Buddhist chaplains on the rise

PORTLAND — Stuck in a recliner in the corner of her Portland assisted living apartment, Skylar Freimann, who has terminal heart disease and lung disease, looked anxiously at her newly arrived hospital bed recently and worried about how she would maintain her independence as she further loses her mobility.

Reverend Jo Laurence, hospice and palliative care chaplain, was there to guide her on her journey. But rather than invoking God or a Christian prayer, she spoke of meditation, chanting and other Eastern spiritual traditions: “The body can weigh us down sometimes,” she advised. “Where is the divine or the sacred in your decline?”

An ordained Sufi pastor and practicing Zen Buddhist who brings years of meditation practice and scriptural training to support end-of-life patients, Laurence is part of a burgeoning generation of Buddhist chaplains who are increasingly common in hospitals, hospices and prisons, where the need for their services has increased dramatically during the pandemic.

In a profession long dominated in the United States by Christian clergy, Buddhists lead an increasingly diverse field that includes Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan and even secular humanist chaplains. Buddhist chaplains say they are in a unique position for the times because of their ability to appeal to a wide cultural and religious spectrum, including the growing number of Americans – about a third – who identify as not religious.

In response, education and training opportunities have been created or expanded in recent years. These include the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at Harvard Divinity School and the Buddhism stream at Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Christian ecumenical seminary in New York City. Naropa University in Colorado, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college, recently launched a low-residency hybrid chaplaincy program. Accredited chaplaincy training is offered by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. There is a two-year chaplaincy training program at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM

About Shirley A. Tamayo

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