Squeezing into a chair in the corner of her Portland apartment, Skylar Freeman, who suffers from incurable heart disease and lung disease, looked anxiously at her newly arrived hospital bed on the last day and worried about how she would retain independence in the future. loses mobility.
There to guide her along the way was the Rev. Joe Lawrence, chaplain of hospice and palliative care. But instead of invoking God or Christian prayer, she spoke of meditation, singing, and other Eastern spiritual traditions: “The body can burden us at times,” she advised. “Where is the divine or the sacred in your decline?”
An ordained Sufi minister and practicing Zen Buddhist who brings years of meditation practice and scripture teaching to support patients at the end of their lives, Lawrence is part of a growing generation of Buddhist chaplains who are increasingly found in hospitals, hospices and prisons where needed services rose sharply during the pandemic.
In a profession that has long been dominated by Christian clergy in the United States, Buddhists are leading an increasingly diverse field that includes Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, and even secular humanist chaplains. Buddhist chaplains say they hold a unique position for the time, thanks to their ability to appeal to a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, including a growing number of Americans (about one-third) who identify themselves as non-religious.
In response, opportunities for learning and learning have been created or expanded in recent years. These include the Buddhist Initiative Service at Harvard School of Theology and a track of Buddhism at Union Theological Seminary, the Ecumenical Christian Liberal Seminary in New York City. The University of Naropa in Colorado, a Buddhist college of the humanities, recently launched a hybrid chaplaincy program with low residency. Also popular are non-accredited certificates, such as those offered by the New York Zen Center for Contemplation or the Upai Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Programs continue to expand, so it’s clear that student demand is growing. And students seem to be finding jobs after graduation,” said Monica Sanford, assistant dean of the multi-religious ministry at Harvard Theological Seminary and an ordained Buddhist minister.
In the past, Buddhist chaplains were often hired at hospitals and police departments specifically to serve communities of Asian immigrants. During World War II, they served Japanese-American soldiers in the military. Today, however, they are more mainstream.
In the first report of its kind published this month, Sanford and his colleague identified 425 chaplains in the United States, Canada and Mexico representing all major branches of Buddhism, although researchers say there are probably many more. More than 40% work in health care, according to a Mapping Buddhist Chapelins report in North America, while others serve in schools, prisons or as self-employed counselors.
Two-thirds of respondents reported having a master’s degree in theology, another graduate degree, or a chaplaincy certificate. Most of those who work as full-time chaplains have also completed internships in clinical pastoral education and residency in medical and other institutions.
Maitripa College, a Tibetan Buddhist college also located in Portland, has noticed increased interest in the Master of Divinity track since its launch 10 years ago, said Lee Miller, director of academic and community programs. She appeals to a wide range: from older Buddhists with 20 years of practice to new college graduates who have just started meditating, from spiritual seekers to people with a variety of religious affiliations.
Hospitals and other institutions seek to hire Buddhist chaplains, Miller said, in part to increase staff diversity, and also because they are able to communicate with others using inclusive, neutral language.
“Buddhist chaplains have a habit of speaking in more universal terms, focusing on compassion, soundness, calmness,” she said. “Many Christian chaplains return to the language of God, pray or read the Bible.”
Meanwhile, the teaching of mindfulness and meditation, as well as beliefs in the nature of self, reality, and the impermanence of suffering give Buddhists unique tools to confront pain and death.
“The fruit of these hours on the (meditation) pillow is really manifested in the ability to be present, to give up the personal agenda and to have a kind of awareness of oneself and others, which allows for interdependent relationships,” Miller said.
Buddhist chaplaincy is also facing challenges, including how to become more accessible to colored Buddhists. The Mapping of Buddhist Chaplains in North America report found that most professional Buddhist chaplains today are white and of Christian descent, although nearly two-thirds of U.S. believers are Americans of Asian descent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Traditional Buddhist communities are usually small and run by volunteers, so they often lack the resources to offer approval to chaplains – a necessary step for board certification, which is often required for employment.
And non-Christian chaplains may struggle with feelings of isolation and the need to switch codes in Christian-founded health facilities where crosses hang on walls, prayers are offered at staff meetings, and Jesus and the Bible are regularly referred to.
Providence Health & Services, a Washington-based Catholic nonprofit that operates hospitals in seven western states, is one Christian health care system that seeks to change that.
Mark Thomas, the mission’s chief officer in Oregon, said the system employs 10 Buddhist chaplains despite being Catholic, namely because of her Catholic identity. The goal is to provide patients with good spiritual care that suits them best.
“Many patients resonate with some aspect or even just a perception of Buddhism,” Thomas said, referring to practices such as meditation and breathing that can help them cope with suffering. “These tools were extremely valuable.”
Lawrence, chaplain of the hospice at the Portland House and Public Services, grew up in London and felt called to Buddhism after witnessing poverty, violence and racism as a guardian in Mississippi.
She said that as more people become non-church, many patients do not have language for their spirituality, or this is due to religious trauma. Lawrence supports them in any case, through Christian prayer, a cool washcloth on his forehead or through a Buddhist blessing.
“For some people, the language of Buddhism is a respite,” she said. “He has no luggage, and it so reassures them.”
Freeman, her patient, said she practiced Eastern spiritual traditions and was therefore happy to receive Lawrence.
“I don’t think of God the way religious people traditionally do,” Freiman told her during the visit. “What a joy to have you here … It would be much harder to talk to a Christian chaplain.”