Buddhist Chaplaincy Masters Program at U of T?

Buddhism Buddhism in Canada Buddhist community Buddhist Studies Chaplaincy Education Toronto

I  recently received an invitation from Bhante Saranapala to attend the second round-table discussion about the feasibility of starting a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies focusing on Buddhism at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College divinity school. The invitation was sent to approximately 115 Buddhist leaders in Toronto and a few from other parts of Canada.

The initiative is coming from the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada, which is under the direction of Chris Ng. Chris has worked tirelessly for many years on deepening the Buddhist presence at the University of Toronto and her organization has supported many programs there, both financially and logistically. The New College program in Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health (which is a collaboration with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) is but one example.

I don’t usually insert myself into posts on this blog, but I am very excited about this new development and would like to take the opportunity to start some conversation about it. Here’s the flyer for the event, and then I’ll ramble on…

Buddhist chaplaincy at UofT

Here’s the second roundtable flyer in PDF form, with some other details.

The organizers are to be commended for their consultative process and inclusive approach.

We are being asked to come with questions and ideas, so I will start with questions…

Who will teach the program? Emmanuel College is a theological college of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. Emmanuel is the largest theological school associated with the United Church of Canada, one of seven federated theological colleges within the Toronto School of Theology and a fully accredited member of the Association of Theological Schools. Informed by its Christian heritage, relationship with both church and university, and its Canadian, urban, and pluralistic location, Emmanuel College provides an education characterized by rigorous theological inquiry, contextual analysis, commitment to justice, and inclusive practice. [from Emmanuel’s website]

As excellent as these qualifications are, they are not Buddhist. Will the university be able to draw from a pool of accredited and experienced teachers, such as those who run the Upaya Zen Chaplaincy program in Santa Fe, NM? Will local Buddhist monks, nuns, ministers and lay leaders take an active teaching role? On what basis? Who will design the curriculum, in addition to delivering it, and what resources will they use?

Who will enter the program? As a high school teacher, I am continually telling my students to ponder the pathways to their future career goals and to choose wisely those post-secondary educational programs that will bring them to their desired destinations. We talk a lot about the realities of the economy, job prospects, working conditions, etc. This Buddhist chaplaincy program needs to examine these issues and provide cogent direction. Who will want to become a Buddhist chaplain? What educational and spiritual background do they need to be “successful” and what definition are we giving to the word “success”? When I write curriculum for industry organizations who are trying to recruit future workers in their fields in the face of a retiring workforce and pressing need, the issues are the same although the perspective is different: what are the job prospects? How many students will be in each graduating class and does that match the need? And what will it cost an individual to get this Masters degree? When one of my kids did his Masters not too long ago at Ryerson, they gave him enough financial support and employment as a teaching assistant that his tuition was mostly covered during the intensive 12-month program. In other words, if people are called to a career of service, should we require them to be rich or make them pay for the privilege of doing so? That doesn’t sound very logical.

Where are the jobs for Buddhist chaplains? Right now, the University of Toronto has two part-time Buddhist chaplains, addressing the Theravada and the Mahayana communities. Is it necessary to have bifurcated roles like this? My old Dharma friend, Daryl Lynn Ross (who is one of the teachers at True North Insight Vipassana) was a chaplain at Concordia University for many years. She told me she was not explicitly called Buddhist, but rather a one-size-fits-all chaplain. That’s the other extreme. The Canadian prison system used to have non-Christian chaplains. The only “Buddhist chaplain” who took up the job was in Kingston, and he was a member of the New Kadampa organization (which is considered a cult by many other Buddhists). Be that as it may, the Canadian government canned their non-Christian chaplaincy program not too long ago. Hospitals and other care institutions want chaplains, but how are they funded? What could a chaplain expect in terms of working conditions? And how has chaplaincy work been handled (or ignored) by the Canadian Buddhist community up until now?

What does Buddhist chaplaincy work look like? In June, the Atlantic Monthly ran a feature called “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy” in which they explore the increasingly precarious employment picture for clergy in the United States. The gist of the story is that many such people are now expected and required to serve as an avocation while maintaining another secular career. Will that be the case here? Will chaplains be cobbling together a pastiche of part-time contract gigs? That would be incredibly stressful, in a job that is already emotionally draining (more on that later). I had a conversation with Eshu Martin (teacher at Zenwest in Victoria) about how people want the Dharma to be free. He paraphrased another Dharma colleague to me saying: “Yes, the Dharma is offered freely like water. Water is free; but plumbing costs money.” Getting a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies with a focus on Buddhist Chaplaincy is not the destination, but what is it the door to?

Emotional work? I recently read an interesting article in Atlantic Monthly (yes I read it regularly) entitled “Why Are There So Many Women in PR?” It’s a great analysis of gender role stereotyping, counter-intuitive realities, and what public relations are really all about. I was struck by how similar public relations and chaplaincy work can be. First among those similarities are the nature and potential devaluation of emotional work. Is chaplaincy somehow “women’s work”? That’s just wrong in so many ways. Are chaplains “just helpers” – second-class Buddhists, hierarchically or somehow spiritually beneath the sanctity of monks and nuns? Are they ordained, or is this a secular certification from society since it’s certainly not like being authorized to teach within a particular lineage (as in being named as a dharma heir)? Will this become a new requirement for aspirants wishing to enter Buddhist religious orders? Much of pastoral work involves dealing with people in emotional distress, life transitions, and highly-charged interpersonal dynamics. It’s incredibly stressful and burn-out is a constant possibility. What support networks will exist for Buddhist chaplains? What wider roles are available for Buddhist chaplains to serve society? Will Buddhist chaplains be the vanguard of North America’s current awakening to mindfulness programs?

Buddhist chaplaincy in a diverse faith society? Our world desperately needs interfaith healers, environmental champions, bridge builders, conveners, and so on. Could this be a role tailor-made for Buddhist chaplains? In other words, where monastics and ministers are called to tend a particular congregation, could chaplaincy be a calling for equally devoted lay Buddhists to bring their Buddhist wisdom and compassion to the wider world by getting (as Rev. Danny Fisher says) “off the cushion”? Canadians tend to be thought of (rightly or wrongly) as more consensus-oriented than our southern neighbours. Peace-keepers and all… On the other hand, the oxymoronic historical record of army chaplains gives me cognitive dissonance. By the same token, given the propensity for modern society and government to structure themselves on the corporate paradigm, I would hate to think that Buddhist chaplains are co-opted into becoming apologists for corporate overlords. (Can you imagine some large bank or brokerage hiring a chaplain to teach mindfulness to their employees to “help” them be more productive in reaping obscene profits?)

Buddhist chaplaincy in a diverse ethnic society? Near where I live, the Mon Sheong old age home for Chinese people has recently added a new wing, effectively tripling its size. I’m sure they could use Buddhist chaplaincy services, but I don’t speak Chinese (Mando, Canto or any other dialect). I’m not Chinese. In my neighbourhood are ethnic Khmer, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tibetan and Caucasian temples. And as Arun over at Angry Asian Buddhist continually points out, non-Asian convert Buddhists should not presume to think their vision of the Dharma is the only, or the correct, vision. Since Toronto is purportedly the most ethnically diverse city on the planet, we need to figure out how to either support chaplaincy education and certification in a broad range of Buddhist traditions, or we need to figure out how to get past ethnic stereotypes and open ourselves up to receiving help with open hands from every single Bodhisattva who shows up. Based on the tremendous efforts of Bhante Saranapala and his Dharma colleagues to revive and broaden Toronto’s communal Wesak tradition, and their overwhelming success in so doing, I have great faith in the Toronto sangha to pull this off!

Let’s roll up our sleeves and do this! I think this is a great initiative. I would be delighted to take the program and I’d be proud to help run the program. I would be honoured to be able to serve society as a part-time Buddhist chaplain. But then again, I’m not your average prospect. U of T can’t build a program based on my demographic and I wouldn’t want to take a spot from someone younger who is just starting out in life. So, where are you future Buddhist chaplains? We should talk…

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