What Is Buddhist Ministry?

HDS Photo/Justin Knight

By Cheryl A. Giles

My understanding of Buddhist ministry grew out of my nearly forty years as a devout Catholic. Daily prayers, rituals, and frequent retreats were the foundation of spiritual formation in the small, black Catholic church in New Haven, Connecticut, that offered me refuge from early childhood to young adulthood. Above all, we learned to have pride in our blackness, to respect ourselves and each other.

During this time, I longed to be close to God, and spent many hours on my knees reciting the rosaries to assuage my sins. Years later, as an adult, I began to see and experience suffering in the world, yet I had no means to help myself and others. Although faithful to the church, I was weighed down by a theology of original sin that filled me with shame and kept me vigilant, searching for my goodness. Tell me: how much sin can a little girl commit? In part through Buddhist practice, I discovered my own original goodness was right there all the time, obscured by layers and layers of conditioning about sin.

You might be thinking, “What does this have to do with Buddhist ministry, and does this concept of original sin matter?” Where we come from shapes our understanding and practice of ministry. As an educated black lesbian recovering Catholic from a working class family who practices Tibetan Buddhism, it does matter. I bring all of this to the practice of Buddhism and, hopefully, to my ministry (as a teacher, colleague, friend, volunteer chaplain, mentor, and counselor).

Buddhist ministry is not a one-size-fits-all practice. It is being at the margins with the poor, homeless, uneducated, sick, mentally ill, and despairing. It is visiting the sick, dying, and those incarcerated. It is advocating for justice. It is teaching students who are future leaders to stand with the poor, to honor the dignity of each person, and to practice loving kindness, not just for others, but also for ourselves.

It is teaching and training students to recognize their white privilege, and supporting them as they struggle to acknowledge their racism, and figure out what to do about it. Buddhist ministry is supporting students as they grow into their wholeness, shaped by a strong academic foundation in Buddhist studies, and the integration of these studies in the practice of ministry.

Buddhist ministry is providing a safe, holding environment where students learn to grapple with not knowing, bearing witness, and offering loving action to create change and fight for justice, just like the Buddha.

This is excerpted from opening remarks Giles gave at the HDS conference “Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?” held in April 2015. View the full panel discussion Buddhist Ministry: Whither—and Why?

Cheryl A. Giles is the Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling at Harvard Divinity School and a licensed clinical psychologist. She and Willa Miller are editors of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (Wisdom Publications, 2012).

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