Kindfulness: Buddhist Ministry at HDS

December 7, 2017
Lama Rod Owens and the Karmapa
Lama Rod Owens, MDiv '17, with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

Duncan Gardner, MDiv ’14, is one of the growing number of alumni of the HDS Buddhist Ministry Initiative (BMI), the first program of its kind at a divinity school associated with a major research university. He tells the inmates in the Tennessee prison where he works a story attributed to the anthropologist Loren Eiseley to illustrate the notion of compassion.

An old man is walking down a beach strewn with starfish from a recent storm. He comes upon a young woman picking up the creatures one by one and throwing them back into the ocean.

“Hey, what are you doing?” the old man asks.

“I don’t want the starfish to die in the sun, so I’m throwing them back in,” the young woman says.

“This beach is filled with starfish!” the old man exclaims. “You’re never going to save them all.”

The young woman tosses in another starfish and says, “Yeah, but it makes a difference to that one.”

“The story makes guys tear up,” says Gardner, chaplain at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility, a medical and mental health center operated by the Tennessee State Department of Corrections. “Negativity in a prison is rampant, so we talk about what we can do to make our pod a better place, make our lives a better place, even in the midst of it. The good actions we do are like throwing a starfish into the ocean—small, but they make a difference.”

Established in 2011 with a generous gift from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, the BMI coordinates a range of courses on the history, thought, and practice of Buddhism, on Buddhist languages and culture, and on Buddhist arts of ministry. The initiative also supports the field education of Buddhist ministry students in hospitals and other sites of pastoral care, and offers the insights of Buddhist textual traditions and practices to students from all religious traditions who study ministry at HDS.

“I can think of no place where the Buddhist Ministry Initiative would have broader and deeper impact—and in more creative ways—than at Harvard Divinity School,” says Robert Yau Chung Ho, chairman of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. “My colleagues and I couldn’t be more pleased to see how this innovative program has literally re-defined ‘ministry’ for the twenty-first century.”

Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies Janet Gyatso says that HDS’s progressive ministry education program was an excellent foundation for the BMI.

“Although the theology and cosmology are different, there are ways in which Buddhists work that are similar to the ways that Christian clergy do,” she says. “They need similar skills, particularly in the U.S., which is increasingly a multireligious society. Given the multireligious structure and pedagogy of ministry education at HDS, we’ve been able to plug Buddhist variations into it.”

Although the BMI has only been around for six years, it’s become a major draw for students. In fact, within only two years of the initiative’s launch, more HDS students identified as Buddhists than did those of any other single denomination except Roman Catholics. According to Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, the BMI has had a profound influence on the way that students from all traditions study ministry.

“The study of pastoral care and counseling and preparation for chaplaincy at HDS now is deeply inflected by Buddhism, and I think that may be a permanent development,” she says. “Students preparing for ministry at HDS, no matter their religious tradition, will have their approach to pastoral care and counseling shaped by Buddhist wisdom about mindfulness and compassion. That, to me, is very exciting.”

Laura Hopps, MDiv ’12, brings that wisdom to the sick and dying at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, Texas. As chaplain for supportive medicine, Hopps partners with doctors, nurses, social workers, and others to provide palliative care to terminally ill patients and their families.

“I work in traumatic situations every day,” she says. “Patients dealing with a terminal diagnosis. Families wondering whether or not to remove their loved one from a ventilator. It has so much to do with the Buddhist practice of showing up to listen and be fully present.”

Hopps credits the BMI with enabling her to develop the spiritual resources necessary to work in a field that has a high rate of burnout. She says that Gyatso—along with HDS professors Charles Hallisey and Cheryl Giles— combine rigorous scholarship with a deep understanding of Buddhist practice in a way that makes classroom knowledge immediately relevant. As a result, Hopps can be a resource not only for her patients, but also for her colleagues.

“My team sees Buddhist practice as a breath of fresh air in the midst of huge amounts of suffering,” she says. “On my interdisciplinary team, there are people who identify as Christian, atheist, Muslim, and Catholic/Buddhist. I share with them some techniques from Buddhist practice— mindfulness, loving kindness meditation—and they just want more. One doctor says that she only wants to utilize self-care practices that are backed by research. For her, that is ‘medication and meditation.’”

 Gyatso says that one of the most valuable aspects of the BMI—and of ministry education at HDS—is that it prepares students like Gardner and Hopps to serve in a variety of different settings, from temples to prisons to hospitals and many others in between.

“Ministry can be anything from leading a religious community anywhere in the world, to social work, health care, journalism, the arts, and many other fields,” she says. “That’s one of the interesting things about HDS; people come and get an MDiv or an MTS and then go on into some very disparate fields, but they’re using what they learned here to inform what they’re doing. That works the same for Buddhism as it does for other religions.”

As a student, Alia Braley, MDiv ’15, integrated study in the BMI with her passion for activism and human rights. Through HDS’s field education program, Braley spent a summer in Serbia at the Center for Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which “advocates for the use of nonviolent resistance to promote human rights and democracy” in more than 50 countries. Her work there led to a year-long field placement with the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), which advances “the study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world.” When Braley graduated from HDS, AEI hired her as its director of programs, a position that involved interacting with activists throughout the world, as well as in-depth research and writing on the rapidly growing use of nonviolence to effect change in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. She says that the study and practice of Buddhism has had a big impact on her work.

“I would say there is something about Buddhism that is very practical, and I think that is what drives me to the practical side of nonviolent action,” she says. “I’m very interested in outcomes, and that’s really part of the Buddhist tradition. What is the cause of suffering? What is the antidote?”

Braley says that the study of Buddhism also encouraged her to “disassemble” her ideas about reality, which, she says, is crucial in confronting power in an authoritarian state.

“People often believe that the head of state is all-powerful, that the military is monolithic, and that they are powerless against these forces,” she explains. “A lot of the practice of strategic nonviolent action is taking apart your concepts and seeing society as pluralistic. Military forces are not a monolith. They have multiple loyalties, multiple values, and they’re constantly changing. Defections from the military are often a decisive aspect of ending an authoritarian regime.”

BMI Coordinator Julie Gillette says that Braley’s experience is consistent with that of other BMI participants. Students increasingly choose projects that are outside a traditional ministry or chaplaincy setting—and outside the United States.

“One student studied the influence of Buddhism on politics in Japan,” she says. “Another looked at the effect of the travel industry in Bhutan on traditional pilgrimage. Recently, we funded a student over January term to go to Thailand and connect with the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation’s gift gives students the flexibility to go where their passion for knowledge and service takes them.”

The BMI also extends its impact far beyond the HDS campus through a triennial international conference. Gillette says that the first conference, 2015’s “Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither—and Why?” brought together around 150 scholars, students, and educators to discuss Buddhist ministry and to foster collaboration among institutions and individuals.

The conference helped people make connections that are especially important in this time and place, when there’s still the development of American Buddhism,” she says. “Millions of people in Asia have been practicing for a long time, and it’s important for our students to have that connection to the larger tradition, as well as a sense of the complexity of the tradition and all that goes with it.”

Another aspect of the BMI, the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Scholars program, brings Asian Buddhist traditions to campus every year in the form of students from countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Often monastics, they come to HDS for coursework and field education focused on Buddhist ministry. The one-year scholarships, which cover all tuition and living expenses, made it possible for Ven. Tajay Bongsa, MTS ’16, to come from Bangladesh to Harvard and study religion and politics in order to aid in his people’s struggle for land rights.

“I come from a poor family,” Bongsa explained for a 2015 Harvard Gazette article. “So to have this opportunity to come to Harvard through the visiting scholars program and learn something that might better help the lives of my people is both gratifying and humbling.”

Gillette says that even though the BMI is still more or less in its infancy, it has a big influence on training and education across the country through the newly formed Buddhist Ministry Working Group (BMWG). Assembled after the 2015 international conference, the BMWG includes faculty and administrators from U.S. and Canadian institutions that offer Buddhist ministry programs. In addition to enabling colleagues from different parts of the country to learn from each other, Gillette says that the BMWG is on the verge of establishing recognized criteria for the certification of Buddhist chaplains.

“One of the committees that’s part of the Buddhist Ministry Working Group now is the chaplaincy training committee,” she explains. “We’re working with different institutions that accredit chaplains—especially hospital chaplains—to become board certified and to change the overall certification process so that it’s more open not only to Buddhists, but to those from other religious traditions as well. We hope to have that nailed down within the next year.”

The need for the BMI—and similar programs based on its model—will likely increase in the years ahead, according to HDS’s Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies and a member of the faculty committee that manages the BMI. Rose says that, as the United States becomes more diverse, institutions like universities, hospitals, and prisons are recognizing the need to provide a wider range of spiritual care. They need professionals educated in a multireligious environment who are able to minister not only to followers of their own tradition, but also to people of other faiths.

“There’s increased demand for people who are trained in non-Christian traditions,” Rose says, “but the truth of it is that the Buddhist chaplain often ends up speaking to many non-Buddhists, just as the Jewish and Christian chaplain may. So now, in addition to the need for training in specific traditions, there’s a realization that people trained at HDS can provide a level of care across religious traditions. That’s a very important thing. No hospital’s going to have 50 or 60 chaplains on call at any given minute. Those two things really do work together.”

For Janet Gyatso, the BMI’s value to HDS and to the world rests in increased understanding not only of the differences between religious traditions, but also of their commonality. Thanks to this pioneering program—and to the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation’s gift—students and scholars at HDS are learning to strike the balance.

“The visiting scholars from Asia and other Asian Buddhists who take part in the BMI come out of a very different cultural context,” she says. “As we get to know each other, we learn that we each have our own traditions, our own virtues, and our own etiquette. We learn how to be more respectful of one another. We find all kinds of opportunities to access a kind of common humanity or a kind of capacity to communicate with each other out of common experiences and just basic truths about life. We learn to honor our differences, but also to bridge the gap.”

—Paul Massari