Zen-eration: Buddhism Is Becoming Mainstream Within Certain American Communities

By Jacob Taylor | Friday, 20 May 2022 16:45
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Wedged into a recliner in the corner of her aided living apartment in Portland, Skylar Freimann, who has a terminal heart condition and pulmonary disease, anxiously eyed her newly arrived hospital bed on a current day and worried over how she would sustain independence as she continues to lose mobility.

There to guide her on the journey, the Rev. Jo Laurence, a hospice and anesthetic care chaplain, was there. 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 suggested. “Where is the divine or the sacred in your decline?”

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

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In a profession long overwhelmed in the U.S. by Christian clergy, Buddhists are directing an ever more diverse field that includes Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, and even secular humanist chaplains. Buddhist chaplains say they’re uniquely positioned for the times due to their ability to demand a broad cultural and religious spectrum, including the growing number of Americans — approximately one-third — who identify as nonreligious.

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In response, study and training opportunities have been established or extended in recent years.

They include the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at Harvard Divinity School and the Buddhism track at Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical Christian liberal seminary in New York City. Colorado’s Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college, recently founded a low-residency hybrid degree chaplaincy program. Nonaccredited certifications such as those presented by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care or the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are also popular.

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“The programs keep expanding, so it seems clear that there’s a growing demand from students. And the students appear to be finding jobs after graduation,” stated Monica Sanford, assistant dean for Multireligious Ministry at Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Buddhist minister.

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Previously, Buddhist chaplains were usually hired by the likes of hospitals and police departments, particularly to minister to Asian immigrant communities. During World War II, they served Japanese American soldiers in the military. Today, nevertheless, they are more mainstream.

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In a first-of-its-kind report issued this month, Sanford and a colleague pinpointed 425 chaplains in the United States, Canada, and Mexico representing all major branches of Buddhism. However, the researchers say there are likely many more. More than 40% work in health care, the Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America report found, while others serve in schools, in prisons, or as self-employed counselors.

Two-thirds of respondents conveyed holding a Master of Divinity, another graduate degree, or a chaplaincy certificate. Most of those operating as staff chaplains also completed clinical pastoral education internships and residencies in health care and other settings.

Maitripa College, a Tibetan Buddhist college also in Portland, has seen enriched interest in its Master of Divinity track since its launch 10 years ago, expressed Leigh Miller, director of academic and public programs. It appeals to a broad range, from older Buddhists with 20 years of practice to new college graduates who just started meditating, from spiritual seekers to people with multiple religious belongings.

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