A Definition of Buddhist Chaplaincy

From ‘Towards a Definition of Buddhist Chaplaincy’ by Jennifer Block. Click here to read the entire article.

Buddhist chaplaincy is in the formative stage as a modern-day discipline and profession at the intersection between Buddhism, chaplaincy and suffering. Buddhist chaplains join chaplains from other faith traditions in institutional settings such as hospitals, hospices, and prisons. In this essay I propose, in broad brushstrokes, what it means to me to be a Buddhist chaplain.

The seeds of Buddhist chaplaincy as a vocation begin with the Buddha. The three most common causes of people needing healthcare in our day—old age, sickness, and death—were the very same that inspired the Buddha to reach beyond the familiar into greater truth and happiness. In doing so, he eventually found a path to peace in the midst of all that is difficult, uncomfortable, and confounding. Reaching out to the men and women in his community who were seeking ways to alleviate their pain, the Buddha offered care through careful guidance and a myriad of teachings. In essence, the Buddha was a chaplain, or rather, Buddhist chaplains who comfort others are walking in the footsteps of the Buddha.

For 2,500 years, Buddhists have contemplated sickness, old age and death to find an end to suffering. Buddhist chaplains continue this practice in hospitals, hospices, prisons, and other facilities, helping people to reduce their pain and skillfully deal with what is happening to them, in the moment.

Buddhist chaplains are motivated by loving kindness, an opening of the heart through spiritual practice, and are characterized by love for, compassion towards, equanimity amongst, and sympathetic joy for others. In general, the purpose of a Buddhist chaplain is to alleviate suffering in its many forms: physical pain, difficult emotions, and confusing or disturbing thoughts, more commonly known as agony, fear, anger, guilt, depression, loneliness, grief, and so on.

Everyone needs encouragement, assistance, and direction on their life’s journey; the role of a Buddhist chaplain is to accompany individuals as their awakening and freedom from suffering unfolds. This may mean simply being a good listener, or an encouraging companion, an intelligent guide, or a piercing truth-teller.

Buddhist chaplains do not serve as intermediaries or religious authorities per se, but as capable, steady companions who have investigated suffering through our own life experiences. Specifically, spiritual support from a Buddhist perspective can be defined as:

  • Willingness to bear witness
  • Willingness to help others discover their own truth
  • Willingness to sit and listen to stories that have meaning and value
  • Helping another to face life directly
  • Welcoming paradox & ambiguity into care—and trusting that these will emerge into some degree of awakening
  • Creating opportunities for the people to awaken to their True Nature

Our community
includes people who:

  • serve in healthcare, education and military settings
  • bring Buddhist meditation to people in jails and prisons
  • apply Buddhist teachings in social justice work
  • study and/or teach Buddhist spiritual care
  • wish to understand the work of Buddhist chaplains
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