Buddhist Chaplaincy Offers Spiritual Friendship as a Model for Care
Jamie Beachy, PhD, ACPE Certified Educator
Buddhist practitioners are entering the field of professional spiritual care in increasing numbers and expanding and deepening the practice of chaplaincy. In a newly released book, Kalyānamitra: A Model for Buddhist Spiritual Care, Volume I (Sumeru, 2021) Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, a Mahayana practitioner and one of only a few Buddhist campus chaplains, articulates her well-honed perspective on Buddhist spiritual care. This book is intended for those interested in Buddhist chaplaincy as a career as well as chaplains already working in the field. Through vignettes, reflective exercises, and interviews with chaplains, Sanford offers a thoughtful conception of spiritual friendship (Kalyānamitra) as a model able to inform and guide the lived experience of Buddhist spiritual care practitioners in diverse contexts for care.
Kalyānamitra has potential to capture an understanding of the highest level of chaplaincy formation.
While many Buddhist chaplains rely on a conception of the bodhisattva, as an awakened compassionate one who works for the enlightenment and liberation of all beings, Sanford chooses to draw from the Buddhist view of Kalyānamitra as it appears in the In the Pali Canon‘s Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2). Generally translated as admirable friendship, Kalyānamitra has potential to capture an understanding of the highest level of chaplaincy formation. Sanford’s model includes four iterative stages in ever-widening circles of: self (the chaplain’s own spiritual practice); student (practice engaged in relationship with others); chaplain (the ability to offer spiritual care with skill and capacity); and Kalyānamitra (a spiritual friend able to facilitate spiritual growth and theological reflection). Within each of these stages the chaplain attains wisdom through listening, contemplating, and practicing. Drawn from a 2017 qualitative study of 13 Buddhist chaplains, Sanford intends for the Kalyānamitra framework to serve as a resource for pedagogy, spiritual formation, spiritual care, theological reflection, and wisdom.
Sanford understands Buddhist spiritual care as both an ancient practice exemplified by the Buddha, and a contemporary professional discipline practiced by chaplains from diverse cultural contexts and Buddhist lineages. Sanford nods to Carrie Doehring’s work in claiming an intercultural / interreligious practice of spiritual care rather than pastoral care. Addressing Buddhist practitioners who prefer the language of contemplative care, Sanford notes that Buddhism is more than a set of contemplative meditative practices and that not all Buddhists are dedicated contemplative practitioners. Through engaging Buddhist educators and Christian pastoral theologians such as Doehring, Sanford places Buddhist spiritual care within a larger conversation, adding her creative perspective to what chaplaincy is and has potential to become.
Buddhism is more than a set of contemplative meditative practices and not all Buddhists are dedicated contemplative practitioners.
Well-grounded in pastoral theological discourse, Sanford’s work builds a bridge between traditional chaplaincy training and a Buddhist conception of spiritual and professional development. Sanford presents chaplaincy formation as the capacity to embody wisdom and care in ever-widening circles. With insights relevant for all chaplains, whether they be Buddhist, non-Buddhist, religious or secular, Sanford’s work is a lovely addition to an emerging body of Buddhist theology and practice. While a deeper consideration of power and privilege would strengthen spiritual friendship as a guiding ethos for chaplaincy, Kalyānamitra: A Model for Buddhist Spiritual Care adds depth and perspective to the ever-changing and evolving profession of spiritual caregiving.