Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?

Harvard Divinity School Buddhist Ministry Initiative presented a conference on:
Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?
April 23-25, 2015, at the Harvard Divinity School

Details of the conference topics and presentors is given below.

Upon reflection, the following four aspects of the conference stand out for me.

1. There (already) exist a wide range of institutions/organizations that address their efforts to preparing people to serve in a variety of functions that fall under an expanded sense of ministry.These include not only institutionalized education programs such as those growing out of the seminary model, but also the hands-on kinds of training offered by social service oriented groups, and monastic institutions seeking to be more socially engaged. Also represented at the meeting were some who resisted the idea that everything must needs be done by institutions, that alternative forms of social organization need to be validated as they may be able to avoid the power issues and hierarchy that institutions seem to enable.

2. An expanded understanding of ministry: as was mentioned by Ruben Habito (Perkins School of Theology & Southern Methodist University, and Maria Kannon Zen Center, Dallas, Texas) the origin of the term minister means “to serve.” The general understanding of a minister links a person with that function to a specific community, sangha. An expanded understanding opens the field of service to something potentially much wider than one specific community, sangha. The vision offered in the course of the conference included not only human beings, but also the entirety of the living world.

3. Within this expanded scope, there seems to me to be no functional difference between ministers and chaplains and bodhisattvas (lay, celestial, or otherwise). However (you knew there was going to be a “but” here somewhere, didn’t you?), there are context specific skills that should inform the education of ministers and chaplains and bodhisattvas. In other words, the institutional context of a church, meditation group, or other sangha requires different skills from those required for service in a hospital, hospice, jail, prison, military or university setting. Understanding the contexts of service in which Buddhists try to effect beneficial change requires of those of us involved in the educational project give at least periodic attention to the wellness of match between the curriculums we offer and the contexts of service.

4. The expanded scope opens understandings of service to social action, social justice, engaged Buddhism. Several different groups engaged in such activities were both represented and mentioned in the course of the discussion. This resists the understanding of Buddhism as only or necessarily individualistic, feel-good, or escapist, much less as exclusively in the service of consumption capitalism. The issues here are in many cases familiar, such as eco-Buddhism, women’s issues, systems of oppression generally. An important suggestion was that Buddhist understandings and Buddhist leaders emerging from minority and marginalized communities are a particularly important direction for the future growth of the dharma. It should be noted in addition, that there was no evidence of an idealized image of Buddhism as being free from such faults as oppression, exploitation, and abuse of power.

Other participants will no doubt take away other ideas and impressions from the conference, these are mine. It is to be hoped that the people and institutions involved in these three days of conversations will continue to communicate, and collaborate in the development of Buddhist ministry. My thanks, again, to the organizers, especially Julie Gillette for her logistical maintenance and coordination, the Ho Family Foundation who provided the grant for the Buddhist Ministry Initiative of which this was a part, Harvard Divinity School for hosting the conference, and the committee of the Buddhist Ministry Initiative for their vision and leadership.

THURSDAY, APRIL 23, 2015; 7pm-8:30pm
HDS Opening  Session: Why this conference? What can our respective institutions offer to the field of Buddhist ministry/applied Buddhism?

Emily Click, Harvard Divinity School
Cheryl Giles, Harvard Divinity School
Janet Gyatso, Harvard Divinity School
Charles Hallisey, Harvard Divinity School

Facilitator: Dudley Rose, HDS Associate Dean for Ministry Studies

FRIDAY, APRIL 24, 2015; 9am-10:30am
Panel discussion: What does it take to be a Buddhist minister?

Richard Payne, Institute of Buddhist Studies
Judith Simmer-Brown, Naropa University
Yangsi Rinpoche, Maitripa College
John Makransky, Foundation for Active Compassion, Boston College

Facilitated by Dudley Rose, HDS Associate Dean for Ministry Studies and Lecturer on M

Panel discussion: How should we train Buddhist students to be chaplains?

Ven. Myeongbeop Sunim, Nungin University of Buddhism, South Korea
Rev. Koshin Paley Ellison, New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care
Victor Gabriel , University of the West
Joshin Brian Byrnes, Upaya Zen Center

Facilitated by Cheryl Giles, HDS Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling

Panel discussion: How does/should the international aspect of Buddhist ministry inform our work?

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhist Global Relief
David Matsumoto, Institute of Buddhist Studies; Ryukoku University, Japan
Ouyporn Khuankaew, International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, Thailand
Ven. Yifa, Woodenfish Project

Facilitated by Janet Gyatso, HDS Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs

SATURDAY, APRIL 25, 2015; 9-noon
Working session on collaboration
How can the institutions we represent collaborate and cooperate? How can we stay in touch and continue this work?

Facilitated by Charles Hallisey, HDS Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures

1 thought on “Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?

  1. Thank you so much for your clear and thoughtful remarks, Richard! Comment regarding minister versus chaplain. I work in both capacities and have generally understood that a chaplain tends to work with individuals within an institution on a more or less ad hoc, temporary basis. That is, a patient in a hospital, visiting with the patient for the duration of his or her stay at the hospital. A minister tends to work with a community of people, often as an institution itself (church, Sangha) mostly on a ongoing basis. I also tend to see ministers as potentially acting as leaders in large-scale issues, such as justice, protest, human rights, etc. Please don’t ask me how the two compare with the term “priest!” I agree that all capacities are bodhisattvas – that’s a lovely point.

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