While studying for his master’s degree in music performance, Nathan Sheppard’s goal was “to be the next principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic.” But with plans to marry soon after graduation, Sheppard decided that paying off his student loans should be his top priority. He auditioned for the Army band, was accepted, and took a job with full-time pay and benefits. “That’s how I ended up in the Army,” Sheppard says. “My wife and I got married on September 6, 2014, and I shipped to basic training—boot camp—on September 16.”

Raised in small-town Tennessee, Sheppard grew up Christian. “Then,” he says, “like many young people, I went to college and left my conservative Christian bubble for the first time. I [then] became aware of doubts and issues with things I just couldn’t resolve, and I stopped going to church. It almost felt like music became my religion. Mozart and Mahler and these incredible classical compositions were where I found connection and transcendence.”

“I was a-religious during a lot of school, but toward the end of my master’s I took a class on the Alexander Technique, and the way our teacher taught it felt very meditative. That got me interested in meditation as a musical performance aid.”

Sheppard’s first post in the Army was at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He and his wife began to meditate with local groups and eventually found their way to the Both Sides /  No Sides Sangha, now the El Paso Zen Center. “We showed up one Sunday, and I think the only time I missed a Sunday service was a year or two later, when I was in Iraq. I just dove straight in, even with it being a little awkward and ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And yet somehow it still felt like coming home, like this was somewhere I belonged.” 

Just before Sheppard and his wife moved to a base in Japan, Sheppard’s priest organized a formal refuge ceremony for him so he could formally start the path as a Buddhist. Today, after seven years of active duty on three continents as an Army musician, and with a steadfast commitment to Buddhist practice, Sheppard is preparing to become a military chaplain. As a requisite part of his training, he went back to school and will receive his MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in New York in May.

So first you wanted to be principal trumpet, then you signed up to play in the Army, not thinking you were going to become a Buddhist. And then you became a Buddhist, not thinking you were going to become a chaplain. And now you’ve found a path that kind of brings it all together. How did you discover that chaplaincy was your calling? That’s a big question. I guess the most proximate cause was my deepening practice and starting to read more about the precepts. And as we all know, the very first precept is to affirm life and not to kill. And that’s a really difficult thing to reconcile with being in the military.

Because killing is normalized? Yeah, it’s what you’re expected to do if you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Off the top of my head, though, I don’t know any musicians in the military that have had to engage in combat; the odds of it ever happening are slim to none. But the fact remains that it’s still part of the job. 

In 2017, I was deployed to Iraq for a few months. Handling weapons is a standard part of deployment—in the Middle East, I had a trumpet in one hand and a loaded rifle in the other. Fortunately, I never needed to use the rifle, but I had it. And I realized that it wasn’t a position I ever wanted to be in again. Yet I feel that the military is a good fit for me, and I have grown to really care about soldiers. 

There was a funeral in Iraq that set the stage for me being where I’m at now. I was pulled away from the rest of the band and sent to a different installation to perform taps at a memorial service for a soldier who had just died. His convoy had been hit by an IED, and he didn’t make it. I spent a week living with that other unit, and my points of contact were the chaplains. 

Before, back at the National Cemetery in El Paso, there were so many funerals every day that we would just play taps, salute, and move on to the next one. And to try to guard myself from becoming overwhelmed with emotion, which could affect my playing, I usually would not even look at the names on the schedule. I felt like the most respectful thing I could do was to shut myself off and harden my heart, as it were, in order to give a performance that the family deserved. But I couldn’t do that in Iraq. There was no distance. It was a really, really different experience.

Did you have any memorable interactions with the chaplains in Iraq? Yes and no, because I couldn’t tell you a single thing we talked about, but I feel that I walked away from that encounter changed. It was the first time that I got to observe chaplains in action and see what it is they really do. Until then, most of my encounters with them were when they came around once every few months to do physical training with the band. Usually we’d play football or Ultimate Frisbee or something, and then they’d give us a little sermon [or] pep talk at the end and pray with everybody.

In Iraq, the chaplains I was working with were all from various Christian denominations. It didn’t bother them in the least that I was a Buddhist. They didn’t seem to mind if anybody was or wasn’t the same religion as them; they were there to love and support and care about these people. That’s the thing that was most memorable and that had the biggest impact on me: just seeing the quality of their caring. 

Then, a couple of years down the road, when I was facing the existential crisis of “How can I be a soldier and keep the precepts?” that experience made me realize that becoming a chaplain is how I can live my Buddhist vows and continue to serve this community.

Yet you’re still part of a war machine. Yes. That is a difficult thing to reconcile. But since stepping into this role with my current unit in the National Guard, it’s been my experience that when it really comes down to it, what I’m trying to do is help those who are suffering. 

I think about the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha—in the Japanese tradition he’s called Jizo—who goes into the hell realms to teach the dharma to those who are suffering there. As a Buddhist who has taken the bodhisattva vows, I feel that this is the call: I vow to liberate all beings. All of them. Everywhere. Regardless of the situation, regardless of whether they’re in a military uniform or not, my calling is to go where suffering is and help ease that suffering. And there is a lot of suffering in the military. It’s a world where I’m comfortable and have experience, and I feel that I’m uniquely positioned to be of help there.

How have you been helping? I’m still a trumpet player in the National Guard right now, but I’m kind of the unofficial chaplain-ish Buddhist guy in the unit, and I’m there for everybody in whatever way is most useful. 

About a year ago, it became apparent that there were folks in my unit who were struggling with certain things. I had been talking to our commander about possibly offering some kind of mindfulness meditation instructions. Believe it or not, the Army actually has mindfulness as part of its doctrine and regulations. A few years ago, they did a major overhaul of their physical fitness program, and now it’s trying to cover health and wellness in all domains of life. One of those domains is mental fitness and another is spiritual; the Army incorporated meditation practices to cover both of these.

I was able to use the kinds of meditation that the Army already offers and bring in some other things that I’ve practiced over the years, like breath counting, open awareness, and loving-kindness meditation. For several months, I was given a half hour or hour every drill weekend to lead people in meditation. And here we are about a year later, and I’ve still got folks coming up to me saying, “Hey, that thing that you that you taught us, even if I don’t do it all the time, I think it’s making a difference.” The loving-kindness meditation was particularly impactful. 

Leading up to that, I’d been talking with my teacher about all the qualms and moral complexities of being a chaplain in the Army. Then, when I was presented with that suffering in real life, I had to do something, so I offered what I had. And it seems to have made a difference for at least some folks, at least some of the time. In that moment, when I rang the bell for practice, all doubts dropped away, and it was just me in the room with people who were hurting.

What’s next? I’ll be graduating in May from Union, and a few weeks later, in June, I’ll be ordaining as a priest with the Hollow Bones order of Rinzai Zen. I’d like to spend some extended time at a monastery between graduation and going back to the Army, get some practice time in, and see how I can learn and grow in that environment.

On the chaplaincy side of things, I look forward to building relationships and getting to know people and their stories. And becoming part of their lives so I can be there for them when things go wrong.

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