U of T Buddhist Chaplaincy program update, 2nd roundtable

Buddhism in Canada Buddhist Psychology Buddhist Studies Chaplaincy Death Education Health Prison Toronto

The meeting commenced with a short introduction by Chris Ng, president of the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada, and a welcome by Bhante Saranapala, resident Bhikkhu at the West End Buddhist Temple.


  • Bhante Yuttadhammo, a Canadian monk ordained in the Thai Forest tradition;
  • Sensei Taigen Henderson, Abbot of Toronto Zen Centre;
  • Professor Pam Couture, U of T; and
  • Chaplain Thomas Kilts, Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education at Brampton Civic Hospital.


  • 3rd round table December 6 at Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, 1025 McNicoll Avenue;
  • 4th round table January Emmanuel College, 75 Queens Park Crescent East.

Yuttadhammo: My experience with prison work was in LA, in a pretrial facility with frequent turnover, so the individuals were not focusing on serious practice. The clientele was very diverse! We need to approach chaplaincy by thinking outside the box. The tendency for Buddhist teachers is to focus on static teaching. That only works for small groups. We need to embrace new packaging (eg YouTube). There are people waiting for this; they are an under-served group. Monks need these chaplaincy skills to teach better. A dichotomy exists between legacy and convert Buddhists, and there are many cultural traditions. Establishing a chaplaincy network to meet these diverse needs is important. Teaching Buddhism is the essence. Personal opinion is not the point. We need to be careful we are not just promoting another feel-good philosophy.

Taigen: My prison work experience was with Sister Elaine McGinnis. There was a fast turnover of clients. Very little support was given by the institutions and the clientele was diverse, so we focused on meditation together. Clients had mixed motivation. We developed a core group of 10 serious students. A year later, they went on to take precepts. Meditation is transformative. The trend has been for the government to de-fund chaplaincy, and they will possibly privatize prisons in the future so volunteer opportunities are probably the only future course of action.

Kilts: I work in the healthcare system. My training as a Buddhist chaplain was from Naropa. It was advertised as a complete program but in fact there were quite a few missing pieces. The University of Toronto program has to start with the gold standard. It will have to provide students with the requisite training for CASC (the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care), give them the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) units needed, and qualify them to apply to the new CRPO (College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario). That will be rough. Chaplaincy is an applied theology challenge. Education plus endorsement or ordination is needed from sangha in order to get professional chaplaincy positions. There are avenues for Buddhist leadership. We need a Mahasangha network to develop skills in Buddhist teachers, but chaplains also play a different role for patients to talk about subjects they may not wish to discuss with an ordained teacher.

Couture: We want to offer a varied program. There is a diploma for those with a less rigorous volunteer focus. There is a degree with CASC certification for those on a professional pathway.

The government regulates licensure of chaplains. The criteria are ethically based, and the College acts as a liaison. Regardless of faith background, candidates face the same issues in other communities approaching education for chaplaincy. The most dramatic change in the landscape now is that client organizations are all interfaith. Cross pollination is critical to the education. Institutions want chaplains who are comfortable ministering to all faiths, but who may approach it from their own faith tradition.

Q + A: I asked what the job prospects are like for graduates of the U of T Buddhist Chaplaincy MPS degree program.

Ven. Thomas Kilts took the question. He said he wished he could offer a rosy picture, but in fact full-time jobs are few and far between. Some short-term and part-time work is available on a contract basis. However, institutions are not permitted to discriminate against non-Christian applicants, given the diversity of clients.

He explained that beyond the degree, one would have to put in another year obtaining at least four CPE credits needed to be certified. In many cases, the residency for those credits would be salaried.

Prof. Pam Couture added that it is the University of Toronto’s intention to provide the necessary training as part of their program for graduates to be able to receive certification from the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, so that they could enter private practice as well as seek employment in institutions.

Rev. Danny Fisher, formerly associate professor and Chair of the Buddhist Chaplaincy program at the University of the West in Los Angeles, and author of Benefit Beings!: The Buddhist Guide to Professional Chaplaincy, was at the meeting and added some thoughts from his experience in California…

Like his Canadian counterparts, he said the California prison system does not provide anything but volunteer opportunities for Buddhist chaplains. Many graduates of the University of the West’s chaplaincy program did not find professional employment after graduation and found themselves at a loss. The university consequently revised their program to include entrepreneurial business skills for chaplaincy students, to assist them developing their own non-profit socially-progressive businesses based on spritual care models such as the Homeboy program and Roshi Bernie Glassman’s Greyston Bakery.

The upshot of these latter discussions is that chaplaincy candidates must consider four pathways: volunteering, professional chaplaincy, private practice, or something entrepreneurial.

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