Thursday, August 27, 2009

Buddhist Military Chaplains for Russian Armed Forces?

Although there are currently no Buddhist chaplains in the Russian military, this may change, according to this article. The Russian area of Buryatia has been traditionally Buddhist for many centuries, and there are possibly many other Buddhist traditions recently established there. Countries that currently have active Buddhist military chaplains are the USA, UK, South Korea, and Thailand. If anyone knows of other nations that do, please let us know!
From Shambhala SunSpace:

Russia’s Medvedev pledges strong support to Buddhists:
Is Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a manifestation of White Tara, the Buddhist goddess?
Depends who you ask. If you ask a Russian Buddhist, the answer might well be yes.
Via the Moscow Times:
Medvedev promised financial support to the Buddhist community and to place Buddhist chaplains in the military during a visit Monday to the monastery in Ivolginsky Datsan, 30 kilometers from Buryatia’s capital, Ulan-Ude.
“Russia is a special state, the only one in Europe where Buddhism is recognized as an official religion,” Medvedev said, adding that 203 Buddhist organizations are registered in the country.
He also said army units where at least 10 percent of servicemen were Buddhists would receive Buddhist clergy.
For this kind of support, Medvedev is considered by many of Russia’s Buddhists to be a manifestation of the goddess White Tara.
At pains to explain this attitude toward the president, Russia’s Buddhist leader, Pandito Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, said, “The leader of this country is a man who bears a very serious responsibility for others. The Buddhists must support him, identifying him as a deity.”

Also from the Buddhist Channel:

Russian President vows to support Russian Buddhists
Zee News, August 24, 2009
Moscow, Russia -- President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday vowed to support the Russian Buddhists in reviving their traditions and spreading the preaching of Lord Buddha among its followers.

Medvedev, who became the second head of state in the country's history to visit the main Buddhist Ivolga Monastery in Siberian republic of Buryatia, was warmly welcomed by the spiritual leader of the Russian Buddhists Pandito Hambo Lama Damba Ayushev and his disciples.

A Christian by birth, Medvedev said, "All the traditional religions of Russia will be supported by the authorities in spite of financial difficulties."

Earlier, Medvedev had visited Moscow's Jama Masjid to meet with the Islamic leaders of the country.

"My visit to you is one more proof that the development of relations between the state and traditional faiths is on the right track," Medvedev said in his televised statement.

He said that his decision to introduce basic religious education in the schools and creation of posts of priests into the armed forces has been backed by all the religious communities.

News Article on Chaplain Thomas Dyer

Here's an article on US Army National Guard Chaplain Thomas Dyer from, a Memphis website:
There are 2 other military chaplain candidates, Revs. Somya Malasri (US Army) and Christopher Mohr (US Army National Guard), currently still in training. All were endorsed by the Buddhist Churches of America.

Raleigh man looks to help end soldiers' suffering as Army's 1st Buddhist chaplain

By Michael Lollar (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, August 23, 2009

For Thomas Dyer, there was fire and brimstone. "There was the idea that there's an angry God and somehow you could really make Him mad."

Dyer grew up fearing God. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian, then a Baptist. He had hoped religious conviction would lead to contentment. He attended seminary and preached as a Southern Baptist minister.

That seems like a lifetime ago as Dyer, 43, sits on a cushion in the shrine room of the Pema Karpo Meditation Center in Raleigh. Six statues of various Buddhas are positioned against the walls. His teacher, a Tibetan monk who founded the temple, listens as Dyer explains his exodus from the pulpit in search of nirvana.

"The question that arose in my mind is, 'Why is there so much suffering?' Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer. I wanted to be happy. The idea that we have to live with suffering until we die just did not make sense to me -- the idea that God wants you to suffer so you can then enjoy heaven." Dyer kept asking, "Is this all there is to life?" As a Christian, he had been interested in mysticism. That led to meditation. Dyer studied Buddhism, then visited the temple near his home in Raleigh. Right away, he says, "It was like, 'Whoa, I'm home.'"

His conversion would also mean trading the pulpit for the battlefield. To support his family after leaving the ministry, Dyer joined the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Army as what the Army calls its first Buddhist chaplain. "There is a profound amount of suffering for soldiers, civilians and for people who are enemies now but won't always be enemies," said Dyer, who was commissioned as a chaplain in 2008 and will be deployed to Iraq as part of the Army National Guard in January.

He has left his boots at the door of the temple, but in the temple room he wears a standard Army camouflage uniform. Instead of a cross or crucifix on the right chest his uniform bears the "dharma wheel" insignia as a symbol of the Buddhist faith. Army Chaplain Carleton Birch, spokesman for the Office of Chief of Army Chaplains in Washington, says there are at least 3,300 Buddhists in the U.S. Army. "In the Middle East, our Army is stretched and stressed more than ever. We're seeing the need more than ever in keeping the soldiers going." He said two more Buddhist chaplain candidates now are in training in South Carolina.

The military as an outlet for Dyer's beliefs is not coincidence. After high school, he thought he wanted to be in the military special forces, maybe as a sniper. He joined the Marine Reserves and was soon being trained as a "killer." Part of the training was aimed at smoothing the edges of conscience. "Some Marines found little birds' nests and would step on them," said Dyer, who declined that opportunity.

It was on a shooting range in Hawaii when Dyer knew he had had enough. As another Marine reset pop-up targets, Dyer looked through his rifle site. "I put him in the crosshairs, and I thought, 'I could kill him.' I turned away right then. I kept it quiet. I didn't want anyone to know this kind of mind was developing in me."

Dyer left the Marines and enrolled in Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. After seminary, he became minister of churches in Senatobia, Miss., and Brownsville, Tenn.

In and out of church, Dyer says unhappiness and dissatisfaction seemed pervasive. Wealth and success made no difference. "Everybody is basically suffering about the same. The average Joes you can see happiness in their lives, but it doesn't take long that you will see confusion and dissatisfaction. I wanted to explore the idea that you could find a solution to suffering."

Converting to Buddhism wasn't painless. "When you grow up in the Bible Belt, that teaching is very strong. It's almost better to be a drug addict, an adulterer or a scalawag than to say, 'I'm a Buddhist.'"

He questioned whether he was "denying Christ or endangering my eternal position. But as I continued my meditation, these types of fear just dissolved."

His marriage and two children also were issues. Dyer's wife, Sidney, and the children are Christians, members of First Evangelical Church. "It challenged us to the point that it made us wonder if we could make it," she said.

Sidney's belief that "God plans it all" helped. "I actually thank God in a way because I wouldn't have gone as deep in my own faith if I hadn't been challenged," she said. Instead of rejecting the suffering that her husband questioned, she embraced it: "I think each individual's suffering is personally designed for that individual to lead him to God."

She describes her husband as "a deeply spiritual person" and holds out hope that his spiritual journey will lead him back to Christianity.

At Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, president Michael Spradlin says a minister's conversion from fundamentalist Southern Baptist tradition to Buddhism seems "unfathomable." Spradlin says most suffering in this country is no more than "inconvenience" compared with the real suffering of those in Sudan and other war and famine-ravaged countries.

Spradlin suggests that if Dyer really was a born-again Christian that Southern Baptists and a "forgiving God" might consider his exploration of Buddhism as a "wrong step or a wrong path" and that he could be welcomed back to Christianity.

Dyer, who says he still appreciates the teachings of the Bible, says he doesn't think of Buddhism as a rejection of Christianity. But the happiness he once sought as a Christian no longer seems beyond his grasp. "Without a doubt, without equivocation, there has been a continuous, constant diminishment of suffering and awakening of peace and happiness," he said.

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Blog!: Becoming A Buddhist Chaplain

Our friend, US Air Force SSGT Henry Sims, has just begun a new blog chronicling his attempt to become a military chaplain of Buddhist faith. Check it out!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Buddhists Coming Home

As a chaplain, I often field inquiries about Buddhism, which range from basic general questions ("what do Buddhists believe?") to more specific ones about how Buddhists put their beliefs into a physical practice, what's needed in a Buddhist ritual or worship service, or even just basic sitting meditation. These questions come from all types of individuals: other chaplains, RPs (Navy enlisted personnel who work with the chaplains) who are required as part of their job to know about different religions, persons curious about Buddhism and what it is, and also from Buddhists themselves. A number Buddhists in uniform that I've met come from recently immigrated families, so are about 2nd to 3rd-generation US Citizens. This has led me to think about my own family experience in being Buddhist.

Imagine as a child you arrive in America or are born here the US as part of an ethnic Asian family: Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, or such. From an early age your parents begin to bring you (or make you go!) to a place with statues, strange-smelling smoke, and the sounds of monks or nuns chanting in a language unfamiliar to you. Also at certain times of the year there are colorful fairs and festivals with familiar foods, music, games and kids your own age. This is all great fun, even if you may not really understand what it's all for, or why this place, called a wat or a temple or a church, is there in the first place. As you grow older, you start drifting away, as it no longer seems interesting or relevant to your more busy and complicated life and you can't understand what is being said or taught, and anyway there's more fun things to do! Not to mention there's school and extracurricular activities and sports, and then college, and then jobs, or you join the armed forces and you move out of the area. You don't think too much about "religion." However, something happens once you get a little older and settled, or get married and have kids yourself: you remember that old temple and the people there, the friendly fellowship, the familiar smells and sights and sounds. You would like your kids to have this same good experience, and develop those kinds of memories for themselves, and maybe their kids in the future. But what was it all about really? What was, and is, this Buddhism religion?

This is a phenomenon familiar to many 2nd or 3rd-generation Asian-Americans. They know they were "born Buddhist" that is, born to a family that is traditionally Buddhist, and that their families identified themselves as Buddhist, visited Buddhist places of worship and did things that were "Buddhist", but as they grew older or assimilated to American lifestyles and culture, drifted away from regular temple attendence or the religion itself. Sometimes they experimented with being Christian or another faith, or dropped any religious identity altogether. Sometimes it is also an issue of language, if the monastics or priests did not speak English fluently, which of course is not the older generation's first language. Even if the younger generations do speak the mother tongue, the doctrine of Buddha-dharma may not have been clearly presented, or even comprehensible in any language! They may have only been taught a child's understanding of Dharma: "Be good. Obey your parents. Do not steal, kill, or lie." (Teachings familiar to people everywhere!) But everything else can be confusing. Why all the statues, why the incense and offerings, and is there anything else to it? What else does Buddhism teach?

Coming home to Buddhism is a journey that can be both joyful and confusing, even scary, for the Buddhist who has been away for a long time. You want to go back for various personal reasons as well as religious reasons. Maybe Christianity or agnosticism didn't work out, but you're not exactly sure what it is you're going back to or whether it would be worth it. Can it just be for the social atmosphere? Like that well-worn saying, "you can't go home again," you're bound to be disappointed if you expect things to be exactly the same when you left. New faces and new furniture, maybe even white and black faces! They weren't there before! So it can't just be about re-affirming an "ethnic identity." So, would it all be worth going back to and getting involved in temple life again when so much may have changed? However, does not mean that things are changed beyond recognition, only that some things in the interval. Even that can be a lesson in Buddha-dharma itself, the proof of truth of Buddha-dharma, that all things are impermanent and changing. Coming home is not just returning to revive pleasant the childhood and teenage years, but also to hear the Buddha-dharma afresh, with the experience of adulthood, to test the Buddha-dharma itself to see if it gives you what you need to grow and develop as a mature adult, in adult situations. What does Buddhism offer you at different stages in your life? It's currently a trend to have Buddha-statues in your home or garden - you can even find them at Target! But Buddhism is not a static set-piece, it is a living tradition followed by real people - there is something that Buddhism offers people more than a transient "identity." Buddha-dharma speaks to people in all situations; it is the task of those who are knowledgeable in the Dharma to bring the teachings to life in ways applicable for people living today! The one who wants to know what Buddhism is also has the task to seriously explore what it is, what do the teachings say, and would it help you and your family not just to be calm and contented in the good times, but in bad times as well - when there is a crisis in the family, when someone dies or is terminally ill. It's not necessary to have an advanced degree or know about abhidhamma or madhyamaka theory, just to know...that Buddha is there for you, and that his Great Compassion embraces all. It has never really left you and is there for you at the good and bad times of your life.

Although I have described this as an Asian-American and Buddhist experience, it is very likely that in the future non ethnic-Asian Buddhists will have this experience too (if not already!) having had one or more parents practicing Buddha-dharma of various traditions, and who now want to pick it up for themselves. Also others of different faith-traditions can also experience absence from their faith, and later on return to being Catholic or Jewish or such. Children should experience the religious life, as children; it does not mean to force "dogma" on them or give them Dharma teachings even adults find complicated. Temple life can be very enriching for children, and it is a place to learn good values and social values. Whether or not they will continue on to be Buddhists in adulthood is certainly up to them - some move away permanently, but many others return because of what they experienced as kids. Temples and their sanghas should welcome back these former members with open arms, just as they would welcome newcomers to the Dharma.

In The Lotus Sutra, the Buddha told the parable of the good friend who sewed a jewel into the lining of his friend's clothes. The friend, unknowing of the treasure he held, went out into the world encountering all manners of hardship and working hard for a living. Later, he encountered his good friend again, who told him of what he had within him all this time. We can make a comparison between the jewel, the real jewel hidden within us, the seed of Buddha-dharma planted within us by our parents and teachers, but like the unaware person we go out into the world forgetful of what we had and never thinking about it. Only later, we realize we had something with us all along, the guidance of Dharma which we can still access and pass on to the future generations. Let's make use of this gift!

Welcome Home.

Namo Amida Butsu
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Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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