Friday, July 23, 2010

What Do Military Chaplains Do?

This post is due to the many questions I've received from those interested in military chaplaincy. I've been surprised to learn that actually not many people are familiar with what is chaplaincy in general, not just military chaplaincy and not only in conjunction with Buddhism. Some are unfamiliar even with the term "chaplain" (derived from the French, and refering to a garment worn by soldiers, in legend by a Catholic saint). One assumption I've encountered is that Buddhist chaplains do nothing but sign conscientious objection forms for Buddhist servicemembers! Certainly the C.O. process involves chaplains, but it is not exclusively the work of Buddhist chaplains (in my 6 years as a chaplain I've (correction!) only done one). The work of a military chaplain can be similar to the work of chaplains in other fields, like hospital chaplaincy. Below is a description of some of the military chaplain's roles - this is not a definitive or "official" list by any means, just an outline of what our work may consist of:

Religious Services
This may seem like a given, but I've been asked if we actually do this! So yes, chaplains do perform religious services, although only for his or her particular faith group. So a Roman Catholic chaplain cannot perform a Jewish seder, or a Buddhist chaplain a Mass. We can perform life-ritual services (sacraments) like weddings, confirmations (for Christians, things like baptism, etc.) and such services as required by our faith tradition. We can offer prayers and blessings for various functions like retirements, graduations, convoys departures, etc. The Constitutional Right of the free exercise of religion is our main reason for being. Military chaplains exist so that servicemembers have the opportunity to attend services of their faith tradition, especially in places where they may not be readily available, such as aboard a naval ship, or in the field, or another country. You can imagine it may be difficult for those of a minority faith, like Buddhism, Wicca, or others, to be able to talk to another member of their faith, much less attend services. Buddhist chaplains can help alleviate this.

Pastoral Care and Counseling
Perhaps the bulk of our service involves counseling of individuals. This is something all chaplains can perform for servicemembers regardless of their faith or non-faith affiliations. We often encounter individuals with issues regarding to marriage, stress, even suicidal ideation or post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases we do refer individuals to mental health professionals or other services. Speaking with a chaplain involves confidentiality, meaning we cannot disclose the information passed in a counseling session to a third-party without the individual's permission. Chaplains also make visits to servicemembers incarcerated in the brig or hospitalized, so in this sense our chaplaincy is very similar to prison and hospital chaplaincies. Chaplains are very important in just being a person the servicemember can go and talk to without fear that their "issues" will be made known to the command, or to anyone. Sometimes all a servicemember wants to do is just "vent" and we can provide an ear for listening. (If you don't think a chaplain is needed, try just "venting" or talking about your issues with your boss, and see how that turns out)!

Another big part of our work involves boosting the morale of our servicemembers. We work as part of the command on this. This can take the form of providing volunteer activities (many chaplains I know have been involved in outside projects like Habitat For Humanity, which I also hope to participate in!), and assisting with Morale-Welfare-Recreation (MWR) activities and other programs, like United Through Reading. It can take the form of something as simple as arranging for the delivery and distribution of USO items and care packages (important on deployment) to servicemembers. There are many care package organizations, such as Adopt-a-Platoon and Soldier's Angels, that work with chaplains to ensure that deployed units receive free gear like food, toiletries, books, etc. We can liaison with outside, civilian groups, like nonprofits, churches, etc., so that servicemembers can receive assistance with family issues, material support, even financial support.

Historically, this was one of the major jobs of the chaplain. During the 1800s Navy Chaplains were actually involved in the education of midshipmen not just in religious subjects, but in secular subjects like mathematics, history, and navigation. Even today, chaplains can teach college courses on base or in deployed areas or on ships. Many servicemembers do take advantage of such opportunities to gain educational credit.

As I stated earlier, chaplains can be involved in the administrative work involved in things like conscientious objector discharges, although it takes more than just a chaplain's sign-off to successful complete such as discharge. We can also assist in other administrative work such as an Exceptional Hardship discharge (usually for servicemembers who need to take care of family member full-time). We also assist in the process of recommending and supporting command-sponsored lay leaders. Additionally, we work with the command in this.

There are undoubtedly many other things military chaplains can do, so I am sure I am neglecting to list them! This is just a brief outline of what our job can consist of. Ideally, a chaplain can do all this very well, but like all human beings, not all of us are completely perfect, but we try to do the best we can. Military chaplaincy is not an easy job, just as being a clergyperson is not a "cake" job (another misconception I've run across). Chaplaincy is clergy work outside the temple or church. Military chaplaincy is clergy work, in an especially challenging an unique environment.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Read the Buddhist Sutras (Part 1)

(This is adapted from my other blog on the Pure Land, "The Western Quarter)

I've often been asked for copies of the "Buddhist scripture" as a chaplain by people interested in Buddhism. They've read books about Buddhism, so they want to see what the "scripture" itself says. This is a natural result of our Western culture, and a very good thing - we are encouraged to study religions on our own, and one way to do that is to read what their scriptures, or the teachings themselves, say, whether it is the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. When they read these sacred texts, it may be in the context as a "believer" or member of a specific faith, which will also inform them how to read them, whether as "infallible" or in some degree open to interpretation. Of course they may also come to it as a nonbeliever, or "undecided" meaning that they will read it skeptically, or in some other context which will allow them to decide for themselves what to believe. For those coming to the Buddhist sutras, it is also not different from these forms of readings.

Buddhism has many scriptures, today, we have many sutras available in English-language! Most sutras however are not readily available at the bookstore, even independent bookstores specializing in "New Age" or "metaphysical" titles. If you take a look at the "Eastern Religions" section in your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, the majority of titles available tend to be mostly popular books written about Buddhism and meditation, rather than ready translations of Buddhist sutras. You may have better luck online. Whatever sutra you decide to read first (if you are not practicing any specific tradition), find one with a commentary and introduction, most will have them.

Reading a Buddhist sutra can be very different from what might be expected, especially if you were raised with the Christian Bible, or it may be your only experience with reading a religious text. The Bible is laid out as a narrative story (Genesis to Revelations), except for several books that are about ancient Jewish ritual laws. A Buddhist sutra does not necessarily tell a "story" and many passages appear repetitive, or simply bizarre to the new reader. In some sutras, the Buddha manifests what we would describe as "supernatural" powers, and there are lots of otherworldly beings hanging about: devas, nagas, spirits, etc., who don't necessarily participate in a narrative "story." This can seem very confusing especially for someone who is curious about what the Buddhist "scriptures" say, to pick up and read and try to make sense of it. Even many Buddhists who do not read the sutras may find them hard to read! A person can open the Bible and read the story of Joshua and his wars or Moses and the wanderings of the Jews, or read in the New Testament and read about Jesus' life and ministry. In contrast, a person who open up in the middle, for example, the Lotus Sutra or the Larger Pure Land Sutra may have no idea what is happening, and not know when or why such events are taking place. Therefore, some guidance is necessary if a person wants to seriously engage in reading the sutras, and importantly, to make sense of them and acquire wisdom from them.

First, let us look at the physical text itself. Only a few sutras and commentaries (shastras) exist in English translations, and as with any translations into one language from another language (in our case Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese to English) they can vary in style and quality. A translated sutra reflect the times they were written in and the author’s attempt to use English to translate some very difficult and different concepts. It’s not unusual to still find Buddhist sutras (especially early editions) translated such as “The Lord Buddha thus spake to his disciples…” This is not the translator’s trying to be obtuse, it is a reflection of what he thought would be the proper English usage. Until recently, only “King James” English was thought proper to use in Bibles and for “religious” language. Now there are dozens of Bible translations, most using contemporary English, but there are still people who belive only the King James translation is the accurate version. Unfortunately we do not have the luxury of having dozens of sutra translations to choose which is the most "readable", and unless we know the original language of the sutra, we cannot know ourselves how accurate or good it may be. We trust to the translator or translation committee that they are doing their best. However, we also have to be mindful that the translation, in an well-meaning attempt to be readable, does not sacrifice the meaning for the sake of "readability." We trust a sutra's translation usually in context of our own tradition, that is, Buddhists of our own tradition made the translations. This can be good in that they write for the better understanding, or also problematic, in that they may emphasize a specific reading rather than an "objective" or "academic" one.
(to be cont'd)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

First Buddhist Chaplain Performs Army Wesak

A little bit late but thought this was a nice article!

Story by Sgt. Michael Carden
Date: 05.27.2010
Posted: 06.13.2010 08:22

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE TAJI, Iraq — As a full moon rose into the Iraq night’s sky, more than 200 Buddhist worshipers bowed their heads in meditation May 27 at Contingency Operation Base Taji, Iraq, to celebrate Wesak, the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar.

The celebration was a milestone, being the first Wesak celebration hosted by the U.S. Army, and with the Army’s first Buddhist chaplain, 1st Lt. Thomas Dyer, a chaplain with Regimental Support Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Memphis native.

“This is a time that is very special to the Buddhist community,” Dyer said. “Traditionally, Buddhists cannot practice unless a teacher is present. They can offer prayers, and celebrate meals but actually having a full Buddhist service; a chaplain or teacher has to be present.”

The Army has never had the capability to provide a full Wesak service due to the absence of Buddhist chaplains. Dyer’s presence allowed deployed Buddhists to celebrate an authentic and official service, he said.

“It is very important for Buddhist Soldiers to be able to experience this,” Dyer said. “It is more than just a first amendment right. It is kind of a quality of life issue. It’s a resiliency issue. For Buddhist Soldiers to come and experience [this] for the first time in Army history, with the hope that this will be a continuing thing; it’s really exciting.”

Soldiers from across the Iraq joint operations area were invited to the Wesak celebration.
Spc. Heidi Sanders, a supply specialist with the 585th Military Police Company, 151st MP Battalion, 49th MP Brigade and a Kent, Ohio, native, traveled from Camp Ramadi to be a part of the ceremony.

“It was put out as an invitation to all Buddhists in Iraq,” Sanders said. “I don’t take it for granted. I really appreciate it. Chaplain Dyer is very gracious; very humble. He is just what I need as a teacher.”

Dyer frequently travels throughout Iraq to provide religious support for Buddhist Soldiers.

“The Chaplain Corps cares about every one of their Soldiers,” Dyer said. “[Other chaplains] want to have access to a Buddhist chaplain, so they can provide that service for their Soldiers.”

Officials in the Chaplain Corps believe there are more Buddhists in the military than most people realize, he said.

Dyer is currently working with the Department of the Army to develop a plan to better provide services and support for Buddhist Soldiers throughout the Iraq joint operations area, he said.

According to Department of Defense policy, while Soldiers’ welfare is the main focus of the Chaplain Corps, chaplains are also concerned with, and instructed to provide for, the welfare of contractors.

Hundreds of civilian contractors live at COB Taji, many of them from Nepal and Sri Lanka, which have large Buddhist populations.

After the meditation ceremony, the civilians hosted a traditional Buddhist dinner, a simple vegetarian meal.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Fourth of July!

I hope every reader here will have a safe and thoughtful Fourth of July holiday, wherever he or she may be, in the United States, its territories, or stationed or living overseas. May all beings have the cause and condition to hear the sublime Dharma, may all beings have no separation from joyfulness, and be at peace.
Namo Amida Butsu
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