By Jessica EvansAugust 17, 2017
FORT SILL, Okla., Aug. 17, 2017 -- When you hear the word "Buddhist" a number of images might come to mind, ranging from finding the 'zen' in life to Tibetan monks who chant and make designs out of sand. Some Americans, like those who gathered at Cache Creek Chapel Aug. 13, are simply curious to find out more about this Eastern religion.
Retired field artillery Soldier Dean Long and his co-facilitator, Morgan Muldach, spend their Sunday mornings spreading the words and teachings of Siddhartha Gutama, commonly known as Buddha. Each of these men belong to a Japanese sect of Buddhism called Nichiren, which originated in Japan.
As Initial Entry Trainees filed into the small classroom at the back of Cache Creek Chapel, Long and Muldach did their best to make them feel welcome.
"What Americans don't realize, what they don't know, is that they are all born Buddhist," said Long. In the early 1990s, after a successful completion of an Army career, he began practicing Buddhism in earnest, thanks in part to his Korean wife.
"What I found is that the more I chanted, the more comfortable I felt with the decisions I was making. That's what we're trying to do here," he said.
Muldach found Buddhism by chance, after his small dog forced a meeting between him and a Buddhist woman in his neighborhood.
"The dog got loose and when I went over to get him from the lady, it turned out she was Buddhist. I was curious, so I wanted to see what it was all about. That was 40 years ago and I'm still here."
Together, the two of them explain the origins of Buddhism and help basic combat training Soldiers with chants.
Long and Muldach understand that many of the BCT Soldiers who are interested in Buddhism may have never been exposed to the religion.
"It's all about them having an open mind," said Long. "Really, all religion comes down to the same thing, and that's faith. So if we can show that through this faith, we find peace, then we're doing something right."
As the last of the 44 Soldiers filed in, Long asked each of the "first timers" to stand up and tell the assembled crowd what brought them to service. Most replied that they were curious about Buddhism and wanted to learn more. Many remarked on the apparent peacefulness of the faith and said that they too were looking for that kind of feeling. When Long asked the "lifers" what kept them coming back to the service, all of them replicated a similar sentiment, that the chanting and environment of Sunday service helped them to mitigate many of the challenges they face being far away from home.
There are three main schools of Buddhist thought, and from each of those, countless different sects. Like Christianity and Judaism which have different offshoots of the faith, so too does Buddhism. However, all Buddhist faiths revolve around familiar and similar tenants namely, the power of meditation, prayer, and studying scripture.
Nichiren Buddhism requires that its followers practice a morning chant and an evening chant. This chant is said in front of an altar on which is housed something called a gohonzon. The gohonzon contains a scroll with a mantra sacred to the faith written on it. During Sunday service, the BCT Soldiers were first instructed on some of the pronunciation of Japanese words and then were led through 10 minutes of chanting.
These chants started and ended with the mantra specific to their faith, and included a wide variety of prayers, not just for personal reasons, but for the world at large.
"What I'm trying to get people to understand, and really, what Nichiren Buddhism teaches, is that enlightenment is available in the present form," said Morgan. "What's needed here is effort. It's the same as what they're going through during basic training. They have to put the work in to get the results."
The 10 minutes of chanting seemed to create a cathartic effect on the BCT Soldiers. The cadence of the mantra chants was clipped and staccato at times. When one chanter fell out of rhytm to take a breath, his or her voice was replaced by battle buddies who were also chanting. It is in this way that the entire service could be seen as a correlation to Army service -- battle buddies help one another out, both on and off the field. Not all of the BCT Soldiers participated in the chant, but that's OK, said Long.
"They're still getting the benefits of the practice and this might help them want to come back. I tell everyone I'm a fisherman at heart. What I'm doing here on Sundays is I'm fishing. Sometimes I get a bite, and sometimes I don't. Either way, I'll still spreading the message."
After the chanting was complete, many of the BCT Soldiers seemed less fidgety and more apt to pay attention to what Morgan and Long were discussing. They were given the opportunity to ask questions about what they'd just experienced. Many questions were about pronunciation and timing for the cadence of the words. They appeared calmer and more focused, almost as if they were rejuvenated and ready to face whatever their drill sergeants could throw at them.
Fort Sill is not unique in offering alternative religious services. Along with Buddhism, services for Wiccan and Pagan BCT Soldiers are held at Cache Creek Chapel.
"These are what we call the distinctive faith group services," said Chaplain (Maj.) Jeffrey Van Ness. He has long been an advocate for alternative faith groups, having served at his previous installation as the sponsor for the Pagan services which met there.
"Ultimately, it's about education. People hear these kinds of terms and they may not understand them. But, maybe they want to know more about the faith, and that's where we come in. As the Army continues to grow, we're going to see the need for more ways to help these people who aren't Christian, Jewish, or Muslim."
Van Ness stressed that part of his mission as a chaplain is to ensure that everyone has access to their faith, no matter what that might be.
"Being able to offer these services to our BCT Soldiers is a great benefit," he said.