Dr. Victor Gabriel is Master of Divinity Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor in the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department at the University of the West. He works with the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab on the Educating Effective Chaplains project identifying the key competencies and teaching methods for training the next generation of chaplains.
Q: What excites you most about the field of chaplaincy?
A: I have always wanted Buddhist chaplaincy to move in tandem and relationship with the wider national chaplaincy education field, so I am very excited about our partnership with the Lab.
Q: What challenges have you observed in the field?
A: Regarding the training of future chaplains, people are afraid of standards being imposed from the outside — whatever “outside” means. I agree there need to be standards and guidelines. But at the same time I want the guidelines to be flexible so that we also have a way of continually refining those standards and also that as a collective we share in the power that makes these standards.
The long-term goal of this project is to improve chaplaincy education. What kinds of skills and competencies do you think are most essential to cultivate in future chaplains?
The basic skills, such as counseling skills, communications skills and spiritual assessment. I am not advocating a particular system for spiritual assessment because now there are many systems; what I am advocating is not no system.
Q: How can Buddhist chaplains address the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: Buddha said in life there is suffering. The Four Remembrances remind us of the inevitability of death, old age, sickness, and suffering. For Buddhist chaplains addressing the pandemic, this is part of our toolkit. So now the question is how to address something happening on a global level.
I think Buddhists also in a way have to be compassionate because part of the Buddhist training is to accept these Four Remembrances. Thich Nhat Hanh is like the cuddliest form of Buddhism, and even his interpretation of the Four Remembrances is “I am of the nature of death, and I will die.” As Buddhist chaplains we cannot just jump to that. We have to gradually build up to that realization for people. Just because we accept something as a belief statement doesn’t mean we can expect people to jump to it. We must be patient, compassionate, and open to many viewpoints.
Q: A recurring theme in some spiritual care conversations is disparities of care. How can Buddhist chaplains address inequality?
A: Buddhists haven’t been so good at this. Buddha was born in a royal family, or at least one that was powerful and wealthy. But the Buddha took the trouble to preach about equality and people from low caste or no caste were accepted into his order. Buddhists have the challenge to see everyone as equal. And we need to continually mine our sacred texts for those instances. For Buddhists, one of the entryways is seeing the world through the lens of the dispossessed, those who have no money or social standing. As well as, not using the doctrine of non-self, to spiritually bypass issues of equality and equity.
Q: How do your interests in feminist and queer theory impact your approach to educating future chaplains?
A: Buddhist scriptures tend to be written for men, by men, with men’s interests in mind. Of course there are hidden transmitters of the Buddhist tradition who are women. When I teach, I try to recover the voices of the subaltern people who are oppressed and neglected.
Buddhists also come from societies where there is no binary definition of gender. That is good, but it’s not to say that people with non-binary gender have not been persecuted. We have to see how we can mine our scripture to find a place for non-binary genders and people from different sexual minorities. This goes back to identity politics. Buddhism has the idea that there is no “small self,” though we believe in a “big self.” Given that, where is the place of identity? That is a very nuanced topic. So for Buddhism, feminist theory and queer theory has to address identity politics. We won’t have answers immediately but at least we have questions to be aware of.
Q: How do you see issues of equity and inclusion being addressed (and not addressed) in the field of chaplaincy today?
A: In terms of not being addressed, first of course there is the issue of tuition for classroom education and for CPE. Some people can afford that but many cannot. Also, the Buddhist tradition places high emphasis on spiritual practice — meditation, retreat, and so on. Retreat is a nice concept but, in practice, it can be very expensive: $2,000 for a few days of retreat is not feasible for many! So economic inequality and access granted by privilege is something difficult and fraught.
Q: What do you hope will be the impact of the future chaplains you are helping to prepare?
A: My hope is that at the American national level we as Buddhist chaplains can bring diversity and become a model of inclusiveness. I am hoping that by welcoming Buddhist chaplains into a national conversation, Christians will also recognize that among themselves they have other voices. Sometimes my students are called by Christians because they want to unburden themselves of issues they don’t want to tell their pastor. Why do some Christian ministers place dogma over pastoral needs? Why do Buddhist wind up in that unfilled pastoral role? So I think we need to have that conversation.