Only active-duty Buddhist chaplain in Army

A recent press release from the United States Army had a rather shocking relevation for me – there is only one recognized Buddhist chaplain in the army…one. Now, in my discussions with other military chaplains, it seemed that Buddhists were better represented, especially with over 5,000 Buddhists currently serving in the US Armed Services. There are around 200 self-proclaimed Buddhists serving in the British Armed Forces with one active duty Buddhist Chaplain as well.

According to the Buddhist Military Sangha there are three commissioned Chaplains who are serving on Active Duty in the American Military: Chaplian Shaku Yuinen, Chaplain Somya Malasri, and Chaplain Thomas Dyer. All endorsed by the Buddhist Churches of America.

There has been some contention over the idea of Buddhists serving in the military as well as Buddhist Chaplains. Historically, I believe, every primarily Buddhist nation has had a standing army at one point of time so I suspect this is largely a Western misconception of whether military service is considered “Right Livelihood.” Or whether or not the actions taken or promoted by a person in the military can be in allignment with Buddhist ethics.

Not a scholar myself, I can only state that were I in the military, I hope that I would be able to keep the Four Immeasurables in mind — loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity — These principles are necassary in our daily lives and even more so at war. These are the principles that keep our practice, as difficult as it can be at the best of times, grounded in benefit. Whether a person is serving in the military, employed as an officer of the law or in working in a prison, our principles do not change when we enter into a new environment but our practice is strained. The question isn’t one of right versus wrong but is imbedded deeply into the grey of this life. In fact, I think it brings them closer to the question of life and death then most of us ever get.

The press release is included below.

Also reference The Military in the Pali Canon by Matthew Kosuta Ph.D.

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., May 12, 2011 — Of all the branch insignia on uniforms at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., one stands out for a unique reason.

Chaplain (Capt.) Somya Malasri’s dharma wheel is one of the most uncommon symbols in the military. He is the first, and currently only, active-duty Buddhist chaplain in the Army.

Now with the 593rd Sustainment Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Malasri is facing the challenges of being a good Soldier, a good Buddhist and a good leader to the Soldiers he came to help.

“It’s good to be different. We can all connect to each other,” he said.

Originally from Thailand, Malasri entered a Theravada Buddhist temple near Phuket when he was 17 to study Buddhism and meditation. At 21, he became a fully ordained monk, and entered Mahachula Buddhist University to earn his bachelor’s degree.

While he was there, he taught Buddhist philosophy and history to students, and did missionary work in China and India. He eventually became interested in a missionary program that sent monks further abroad.

He applied and was selected from among 200 candidates to go to the United States, serving at temples in Colorado, Utah and Las Vegas. This was where he encountered his first American Soldier.

While working at a temple near Salt Lake City, a Buddhist Soldier came to Malasri for a blessing before he deployed. Later, while he was working at a temple in Las Vegas, Malasri met another Soldier who told him there were no Buddhist services available on base. From there, the decision was made.

“OK, I want to be a chaplain,” Malasri said of his thoughts at the time.

In 2005, Malasri applied to be a chaplain. Though he had to wait for an endorsement from the Buddhist Churches of America for his application to be accepted, he didn’t wait to jump into Army life.

Instead he disrobed as a monk and enlisted to get an idea of what it was like to be a Soldier. In the Theravada tradition, one cannot be a monk and a Soldier at the same time.

In 2006 his application was accepted and he went on to earn his master’s degree and become an ordained Buddhist minister in Los Angeles.

Now that he’s a fully-fledged chaplain at JBLM, he doesn’t regret his decision to leave life as a monk.

“Now I’m happy because I can serve more people,” Malasri said.

Part of his service to others includes providing weekly Buddhist services on base. Spc. Lawrence Ross, 593rd Sust. Bde., attends regularly.

“(It gives me) a sense of belonging, where a group can connect without any animosity of judging,” he said.

Ross, who became a Buddhist in 2008, says that it has helped him become a better Soldier and that having a Buddhist presence on base helps people see another side of the Army.

“It’s not all about kicking down doors and killing people,” he said. “It’s all about helping people. Bottom line.”

This is a sentiment Malasri agrees with. He says he gets asked a lot how he balances being a leader of a famously peaceful religion and being in the armed services. For him, even the least aggressive of people must be able to defend themselves, their property and their rights.

“If you don’t have a Soldier, you don’t have freedom to practice your own religion,” he said.

Protecting this diversity is important to Malasri.

“We cannot have only one religion,” he explained. “For example, we have five fingers. They’re all different (but they all work together).”

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4 thoughts on “Only active-duty Buddhist chaplain in Army

  1. Just an FYI there are at least four Buddhist Chaplians in the US Military. The first in the history of the US Military is in the United States Navy, Jeanette G. Shin. Just thought you should know. Also there are probably more Buddhists in the Military than being reported thru officials channels. I personally tend to keep my beliefs low key just to avoid the “Christian Right” who seem to think they are the only ones and that their way is the only way.

  2. Thanks for the info Chris! Do you think it is right to have to keep your beliefs "low key?" I have no doubt that there are more Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, etc. in the military then are reported because they feel bullied (even discreetly) into staying below the radar. And only 4 chaplains? That is one Buddhist chaplain per branch of the military (Army, Navy, AF, Marines)? Damn. I am told that all chaplains are trained to meet the needs of all faiths but when I listen to the few military chaplains I follow on Twitter, I find it hard to believe that they can hold back their evangelical zeal. When questioned, I usually get a textbook reply and then no further comment. Cheers,John

  3. John,  I would not say bullied, Just having to try to explain to the lay person the misconcetption that all buddhist’s are pacifists and would not fight for the protections of others and the self. A common misconception is if you are buddhist then you can not pick up a weapon and defend yourself or be in the military. The general population confuse this with Buddisht Monks/Nuns who can not be in the military while being a frocked monk. I will say that my unit is not a problem and is easy going as spiritual beliefs. Thanks Chris

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