Monica Sanford and Nathan Jishin Michon
Buddhist chaplaincy is a profession in which Buddhists with specialized training care for the spiritual needs of suffering individuals (careseekers), typically within non-religious settings such as hospitals, hospices, military, workplaces, or universities. Although the roots of spiritual care date back to the beginning of the Buddhist traditions, professionalized Buddhist chaplaincy is a very recent phenomenon. Despite some beginnings in the mid-20th century, most developments have occurred rapidly only within the 21st century. This contemporary movement is occurring in numerous places around the world, including North America, Europe, and Asia, covering a wide range of countries, cultures, and Buddhist traditions.
The profession of chaplaincy was originally a Christian vocation but began expanding to serve the needs of multireligious careseekers and train caregivers of various religious backgrounds in the 20th century. Thus, while chaplaincy is now a profession open to all comers, including Buddhists, humanists, and atheists, many of the educational, training, and professional standards for certification or licensing are still normed against Christian expectations and legacy organizational structures, particularly in North America, Europe, and the British Commonwealth. In the countries where Buddhist chaplaincy is flourishing in the early 21st century, different groups are developing degree programs, training opportunities, and professional expectations that accord with their local regulatory bodies and other forms of existing chaplaincy certification. In Asian nations, Buddhists are stepping forward to build standards for providing spiritual care in the context of cultural institutions that are not typically religious (e.g., hospitals and schools).
Diverse settings and differing requirements lead to distinctions between Buddhist chaplaincy in different countries. However, some of the core competencies for spiritual care are very consistent: compassion, listening, ritual proficiency, cultural understanding, and reflection. Buddhist and non-Buddhist chaplains alike agree to a fundamental skill set to care for people who are suffering in the various institutions where they work and volunteer. Distinctions between Buddhist and other forms of spiritual care are based on the care model employed, whether strictly co-religionist (i.e., Buddhists caring for Buddhists) or interfaith (i.e., Buddhists caring for all). In the latter case, professional chaplains (of any religion) are trained to provide spiritual care from the spiritual or religious worldview of the careseeker. As such, most Buddhist chaplains must possess basic knowledge and competency in many world religions. Nevertheless, Buddhist spiritual care may be distinct in its theory (Dharma based) and place more emphasis on mindfulness, meditation, and other contemplative techniques to benefit both careseekers and chaplains. Spiritual care that is “Dharma-based” means based on the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and/or the Buddhist traditions and teacher who followed after him. This includes a broad range of texts and teachings across the Buddhist world. As an emerging field, there is little literature on Buddhist chaplaincy, so it is currently somewhat difficult to say what theories and practices will come to dominate the profession.
Buddhism has been a missionary religion from its beginning. Japan was among the countries where this “foreign” religion arrived and was assimilated, adapted, and reshaped into new forms specifically connected to the new geographical and cultural environment. Buddhism traveled long distances from India through China and Korea, bringing with it flows of people, ideas, technologies, material cultures, and economies. More than ten centuries after its arrival in Japan, the first phase of propagation of Japanese Buddhism started and was linked to the history of Japanese migrants to Hawaii, North America, and Brazil since the 19th century. This was a history of diaspora, a term that implies not only the physical—and often traumatic—dispersion of people who left their homes for unknown places, but also a reconfiguration of their identities through the adaptation to these new places and their cultures.
The main role of Buddhist priests sent from Japan was to assist and provide comfort to the newly formed communities of migrant laborers, who very often experienced racial discrimination and lived under harsh conditions. Temples became important loci of Japanese community life, as well as centers for the preservation of Japanese culture. Diasporic communities felt the urge to keep a bond with the homeland and a reconnection with some past traditions, while, at the same time, striving toward integration in the new society.
Japanese Buddhist denominations in diasporic communities had therefore to accommodate different needs and adjust their teachings and practices to better suit their host cultures. Some of them underwent substantial changes, while others placed more emphasis on some practices instead of others. Moreover, Japanese Buddhist schools had to find a way to balance between their traditional role in Japan, which was—and still is—closely related to funerary rituals and memorials, and the new stimuli and requests coming from the new generations of Japanese migrants (nisei and sansei) and the non-Japanese spiritual seekers, the latter mostly interested in meditative practices and not in funeral Buddhism. In short, what needed to be done was to overcome a status of “ethnic” religion without, however, losing its own identity.