Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Buddhist Army Chaplain - A contradiction of terms?



There has been some interesting discussion over at the Tricycle blog about the U.S. Army's first Buddhist chaplain, Thomas Dyer. You can read it in full here. First U.S. Army Buddhist Chaplain, but I will also provide an excerpt below.

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.

This is a description of Thomas Dyer, 43, of Memphis, Tennessee. Dyer is the US Army’s first Buddhist chaplain, according to the commercialappeal.com (Memphis Online). His conversion to Buddhism at first caused waves in his family, but his wife finally made peace with his decision: “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. “I think each individual’s suffering is personally designed for that individual to lead him to God.”

Dyer, who was at first a Presbyterian and then a Baptist, felt Buddhism addressed questions whose answers had otherwise eluded him:

“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 [a neighborhood in Memphis]. Right away, he says, “It was like, ‘Whoa, I’m home.’”


Now, amongst the discussion is whether or not being a chaplain in the military is compatible with Buddha's teachings. I think this is a challenging question, especially for those of us who despise war, and aren't all that fond of the military in general.

Here are the comments I left on the post over at Tricycle.



“Freedom isn’t free” type arguments are propaganda, as is the idea of a “just war.” These are fallacies that people buy into to rationalize large scale acts of violence that mostly done to support the “moneyed interests” of society and/or to keep those in currently in power, in power. Although I agree that assuming a completely non-violent approach is probably an impossibility in today’s world, in my opinion, Buddha’s teachings implore us to move in that direction as much as possible. For me, this means rejection of all state sponsored war, any form of terrorism, and all corporate and government efforts to support the continuation of these.

However, I have to say that people like Thomas Dyer, in the role that they are playing, can actually be fulfilling the Bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings. Bodhisattvas are said to be unafraid to enter into any situation in order help others. They don’t “pick and choose.” So, even though I’m not a supporter of many of the actions done by the military, I think people like Mr. Dyer have the potential to benefit others from within a damaging system.

On a related note, I feel fortunate to live in a city where the police chief is also a zen buddhist practitioner. Even though I have disagreed with his decisions at times, I do believe he is much more thoughtful and mindful of the impact of his decisions and words than your average chief. It sounds like Jamie (another police officer who posted comments) may have had similar changes as a result of his practice, and it’s impact on his work.


I think there is a tendency for those of us who support peace, and are against military actions, to leap into demonizing the people who are in the military. Furthermore, we sometimes (me included) fail to see how a person's actions within a damaging system or institution might actually be absolutely essential to transforming the nature of that system or institution. This doesn't mean that someone who becomes a chaplain, for example, can't loose sight of the teachings and become an enabler - he or she definitely could be. But at the same time, maybe that same person is one of those in the tipping point towards a new way of being for the whole group.

Samsaric muck is the fodder for enlightenment, is it not? To me, the intensity of suffering Mr. Dyer faces in working with his fellow soldiers is enormous, and as such, is also that much more of a opportunity for his practice to strengthen and have a very beneficial effect.

I wish for him continued openness, deep awareness, and a willingness to continue to challenge perceptions, as he did when he first converted to Buddhism.

4 comments:

rickybc said...

i too am a Buddhist and joining the navy. iv asked my self if it is a "contradiction" to do such and my answer to myself was that Buddhism is about being the best you can be "a spiritual warrior".
in the military they want you to be sharp likewise for Buddhist.they have 3 types of Buddhas the 3rd being, you as yourself in the future, as you wish to be."my Buddha" is a military structured man who has mastered defence and peace, to shoot like the best, to fight like the best.this to me is gods purpose in life. i am a Bodhisattva's and i feel i am on gods team to fight for freedom and show by example what spirituality does for the human mind

They call him James Ure said...

Bravo!! One of my favorite essays from you, brother. I like the idea of a Buddhist chaplain being a bodhisattva healing minds in a violent system.

Such people go where the need is greatest. Just as Buddha administered to all beings regardless of their profession. Hence, the story of Angulimala, the killer.

As you say, people like Chaplain Dyer are well-placed to influence changes to a military.

Neil Mitchell said...

You have all missed the basic themes in Buddhism. You still maintain a concept of an external god in the christian-catholic sense. This is incompatible with Buddhism. There is no god or "gods team" in Buddhism. You are merely selecting pieces of the teachings to justify your present actions and relieve your responsibility in your actions, instead of changing your actions-which takes more effort. The fact is you will find no TRUE Buddhists in the military. The Eight-fold path excludes ALL killing of creatures. One cannot split hairs. One is either a Buddhist or part of a Military/corporate machine, one cannot be both.

Neil Mitchell said...

OMG rickybc-U r a bodhisttva?? HA HA don't make me laugh. U r obviously very confused. Try reading a little more Buddhist text, or better yet visit a temple and talk to a few monks. Try meditating. FACT-There are no bodhisattva's in any military-these things are totally incompatible. If u cannot understand this it is a shame.