we spend on war and destruction at home (prisons) and abroad for education, health, housing, and food? I would sign up in a New York minute as a chaplain to that kind of army.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Japanese-Americans In the Military Exhibition

Below is a press release from the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego on their latest exhibition. This is significant as there were many Japanese-American Buddhists who served in World War II and beyond (in my experience, this is an relatively unknown fact, as many people assume that Buddhists serving in the U.S. military is a recent phenomenon). The exhibit will be held at the San Diego Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, which is worth visiting on any day.

On November 10, 2009 the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego (JAHSSD) will open an exhibition titled “Japanese Americans in the Military” at the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, 2115 Park Blvd. in Balboa Park. It will run through May 31, 2010.
“Japanese Americans in the Military,” curated by Susan Hasegawa, Professor of History at San Diego City College, and Linda Canada, JAHSSD archivist, will tell the stories of men and women of Japanese descent who have served in the United States armed forces.
The exhibition will draw from the historical society’s considerable photograph and artifact collection. Sections are devoted to Japanese nationals volunteering for service around 1900 (including one killed in the explosion of the USS Bennington in San Diego Harbor in 1905); the heroism of Japanese Americans who served during World War II; stories of the war on the home front, where West Coast Japanese Americans served time in internment camps while their sons and brothers served our country on the front lines; and the differences between the segregated armed services and what was later experienced by Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars veterans.
Programs at the museum to accompany the exhibition include: January 17, 2010 (3-5 pm) screening of “Only the Brave,” the WWII drama about the All-Nisei 100/442 Regimental Combat Team by filmmaker Lane Nishikawa who will introduce and discuss his film; and February 19 (6-8pm) a Day of Remembrance program.

In addition to the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center of San Diego, sponsors of the exhibition include the San Diego Chapter and the Pacific Southwest Region of the Japanese Americans Citizens League, Asian American Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4851, and the World Cultures program at San Diego City College.

An exhibition preview and opening reception will be held from 2-4 pm on November 8.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am-4 pm. Admission fees range from $2 to $5. Active military and children 12 & under are free. The museum offers free admission the second Tuesday of the every month. For more information about “Japanese Americans in the Military,” call JAHSSD at (619) 660-0174 or go to For more information about the Veterans Museum, call (619) 239-2300 or go to

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Military Buddhist Chapel Represents Tolerance

Also, here's another nice article from National Public Radio about the Buddhist chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

October 13, 2009
The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., is home to the only Buddhist chapel on a U.S. military base. After a controversy over religious intolerance during the summer of 2005, the chapel was built in the basement of the academy's iconic Cadet Chapel.

In 2005, conservative evangelical Christians were accused of trying to force their religion on others. According to current and recently graduated cadets, the religious climate has improved substantially since then.

Chapel Construction

The controversy prompted the Air Force to issue guidelines for religious expression. The military also has made efforts to accommodate all faiths. These include the construction of the 300-square-foot Buddhist chapel at the Air Force Academy paid for by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism.

The floor is bamboo, and the walls are Port Orford cedar. The focal point is a cherry and ash altar with a Burmese Buddha statue on top.

Curiosity Trumps Judgment

During services, which are held Wednesday evenings, about half of the 18 pillows on the floor are usually occupied.

Tanner Faulkner, an 18-year-old student attending the prep school at the academy, says he feels encouraged to explore his religious curiosity.

"They let us know, 'We have this available for you, and it is possible for you to go to different services, whether you're Jewish faith or Buddhist or Christian or whatever,' " Faulkner says.

Sophomore cadet Dan Dwyer says his fellow cadets seem to have respect for his religion.

"People wonder where I go every Wednesday," Dwyer says. "I tell them I go to the Buddhist service, and it's just more of a curiosity rather than judgment."

Buddhism And Military Service — A Discordant Pair?

Out of 1.4 million people in the military, 5,287 identified themselves as Buddhists as of June 2009. For these folks, questions inevitably arise about whether Buddhism — a pacifist religion — is even compatible with military service.

Sarah Bender is the Buddhist program leader at the Air Force Academy. She says she has plenty of questions herself about whether it's ever right to kill in order to stop further harm. But, Bender says, she leaves the academy every Wednesday evening feeling like this is where she's supposed to be.

"People in the military come up — for real — against questions that most of us just consider abstractly," Bender says. "The questions of Buddhism are the questions of life and death. So, where else would you want Buddhism than right there where those questions are most vivid?"

Bender says the academy is now a place where cadets and staff are free to practice any religion they choose.
Photo Caption: Steve Honda, an Air Force Academy military trainer, kneels before the altar in the base's Buddhist chapel.

Navy's Only Buddhist Chaplain with 1stMLG

Here's an article from the 1st Marine Logistics Group newsletter, The Convoy, about me in my new job!

Story by Lance Cpl. Khoa N. Pelczar
The Convoy Staff
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Born a prince, he had everything most people ever wanted -- wealth, power and prestige. He had it all, yet, still unsatisfied with his life. He left everything behind and set out to find his purpose. About 2,000 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama traveled the world to find the purpose of life. At the age of 29, he established Buddhism, which is still in practice to this day. Navy Lt. Jeanette G. Shin, the only Buddhist Chaplain for the Navy and Marine Corps, is now assigned to 1st Maintenance Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, to share this knowledge and practice the religion with service members. “Buddhism has been around for a long time,” said Shin, from Midwest City, Okla. “(It wasn’t) until the ‘50s and ‘60s that the American began to be more interested in Buddhism.” Shin said she was raised a Buddhist, but it wasn’t until her teenage years that she started to practice it. Growing up, she wanted to be a scientist. But being a military brat, she joined the service instead. She enlisted to become a communications operator for the Marine Corps instead of going into the Air Force like her father because she wanted to do something different. After leaving the service, Shin went to school at George Mason University in Virginia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies. After college, Shin attended the Buddhist Seminary in California, where she took her education to the next level and received a master’s degree. Her goal was to become a minister, but the plan changed when America went to war in Iraq. “I’ve been a chaplain since 2004,” Shin said. “Since we’re at war, I thought I should go back to the military. With my background and knowledge, I thought I should become a chaplain. That way I can help our service members prepare for the war, not just physically, but spiritually. Buddhism can be practiced in many different ways, Shin explained. “Some people find their peace of mind and gain calmness by studying scriptures; some practice Buddhism by simply showing respect to their elders. Most, however, find their way through meditation.” A public service is usually set up in a room with incense, some prayer beads and a service book, Shin said. “Meditation is a time to reflect on the things you’ve done.” Practicing Buddhism helps service members to relax, let go of their stresses and aspire to spiritual enlightenment. “Buddhism is about knowing who you are,” Shin said. “It emphasizes ethical behavior, something every Marine knows and aspires.” Working with service members, Shin helps them to relax, meditate and enlighten them with the history of the religion. One can find out more information about Buddhism and its services by contacting the chaplain’s office at 1st Maintenance Battalion at 760-725-4001.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In Memoriam: John Daido Loori (1931-2009)

One of the early and foremost teachers of Zen in the United States passed away today. A short bio and obit is below (from Wikipedia):

John Daido Loori (June 14, 1931 – October 09, 2009) was a Zen Buddhist priest who served as the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, and was the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, and CEO of Dharma Communications. Daido Loori received shiho (or, dharma transmission) from Taizan Maezumi in 1986 and also received a dendokyoshi certificate formally from the Soto school of Japan in 1994. In 1997, he received dharma transmission in the Harada-Yasutani and Inzan lineages of Rinzai Zen as well. In 1996 he gave Dharma transmission to his student Bonnie Myotai Treace, in 1997 to Geoffrey Shugen Arnold and in 2009 to Konrad Ryushin Marchaj. In addition to his role as a Zen Buddhist priest, Loori was also an exhibited photographer and authored more than twenty books.
In October 2009, he stepped down as abbot citing health issues. On October 09, 2009 at 7:30 a.m. he passed away.

John Daido Loori served in the U.S. Navy from 1947-1952.

Fair Winds and Following Seas
Namo Amida Butsu
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