Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk - Being Buddhist in the Military (Part 2)

Hello all!
This is a continuation of my Dharma message on being Buddhist and in the US military. This may (or may not) present us with some unique challenges. First would be how to relate to our fellow servicemembers who belong to religions other than Buddhism and who ask us, or challenge us, about our beliefs. Second is how to explain our profession to other Buddhists. Admittedly, for many Buddhists this is a non-issue - we are right to say, why should I have to justify my choice of profession to others? Some of us may have never confronted this issue. However, for others, they have been on the receiving end of puzzlement, sympathy, or outright hostility when revealed that they wear a uniform, as others insist that serving in the armed forces (or even in law enforcement) is not "Right Livelihood." These attitudes may stem from a variety of sources: a belief that Buddhists should live a strictly pacifist life, that Buddhism is an "alternative" to Western traditions, maybe a personal dislike or ignorance of the military institution and its role in American society or even their own unpleasant experiences in the military. I would like to offer some suggestions as to how to address these attitudes if you are confronted by them. (The point is not to angrily confront and say "you're wrong!" but to counter their own confrontation to you as a military member who happens to be Buddhist).

1) Explain your role in the military - The US has had an AVF (All-Volunteer Force) for several decades now, and it is a fact that very few Americans today have had any experience of military service. Hollywood and the news media rarely give any accurate depictions of military life. Very few people even know what a chaplain is (M*A*S*H went off the air 20 years ago)! Emphasize your honorable service, what you do, and that military people are not all gun-crazed thugs, drunks, or morons! These assumptions are still out there! We are the "first line" in defense of our way of life and our Constitutional freedoms, against enemies foreign and domestic, highly disciplined and trained, and under civilian administration, unlike the militaries of many other countries which abuse their people. Just as we find ourselves having to reassure others that Buddhists are "normal" people (well, sometimes!) we also end up additionally having to reassure other Buddhists that military people are not ogres but their fellow practicers, neighbors, etc.

2) Discuss how the Buddha did not prohibit military service - Buddhism is not a "religion" of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt nots." The Eightfold Path is meant as our guide to an honorable way of life, not as commandments. Military life is not for everyone, obviously, just as many other professions may not fit our personal beliefs and desires. No matter what profession or lifestyle we follow, the Buddha advised us to always consider the karmic consequences and be mindful. Others may cite the precept against killing. Taking the life of any living thing (and this included animal, and even insect and plant life, in many cases) was never considered proper, and we should always follow the precepts when we can (just as devout Christians follow their 10 Commandments). Yet the reality was that conflict could not be totally avoided, neither could complete vegetarianism be practiced. Monastics could follow them much easier than laypersons, but even so, we continue to live in samsara where we cannot follow the precepts 100% 24/7. We simply do not live as monastics. The Buddha's Great Compassion (daihi) ultimately envelops us, no matter who we are or what we do.

3) Avoid "dueling scriptures" - I call this the spectacle of people picking and choosing bits of text to justify their arguments. This is a good idea to keep in mind when thinking of the above. People have used Buddhism to justify all sorts of things (just as they do in other religions) by taking the sutras out of context. I don't believe this is effective. What is an authoritative text for one Buddhist may be not so for a Buddhist of another tradition. Also, the Theravada and Mahayana texts were composed over a wide span of time, and do not always concur with each other.

4) Use examples from history - Buddhists taking up arms and defending their country and families is not a recent aberration, but has been a reality throughout the history of Buddhism. Korean monks took up arms to defend their country from Japanese invaders in the late 1500s, and Japanese-American Buddhists were among the toughest fighters of WWII. And of course there were the Shaolin monks who are the most visible representation of "warrior" Buddhists fighting for justice and righteousness.

5) Find a friendly Sangha - If you constantly experience verbal barbs or the cold shoulder because of your profession, it may be best to look for another temple or center to attend. Even if people in your Sangha may not agree with your job personally, that should not affect how they treat you as a fellow Buddhist and as a human being who desires to hear the Buddha-dharma. It will be very difficult to practice in a negative environment. If there is no other Sangha in your area, consider this blog as a welcome Sangha!

6) Learn from others - Buddhism is not the only religion to deal with this issue. Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, and many others wrestle with this issue. It may be that the more liberal spiritual traditions, like the Unitarian Universalists, are particularly concerned with how to confront this problem. Check out Chaplain Pyle's blog on this site. The essay on this Wiccan site,, could practically mirror the dilemna faced by many Buddhists in America. This can also be a source of interfaith dialogue.

Each one of us made a personal decision to serve in the armed forces, so therefore we must also understand our personal relationship with Buddha-dharma in our lives. We may seek guidance from more-educated and experienced teachers, but eventually we alone are responsible for our decisions. We took an oath to serve honorably, therefore let us use Buddha-dharma to guide us along this karmic path! Whatever path we choose, let us be at peace with it.
Namo amida butsu

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk - Being Buddhist in the Military (Part 1)

Hello all!
For this Dharma talk I would like to share some impressions that I have learned while being Buddhist as an enlisted Marine and as a Naval officer, and offer some advice on working with non-Buddhists and also with other Buddhists who may not understand your reasonings for being in the armed forces. I understand that everyone may have had different experiences so please do not take this as "scripture" but following Buddha's advice to the Kalamas, if you can put this into practice for yourselves and make it work, then do so!

In my experience, I think most Buddhists simply are quiet about their religion, and this is understandable. The reality is that we are a minority faith in an overwhelmingly Christian environment. For some, being a Buddhist is an extension of family and cultural traditions, while for others it may be a new and exciting spiritual path. I have experienced a little of both, coming from a Korean Buddhist family background (but never practiced at home) and "converting" to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a Japanese Buddhist tradition, and learning its rituals and teachings.
Most Buddhists, including "converts" do not necessarily "shout out" their faith, it is simply part of the personal identity, expressed mostly at home with family or with other Buddhists. There is certainly nothing wrong or unusual about this; many people of other religions behave similarly.

However we may encounter others who discover our Buddhist identity, because we leave Buddhist books out in our barracks room, chant audibly, or otherwise express our Buddhist faith openly. Thus we become obligated to "defend" our Buddhist identity, and I use that word on purpose, because we are interacting with people who may know very little about Buddhism, or have many misconceptions of Buddhism, and may be curious or hostile. Either way, we end up answering questions, and offering information about Buddha-dharma. This is some of what I would recommend in these situations:

1) Explain Buddhism simply - Many people, when inquiring about Buddhism, really are curious about Buddhism and want to know what you believe. They may know only a little already, or have no idea. Don't try to overwhelm them or impress them with your spiritual knowledge. Words like "Namo Amida Butsu" have great import for Shinshu Buddhists, but means nothing to those who have never heard of Pure Land Buddhism (or don't know Japanese). The Buddha always tailored his Dharma messages to the level of his audience - do the same.

2) Refrain from becoming angry or upset - It may be difficult not to get exasperated when people assume (for the millionth time for me I think!) that the entirety of Buddhist practice is "going OM", or rubbing the fat Buddha belly! Or assuming that Buddhists would make bad soldiers ("wouldn't you all just run away?") Take this as your opporuntity to squash the stereotypes and reveal that Buddhists are human beings too! And that it does not get in the way of our jobs; emphasize your professionalism. Remember, you may be the first and only Buddhist that person has encountered. What impression do you want to give? It is like wearing your dress uniform out in public!

3) Find similar grounds - Some need assurance that Buddhism does have a system of morality, and that we do not believe in raping and pillaging at will! All religions and spiritualities believe in some version of the Golden Rule "Do unto others as you would have had done unto yourselves." Find common ground for spirituality.

4) Use chain of command - At some point in our careers we will encounter people who actually do feel frightened and threatened by Buddhism. If you are dealing with a nightmare of a senior leadership, whom you believe is harassing you because of your religious identity (and I worked for a SSGT who believed that all Marines should be forced to be Christians!), always use your chain of command. Also go to your chaplain. They are there to help all servicemembers, not just for people of their own religion. You have a right not to be hassled and prevented from doing your work because of your religion. It is very sad, but there is probably very little you can do to change these peoples' fears (although it does happen); sometimes the best thing you can do is to avoid them; if you can't then look for assistance.

5) Be familiar with religious accommodation - For those of us in the Sea Services, there are guidelines providing for free exercise of religion. Two of these are OPNAVINST 17301.D "Religious Ministry in the Navy" and SECNAVINST 1730.8A "Accomodation of Religious Practices" which provide for free exercise of religion for all naval service members. There are similar instructions for Army and Air Force.

Above all, don't feel that you have to be defensive or "hide" your Buddhist faith unnecessarily. If you don't want to "broadcast" your beliefs, that is fine, if you want to practice openly or become a lay leader for your command, that is also commendable.If you are new to the military and a Buddhist know that there is someone who has gone before you and experienced it! Share your experiences!
Namo amida butsu

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Can a Buddhist Join the Army?

Hello All.....
Can Buddhist Join the Army?.
Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda

You can be a soldier of Truth, but not the aggressor.

One, Sinha, the general of the army, went to the Buddha and said, ‘ I am a soldier, O Blessed One. I am appointed by the King to enforce his laws and to wage his wars. The Buddha teaches infinite love, kindness and compassion for all sufferers: Does the Buddha permit the punishment of the criminal? And also, does the Buddha declare that it is wrong to go to war for the protection of our homes, our wives, our children and our property? Does the Buddha teach the doctrine of complete self-surrender? Should I suffer the evildoer to do what he pleases and yield submissively to him who threatens to take by violence what is my own? Does the Buddha maintain that all strife including warfare waged for a righteous cause should be forbidden?’

The Buddha replied, ‘He who deserves punishment must be punished. And he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Do not do injury to any living being but be just, filled with love and kindness.’ These injunctions are not contradictory because the person who is punished for his crimes will suffer his injury not through the ill-will of the judge but though the evil act itself. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executors of the law inflict. When a magistrate punished, he must not harbour hatred in his heart. When a murderer is put to death, he should realize that his punishment is the result of his own act. With his understanding, he will no longer lament his fate but can console his mind. And the Blessed One continued,’ The Buddha teaches that all warfare in which man tries to slay his brothers is lamentable. But he does not teach that those who are involved in war to maintain peace and order, after having exhausted all means to avoid conflict, are blameworthy.

‘Struggle must exist, for all life is a struggle of some kind. But make certain that you do not struggle in the interest of self against truth and justice. He who struggles out of self-interest to make himself great or powerful or rich or famous, will have no reward. But he who struggles for peace and truth will have great reward; even his defeat will be deemed a victory.

‘If a person goes to battle even for a righteous cause, then Sinha, he must be prepared to be slain by his enemies because death is the destiny of warriors. And should his fate overtake him, he has no reason to complain. But if he is victorious his success may be deed great, but no matter how great it is, the wheel of fortune may turn again and bring his life down into the dust. However, if he moderates himself and extinguishes all hated in his heart, if he lifts his down-trodden adversary up and says to him’ Come now and make peace and let us be brothers,’ then he will gain a victory that is not a transient success; for the fruits of that victory will remain forever.

‘Great is a successful general, Sinha, but he who conquers self is the greater victor. This teaching of conquest of self, Singa, is no t taught to destroy the lives of others, but to protect them. The person who has conquered himself is more fit to live, to be successful and to gain victories than is the person who is the slave of self. The person whose mind is free from the illusion of self, will stand and not fall in the battle of life. He whose intentions are righteousness and justice, will meet with no failures. He will be successful in his enterprise and his success will endure. He who harbours love of truth in his heart will live and not suffer, for he has drunk the water of immortality. So struggle courageously and wisely. Then you can be a soldier of truth.’

Aloha All!


My name is Rocco Blais and I was a prospected Buddhist Chaplain for the Military. I was in the U.S. Army as an Expert Infantryman (11 Bravo) with the 25th Infantry Division Schofield Barracks Hawaii in 1996. Shortly after getting Honorably Discharged, I found myself searching for higher meaning because being an "Expert Killer" would not work outside of the Army. So I attending regular meditation classes at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, R.I. I found myself working a few jobs but none requiring the combat skills I achieved in the Army. So I joined the U.S. Navy in 2001 as a Cryptologic Technician (CTO) and found myself back in Hawaii at the KRSOC in Kunia Hawaii.

As I did more searching, I found myself at the Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center in Honolulu. Continuing in the Navy, I worked at JICPAC Pearl Harbor as an Information Technician (IT) sharping my mind as a full time student at Hawaii Pacific University. Earning a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a 3.4 GPA I wanted to pursue further mental development within Buddhism, education, and the Military. So I prepared to submit my packet for the Buddhist Chaplain Program. I conversed with representatives from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force. I wanted to find which Military branch would find more use for the first Buddhist Chaplain. I was able to contact Jeanette Shin who is the first Buddhist Chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. I was also put in touch with Somya Malasri, who attended the Honolulu Dharma Center, and is a prospected candidate for the U.S. Army Buddhist program (I have lost contact with him but I hope he makes it).

As I searched deeper into the program, I felt that it did not work in my favor. To attend a Theological/Seminary school for a Master of Divinity in Buddhist Studies, there were only two possible colleges. University of the West and University of California at Berkeley were the only choices. Naropa University was my first choice and now they offer an MDiv towards Chaplaincy (after I chanted to them repeadly). With the tuition assistance received from the Military, I felt it would not cover my lifestyle within the program. So I decided I would leave the Military in 2006 to pursue a Master's degree in Education and upon completion of that, I will venture into a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Pyschology.

Although my plans did change due to personal reasons, I will continue to support Buddhism in the Military. I must admit it would have seemed contradicting to have a former "Grunt" with an Expert Infantry Badge as a Buddhist Chaplain. However, my view remains the same; this previous experience has lead me to the Noble Eightfold path. To know mindfulness, it was feasible for me to know suffering. I am a proud veteran and I still carry the seed as a Buddhist soldier. Following Buddhist philosophy in the military is long over due. I hope that Buddhist doctorine will create a compassionate atmosphere and resolve issues without the use of force.

Om Mani Padme Hum,
~ Rocco Blais

A Quick Intro

Hello Everyone! My name is Ed Crites and I’m an active duty Technical Sergeant in the USAF. Currently I’m stationed at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. I wanted to introduce myself as well (you know the Air Force, we always let the Marines go first. Thanks Mark!).

I’ve been in the learning faze of my practice for 5-7 years now. Most of what I’ve learned has come from self-teaching (books, Podcasts, internet articles, etc..). I think it’s great that we finally have a place where we can go to build our practice and our community. I’d like to join in and say “Thank you!” to Lt Shin for reaching out and doing what she to bring the military Buddhist community together.

Thanks again,


San Diego Area Sangha Meeting

For Buddhists stationed in the San Diego/Miramar/Camp Pendleton region, I am planning another get-together and discussion group on Sunday, October 21st at 1000. We will meet at the Murphy Canyon Chapel. I will offer a lecture on the origins of Buddhism. Also I will be passing on lessons learned from the Buddhist Chaplains Symposium that is scheduled to be held on Oct. 20 in Redwood City (this is an annual meeting of Buddhist chaplains working in various fields of chaplaincy).

The Murphy Canyon Chapel is located at 3200 Santo Road, San Diego, 92124. (619) 556-0603.


Dear all,

First of all many thanks for the letting me contribute to your Blog.

As the first ever Buddhist Chaplain in the UK Armed Forces, I wanted to congratulate you on your new Buddhist Military Sangha Blog. It is great to see the dhamma services are slowly being made available to the Military community in the US.

I have now been in the post for 2 years and contrary to what some thought past 2 years I have been able to share the Dhamma and spread nothing but peace amongst the Military Community in the UK. I am the only Buddhist Chaplain to the whole of the three forces here at the moment and the number of Buddhists are increasing as ever. Though Buddhism is not a religion interested in converting others into it, it is our duty to help anyone who become interested in the Buddha Dhamma.

I would like to wish Chaplain Shin and Chaplain Somasri and all your group every sucess in your efforts in discovering dhamma. personnally there is absolutely nothing more enticing than discovering dhamma for me. Therefore it is a great merit to help and support those who are interested in the dhamma through the understanding of Buddha and dhamma.

Best wishes!


Dr. Sunil Kariyakarawana
Buddhist Chaplain to HM Forces
Wellington Barracks
London SW1E 6HQ
Tel. 020 7414 3411

Saturday, September 22, 2007

My first post here!

Greetings everyone! My name is Mark Vanslooten. I am a Marine Staff Sergeant stationed in Camp Pendleton, CA. Usually. Currently I'm at Camp Al Taqaddum in Iraq until November.

I'm new to the Buddhist practice. Only very recently have I been able to say that I'm a Buddhist. I've read books off and on for a few years and was never able to grasp the wealth of Sutras and philosophy I encountered. At Powell's Books in Portland Oregon (shameless plug) I picked up The Idiot's Guide To Understanding Buddhism. It laid out the history, Eightfold Path, Meditation and precepts very clearly. It's a great start for beginners like me.

I came in contact with Chaplain Shin by chance. There's a listing online for Buddhist groups in San Diego County and I e-mailed for info on a military group study. This came at the perfect time for me. The more I studied the more I became confused and conflicted with the military and the Buddhist practice. Chaplain Shin cleared a lot up for me. It really is possible to integrate the two. The discipline that is inherent in the military helps one follow the Eightfold Path. I'd like to share more of my thoughts on this sometime in the future.

When I return to the "world" I'll be looking forward to meeting others on the same path. Peace be with you!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Henry Steel Olcott - Civil War Veteran & Buddhist Patriot

Today's hoji is about a sadly neglected figure in our American history: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907). He was the first known American citizen to formally convert to the Buddhist faith. Today, Olcott’s name today is more often linked to the Theosophy movement of the late 19th-century, rather than Buddhism, as he was a founding member of that organization (a kind of forerunner of New Age thought); although there was a kind of “vogue” for Buddhism at the turn of the century, it gradually faded away as a popular trend, until “re-discovered” by Westerners in the 1950s and 60s (of course Buddhism was continued to be practiced in America by Japanese-Americans and other Asian immigrants). I will give reasons why I want to discuss Col. Olcott.

It is hard to summarize his life: Henry Steel Olcott was born into a Christian Presbyterian family in New Jersey. He trained as a lawyer, and served in the Union Army during the US Civil War, and may have experienced combat action. Following active service, he also served as a commissioner for the Department of the Navy, acquiring the rank of Colonel, and investigated corruption among contractors (we could use more Olcotts today)! He also took part in the investigations after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. As a young man he developed an interest in spiritualism; spiritualism, or belief in spirit communication, was extremely popular in America prior to the Civil War, an outgrowth of the Second "Great Awakening" of religious devotion. Col. Olcott was a founding figure of Theosophy but also developed a strong interest in Buddhism, particularly in the Theravada tradition. His search for Buddhism led him to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon and under British colonial rule). There, in 1880, he adopted Buddhism as his religion by taking the precepts in Pali. He campaigned against the aggressive Christian missionaries there who were trying to stamp out Buddhism, and he fought for the civil rights of the Buddhists. He gave lectures throughout the country, and founded Buddhist schools and associations for young people. In order to promote Buddhist identity he helped design the multi-colored Buddhist flag (the colors of the Buddhist flag are the colors said to have been radiated by the Buddha from his Enlightenment), which was later adopted by Buddhists worldwide. (These flags can also be seen at our Jodo Shinshu temples here in America!) He also wrote a “Buddhist Catechism” in 1881, one of the first books in English to promote Buddhism. He also visited Japan, Burma, and India. At his funeral, his coffin was draped with two flags: "Old Glory," and the Buddhist flag. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.

It is difficult to judge Col. Olcott's legacy today; he is perhaps more known in Sri Lanka than in his own country, and even now he is mostly thought of in connection with the Theosophy movement, today considered very controversial and strange for some. Col. Olcott also interpreted Buddhism according to his own understanding, which was strongly influenced by Protestant Christianity. Like many new converts to Buddhism, he aggressively sought to understand what was "true" Buddhism as opposed to cultural "superstitions" and believed he could benefit Buddhism by applying Western critical thinking; he even hoped to re-unify Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, all of which was not accepted by Asian Buddhists.

Yet Col. Olcott was undoubtedly a pioneer of American Buddhism, although most of his work was in Sri Lanka. Especially I believe he also should be considered a pioneer, and even a role model, for Buddhists like ourselves who are in, or have had, military service. His experience during the Civil War must have influenced his later actions: when he heard of the attack on Buddhism by the missionaries, he rushed to the defense of the Buddhists, and also went on the offensive, not by physical force (although Buddhists were physically attacked by mobs of Christians), but by seeking to empower and strengthen Buddhists through education, community, and instilling pride in Buddhist heritage. He certainly was not passive. Col. Olcott was very active for the cause of Buddha-dharma in many countries, but he still respected many other religious traditions, including Islam and Christianity.

Personally, although his Buddhism and mine are different, I see Col. Olcott as a leadership example to follow. To honor his 100th-year centennial, every year on February 17th (his memorial day) I will conduct a memorial service for Col. Olcott. I hope you will also take time to lean about this Buddhist pioneer!

Unfortunately, there are not many resources out there about Col. Olcott.
There are two biographies on his life:
Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light: Life of Col. Henry S. Olcott by Howard Murphet. This is a a very readable biography of published by The Theosophical Society (which is still around). I found my copy on Ebay.
The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Stephen Prothero. This is an academic biography of Olcott published by an Indian press, and hard to find.
The Web site for the Olcott Centennial can be found here:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Howa - The Tradition of Dharma Talks

Hello all!
One of the things I will begin adding more often (I hope!) will be a series of Dharma talks that hopefully you may find interesting, informative, or at least, to provide a tool with which to uncover the path of Buddha-dharma, which is something we all do, whether we are ordained or laypersons. In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, this is called "howa," literally a Dharma message, and is essentially the equivalent of the Christian-style sermon in our tradition. The howa, in its most orthodox form, is meant to elucidate a point in Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land doctrine, but it is not considered a requirement to have for practice, (or an "empowerment") as in other Buddhist traditions. In America, the howa typically follows after sutra recitation in our temples. Usually, they are quite short, sometimes around 10-20 minutes, which is an accomodation of our American attention span (I've been to Dharma talks in Japan which lasted for over 2 hours)!!! I promise that the howas on this blog will not take 2 hours to read! The Dharma talks I will post personally will not be limited to the Jodo Shinshu tradition, but I will try to make them as accessible as I can. Please read them with an open mind, and with a grain of salt.
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