Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Buddhist Chaplaincy in the US Armed Forces

Here is a picture of myself (on left), Ven. Aroon Seeda (middle) and 2ndLT Somya Malasri, our only Buddhist chaplain for the US Army. This picture was taken at the Operational Ministry Center (OMC) at Naval Station San Diego.

I'd like to present a short history of Buddhist military chaplaincy.
The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the continental North American district of the Nishi (West) Hongwanji sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and the oldest Buddhist organization in the United States, is presently the ONLY endorser for Buddhist chaplains for the US military. All US military chaplains must belong to a national denominational body which can vet that their chaplains are ordained and have a postgraduate degree.

Although Buddhist military chaplaincy is a relatively new institution, it actually had its origins during World War II, when many Japanese-Americans joined the US Army, out of patriotism and the hope of freeing their relatives unjustly placed in the internment camps due to racial discrimination and economic jealousies. At the time, only Christian and Jewish chaplains were permitted in the US military. The Buddhist Missions of North America (the precursor of the BCA) petitioned the then-War Department to commission a Buddhist chaplain, but this request was denied, as Buddhism was not recognized as a legitimate religion, and was confused with State Shinto, the religion of wartime Japan. Therefore, Christian chaplains (who were Caucasians and Japanese-Americans) served these troops in famous battalions like the 442nd (the most decorated unit in US Army history) and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). It is estimated that approximately half of these troops were of Buddhist faith.

Buddhists continued to serve in the military following the end of World War II, although they were still not permitted their own chaplain, or even to put the religious designation, "Buddhist," on their dog tags (this policy has since changed). Finally, in 1987, through lobbying by WWII and Korean War Buddhist Veterans, and Rev. Haruo Yamaoka, then the Abbot (Socho) of the Buddhist Churches of America, the BCA was granted endorser status. However, there were no candidates for military chaplaincy until 2004, when I was commissioned as a LTJG in the US Navy Reserves.

2ndLT Somya Malasri, a Buddhist of Thai background, is the first US Army Buddhist Chaplain. He is also endorsed by BCA. He is ordained in the Theravadin tradition. He is currently a seminarian at the University of the West.

To become a military chaplain, there are certain requirements the candidate must fulfill. A postgraduate degree is essential, for example an M.A. The candidate also has to have an endorsement from a recognized endorser, and be ordained in their tradition. There are also age limits and physical fitness standards which may vary from branch to branch. Basic requirements may be found at the National Conference to the Armed Forces Web site which is linked to this site.


Anonymous said...

What an informative post! Thank you, Chaplain Shin.

P.S. I just posted an entry about your site at my blog

Anonymous said...

Chaplain Shin,

I'm a deploying soldier and would like more information about the prayer supplies that are available to soldiers.



Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

The Operational Ministry Center at Naval Base San Diego (32nd Street) has a small supply of Buddhist materials. We have:

*Small quantity of Theravada Buddhism books.
*Very limited quantity of Theravada Buddhism books in Thai language.
*Copies of the "Buddhism in Everyday Life" pamphlet series published by Buddha's Light Mountain (BLIA) (Chinese Ch'an/Pure Land Buddhism).
*Small quantity of "Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra" (also published by BLIA).
*Copies of "The Teaching of Buddha"
Japanese BDK publication.
*CDs of Chinese Amitabha Buddha recitation (Namo Omituo Fo)
*Buddha pendants from Thailand
*Small Buddhas (also from Thailand)

If you would like any of these items, please email me at:

or contact Op Ministry Center (OMC) San Diego directly at (619) 556-2826.

Christina said...

I am a cadet at the Air Force Academy, I served 4 year enlisted prior to coming here and I want to find out about how I could become a Buddhist chaplain in the air force. Do you know where i would find that information?

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Hello Christina!

Contact an AF Chaplain Recruiter. Your academy chaplain should have that information. Also, go to the Buddhist Churches of America Web site (listed on this blog). BCA is the only endorser for chaplains of Buddhist faith in the US military. You will have to be ordained in a Buddhist tradition and have a master's level degree, preferably in Buddhist Studies, as part of the prerequisites to be considered for endorsement.

Anonymous said...

I am going to BCT soon. I became a convert of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, while I was in H.S. I was wondering, would there be a chaplain there for us Buddhist?

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...


Currently there are only 2 Buddhist chaplains on active duty, myself and Chaplain Dyer. Rev. Malasri is due to become active soon. Both Ch. Dyer and Ch. Malasri will be Army chaplains (I assume you are an Army recruit)? I do not know where Ch. Malasri will be stationed, so I cannot say there will be a Buddhist service during your recruit training. You may inquire if there any contact services or other options during basic training.

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