Friday, December 31, 2010

Zen They Came For the Buddhists...

Captain Thomas Dyer, U.S. Army Buddhist Chaplain

ecumenism (noun): the doctrine, or quality, of universality (esp. of the Christian church).

Until a few days ago I would never have looked for evidence of ecumenism in the United States Army. Yet there it was, or rather, there he was, staring me in the face, courtesy of a BBC Radio program, Heart and Soul.

This is Thomas Dyer, the newest Chaplain appointed by the U.S. Army, and he is a Buddhist chaplain. As the BBC interviewer immediately delved into, this seems like a contradiction in terms. I know scant information about Buddhism except perhaps what little I have gained from being a fan of the late Beat poet and Buddhist, Allan Ginsberg, but I do know that non-violence is central to Buddhist teachings, and in particular, in the U.S., Buddhism underpinned much of the beliefs of the anti-war activists of the 1960s and 1970s, and Ginsberg was a central figure of the anti-war movement.

Now, I am still skeptical. But as I listened, Dyer won me over, though he still has plenty of winning to do amongst fellow Buddhists and soldiers and citizens of other faiths.

Ecumenism is the belief that faiths, especially the various branches of Christianity, can find their way through meeting, discussing and mingling, towards greater understanding and ultimately, unity. You can see immediately how problematic this is: what might be mildly uncomfortable contradictions in belief between some Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (woman priesthood, for example) might be violent poison for other Christians. Ecumenists have been accused of everything over the years, from being the Pope’s stealthy fifth columnists to deluded wishy-washy liberals.

Indeed, when I was growing up, Dr Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland’s Cardinal Richelieu and John Calvin rolled into one, was forever banging an anti-ecumenist drum, alongside all the other drums he banged.

Instead of banging drums, Chaplain Thomas Dyer would rather we sound bells. And it was at the exact moment when he spoke of the bell that Buddhists ring at strategic points in the act of meditating, that I began to see just how far out on his tree limb Dyer has gone – and how, with all the contradictions and special circumstances that service in the Military requires of soldiers, and of the religious faiths they hold – how that other faiths in the fighting forces might actually reach accommodation with the Buddhists in their midst.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” Dyer told his interviewer, as he sounded a bell used in meditation, “if this M16, if the metal in this M16 would one day be a bell that sounds like this, and the plastic pieces on this weapon, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they would transform into a cup that would hold medicine?”

Dyer has asked his Buddhist-inclined soldiers to bring their weapons into meditation ceremonies, rather than stack them on racks at the door, as is the practice during Christian and other faith ceremonies, precisely to present this thought, which hardly differs from the swords-into-plowshares tenet of Christianity. I can’t believe that from the most battle-hungry raw recruit through to veterans who have seen multiple tours – I can’t believe that any of them or their commanding officers desire perpetual warfare, but rather see the role of a Military as necessary defense in an imperfect world, and a world where increasingly peace keeping occupies the world’s defense forces, as well as – something of a cliché – winning hearts and minds.