The Rinsho Buddhism Chaplaincy Training Program kicked of its inaugural Level One Lecture Series this past Wednesday May 10 at the Tokyo University Young Buddhist Association Hall to a packed room of 90 participants. This 10 part lecture series became filled within two weeks of its announcement and has a waiting list of over 60, showing that the consciousness of Japanese Buddhists has ripened for this kind of social engagement. Another major encouraging aspect of this first group of participants is their wide-ranging diversity. While they are mostly ordained priests and nuns (a general prerequisite for becoming a chaplain), their ages range from young teenage samanera to a number of elderly priests in their 70s. The participants come from almost all denominations in the Japanese Buddhist world, including participants from a few of the major modern lay denominations. They include not only individual priests who have begun their own initiatives for dealing with the suffering of common Japanese but also priests sent as representatives by major denominations to help those groups better adjust to and confront important social issues in Japan today.
After an opening welcome from Rev. Akitoshi Saito, the Secretary General of the Zenseikyo Foundation, which is the host organization of the Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism, and an explanation of the entire training program by Rev. Hitoshi Jin, the Director of Zenseikyo and Senior Fellow of Rinbutsuken, the extended two hour program was devoted to talks by Rev. Mari Sengoku, Rev. Fujio Soin, and Jonathan Watts with commentary by Prof. Kenryo Minowa of the Tokyo University Graduate School.
Rev. Sengoku is a Research Fellow at the Kyoto University Kokoro Heart-Mind Research Center where she works with Prof. Carl Becker on developing community outreach solutions through wide-ranging interdisciplinary research on the mind and consciousness. For 13 years she served as an overseas minister of the Jodo Shin Honganji Pure Land Denomination in Hawaii, where she gained accreditation as a chaplain as served in the Queen’s Medical Center and Hospice. From this background she was able to introduce to the audience the principles, skills, and experiences of professional chaplaincy, especially in medical environments. As Japan lacks both a general system for training Buddhist chaplains as well as no system of team care in its medical facilities that would allow chaplains of any religion to serve, Rev. Sengoku’s explanation and reflection on her own experiences were vital to the audience of priests and nuns.
Rev. Sengoku also reflected on her experiences serving as a chaplain for one year at the Asoka Vihara clinic and nursing home, established in 2008 by her own denomination on the outskirts of Kyoto. One of her major challenges in that work was the overall lack of religiosity of Japanese patients, some of whom die with bitterness and regrets and no spiritual resources to confront them. In this way, Rev. Sengoku concluded her talk with the following recommendations: 1) that Japanese society in general needs to narrow the divide between religion and the public sphere, specifically by offering religious education to people at a young age; 2) a more systematic and non sectarian education in the caring arts for religious professionals, especially Buddhist ones, such as the American Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) system is needed.
The next speaker was Jonathan Watts, a research fellow at Rinbutsuken and also at the Jodo Shu Research Institute, where he has recently co-authored a book on Buddhist care for the dying and bereaved around the world (which includes a chapter by Rev. Sengoku). Watts picked up where Rev. Sengoku’s presentation ended by exploring further the reasons for the development of CPE in the United States and the key points to this training. In this way, he drew a distinction between volunteers—who have brief periods of training to work in hospices and other medical institutions—and chaplains—who have much more intense and specialized training. One key aspect of this advanced training is both working as equals with medical professionals as part of a team care system and also serving these professionals by offering them psycho-spiritual care when the moral and ethical challenges of their work become overwhelming. Watts also noted the need for chaplains to have a holistic view of the institution in which they serve so as to be able to cultivate the spiritual culture of the institution and face the structural issues that threaten that culture.
In this way, Watts showed how some Buddhists—such as Rev. Joan Halifax and her Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program in the United States—are training Buddhists to become engaged in a variety of different social issues, such as the environment, conflict resolution, and gender discrimination. Developing and adapting the same core skills of deep listening and presence used in hospices and medical facilities, Buddhists in a number of countries are becoming interested in advanced training for places where suffering exists—the core principal of Buddhist practice and engagement. In this way, Watts attempted to show that Buddhist chaplaincy was not different than Socially Engaged Buddhist practice, emphasizing the 3 domains of: personal practice and self care; inter-relational practice and other care; and social system intervention and care for the world.
The final presentation by Rev. Soin Fujio followed the stream established by the previous two, illustrating Japanese Buddhist priests’ engagement in suicide prevention and care for bereaved families of suicide victims as the practice of Buddhist chaplaincy and an expression of socially engaged Buddhism in new social contexts. Rev. Fujio was born as the son of a Rinzai Zen Kencho-ji Denomination priest in Yokosuka, Japan, about an hour south of Tokyo. His father emphasized the need for him to experience the world before taking full ordination, so he worked for a number of years in a Japanese bank that included a period on Wall Street in the United States. Rev. Fujio is now the abbot is his temple and the Vice Director of the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Suicide, which was created in 2007 by both priest and nuns of a variety of denominations.
Rev. Fujio’s presentation explained the core activities of this group, which include collaborative letter writing to the suicidal that have sought out their help and specialized memorial services and group counseling sessions for the families of those who have killed themselves. Rev. Fujio emphasized that the aim of the group is not just that suicides should decrease, but rather through developing a society in which people can lead life in a lively manner, suicides will decrease. In this way, the association is not only incorporating the wider social view of the Buddhist chaplain and socially engaged Buddhist, but it has also turned a keen eye towards the reform of Japanese Buddhism itself. Buddhist chaplaincy offers a way for individual Buddhist priests and their denominations to rediscover their roles in contemporary Japanese society, after years of being maligned for ritualism and a focus on the economic benefits of performing funerals,
The overflowing registration and great interest showed in this inaugural program indeed shows how this issue is becoming a growing interest in the Japanese Buddhist world. Without a doubt, many great challenges lie ahead both for this specific program by Rinbutsuken and for the Japanese Buddhist world to revive itself. Perhaps the principal one is what Rev. Sengoku reflected on in her talk, which is the lack of trust of many Japanese for Buddhist priests and the very secular orientation of mainstream society which sees that Buddhist priests have no contribution to make in the public sphere. Still, for one night, a full hall of ordained priests and nuns listened attentively to a way of understanding Buddhism that requires listening over preaching, an awareness of social forces and systems, and a style of training that will take them out of places of comfort and lead them into ones of suffering.