Ajahn Aroon Seeda grew up on the family farm in Thailand. It took some persuading, but with his parents’ blessing, he was able to leave home and become a samenera, a novice temple monk, at the age of 12. “It was a calling. I was looking to find a way to make my peace and find freedom, even though I didn’t really know what that meant.” After nine years as a novice, he received full ordination and spent fifteen years as a bhikku.
One day, when he was a young monk doing an alms round, Aroon encountered some American marines who were training in the area. “The way we stop for food is to stand somewhere silently. The marines were curious about what we were doing in front of their tent. I barely spoke English. I said, ‘I’m a monk, I walk for food.’” The soldiers offered some rations, Aroon accompanied them back to the temple, and his abbot, who spoke fluent English, showed them around. This meeting inspired Aroon to learn English. “I knew I wanted to see the world, and English seemed to be the tool.”
In 2001, after Aroon had completed other studies in Thailand, his preceptor sent him to Sterling, Virginia for some months to support an affiliated Thai temple there. He found that while many of the people who came to the temple were receptive to his teachings, “in American culture sometimes people don’t suffer enough to truly value the teachings of the Buddha. The Four Noble Truths are most effective for those in the midst of hardships who are really suffering. When they learn about these truths, they’re able to experience the process directly and it gives them relief right away.”
In 2009, Aroon left monastic life and began military training. He now serves as a chaplain in the federal Bureau of Prisons and the US Navy Reserve, where he is a lieutenant commander. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from the University of the West and volunteers, teaches meditation, and participates in a local temple and at Rosemead Buddhist Monastery, where he was ordained as a Buddhist minister.
It sounds like your current work is the perfect place to help people who know what suffering is. Yes. Before I began this work, I asked myself, what group of people will get the most benefit out of these teachings? The first group I thought of was people who are stuck on a ship for months in the military. They can’t go anywhere, there are no options. One of my mentors and good friends at the temple is a retired US Marine Corps colonel. He and his wife told me that one way I could help those people would be as a chaplain on a naval ship.
I spoke with my spiritual mentor in Thailand and said, “This is what I want to do, what do you think?” He said, “Go for it, Aroon. It sounds like a very good idea and probably a lot of people will benefit from it.” I only have one life and one chance to try to serve as many people as possible!
How did you go about becoming a chaplain? First, I enlisted for two years to make sure that I would like working as a chaplain in the Navy. I wanted to learn about the culture and understand what training was like. I left monastic life, became a [lay] Buddhist minister, and went to boot camp right after that—everything happened within one week in 2009.
Were you living on a ship? Yes. Changing from the slow life of a monk to intensive military training and life in the Navy was quite a culture shock!
Did your years as a monk help you with this? I think it helped me follow discipline and adjust to the culture. It was easy for me to be in the military; I had no problem following orders. One thing that is very similar to life in a temple is respect for rank. Some of the sailors were younger than me but their rank was higher, so when they told me what to do, I did it. I opened my heart and opened my mind; I listened to and learned from them.
That being said, at one point when someone was yelling at me in training I thought I was going to die! No one had ever yelled at me like that before. I thought about the Buddha telling us not to say harmful words because they hurt people—and yeah! They really do hurt! I didn’t know how much until I went through that training. We need to be more careful about what we say and how we speak to each other. We need to always speak with kindness.
Some people will question whether it’s appropriate for someone with a religious background like yours to support people in the military who are trained to fight and even take others’ lives. How do you respond to this? Intention is very important. I want everybody to be happy. My intention is to help soldiers who protect their country—I don’t train them to kill. I train them to be in the present, to release stress, to see life more clearly, and to recognize and uphold the truth. I provide everyone with the same techniques. As Buddhists, we use these tools to gain enlightenment. If you’re not a Buddhist at least you can use the same tools to become sustainably stress-free.
“With this group of people, I don’t need to explain anything about suffering; they’re already in it.”
You now work at a federal prison complex as well as continuing with the Navy reserve. What does your work life look like? At the prison, it’s based on inmates’ needs. There are two or three hours a day when they can meet us in the chapel. We can also visit the special housing unit that holds people who don’t spend time in the general units. As far as I know, I’m the only Buddhist chaplain working in the US Federal Bureau of Prisons. I spend forty hours a week at the prison and go to the naval base one weekend a month. Plus there are 14–29 consecutive days at the base annually for training, which is also work.
Do you get to yell at people? No no no, not at all! Oh! You’re joking. [Laughs.]
What practices have you introduced to these environments? Mindfulness. Mindfulness is one of the most important and effective practices that can be applied in the Navy and in the prison system. I often use a technique I call “single breath.” It has three components: it’s relatable, it’s effective, and it’s applicable.
First, it’s relatable because anybody can practice and experience it: any age, any time, any situation. Second, it’s effective because you feel the result right away—as soon as you do the practice you experience a sense of relief. Third, you can apply it to the different situations in your life at any moment.
How do you introduce single breath meditation? Stress is a sub-group of suffering; other forms of mental suffering are distress, anxiety, frustration, etc. The body has a natural mechanism that helps us release stress by unconsciously going into sighing. [Forcefully releases a breath.] I explain that with this practice, instead of sighing naturally, we’re going to sigh intentionally. You can feel it—go ahead, sigh! [We sigh.]
I’m not even stressed and it feels good! If you focus on where you feel the breath at the end, it will help you define your resting point. The process of feeling the breath easing past is actually the mindful experience of being in the present. With one breath, you’re experiencing mindfulness. Two, three, four… the process gradually becomes a meditative state. This helps you recognize when emotions are arising and observe them as they’re passing by.
I encourage people to try and find the spot at the end of the breath. How long does the feeling last? Another breath—how long does it last? They’re recognizing change, anicca, as they practice. When they’re able to see the change, the heart will start collecting data little by little, from one moment to the next. When enough data has been collected, a person can automatically recognize what the heart is feeling and, when necessary, release it. It’s like a reset. Listen, observe, feel, release, reset. See, observe, feel, release, reset.
When they’ve learned to familiarize themselves with their feelings, they can identify where the changes are happening and what causes them. If inmates who are experiencing emotions—say anxiety, frustration, or anger towards their roommates, staff, or themselves—can observe, feel, release, and come back to the resting point, they find better balance. They discover that they have the power to manage their emotions in the moment. I explain that in Buddhism this is a method we use to become free from mental suffering.
Where does this single breath meditation come from? When I was 12 years old, during my first meditation, I accessed a meditation state where I felt extremely happy, like I was flying on a cloud. It’s part of shamatha meditation. I wanted to experience it again, so I meditated every day for ten years and not even close. One day I lit a candle, bowed to the Buddha, prayed, etc., and sat for about forty-five minutes—and then I thought, No! Zero! Can’t do it! I’m not good enough; this isn’t the life for me. There was a lot of frustration. So I sighed deeply, and again, and again—and I spontaneously went back to the space I’d experienced ten years before! I was like, Wow, this is easy! That whole day I was on a cloud and it lasted into the following week.
I think I wanted to work with people who were in situations where there was a lot of suffering because I’d discovered a tool that might help them. Now I’m sharing my experience of this Buddhist mindfulness practice in a way that people can relate to. Every time they breathe out with a sigh it brings them back to the present, to their physical resting point. They feel it and are able to release the stress, suffering, and trauma that they’ve accumulated. With this group of people, I don’t need to explain anything about suffering; they’re already in it. I lead them to a path that helps them, and they use the tool seriously because they’re hungry for it. It helps them experience freedom from painful emotions so they have a little bit of spiritual freedom. And we take it from there.
What kind of feedback have you received? Very positive! I’ve been doing research in prison with inmates and staff and they say it helps them. Also, because I’m in the reserve, I deployed a few years ago and spent a year in Germany. During that time I worked in the warrior transition program, WTP. I introduced single breath meditation to the team and they added it to the curriculum. And I’ve created a three-day program for the Navy where I teach others how to teach single breath-based mindfulness. I would like to do the same for the prison system.
What are the greatest rewards for you in this work? The greatest reward is each moment when I’m sharing the tools. I’m sharing the message, the teaching of the Buddha, and at the same time I’m doing my own practice. And every moment that I see people succeed in freeing themselves from mental suffering is truly very wonderful. I enjoy seeing it over and over and over again. It gives me energy to keep moving in my ministry.