This week marks Spiritual Care Week, which recognizes the work of spiritual caregivers in hospitals and other institutions around the globe. The first Spiritual Care Week was held in October 1985. This year’s theme, “Relevant and Responsive in Times of Crisis,” honors the support that chaplains provided during the COVID-19 pandemic to patients, families, and healthcare staff.

According to a recent report from the Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America project, Buddhist chaplains are on the rise, with at least 425 currently working in North America. While many serve in more traditional settings like hospitals, universities, and prisons, Buddhist chaplains are also expanding into more niche fields, including firefighting, emergency response, the US military and Air Force Reserve, and even animal welfare.

To celebrate Spiritual Care Week, here are five interviews and stories from Tricycle’s archives—including a selection from hospice chaplain and Tricycle contributing editor Pamela Gayle White’s new monthly series—on the unique role Buddhist chaplains play.

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Chaplains Encounter the Truth of Suffering Directly

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Buddhist chaplains have worked on the front lines of suffering, witnessing the grief and heartbreak of hospital patients and staff. Holly Hisamoto, a former hospice chaplain, says, “The role of chaplain invites me into a direct encounter with the first noble truth…. It calls me into a relationship with suffering that is not intellectual and not heady and not removed by my desire for comfort.”

For Elaine Yuen, Buddhist chaplain and contemplative educator based in Philadelphia, chaplaincy requires responding to suffering with creativity: “[The Buddha] saw the sick, the dying, and a corpse—and sought to make meaning from that. Anyone who goes into chaplaincy works in that space: helping people make meaning from their suffering.” Read more about the experience of Buddhist healthcare chaplains during the pandemic in “A Ministry of Presence,” by Daniel Burke.

Chaplains Support People of All Faith Traditions

Venerable Dr. Longyun Shi first became a chaplain to put Buddhist teachings on suffering and impermanence into practice. The first Buddhist nun to complete chaplaincy training in the United States, Longyun currently works full-time as the oncology and ICU chaplain at Stanford Health Care. Longyun is committed to helping people of all faiths find a sense of peace: “I try to help people connect with their inner peace and strengths regardless of their faith. No matter what their religious beliefs are, as it says in the Pali canon, if they are free from worries and fears at the end of life, they go on to a good place. That’s what I’m working on—helping them be free from worries and fears so they can get to the place they want to go, no matter where that is.” Read an interview with Longyun by Pamela Gayle White.

Chaplains Make Space for Difficult Feelings

A Zen practitioner and fellow at the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis, Howard Ruan recently completed their CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) residency at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. As a chaplain, Ruan (who uses they/them pronouns) brings their moment-to-moment awareness and openness to each visit with patients and families. Over the course of the residency, they provided support to the uncle of a dying teenager, having “impromptu chaplaincy moments” when they would bump into each other.

“During even this brief opportunity to meet and share, I feel that my Zen practice allowed me to make space for him, to not try to smooth things over or fix them as he talked about his feelings. Christian colleagues have expressed that they have a hard time doing that. They’ve given me feedback saying that they appreciate how I don’t seem to be perturbed, knocked off guard, or overly anxious when difficult situations come up. I think that Zen gives me that edge. I allow and encourage people to express any feelings: feelings of hopelessness and despair as well as of joy and gratitude.” Read an interview with Ruan by Pamela Gayle White.

Chaplains Provide More than Religious Support

Daniel Troyak currently serves as Australia’s first full-time Buddhist prison chaplain. Troyak, also known as the “Happy Chappy,” holds meditation and dharma classes for inmates and prison officers, though he finds that a lot of his work takes place one-on-one, particularly with inmates who are struggling emotionally or who are facing terminal illness.

He sees his role as beyond that of a traditional religious leader: “The job of a chaplain in a correctional center is not purely religious; it is to be a support through mental, emotional, or spiritual care—one or all of these. We meet the person wherever they are. We create relationships. We may be called upon to diffuse situations between inmates and staff, or among staff, or to advocate. We do a number of things to just be there in the background, ready to help wherever and however we can.” Read an interview with Troyak by Pamela Gayle White.

Chaplains Need the Support of Sangha

Chaplaincy can be a challenging career, and Buddhist chaplains can be particularly isolated. Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, a researcher with the Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America project, recognizes the risks of burnout and is working to create networks of support for Buddhist chaplains.

She says, “It’s a fantastic career, and you will deepen your practice…But you’ve got to be very realistic about what the job prospects are and proactive about building yourself a support network. Do you have a sangha that’s supporting you and can also act as an ethical check on your work? Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are things we have to deal with; who’s got your back? What community can you go home to at the end of the day? So many Buddhist chaplains out in the field feel very alone and disconnected—that’s been reported again and again. We have a good opportunity right now to begin building networks between Buddhists who are doing this work.” Read more about efforts to create community for Buddhist chaplains in “Where the Buddhist Chaplains Are,” by Pamela Gayle White.

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