Buddhist Chaplain Prepares For Deployment

Thomas Dyer is preparing to deploy with the Tennessean National Guardsman as the Army's first Buddhist chaplain. Dyer, a former Southern Baptist minister, says he was drawn to Buddhism through meditation and explains how he will apply the principles of his faith as a spiritual counselor for the troops.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As the country becomes more religiously diverse, so do U.S. soldiers. And the military is trying to accommodate by bringing on chaplains from a wider range of faiths.

We turn now to a chaplain, who is making history. Thomas Dyer, a member of the Tennessee National Guard will soon deploy with the Tennessee Guard as the military's first Buddhist chaplain. And Chaplain Dyer joins us now from member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. THOMAS DYER (Buddhist Chaplain, Tennessee Guards): Great, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, your story is interesting, I think, for many reasons. Not only are you the military's first Buddhist chaplain; before that, you were a Southern Baptist minister, which turns out to be important to your current post - we'll get to that. Can you just tell us what drew you to Buddhism, recognizing that, of course, it's complicated and a complicated journey for anyone, but can you help us understand what drew you to the faith?

Mr. DYER: I think the journey begins with meditation. The idea of meditation is not to talk or interact with words but to just sit with God or Christ. In my pastorate as a Southern Baptist pastor, in my office, I would sit and meditate in this manner. As I began to interact with Zen Buddhism itself, pretty much like a homecoming, so to speak.

MARTIN: You know, it's a remarkable coming together of all your various lives, if I can put it that way. I mean, your family, your wife and your children have not embraced the same path as you. How is that working, if you don't mind my asking?

Mr. DYER: My wife and family are very committed Christians, and I support that. But you can imagine with great compassion how they would feel. But I've decided that this Buddhism is an individual path. So I support my family, my wife's Christian faith, and I help support raising our children in the Christian faith, as well.

MARTIN: How did the decision to become a chaplain come about? You had been in the Marine Reserves before you were a minister, as I understand it, so but then how did the decision to go into the Chaplain Corps come about?

Mr. DYER: So when I left the church, I was a little freer to do some things I wanted to do. So I went back into the National Guard. So from there, I was just practicing Buddhism very quietly, very privately and was very content to do that.

I did not even dream or expect that was has happened as far as becoming a chaplain would be something that I would be interested in. However, in my service, there were a lot of soldiers who were coming back from Iraq, and we would talk. And one specific soldier had a very bad incident that happened -and it's probably not necessary to go into all the details - but there was a small child that was killed, and it disturbed his mind very much, and he suffered very deeply.

As we had developed this friendship, I began to work with him with some meditations to help kind of calm the mind and calm the mind stream down. It seemed to help him very deeply. So he said, you know, you should be a chaplain. Of course, I laughed and said, you know, I do have the credentials. But I really don't think that would work because I'm a practicing Buddhist now.

And, of course, he shared with - that wouldn't matter, of course, with the pluralistic view of the Chaplain Corps. So he informed one of the commanders, and the commanders called a recruiter, and the recruiter called me and said, would you like to become an Army chaplain? And, of course, in our faith tradition, we have to go to our teacher and I asked for permission and things of that nature.

My teacher, who's a Tibetan monk, his name is Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche, thought that this would be a good path and could be a way to help relieve suffering in the world, specifically in the military with soldiers.

MARTIN: You begin intensive training later this month. And then in January, you'll go either to Iraq of Afghanistan, or you're expected to, as I understand it. How do you imagine your role as a chaplain?

Mr. DYER: The first thing that I think should be understood is that we are chaplains first. So it might be better to say instead of I am a Buddhist chaplain, it might be better to say I am a chaplain who is Buddhist. And we do many functions, such as post-traumatic stress counseling, crisis intervention, battle fatigue, suicide prevention, family counseling. And then beyond that, each chaplain who holds a certain faith distinction will then provide for a specific soldier or soldier's needs in their faith tradition.

MARTIN: And finally, I understand that the faith tradition doesn't - isn't really organized in such a way as to lend direction on these matters, but I wonder if there are those who belong to your faith tradition who believe that your faith principles are incompatible with military service and don't - and have expressed a view that you should not serve for that reason.

There are those, obviously, as you know, within the Christian tradition who believe that the taking up of arms is not compatible with the tradition, even though it is common. So I just wanted to know if you've heard any feedback from that perspective.

Mr. DYER: This is a very, very good and excellent question that needs to be addressed very clearly. There are lineages that teach that the absolute no-violent approach to life is just the way it is. But as a result of life as it is at the present moment, many Buddhists believe that dissipating in civil action is necessary.

The issue is, at present, is military service what we call right livelihood? Most Buddhist teachers are moving to say yes because the potential to do good and to protect is there. And it is not beneficial to not participate in civil action when peoples and nations around the world are suffering. It is something that has become necessary, we might say.

MARTIN: Chaplain Thomas Dyer. He'll begin training this month with the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Support Squadron as the military's first chaplain who is a Buddhist. Chaplain Dyer, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DYER: Thank you for having me.

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MARTIN: And normally, at this time, we bring you our Backtalk segment, where we go through comments from you, our listeners. This week, because we received so many comments about our conversation about highly educated and unmarried black women, we have a special edition of Backtalk online. You can hear those comments and more of what you had to say by going to our Web site at the new npr.org and clicking on TELL ME MORE.

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MARTIN: Coming up, it was the shout heard around the country, but was Congressman Joe Wilson out of bounds when he said the president lied?

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): This guy is a Mickey Mouse congressman from one district in South Carolina versus the president of the United States. If he wins the argument on the merits, let's have the argument on the merits.

MARTIN: The Barbershop guys on health care and heckling, plus the start of the NFL season and their take on Ellen replacing Paula. All that is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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