INTERVIEW: 2LT Rev. Somya Malasri
by Danny Fisher
2LT Rev. Somya Malasri is an ordained Buddhist minister and the U.S. Army’s first Buddhist chaplain candidate.
In the whole of the U.S. Armed Forces, there is only one active duty Buddhist chaplain at present: Navy chaplain Lt. Jeanette Shin, CHC, USN, who many readers will know from her website, Buddhist Military Sangha. When Somya fulfills all of his requirements with the Army, he will become the second Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S.A.F.
A long-standing practitioner in the lineage of Mahāsi Sayādaw, Somya’s root teacher was Ven. Somsak Soradho, who was a student of Ven. U Asabha, who was himself a student of Mahāsi Sayādaw.
He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is a student at the University of the West along with me.
I was curious to ask Somya some questions about his work and his views. Obviously, as military personnel, he is severely limited in what he is able to talk about without the approval of his commanding officer. But he very kindly offered to answer what lines of inquiry he could. We did the following interview in January during a research trip to Taiwan with several of our UWest colleagues. (I blogged about our time there and shared photographs in this post.) Due to a lot of work, I haven’t had time to transcribe our interview until now. I very much appreciate Somya’s willingness to be interviewed and his patience with things on my end.
FYI: Somya will be at UWest’s campus tomorrow, May 1st, with a chaplain recruiting team from the HQ US Army Recruiting Command. If you are in the Los Angeles area and interested in becoming a military chaplain or talking to other Buddhists about their work in the military, he invites you to attend. They will be between the Administration Building and Library on campus from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. You can find directions to UWest here.
DANNY FISHER: Somya, would you tell us a little about your history with Buddhist practice? How did you wind up the first Buddhist chaplain candidate in the U.S. Army?
SOMYA MALASRI: I entered [a Theravāda Buddhist] temple when I was seventeen. This was in southern Thailand, in the Krabi province—close to Phuket. I studied general Buddhist subjects and practiced meditation. And then when I was twenty-one, I became a [fully-ordained] monk and began studying Pāli, Buddhist history, Buddhist culture, and Thai culture. Later I moved to Bangkok to get my bachelor’s degree at Mahachula Buddhist University. While I was there, I also taught Buddhist philosophy and history to primary, secondary, and high school students. There was a school at my temple in Bangkok too, and I taught there as well.
At university, I continued to study Mahāsi Sayādaw’s meditation techniques—noticing the rising and falling of the abdomen, and so on. And at the end of every school year, we did a fifteen-day meditation retreat. You have to get up at 4 in the morning and go to bed at 10 in the evening. Every day. And we were expected to practice meditation while we were in school as well. Also, before we finished school, we had to do some kind of social work or missionary work. They’ll send you to remote temples in other Thai provinces or countries. So I went to Hainan province in southern China, where they have a lot of Thai Buddhists. And then I went to Burma to study meditation further and teach the Thai language to students there.
The university also offered a program doing Buddhist missionary further abroad. I was interested and applied for that. I had to pass a written exam and was then accepted from among two hundred candidates. They decided to send me to America. Those of us going had to do a three-month meditation retreat to prepare. Like the fifteen-day retreats, we had to meditate a lot and keep to the same schedule–get up at 4 in the morning and go to bed at 10 in the evening. Practicing continuously. Sitting and walking meditation: sitting one hour, and then walking one hour. Then it was increased to two hours sitting, two hours walking after one month. We also studied American history, culture, and law in preparation for our work as well. When I was first sent to the United States, I went to a temple Denver. From there, I was transferred to a temple in Colorado Springs. After that, I went to Salt Lake City in Utah.
While I was in Salt Lake City, a Buddhist soldier came to the temple to get a blessing from the monks. I think the idea to become a [military] chaplain first occurred to me then. Later, when I was living at a temple in Las Vegas, a soldier there told me, “When you get your green card, you can join the Army. And when you join the Army, you can become a chaplain.” Shortly thereafter, I applied to be a chaplain in the U.S. Army. The recruiter told me I would need to get [ecclesiastical] endorsement from the Buddhist Churches of America (B.C.A.), and he helped me contact them and put together my necessary paperwork. [NOTE: It is a requirement that military chaplains be able to provide an ecclesiastical endorsement. At the moment, the B.C.A. is the only Buddhist organization recognized as an ecclesiastical endorsing body by the U.S. Department of Defense.] I didn’t have any military experience, so while I waiting for my endorsing papers I joined the Army as an enlisted soldier. I began my training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina, and then did some in Virginia. My first station was in Hawai’i. As soon as I got my endorsing papers from the B.C.A., though, I was approved as a chaplain candidate. My status then changed from enlisted soldier to officer in the reserves.
D.F.: And how long will it take before you become an active-duty chaplain in the U.S. Army?
S.M.: It will probably be another two-and-a-half years. I have to complete the required 72 graduate credit hours at UWest. I also have to finish my chaplain office basic training courses. I also have to go through an assessment and complete a practicum at an army base over the course of a summer at some point. They’ll pay for my travel and lodging while I train with an active-duty army chaplain somewhere.
D.F.: What draws you to military chaplaincy?
S.M.: For one thing, I want very much to help Buddhist soldiers. For Christians in the U.S. Army, there are a lot of chaplains. But there are no Buddhist chaplains yet for Buddhist soldiers in the Army. I’d like to share the knowledge I have gained so far with those soldiers. Maybe I can help them in their spiritual training or their practice of meditation. I could offer advice about how to be a good Buddhist and a good soldier at the same time. Personally, I also just like to help other people. Sometimes when people are suffering, they don’t have anyone to talk with. I can be a person who can listen to them and guide them.
D.F.: Somya, I know you’re limited in what you can say to us about your work with the U.S. Army, but what can you tell us about it?
S.M.: You know, in some ways it is quite difficult for me to be the first Buddhist chaplain in the Army. There is not a lot of Buddhist literature and information available to soldiers or for chaplains to use. And there are all kinds of Buddhists in the Army—Theravāda, Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna, and so on. The many kinds of Buddhism are joined together in the Army. It’s helpful for me to work with the principle that every Buddhist denomination can practice together. Every tradition has the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path and the law of karma in common. When I lead Sunday services for Buddhists, I teach this way.
In terms of general tasks, during the week I do things like counseling and helping people with their meditation practice and so on.
D.F.: Going back to your biography for a moment, when did you disrobe? Before you joined the Army?
S.M.: Yes. I then re-ordained as a Buddhist minister. Kind of like a Christian minister. I can teach meditation and lead services.
D.F.: Who did this? Who ordained you?
S.M.: A temple in Los Angeles.
D.F.: In the Theravāda tradition, or…?
S.M.: The ordination was done by Bhante Chao Chu of the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery under the auspices of the [ecumenical] Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California. It’s part of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Bhante Chao Chu is Sri Lankan, and was ordained as a Theravāda monk. But he’s also been ordained in a Mahāyāna tradition. Part of his ministry is to help laypersons become ministers and serve others and the monastery and the monks. In this Order of Buddhist Ministers that he has helped to create, there are about fifteen or twenty Buddhist ministers.
D.F.: Did you ordain as a minister because you would not have permitted to serve in the military as a monastic?
S.M.: According to the Theravāda tradition, it is impossible to be a soldier and a monk at the same time. You have to be one or the other.
D.F.: So, in other words, according to the Theravāda tradition, you must disrobe if you’re going to join the military?
S.M.: Yes. But you can become a minister and serve as a chaplain like me. In Thailand, there are a lot of people like me, who have a history with monastic practice and become chaplains for the military there.
D.F.: Where in the Pāli Canon precisely is Buddhist practice and military service discussed?
S.M.: In the Pācittiya of the Pāṭimokkha, it says that monks should not see military camps or observe military movements. There are three or four other rules like that. It also says that monks should not wear lay clothing; if you serve in the military, though, you have to wear a uniform.
D.F.: Thank you very much for speaking to us, Somya.