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Understanding Buddhism – An Interview with a Buddhist US Soldier

Understanding Buddhism – An Interview with a Buddhist US Soldier

A dear friend of mine, and a fellow soldier, is a Buddhist. She and I have shared wonderful conversations during our friendship; some of which have dealt with our differing faith systems. Hopefully this quick 8 question interview will allow you to gain a better understanding of another faith. Enjoy.

Q ~ Could you give us a brief run down on Buddhism? Something that might help us understand where you are coming from.

A ~ Many people have very little knowledge or a very superficial understanding of what Buddhism or being Buddhist means.  Some think we eschew all comforts and take to an aesthetic life shrouded in crimson robes sitting in mediation for hours on end.  Others think we refuse to eat meat and preach the tenets of non-violence under any circumstance.  Just as there are many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and I imagine Zoroastrians, there are many different ways to be Buddhist.  I will speak to a few of the most basic tenets and hopefully give a little insight into the Buddhist philosophy.

  1. Don’t believe anything without consideration.  We are told to test everything we see and hear and then come to our own conclusions as to whether or not it holds any truth for us.  Buddha said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common.”

  2. There is no inherent meaning to life.  But because we all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering, some would say the purpose of life is to end suffering.

  3. We are responsible for our lives and our practice.  We create our own suffering through our attachments and desires.  We are attached to people; we desire wealth and power; we suffer old age, death.  When we don’t get what we desire, we suffer.  It is our responsibility to free ourselves of this attachment as everything in life is impermanent.  Then we will find freedom from suffering and peace.

  4. Karma (the Sanskrit word for action) and rebirth.  Karma is the act of volition that creates a resulting effect.  Rebirth, also popularly known as reincarnation is the process of being born into different situations at various times over and over again.  There is an interconnectedness between all things and every action we take has an impact on what is around us.  Our goal is to break the cycle of rebirth and attain nirvana.

  5. Compassion and self-realization. We often don’t realize that our judgments come from a morality that is human created.  Each culture devises its own customs and mores based on history and communal experience.  None is right or wrong, they are just different.  It is for us to look beyond our filters, watch our thoughts and be aware of our inclination to judge.  We let our egos control us.  Our lives are directed by that voice in our heads that we define as our self.  How many times have you said, “I’m the kind of person that….”?  Every moment we get to choose who we are through our actions.  Buddhists attempt to take themselves out of their minds through the practice of meditation.  When one can separate themselves from their thoughts they do not become their thoughts.  There must be constant vigilance because the ego is strong and will fight.  When one begins to monitor their thoughts they can gain insight into the actions of others.  Compassion grows from wisdom and with compassion we ourselves grow wiser.  We become more understanding of those that we meet and in turn become more tolerant.

Q ~ Every faith system follows tenets by which members of that faith group live. Are there any conflicts of interest between your faith and the US Army?

A ~ I was conflicted about enlisting in the Army.  I was deeply concerned that the environment would force me to compromise my principles.  I sought council
regarding this topic and read essays regarding war and Buddhism.  I’m of the opinion that though Buddhists believe in non-violence, taking up arms for the protection of others is a just cause.  Where some may see soldiers as instruments of violence, I see them as instruments of peace.   But yes, there is still a conflict as altruistic as I’d like to believe our actions are I know there’s an alternative political agenda that dictates mission.  While that agenda often does not fall in line with what I believe, I understand I took an oath and since I believe in keeping one’s word, I will do my job as long as the orders are lawful.  I would have a serious problem if I witnessed the unnecessary maltreatment of others.  The Geneva Conventions give me some level of peace.  I know they can be seen as an obstacle at times but it allows us to maintain some level of humanity in time of war.

Q ~ Do you feel that the Army fosters religious diversity?

A ~ I feel this environment allows for people to be of any faith without being subject to discrimination.  Though it doesn’t reflect the extent of the diversity of our nation and many religions are underrepresented or non-existent.  If you’re Christian you have access to a Chaplain and services but as a Buddhist I have to seek a community elsewhere.

Q ~ Have you ever felt repressed by the Army because of your religious preference?

A ~ I wouldn’t call myself repressed.  But it is a Christian Army and I am therefore subjected to its religion.  I understand a desire for spiritual support in a world where war is present.  However, I feel it should be voluntary.  Based on the idea of separation of church and state I don’t necessarily agree with the Chaplain’s thought of the day arriving in my work mail box each morning quoting the scriptures, or going to a mandatory history lesson taught by someone with a degree in theology.

Q ~ Some would argue that religious diversity, especially open practices of it, hinder the efficiency of the Army as a whole. Do you feel that interactions with alternate systems of belief to be a strength or a weakness to the US Army? 

A ~ I don’t see how diversity of any sort can be a hindrance.  People who are close-minded can always make an argument for that.  Women in the military, African-Americans, Native Americans, and even Gays at one point were all believed to be a hindrance and our army has only become stronger with the inclusion of all.  How do you take the oath of service, swearing to uphold and give your life for the US Constitution then exclude people based on religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation?  That is so hypocritical.  I’m afraid people often argue the importance of our constitution when it suits them.  But as soon as it questions something that is comfortable for them or forces them to accept something they don’t agree with then it’s ignored.  We like the Constitution when it can be used to endorse life the way we think it ought to be and we ignore it when the Bill of Rights or the various amendments challenge our world view or force us to make accommodations for others.  I would venture to guess that those most critical are not serving.  Spectators sit in judgment without participating.  They are out of touch with the reality of the soldiers’ feelings.  In addition, how can one oppose the practice of spirituality when soldiers are regularly confronted with death?

Q ~ In your experience, has your religion come up more or less often than you might have thought prior to joining the military?

A ~ My faith really hasn’t been a topic of conversation.  It has come up only a few times.  Because many of the soldiers are young, many don’t know anything about it and very few have even inquired.  I really didn’t have an expectation of it being of any importance.  The only assumption I had prior to joining was that I wouldn’t meet too many others and that has been true.

Q ~ How does a Buddhist view Service?

A ~ In some countries males are still expected to commit time to monkhood before working or attending school.  The concept of service is integral in the teachings.  I think it’s similar to most other religions in that regard but it’s never done with the pretext to influence or convert others.

Q ~ Would you say that the Amy values, preached by many as the foundation of a soldier’s core, conflict or coincide with the doctrine of Buddhism?   

A ~ Integrity, selfless service, courage, respect and duty are all tenets of my spirituality, so embracing the Army values has been easy.  These were characteristic that I strove to embody long before I ever considered enlistment.  However I wouldn’t say the Army and integrity are not synonymous.  From the moment we step into the recruiter’s office we are lied to.  By omission or not, it is so blatant that everyone is aware that it occurs.  Yet it continues.  Soldiers are expected to fill their contractual obligations but the Army has many ways of getting around theirs.  There is one, little caveat that releases them of all obligation- the needs of the army supersede everything.  I knew a fellow soldier that enlisted as an analyst.  The Army learned she was a native Chinese speaker so they forced her to re-class (officially take a different job) as a linguist.  She was then sent to Washington state where there was no mission that required her language so she was stuck doing something totally random.  That to me is a complete lack of integrity.

Special guest S. Howard

Originally published online at

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