The interests of University of Toronto Professor Henry Shiu, PhD, range from applied Buddhism (think chaplaincy) to the philosophical bases of the Mahayana schools, with a focus on Nagarjuna, Chinese Buddhism, buddhanature, and pretty much everything in between. And yet when Shiu came to Canada from his native Hong Kong in 1990 to study at the University of Toronto, he was imagining a future in engineering or medicine. Buddhism most definitively wasn’t on his radar. Until, that is, he took an undergraduate elective that fellow students had suggested was an easy A.

“I kind of randomly picked a course on Buddhist philosophy,” Shiu says. “I still vividly remember walking in and seeing this very composed European Canadian gentleman who looked like a bearded Jedi sitting at the very center of the classroom. Professor Leonard Priestley waited quietly until the students had settled down, then started delivering his lecture. He did this for weeks without using the blackboard—just having a chat with us, like how we might imagine sitting around the Buddha. We were reading Nagarjuna’s MulamadhyamakakarikaThe Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. Professor Priestley translated and explained the Sanskrit, then went into the philosophy behind the verses. We could spend three or four weeks on a single verse. 

“I was completely overwhelmed by Professor Priestley’s insight and wisdom. I changed my major from medical sciences to religious studies, and all the science courses I had already taken became my electives. I was so inspired that I decided to continue my graduate studies under him as well. We’re still in touch.”

Recently awarded the Shi We De professorship in Chinese Buddhist studies, Shiu is director of the Centre for Religion and Its Contexts at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto, which offers Canada’s only postgraduate study track for Buddhists interested in becoming chaplains or spirituality-based psychotherapists. They join Christian and Muslim students in preparing a Master of Psychospiritual Studies that can lead to a certificate in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy.

Were you raised Buddhist? My family in Hong Kong is very Buddhist, but I never really imagined myself practicing Buddhism while I was there. I rediscovered it in Toronto by visiting different Buddhist places, temples, and organizations. When I started practicing, I began with Pure Land, then I tried Chan/Zen, and later, Tibetan Buddhism as well. I’ve been practicing within the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism for about thirty years now. I’m deeply respectful of the Nyingma tradition and all the teachings and instructions that I received, but something changed in the way I practice last July, when my mother, who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, was nearing the end of her life. My first thought was to read and perform the traditional Nyingma end-of-life rituals for her, but it occurred to me that even if her consciousness was watching, she may not be able to connect with the practices because we weren’t born and raised in the Tibetan culture.

So I tried to simplify things. I asked her to remember her own good nature, her fundamental goodness. It was as if I was encouraging her to reside in her buddhanature, and it just felt right. Afterwards, I came to a kind of resolution: I would focus on the core of Buddhist practice rather than be distracted by all the cultural trappings. I don’t really make a huge distinction between Chinese, Tibetan, or Theravada Buddhism anymore. I try to experience and cultivate what I think is at the heart of these different Buddhist traditions. 

You’ve had a remarkably extensive academic career. What took you from Nagarjuna and buddhanature to Applied Buddhism? Through my spiritual journey I came to realize that there is a huge gap between academic studies of Buddhism and Buddhist practices. Buddhist studies fall under religious studies: understanding religion from an “objective” outsider’s perspective, like with anthropology. You look at a text composed thousands of years ago and try to get historical information about the work and its authors, and to understand the philosophy as best you can.

There has always been a clash between religious studies and theology, including in the study of Christianity. The approaches are very different: it’s the insiders’ perspective versus the outsiders’. I saw myself trapped in that clash. On the one hand, I was trying to be as objective as possible in my academic studies of Buddhism, while on the other, deep down, I felt that something was being overlooked or neglected.

A few years ago, I began teaching for University of Toronto’s New College in the minor program called Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health. These courses explore socially engaged Buddhism and the modern political, economic, and social movements inspired by the Buddhist teachings. I also teach courses on Buddhist psychology, applying the Yogachara or Abhidharma teachings to the understanding of psychotherapeutic modalities. Instead of focusing on studies that are not interesting for at least 99 percent of our population, this feels more relevant and meaningful.

Tell us about Emmanuel College’s Buddhist MPS program. This is the program’s eighth year. Because Emmanuel had been offering Christian and Muslim programs, when we started out we could use the structure that was already in place. Beginning next year, we’re changing the name from Master of Pastoral Studies to Master of Psychospiritual Studies in order to distance ourselves from the traditionally Christian terminology. We look to satisfy the criteria set forth by the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care, CASC.

We offer Buddhist core courses in four areas: history, sacred texts, foundational tenets, and ethics. The program gives students a broad understanding of spiritual care through courses on different modalities of psychotherapy and family systems as well. We also look at decolonization, power and coloniality, et cetera. 

We have a first-year cohort course where students from all spiritual backgrounds and foci, including those in the Sacred Music program, the MDiv program, and the MPS program, take a first-year course on multireligious and theological leadership together. It offers a theological understanding of different religions and their lived experiences. It’s a very unique course.

Students have to complete twenty courses and at least one 400-hour practicum. This is like Clinical Pastoral Education in the US, but here CPE stands for Clinical Psychospiritual Education. We have arrangements with local hospitals and other facilities to engage students with CPE.

Who are the students? Students come from a wide range of backgrounds. The majority of our students are Canadian, and each year we also welcome students from the United States and Asia. Interestingly, most of them don’t come from traditionally Buddhist backgrounds. 

The admission requirement is at least a bachelor’s degree, but many students already have a master’s or PhD in a different field. Last year, for example, one of the students was an associate professor from a different university who was on sabbatical and another had once been a nun in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village lineage. Many of our students are more mature—in their 50s or their 60s—and come from other careers. There are students of Chinese Buddhism, Theravada, Shambhala, Chan/Zen, and so on. And then there are some who are not comfortable identifying themselves as “Buddhists” or who might see themselves as “secular Buddhists.” They may practice mindfulness but have never wanted to go through any ritual of initiation. 

I find psychotherapy to be a “skillful means,” a great tool in the development of any Buddhist chaplaincy program.

Do your chaplain students have to learn about and adapt their ministry to the Christian mainstream? The Buddhist population in Canada is around 1 percent, so the likelihood that students will one day be serving non-Buddhists is very high. My hope is that our students are receiving a proper interfaith education not only on the theoretical side but on the practical side—such as performing rituals—as well. For example, all students are engaged in preparing and officiating interfaith gatherings on a weekly basis.

In your program and elsewhere, Canadians interested in chaplaincy learn about psychotherapy. How can fluency in psychotherapeutic techniques help chaplains serve others? I find psychotherapy to be a “skillful means,” a great tool in the development of any Buddhist chaplaincy program. The growing interest in spiritually integrated therapy, including the integration of Buddhist mindfulness into psychotherapeutic modalities, highlights its relevance. This integration not only aligns with the increasing diversity in spiritual orientations but also enhances the efficacy of spiritual care, as evidenced by studies showing the benefits of mindfulness practices in psychotherapy. Incorporating psychotherapy into Buddhist chaplaincy training equips students with a comprehensive tool set for effective spiritual care. Fluency in psychotherapeutic techniques enables chaplains to assess and potentially treat patients with emotional, cognitive, or behavioral disturbances through therapeutic relationships founded on communication. 

Where do your graduates find employment? Some of them have found jobs as healthcare chaplains, some have begun their own psychotherapy practices, and we also have Buddhist students who are going to become military chaplains in the armed forces. Those are the most common career outcomes of our program. At present, there are no centralized Buddhist groups offering support to incarcerated Buddhists in the Canadian correctional system, although some of our former students may be visiting inmates as chaplains on a voluntary basis.

Outside of academia, what keeps you going? I play the piano, and a major source of my inspiration and understanding actually comes from classical music. A few years ago, when I was working as a sessional lecturer, I ventured into some of my other interests, and one of them was classical music. I put a lot of time into writing and publishing books on classical music, and as I focused on this discipline, I realized that there were a great many common themes between music and Buddhism. For example, in classical music, performers have a very clear sense of lineage. Some modern pianists can trace their lineage back to Beethoven or Liszt, and they respect their lineage in the same way that we respect our gurus and roshis.

For me, there are also similarities between looking at the musical scores of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, and looking at Buddhist scripture. I try to penetrate through the notes and get a sense of the musical mind that composed the music in much the same way that I approach a Buddhist text.

What is it that is being transmitted from masters to disciples over the centuries? How can the inexpressible essence of the transmission we’ve received help us find meaning in everyday life? That invisible something that continues on is what I’ve found to be the true art of teaching and the true art of music, and I try to be with it in my practice of Buddhism as well.

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