A Prophetic Opportunity for Buddhists

by Chaplain Tom Kilts

Note:  This article was published in the February, 2005 volume of Plain Views:  The Publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy.  Chaplain Tom Kilts, is the Director of the Spiritual Care Department at Mt. Diablo Hospital System in Concord and Walnut Creek, CA.  He is the former Director of Pastoral Care and Education at Griffin Hospital, a HealthCare Chaplaincy partner institution, in Derby, CT. Chaplain Kilts is a minister of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is an Associate Supervisor with ACPE, and has been working in the field of spiritual care for ten years. Tom has worked in two different Planetree facilities, his current position at Griffin and at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, CA. Tom is also one of two co-chairs for the ACPE’s Buddhist Chaplains Network.  


Buddhists involved in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training are asked to struggle with “identity” which traditionally has not been regarded as a matter of importance in Dharma teaching. I believe CPE has the potential to be a healthy training ground for processing the East/West tension of identity.

In the Western cultural milieu, the healthy development of a person comes through individuation and the establishment of a full-functioning identity. Generally in Eastern cultures where Buddhist traditions are coming from, the value of the individual is second to the whole as demonstrated in the popular Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out the most gets pounded down the hardest.” When Buddhists, either cultural or converted, enter the CPE process they are forced to face and reconcile the issue of identity.

As is being found with Buddhist psychotherapists, there is the ever popular “Middle Way” that I feel makes CPE a prophetic opportunity for Buddhists currently in this struggle. In his book, Buddhist Practice On Western Ground (Shambhala, 2004), Harvey Aronson points out that a healthy claim of identity is in line with Gautama Buddha’s teaching. He points out that in each discourse Gautama clearly claims an identity while not holding the “I” to be permanent in any way. So there is a healthy balance of conventional identity function as well as the ontological position of selflessness. John Welwood in his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening (Shambhala, 2000), asserts that similar to how Vajrayana Buddhism integrated shamanistic ideals and practices from pre-Buddhist Tibet, Buddhism here can benefit as well from an integration of healthy psychological principles with Dharma teachings. Through engaging the CPE process, Buddhists are called to participate in the integration of healthy western values of identity with the essence of Dharma teachings.

While embarking on the CPE journey together I offer these suggestions for Buddhist students and their Supervisors to address:


If the student is a convert she needs to reconcile the conversion experience by exploring how her original religion impacts and is a part of her identity.


If the student is a cultural Buddhist there needs to be constant clarification about the agenda of CPE and process around the tension of cultural values.


Harvey Aronsen’s book (cited above) should be required reading for both cultural and converted Buddhists in the CPE process.


The student and Supervisor should become aware of and participate in the ACPE Buddhist Network.

These are just a few suggestions. As Buddhists become increasingly involved with CPE, I am sure that more will need to be explored. Like all the great religious traditions, for every culture that Buddhism has entered, it has profoundly changed in expression as a tradition and has profoundly changed the culture it has entered. This is an important time for Buddhism in this culture and I believe that CPE will have a profound and positive effect on the shape that it takes here.