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Former Baptist preacher now one of Army's few Buddhist chaplains

by Michael Lollar, The Commercial Appeal, Sep 4, 2009

Memphis, Tenn. (USA) -- 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 the Raleigh neighborhood of Memphis, Tenn. 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?"

As a Christian, he had been interested in mysticism. That led to meditation. Dyer studied Buddhism, then visited the temple near his Raleigh home. Right away, he says, "It was like, 'Whoa, I'm home.'"

His conversion would also mean trading the pulpit for the battlefield. To support his family after leaving the ministry, Dyer joined the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Army and became one of its first Buddhist chaplains. He says he will deploy to Iraq in January as an Army National Guardsman.

"There is a profound amount of suffering for soldiers, civilians and for people who are enemies now but won't always be enemies," said Dyer, who was commissioned as a chaplain in 2008.

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.

Army Chaplain Carleton Birch, spokesman for the Office of Chief of Army Chaplains in Washington, says there are at least 3,300 Buddhists in the U.S. Army. "In the Middle East, our Army is stretched and stressed more than ever," he said. "We're seeing the need more than ever in keeping the soldiers going."

He said two more Buddhist chaplain candidates now are in training in South Carolina.

The military as an outlet for Dyer's beliefs is not coincidence. After high school, he thought he wanted to be in the military special forces, maybe as a sniper. He joined the Marine Reserves and was soon being trained as a "killer." Part of the training was aimed at smoothing the edges of conscience.

It was on a shooting range in Hawaii when Dyer knew he had had enough. As another Marine reset pop-up targets, Dyer looked through his rifle site. "I put him in the crosshairs, and I thought, 'I could kill him.' I turned away right then. I kept it quiet. I didn't want anyone to know this kind of mind was developing in me."

Dyer left the Marines and enrolled in Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. After seminary, he became minister of churches in Senatobia, Miss., and Brownsville, Tenn.

In and out of church, Dyer says unhappiness and dissatisfaction seemed pervasive. Wealth and success made no difference. "Everybody is basically suffering about the same. The average Joes you can see happiness in their lives, but it doesn't take long that you will see confusion and dissatisfaction. I wanted to explore the idea that you could find a solution to suffering," he said.

Converting to Buddhism wasn't painless. "When you grow up in the Bible Belt, that teaching is very strong. It's almost better to be a drug addict, an adulterer or a scalawag than to say, 'I'm a Buddhist.'"

His marriage and two children also were issues. Dyer's wife, Sidney, and the children are members of an evangelical Christian church. "It challenged us to the point that it made us wonder if we could make it," she said.

Sidney Dyer's belief that "God plans it all" helped. "I actually thank God in a way because I wouldn't have gone as deep in my own faith if I hadn't been challenged," she said. Instead of rejecting the suffering that her husband questioned, she embraced it: "I think each individual's suffering is personally designed for that individual to lead him to God."

She describes her husband as "a deeply spiritual person" and holds out hope that his spiritual journey will lead him back to Christianity.

Dyer, who says he still appreciates the teachings of the Bible, says he doesn't think of Buddhism as a rejection of Christianity.

But the happiness he once sought as a Christian no longer seems beyond his grasp. "Without a doubt, without equivocation, there has been a continuous, constant diminishment of suffering and awakening of peace and happiness," he said.



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