Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Chaplaincy in the U.S. Military: Hozan Alan Senauke, Clear View Project

An interesting article by Rev. Alan Senauke, from the Upaya Zen Center newsletter:

This week an NPR story announced the creation of a Vast Refuge Dharma Hall in the basement of the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is the first dedicated Buddhist chapel in the U.S. military. At the chapel’s dedication, the Reverend Dai En Wiley Burch of the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen school said, "Without compassion, war is a criminal activity. Sometimes it is necessary to take life, but we never take life for granted."

The academy's Buddhist program leader, Sarah Bender Sensei of the Springs Mountain Sangha, asked herself how Zen Buddhism fits with the military path.

"People in the military come up — for real— against questions that most of us just consider abstractly," Bender says. "The questions of Buddhism are the questions of life and death. So, where else would you want Buddhism than right there where those questions are most vivid?"

My first response to this was positive. A Buddhist chapel is a good thing. Even more so at the Air Force Academy, where year after year there have been complaints of intolerance and religious discrimination. But several days ago, a friend and collaborator, a lawyer working with conscientious objectors within the military raised questions that gave me pause. My friend, a dedicated and observant Jew wrote:

I’m of course concerned about its impact on CO clients for whom Buddhism is their route to their beliefs against participation in war in any form. The more deeply Buddhism becomes entrenched in military life, the harder it is for that to be the accepted religious source of a CO applicant’s beliefs. It is already such an uphill battle for Christians – I can see that happening how for those who articulate Buddhist values or beliefs in support of their CO applications. “Soldier, the Air Force has a Buddhist Chaplain and a Buddhist Chapel. How can you sit here and say to me that Buddhism is against participation in war in any form?”

In an email response, I wrote very quickly:

This question of Buddhist chapel and chaplain is a real conundrum. There are several thousand Buddhist personnel (actually more than 5000) in the military. They need day-to-day resources and ministry. But as you point out, the presence of these resources argues against the explicit position of Buddhist "nonviolence."

A group I work with designing Buddhist chaplaincy materials ran up on this question from another angle. Do we include the Buddhist precepts, all versions of which begin with the vow or prohibition against taking life. I think I won that round, insisting that they remain in the materials, because to omit them is to undermine the moral basis of Buddhist teachings. But how individual chaplains will work with this, I don't know. I would not really like to be in their shoes. However this does not seem vastly different from the role of chaplains of other faiths, themselves in the position of counseling men and women within a context that may be fundamentally not moral.

I sent this out to a couple of list-serves I participate in — the American Zen Teacher’s Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association — and got some responses, both challenging and supportive. Here is my reading of several of these questions.

Is it truly possible to keep the first precept, not taking life? I was asked whether I thought all military and police were “immoral.” What about the military of “Buddhist” nations like Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka? Were conscientious objectors using Buddhism as a pretext for escaping the military, or whether these were serious practitioners. And then, am I substituting my personal sense of morality for another, and is this itself transgressing the Buddha’s precepts?

So, let me try to clarify some of my thoughts, maybe not in a completely logical sequence.

• This comes first. I believe in nonviolence as a way of life and as a dedicated and disciplined way of resolving conflicts, whether between individuals or countries. I believe in what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” a place that is not free from inevitable conflicts, we one can turn away from weapons and violence as the means of resolving conflict. Nonviolence is not, for me, being nice. It has to be tough and flexible. It is a practice and it can be a strategy.

At another time, we could talk at length about active nonviolence, which calls for rigorous training and an ability to counter violence simultaneously resisting it, receiving it, and not retaliating. It does not always work, but it is surprising how effective it can be. One could tick off numerous recent historical examples.

For the sake of transparency, I should say that in the 70s I was part of a group that came to espouse violence as a necessary and inevitable means of social change. This never sat right in my body back then, but, like others, I thought my self into a dark corner in which violence was the answer. Delusion! And, it was more or less a disaster. I deeply regret this.

And, of course, I am aware that one cannot live without taking life. For those who may not know me, I am hardly a strict constructionist on the precepts. We have to look at intention, awareness, the whole picture. If I am caught in rigidity, then in keeping a “rule” I have failed to keep the spirit.

• Yes, there have always been armies and police, and there has to be some provision for defense. Even were we living in a world of wise rulers, protection is necessary. The Buddha speaks of this, as does Dogen. Aggression exists within each of us. But our wars today day wars are hardly the work of wise rulers (Neither were most wars in the past.). Whatever the issues may be, however just, the killing is fed by arms dealers and vast corporations who profit from the various technologies of killing. And by politicians driven by self-interest in raw form. And even by ourselves in a willingness to preserve privilege over groups and people elsewhere in the world.

• Having said all that, I would add that military personnel and families I have met often embody the highest principles of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice. They try to live according to what I might call “practice,” for the sake of their country and people. It is essential to hold this in mind.

• I mentioned chaplains “in the position of counseling men and women within a context that is fundamentally not moral.” This word ‘context’ has meaning for me. Just in our own historical memory, I consider the following U.S.-sponsored wars fundamentally not moral: Vietnam, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the first Gulf War, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If you or I thought a bit, we could probably add to this list.

This does not mean that there were not perhaps moral issues involved in some of these conflicts (though many might question that), but our readiness to go to war seems only to create the basis for more violence, planting trauma and hatred ever more deeply. I mean, have these wars worked out for anyone’s benefit and real safety?

• If there is going to be a military—and there will be--there must be chaplains, compassionate and wise women and men who are capable of helping soldiers in need, in suffering, in the moment of leaving this world. Chaplaincy is an ancient and honorable calling. Even if we had a “shantisena,” a peace army of well-trained nonviolent defenders, we would need chaplains.

At the same time, I think back a year or two, in a working group developing Buddhist chaplaincy materials for the military, I was struck by a comment from an active-duty Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. military. She came back from a Navy/Marines annual training and said the head chaplain was quite direct about the Marines’ mission. I remember the words she quoted. “Marines kill people and blow things up.” There was no glorification or justification of this mission, just a painful statement of fact.

Along with chaplains, the availability of chapels and places of worship within the military also seems essential. I think it is a good step, especially, as I noted earlier, in a place like the Air Force Academy, which has been accused of religious discrimination in the recent past.

• The conscientious objectors Deborah and I have worked with are enlisted men and women (one or two, I think, in the reserves) who are Buddhist practitioners of various kinds, who find their enlistment was a serious error, and feel unable to carry on as a member of the military. I think most of them did somehow think they could join the military and avoid the mission of killing. In other times, this was possible, or one could convince oneself so. Not now. And many of them were channeled into the military by financial need. These are moral people, usually troubled, too, at the thought of being in circumstances where their beliefs and conscience might create risk for fellow soldiers. In each case I have had extensive discussions and written exchanges with them. For my part I need to be convinced about their practice, understanding, and sincerity. If called for, I point them to nearby Buddhist centers, and strongly urge them to take part in sangha. Often I have later had to answer on their behalf to a hearing officer.

• The fact that so-called Buddhist nations--Japan, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.—have armies is problematic in several ways. First, in the case of Japan (in WWII), Burma, and Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist military has actually put forward a badly distorted and nationalistic interpretation of dharma to justify their brutality and ethnic domination. Buddhists killing non-Buddhists.

Second, I have deep mistrust of any nation where “church” and state are aligned with each other. Could I call this an unholy alliance, one that inevitably corrupts the very religious principles it claims to uphold? If any of you can point me towards a historical setting—modern or ancient—where this has worked out, I would be interested.

• My last point comes down to “not knowing.” Having said all the above, I confess to not knowing about the absolute application of nonviolence. I come to nonviolence because I am aware of the violence within me and find that its use has never worked out well for me or those affected by it. But in the face of a totalitarian regime, Burma for example, nonviolence has been crushed again and again. I believe it will triumph in time. But meanwhile, I have never counseled Burmese activists or ethnic groups simply to throw away their weapons. I do not judge them, nor would I or have I hesitated to offer them spiritual words. But the disproportionality of resources and guns in the hands of the Burmese military doesn’t make a good argument for armed insurrection.

Nor do I pretend to know the “best policy” for our country in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Total withdrawal? What will come of that? More troops, what will come of that? Sometimes one has implacable enemies, who control their own people with fear. (One could argue that is how the U.S. government has tried to control its own people these last eight years.) How does one stand up against this implacable wish to do harm? So now we have a tangled mess.

For my part, I practice with fear and try to be aware when self-righteousness is arising. These are dharma gates, right?

Still, as I have written before, I can’t help wondering, maybe naively, what would come of a policy that replaces retribution with generosity, that uses even a portion of the trillions we spend on war and destruction at home (prisons) and abroad for education, health, housing, and food? I would sign up in a New York minute as a chaplain to that kind of army.


NellaLou said...

"Second, I have deep mistrust of any nation where “church” and state are aligned with each other. Could I call this an unholy alliance, one that inevitably corrupts the very religious principles it claims to uphold? If any of you can point me towards a historical setting—modern or ancient—where this has worked out, I would be interested."


Jeanette Yuinen Shin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie Martin said...

Oh, this is *so* cool. Thirty... thirty-seven (?!) years ago, I was considering applying to the Air Force Academy. I had become a Buddhist in my early teens, and I had to admit it galled me just a bit that I would be required to attend services (do the Service Academies still do that?) but that there was no way to attend Buddhist services.

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