Thursday, August 27, 2009

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.


Taavi'sGojira said...

I am retired military and a Buddhist... I am glad to see that there are more Buddhist Chaplains out there now than when I was in. AND, I am very happy to have found your blog. Look forward to reading more.


Ven. Rinchen Gyatso said...

Could you do a post about how Buddhist chaplains from different traditions do services in the military? Is there some sort of generic military Buddhist funeral service, for example?

Also, what is you job like day-to-day? Is it different when you're out to sea?

Buddhist Journalist said...


Right aim is the end of suffering!

I will be following.

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