Chaplaincy on the Bodhisattva Path

Ven. Myeongbeop Sunim at the Buddhist Ministry Initiative’s Conference at HDS. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

By Ven. Myeongbeop Sunim

For me, the model for Buddhist ministry is “Bodhisattva,” and this concept can give us a deeper perspective on “interfaith ministry activities.” If you look at the concept of Bodhisattva, you will find that Mahayana Buddhism has been practicing chaplaincy from its inception.

Of course, “interfaith ministry” comes from a Western engaged Buddhism model. From my perspective, Buddhism in the West is more socially engaged and vocal, like a newborn baby full of energy. In the course of its development so far, Western Buddhism has absorbed many different practices from Christianity, including “ministry activities.” This trend toward providing Buddhist ministry and chaplaincy services is now expanding throughout universities, hospitals, prisons, and other public institutions.

In East Asia, among the virtues of a Bodhisattva, the “vow” has been emphasized more than compassion and wisdom. The vow of a Bodhisattva is to attain the ultimate truth, or the Bodhi. The enlightenment known as anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi is one of absolute equality, without discrimination, which means that a Bodhisattva’s enlightenment can be complete only when all other sentient beings attain enlightenment. This is why a completely altruistic compassion constitutes the very essence of the Bodhisattva’s virtues.

As a result, the Bodhisattva path in East Asia is oriented more toward the completion of an individual’s practice for enlightenment than on socially engaged activities. But this does not mean that the monks of East Asia did not engage in any such activities. In fact, many monks took care of the sick, built roads and bridges, and engaged in other activities of salvation which were called the “eight fields of making merits.”

However, the eight fields of making merits were seen as a means to save oneself rather than a means to save others. Some might argue that such a motive is selfish, but this view actually keeps you from separating yourself from others. If you are able to stop differentiating yourself and others while helping them, this means you have realized the emptiness, or śūnyatā, of the self. Then, your very act is not only a social engagement but also a spiritual practice, and helping others can be the practice of a Bodhisattva who pursues the ultimate enlightenment. This emphasis on self-purification through altruistic activities often results in indifference toward the outer world or in sinking into one’s inner world, but it still has some important wisdom to shed on clinical chaplaincy.

To practice the Bodhisattva path in this modern world, where more and more people suffer because of the social system, one has to look into how “compassion” can be practiced in society while not forgetting the Bodhisattva vow of pursuing the highest enlightenment. Altruistic acts cannot be accomplished by thought alone; you have to learn how to serve. Life in the sangha, with its regular ceremonies and services and its strenuous work—including cleaning, cooking, gardening, farming—trains your body and mind to be awakened. This unique training precisely defines all movements of the body; the rules provide an experience of awakening which cannot be experienced by logical thinking. This is not an abstract understanding but something always applied in concrete situations, which makes this particular kind of wisdom all the more powerful in clinical settings.

Learning through bodily practice must be included in the process of training a Buddhist minister. In my experience, ritual is extremely important in terms of self-training. Buddhist wisdom comes only through self-understanding, or realization through practice. This is the strongest means Buddhism provides for modern people to understand their problems better.

What qualities are needed for Buddhism to engage with society? First, we need to cultivate compassion that resonates with other people’s suffering. These virtues provide the inner power to the chaplain to better help patients clinically. Second, we need to cultivate the skills of putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice in our daily life. Third, we need to cultivate the qualities of an educator, one who teaches not just the alleviation of suffering but its very cessation.

Meditation is an excellent method of healing—not only for the chaplain, but for all suffering people. It is a means unique to Buddhist ministry. Whereas in Asia, meditation is primarily a means for monks who have renounced the secular world to pursue enlightenment, in the West, meditation has been used more for the practical relief of physical and mental pain.

In their work chaplains often feel exhausted. Looking into oneself as is—separate from one’s role or relation to others—is very important in chaplaincy. Meditation allows the chaplain to stay in inner peace without being overburdened by the many hours counseling students, visitors, and lay followers. The stability and inner fulfillment acquired through meditation have a positive influence on other people, too. With meditation, the activities involved in providing chaplaincy care can turn into a source of happiness instead of an exhausting labor.

But clinical meditation can easily become a trap. Many programs are designed to bring people positive changes through meditation in as short a time as possible, and indeed, you can experience a change in your mind in a short period. But if you desire that same result again and again, then your meditation will not get any deeper. The mind’s longing itself becomes an obstacle.

In fact, short-term meditations seldom bring lasting results. Moreover, it is not uncommon for some “lay” people to experience special reactions during meditation that might be perceived as unpleasant, alarming, or overwhelming. People with mental disorders or psychological instability do not improve suddenly. Even though their pain might disappear temporarily, it can come back, sometimes with a vengeance. And the reality is that people often no longer meditate after they leave the meditation center or the clinic.

Clinical meditation aimed at achieving temporary relief—such as the lessening of pain—cannot bring the complete cessation of suffering. These stress-reducing meditations are based on the Buddhist teachings of impermanence, suffering, and nonself, but they concentrate more on the relief of stress than on understanding the three marks of existence, or trilakṣaṇa. This is why people lose their motivation to continue their practice after benefiting from certain effects. Even if they continue meditation, they tend to give up easily if quick progress is not made; or they will go from one meditation center to another, looking for “new” methods. As Chögyam Trungpa pointed out, spiritual materialism is a problem often prevalent in therapeutic meditation designed for achieving quick effects.

The side effects of meditation have not been fully understood in Buddhism in the West. Many experienced masters in Asia, past and present, are aware of the many problems that meditation can bring. Their recommended solution is to study the three Buddhist trainings, or śikṣā-traya: precepts (ethical conduct, śīlā), mental concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (prajñā). These trainings lead a practitioner along a balanced path and prevent him or her from falling into harm or imbalance. Learning all three forms the right view (samyag-dṛṣṭi) in practitioners, which must be established to avoid the side effects of meditation. The trainee must acquire wisdom gained through the bodily practice of precepts and correct understanding of the Buddhist scriptures and Zen teachings.

I know of a bhikṣuṇī who works as a chaplain at a hospital. After one year of service in the hospital, she spends one year of retreat in a monastery. She has not had professional training in counseling, but she has no difficulty in caring for the patients. In my opinion, the key to her success is the trust the patients place in her.

In Asia, above all else, trust in a religious leader is formed when the leader leads an ethical life. The fact that the bhikṣuṇī lives according to the precepts, and diligently performs her daily morning and evening services alone, makes people follow her. Keeping the precepts is a sign of her sincerity. People want to see the power of religion through the lives of their religious leaders. The words and behavior of an ethical religious leader can have a profound impact.

It is a wrongheaded perception to think that precepts and meditation are unrelated. They are inseparable; following the precepts is a precondition to meditation. Teaching meditation without teaching precepts is the same as teaching someone how to drive without teaching the traffic rules. If one lives without following the precepts, meditation training will stagnate. This is why right view is the foremost thing that should be established in training chaplains.

This is an edited version of Sunim’s presentation at the HDS conference “Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?” held in April 2015. View the full panel discussion How Should We Train Buddhist Students to Be Chaplains?

Ven. Myeongbeop Sunim has been a bhikṣuṇī in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism since 1994. She received her PhD from Seoul National University in 2007 and currently serves as associate professor of Buddhism at Nungin University of Buddhism in South Korea.

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