August 24, 2009

US Army's first Buddhist chaplain

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.

buddhism u.s. armyThis is a description of Thomas Dyer, 43, of Memphis, Tennessee. Dyer is the US Army's first Buddhist chaplain, according to the (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.'"

Dyer says it wasn't easy converting to Buddhism in the Bible Belt, and indeed, his conversion doesn't seem to sit well with Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary president Michael Spradlin, who declared Dyer's decision to leave his fundamentalist Baptist roots for Buddhism "unfathomable."

Still, the 3,300-plus Buddhists in the US army must be grateful for his service. And at least one commenter to the story is happy, too. He writes: "You go, dude!"

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jjwalker7730's picture

I am so happy to find you. I have something to share with folks, especially wounded veterans. As a former peacetime Marine, I want share a practice called "Forty Gates", which has special significance for those with artificial limbs. It can be tailored for individual conditions. I would like an opportunity to introduce to veterans hospital therapy sessions. Please review.An Inner Acupuncture - A forty breath practice
Forty Gates is an ancient Taoist practice which is said to have pre-dated acupuncture with needles. It can accomplish some of the same results. It has a calming effect and helps to remove worldly thoughts which distract the mind.
This art of emptiness was used by warriors to become one with their sword by projecting the Force to the tip of their steel. This allows for a more fluid motion. It becomes obvious how this can aid those with artificial limbs to become one with their extensions.

I am a 72 year old ready to put out a collection of free practices and Buddhist teachings as used at the Internal School since 1968, please share these and go to (type or paste at the top of the web page, not in a search box for now).
The emphasis of the practice is achieving singleness of mind thru the cultivation of the force (chi). This factor is raised to a level of mind and body harmony on account of the directive intention exercised during the practice. It is thru this that the Master Hand moves, that creative quality when the art is not a mere display of technical skill patiently learned under the tutorship of a good master, but an original and creative intelligence.
There is a section on practices for wounded veterans and as a former peacetime marine I want to share these.
My credentials are on this site.
Jim Walker, (Son Hae)
Dharma Master, Il Bung Chan Buddhist Order,
Martial Arts Master, Korean National Martial Arts Order
Patriarchal successor of Dr Seo, Kyung-bo, 76th Zen Patriarch)

uggs's picture

Yeah!! You have made a point. I totally agree with you.

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Bryan Brouhard's picture

As the stream of consciousness remains ignorant to the futility of murder, Buddists will be needed in every segment of society including the military. The roles that we play in life are simply that roles and our innate buddha nature will always require as many lamps as possible.

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Bob's picture

Let us remember that Buddhist countries have had army's since day one. Going back to the Indian Emperor Ashoka, up to the Modern Buddhist countries such as Thailand – Buddhists have been fighting for a long time!

Some comments have relied upon the argument that "in today's world" violence is more necessary than in the past. I disagree. Violence has always been part of life. Even cavemen used force to protect what they had - or take what others had. If you live in the developed world then you actually have much more freedom to choose not be violent. People living in desperate poverty may have no choice other than to join the local militia or gang.

So In general I am a big supporter of Buddhists in the military. I have known a number of ex-military Buddhists and they are pretty cool. I support Buddhists in the Military unconditionally.
However I do not support the US Military Unconditionally. An abbreviated list of terrorists/dictators who enjoyed the benefits of the US military would include, Saddam, Suharto, Pinochet, Noriega, Marcos, The Shah of Iran, The Contras, and South Africa during apartheid.

Another problem I have with the US Military is the reliance upon aerial bombardment as the #1 weapon of war. Conservative estimates are that 350,000 Iraqis were bombed to death by the US.

Glen's picture

And what about the whole Metta thing?

Glen's picture

I would request, please, soldiers, do not kill on my behalf-- let me decide that action.

Does The Simile of the Saw also relate to what those above are talking about?

Rinchen Gyatso's picture

I've thought about this myself--whether or not violence is ever acceptable and have come to the conclusion that allowing someone to create negative karma for themselves by hurting others is not compassionate. If I have the ability to stop someone from causing harm, even if that means using aggressive or even violent means, if I avoid hate as my motivation, then to me it is acceptable. Of course, I need to ask myself if I'm willing to take on the negative karma that such actions would naturally create.

There is a story of the Buddha (perhaps it has already been mentioned in these comments) in a previous life in which he, through his miraculous powers knew that a murderous theif on a ship with 500 merchants was planning to kill all the merchants and rob them. The Buddha-to-be ultimately came to the conclusion that the only way to save the 500 merchants was to kill the killer and so he did. In the end, though, the Buddha-to-be was reborn in a hell realm, albeit briefly.

Tricycle » The Just War: Do the Buddhist teachings ever allo's picture

[...] lively discussion followed a recent post here on the Army’s first Buddhist chaplain. The most recent response comes from John [...]

John Scorsine's picture

Before I begin, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a lawyer, a military officer in the National Guard, and a recently ordained Buddhist Minister. This question of the reconciliation of Buddhism and being a professional at arms has been a defining matter of inquiry for me. In 2003 I was able to ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) that very question at an audience arranged by Students for a Free Tibet in NYC. His answer focused on motivation and started me along the path of a more deliberate exploration of the issue. I was blessed in March of 2008 to have a private audience with HHDL in India as I was working on my thesis for an M.A. in Buddhist Studies. HHDL would say, I believe that BlindRob is spot on.

When I asked HHDL what in his view was the karmic consequence for killing for one's country or for being killed in battle he responed:

"And over here, liturgically speaking, most important is motivation and goal. Now goal to serve interest for larger community and motivation – compassionate motivation. Genuine sense of care. And then, if the circumstances, there’s no other way, only the violent way, then violence is permissible. That’s why in Buddhism, they use – in tantric teaching they are wrathful deities. The appearance wrathful deities is – behind the philosophy is that out of sense of concern, out of sense of compassion, then wrathful method is permissible. So the wrathful deities also now happen there."

But, then he quickly added:
"But I personally always prefer much better, right from beginning, avoid using force because once you use violence, violence – I think the very nature of violence is unpredictable. Once you involve violence, then unexpected consequences or more violence possible to come. Therefore, much better avoid."

Later in our discussion we spoke of "just war". There is recent translation of the Discourse of the Truth Teller (Arya-satyaka-parivarta) which actually addresses what process a nation state should follow in its affairs if war is to arise: Negotiation, Appeasement, Warnings, the Battle. It also says that if war is necessary a righteous ruler must keep the protection of people in mind; must keep victory over the enemy in mind; and, keep the protection of all life in mind.

HHDL put it in this form:

"At first place, without war try to solve, I think that, as I clearly, there are peaceful means. You have to utilize every peaceful means. Then limited violence possible if there’s no other alternative. Yet, if you remain like that, many people suffer. Or the other side, doing unjust. So there’s no other way to stop that. We have to stop that. There’s no other method except violence, then theoretically speaking, permissible using violence. Then after finish with violence, as you mentioned, the victim's side, some of the hurt, now the victor side have the moral responsibility to overcome that, to help."

In short, I have come away from my studies with the sense that a Buddhist may be a professional at arms, that it can, in a very limited view and with a strong mind, be a proper livelihood. However, it takes great effort and much practice to ensure that you hold in your mind the proper motivation and the sense of compassion. Can that be held in your mind as your convey is hit and small arms fire erupts from all corners? Can you exclude anger and hatred from your mind, and act only in the interests of others? It is a career, if you can be successful in such a practice, that walks the path of a Bodhisattva.

Perhaps what the military and law enforcement actually need are more Buddhists within their ranks and their leadership?

James Shaheen's picture

Less than six months after 9/11, Tricycle, just blocks above Ground Zero, hosted a roundtable on whether violence could ever be justified. Lama Surya Das, Jan Chozen Bays, Jose Cabezon and Thanissaro Bhikkhu all weigh in:

Max's picture

As one of the 3,300 Buddhists in the Army I have to say its feel good to finally have at least one Chaplain in our particular faith, so thanks is due to Chaplain Dyer. Even with the best intentions to its difficult for Chaplains of other faith to not allow their particular brand to intermingle in their advice. In terms of some of the post here, in as far as addressing how Buddhist could even serve in combat, it comes down to a distinction in terms and beliefs. Not all Buddhists or even Buddhist monks for that matter believe as the Dalai Lama does that violence is never acceptable. And most of us are not vajrana Buddhists either. In terms of the commit to avoid causing harm some of us beleive that killing the suicide bomber who is going to take himself along with a number of bystanders is avoiding causing harm by not being so self-righteous as to not want to get one's hands dirty. As for ministering to criminals, perhaps they deserve a path to reconcilliation, course that is upon them to seek it out. Some people recognize what they have done and wish they could undue it because of the harm they caused, some people only wish they hadn't gotten caught for it. The mind, particularly the criminal mind is very complex and like with all things some are always going to use the system to their benfit, some people just made mistakes and derserve the help they seek. Course Sexual predators and hunters of humankind are as far from being human beings as one can get, and they should be dealt with accordingly regardless of faith that's just a matter of justice.

Ven. Rinchen Gyatso's picture

This discussion is quite interesting. I wonder, however, if those who oppose Buddhist clergy working as chaplains in the military would also oppose Buddhist clergy working as prison chaplains? If you accept that thieves, rapists, murderers and child molestors need spiritual care, you can't logically (or ethically) deny that same care to soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women.

Greg's picture

A friend of mine served in Iraq. He speaks little of what happened and is obviously disturbed by the past. He questions why it happened, why we were there and why so many had to die. He had his second child this past month and has said, nothing has made him appreciate more his life and the lives of others now than Iraq. He went to the war atheistic, immature, and violent. He returned pained and sorrowful, but filled with faith, maturity and the most peaceful nature I've ever seen in a man. He stated the phrase, there was too much [killing] over there to bring hate back with me here. I have no doubt that had he not seen what he did, he'd not be the person he is. Not everyone can understand what their actions do without being shown the pain they cause. An all too small portion of our species understands this, the rest must get hurt in order to heal. Violence is a part of our species and though I don't condone it, I do feel it is necessary. Good, after all, cannot exist without evil to keep it in check. ;)

Nathan's picture

"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 may have had similar changes as a result of his practice, and it's impact on his work.

williamcmorrow74's picture

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."- Man and Superman, G.B. Shaw

BlindRob's picture

more full disclosure- I work in the enforcement community myself, luckily for me am not normally called upon to harm or kill someone, but that could happen. Those Buddhists who are not so lucky are fully aware that they are acquiring bad karma but are willing to do so in order that folks like you and can live our nice lives without being killed or required to walk around with guns (or spears) in our hands, or, historically, to join the communist party, to join the Nazi party, to engage in public stonings, witch burnings, or to join religions that we do not wish to be a part of. Typically (meaning in my experience) the people in our society you condemn, those who perform the awful violent jobs, are happy that you can live your nice life. And, perhaps someday you will be better able to appreciate the idea that Buddhism can involve more than narrowly following what you think are blameless clerical or lay vows: Just as with violence, there can endless harm inherent in nonaction and (to coin a phrase) the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Peace be with you though- it is being purchased expensively enough that we all must benefit.

Jamie G.'s picture


Great response. I think we are on the same page. Many bows and metta.

joseph's picture

jamie-thank you for your thoughtful responses, and for the reading suggestion. some great discussion of a complex subject there, i agree. and i do appreciate your willingness to engage me in discussion, truly. and i certainly recognize that i have a very clear and defined point of view, which may cloud my reasonableness on this issue. although it might be unwise to continue the discussion, due to my strong feelings, i do feel compelled to continue. please know that i do sincerely seek to engage in discussion, not debate and that i direct no anger toward you, though i feel quite strongly. i do indeed only wish to expand the direction of this conversation, to achieve more clarity.

clearly, absolute non-violence is not realistic. just look at the fact that the Dalia Lama has bodyguards. i get that, middle-path and so forth. certainly, i would defend my family against attack, as i think we all would. certainly i would try to stop anyone who was hurting an innocent in front of me.

but the difficulty i have with the "but i can do good" argument for joining the military is the overwhelming evidence that good is not done. the world is not safer, or less violent, or more peaceful when we strike out with revenge, or with fear.

your argument is very rational, and clearly you are very intelligent and well read. but here is the warning bell that rings in my ears. every argument i've ever heard that justifies the continuing cycle of violence, torture, and abuse of power has been based in rationality and backed by a list of reasonable excuses.

when the buddha asked, "is it possible to govern without killing and ordering execution, without confiscating and sequestrating, without sorrowing and inflicting sorrow, in other words, righteously?" then mara was present. the buddha was tempted to lead the world to righteousness with power, much like our own world policy. but the buddha recognized the folly of this, recognized that this was a greed that would never be quenched. such a desire would lock him to death.

the problem i have, most sincerely, is that i have trouble with using moral ambiguity as an excuse for wholesale murder, torture and domination of an independent nation which has not violated our sovereignty. i have trouble with supporting those who voluntarily take part in such activities, knowing what they may be asked to do, and to do so unquestioning. i have trouble supporting an institution that has done this before and quite certainly will do so again. i have trouble supporting an institution that supports arms merchants and mercenaries, two professions which are clearly not living rightly. i have trouble believing that dropping bombs on civilian targets can be equated with the middle path.

the middle path does not mean that we do not take a stand. i believe that the buddha laid down many rules of conduct that left no room for ambiguity. perhaps it is simplistic of me, but in this case i cannot see the room in the 8 fold path or the precepts for a career in the military. to quote an old lefty, "you are either part of the solution or you are a part of the problem." but i don't know, perhaps that's just not "reasonable"

"We cannot support any act of killing; no killing can be justified. But not to kill is not enough. We must also learn ways to prevent others from killing. We cannot say, "I am not responsible. They did it. My hands are clean." If you were in Germany during the time of the Nazis, you could not say, "They did it. I did not." If, during the Gulf War, you did not say or do anything to try to stop the killing, you were not practicing this precept. Even if what you said or did failed to stop the war, what is important is that you tried, using your insight and compassion." -Thich Nhat Hanh

Jamie G.'s picture


Read the Scott's blog post, as suggest above. It is one thing to hold the view that no amount of violence is acceptable, but this is not supported by early Buddhist texts, so it would not be proper to say that absolute non-violence defines whether one is Buddhist or not. If we were discussing Jain philosophy, that would be another subject, and you would be valid.

Also, police officers aren't required to use the least amount of force, but what is reasonable. There is Supreme Court precedence defining both (Graham v. Conner, 1989) or (Scott v. Henrich, 9th Circuit, 1994). I would suggest reading both, as they are very wise in their conclusions.

The point is, and the Buddha realized this, that you can't make blanket statements about it. The Buddha took the middle-way, and one can go too far in either direction as this is extreme and not skillful view.

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joseph's picture

how many police officers and soldiers use the minimum amount of force necessary; taking into consideration the fact that the person who may be causing harm is also a suffering being acting out of ignorance?

do you think the buddha (since you bring him up) would have approved of the current conflicts?

Jamie G.'s picture

Over at "the buddha is my dj" blog Scott Mitchell discusses compassionate violence. A link to the blog is over on the right. In the search option type compassionate violence and it should take you to the post. You can also watch a lecture series by a professor who Mitchell mentions in his post. I highly recommend both resources.

I think there is something to this. I don't for one second believe that the Buddha would have approved of the person who sat and watched while an insane person murdered a group of children in front of them. Silent inaction is tacit approval in some cases.

Oh, I should mention I am a police officer and have found the Dharma wonderfully liberating, even while working on duty. Surely we want our police/soldiers to be people of compassion?

joseph's picture

i do not see how one can reconcile right livelihood with a career in the military. the precepts clearly state that we refrain from killing. the dhamma is available for anyone who seeks it out, so the excuse that we are somehow withholding the Buddha's teachings from soldiers if they do not have a Buddhist chaplain doesn't hold up. perhaps a soldier can do good while in the military, but how many Buddhist soldiers would refuse to follow orders if they violated the precepts, or compassion for that matter? there are other ways to do good in the world, and sometimes you can't have it both ways.

Greg's picture

We seek peace in many ways, in someways greater suffering leads to greater wisdom, the understanding and value of life often times requires witnessing the loss or suffering of life. Even Siddhartha didn't become truly enlightened until he experienced the true suffering of others. Buddhist in the military is a contradiction, just as much as Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. The old term, "there is no atheist in foxholes" isn't for Christians alone you know. Before turning to Buddhism I hated the armed services, it was only after converting that I realized that a Buddhist I could be truly at home in the military where my everyday actions could bring happiness to so many.

BlindRob's picture

Violence is inherent in every enforcement occupation. That violence has a bad effect on those using it even if the result is to the general benefit of all. Knee-jerk military haters might wish to withold the benefits of the Dharma to the US military but Buddha would never have done so. Samsara is found on the left as much as anywhere, folks, and I do wish those who see these sorts of issues through the poisonous tincture of hatred and delusion they blindly regard as virtue would get over it. In our part of the world they are tending to taint Buddhism so much that no one outside the far left wing can even dip a toe in it.

Ryan's picture

I went to Chaplain school with Dyer earlier this year. He's a good guy with a great heart.

Kris's picture

"How does one reconcile the inherent duality of identifying with Buddhism and participating in the armed forces–a source of suffering?"

Soldiers, especially those currently deployed, face a great load of spiritual challenges. Exposure to the kind of suffering and death inherent in combat can leave a lot of scars. The chaplain's corps is there to help soldiers cope, understand, and to guide them on the right path. They counsel soldiers on their problems, provide teaching and guidance.

There is no contradiction in his chosen livelihood, it's quite wholesome.

Also, the article mentions that there are over 3,300 Buddhists in the Army. Being one myself, I admit the prospect of having to cause harm is a challenge in my practice, but I would hesitate to say there is an "inherent duality." A US soldier has a great deal of power to do great good.

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JAINE's picture

You say that buddhism led you to GOD ?

S. Swae-Shampine's picture

How does one reconcile the inherent duality of identifying with Buddhism and participating in the armed forces--a source of suffering?