The Arts of Contemplative Care - Foreword

Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work


368 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861716647

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eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9781614290377

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Judith Simmer-Brown

The book you hold in your hand is pioneering. It shares the work of courageous contemporary Buddhist practitioners in the West who bring the depth of their meditation practice into direct service and healing in their work as chaplains. Two skilled editors have solicited and selected chapters that illustrate how these chaplains are creating “secular parishes” in the midst of the most painful environments of our changing world, from the hospital to the prison, the military, and hospices. They counsel college students and parents raising Buddhist children, and they address issues of racism, classism, and ageism. For every setting, they describe how to be simply present, to not turn away from suffering, and to generate the heart of compassion in ways that heal.

Each chapter is fresh and immediate, full of experiential insights. We find ourselves beside these chaplains as they speak with patients ravaged by disease, with families who have just lost a child, with soldiers agonizing over the acts they are forced to commit, or with prisoners beset by regret. They share the wit and directness of the dying and the naked honesty of those who have lost everything. Humbly, they tell us of the lessons they themselves have learned. The inherent dignity, wisdom, and bravery of their clients come through on every page, and we can see that kindness is the greatest healing force.

These contributors come from a variety of Buddhist lineages, from Japanese and Korean Zen to Tibetan Vajrayana and Shambhala, to Pure Land, to Theravada vipassana; some are seasoned Buddhist teachers, others are more recent practitioners. A third of the contributors are my colleagues, friends, or sangha brothers and sisters; another third are my former students. Many others I know through reputation and through the lives of clients they have touched. Still, I learned deeply from this book about what it is actually like to be a Buddhist chaplain on the job.

In most settings, these chaplains are the only Buddhists in a Judeo-Christian or purely secular world. Sometimes they feel isolated or groundless, or fearful and inadequate, when they do not know what to do to help. Most clarify that it is not useful to think of themselves as “Buddhist”—they are interfaith chaplains who do whatever is needed. We can sense them stepping closer to their clients, holding their hands, and supporting them emotionally.

In pragmatic ways, they guide us in how to be chaplains. These chaplains teach the staple Buddhist practices, including loving-kindness meditation, listening skills, and “basic attendance.” They provide slogans for caregivers and speak about “compassionate presence” as the chaplain’s art. Several chapters contextualize this work in the timeless teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the selfless Mahayana path of the bodhisattva. Our chaplains show us how they draw sustenance from this ancient wisdom, finding fresh inspiration from their lineage teachers, from scripture, from meditation instruction.

Many know they are pioneers, and invite many other Buddhist practitioners to join them. What can be done to pave the way for others? They show that it is not enough to only “just sit” to learn to minister to a dying person; it is important to have academic study and professional supervision to develop the theological and pastoral skills to help such people. They speak of additional training they received from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), hospice, and the military as critical supports for their work. They highlight the importance of ordination, both monastic and lay, and make specific suggestions about how this could be supported by our communities.

For all of them, daily meditation practice is the primary support for the work. They acknowledge that the most important quality that the Buddhist chaplain can bring to any intense environment is clarity of mind, gentleness of heart, and a listening ear. The only way to continually do this, without resorting to formulaic techniques or a “pastoral persona” that masks our burnout or cynicism, is to return again and again to the immediacy of whatever is happening.

I am reminded of a pith teaching from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

“The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations or blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”

That is the essence of meditation practice and of Buddhist chaplaincy.


Judith Simmer-Brown, PhD, has been a professor of religious studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, since 1978. She was trained at Cornell College (BA), Florida State University (MA), Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary (ABD), and Walden University (PhD). She teaches Buddhist scripture, ethics, and philosophy, as well as interreligious dialogue, to Naropa’s master of divinity students. She is an acharya (senior Dharma teacher) of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and performs upadhyaya (Buddhist minister) ordinations for Shambhala. She’s the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism and Meditation in the Classroom.


How to cite this document:
© Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller, The Arts of Contemplative Care (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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