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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism and the Air Force

By October 14, 2009

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 Ken Cole | Dreamstime.comRecently National Public Radio aired a feature on the Buddhist chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which NPR says is the only Buddhist chapel on a U.S. military base, anywhere. The 300-square-foot Vast Refuge Dharma Hall is in the basement of the famous Cadet Chapel, in the photo.

You might remember that a few years ago the Air Force Academy was accused of fostering a culture of religious intolerance. A lawsuit filed in 2005 accused the academy of promoting evangelical Christianity and integrating evangelical Christian beliefs into the training program. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the Air Force agreed to withdraw authorization allowing evangelical Christian chaplains to proselytize among the cadets.

Even so, in 2008 the Academy was accused of asking three "terrorism experts" to speak to the cadets who turned out to be evangelicals promoting conversion to their beliefs. But about the Buddhist chapel --

I wrote a bit about the chapel in the article on War and Buddhism. The Vast Refuge Dharma Hall has a small altar with an Earth Witness Buddha and 18 zafus -- meditation pillows. It appears to be a mostly non-sectarian chapel that leans in the direction of Zen.

At the dedication of the chapel, the Reverend Dai En Wiley Burch of the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen school said, "Without compassion, war is a criminal activity. Sometimes it is necessary to take life, but we never take life for granted."

NPR says the academy's Buddhist program leader, Sarah Bender, questions herself about how Buddhism fits into a military life.

"People in the military come up -- for real -- against questions that most of us just consider abstractly," Bender says. "The questions of Buddhism are the questions of life and death. So, where else would you want Buddhism than right there where those questions are most vivid?"

Construction of the chapel was paid for by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism. Some of you may remember the late Fred "Rama" Lenz. I don't believe I can say anything about Lenz without violating the Precept about not speaking ill of others, so I'll stop here.

October 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm
(1) Kendall says:

I’ve been to that chapel, it was a while ago. The building was fairly impressive from a architectural standpoint. I didn’t care about the religious aspect, that was more of a turnoff. I remember that the chapel could be setup for multiple religions, but don’t remember a basement for the Buddhists. Though, at that time, I was atheist so wouldn’t necessarily have noticed. If I make it there again I’ll have to make sure to give it a look see.

I sometimes consider the aspects of my working with the military and being Buddhist. I haven’t worked on any weapons systems or the like, but it is a possibility and I wonder how I’ll respond to the task and how my employer will respond to my concerns. I’m sure I’ll make decisions that I’m comfortable with.

October 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm
(2) Naumadd says:

It’s unfortunate you would end an article describing what I believe is a very positive step toward open acceptance of diverse religions within the U.S. military with the “almost” defamation of the individual who made the chapel possible. Regardless of their motivations or personal character in providing the chapel, ought the focus not be on the fact it is a definitive step toward actual liberty to practice religious diversity within the military AND on those currently in the military who have the opportunity to practice their spirituality freely while at the academy? Ought the focus AND final note of the article be on the good of this chapel here and now?

I’m reminded that from the “bad” frequently comes the “good” and from the “good” the “bad” and that, in fact, they are one in the same. In either case, if our goal is what is good in life for ourselves and for as many others as is possible, that the ultimate cause of our desired effect is something of which we disapprove ought not negate the good that resulted by letting it enter into our minds or be voiced, even “almost”. No, this isn’t an argument for “the ends justify the means”, but rather that, no matter how the good comes to us, it is still the good and ought to be the point of our focus in the here and now. To taint what is good now with thoughts of the past is to lose the “now” we might have fully given ourselves to. The final note of the article suggests a lack of full appreciation for the point you were trying to make – a buddhist chapel at the academy is good. Having been a non-christian in the U.S. Air Force, openness to diversity is a precious and hard-won change that deserves all the celebration and appreciation one can give it – without negative distraction.

October 15, 2009 at 10:09 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Naumadd — Sorry you don’t like the negativity, but Lenz was a five-alarm, flashing neon fraud who hurt a lot of people. Some things need to be said. If his estate is being put to good use, however, I’m glad.

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