Buddhism and CPE – Concerns and Contributions
Copyright © 2006 Rev. José M. Tirado


Note:  Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, writer and Green activist. He is also a Shin Buddhist priest and student of The Fourth Way. His life has been a diverse one including having worked as a union president at Warner Bros. Pictures and as a Chaplain. His poetry and articles, on a wide range of subjects, have appeared in CounterPunch, Swans Commentary, Op-Ed News, Dissident Voice, Islamica Magazine, the Magazine of Green Social Thought: Synthesis/Regeneration, Gurdjieff Internet Guide and The Endless Search. He has developed a Buddhist meditation-based counseling program called The Path of My Experience™: Personal Transformation Through the Culture of Meditation, which he has taught successfully in Iceland where he currently lives. He can be reached via his website: http://www.thepathofmyexperience.com/



In the fall of 2000 I was at one of the usual conferences the Clinical Pastoral Education students in supervisory education, (SISE’s) were required to attend; I believe it was in sunny San Diego. I was then a Supervisory Candidate from California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.  Quietly listening away near the back of the hall, I was startled when one of my African-American colleagues volunteered to be part of the panel speaking on the subject of diversity in CPE Supervision.  Though originally a bit jealous of her quick and easy acclimation to Supervisory CPE (she had recently joined our site and this was her first SOS gathering) I felt relieved that she was up there representing “us” (those in the minority within CPE, either racially or spiritually) and not me.  Much to my embarrassment however, she immediately turned and said clearly, before the whole group, “José, get on up here!  C’mon! ” Feebly mumbling something beneath my breath I gathered the courage (all eyes were turned my way, after all) to unfold my legs and walk to the table in the center of the hall. 

Once there the discussion was lively and honest as usual: heartfelt expressions of personal difficulties, prejudices and intractable systemic obstacles abounded.  When the inevitable occurred I was asked directly how I as a Buddhist felt in the Supervisory process.  It was one of those moments when the “Eternal Now” intervened and suddenly I faced the most dangerous obstacle a Buddhist can face: myself!  What could I say about my struggles in CPE?  What should I say?  I had kept so much of it in for so long that I could almost ignore the presence of my fears, prejudices and observations about CPE, which I valued internally but rarely felt comfortable enough to say out loud.  Almost.  I could only offer the following anecdote, which I hope I remember accurately:

“When I think of my situation it reminds me of someone.  I have met this man, you see, he’s 64 years old, shaves his head, wears outlandish clothes, speaks very broken English and giggles a lot.  He doesn’t believe in God or any kind of Creator.  He has never held a “regular” job.  He doesn’t have an M.Div., and in fact, has no degrees from any accredited U.S. or Canadian institution.  Plus, what he values as the height of spirituality he calls ´emptiness´.  Probably few institutions would hire him as a chaplain; much less allow him to enter the CPE Supervisory track.  Yet in 1989, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Now, if I think he couldn’t make it in this process, why should I think I can? ”  

Though a bit of an overstatement, it expressed a deep-seated unease I and many other Buddhists in CPE have mentioned before: that because we are a non-theistic spiritual tradition, we just don’t “fit in” to “pastoral” work.  Simply put, many Buddhists in CPE often feel that they are regarded as fundamentally different and excluded.  Buddhism’s unique characteristics- the lack of a universal savior or petitionable deity to relieve our condition; the rejection of a permanent identity or soul; our understanding of the suffering inherent in existence; the acceptance of impermanence (and therefore old age, disease and death); and the belief in karmic causes and conditions that serve to predetermine (though not predestining) our present life, all render Buddhism somehow irreconcilable with some of the most hallowed teachings and methodologies of present-day pastoral work. 

That Buddhism has provided, for almost 2600 years, relief and compassionate wisdom and guidance to countless millions of people, most of whom have lived and died in the “Far East” is rarely taken into account, and when it is it is often dismissed.  Such a dismissal, heard personally on numerous occasions, smacks of racism and religious chauvinism.  In fact, I have heard it said directly to me by two CPE Supervisors that Buddhists are basically unsuited for pastoral work, because our fundamental religious assumptions are incompatible with CPE.  There.  I’ve said it.  

I am not suggesting that there is only, misunderstanding, prejudice or exclusion.   I have been personally welcomed and received as a brother in many places and many times by many people in CPE over the past 7 years and, additionally I have encouraged a number of Buddhists to enter the CPE process, up to and including entering Supervisory Level CPE because I have felt that they and CPE could benefit by their involvement in chaplaincy. 

Rather, I wish to bring forth some of the whispered concerns and feelings, both mine and those of others who have communicated with me over the years, that I feel might be helpful for all of us who do pastoral work.

What I hope to offer in this article are some insights I have gleaned over the past 30 years in Buddhism and the last 7 or so in chaplaincy. 

I believe this task is crucial also partly because much of what I have witnessed and read, in this journal and other like publications, has not presented Buddhism in ways I recognize.  It is also crucial that criticisms directed at Buddhists in CPE are clarified and inventoried so that prospective CPE students, as well as those who will be working with them, are aware of potential areas of misunderstanding.  Finally, I have not seen as widespread a knowledge of Buddhist beliefs among those involved in CPE, at all levels, as I have witnessed the ability most Buddhists I have met to engage in serious discussions about Judaism, Christianity or Islam. 

This last point is important enough to merit an important, very frank suggestion.  Read more about Buddhism.  Familiarize yourselves with its multifaceted nature.  To at least know that there are three major divisions of Buddhism [1] and a basic familiarity with the major doctrines of Buddhism should be a requirement of anyone working in our field, as I suspect many more Buddhists will enter the CPE process, at all levels in the coming years. 

Please not that as a clinically and pastorally educated Buddhist I bring a “double-sided” perspective.  I simultaneously write as a Buddhist who has personally faced some of the issues I bring up here and as a former participant in the selection and subsequent supervisory process for chaplain residents at CPMC.

This article is divided into three parts.   The first part details some tendencies I have observed in Buddhists that sometimes make us appear ill suited for pastoral work and are the source of many misunderstandings about Buddhism.  The second part describes some of the sources of those tendencies and highlights the particular contributions Buddhism can make as a result of their deeper origins.  In the third and final part I will share some of my own conclusions about Buddhism’s historically “pastoral” elements, characterizing them in easily recognizable ways, as well as other concerns I have that have also been expressed by other Buddhists regarding our experiences in CPE.

Part 1

It is said that the largest numbers of Buddhists in the United States and Canada are “converts” to the religion, a process begun in earnest only a little over a hundred years ago.  In the very informative book, “The Faces of Buddhism in America” there is a helpful overview of the major types of Buddhists here.  First, those who were “born” into Buddhism, primarily Buddhists of Asian ancestry, referred to as “ethnic Buddhism. ”  (Because they are said to carry religion with them it is also referred to as “baggage Buddhism”)  Second are those who converted as a result of a search for a new spirituality or faith, known often as “import or elite Buddhism. ”  (Since its largest number of adherents belong to the higher socio-economic groupings in the United States and Canada.)  Third are those who have converted as a result of contact with one of the established, more “evangelistic” sects (such as the numerical leader in the States, Soka Gakkai-SGI-USA), known as “export Buddhism. ” [2] This paper will focus on members of the last two groups as they represent the largest concentration of Buddhist applicants to CPE and are the groups I am most familiar with.

There are, I believe, six major tendencies that characterize American Buddhists that foster misunderstandings of Buddhists in CPE: (over) intellectualization; iconoclastic rejection of intellectuality; impersonalization of suffering; speaking of one’s emotional life in third-person terms; downplaying “negative” emotions; and an inability to express in soteriologically positive ways the outcome of a Buddhist life.  I will address each of these tendencies at some length.

1.  Tendency towards [over] intellectualization.

Buddhism has gone through several “popular” phases in North American history, the first in the early 1900´s and the second, more famous one, was during the “Beat” period of the 1950´s.  It was also a time when after the Second World War, many soldiers returned from Asia with tales of Buddhist temples they’d seen and doctrines they’d been exposed to that were intriguing.  My own father was one of this group.  It was this group that also first gave the west it’s most popular early expressions of Buddhism; from Jack Kerouac´s “Dharma Bums” to Allen Ginsberg´s collaborative work with Trungpa Rinpoche.  The more widespread dissemination of Buddhist thought thereafter seemed to come from and influence most the intellectual elite of the U.S., and they were primarily white, well-educated, and solidly upper-middle or upper class.  This group widely disenchanted with their own “irrational” spiritual heritage, made acceptance of a more “rational” religiosity a prime motivator in their spiritual journey.  [Shin or Pure Land Buddhists, whose doctrines and _expression bear an ostensible resemblance to Christianity, represent a challenge to this tendency.]

Many of the students who flocked to lectures, retreats or even large, public talks were quickly treated to some of the most abstruse aspects of Abhidharma [3] or Madhyamaka [4] philosophy, teachings that many Buddhists in eastern countries might not be exposed to so quickly, if at all.  There was a pervasive feeling that that somehow we were special.  Some of the greatest Buddhist teachers were now in the west, giving away in weeks or months what in their home countries had taken centuries to be absorbed into the intellectual milieu and only then (perhaps) given to the “public.”  This attitude that the West had a special “karmic connection” to Buddhism, was promoted by many of the teachers themselves who said as much directly.

The result was often a richly trained group of lay practitioners whose vocabulary was riddled with abstract Sanskrit and Pali terminology supplanted with Sino-Japanese interpretations of ancient Indian concepts.  This group became known for their writings and their establishment of Zen, Vipassana or other Buddhist “centers,” (a term perhaps deliberately chosen to avoid the traditional connotations of “church” or “temple”) places where Buddhism was practiced and taught.  Many of us who frequented these centers received a first class education in Dzogchen, Mahamudra [5] or other Buddhist practices that represented the particular specialized content our sect or tradition offered.  The difficulty later on was in translating to the “outside” world in practical, less theoretical (and jargon-laden) ways the soteriological and personal benefits we received in our involvement with such an “intellectual” religion.  I frequently observed that practitioners often feigned a hyper intellectuality to give them an air of superior abilities in being able to discuss the deeper, finer points of Buddhist doctrine.  This hyper-intellectual tendency was used to further distinguish us from the “faith-based” orientations of the religions most of us came from and rejected.  In addition, the word “practitioner” was often used to distinguish Buddhists from adherents of other religions who were mere “believers, ” the implication being that “practicing” was more intellectually legitimate than simply believing.

2.  Tendency towards iconoclastic rejection of intellectuality. 

Just as there arose the adoption of hyper-intellectuality as a barometer of spiritual attainment, an equally widespread yet diametrically opposed response found support in Zen’s longstanding rejection of conceptualization, reasoning and conventional thought processes as tools for enlightenment.  “If you meet the Buddha on the road-kill him! ” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping? ” were two of the better known conundrums designed to break the seeker from viewing reality conventionally and getting trapped in concepts on the spiritual path.  “That’s so Zen! ” remains, for example, a commonly heard _expression embodying the glib rejection of theorizing or logical reasoning in a coolly distant, affected manner.  One result of this tendency was the dismissive attitude of many Buddhists to put into any words descriptions of the power of their spiritual practice, its doctrines and its ability to positively transform their lives.  This was all a part of Zen’s mystique and attractiveness; Zen was somehow a different animal from other faiths in its rejection of intellectualizing and its beautiful, mysteriously affecting influence in the arts.

3.  Tendency towards impersonalising suffering. 

This is perhaps the most easily identifiable tendency I have noticed among Buddhists in CPE.  It is deeply rooted in the core differences between Buddhism and most other religions and it possibly reflects the culturally “Eastern” influence of downplaying individual concerns by universalizing the individual’s plight.

One example of this was related to me several years ago.  When the late Dr. Elisabeth Targ visited H.H. the Karmapa, the titular leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Kagyu sect (then recently arrived as a refugee in India), she asked what would be the most effective and compassionate prayer for an individual who was suffering illness (she was researching the power of prayer and its relationship to healing).  Pray for the relief of all sentient beings was his reply.  Thinking an error occurred in the translation, she repeated her question several times only to receive the same answer each time.  In effect the Karmapa said that as suffering is the lot of all beings, to pray for only one individual’s release would not-could not by definition-be truly compassionate.  To pray for all beings who suffer is the most effective prayer as well as the most compassionate practice bringing the greatest possible benefit.

Another example concerns one of the most famous and influential stories regarding suffering in Buddhism, about Kisa Gotami, a woman struck mad with grief over the death of her child.  She refused to bury the infant and went from house to house begging for assistance until she was told to see the Buddha who might be able to help her.  The Buddha told her that he could help if only she procured one mustard seed from a household where there had never been death.  Racing from one village to the next, Kisa Gotami eventually came see for herself that death came to every household and that grief over the death of a loved one was universal and so was finally able to bury her child.  This story epitomizes the Buddhist teaching that suffering, no matter how horrible to oneself personally, must be seen as intrinsic to existence and thus shared by all beings.  The Buddha’s compassionate concern was demonstrated neither by ignoring her own immense personal pain, nor by responding to it in isolating it but by pointing out and helping her to find out for herself, the universal quality of grief (and all other forms of suffering). 

I believe the difficulty in expressing, in personal ways, one’s own suffering arises, in part because it has been so often taught that to do so betrays this panoramic outlook of universal compassion.

4.  Tendency to speak of one’s emotional life in third-person terms. 

It is a common practice to refer to Buddhism as being as much a “science” as a “religion” (though both terms are relatively modern ones.)  This is part of the legacy of the sadhus, the renunciants who choose (often but not exclusively at the end of their lives) to abandon all ties to family, friends and commerce in order to pursue the path of God/ Truth through very specific yogic disciplines.  The Buddha himself embodied this path, though he abandoned its more extreme forms for a “Middle Way” (as he later characterized his teaching) between ascetism and hedonism.  Within the Gangetic traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism a set of experimental and experientially confirmable practices were devised to explore the depths of consciousness and are seen as the primary spiritual methodologies.  One might say that in contrast to Western religions these faiths are more oriented towards orthopraxy versus orthodoxy. [6] Thus, the practiced, dispassionate observation of thoughts and emotions are seen as the primary indicator of advanced spiritual abilities.  By extension the pretense of such abilities may practitioners in question a measure of respect and veneration among their a spiritual cachet perhaps otherwise lacking.

The difficulty here is that in pretending to be able to observe and understand one’s inner life, one may instead cultivate a disjointed, alienated awareness making the person appear unhealthily separated from his/her deepest self.  In stark contrast is the true goal of these practices: an integrated awareness.  Such awareness is said to lead one to living a more awakened life, most characterized by wisdom (the result of the insight gained into the nature of phenomena and one’s understanding of it) and compassion (the emotional outgrowth of and active response to witnessing others still caught up in the illusory entanglements of passion, aggression and ignorance.) 

What I have often observed instead is that many honest, sincere Buddhists, having received their first, profound glimpses of awareness often wear them like badges, displaying their shallow understanding in such a way as to suggest that a deeper awakening has taken place.  This can be a psychological and spiritual pitfall in that it may lead to a reluctance to speak of their emotional lives too personally for fear that to do so would betray a lack of meditative insight and instead they end up referring to the content of their inner life as something “over there. ”  

5.  Tendency to deliberately downplay “negative” emotions, particularly anger.

At CPMC when I interviewed potential students to our site, one of the most telling questions I learned to ask was, “What makes you angry and how do you deal with it? ”  Most Buddhist students quickly “understood” why I asked and why their replies were important.  In the Buddhist tradition, there are many teachings about the _expression of anger as having disastrous consequences on the religious journey to enlightenment.  Whole books have been written on the subject, including one recently penned by H.H. the Dalai Lama.  Perhaps the most famous teaching on this topic, frequently cited is the following:

“Whatever wholesome deeds
Such as venerating the Buddhas, and generosity,
That have been amassed over a thousand aeons
Will all be destroyed in one moment of anger. ” [7] [Emphasis added]

The rather recent, psychoanalytically influenced notion of “giving voice” to one’s anger in order to “understand” it has no counterpart in Buddhism.  On the contrary, though there exist many teachings associated with exploring the psycho-spiritual roots of anger, nowhere in the massive corpus of Buddhist literature is anger given anything but a low and dangerous place on the scale of human emotions.  Anger is held in such regard because it severely restrains the ability of a person to remain mindfully engaged with the world.  Its passion and intensity are said to interfere with the moment-by-moment awareness seen as crucial to meditative acuity.  Thus, any action taken during or after the experience of anger might be one that causes unhealthy and unforeseeable repercussions extending in all directions, out towards others as well as back to one. 

6.  Inability to express in soteriologically positive ways the outcome of the Buddhist life. 

It appears to me that built into the very system of what is generally thought of as “pastoral” is a pointing to a positive end and a holding out of “hope” for the patient or client.  Though this does not imply that all pastoral work is oriented thus, I think it fair to say that it does represent a normative trend.  However, this is not necessarily the Buddhist way.

Now, there are probably few words as used, and used positively, within the literature of pastoral care as “hope.”  In contrast, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the late Tibetan teacher and founder of Naropa University frequently taught that the two major obstacles on the spiritual path were hope and fear.  Fear, because it kept us locked in the past, anxious about repeating an unpleasant experience.  Hope, because it kept us focused on the future.  Both served to distract us from an awareness of our present, the activities of which are considered the best indicators of who we really are and therefore the gateway to real transformation.  The emphasis therefore, has been on the “here and now” which has lent Buddhism a near-exotic philosophical bent to those yearning for a de-emphasis on discarded “other-worldly” orientations or traditions.  This understanding is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism; Zen, for example is replete with koans [8], sayings, stories and artwork that emphasize the importance of a present centered awareness and focus. 

In addition, the soteriological end of Buddhist practice, Nirvana, is also more frequently referred to in negative terms than positive ones.  (“Nirvana” means literally, “to blow out” and is used to refer to the condition where the causes of suffering are completely extinguished and an uncharacterizable freedom attained.)  This is an historical trend developed partly to inhibit the reification of nirvana into some solid, conceptual formulation that might minimize its experiential orientation.  When asked by a patient however, what is the result of Buddhist practice or what is the final “end, ” to say the “extinction of suffering, ” though technically quite correct, might not appear to be the most “pastoral” reply. 

These two trends together are said to make Buddhism appear a dour and bleak faith.  But to be able to embody the Buddhadharma [9] in such a way as to present such freedom in the present moment, infused with an integrated awareness of oneself and others in an interdependent relationship and a compassionate but realistic appraisal of the fundamental condition of existence seem to this author to represent more accurately the Buddhist ideal of pastoral care. [10] Sadly, the number of Buddhists in CPE who are able to express such is, in this writer’s opinion, few.

Now, if any of these “tendencies” are used to hide from honest relationships, or to distance one from patients, peers or supervisors, then certainly they do a disservice to pastoral work.  I know because I too, in varying degrees have embodied these tendencies and have witnessed their occasionally deleterious effects on my own journey in CPE.  These tendencies sometimes serve to misinform and confuse many who might otherwise be sympathetic to Buddhism’s message of wisdom and compassion.  Those who have met him, for example, quickly grasp that part of H.H. the Dalai Lama’s uniqueness is his remarkable ability to joyfully envelope the person or group before him in an atmosphere of complete acceptance and concern.  One would certainly regard this as a “pastoral” skill, right?  Yet there are many thousands of Buddhists, priests, monks, nuns and laity who provide what we describe as pastoral care to so many suffering people around the world and are not encumbered by these tendencies.  Thus we should not assume that they are impossible to overcome.

Are there are some valuable, if distorted, teachings contained therein?  Is so, then it might be wise to explore them a bit and see not only where they come from but also if there is anything to be learned there.

Part 2

So what are the possible contributions, if any, that Buddhism can offer if it can be said that many Buddhists entering CPE are burdened by these tendencies?  I believe there are a number of possible Buddhist contributions contained like seeds within them.  Several stories from a wide range of Buddhist traditions might be helpful here.

Already mentioned was the story of Kisa Gotami and her child.  By deeply listening and coming to awareness on her own, she discovered the universality of death and grief and with this discovery the courage to face the tragedy of her child’s death in a different way.

Once the Buddha came across a monk, desperately ill with dysentery, lying in his own feces.  Asking why the monk was not being cared for, the monk replied that as he “was now useless to the Brethren; ”i.e., no one wanted to care for him.  The Buddha immediately took the monk bathed and dried him and made him comfortable.  Then the Buddha assembled the sangha [11] telling them, “Brethren, ye have no mother and no father to take care of you.  If ye will not take care of each other, who else, I ask, will do so?  Brethren, he who would wait on me, let him wait on the sick. ”[12] The Buddha embodied the compassionate concern he was instructing his followers to live by himself by using the incident to instruct the community of their responsibilities towards one another.

In 13-century Japan, Shinran, the founder of the True Pure Land School (Jodo Shinshu) once went to a funeral where a monk scolded the bereaved family members as sad only because their faith wasn’t strong.  “There are always stupid monks´, said Shinran…When asked what he would have done, Shinran replied…You should give them enough saké to make them laugh, and then leave.”[13]

Sogyal Rinpoche, author of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” told of an elderly monk near death whose mind could not remain focused on the practices for rebirth into the Pure Land of Amitabha.  All he could think of as he lay dying were the memories of a special sausage he used to eat as a child.  Other monks in the monastery tried everything to keep his mind focused but he sent them away, muttering constantly about his sausages and feeling like a failure because he couldn’t keep his concentration.  As his condition declined and the time of his death neared, one young monk approached the old man and, listening to him constantly call out for sausages with his raspy, dying breaths, told him that in the Pure Land those very sausages hung from every branch of every tree.  Suddenly, the old man’s eyes lit up and with an audible “Ah-h! ” he reached upwards as if to pick something and died smiling, his last thought finally centered on the Pure Land.

There are so many examples from the width and breadth of the Buddhist tradition around the world that capture a special something that we might call “pastoral. ”  I have only offered a few that I think represent some of the contributions Buddhism can offer in this field.  Drawn from these and other stories, there is a threefold component to Buddhist pastoral care, as I understand it.

First, Buddhism emphasizes individuals realizing, on their own and for themselves, some profoundly transformative truth.  Each person must embody the understanding, actualizing his or her own awakening.  The story of Kisa Gotami is one of many examples of this.  In addition, there tends to be a stress on this individual awakening versus any doctrinal adherence or acceptance.   

Second, Buddhism demands that we must compassionately look after the needs of others.  The spirit in which this is done in is one of alleviating the immediate suffering while doing so in a way that respects the individual’s autonomy.  The story of Shinran is instructive here.  He did not attempt to minimize the family’s suffering by suggesting their lack of faith was responsible for their tears, nor did he suggest that one should not console those who are grieving.  Instead he suggested direct and compassionate consolation and then drinking enough saké with them until some measure of relief was found upon which it was time to leave.  Even if such action might conflict with some notion of priestly sobriety.  

Third, Buddhist “pastors” are to give “the Dharma” the truth, whether that is honestly telling someone that they will die or using “skillful means” to direct their thoughts to more noble ends, as in the Tibetan monk and the sausages story.  The “truth” from a Dharmic perspective is the inevitability of suffering as the dominant condition of life, the interdependence of all things, the impermanence of all phenomena, and the joyful awakening that is enabled through recognizing these existential truths.  The first three, impermanence, suffering and interdependence form the foundation of all Buddhist thought from whichever tradition, and the fourth, the potential for joyous awakening, lives at the heart, etymologically as well as spiritually of Buddhism.  It can be said that in “Buddhist pastoral care, ” helping persons face realistically their condition in as compassionate a manner as possible while embodying such an understanding within oneself, together form what I have called “The Three Pillars of Buddhist Pastoral Care. ”[14]

Finally regarding exclusion, I will offer one important example, the issue of prayer.  First I must say that I have witnessed a great curiosity exhibited by many in CPE for Buddhist ideas and practices.  This has made many Buddhists feel as valued members of their pastoral care team, sometimes teaching meditation or otherwise providing new insights and different perspectives to the spiritual care provided.  But on the larger level of official gatherings, (or the difficulty many Buddhists have expressed regarding prayers role in pastoral care in general) many Buddhists feel left out.  This is partly due to the culture of prayer that exists in CPE, exemplified in the opening and closing of meetings and gatherings with “petitions” to “God” or “the Divine, ” for example.  As mentioned at the beginning, Buddhism does not have a universally recognizable, petitionable deity to relieve our distress.  The stories of bodhisattvas, beings destined for enlightenment whose diligent pursuit of the Buddhist path has lent them the ability to hear and respond to our calls, are understood as the personification of deeper Buddhist truths about compassion and wisdom.  They have no inherent identity as such.  Thus each time an invocation is given, a collective prayer called for or a “service” needed, the “God talk” excludes us.

In her book, “Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, ” Diana Eck, speaks about three positions taken in the encounter between different spiritual traditions: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.  It is the inclusivists’ position that concerns me here.  Inclusivism “often dodges the question of real difference by reducing everything finally to my own terms…it uses one language-the religious language of one’s own tradition-to make definitive claims about the whole of reality. ” [15] [Emphasis added]

I bring this up because it is in this realm of prayer that Buddhists complain the most about feeling excluded.  Yet, paradoxically, the efforts of colleagues to make us feel welcome often come in the form of Eck´s description of inclusivism, showing up most during times of prayer.  That is, putting together prayers or invocations that call up God in one breath and the Buddha in the next serve only to suggest that Buddhists have a different notion of God and that therefore Buddhists should feel included.   

That there is warmth and compassion in Buddhism is generally uncontested.  That there are ethical guidelines, deep philosophical and a human recognition of the inherent worth of all life is also widely recognized.  But there is no God.  This deserves reiteration: in Buddhism there is no God, no Creator, no final judge, no determiner of fate, no Supreme Being, no Great Spirit or any other name that is generally given to the concept known as God.  It just does not apply when speaking about Buddhism.  Thus to regularly insist that Buddhists accept some well-intentioned prayer that includes them as “believers in God though of a different name” (a phrase I have actually heard many times in CPE) is inappropriate and, as mentioned previously, religiously chauvinistic. 

I, as well as others have in the past made suggestions that might be worth consideration during gatherings of chaplains or supervisors.  These have included identifying a particular prayer ahead of time as coming from a specific faith group, requesting members of different traditions to give their own invocations and dispensing altogether with “interfaith” prayers.  I understand there may be some who will object to this or take offense.  But this issue goes to the heart of exclusion, something many of the good readers of this journal have personal experience with and therefore do not wish to inflict it upon others.  I certainly hope this dialogue continues.


A common danger to all deeper understanding occurs when we universalize from particulars.  We often end up stereotyping a group at the expense of any recognition of the immense gradations of possibilities within human experience.  My experience as a Buddhist in CPE was little different.  I felt on numerous occasions that I was singled out as the representative Buddhist and that somehow because I may not have measured up, Buddhism too suffered. 

I recognize that I am not a particularly good man, nor anywhere near an exemplary Buddhist; I am filled with what in Buddhism is frequently described as “blind passion and ignorance. ”  And there are far more studied and practiced Buddhists who can speak better to these issues than I (and some have tried).  I can only add a little of my understanding to this discussion.  But to evaluate Buddhism through the lens of my life is to probably do both a disservice. 

I realize that this principle works in all directions and I am aware that the tendencies I have identified and some of the comments I have made here may rightly appear to be generalizations.  In addition, my characterization of Christianity or other theistic religions may also be tainted with the broad-brush stroke of generalization.  I decided however to plunge forward in the hope that despite possible inaccuracies, some recognition of the issues raised might move all of us to seek greater dialogue.  The efforts we all make to understand one another, to respect our differences and to honestly and deeply hear what the other is saying and may possibly offer, presents for me what pastoral care is most truly about.   

In conclusion, I accept that this may create controversy among some in CPE circles who may feel me ungrateful, among Buddhists who may feel I mischaracterize their positions (or that I am airing their “dirty laundry”) or among those who find their own non-Buddhist positions distorted.  I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings and mistakes made on my part and I take full responsibility for any factual errors made.  However, I welcome any debate and comments and say again that my own experiences, in Zen, Vajrayana and Pure Land Buddhism, plus working as a chaplain and in supervising CPE students are the basis for these views.  I am also a bit homesick and would love to hear from those friends and colleagues who made the seven years in CPE, though certainly not the easiest, the richest in my life.


[1] Theravada, the broad name for the oldest surviving tradition and its branches; Mahayana which includes Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren (most known through Soka Gakkai), the three most represented traditions in the west; and Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism represented by the various Tibetan schools and Japanese Shingon.

[2] Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (Eds.), The Faces of Buddhism in America (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998), pps. 183-195.

[3] Literally, “higher Dharma,” this massive work is a collection of teachings on the classification of the minutiae of mental phenomena, their formation and their dispersion through meditative discipline.

[4] “Middle Way” teaching expounded by Nagarjuna, (c. 2nd cent. C.E.), stressing, through strict logical negations, the ultimately empty nature of all concepts and thus all attempts to characterize ultimate reality.


[5] Dzogchen, lit., “Great Perfection” and Mahamudra, lit., “Great Seal” refer to the highest, most advanced teachings and practices in the Tibetan Buddhist paths of the Nyingma and Kagyu sects, respectively.


[6] A very interesting article on this topic written by someone trained in both Christian theology and Buddhist practice can be found in the Journal of Cognitive Liberties, vol. III, No. 2, entitled, Yogic Technique, Religious Freedom and Cognitive Liberty by Jason Mierek.


[7] Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, translated by Stephen Batchelor (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, India, 1979), page 57.


[8] Literally “public notice,” originally used in China to describe a “government decree; in Zen it is an account of a master’s action or statements, including questions and answers, and is used as an object of meditation for the attainment of enlightenment,” Hisao Inagaki, A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms (Nagata Bunsho, Kyoto, Japan, 1984), p. 181.


[9] With variant spellings, this term is more and more used to describe what otherwise is referred to as Buddhism.


[10] This author is presently at work completing a book-length expansion of much of this material entitled, Towards a Buddhist Language of Pastoral Care.


[11] Sangha is the Buddhist word for “community” and while at first referring exclusively to the community of monks, and later nuns, now is used to refer as well to the broader lay community of followers of the Buddhadharma.


[12] F.L. Woodward, translator, Some Sayings of the Buddha, (Oxford University Press, London, Oxford, New York, 1973) p. 85.


[13] Hiroyuki Itsuki, Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace translated by Joseph Robert (Kodansha, Tokyo, New York, London, 2001), p. 82.


[14] See note 10.


[15] Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1993), p. 184.