Contemplative Engagement

The Development of Buddhist Chaplaincy in the United States & Its Meaning for Japan

Jonathan S. Watts
Rev. Hitoshi Jin
The Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism

Skip to:
Part 2: Understanding “Spiritual Care”
Part 3: Introducing “Contemplative Care”
Part 4: The Role of Medical Professionals in Spiritual and Contemplative Care
Part 5: Shifting from the Individual to the System
Part 6: Conclusion: Lessons and Challenges for Japan


The Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism (臨床仏教研究所)[1] was established in Tokyo, Japan on March 7th, 2008. Affiliated with the Zenseikyo Foundation & Buddhist Council for Youth and Child Edification (全国青少年協議会), it engages in comprehensive research on social issues and Buddhism. The English meaning of the institute’s name, Rinbutsuken, refers to the practical or “clinical” (臨床rinshō) approach to researching problems in society from a Buddhist standpoint. Therefore, our research may be sophisticated, but never academic, while maintaining a Buddhist emphasis on the practical transformation of the suffering of sentient life. Zenseikyo’s long time experience in working with traumatized children and then its activities supporting the victims of the 3/11 disaster has led us to commit full time in 2012 to the work of cultivating Buddhist chaplains, or what we prefer to call rinshō-bukkyō-shi (臨床仏教師), which can be translated as “Buddhist clinicians” or even “engaged Buddhists”.

Engaged Buddhism is a modern term first coined by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh during the war there in the 1960s. He sought to describe a type of Buddhism needed at that time where monks do not remain cloistered in their temples, chanting and meditating, but rather come out of the temples to engage in positive action for peace and for the aid of the suffering. While Engaged Buddhism has been translated into Japanese as “participating in society” Buddhism (社会参加仏教shakai sanka bukkyō), the social participation aspect is only half of the equation. The other half is the simultaneous, deep investigation of the inner self. In this way, we might have in addition to Socially Engaged Buddhism, also Spiritually Engaged Buddhism. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the Buddhist inspired Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, has explained this point as the difference between purna paurusodaya (personality awakening) and vishvodaya (world community awakening).

In this way, rinshō has the meaning of engaging in the personal domain as well as the social aspects of the four core causes of suffering (dukkha): birth, aging, sickness, and death. Thus, the Rinsho Buddhism Chaplaincy Training program seeks to develop those who will not only offer bedside support for the ill and dying but to go forth into a variety of social situations to engage with suffering and its causes.

As Zenseikyo is an ecumenical organization, we have wide networks of religious professionals, not just Buddhists, from within Japan and overseas whom we are recruiting to support us in developing this work. In this way, we are developing a systematic Buddhist chaplain training program based on the best practices of innovative foreign programs, while seeking to develop a particular model that fits indigenous Japanese Buddhist culture and society. This paper documents the specific research we have conducted at the following sites over the past year on two visits to the United States to learn more about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and Buddhist chaplaincy training:

  • one of the leading research and training centers in the U.S. for chaplaincy and CPE (the Department of Spiritual Care & Chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland)
  • two Buddhist educational institutions offering divinity degrees in chaplaincy (the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado)
  • a center offering the only specifically Buddhist CPE internship and training program in the U.S. (the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care)
  • one of the first Buddhist hospice care organizations also involved volunteer training (the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco)
  • one of the few Buddhist CPE Supervisors in the U.S. certified to train chaplains from all denominations (Rev. Julie Hanada, Director of In-hospital Integrative Medicine Services for the Institute for Health and Healing at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco)
  • an interfaith chaplain developing programs in mindfulness and social justice for students at one of the United States’ most prestigious universities (Matthew Weiner, Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University in New Jersey)
  • a New York City police officer using Buddhist teachings and practice for conflict resolution and officer training (Detective Jeff Thompson, Hostage Negotiation Team & Public Information, New York City Police Department)
  • an organization teaching yoga and mindfulness meditation to at risk elementary school children in a critically poor and violent urban area (Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland)

One of the central foci of this research was to understand how Buddhists in the United States have developed their own particular Buddhist approach to not only serving those in need but in developing themselves within the context of American Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE is a system of national certification for religious professionals working in private and public institutions developed over the past 90 years with roots in the formative Christian cultural heritage of the U.S.

Since the 1960s, CPE has been very slowly introduced and developed in Japan, mostly by Christian pastors at private Christian hospitals that represent a small minority of health care institutions in Japan. Outside of these private institutions and a handful of Buddhist oriented ones, chaplaincy is an almost totally unknown field in Japan. This is due to the bureaucratic interpretation of the Japanese constitution separating church and state that bars religious professionals from working in public health care and other public institutions. In turn, the concept of “team care” prevalent in the United States—in which medical professionals work as equals on a team with social workers, psychiatrists, and chaplains—is totally unrecognized. In response to the inadequacies of this system, there has been a growing interest in the past decade in “spiritual care” in various public non-profit sectors, including Buddhist organizations like the Rinbutsuken Institute. However, Rinbutsuken’s founding director, Rev. Hitoshi Jin, feels that Japanese do not have a clear understanding of “spiritual care”. The terms “spiritual” and “spirituality” are difficult to define in the pantheistic and Buddhist culture of Japan, and the concept of “spiritual care” is one that has developed largely from the Judeo-Christian standpoint of American CPE.

In visiting the U.S., we sought to learn about the ongoing negotiations between Christian and Buddhist approaches to “spiritual care” and the development of new concepts, like “contemplative care”, to express unique Buddhist approaches to this work. We feel that these experiences can provide important lessons for us as we seek to develop a uniquely Buddhist understanding of chaplaincy that fits the sentiments and culture of the Japanese. This endeavor also involves reviving and adapting traditional Japanese Buddhist practices, such as the practices for dying developed by the Twenty-five Samadhi Society (二十五三昧会nijūgo-zanmai-e) in the Heian era (794-1195)[2], to the highly modernized and secular social contexts of present day Japan.

As such this report will investigate a cluster of themes concerning:

  • the differences between more Christian influenced “spiritual care” and more Buddhist influenced “contemplative care”
  • the challenges of educating and training medical professionals in the basics of spiritual and contemplative care as well as religious professionals in advanced forms of care
  • the challenges in translating and further developing Buddhist strengths in “contemplative” interpersonal skills to the wider systemic demands of CPE for institutional and social transformation

Go to: Part 2: Understanding “Spiritual Care”



[2] Stone, Jacqueline. I. “With the Help of ‘Good Friends’: Deathbed Ritual Practices in Early Medieval Japan.” In Jacqueline I. Stone & Mariko Namba Walker Eds. Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008. 61-101.

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