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NEWS | March 7, 2024

U.S. Army chaplain puts people, service to others first

By Lt. Carlos Gomez

A table full of military personnel from Thailand, Brazil and the U.S. erupt in laughter under a tent for international military’s participating in exercise Cobra Gold, in the Kingdom of Thailand. They come from different nations. They’re focused on a man in glasses sporting a U.S. Army uniform. His military stories seem to be a hit with this crowd.

However, it’s his life before the Army that really draws them in.

Chaplain (Cpt.) Songkran Waiyaka isn’t the average chaplain. You might even say he isn’t the average soldier, or even service member.

The 13-year veteran already had a 20-plus year career as a Buddhist monk before ever putting on a battle dress uniform.

Back in his native Thailand, for exercise Cobra Gold, Waiyaka continues his mission of putting people first, coming full circle like the Buddhist wheel that adorns his military cover.

Waiyaka’s journey of service to people began in 1985 when he was ordained as a Buddhist Samanera, or ‘novice monk’, at only 13 years-old. Eight years later, he became a fully ordained monk at Wat—a Thai Buddhist temple—Rajanaddaram in Bangkok. There, he served as a spiritual leader for 12 years.

His desire to share the Buddhist teachings with a wider audience led him to the United States.

Waiyaka spent another ten years at the Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont, California serving communities in the San Francisco Bay area.

It was there where he pondered his next mission in life.

“If you keep a Buddhist monk in a monastery, how are they going to spread the Buddha’s teachings to the world?” Waiyaka said.

“Basically, I just retired,” Waiyaka said, joking about his decision to leave the life of a monk. “I wanted to try something different and be able to carry on my experience without changing my identity.”

At 35-years-old, he left monkhood and enrolled in college, earning degrees in education and information technology.

He learned about the Army’s chaplain program and that’s when his next role in life started to become clear. Waiyaka embarked on becoming ordained as a Buddhist lay minister by the International Order of Buddhist Ministers. While in seminary, he direct-commissioned into the U.S. Army Chaplain Candidate Program as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve in 2011. To finalize his education, he again enrolled in seminary to earn a Master of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy from the University of the West.

The Chiangrai, Thailand native now serves as the battalion chaplain for the 53rd Transportation Battalion out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Washington. There, Waiyaka is responsible for tending to his soldiers and their families’ spiritual and moral wellbeing; a mission he takes on with the same solemnity he took his monastic vows.

The philosophy behind his purpose draws from the Noble Eightfold Path, a summary of Buddhist practices believed to lead to spiritual liberation, represented by the eight-spoke wheel on his cover.

Waiyaka explains the eight practices as:
• the right mindset, or understanding, holding that our actions have consequences
• the right thought, resolving toward non-violence and avoiding violent and hateful behavior
• the right speech, refraining from lying or rude speech
• the right action, refraining from injuring or harming others
• the right effort
• the right livelihood
• the right mindfulness, keeping unwholesome thoughts from permeating the mind
• and the right concentration, which includes meditation.

He believes all these practices can be applied to what we do in our daily lives; most above all the right mindset.

“If you have the wrong mindset, everything is going to go wrong,” Waiyaka said.

There is much focus on the physical aspect of health, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects are just as important, he said. His views on this are aligned with the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) doctrine encompassing physical, spiritual, mental, sleep, and nutritional readiness.

The chaplain makes it clear, he’s not there to convert anyone to Buddhism, but simply offer another way to holistic well-being.

“You don’t have to be Thai to enjoy Thai food. You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy sushi,” he said. “It’s all about trying and taking in what works for you.”

Waiyaka serves his command by providing a variety of programs and activities aimed at increasing all these aspects of health, to include: ‘Muay Thai Yoga’; mindfulness physical training; pastoral counseling; and performing religious services and ceremonies, such as weddings and final rites.

“I promote people first,” Waiyaka said. “This is what I’m going to do for a living.