Buddhist chaplaincy is becoming a distinctly growing and evolving trend in Buddhism in the U.S. There are now several universities and study centers that offer accredited courses in C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education), and more people are graduating from these courses to become professional chaplains of Buddhist faith. The New York Zen Center for Contemplatiave Care recently graduated its first class (see Rev. Danny Fisher's blog). There are more news stories on Buddhist chaplains (there was recently an article in the Los Angeles Times). There is also good news on the military front - we have acquired two new military chaplain candidates: Chaplain Candidate Thomas Dyer, and Chaplain Candidate Christopher Mohr (welcome to the blog!), who is planning to work in the Army National Guard, and there may be several candidates in the near-future for U.S. Navy Chaplaincy.
This is exciting for several reasons: First, chaplaincy in the U.S. has only until recently been the exclusive domain of the Judeo-Christian traditions (i.e. you had a choice of either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish), but with the growing religious diversity of the American population, there has been a need for chaplains of other major faith traditions (for example, see the below post). Although there are still very few Buddhist chaplains available, either professional or volunteer, the presence of even one chaplain is vital.
Second, Buddhist chaplaincy has not been limited to any single Buddhist tradition. Buddhist chaplains come from all three major Buddhist traditions: Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. There does not seem to be any one specific tradition or school which is more conducive to or works better within chaplaincy than others. Also, as chaplaincy is a new dimension for many of these traditions; this offers an opportunity for Buddhists of very different practices to come together and share ideas and theories on chaplaincy (which is already occurring via the Buddhist Chaplains Network and other venues). This is unique in the history of Buddhism itself!
The importance of Buddhist Chaplaincy therefore lies in the interfaith and intra-Sangha dialogue it provides. One of the misconceptions of chaplaincy is that chaplains will simply care for their own. Chaplains are called upon often to provide spiritual care, counseling, or simply just to listen, for all persons. It is not the case that a chaplain will just sit in an office waiting for the buzzer to ring for a specific faith group. Chaplains very often are out and about, making visitations, counsel persons not of their own faith, and often those not belonging to any faith group. Proselytizing is not in the chaplain's job description. Negative media reports involving chaplains nearly always involve someone's blatant attempts at conversion, or ethical violations. Chaplains must navigate a thin line on when and where to share faith, and what behaviors are and aren't acceptable. Buddhists are not immune from this, and we can even learn something about this from our Christian and Jewish colleagues. Even as chaplaincy is "new," we must also have to explain it to other Buddhists who may not understand what it is, why it is important, or why a Buddhist teacher or monk or nun must associate with non-Buddhists: it has also been my experience that we must justify our presence not only to some non-Buddhists, but also to our fellow Buddhists who misunderstand chaplain work.
Chaplaincy also offers a potentially new way on sharing Buddha-dharma, and in a way acceptable for this time and place, and in specific places. At the very least, it demonstrates the presence of Buddhism in the world beyond the temple and monastery. Chaplaincy is explicitly in the realm of engaged Buddhism.
Buddhist chaplaincy in all its manifestations, whether hospital, prison, military, campus, etc., is still in its beginning stages, and there is still a need for more chaplains. Please consult some of the links on this page for further information on how to become a professional or volunteer chaplain. Also, there are no "quotas" for most chaplaincies, including the Armed Forces. Consider chaplaincy!
Namo Amida Butsu