Planting Seeds of Care at Sites of Suffering

The Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain Training Program Enters Its 7th year with Commencement Ceremony and Public Seminar

June 18, 2020

The Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism under the Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Welfare, a public benefit corporation, held its 4th Graduation Ceremony for Rinsho Buddhist Chaplains and its 2nd Public Seminar on March 26th, 2020 at the Tokyo Grand Hotel in the Minato Ward.

Rinsho Buddhist Chaplains hold qualifications as Buddhists with expertise and practical experience in confronting the four Buddhist sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness, and death of people in contemporary Japan. The Rinbutsuken Institute began this training program in 2013, and their activities cover a wide range of fields, such as end-of-life care, poverty, shut-ins (hikikomori), suicide prevention, social bullying, natural disasters, etc. Certified Rinsho Buddhist Chaplains work in clinical environments, usually associated with temples, such as education, social welfare, medical care, etc.

Two of the three of this year’s graduates entered the program in October 2017 as part of the 4th training course, which began with a Level 1 lecture series of 120 participants. As the full training took more than two years, these priests have come through a very selective process. The three graduates of this 4th ceremony were:

  • Rev. Toshiyasu Iwata, age 46, works in the edification department at the head temple of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship in Yokohama. When Rev. Iwata’s father died of cancer, he became inspired to follow a path of supporting others experiencing such suffering. During his training, he came to understand that while people may have different living environments, many struggle with the same sorts of suffering. He noted in his commencement comments that, “Holding steadfastly to this kind of awareness, I wish to be diligent in facing the suffering of the people I will encounter.”
  • Rev. Yoshiki Noda, age 30, is the vice-abbot of Rinjo-ji Temple of the Rinzai Zen Myoshin-ji denomination, located in Aichi prefecture. As a boy, Rev. Noda suffered from the common problem at Japanese schools of being bullied. As a young priest, he has experienced parishioners from his temple who have committed “self-death” (i.e. suicide). From these experiences, he reflected that he would like to take on the challenge of establishing a variety of places for those in suffering to find support. He noted, “I am from the non-competitive yutori generation, which still had its own kind of suffering. While I would like to increase my studies, I also want to value the viewpoint of this generation.”
  • Rev. Masaki Matsuyama, age 61, is the abbot of Minoku-ji temple also of the Rinzai Zen Myoshin-ji denomination, located in Shimane Prefecture. Rev. Matsuyama in his commencement comments noted the influence of Rev. Taitsu Kono, the highly esteemed former Chief Priest of the Myoshinji-ji denomination. While training under Rev. Kono as his Ryumon-ji temple in Hyogo prefecture, Rev. Matsuyama was deeply influenced by one of his dharma talks and the comment, “There certainly should be a need for the existence of Buddhist priests in our society.” Rev. Matsuyama explained, “I want to do my best to become a priest that is needed and that takes responsibility as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain endowed with wisdom and experience.”
(left to right): Rev. Iwata, Rev. Jin, Rev. Noda, Rev. Matsuyama

In his address to the graduates, Rev. Hitoshi Jin, the Director of the Rinbutsuken Institute, warned that, “As there is a five-year period for the renewal of the certification, your graduation becomes a form of authentic, ongoing practice.” He also encouraged them by saying, “I would like you bear down and encounter a site of suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death.” He then added with emphasis, “In the public sphere, it will be expected that you have the qualities of a specialist as well as a pro-social orientation. The practice continues for the rest of your life. I would like you to practice self-discipline while carrying out such work.”

As part of the commencement, Rev. Yasunori Sano—the Director of the Buddhist NGO Relief-Assist-Comfort-Kindness (RACK) founded by the Rinzai Zen Myoshinj-ji denomination—gave an address. Rev. Sano noted that Rev. Taitsu Kono helped create the inspiration for the Rinsho Chaplain training program through his work as the President of RACK, recalling Rev. Kono’s motto, “As we share the same feelings of sorrow, let us turn and face one another.” Rev. Sano then encouraged the graduates saying, “In this work, we can also speak of the need to confront one’s own self. I would like you to become intimate with the sorrow of the world and become a ray of light for others.”

The three graduates will now turn to face sites of birth, aging, sickness, and death with a renewed determination. Together with these new graduates, the total number of Rinsho Buddhist chaplains is now 16. In October of this year, the 7th training course will begin.

In addition to this commencement ceremony, four other certificates awarded. Rev. Ryushin Ito of Yamagata Prefecture and the Jodo Pure Land denomination and Rev. Kyoshin Kusunoki of Fukushima Prefecture and the Soto Zen denomination from the 1st graduating class had their original certifications as Rinsho Buddhist Chaplains extended. Ms. Satoko Iijima of Tokyo and the Jodo Pure Land denomination was designated a Resident Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain, and Rev. Toshinori Okusa of Saitama Prefecture and the Jodo Shin Pure Land Honganji denomination was designated as a Specially Appointed Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain.

Following the awarding of certificates, the Rinbutsuken Institute hosted its 2nd Public Seminar during which four previously accredited Rinsho Buddhist chaplains provided cases studies of their principal activities.

A Case Study of Palliative Care as “Life Care” (inochi kea) with Ms. Miyuki Uchiyama, Visiting Research Fellow at Jikei Medical University, Tokyo

Ms. Uchiyama is a graduate from the 2nd Rinsho Buddhist Chaplaincy training class conducted in 2014. As a medical nurse with over 30 years of working experience, Ms. Uchiyama took a one-year sabbatical from her work to complete the training. In 2017, she became a Spiritual Care Worker (SCW) at the prominent Tokyo Jikei Medical University Hospital. In her talk, she explained the nature of her work as a SCW through the case study of Ms. A who had contracted cancer. Uchiyama traced the ripening of the process of Ms. A’s confrontation with her death and examined the spiritual pain of that time as recorded in their discussions. In this way, she also examined the situation of providing palliative care as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain.

The ripening of Ms. A’s process involved a number of areas, such as reconciliation with alienated family; meaningful encounters with the many staff who had been attentive to her around the clock and other patients with whom she developed shared feelings; and finally an experience that transcended the human realm which might be called an encounter with god, buddha, or nature. Through Ms. A’s case, Uchiyama reflected that, “We can speak of a connection to life, which might be better expressed as a connection with other humans. Through this, there develops the power to change one’s hopes and soften the pain of sickness and death. As such, there is the possibility for people to continue to ripen or mature up to their final moments. It is important for the Rinsho Buddhist chaplain to dedicate themselves to continuing to share the pain and to be at the patient’s side even though there may be nothing they can ultimately do to resolve the pain.”

Temple Activities that become a Community Resource with Ms. Satoko Iijima of Shingyo-in Temple (Jodo Pure Land Denomination) Tokyo

Ms. Iijima’s husband is the abbot of Shingyo-in, located in the Taito ward of Tokyo, where they are engaged in variety of activities, such as face-to-face individual counseling and telephone counseling. They have created a space for the elderly to talk openly called Terabata, a space for parents with children with development disorders to talk openly called Yomoyama Café, and workshops for parents and children with development disorders called Waigaya Kitchen. In this way, the temple is trying to serve as a resource for the local community. Iijima reflected that, “As our location is a Buddhist temple, we originally began with our parishioners, but we also wanted to expand the basis of our support to the people of the community, focusing on caring for their mind/hearts. We wish for our temple, the people of the community, and our parishioners to move forward together.” It is from these activities that, “We can realize the role of an urban temple as a place to easily find spaces for consultation.” She concluded by reflecting that she wants to continue this work that includes sharing both the sufferings and the joys.

4 Panelists (left to right): Ms. Uchiyama, Ms. Iijima, Rev. Ito, Rev. Kusunoki

A Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain’s Engagement and a Temple Café for Caregivers with Rev. Ryushin Ito, Abbot of Sairen-ji Temple (Jodo Pure Land Denomination) Yamagata

Rev. Ito presented about his work doing deep listening at a local palliative care ward as well as hosting a Carer’s Café at his temple. The Carer’s Café is a type of activity created for various caregivers (such as medical professionals as well as family members) who have become isolated in their work and find value in sharing information, various experiences, and anxieties amidst the relaxed atmosphere of a café setting. Such Carer’s Cafés were first initiated by Jodo Pure Land denomination temples and have now spread to various parts of the country. These Jodo priests first started this work by offering talks and support meetings for Buddhist priests and temple staff not familiar with deep listening and how to support care givers without causing them harm.

Rev. Ito had helped a citizen’s organization to open such a carer’s café and then decided to open his own at his temple in April of 2019. As part of this work, he has established cooperative links with the Welfare Division of Yonezawa City in Yamagata where he lives and the staff of the city’s welfare facilities. In this way, he feels Buddhist temples and their members can have a significant impact in the fields of community medicine and care. Rev. Ito explained, “People connected to community related centers and community medical professionals have been very welcoming to me as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain. Compared to the high barriers of working in hospitals as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain, it has certainly been easier to be accepted by community medical personnel.”

Thinking about what it means to “be alive” from working in a neurology ward with Rev. Kyoshin Kusunoki, vice-abbot of Chosho-ji Temple (Soto Zen denomination) and Vice-representative of Ban-Net

Rev. Kusunori gave a presentation on his deep listening work in the neurology ward of the Takeda General Hospital in Aizu Wakamatsu city in Fukushima prefecture. Many of the patients in this ward suffer from Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and muscular dystrophy. The characteristic of these illnesses is that they progress over long periods of time. Further, while patients lose the freedom of their physical bodies, there are many who maintain mental clarity. As Rev. Kusunori got more deeply involved in this work, he had many days that left him deep in thought about what it means to “be alive”. Further, when “the difficulty of living” for a patient became more critical than their “fear of death”, he took great pains to find some concrete evidence to positively affirm their own existence. While undergoing this daily struggle, Rev. Kusunori had an important conversation with a doctor, who said, “When one must face a disease that cannot be cured, like an intractable neurological disease, even if death is not close at hand, there are many cases where the psychological suffering can definitely be made less through something to hold onto or some words. In this way, I can see how you can be of support. One should be able to feel a kind of light through the presence of a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain.” In receiving this message, Rev. Kusunori explained that, “Rinsho Buddhist chaplains can gain courage from this sort of request. There is an increasing demand for Rinsho Buddhist chaplains coming from doctors and nurses.”

Panel Discussion

The second half of the public seminar was a panel discussion led by Rev. Jin. To begin, Rev. Jin asked Rev. Ito why he thinks that it is easier for Rinsho Buddhist chaplains to be accepted by local welfare centers than by hospitals. Rev. Ito explained that, “When they began the Carer’s Café, there were many people from these local welfare centers and community medical people who welcomed him, and he found this surprising. National policy has recently started to emphasize the localization of medicine, which includes the development of community related centers. However, there is still quite a bit of confusion about what this really means and how to carry such policy out. I think this is why temples with a history of being grounded in the community have been welcomed as a way to carry out this policy.”

Rev. Jin then asked, “If typical temples can also enter into this work easily, then is there really a need for such Rinsho Buddhist chaplains? In Japan, there is quite a lot of outsourcing done in regions with small budgets or even with no budget system at all. While I think it is good to make use of national policy, we should not forget the form for which we Buddhist priests were originally needed and to which we are tied. The work of Rinsho Buddhist chaplains can be said to be a return to the foundational teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. As such, I think it is not possible to divorce the concept of rinsho as “clinical” or “engaged” from the teachings of the Buddha. From the launch of the Rinsho Buddhist chaplain training program, we wanted to return to the essence of Buddhism, and so I believe that it is not enough to simply have a certification system and use the word ‘Rinsho Buddhism’. For the time being, however, I believe there is meaning in providing a program like our of specialized education that leads to concrete work as a transitional phase. In this way, I would like to ask Ms. Iijima why you feel it is necessary to work as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain within your own temple?”

Ms. Iijima responded that, “The opportunities to counsel our temple members and people from the community have increased. Amidst this, some anxiety arose within myself about how to respond without having studied anything, and so I thought I would like to deepen my learning based in Buddhism. I had not studied counseling either, but of course as a person who lives in a temple, I have studied the principles of Buddhist compassion. In this way, the main reason for becoming a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain has been to accompany others who are holding on to some kind of suffering.”

Rev. Jin continued with his inquiry, “I would like to ask the same question to Rev. Kusunoki. Why have you needed to become a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain to work as an empathic listener in a hospital?” Rev. Kusunoki responded that, “As for myself, I have taken refuge in the Buddha Dharma, which has provided me with my life. I have never considered that I am the one imparting liberation to another. Rather, I have the idea of wanting to offer some words as one individual that is simply treading the path of the Buddha. Further, I feel that without any faith I would not be able to continue in this work.”

Rev. Jin then turned towards Ms. Uchiyama and asked, “As you have been working now for three years as a Rinsho Buddhist chaplain, have you found any change in your view of life and death?” Ms. Uchiyama responded, “About three years ago, my view started to change bit by bit, and now I am better able to articulate into words the interconnectedness of life and the bright hope this view offers.”

Rev. Jin responded, “While one may clearly look into one’s own self in this process, this should also be connected to the establishment of a view of life and death. In the process of always questioning who oneself is, there is a lot of talking to oneself, and I think we come to see that our practice is neither enough nor insufficient. I truly believe that you all have within you the power to realize the practice of compassion based on wisdom, which is none other than the bodhisattva path. I think I have been asking some difficult questions, but this is my role as one of your supervisors. It is not that I underestimate you, but rather because I actually highly regard you that I ask these questions. So I would like to conclude by relinquishing the very act of evaluating others.”


The incremental spread of Rinsho Buddhist chaplain activities in places like medical environments and local communities is becoming more noticeable. At the same time, it is also important to re-evaluate the social contributions of such chaplains. In order to do this, there is a need for events like this public seminar where Rinsho Buddhist chaplains may speak of their own experiences and share information.

This article was translated and edited by Jonathan S. Watts from two articles: “The Zenseikyo Foundation Holds the 4th Graduation Ceremony for Rinsho Buddhist Chaplains and the 2nd Public Seminar of the Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism” by Megumi Yagimori from the May 2020 edition of Kamakura Shinsho magazine and “The 4th Rinsho Buddhist Chaplain Graduation Ceremony for a course that covered 2 years: 3 Graduates will head for Sites of Birth, Aging, Sickness, and Death” from the Bukkyo Times April 2, 2020.

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