Buddhist Chaplains in the US Army
What is a Chaplain?
A chaplain is either a priest, minister, pastor, imam, rabbi or a lay delegate of a religious tradition, who is attached to a secular institution such as a hospital, prison, military unit, school, police department, fire department, university or a private chapel.
The word was originally used to describe representatives of the Christian faith, but today it is also used to refer to people of other religious traditions as well, in this case Buddhism. The number of chaplaincies have increased over the recent years, especially in American universities. These chaplains have received professional training and can be found throughout many different types of institutions.
The earliest Buddhists to serve in the US army were the Nisei Americans. Nisei is a Japanese term used to describe children born to Japanese immigrants to the United States, hence they are also known as second generation Japanese. In 1944, a total number of 50 soldiers at Fort Snelling are believed to have been the first batch of Buddhist troops that served in the US army. Many of these servicemen had also studied Japanese at Buddhist-run schools in the US. However, Nisei units such as the 442nd Infantry Regiment and the Military Intelligence Service were only permitted Christian chaplains. This was because Assistant Secretary of Defense John J. McCloy feared that negative American perceptions of Buddhists would compromise the reputation of such a unit.
Chaplains in the Army
The first commission of a Buddhist chaplain within the United States Department of Defense was Lieutenant Junior Grade Jeanette Gracie Shin in 2004. Lieutenant Shin is a former enlisted Marine who graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Buddhist Studies.
Within the United States army, Thomas Dryer was appointed as the first Buddhist chaplain in 2008. In recent years there has been a growing number of Buddhists in the American military, so the work of Buddhist chaplains are growing. Buddhists chaplains are endorsed by the Buddhist Churches of America.
According to one source, there is only one Buddhist chapel in the United States military. It is located in the basement of the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. This chapel also houses chapels of other religions. The Buddhist chapel was built in 2005.
A Buddhist Prospective US Army Chaplain Candidate on the election
October 31, 2016 by Justin Whitaker
A guest post by Robert Shuken Ju-Etsu McCarthy
My name is Robert McCarthy, my dharma name is Shuken Ju-Etsu, the meaning is “kind humble and goes beyond,” I would say that these elements are reflected in both my spiritual and secular life. I was born and raised in Western Michigan in a fairly conservative working class town. I am currently enrolled at the University of the West’s Masters of Divinity program learning to be a chaplain, with the ultimate goal to find employment in either the US Army or a hospice program.
How has Buddhism shaped your political preferences?
With mention of the US Army’s Chaplain Candidate program you could gather that I am mildly conservative. As a Buddhist I tend in the direction of quiet political awareness and participation in the form of public service. For example, I worked in multiple elections as an election official, helping others get to the polling places and ensuring that everyone had a safe and enjoyable experience, not espousing for or against any candidate. I believe in remaining apolitical as a Buddhist, the Buddha was not a member of any political party and his teachings were available to anyone regardless of political bent.
How has Buddhism helped you through this very stressful political season?
As a student of history I can see that this election is just part of the wheel turning, meaning this happens all of the time in the history of humankind. I will continue to remain civil and help my fellow humans regardless of outcome.
How do you see your Buddhism mixing with politics in general?
I see Buddhism and politics as water and oil and they really should not mix. The idea of the separation of church and state is important to me. Political groups tied to religious organizations often cause trouble, I believe that when Buddhist groups, or any faith group for that matter, become involved in politics it is a slippery slope, eventually leading to the ostracizing of the religious group and the permanent association of the faith/sect with a particular political leaning. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Buddhism was that it was patently unpolitical, I was not being told how to cast my ballot. I would personally like to see Buddhism continue the trend of remaining secularly apolitical in the future, let us be a sanctuary from the chaos not a participant in it.
Are there particular issues (war, environment, security, economics, etc) that you feel particularly drawn to because of your Buddhist practice?
The most pressing issue is that of the military. I am applying to the US Army’s Chaplain Candidate program because I would like to go where I can be of the most use. For me the Bodhisattva vow is all about being of service to others. Service is ultimately where I believe that Buddhism and politics can indeed mix. As Buddhists we are called to imitate Kshitigarbha, descending into the most chaotic and dangerous of situations to provide succor for all sentient beings.
Robert “Shuken Ju-Etsu” McCarthy is a 27 year old graduate student living in Pico Rivera, California. He writes: “I am currently enrolled in the University of the West’s Masters of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy. I consider myself Irish-Dutch American, born and raised in a factory town on Michigan’s west coast. I have been practicing Zen Buddhism for close to 9 years now and I am preparing to ordain as a novice Soto Zen Priest in March 2017. After graduation I plan to either serve as a chaplain in the United States Army or as a chaplain in a hospice setting, I am up for whatever the world throws at me.
Robert “Shuken Ju-Etsu” McCarthy”
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