Education for Ministry and Chaplaincy

Last year the Harvard Divinity School hosted a conference titled “Education and Buddhist Ministry: Whither and Why?” (April 23–25, 2015) as part of the Buddhist Ministry Initiative. There were four panels over the course of the conference, the second of which was on the topic of “What does it take to be a Buddhist minister?” For the members of this panel Prof. Dudley Rose, HDS Associate Dean for Ministry Studies, posed several questions revolving around issues of education and training, and the relation between education and ordination. The following is an expansion of my own presentation as a member of that panel. My thanks to the members of the HDS Buddhist Ministry Initiative for including myself and other members of the IBS faculty in the program.

In response to Prof. Rose’s questions, I found it important to distinguish between institutional goals as structured in the curriculum of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) and my own personal goals for the intellectual development of my students. The IBS serves as the seminary for the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), which is the U.S. affiliate of Jodo Shinshu Honpa Hongwanji-ha, commonly known as Nishi Honganji—a Japanese form of Pure Land Buddhism. In addition to Shin ministerial aspirants, the IBS also serves students seeking careers as Buddhist chaplains, those with interest in the academic study of Buddhism, and those with a personal interest in Buddhism who desire a systematic graduate level program of study. We therefore maintain what may be an unusual balance between ministerial training and a pan-Buddhist educational program, one that includes for example a certificate and track in Theravada studies.

For those aspiring to BCA ministry, the IBS’s program of education nests with a program of more practical orientation organized and run by the church’s Center for Buddhist Education. In addition to that training program, our educational program includes further practical and intellectual skills, as well as academic content. I have recently come to think of our program as a kind of three dimensional educational space. Different students enter that space at different points and can then chart their own course of studies to attain their goals. Thus, what follows is broadly descriptive of the program as it is available to all students.

Practical Skills, Intellectual Skills, Academic Content

  • Public speaking in one form or another is important for all students as a general skill. This is understood as a basis for, but as a broader concern, than homiletics.
  • Writing, at the scope of a thesis, that is, as a sustained project of researching a topic, conceptualizing it, and composing a substantive essay. In this process students are required to learn standard scholarly paraphernalia of annotations, quotation, and bibliography.
  • Language skills are an integral part of Buddhist studies and students pursue the study of either a modern foreign language relevant to their goal, or a canonic language. The level of study is that of two years of undergraduate coursework, and also serves the purpose of sensitizing them to the issues involved in translation of Buddhist texts.
  • Students are expected to take a course in ethics, and we periodically offer one specifically on Buddhist ethics.
  • A broad grounding in the history of the Buddhist tradition—figures, institutions, texts, doctrines, practices and schools of thought—is provided by a two semester sequence of classes. The first semester focuses on South and Southeast Asian forms, while the second shifts the focus to Central and East Asian.
  • Texts are of course central to Buddhist studies, and students are expected to become familiar with the types and issues of textual studies. This includes such practices as close reading, critical techniques, interpretation and hermeneutics, and the historical study of texts.
  • As has almost always been the case, Buddhism in the present-day exists in an intensely diverse religious environment. As the IBS is an affiliate member of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), our students have the opportunity to engage many different religious traditions—and are required to do so as part of their education for the present world.
  • Buddhist thought forms the mainstream of content running through all of these areas, and students are exposed to both its history and development, and to the contextual study of Buddhist thought, i.e., the role of interactions with other religious traditions over the course of Buddhist history, and the effects of polemics between religious traditions (including intra-Buddhist polemics).
  • Students having chaplaincy as their goal need to become familiar with a tradition of practice other than their own “home” tradition. For example, a student with a background in Zen is expected to take a course in insight meditation or in Pure Land practice.

Much of this structure has been adapted from that of the Graduate Theological Union. However, there were certain specific areas that our faculty felt were not covered or not covered adequately within the areas and courses described above. For this reason we organized a course for both our ministerial and chaplaincy students that we call “Organizations and Institutions.” The subjects included are so wide ranging that it required a team of three of us—Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto, Rev. Dr. Daijaku Kinst, and myself—to teach the first time it was offered. These topics included the traditional rules of the Buddhist order (vinaya) as foundational for Buddhist institutions; the similarity between the teaching of no-self (anatman) and relational systems theory as applied to families, groups and institutions; conflict resolution; ethics (again); the legal responsibilities of mandated reporting of child, elder and spousal abuse; racial and ethnic diversity; unexamined privilege; legal and organizational issues for non-profit corporations; the rules of Nishi Honganji for overseas temples; and finances and fundraising.

My personal goals for the intellectual development of my students can generally be described as developing a strong sense of critical reflection, including critical self-reflection. In particular I think that it is important that the education they receive provides ample opportunities for challenges to the many presumptions that tend to distort not only the study of Buddhism, but of religion generally.

These presumptions include the division made between ritual and meditation, especially as evident in the privileging of meditation in both popular and textbook representations of Buddhism. Such a view is not only historically problematic, but also marginalizes the traditions that do not promote meditation, or which have other kinds of practice, such as ritual practices (sadhana and puja), or chanting and recitation (forms of buddhanusmrti).

The primacy of doctrine is another presumption, specifically the belief that doctrine determines practice. One of the consequences is that doctrinal studies are given precedence in the academic study of Buddhism, such that different forms of Buddhism are primarily defined in terms of supposedly unique doctrinal claims.

Popular religious culture tends to a rhetoric that identifies original with pure, with authoritative, and with authentic. The matching rhetoric is that of decadence, which is applied to later developments within the tradition. As a consequence new developments are sometimes cloaked in the language of reform and return to the original. The rhetoric of decadence is effectively an unconscious historiographic trope.

The religious language by which Buddhism is described, often almost automatically, needs to be held at arm’s length and interrogated. Such concepts as “sacred” as in the phrase “the sacred texts of Buddhism” only serve to introduce connotations that may well not be appropriate, and consequently require conscious reflection.

Finally, students need to be sensitized to the consequences of the Perennialist dogma that “all religions are ultimately the same,” or “are ultimately all one.” Although this harmonizing message has prima facie appeal for many in our religiously diverse society, it only serves to deny the validity of religious diversity. Instead, although analogous and comparable, religions need to be appreciated as orthogonal and ultimately incommensurable.

Thus, rather than specific thematic versions of Buddhism that might have appeal in relation to fashionable topics, the intent of the curriculum of the IBS for all of our students—ministerial, chaplaincy, academic or personal interest—is to provide an education that is wide ranging across the entire Buddhist tradition, and that enables the student to probe deeply into that tradition with the tools of critical scholarship. With such an education, we feel that our students are enabled to respond to not only what is of concern now—the environment, racism, gender inequality, economic inequality, political oppression—but also whatever concerns that will arise in the future, but which we now cannot predict.


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