Contemplative Engagement: Conclusion

Conclusion: Lessons and Challenges for Japan

Earlier, we spoke of the two critical insights gained from the wider CPE program in the United States. These can be further extended from the contributions of the growing influence of Buddhism:

1) the religious professional must undergo an inner transformation in becoming a chaplain so as to be able to listen deeply and be totally present for a patient. Buddhist based mindfulness meditation practice offers a decisive method for this inner transformation through developing embodied presence in the practitioner.

2) the chaplain’s role extends beyond caring for the patient and their family to the surrounding medical professionals, who also struggle emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in their work. Engaged Buddhism provides a means for Buddhists to extend outward their meditation practice and develop their understanding of ethics, structural issues, and social justice to meet the holistic demands of CPE and the wider suffering in American society.

Rev. Jin during training session with Buddhist chaplains in Tokyo
Rev. Jin during training session with Buddhist chaplains in Tokyo

By extended these insights to include Buddhist facets of them, we can more clearly understand the potential ramifications for developing Buddhist chaplaincy in Japan:

1) the inner transformation of the Japanese Buddhist priest

The situation of the Buddhist priesthood in Japan is very much like the situation of Christian pastors in the days of Rev. Anton Boisen. While Christian pastors have been criticized for too often focusing on right faith and conversion, Buddhist priests in Japan have been roundly criticized for their focus on rituals and the mechanistic performance of funeral rites. This situation has led experts to dub Japanese Buddhism as “funeral Buddhism” (葬式仏教sōshiki-bukkyo)[1], and the respect and reverence common Japanese have for Buddhist priests is nowadays quite low. In both the Christian and Buddhists contexts, the problem has been that the religious education at seminaries and monasteries has become based on the rote memorization of texts, the maintenance of orthodoxy, and the preservation of the institution. In the Japanese Buddhist context in particular, this issue reflects the need to change the fundamentally outdated temple system structure, called the danka-seido (檀家制度), created at the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868).

Though it may be shocking to westerners with a glorified vision of Japan as the land of Zen, most Japanese Buddhist priests do not have a regular meditation practice. In this way, the very notion of them being able to offer “contemplative care” is brought into doubt. In the same way that CPE has been a way to retrain American chaplains and provide them a way to truly go through an inner transformation in the challenge of providing care to others, the Rinbutsuken Buddhist chaplaincy program and other such programs in Japan face the challenge of retraining Buddhist priests to confront the suffering in their communities or places of engagement. The Rinbutsuken program in particular also focuses on engaging with and changing the social structure since not all suffering takes place at the “bedside”. On a certain level, it might not be difficult to re-introduce mindfulness meditation into our programs. One barrier, however, is that not all Japanese Buddhist denominations value meditation, principally the Pure Land denominations that account for about one-third of the Japanese Buddhist world. Among the other denominations, there are also a variety of approaches to meditation.

In this way, the somewhat secularized form of mindfulness meditation might be a non-denominational way for retraining priests in “contemplative practice”. Further, mindfulness meditation is also attracting the interest of common Japanese, through translations of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s works as well as shamatha-vipassana retreats. The way mindfulness has been presented in the U.S. as a non-sectarian and even non-religious practice for well being would fit the present secular sentiment of the Japanese people, most of whom declare they have no formal religious belief or practice. As we have seen in the power of mindfulness meditation to help religious professionals of all backgrounds embody their own teachings and faith in the U.S., a similar approach to mindfulness training has potential for supporting the inner transformation of the Japanese Buddhist priest and in turn providing the ability to provide non-judgmental presence to their followers and communities.

Buddhist chaplains in training in Tokyo
Buddhist chaplains in training in Tokyo

2) the chaplain’s role extends beyond caring for the patient and their family

This insight has two aspects: 1) caring for other caregivers and 2) “caring” for the institution and system.

  • In the former, many of the above points about the priest first needing to undergo a process of inner transformation in order to be able to serve others also apply to medical professionals. The more difficult barrier on this level, however, is engagement with medical professionals, especially secular and scientifically minded doctors. At this point, it is still very difficult to impossible for Buddhist priests to gain access to medical institutions, much less work on a team and support medical professionals. A first step, which has been seen in other countries, is enlisting the support of “spiritually minded” doctors and medical professionals.[2] The interest and support showed by Dr. Gen Oi, a renowned end-of-life care specialist from Tokyo University, in the Rinbutsuken chaplaincy training program is the kind of important initial step that is needed. Dr. Oi has not only become a special advisor to the Rinbutsuken program but has also collaborated with Rev. Joan Halifax in her first training for nurses in Japan in April 2015. Indeed, nurses are often more sympathetic to spiritual approaches to care and can offer an important entry point into the Japanese medical world.
  • In the latter, Rinbutsuken, as noted in its very name “Institute for Engaged Buddhism”, has incorporated a strong sense of “systems care” and engagement in social issues. Rinbutsuken’s Buddhist chaplaincy program offers an introductory seminar series drawing on a wide range of Buddhist priests and other religious and secular professionals working in critical fields connected to structural violence—such as suicide prevention, homelessness, community decline, juvenile delinquency, and disaster trauma. In Rinbutsuken’s workshop training series, there is an entire session devoted to Buddhist based social analysis. While Japanese Buddhism has been dubbed as “funeral Buddhism” in the past few decades, a trend towards “public benefit Buddhism” (公益仏教kōeki-bukkyō) and engaged Buddhism is attracting interest at the centers of even the large denominations. At the grassroots, we have seen in the last decade a marked increase in individual priests taking on social issues in their own communities.[3] Many of these priests, acting out of a natural sense of chaplaincy, have been working compassionately and sensitively, listening deeply, and being present for those in suffering. Of course, there is still much work to do in raising the awareness of Buddhist priests to ethics, structural violence, and social justice as well as empowering them to respond appropriately as a true Buddhist chaplain. The examples of Buddhist chaplaincy found in the U.S. and other countries where Buddhists are active in medical environments, such as Taiwan, provide inspiration and important examples for Buddhist priests in Japan, as do the wide variety of examples of engaged Buddhism through Asia and the world. In this way, Rinbutsuken is seeking to develop connections with Buddhist chaplains and engaged Buddhists outside of Japan with a long-term goal of creating an international network of Buddhist chaplaincy.

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[1] The term was originally coined by Taijo Tamamuro, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, in 1963 in a book by the same name. Tamamuro, Taijo, Sōshiki Bukkyō. Tokyo: Daihorin Publishers, 1963. 圭室 諦成「葬式仏教」(大法輪閣1963)

[2] Buddhist Care for the Dying and Bereaved. p. 13.

[3] Watts, Jonathan S. and Okano, Masazumi. “Reconstructing Priestly Identity and Roles and the Development of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Contemporary Japan.” In Handbook for Contemporary Japanese Religions, edited by John Nelson. Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012.

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