Continuing Tricycle‘s Q&As with Buddhist bloggers series, today we have an interview with Lt. Jeanette Shin, the U.S. military’s first Buddhist chaplain (there are more now, all of them except Lt. Shin serving in the Army). Commissioned by the Navy in 2004, Lt. Shin, an ordained priest in the Nishi Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, has been providing Buddhist services at the Marine Corps Base Camp in Pendleton, California as well as in Afghanistan. She also runs the blog Buddhist Military Sangha, a forum for Buddhists serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Not sure what military chaplains do in the first place? Read on to find out and hear Lt. Shin’s thoughts on being a female Buddhist in the armed forces.
Why did you first join the military and what inspired you to apply for chaplaincy? I first joined the military (U.S. Marine Corps) in 1988 and served for four years. It was during my time as a Marine that I was introduced to the teachings of Shinran Shonin at Ekoji Buddhist Temple, in Fairfax, Virginia. After I was discharged I went back to school and worked for the federal government for awhile, and eventually decided to go to the Jodo Shinshu seminary in the U.S., the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, CA. My intentions were to become a Shinshu minister in the U.S. but then I learned that the military chaplaincy option was available, and became a Naval Reserve chaplain after ordination in 2003. In 2006 I became an active duty chaplain. I felt it would be a natural fit after my prior experience in the Marines.
You’ve written on Buddhist Military Sangha that military chaplaincy is one of the least understood professions in our society—what are some common misconceptions about it, and what is chaplaincy in reality? I stated that military chaplaincy is one of the least understood professions, but I believe this could also apply to all forms of chaplaincy. I’ve met many individuals, not only Buddhists, who were unfamiliar with the word “chaplain” or who did not know what chaplains do—to provide spiritual ministry, care, and counseling outside the confines of a traditional place of worship. I think one misconception is that military chaplains function as missionaries or that they preach killing. However, most chaplains really are concerned with ensuring that individuals, whether in the military or hospital or prisons, have access to services and sacraments of their respective faith. Military chaplains exist because of the U.S. constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. I think that if a chaplain were to engage in such behavior they would have very little credibility with other Marines and Sailors and therefore be very ineffective in their jobs.
Do you often find yourself defending your career path and your choice to enlist in the Marines to other Buddhists? How do you respond to criticism in regards to Right Livelihood and keeping the first precept? I have encountered some Buddhists who object to the practice of military chaplaincy due to the First Precept and Right Livelihood; however, my response is that Buddhists do exist in the military, they are citizens of this nation, so therefore they should have a chaplain of their faith background available. Also, America is not the only country to have Buddhist military chaplains—they are also present in the armed forces of nations with predominantly Buddhist populations like South Korea and Thailand. Buddhists, like other people, make individual choices about their practice of Dharma; it is not for me to judge how they interpret doctrine—my only concern is that they are able to practice without discrimination.
Tell us about some of the challenges of being one of the only Buddhist chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. Is it difficult to be a female Buddhist in an environment dominated by Judeo-Christian males? It is certainly a challenge being a Buddhist chaplain in the military! There certainly have been a few individuals who do not understand why a female would want to be in the military, or a Buddhist, but the majority of chaplains I’ve met have been welcoming and curious about the Dharma. Many chaplains have been stationed in numerous Asian countries, and have encountered Buddhism as practiced there.
Do you work with non-Buddhists as well as with Buddhists? The armed forces is overwhelmingly Christian, but is there some receptivity to learning about Buddhism and other religions? How do you approach helping soldiers who are not Buddhist and may have radically different views? I work with non-Buddhists every day. As a Navy chaplain, we work in a pluralistic environment. I think that is another misconception of military chaplaincy, that chaplains are only available for individuals of their own faith group or denomination. While we cannot perform services from another faith tradition (for example, I won’t be saying Mass or doing Friday Islamic Prayers), we can always listen and talk with military members regardless of their religious or non-religious background. There is definitely a curiosity about Buddhism, but I am careful not to “push” my beliefs onto someone who is not receptive. If there is a Marine or Sailor who needs or wants something from their own faith tradition, I always refer them to a chaplain of that faith.
What do you have in your kit bag? When I was deployed to Afghanistan last year, I ensured that my bag had items to hold a service: An image of Buddha (in this case I used a thangka of Sakyamuni Buddha—easy to roll up and carry strapped onto my bag), incense, nenju, service book, candles, also some pamphlets on Buddhism to give to others. These were similar items that I would use as a Jodo Shinshu temple minister if I was visiting a member at home or at the hospital.
Can you talk a bit about how your practice as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist reflects the Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment? As a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, the core of my belief is faith and devotion to Amida Buddha. This informs who I am and how I approach my life and behavior towards others. We believe that we are essentially beings of bonno, or the unskillful desires. Often we have difficulties acknowledging this, but once this occurs, then understanding the path of Dharma becomes easier. This manifests in daily life in our conduct to others; I have learned buddhadharma from interactions with our sangha at our temples, seeing ordinary men and women care for each other and helping to keep their temples active and welcoming to all in spite of a long history of racial hatred and misunderstanding. This makes ideas like the Navy Core Values relatable as in how we want to treat others.
You’ve been deployed to Afghanistan to serve the troops there—what did a usual day there look like for you? An ordinary day would consist of Staff meetings, which chaplains participate in, and visiting areas of the camp where our Marines and Sailors worked, sometimes performing counseling, or just “hanging out” with them, talking and joking with them. I was also an active provider of the United Through Reading Program (www.unitedthroughreading.org) in which military members could record themselves on DVD reading books for their children at home. Chaplains and lay leaders conducted a variety of services, including Islamic and Wiccan services. The most moving experience for me was conducting a prayer for an “angel” (a Marine killed in action) on his way home to America. It was a service held at the airfield in front of many fellow warriors, very moving.
And since these questions have been very serious so far…what do you like to do for fun? I practice Japanese Calligraphy, although not very well! I also like hiking in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, not far from Camp Pendleton.
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