Can a Buddhist Monk Become a Chaplain?
By Bhante Kusala
I am Bhante Kusala, a Buddhist monk from the Theravada Tradition. At Harvard’s Master of Divinity program, students are required to gain practical training related to their ministry through field education in at least two locations. I was interested in field education primarily because it would give me an opportunity to explore a variety of places where I could work as a monk. Later on, when I was looking for places to work, I remembered hearing about CPE from Professor Chris Berlin on my first day at school and became curious to know what it meant. I asked him about it and he said CPE refers to Clinical Pastoral Education and those who complete the CPE training can graduate as “chaplains.” I became a little suspicious about these terms.
Can a monk become a chaplain and still be faithful to his ministry? Does expanding his religious vocabulary make him less of a monk? These questions bothered me for a while. Then I thought, “Well, if it helps the sick, I should consider it as part of my responsibility and moral obligation.” Surely, Buddhist monks always have attended to sick people since the beginning of the first establishment of Saṅgha (monastic community). Buddhist monks take it as part of their training to care for their own Saṅgha members as well as for the devotees, particularly when they are ill.
I knew the word “chaplain” long before I came to the Divinity School, but something bothered me about it: chaplain did not sound like a Buddhist word. What is the Buddhist word for chaplain? There is no known Buddhist word. The literal Pāli translation of the word “chaplain” is puggalika devaṭṭhānādhikārika (a personal clergy member who connects with the divine). This is an old definition that does not address the full extent of the works of a modern-day chaplain. Also, this interpretation does not make any sense in Buddhism because there is no “divine” to connect to. There is hardly any connection between this loose translation and the life of a monk or the current duties of a chaplain. Since the chaplain is neither a doctor nor a nurse, his or her primary concentration of care is not the body of the sick person but the mind, issues of an emotional or spiritual nature. A chaplain is able to witness the suffering and be there with the person, while offering the necessary spiritual care. As Professor Hallisey suggested, paradukkha seviya (the one who searches for others who suffer) and paradukkha sevaka (the one who serves for others who suffer) are appropriate Buddhist terms for chaplains. Paradukkha dukkhita (the one who shares the suffering of others) could also be one of the ways to identify the role of the chaplain. Moreover, ajjhattika sahāyaka (the spiritual supporter) is also useful when defining the role of a modern-day chaplain. So even though Buddhism does not have a definition for chaplain, it does have a context for the impulses toward chaplaincy.
Without knowing any of these Buddhist associations with chaplaincy, curious as I was, I ventured into chaplaincy training to get the flavor of it. I quickly realized that I knew nothing about the actual world of a chaplain. Anyone who enters into this educational training has to do more than simply attending to the sick. Some of the other basic jobs of a chaplain are writing spiritual reflections and verbatims, making charts in the hospital database, operating a pager, being on call overnight, sharing one’s own spiritual journey with peers, leading interreligious chapel services, and being part of a care team under a supervisor. All these tasks and training elements are vital in chaplaincy education.
Basically, engaging in religious duties like praying should be considered the blood and veins of a chaplain’s body: they are only parts of the body, but they are the vital elements that make the body live. Indeed, there were times when it felt like a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, I realized that CPE is about training multifaith chaplains to be able to assist patients by putting themselves in the shoes of the patient. It does not matter which faith tradition they come from. Although there are Buddhist chaplaincy programs here in the US, I felt called to be a chaplain in an interfaith chaplaincy program. Operating as a monk as well as a chaplain did not seem inappropriate for me, as it did not appear to be doing any harm to my ministry and training as a Buddhist monk.
I am a minister in the making. In the performance of chaplaincy, I have reflected deeply about my life prior to becoming a chaplain. When all of my chaplaincy peers and I shared our life journeys with each another, it became clear to me how remarkable accepting one’s own suffering is, so much so that it helped me to approach patients as a person who has also experienced suffering in life. The more I shared openly about my life events with my peers, the more I felt like it was working in me as therapy. “You suffer, I suffer—therefore we are friends.” Acknowledging personal suffering has great therapeutic power. Similarly, patients have revealed their pains and sorrows with me, and I have witnessed the ways this sharing has helped them. I am grateful to the Spiritual Care Services Department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for providing me with this opportunity through their residency program. Even now, living at Great Lakes Buddhist Vihara as a Buddhist monk, I reach out to local hospitals and offer spiritual care services. Below is a prayer I developed, and it is being used in hospitals as a Buddhist prayer for healing. Thank you. May you be well and happy.
With the blessings of the sacred qualities of the Buddha,
I pray that you will be healed in every breath you take,
feel fresh in every morning you wake.
May you be free from all fears.
May you be free from all illnesses.
May no harm come to you.
May you live peacefully
without any trouble.
Whatever is broken in your body,
May it be mended.
May all inflammations be removed
and all infections be cleansed.
Let the warmth of Buddha’s healing love
pass through your body
to renew your life.
May the limitless loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity
guard your way toward good health.
May you see these qualities in nurses, doctors,
friends, family, and whoever tends to you.
May you have wisdom to detach from suffering
and not identify with any pain.
May your spiritual friends give you wise advice
and take you in the direction of liberation from all sufferings.
May there be every blessing.
May all heavenly beings protect you.
Through the power of all Buddhas, teachings, and noble monks,
May you be well!!!
May you be at peace!!!
May you be loved, cared for, and cured!!!
Bhante Kusala is a Theravada Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. He came to HDS as a Ho Family Foundation Scholar and graduated with an MDiv in 2017. At HDS, he took Chris Berlin’s Advanced Spiritual Counseling course.