Friday, January 6, 2012

Army's first Buddhist chaplain serving 11th Engineer Battalion

Great article on Chaplain Dyer! From the Official U.S. Army Homepage.

December 15, 2011

By Vince Little

Chaplain (Capt.) Thomas Dyer engages in Zen-posture meditation Dec. 5 at Sightseeing Road Chapel.

The Bayonet
Fort Benning home page
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Capt. Thomas Dyer took something of a unique passageway into the Buddhist faith. But he doesn't want to be stereotyped in his role as an Army chaplain.

Assigned to the 11th Engineer Battalion since August, Dyer said the unit ministry is his top focus, even as he works to provide spiritual guidance and counseling to a growing number of Buddhists in the ranks. It's unknown exactly how many Soldiers and Families practice the religion at Fort Benning, but he leads a weekly service for about 200 people -- mostly trainees -- every Sunday at the Regimental Chapel on Sand Hill.

"We don't really know yet, and it's difficult to get the data," he said of the post statistics. "Soldiers practicing Buddhism have to identify themselves. Many times, they don't. A lot of times, they're not really aware they have a chaplain representing them. One thing we have to do is get them aware.
"(But) the first thing I want to accomplish is making sure the battalion ministry is very solid. My first responsibility is to the battalion. … I wanted to avoid becoming known as 'the Buddhist chaplain.' I didn't want the 11th Engineers to lose their chaplain, even to a great cause of serving the Buddhist community."

Dyer became the Army's first Buddhist chaplain in 2008 when he was accessioned through the Tennessee National Guard. Last year, a second-generation Thai joined him in the chaplain corps.
In the early 1990s, the Army endorsed both the Islamic and Buddhist faiths, creating positions for chaplains, he said. The branch got its first Muslim chaplain in 1996, but the Buddhist slot went unfilled for another dozen years.

From Baptist pastor to Buddhist

Dyer's military career began in the Marine Corps Reserve, where he served from 1984 to 1990. He got out to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in college. Dyer later spent four years as a Southern Baptist pastor before beginning his new spiritual journey, around the same time he entered the National Guard.

"I came to Buddhism in 2003," he said. "At the time, I was looking for a little more depth than what I was experiencing, so I looked to the Christian Mystics for help."

Dyer said he began practicing a form of Christian meditation a year earlier and felt very comfortable with it, for reasons that escaped him -- until an experience one day expanded his mind.

"I really didn't understand what happened, but I knew it had forever changed me," he recalled. "I realized I had to leave the church. This experience, it was almost like an egg cracking, and an eagle came out of the egg. You realized there was some greater potential that you didn't know before."

The chaplain further explored what happened to him and soon discovered Zen Buddhism, he said. It allowed him to reflect back what had transpired in his own mind.

"Buddhism has traditionally been a pacifist religion," he said. "Over the years, as it's grown and gone into different segments of society, people learned it was not practical. There has to be some interaction as Buddhists begin to participate in larger roles of society."

Finding 'relevance' in Iraq

Dyer has deployed once. In 2010, he went to Iraq with the Tennessee National Guard. It was downrange he learned about the nuances and nature of his position and duties, he said.

"The challenge, of course, was that you're so new," he said. "You're sort of treated as an anomaly, something strange and out of place. It's kind of like a phone booth in the middle of the desert. It doesn't make sense initially."

At first, mild resistance came from those accustomed to the traditional faiths of Christianity and Judaism, he said. There simply wasn't much familiarity with the Buddhist religion.

Dyer said many troops didn't recognize the patch on his camouflage uniform, or even realize he was a chaplain.

"What we discovered in Iraq was that Buddhists are a hidden people group," he said. "Many didn't realize how many were in the Army. For me, it became grounds to demonstrate not just your right to be a chaplain, but your relevance as a chaplain. Once the Buddhists were coming out of the woodwork, it became a little more clear that I was more of an asset than an anomaly."

Numerous Christian chaplains began contacting Dyer about performing services for Buddhists in their units. So he spent a large amount of time hopping around to different forward operating bases in the country.

"It was very wonderful to experience that aspect of it," he said. "When I was invited to a FOB to hold a service, it might be the only Buddhist service some Soldiers would get during the whole 12-month deployment."

Balance at Fort Benning

Dyer said he's committed to keeping the 11th Engineer Battalion's ministry on solid ground. Ensuring Buddhist Soldiers can exercise their First Amendment rights in an Army setting -- perhaps for the first time -- and accommodating requests to counsel personnel in units across post are his other top priorities.

The Sand Hill service starts at 8 a.m. every Sunday. Dyer and the installation chaplain are now gathering research and data on the number of Buddhists at Fort Benning in an effort to determine whether it's the best location for the community. After the New Year, an officially sanctioned Buddhist service will be established, he said.

Dyer said every Soldier not only has the right to practice their chosen religion, but it also has impact on health and wellness, resiliency and qualify of life.

"Faith has such an important role for our Soldiers to be able to come into the serene and beautiful environment of a Buddhist service that's meaningful to them," he said. "It provides a quality role in their military service. I want to provide that to a group of Soldiers who have never had that before."

But balancing Buddhist ideals with Army duties can be conflicting for some, the chaplain said.

"Buddhist Soldiers have to deal with issues of livelihood: How do I view myself as a Buddhist and a Soldier who carries a weapon?" he said. "I have developed procedures that help them see themselves as a force for good in the world, protecting what's beautiful and right. It allows them to promote happiness and reduce suffering in the world. I try to teach those things to Buddhist Soldiers."


Anonymous said...

How beautiful and how challenging.
It is a good thing for the US armed forces to have their Buddhist members recognized and supported.

Let us remember that Siddhartha as a prince was given extensive martial training, and the tradition says that He excelled. Many of the great patrons of the Dharma through history were kings and so carried a heavy ongoing responsibility to protect their people militarily.

Maintaining a strong moral compass within the military is what we pride ourselves on as Americans.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

please excuse my ignorance, but I dont understand how you can claim to be buddhist and serve in the military. To me it seems like a contradiction. How can you practice non violence and compassion when your shooting at someone or dropping bombs on their head? I dont mean to be disrespectful, but I just dont get it...

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Many Buddhists serve in our Armed Forces and practice the tenets of nonviolence and compassion in their daily lives. If you are on Facebook, visit the pages "U.S. Military Buddhists" and "Buddhists in the Armed Forces" for education on what it means to be a Buddhist and in the military. Our intent is not to be thoughtless killers but to defend our Nation; often this involves military activity, which is an unavoidable component of this samsaric world. We cannot slough off this responsibility onto non-Buddhists, but accept the karmic debt, with the intention of being aware of all our actions. This is something that is MORE needed in our Armed Forces, and what we can bring to the table. The purpose of this blog is to answer such questions as you may have, and to illustrate why we serve as we do, and how we may continue our faith as Buddhists as we do so.

Renata said...

This was a great post! I really enjoyed reading about Chaplain Dyer's journey. And I also thank you for your last comment, where you literally for put my very own sentiments into words. I have never seen members of the US armed forces as just people who "drop bombs on people's heads". Instead, I see them as people who are defending our country and way of life. And many of them suffer greatly for something that most of us don't have the guts to do- or even think about. And Buddhist or not, they all deserve our compassion and respect.

Anonymous said...

Is Chaplin Dyer still at Ft. Benning? I live in Columbus and am former military and am looking for a local sangha to join and study with. Any interested people can email me at tomb16_2000 @ yahoo.


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