Military Chaplains not only work with members of the military, we are also active in helping their dependents. Our assistance may take the form of offering marital counseling, finding resources in the way of childcare and other similar support, advising the command about family issues, and of course providing religious and spiritual services. As a Buddhist chaplain, I've met spouses who are Buddhist and are "married to the military." My interest as a Chaplain and also as a student of Buddhism is how they understand and practice Buddha-dharma in such a unique environment. This also relates to understanding interfaith and intercultural relationships, and how Buddhist lay women act to transmit Dharma to their families.
Last year I conducted an interview with Mrs. Connie Miller, a member of the Hsi Fang Temple (Fo Guang Shan) here in San Diego and the spouse of a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer (Ret.). We discussed what it was like to be a married to a member of the military, being a Buddhist spouse in a predominant Christian environment, and how she understood and practiced Buddha-Dharma.
This year I'd like to present another interview I conducted with a friend of mine recently returned to the San Diego area after living overseas with her Navy physician husband. Mrs. Barbara Zaragoza is a practicing Zen Buddhist, and is active in her Sangha and also, as a Navy wife, active in the local community. As a "convert" Buddhist, she has her own unique perspective on living as a Buddhist, coping with the hardships of marriage in a time of war, and being in a unique environment (the militaryc community) as a Buddhist. I first met Barbara online when, while living in Naples, Italy, she emailed me asking me for some guidance about becoming a Buddhist Lay Leader. Since then, we've kept up an email communication, and finally we met this month in person. I've submitted similar questions to her, and now present her responses here, in her own words.
Our hope is that other Buddhists in similar situations will know that they are not alone, and can find support. We also hope to continue to work together to create a supportive environment for all the families of our active and reserve military servicemembers. I'd like to thank Barbara for her dedication to her Dharma friends in Naples, and hope that her actions will have planted the seed of Dharma in many people for many years to come.
Namo Amida Butsu
Interview with Barbara Zaragoza (Dharma Name Shaku Enju)
--Were you raised Buddhist?
No. My father is an ex-Catholic priest who studied to get his Ph.D. at the Vatican in theology. My mother was raised a Lutheran. I went to Catholic schools, but was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. As a teenager, I was very devout, but when I got into college I began searching for my own path. Buddhism spoke to me almost immediately, probably because of my love of philosophy, my reading of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and, most importantly, because of my karma.
Still, growing up in a Judeo-Christian culture, I really wanted to make Christianity work for me. Although I wandered through Buddhist sanghas for about 10 years, visiting a Korean Zen Center and spending a year practicing with Tibetan Buddhists, in between, I was a member of a Southern Baptist Church, practiced with born-again Christians, made friends with the Baha'i, visited Jewish temples with friends, and studied as many religions as I could, including Hinduism, Shintoism, and Sunni & Shi'a Islam. Then I spent two years at a Lutheran Church that was very active in passing out food to the homeless, provided a medical clinic for free, and had members who actively did prison ministry. I became Church Council President there and then -- boom -- I went into labor with my second child and had a very powerful enlightenment experience. It was basically a strong call to Buddhist practice, although I didn't want to tell anyone about the actual experience and I still don't like to talk about it because the experience was so deeply intimate. But at that point, I left the Lutheran Church and found a Japanese Soto/Rinzai Zen Center and began meditating seriously.
How do you practice Buddhism now?
I practiced at a Zen Center in San Diego for three years, while my husband was stationed here. My practice heavily emphasized meditation. That made things hard, especially since I was a mother of three small children and my husband had a very busy schedule. My husband supported my practice, so I was able to start meditating once a week for an hour at the Zen Center and then I would meditate at home everyday for 10 minutes. Once I stopped breastfeeding, I could participate in Sesshins about once every three months.
Sesshin is when we meditate from 6am - 8pm Friday, 6am - 8pm Saturday, and 6am - noon on Sunday. We don't meditate immobile the entire time. There is a schedule where we sit in meditation for half-hour increments, breaking for mindful eating, two hours of work meditation where we do yardwork or cleanup of the property, and there are about 12 - 14 periods of sitting meditation each day. We also do chanting, the most important for me being the Heart Sutra.
In 2007, the Navy transferred us to Naples, Italy, so my meditation with a group, at first, seemed to have come to an end. Italy is a pre-dominantly Catholic country and in all of Naples (population one million) there was only one Zen Center that had three people. I sat with them for a while, but the commute was long. So I decided to create my own meditation group on the military base in Naples. The Chapel and the Chaplains were very kind and open. They let me have a space and made me the Buddhist Lay Leader for the base. Every Monday I would go to the Chapel and meditate for thirty minutes. Whoever wanted (and I put up some flyers) came to meditate with me. I facilitated the meditation group for 2 1/2 years, during which time I made such wonderful friends. Our little group flourished and still continues on today through a Buddhist friend of mine who took over as Buddhist Lay Leader.
-- Are your husband and children Buddhist? If not, do they belong to any other religion?
Because of my religious wanderings, my eldest daughter was baptized Catholic, my middle daughter was baptized Lutheran, and my youngest daughter received her Buddhist blessing. My husband is an atheist. I've always been very spiritual. Neither my husband nor I have ever had any conflict with each other's beliefs. In fact, we were and continue to be attracted to one another precisely because of our differences. We've never once debated with each other about religion. Instead we've always liked to ask each other questions and learn more. His beliefs help my spiritual practice grow and transform in new directions because he offers me so many fresh perspectives. My spiritual beliefs help my husband see his life fresh and differently everyday too. For us, our differences are beautiful.
My children come with me to the Zen Center and they also stay home with their dad -- both. My children definitely ask me for spiritual direction. For example, by the time all three of my children turned five years old, each one asked: "Will I die, mommy?" I naturally answered them with my Buddhist values. So I would say that my children are being reared with Buddhist values. When people ask my children: "What are you?" They answer: "I'm Buddhist." But, I do encourage them also to listen to their own internal voices and seek out the way that will speak to them when they become adults.
-- What does your husband do?
My husband started out as an officer on submarines in the early 1990's. Once his commitment was over, he got out of the navy because he wanted to become a physician. Then, he found out that he could sign back up with the Navy while in medical school, which he did. He finished his medical residency at Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego. He then went on to become a psychiatrist and deployed as the psychiatrist to the detainees at the detention center in Afghanistan in 2007. He then served as the psychiatrist for the detainees in GITMO from 2009-2010.
-- What is it like to be a military spouse? Where have you been?
Between my husband's career on submarines and then as a psychiatrist, we've been in Vallejo, Groton, San Diego, and Naples. (There have also been a lot of short short tours in Enfield, Orlando, and Honolulu.) We like moving and we love travel, so in that sense the Navy has been a dream for us. We are also very proud to serve our country and we have given up a lot of creature comforts (stable friends, home, location) in order to serve. My husband has always had a strong feeling of care and respect for active duty service members and their families. He's also always appreciated military culture.
I think for me, as a military spouse, there have been joys and challenges. When my husband was on submarines, he had a wardroom and I met all the spouses. The Captain's wife, in particular, felt her role was to show kindness and be responsible for the other spouses under her husband's command. She never asked us for anything, but instead was always there to say a kind word or have people over to her house or set up get-togethers -- and this was a woman who took full-time care of four small children while her husband spent six months out of the year away! She was incredible and she's been an inspiration to me ever since. She had a commitment to serve unconditionally and support her husband by nurturing those under his command.
Through her, I realized that I don't need to wait for my husband to become a Captain in order to behave the same way. I try to role model myself after her as much as I can in my daily life and try to be mindful of how I treat others, especially military spouses.
The challenge, however, is that my husband gets the accolades and that can feel hard. He gets the rank. He gets the paycheck. He gets the ceremonies. As his spouse, I have a lot of responsibility in keeping his spirits high and taking care of all his household/financial/family responsibilities when he's gone. I've really had to come to terms with the fact that we military spouses are critical to the mission, we are critical to our active-duty member's work, and we are critical in supporting the service members & dependents around us. But, in the end, I also have to accept that my work won't be acknowledged in any way -- and that has to be okay.
A lot of mental health research has shown that people will work extremely hard and serve others for little pay or even for free -- if only they are acknowledged. I think a lot of depression, relationship problems, and problems within commands stem from a lack of spouses being acknowledged for their work. When active duty members are deployed, for example, I've heard so many spouses say that nobody ever asks them how they personally are doing. Nobody ever sends packages or cards of thanks to them. I've heard of some spouses even being berated for taking vacations with their children while their active-duty members are deployed, saying: "How dare you have fun while your spouse is away working!" These kinds of incompassionate and... well... ignorant statements really add stress to an already stressful situation, particularly when a spouse might be trying to be pro-active in caring for children who are depressed, angry, and upset that their parent is gone.
-- What advice would you give to military spouses?
Every person's experience is different, so I don't feel like I could ever give anyone advice. I can only relate my own experience as a spouse. It's been a wonderful journey at times, it's been a difficult journey at times. I love my husband.
-- What support would you like to see provided?
I've thought about this a lot based on so many conversations with my fellow military spouses. I don't think it's reasonable to ask the military to provide any financial support to spouses other than the current benefits. I don't think it's reasonable to provide babysitting or food or any real provisions for military spouses while their active duty service members are gone either. Everyone's needs are so different, so you'll never get that right. What's more, when you marry someone in the service, you must go into the marriage knowing that your spouse's job is to deploy or leave for long stretches. That's what they do.
With that said, I think it is a very terrible mistake for higher ups (Chiefs, Captains, and Admirals, to name a few) to not take the personal time to acknowledge the spouses in their command. Giving the task of calling a spouse to a 21-year-old Ombudsman [a volunteer who liaisons between the Command and the families] or another dependent says that they don't think the spouses are valuable. And yet, watch how quickly a spouse can derail their mission and an entire command by dropping into a depression, becoming hospitalized or just leaving, and the active-duty-serviceperson must immediately leave their position and return back home to take care of their financial and family responsibilities. If the higher-ups truly care about the mission, they'll care about the people who are doing the mission. If they care about those people, they'll care about the spouses who are taking care of their responsibilities at home.
I'd like to see a military wide change that requires every Captain of a command to make a personal phone call to the spouse of a forward deployed service member and ask how they are doing, spending a little time listening, taking them out to lunch once, and providing them with a small pin or something like that to honor and acknowledge their work. Think how much time and money the military would save with some small acts of appreciation that come from the top!
-- How would you reconcile being a Buddhist and living in a non-Buddhist environment [i.e. military culture; Judeo-Christian culture]?
I'm not sure how to answer this question. In the last six years, I've never once come across anyone in the armed services who has said anything negative to my face for being Buddhist.
I feel that -- whether I'm on base or out in the civilian world -- I live in a non-uniform environment, where I manage through diversity everyday. In my meditation group on base, I had active duty members and spouses who were Muslim, Sufi, Catholic, Jewish, Unic, Transcendentalist, trumpet players and agnostic. For me, not everybody needs to be a Buddhist. I'm just grateful that the military has given me the opportunity to worship Buddhism so freely.
Interestingly enough, I think it's been harder having my fellow civilian Buddhists accept the fact that I'm a military spouse and that I live in a military culture that is very diverse. When my husband was in Afghanistan, for example, I was very heavily judged by a Buddhist monk who said such mean and bitter words to me, pointing his finger in my face and saying that my husband wasn't doing anything 'out there' and that I was enabling his immorality. This Buddhist, within two minutes of meeting me, assumed who I was and what my husband was doing, without asking me a single question or getting to know me at all. I went home and cried.
Many other Buddhists have stereotyped me openly because I'm in the military, in particular saying that we don't work for peace and compassion. Meanwhile, my husband's role during two deployments was to care for detainees as their psychiatrist (some known terrorists, others there for questionable reasons), and I had many civilians come up to me and say that my husband was torturing people. Then, active duty military service members resented his work and would even angrily tell my husband that he was "working with the enemy." So, we've had some very dark days when it comes to reconciling what we are doing with the downpour of judgments by civilians and service members who ask no questions and tell us who we are.
Looking back, my husband has spent the last eight years as a physician and psychiatrist caring for active duty service members, their families, and detainees. I, alongside him, set up a meditation group on a naval base while raising our three children. We are reconciled with that.