Saturday, January 16, 2010

Married to the Military!

Part of a military chaplain's ministry is with the spouses of servicemembers. In the Sea Services chaplains work with Navy ombudsmen and Family Readiness Assistants (who are often spouses) and a large part of our counseling work involves marital issues. Military marriages are occasionally synonyms for hardship, long separations, and fear and anxiety over whether their loved one is safe, or even worries about where they are. Many servicemembers marry very young, and some have unrealistic expectations. On the dark side, there are instances of abuse, including cases in which it is the husband who is the victim. Divorce rates in the military can be high, almost passing the national average, if it hasn't already. The chaplains are often on the "front line" with working with and helping couples, and this has become a major feature of chaplaincy work. If you plan on becoming a chaplain, get familiar with marital counseling! You'll be doing a lot of it!

However, long and happy marriages are possible in the military! I don't think there is any special "secret" to keeping a marriage intact; it's very much up to the individuals involved. I would like to offer one perspective on military marriages: since the end of World War II many American servicemembers stationed in Asia have brought home wives from those countries and, more recently, husbands! A percentage of these spouses are Buddhists, and their experience is a part of the landscape of Buddhism in the United States. I don't believe this is a subject that has been studied much (anyone in need of a dissertation topic?), but it is a fascinating one. How do multi-racial, multi-religious marriages survive, especially when it is linked to a difficult environment like the military?

Mrs. Connie (To Hing) Miller is one of these military spouses. She was born in Vietnam, as an ethnic Chinese, and married her husband, a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, in 1971, so she is set to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary. Her husband retired in 1978 after 23 years' honorable service in the Navy, and he worked at Sony Corporation for 20 years afterwards. Both are retired, with 3 adult children and 2 young grandchildren, whom she babysits occasionally. I came to know her as she spends her weekends volunteering at the Buddha's Light Bookstore, located next to the Hsi Fang Buddhist Temple in San Diego, and I engage in an inordinate amount of book-buying there. Hsi Fang is affiliated with the Fo Guang Shan (Buddha's Light Mountain) Order of Buddhism, also known as Humanistic Buddhism. Mrs. Miller is a devout lay member of this temple. She agreed to a short interview due to our joint interest in supporting military families (I apologize in advance for my poor transcription abilities)! I hope the Q&A below will act as a window into this world, and that others will follow in understanding the life of a military spouse, and being an ordinary Buddhist.

Q: Were you raised Buddhist?
A: Yes, when I was small I went with my parents to the temple. My parents were Buddhist. I did not know anything then, we only pray and then leave.

Q: How do you practice Buddhism now?
A: Fo Guang Shan is like a home to me (Mrs. Miller became a Fo Guang Shan member after moving to America in the 1970s). I understand religion better. I learned how to sit down and chant the sutras. I follow the teachings of Ven. Master Hsing Yun. Religion [ultimately] doesn't matter, it is harmony that is important, getting along. The family is very important. I follow the "Three Good Things" Ven. Master Hsing Yun teaches: One, your talk should be good, Two, you should do good things, Three, you should have a good heart.

Q: What is it like to be a military spouse?
A: My husband only went on one deployment [after we were married]. He was away for 6 months. During that time I lived with my husband's family in San Jose. I wanted to live overseas but [Navy] wouldn't let us. I think it is good for dependents, there are more benefits. It is good to see how other people live [overseas]. You can save money and when you retire you have a fixed income. Being a military wife was for me. It was a very good experience. [But] Asian wives may feel uncomfortable. I do not see many Asian spouses today. Only once I saw a young Japanese mother with 2 children at Miramar [Air Station].

Q: Is your husband Buddhist?
A: No he is not religious. Sometimes he says he is interested in taking the precepts, since he wants to be sure to "get to heaven!" [laughs] [He] doesn't have to be Buddhist, just do good things.

Q: What advice would you give to military spouses?
A: Just try to work on your marriage. Comfort the husband. Remember your vows on your wedding day, it is not just for one time. Try to keep busy, do volunteer work, or hospital work. Go to school, or work if you cannot afford to do volunteer work and need help with income."

Q: How do you reconcile being Buddhist and living in non-Buddhist environment?
A: All basic religions teach harmony, basic things like helping each other, do not discriminate. This is the essence of "The Diamond Sutra." Ven. Master Hsing Yun, he is from south [China] he went to north where people discriminate people of south. He says, "When we practice Buddhism, do not divide race, [any] kind of person from Buddhism." This is the heart of Buddhism.

Note: For those living in the San Diego area, Hsi Lai temple is accepting donations for the Haiti earthquake relief.

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Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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