The Buddhist in your foxhole

UnclesamwantsyouRemember what I said about guilt? Well, this next post falls into that category.

It’s about Thomas Dyer, the Army’s first Buddhist chaplain. (This isn’t that surprising. When I profiled an Army chaplain back in 2005, I learned that of the 1,400 active-duty chaplains, only nine were Jewish, six Muslim and six Orthodox Christian.) The Memphis Commercial Appeal offers a fascinating newsmaker profile that opens with Dyer’s conversion:

For Thomas Dyer, there was fire and brimstone. “There was the idea that there’s an angry God and somehow you could really make Him mad.”

Dyer grew up fearing God. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian, then a Baptist. He had hoped religious conviction would lead to contentment. He attended seminary and preached as a Southern Baptist minister.

That seems like a lifetime ago as Dyer, 43, sits on a cushion in the shrine room of the Pema Karpo Meditation Center in Raleigh. Six statues of various Buddhas are positioned against the walls. His teacher, a Tibetan monk who founded the temple, listens as Dyer explains his exodus from the pulpit in search of nirvana.

“The question that arose in my mind is, ‘Why is there so much suffering?’ Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer. I wanted to be happy. The idea that we have to live with suffering until we die just did not make sense to me — the idea that God wants you to suffer so you can then enjoy heaven.” Dyer kept asking, “Is this all there is to life?”

What follows is a descriptive journey through Dyer’s religious past and present. The prose is rich, and there are plenty of great details about Buddhism:

He has left his boots at the door of the temple, but in the temple room he wears a standard Army camouflage uniform. Instead of a cross or crucifix on the right chest his uniform bears the “dharma wheel” insignia as a symbol of the Buddhist faith.

But, in a feature that is neither long nor short, the issue of unresolved theodicy is, well, unresolved. It’s left out like spoiled meat, casting a foul odor over the religion of Dyer’s foolish childhood.

Reader MJBubba, who brought the story to our attention, had this reaction:

The Commercial Appeal has run a few articles and opinion pieces each year that say Christianity has no answer. The fact that the majority of the Christian philosophers have addressed the issue with a very good answer that is borne out in the way the world works and provides hope and comfort to the grieving and hurting has not appeared in this paper that I can recall. We do get a steady diet of universalism in our local paper. No wonder so many people are confused. The paper seems to have an editorial position of wanting to chisel away at orthodox Christian faith. This article just fits into a longstanding pattern.

I can’t answer that. Discussing theodicy in a news article is like bringing up predestination in a college Bible study. It’s a difficult, tricky subject, and it can seriously distract the audience. And the reporter may have just thought it was better to pretend the elephant wasn’t there than to ask it to leave. If so, I’d advise against such an approach.

As for the Commercial Appeal, I’m not a regular reader. In fact, with special offense to my friend D Madd, I can’t stand Memphis. Sorry, Beale Street, but it’s a John Calipari thing.

But what I do know is that, building on the Commercial Appeal’s story, Bob Smietana of the Tennessean delivered longer feature much more likely to make your GetReligionistas happy. (And you know that’s what every member of the MSM strives to do.)

Smietana thinks big picture and looks at what Dyer’s deployment will mean at a time when the “military chaplaincy is facing all the complications that have affected American religion over the past 40 years.” He talks about the chaplaincy’s makeup, its requirements and responsibilities and its strict though not strictly followed prohibition on “the E-word.” That is the strength of this story.

But, and possibly because this story appears to have been enterprised from Commercial Appeal’s Dyer profile, the Buddhist chaplain is really just used for bookends. Dyer fills the first three paragraphs and the final four, and Smietana gets him to talk about how he will minister to soldiers who aren’t Buddhist. (I’m not sure how many Buddhists are in the Army; I’ve always thought of them as pacifists, even in Tibet, but that’s not really explored in either article.) This isn’t bad. It was just a bit disappointing.

Clearly both articles were written to serve different functions. They actually would have been great to run side by side — possibly even with the addition of a sidebar about theodicy. But three articles about the military chaplaincy? Talk about a prayer.

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  • Stoo

    Whether or not christianity has provided a good answer to questions of suffering is a matter of opinion – and I wouldn’t expect a piece like that that to launch into some philisophical discussion. However it would have been good to hear from Dyers himself why he thinks Buddhism has better answers to such questions.

    But I thought the piece was well balanced otherwise – we heard from his still-christian wife and someone from a baptist seminary.

    The other item was interesting reading too.

  • Jerry

    the issue of unresolved theodicy is, well, unresolved. It’s left out like spoiled meat, casting a foul odor

    That is very literary writing, but for me casts a foul odor over your post.

    As I understand it, theodicy attempts to explain the existence of evil when there is a loving God. The article you cited describes it exactly: the problem of suffering not the problem of evil. Buddhism speaks directly to suffering, not evil, and describes that suffering in very broad terms. Getting what you want and then being dissatisfied is suffering, for example. The root of this suffering is not evil but wanting.

    And suffering is an incomplete translation of the actual technical term dukkha

    Wikipedia has a page on dukka with a quote from the Buddha:

    Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Why do so many people assume Buddhists are pacifists? Not only did Buddhist monks inspire lots of a kung fu movies, but Buddhism has a long history of important military leaders: Ashoka, Kublai Khan, many Chinese emperors and Southeast Asian kings.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Because people generally know little about the religion, or even the denomination, that is not their own. I’d like to think that religion reporters do a better job, but I rarely wrote about religions of the Far East, and never about Buddhism, except in the JewBu context.

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi Brad

    Thanks for the mention, though I first heard about Dyer while talking to some Army chaplains, not from the Commercial Appeal. This is one story where I missed having the space that a magazine has to explore a story like this.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Bob, I knew, as a regular reader, that you would see this post and had looked forward to your perspective. You confirmed what I had expected: That you did the most to touch on all facets of this story within the space limitations you had. As for what prompted the story, I assumed because yours ran two week’s after the Commercial Appeal’s and used some of the art that it had been prompted by that. But, as a reporter, it’s easy to imagine (remember) working on a story that another reporter happened to be working on at the same time. Good stuff.

  • Bob Smietana

    It took a couple of weeks to get the story in the paper, because we had to whittle it down from about 3500 works to about 1500. Losing the last 800 was painful.

    Doing the story was a good reminder, however, of just how complicated the religious landscape in the US. And there were all kind of factoids we had to leave out. Like, for example, the fact that only 5% of United Methodist clergy are under 30. And that the military had a shortage of chaplains in general until raising the age for new chaplains to 47, at this point.

  • Brad A. Greenberg


  • MJBubba

    I agree that when I read the Commercial Appeal article I wanted to know more about Buddhist teachings re: theodicy. Additional info was easily found on the internet, however, and I had no complaint about the article on those grounds. However, I was irked at yet another article that said that Christianity has no answer to the question. (That is quite different from folk like Stoo who do not agree that the Christian teaching is a good answer.) A couple of times each year my local paper asserts in an aside that Christianity has no answer, using some personal profile or a feature about a tornado, flood, hurricane, or tsunami as the hook. This time they put it on the front page.

  • MJBubba

    Brad, I’m sorry to hear how you feel about Memphis. Since Calipari skipped town, perhaps you could reconsider. You could visit here without the trip down Beale Street. Maybe you could arrange to cover COGIC when their convention returns to town, and we could arrange to take in some BBQ.

  • RJ Eskow

    Regarding the number of Buddhists in the Army, the article states that a spokesman for the Office of the Chief of Army Chaplains estimates there are 3,300.

    There is a group blog entitled “Buddhist Military Sangha.”

    There are also Zen Buddhists sects that are explicitly martial in nature, although not many these days. And a surprising number of mainstream Buddhist teachers and leaders support the idea that military action can be compassionate – upaya, “skillful means” – for minimizing suffering.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    MJBubba, now that crybaby Cal is gone, I’ll give Memphis another chance. In fact, I liked the city when I visited back in ’03. Next time I’m in town, I’ll look you up. (It might be a while.)

  • Stoo

    Mjbubba, the story quotes Dyers as saying “Why is there so much suffering?’ Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer.”

    That’s not the paper itself saying there is no answer, just quoting Dyers himself saying there’s no satisfactory one.

  • Judy Harrow

    OK, so the problem is with Dyer, not with the reporter. Still, wouldn’t it be better to say “their answer did not satisfy me” rather than “they did not have a satisfactory answer”?

    All of us can say what works for us. None of us has any rational basis for saying that what obviously works for somebody else is “unsatisfactory’ in anything but the most subjective and personal (and downright rude) way.

  • MJBubba

    Stoo, I was irked because this fits into a longstanding pattern. The article allows the sympathetic subject to say “Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer.” (On the front page, above the fold.) The article went on to report that he had formerly graduated from a local seminary, before rejecting Christianity in favor of Buddhism. The article includes a quote from the seminary president (Southern Baptist) but did not provide any response to the theodicy matter. This sort of thing occurs a couple of times each year, and the cumulative effect is that my local paper is preaching to the city that Christianity has no answer. I don’t expect to see the Christian philosophers in the Commercial Appeal, but the paper’s long assault on my faith wearies me.

  • Bern

    OK: a Buddhist convert, former seminarian, now the first Buddhist chaplain in the US armed forces says “Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer” to the question of theodicy. Is the problem that the chaplain feels that way? He’s entitled to his opinion. That he came to this opinion despite having a Christian theological education and background? It is striking. Makes me wonder what kind of education he got. Is it rude? No ruder than other types of converts to other types of beliefs being quoted similarly.

    Is the problem that the reporter actually wrote down this quote? If that’s what the subject said, then the reporter had better. That the quote survived the editor’s cut? Well, as above, it is quite striking. That a secular paper might put the story on the frontpage where anybody and everybody might see it? Gee, there’s way too much religion coverage in the world. I don’t see how the reporter might have gotten any deeper into the theodicy question with the seminary president without turning the story into a theological debate rather than a profile of an unusual individual.

    I guess I’d have to see the other stories to decide if there’s a cumulative effect of anti-Christian “preaching”. But I don’t see it here.

  • MJBubba

    Bern, absolutely, the problem is cumulative. I think the article itself is OK on its own merits, and covers some of the kind of ground that GetReligion likes and highlights as good work. I wished that the quote from the seminary president was more in the line of a response to the theodicy question because I have seen this before. The Commercial Appeal is not anti-Christian. In fact, they seem to be preaching a liberal Christianity (the kind of Christianity that you hear (from both liberal Methodists and liberal Catholics and those in between) when they drift so far afield as to be universalists. Their preaching is against conservative Christianity.