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Buddhist Chaplains in the Military?

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There’s been a lively conversation going on the past few weeks in the Upaya Zen Center’s enewsletter, centering around the question of Buddhist chaplains in the U.S. military, and more generally Buddhist involvement in the military. The stream of dialogue is a great example of how I see a “socially engaged Buddhism beyond labels” taking shape.

It started with the Oct 19 posting of a piece by Hozan Alan Senauke (of The Clear View Project). Alan works with a group, including Lt. Jeanette Shin, to create materials for the more than 5,000 Buddhists who currently serve in the U.S. armed forces. He summarized some of the questions/challenges that the group is faced with:

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?

There’s much more to ponder in his excellent post, and I encourage you to read the entire article. One of the conclusions Alan comes to is around “not knowing:”

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.

The next week, Gerald Virtbauer, a Buddhist scholar and psychologist from Austria, began his response with this:

I have been following the implementation of the first Buddhist chaplain in the US forces in the media the last weeks, as well with mixed feelings. I think it is, indeed, an unholy alliance and there would be the chance for Western Zen Buddhists to clearly state that this kind of history of aligning Buddhism with military needs should not be continued to be written in the Western context.

Gerald’s full response can be found here.

And then the week after, Shari Naismith, a former police office who will be starting Upaya’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Program next year, responded as well. An excerpt:

As I understand it, (and forgive me as I am new to Buddhism), the main thread to Buddhist thought is “compassion in entirety”. Leaving nothing out. Then, as I understand it, (again, forgive me if I am wrong), the main thread in being a Buddhist Chaplain is using this found state of being, lets call it “living compassion”, and taking that inner state to those in suffering. Am I off base here?

Then I ask, why would a Buddhist Chaplain, (maybe even any Buddhist for that matter), want to separate oneself from ANY organization that is clearly producing large amounts of suffering?

Shari’s full response is here.

I think the important thing here is how each of them are turning over this question in a spirit of wholehearted inquiry. It brings up the even bigger question of compassion, and how each of us defines it. There is no one answer, nor should there be.

What do you think?

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

2 responses »

  1. Fantastic – very fantastic subject. I’m going to blog about it as well!!

  2. If there would be any place that I would require chaplaincy, it would be while serving in the military (point of fact: I have never served in the military). The need for increased guidance and mindfulness would be neccessary to just get me through such a horrible experience. To keep myself from dehumanizing the “enemy” and to keep myself compassion for others alive and not taking a backseat to nationalism and patriotism.

    War caused the suffering of both soldier and civilian. Both need to be addressed. Ignoring the violence and suffering would be just as detrimental to my practice as would pulling the trigger or pushing the button.




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