In the teachings of East Asian Buddhism, one of the most beloved divinities postpones his own nirvana, vowing not to enter enlightenment until all sentient beings are saved from hell.

For Christopher Mohr, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s first Buddhist chaplain, the teaching helps reconcile his nonviolent Buddhist beliefs with his military service.

“It resonates well with me, both in terms of working with soldier issues, and as concerns war,” said Mohr, 32, of Appleton. “I think no one would seriously argue that war isn’t a small glimpse of hell.”

So while war is never sought, there can be validity in engaging in warfare to stop the suffering of others, he said.

Mohr, a first lieutenant, was sworn in as the Wisconsin guard’s first Buddhist chaplain July 10 at Fort McCoy, an Army installation about 100 miles northwest of Madison. There are only two other Buddhist Army chaplains in the country, although a handful more are coming on board later this year, Mohr said. He recently transferred here from California, where he was that state’s first Buddhist chaplain.

Army chaplains provide spiritual, ethical and moral guidance to soldiers of any faith or no faith, all the while encouraging and protecting the free exercise of religion, said Col. Douglas Fleischfresser, lead chaplain for the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

The chaplains also perform the religious functions of their respective faiths. For Mohr, that means holding services involving prayers, chanting and blessings and offering basic meditation instruction.

These activities occur at once-a-month weekend drills and during annual training, generally two weeks each summer. But chaplains are always on call to help soldiers and their family members through spiritual crises and to perform religious services such as weddings and funerals, said Fleischfresser, 52, an ordained Lutheran minister who lives near Oconomowoc.

There are 17 chaplains in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, all currently Protestant except for Mohr, Fleischfresser said. “We are always seeking to diversify,” he said. “I’d love to have a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi or an Islamic imam.”

Mohr graduated from Menasha High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from UW-Oshkosh. His mother always encouraged him to be open to various forms of spirituality, he said, and he discovered Buddhism during a year abroad in Japan while in college. He has since earned a master of divinity degree in the Buddhist chaplain training program at the University of the West in Rosemead, Calif.

In his civilian life, he is a security guard for a private security company.

So far, the reaction to his chaplaincy has been very positive, he said. “Soldiers have tended to think it interesting and have been curious,” he said.

His goals are to encourage mindfulness, equanimity and compassion, and to help soldiers see with eyes unclouded by what Buddhists call the three poisons, often translated as greed, anger and ignorance. For a Buddhist, the only really valid intention when engaging in warfare is to stop the suffering and end the combat as quickly as possible, he said.

“If the intention of combat were to seek glory, or similar things, then that isn’t a valid reason to do combat from the Buddhist perspective, as it will only further one’s negative karmic impact,” he said. “So, as a Buddhist chaplain, I stress that if we are ordered to war, soldiers need to remain mindful, and maintain compassion and the right intention, and not give in to the temptation of the three poisons.”

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You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.

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