Buddhist chaplains on the rise in the United States, offering broad appeal

PORTLAND, Oregon. – Stuck in a recliner in the corner of her Portland assisted living apartment, Skylar Freimann, who has terminal heart disease and lung disease, looked anxiously at her newly arrived hospital bed recently and worried about how she would maintain her independence as she further lost her mobility.

Reverend Jo Laurence, hospice and palliative care chaplain, was there to guide her through the journey. But rather than invoking God or a Christian prayer, she spoke of meditation, chanting and other Eastern spiritual traditions: “The body can sometimes weigh us down,” she advised. “Where is the divine or the sacred in your decline?”

An ordained Sufi pastor and practicing Zen Buddhist who brings years of meditation practice and scriptural training to support end-of-life patients, Laurence is part of a burgeoning generation of Buddhist chaplains who are increasingly common in hospitals, hospices and prisons, where the need for their services has increased dramatically during the pandemic.

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In a profession long dominated in the United States by Christian clergy, Buddhists lead an increasingly diverse field that includes Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan and even secular humanist chaplains. Buddhist chaplains say they are in a unique position for the times because of their ability to appeal to a wide cultural and religious spectrum, including the growing number of Americans – about a third – who identify as not religious.

In response, education and training opportunities have been created or expanded in recent years. These include the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at Harvard Divinity School and the Buddhism stream at Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Christian ecumenical seminary in New York City. Naropa University in Colorado, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college, recently launched a low-residency hybrid chaplaincy program. Unaccredited certifications such as those offered by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care or the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico are also popular.

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“The programs are constantly expanding, so it seems clear that there is a growing demand from students. And students seem to be finding jobs after graduation,” said Monica Sanford, associate dean of multifaith ministry at Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Buddhist minister.

In the past, Buddhist chaplains were often hired by hospitals and police departments specifically to care for Asian immigrant communities. During World War II, they served Japanese American soldiers in the military. Today, however, they are more common.

In a first-of-its-kind report released this month, Sanford and a colleague identified 425 chaplains in the United States, Canada and Mexico representing all major branches of Buddhism, though researchers say there are probably a lot more. More than 40% work in health care, according to the Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America report, while others work in schools, prisons or as independent counselors.

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Two-thirds of respondents said they had a master’s degree in theology, another postgraduate degree, or a chaplaincy certificate. Most of those working as staff chaplains have also completed clinical pastoral training placements and residencies in health care and other settings.

Maitripa College, a Tibetan Buddhist college also in Portland, has seen increased interest in its master of theology program since its launch 10 years ago, said Leigh Miller, director of academic and public programs. It appeals to a wide range, from older Buddhists with 20 years of practice to new university graduates who have just started meditating, from spiritual seekers to people with multiple religious affiliations.

Hospitals and other institutions are eager to hire Buddhist chaplains, Miller said, in part to increase staff diversity and also because they are adept at relating to others using inclusive and neutral language.

“Buddhist chaplains are used to speaking in more universal terms, focusing on compassion, on being grounded, on feeling peace,” she said. “Many Christian chaplains fall back on the language of God, leading prayers or reading Bible scriptures.”

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Meanwhile, training in mindfulness and meditation, along with beliefs about the nature of the self, the reality, and the impermanence of suffering, give Buddhists unique tools to deal with pain and death.

“The fruit of those hours spent on the (meditation) cushion really manifests itself in the ability to be present, to let go of one’s own personal agenda and to have a kind of awareness of oneself and of the other that allows an interdependent relationship to be born,” Miller mentioned.

Buddhist chaplaincy also faces challenges, including how to become more accessible to Buddhists of color. The Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America report found that most professional Buddhist chaplains today are white and from Christian backgrounds, even though nearly two-thirds of followers of the faith in the United States are Americans. Asian origin, according to the Pew Research Center.

Traditional Buddhist communities tend to be small and volunteer-run, so they often lack the resources to offer endorsements for chaplains – a necessary step for board certification, which is often required for employment.

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And non-Christian chaplains can struggle with feelings of isolation and the need to change codes in Christian-based health facilities where crosses hang on the walls, prayers are offered at staff meetings, and Jesus and the Bible are regularly invoked.

Providence Health & Services, a Washington-based Catholic nonprofit organization that operates hospitals in seven western states, is a Christian healthcare system seeking to change that.

Mark Thomas, a mission leader in Oregon, said the system employs 10 Buddhist chaplains not in spite of but precisely because of their Catholic identity. The goal is to ensure that patients receive good spiritual care in the way that best suits them.

“Many patients resonate with certain aspects or even just a perception of Buddhism,” Thomas said, citing practices like meditation and breathwork that can help them cope with suffering. “These tools have been extremely valuable.”

Laurence, the hospice chaplain at Providence Home and Community Services in Portland, grew up in London and felt called to Buddhism after witnessing poverty, violence and racism as a caregiver in the Mississippi.

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She said that as more and more people become non-religious, many patients do not have a language for their spirituality or it is linked to religious trauma. Laurence supports them in any way they need, whether through Christian prayer, the comfort of a cool washcloth on the forehead, or a Buddhist-inspired blessing.

“For some people, the language of Buddhism is respite,” she said. “He doesn’t have the baggage, and it’s so calming for them.”

Freimann, his patient, said she practiced Eastern spiritual traditions and was therefore delighted to receive Laurence.

“I don’t think about God the way religious people traditionally do,” Freimann told him during the visit. “What a joy you are here. … It would be so much more difficult to speak with a Christian chaplain.

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