Nailing down the number of Buddhists in the United States is a difficult task because it has been defined in various ways. Some consider it a religion, others see it as a philosophy, and still others view it as a way of life. Ananda Weerasekera, formerly a major general in the Sri Lankan Army, notes that most scholars say it is “a moral and philosophical system which expounds a unique path to enlightenment.”

Studies gauging the number of Buddhists are few and far between. A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center pegged the number of Buddhists in the world at 488 million in 2010, or about seven percent of the world’s population. A news article published in the same year by the San Diego Union-Tribune gave a considerably smaller estimate (325 million), and also asserted there were 1.2 million Buddhists in the U.S.

Buddhism places great emphasis on non-aggression and non-violence, and those tenets are reflected in the fact that out of 1.4 million people serving in the U.S. Military in 2009, just 5,287 identified as Buddhists (at least according to a story published by National Public Radio).

Nonetheless, Buddhists have served in the military, with the first being Nisei—American citizens who were second-generation Japanese. The 2007 book Nisei linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II says that about 1100 Nisei started language training for the U.S. Military between December, 1941 and the end of 1943. The same book notes that a Buddhist service at Fort Snelling in Minnesota in 1944 was the first ever held in an Army camp, but doesn’t specify if it was the first held at any type of U.S. Military facility.

The creation of the insignia for Buddhist Chaplains began with a decision by the Armed Forces Chaplains board in 1990 to have a Buddhist Chaplain appointed; the Army responded by having The Institute of Heraldry create a Buddhist insignia, and it settled on the eight-spoked wheel known as the dharmachakra. The design was approved in 1990.

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