Since there is a record of a Buddhist service being held at an Army camp in 1944, you might wonder why the first Buddhist Chaplain was not commissioned in one of the branches the United States Armed Forces until 2004. Part of the reason might be due to the almost tiny number of Buddhists serving in the military: a 2009 survey indicated that just one-third of one percent of all the personnel in the military identified as Buddhists.

But another reason might have the absence of Buddhist institutions capable of conferring the qualifications that were in place to become a Chaplain. In 1906, the Secretary of the Navy established a board of Chaplains, in part to more clearly define the task and purpose of the office of Chaplain. The board created a new set of guidelines delineating not only the duties of the Chaplaincy, but also set in place requirements for those seeking to serve as Chaplains.

Among the changes were grandfathered requirements that commissioned Chaplains must be graduates of both a college and a seminary, that they receive the endorsement of the denomination of the seminary they attended, and that they stand before a board of Navy Chaplains and received its endorsement. Additionally, the board established a Chief of Chaplains, and in many aspects helped the Navy’s Chaplain Corps as it is structured today.

In 1948, however, the bar was set even higher for those seeking to become Navy Chaplains. In addition to a college degree, they now had to earn a postgraduate degree from a seminary representing their denomination. For would-be Chaplains from faiths with a small number of adherents, this became a substantial hurdle to overcome.

In the case of Jeannette Shin, the first Buddhist Chaplain commissioned in the United States Navy, she met those new, higher qualifications by earning her undergraduate degree from George Mason University and a postgraduate degree from a seminary of her denomination: The Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, which was not even established until 1949.

She also acquired the final missing component of qualification for service as Buddhist Chaplain in the Navy: the endorsement of the Buddhist Churches of America, the sole source for endorsement for Buddhist Chaplains in the United States.

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