How Buddhist Chaplains are trained

Buddhism in the West Buddhist Psychology Chaplaincy Hospice Care Interfaith Publishing Sumeru Books

I recently discovered this short piece from National Public Radio in the States on how Buddhist Chaplains are trained:

It was particularly interesting because Sumeru is pleased to announce that next year we will be publishing a new textbook for Buddhist chaplains:

Kalyāṇamitra: A Buddhist Model for Spiritual Care

This book will be only the fourth work ever published in the field of Buddhist spiritual care and the first to provide a comprehensive theory to guide the work of Buddhist chaplains. That theory is the Three Prajñās Framework for Spiritual Care. Prajñā means wisdom (roughly) and the Three Prajñās is a pedagogical method common to all Buddhist traditions. The Framework outlines how the Three Prajñās are employed in the context of modern spiritual care in interfaith settings, proceeding through four stages: self, student, chaplain, and spiritual friend or kalyāṇamitra. Spiritual care has often relied on metaphors such as the shepherd, wounded healer, or wise fool, all from the Christian traditions. Thus, the title of the book proposes a new metaphor and model for spiritual care distinct to the Buddhist traditions: kalyāṇamitra, often translated as “spiritual friend.” Like the Three Prajñās, this concept also exists in all traditions of Buddhism (unlike bodhisattva or arhant, which are specific to some traditions but not others).

This book will describe the context and literature in the field today, focusing mostly on North America. Buddhist chaplains in North America provide spiritual care in hospitals, hospice, prisons, the military, and higher education primarily to non-Buddhist careseekers. Like other American chaplains, they provide spiritual care to any and all, regardless of religious tradition (or lack thereof). They do NOT primarily care for Buddhist careseekers, who are a rare minority in North America (unless doing so in the context of a sangha). Thus, they practice a common form of code switching, seeing the world through their Buddhist training while helping others from within the careseekers’ own worldviews. The ability of Buddhist chaplains to reflect on, understand, and describe this process is critical to their success and the alleviation of suffering in careseekers. Buddhist teachers within sanghas and Buddhist communities provide similar forms of spiritual care, though without the code switching. As Willa Miller noted in her essay in The Arts of Contemplative Care, however, spiritual care is a distinct skill that is not often emphasized in Dharma teacher training (and is sometimes contrary to the role of teacher), leaving modern Dharma teachers at a disadvantage when caring for members of their sanghas who are in distress or crisis. Thus, whether working in an institution or a sangha, Buddhists providing spiritual care need to carefully reflect on and grow their skillsets.

This book will provide the first guidance on how to do that, developed from a qualitative grounded theory study of Buddhist chaplains practicing in interfaith settings today (data collected in 2017). It will create the first bridges between empirical data on actual practice in spiritual care and the existing literature, both Buddhist and Christian, in this field. The first chapter will introduce the context of the work and briefly review the literature. The second chapter will present the Three Prajñās Framework. The third chapter will explore the roll of reflection in the work of Buddhist chaplains, a previously neglected area of study. The fourth chapter will further explicate the metaphor of the spiritual friend or kalyāṇamitra. The fifth chapter will provide a primer on skills for Buddhists providing spiritual care within the context of the Framework and kalyāṇamitra metaphor. The sixth and final chapter will discuss some of the challenges and pathways for developing the field of Buddhist spiritual care, including the problems of language/translation, Christian hegemony, and Buddhist studies vs. Buddhist ‘theology’ in academic settings.

The author, Rev. Monica Sanford, Ph.D., comes very highly qualified:

Rev. Monica Sanford, PhD

  • Assistant Director for Spirituality & Religious Life, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • 5 years of experience as a Buddhist chaplain in higher education
  • 4 units of clinical pastoral education completed, on track for Board Certified Chaplain
  • PhD in Practical Theology (spiritual care & counselling) from Claremont School of Theology, 2018, dissertation: “The Practice of Dharma Reflection among Buddhist Chaplains: A Qualitative Study of ‘Theological’ Activity among Nontheocentric Spiritual Caregivers”
  • MDiv in Buddhist Chaplaincy from University of the West, 2013
  • BS in Design from University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 2007

It's also worth mentioning that Sumeru also publishes A THOUSAND HANDS: A Guide to Caring for Your Buddhist Community, edited by Danny Fisher and Nathan Michon -- one of the few other resources for Buddhist chaplains, and one of our bestsellers.


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