Last month, Harvard Divinity School celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Buddhist Ministry Initiative (BMI), a program that aims to train future Buddhist religious professionals for the modern era and the first of its kind within a divinity school at a research university. The school marked the occasion with a hybrid in-person and online public event hosting former fellows including the Venerable Priya Rakkhit Sraman and Maria Azhunova. 

The BMI was formally founded in 2011 after Harvard received a grant from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to develop a program in Buddhist ministry. The following year, the program began to take shape: the BMI hired a full-time coordinator, hosted its first colloquium, and welcomed its inaugural international fellows.

One of the primary goals of the initiative is to strengthen connections between American universities and Buddhist ministerial movements in Asia. To this end, the program offers special scholarships each year to individuals who are deeply engaged in Asian Buddhist communities. Since the first cohort in 2012, the BMI has hosted over twenty international fellows, many of whom have gone on to complete graduate degrees at Harvard before pursuing careers in Buddhist ministry.

One former international fellow, the Venerable Priya Rakkhit Sraman, was recently appointed to be the first Buddhist chaplain at Emory University. An ordained monk in the Theravada tradition, Venerable Priya began his monastic studies at the age of 11, and he lived and trained in Buddhist communities in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and China prior to coming to HDS.

Reflecting on his time at Harvard, Venerable Priya told Tricycle, “One good thing about the BMI is that it supports different types of Buddhist ministry. It enables students to imagine new possibilities and empowers them to engage with different communities as they attend to societal needs. Students are encouraged to engage with Buddhism a lot more practically, keeping in mind the real-world issues happening all around us.”

Maria Azhunova, another recent international fellow, came to HDS in order to do just that. “I wanted to learn how to thrive in multireligious communities and organizations,” she said in a press release for the BMI’s tenth anniversary.

Current and former BMI international fellows | Photo courtesy Harvard Divinity School

Azhunova, who is from the Buryat Republic in Southern Siberia, currently serves as director of the Land of Snow Leopard Network, an organization that focuses on the conservation of snow leopards and their ecosystems and the revival of Indigenous cultures in the region. While at HDS, she started the Indigenous Knowledge Seminar Series as a way of establishing dialogue between Indigenous culture practitioners and Western educational institutions. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Land of Snow Leopard Network has shifted its focus, and Azhunova has worked to support Indigenous refugees fleeing Russia’s military conscription of ethnic minorities.

Both Venerable Priya and Azhunova’s paths illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the BMI and the careers that can follow. Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford, assistant dean for multireligious ministry, believes that this is at the heart of the program: “Buddhist students [at HDS] benefit from the rigorous academic study of Buddhism, the deep spiritual learning and skill-building of a divinity program, learning from other religious traditions besides Buddhism, and also a variety of coursework in other disciplines—from business to education to science to law,” she says. 

With the BMI’s support, students and fellows are able to train in a variety of settings, completing field education in hospitals, prisons, and nonprofit organizations, as well as more traditional retreat centers and monastic institutions. As the initiative has expanded, HDS has also built up its Buddhist studies curriculum, offering courses on Buddhist textual traditions and practices, social activism and engaged Buddhism, and spiritual care and counseling.

“What we’re doing isn’t new,” Sanford says. “The Buddha served the needs of the community in his age. But where and how we’re doing it is certainly new.”

When Sanford began training as a chaplain, there were relatively few Buddhists working in the field. Now, Sanford feels like she is “watching a professional field emerge”: “The early graduates are now in a position to give back, to share what they’ve learned, and to help shape the next generation to face new challenges. I feel like I’m watching the bud of the lotus emerge from the water and waiting to see what color it will be.”

Janet Gyatso, the Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies and a core member of the BMI faculty, shares a similar sentiment. Reflecting on her hopes for the future of the BMI, she stated, “We need to learn from each other. We need to envision what wisdom and practical knowledge we can take from Buddhist traditions to apply to the world problems we face today. And we need to think about Buddhist leadership stepping up to the stage in terms of ethical contributions that we can make to living on our planet now.”

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