So what’s it like to be a Buddhist chaplain?
Rev. Elaine Yuen, PhD
From 2000 to 2012 I was a Buddhist (and interfaith) chaplain intern at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where I also worked as a Research Professor of Public Health. While Buddhism is far from being a mainstream religion in the United States, I found that my Buddhist practices and understandings supported me in my training as an interfaith chaplain.
I was part of a team of multi-faith chaplains at a large, tertiary care hospital in downtown Philadelphia. Our care supported spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the many clinical departments of the hospital. I was “on-call” approximately once a month, responding to calls from the nursing floors, as well as to emergencies, and rounding in the many medical and surgical intensive care units.
I was the only Buddhist.
In addition to our on-call time, we also had supervision-type meetings where all of the people in my internship group got together and discussed patient cases, intermixing discussion with theological perspectives. There were often 4-6 chaplain interns in my peer groups; at that time, I was the only Buddhist. Most of the others were Christian and reflected the diversity of Philadelphia’s demographic, ranging from Catholic to black Baptist. Many of the patients I visited are were not Buddhist either, although I was the Buddhist chaplain on call. In that role, I visited Vietnamese and Chinese families as their loved ones were dying, as well as Western-trained Buddhists who were in for bone marrow transplants and cancer treatment.
My training as a Buddhist and meditator supported me in this activity. I vividly experienced the Four Noble Truths, one of the first teachings the Buddha gave – where he spoke of birth, old age, sickness, and death. The Buddhist teachings became very visceral and immediate, providing tremendous ground for my personal formation as a chaplain. My practices of mindfulness and awareness supported an intention to open to myriad situations within the hospital, and to listen deeply.
I vividly experienced the Four Noble Truths, one of the first teachings the Buddha gave – where he spoke of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
And, a trust in Bodhicitta – a basic goodness that exists in all beings – was key to my caregiving as a chaplain. When I interacted with patients and staff, I used our encounters to look for that personally felt connection to Bodhicitta. This connection was often created through conversation and physical gestures. It was an exploration of what topics, words, movements – warmed the heart, and opened up the humanity within the hospital room. It could be noticing family photos, or what sports team was playing on the television, or equally a prayer from a religious tradition.
In the urban environs of Philadelphia, I discovered many ways that people expressed their connection to their human-ness, Bodhicitta. And, I felt it was one of the chaplain’s roles to support and enhance that quality through words and gestures, particularly in times of grief and transition. I would mirror Bodhicitta back to them – perhaps through a spontaneous prayer – or gestures – perhaps by joining hands – in a way that would bring comfort to them. It was seldom that I overtly proclaimed my being Buddhist, unless I was asked. However, I felt that my Buddhist training supported an ability to be present with suffering and to offer compassion, as well as be open to a creative expression of what was appropriate for a specific encounter.
It has been years since my first CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) trainings in Philadelphia, and I have gone on to teach aspiring chaplains in the Master of Divinity program at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Along the way, I’ve recognized the many Buddhist upayas, or skillful means, that support how our own and others’ suffering can be worked with and alleviated. As mindfulness meditation has become increasingly popular within our larger social sphere, I have observed how mindfulness, a practice originally described in Buddhist texts has become a support for many caregivers who may not identify solely (or at all) as Buddhist.
I felt that my Buddhist training supported an ability to be present with suffering and to offer compassion, as well as be open to a creative expression of what was appropriate for a specific encounter.
This changing role of Buddhist views and practices within the field of chaplaincy is a question that we hope to answer in a current study, Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America, that is being fielded through Brandeis with a consortium of researchers from academic institutions in the United States.
Dr. Elaine Yuen is an educator, chaplain, and artist. Ordained as Upadhyaya (Buddhist minister) within the Shambhala community, she has returned to Philadelphia from teaching pastoral caregiving and contemplative education at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She continues to be deeply interested in how we might shape our social interactions with caring and authentic presence. Her website on contemplative chaplaincy can be found at elaineyuen.com.
 Pew Research in 2019 finding 1% of the US population are Buddhists 5 facts about Buddhists around the world. Pew Research Fact Tank, April 2019.
 Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart, Pema Chodron. Lion’s Road, October, 2015. https://www.lionsroar.com/bodhichitta-the-excellence-of-awakened-heart/. Accessed 1/6/2021.
 An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism Skillful or Expedient Means. https://www.learnreligions.com/upaya-skillful-or-expedient-means-450018. Accessed 1/6/2021.
 Use of Yoga, Meditation, and Chiropractors Among U.S. Adults Aged 18 and Over. NCHS Data Brief 325, Nov 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db325-h.pdf. Accessed 1/6/2021.
 The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta, from the Pali Canon, outlines some of the Buddha’s first instructions in establishing mindful awareness. Tricycle, March, 2018. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/satipatthana-sutta-mindfulness/. Accessed 1/6/2021.
 Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America. tinyurl.com/buddhistsurvey. Accessed 1/6/2021.