Friday, August 1, 2008

Requirements to Become a Buddhist Chaplain in the US Armed Forces

I've gotten many inquiries from individuals inquiring to the process of becoming a chaplain of Buddhist faith in the U.S. military. I'd like to post some basic requirements here, that are based on military requirements (which also can be found here: Hopefully you will be able to get good information!

•Bachelors and Masters Degrees
Most Buddhist clergy are not required to have academic degrees to be ordained; however, this is a must for ALL United States military chaplains. A bachelors degree typically involves 120 semester hours or 180 quarter hours and a graduate degree 72 credit hours in an accredited institution. Not less than 36 hours must be in theological/ministry and related studies, consistent with the respective religious tradition of the applicant (Buddhism in this case). A graduate degree in Buddhist Studies would be highly recommended.
• Ordination
Together with the graduate degree requirement, this is also a potential obstacle for many applicants. Ordination means recognition that you are considered clergy in your particular Buddhist tradition. This does not include lay teacher status. The number of years you have practiced Buddha-dharma as a layperson also cannot be considered as qualifying for ordained status. You MUST be ordained AS a clergyperson. A big plus is at least two years' experience in a religious environment, as a temple minister, or monastic, for example. The US Armed Forces cannot ordain people, and the Buddhist Churches of America cannot ordain in the Jodo Shinshu tradition solely for purposes of chaplaincy. It is UP TO YOU to find a track to ordination.
• Endorsement from the Buddhist Churches of America
The Buddhist Churches of America is the ONLY recognized endorser for Buddhist U.S. military chaplains. An official form known as a DD2088 - Statement of Ecclesiastical Endorsement - is signed by our abbot. Without this signed endorsement, you cannot become a military chaplain. Receiving a signed DD2088 is dependent on whether you can demonstrate completion of a Master’s Degree program and provide proof of ordination from an authentic Buddhist tradition. A personal interview will also be required.
• US Citizenship, Security Background Check, and Age Limits
These are requirements of all service branches (Army, Navy, and Air Force). The age limit is usually in the early forties by the time of commissioning, but there may be age waivers on a case-by-case basis. This may be determined by the branch of service, and your chaplain recruiter.
• Physical Condition
The military is a very demanding physical and mental environment. You will have to pass a physical exam as part of your chaplain application package. There are yearly physical tests you will have to pass (runs, pushups, situps, pull-ups), and the expectation is that you will physically exercise frequently on your own, and with your command, as a group (even in the Air Force)! Also, you will definitely be going on overseas deployments, which may involve living aboard a naval warship, or living in the field for months on end. If you have any physical conditions that cannot permit you to do this, military chaplaincy may not be a good choice for you.
• Ability to Work in the Deparment of Defense(DoD)Directed Religious Accommodation Environment
What this means is that all military chaplains by necessity work in an interfaith environment, and may not discriminate or proselytize (although unfortunately these are certainly known to happen). What "ability to work" means is that you will very frequently encounter and work with non-Buddhists: can you work with Christians every day, even having a Christian – or Jewish or Muslim - chaplain as your boss? As a chaplain, you will definitely counsel people of other faiths, or no religious affiliation. Most people will look at you as a spiritual person, a chaplain, whether they are Christian or Wiccan (which there are many of in the military). This also means encountering Buddhists from traditions different from your own, even ones you may personally disagree with. However, your purpose as a chaplain is to provide for the free exercise of religion - it is not to convince a Soka Gakkai Buddhist that his/her teaching is false and that Theravada Buddhism is the real deal, or vice versa, for example. You may have disagreements but you may not try to convert or proselytize yourself, anymore than it is ethical for Christian chaplains to try to convert the Buddhists in their command. Military chaplaincy is genuine interfaith work. In addition, being a military chaplain means working IN a military environment, not outside of it. Living in a military environment 24/7 means participating in the culture and camaraderie of military life, as well as dealing with the annoying illogicities that also are part of military life! As a military officer also, you support the mission of your command.

Again, these requirements are NOT established by the Buddhist Churches of America, but by the Department of Defense. There aren't any special exemptions for Buddhists; these are guidelines that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim chaplain applicants also have to follow. For anyone who meets these requirements and would like to apply to become a chaplain, the first step would be to contact a chaplain recruiter, which can be done by going to one of these sites.

Navy/Marines/Coast Guard:
Air Force:


Anonymous said...

That is very interesting information LT. Thanks. I am always interested in what is required of different religious leaders since my grandfather was a preacher and my mother a Rev. I am studying to be a lay minister and that will probably be the extent of it for me.
CPL Lawrence

Buddhist_philosopher said...

yes, many thanks LT Shin. I am one of those who has dabbled in the idea of military chaplaincy (currently pursuing a ph.d. in Buddhist Ethics, unordained and with zero chaplaincy training) and this explanation of the requirements makes for great food for thought.

Venerable Konchok Jangchup Dorje said...

Finding that there is only one Buddhist serving any of the VA hospitals, I plan to contact the local hospital where I receive care to function as a volunteer with their chaplains' office. I am not a monk, but rather a Ngakpa. However, my root lama has said I should serve those who need us.

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Chaplaincy in any form, whether it is in the military or hospital or anywhere else, is the next great challenge for American Buddhism, whether we can bring Buddha-dharma outside the temples into society where it may be needed most. There are already a number of Buddhist groups organized to do this, like Buddhist Chaplains Network; look into those for information on how to volunteer or receive credentialing. Also to become a VA chaplain you do not need to follow same guidelines as to become a military chaplain.

Anonymous said...

Thank you LT. Im a RP3, currently serving in Okinawa Japan, and I was wondering what route I can go to become a Buddhist Chaplain in the Tibetan tradition. I found some schools, however I would have to go through training for 6 years to receive a bachelors degree. Do you have any suggestions for me? My GI bill only covers 3 years of school, and I have 40+ credits on my SMART transcript. I took my refuge vowels 4 years ago, and have been a independent practitioner.

Lobsang Sherab.

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Dear RP3 Sherab,

Having a B.A. and a M.A. both is a necessity to become a chaplain, so please find a way to accomplish these degrees! There are several graduate programs available for training to become a Buddhist chaplain in any field, which is the good news. You may also want to apply for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which can give you more educational benefits. I believe BCA has also recently endorsed an Army Chaplain candidate of Tibetan Buddhist background! So it is possible for a practitioner of the Tibetan tradition to become a chaplain.

Claire Culver said...

Hello, I just wanted to add that the first Buddhist chaplain in the Army deploys this month. His name is Thomas Dyer and he is a member of my sangha and student of Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche. You can find articles on him on the AP as of this week.

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Thank you for your comment Claire! If you could, can you please tell us something about your sangha? Also, please let Chaplain Dyer know he is welcome to post on this blog, and I hope he stays well throughout his deployment to Iraq. Gassho.

Anonymous said...

My name is Cesar,

I have a Business degree (B.S. Accounting)

I will be Ordained in about a month, If I wanted to become a chaplain I would have to go to school for a masters (3 semesters at least) in Buddhist studies, and also need 2 years of service correct?

Could I do both at the same time? Serve at my temple while going for the 36 hours?

RKooyer said...

Hello LT,

I have 14 years in the US Army and am currently part-time in a western-leaning Seminary but am looking for change theologically and philosophically. I am working with a USN recruiter already and am getting my weight down but an curious about how to transition from my Unitarian Universalist background to something even more transcendent? I am visiting Naropa Univeristy in a few weeks but is that even necessary?

RKooyer said...

I guess, going a step farther with the previous comment, does the Sangha ordain you and then the Buddhist Churches of America that will sign the credential for the branch of the Armed Forces that you are looking to be commissioned into?

In my research, I see that a Buddhist Monk from Naropa was called to a pulpit at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado. I hope that my earnest studies while filling all of my electives with Buddhist classes while attending a Sangha could lead to me eventually receiving the precepts and garnering an endorsement without me attending University of the West or Naropa.

Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...

Hello RKooyer!

As long as you can get an accredited MA that will fulfill Navy chaplain candidate requirements you should be fine.

You will have to interview with our Abbot, who is our endorser for chaplains, in order to get your endorsement form approved for your package.

You will also need to be ordained by a recognized Sangha. There is an organization that ordains Buddhist ministers specifically for chaplaincy, I believe they are in Los Angeles. There should be a link to them on this blog.

Good luck! _/\_

Unknown said...

I'm not sure if this is the proper forum to contact you through, if not my sincere apology.

I want to let you know that we have started a Clinical Pastoral Education Program (CPE) at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai Thailand, I understand this is a US Military Chaplain site (I am an American) and we would like to be of service if at all possible in helping those who need ordination or endorsement.

As Thailand is primarily a Buddhist country and Chiang Mai University is a Buddhist University we have many resources available to help.

The reason I am contacting you is because 25 years ago I decided to become a Buddhist Chaplain in the US military as all of the male members of my family going back to the Revolutionary War have been in the military however it was a difficult process and there were so many obstacles to overcome I gave up and became a hospital chaplain and later a police chaplain.

If there is anything we can do to help or support you we would be very happy to do so.

Our website is:

We would also be happy to link your website. We have many retired American Veterans here in Chiang Mai and we work directly with them.

Muninn said...

What's to be done about directly conflicting statuses? In Theravada, the only "clergy" is a bhikkhu. If a bhikkhu joined the military, he would be violating many of the Patimokkha's rules, and would therefore no longer be a bhikkhu.

The only logical course would be to ordain as a samanera and elevate to a chaplain in that fashion. Is that possible?

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