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“I Can’t Tell You”

May 10, 2015
'stop, i'm gay, don't tell my mom' by Mary Crandall via

‘stop, i’m gay, don’t tell my mom’ by Mary Crandall via

“Hi, hon. How was your day?” Colin asks as I take off my shoes and hang up my coat.

“Long,” I sigh and go into the kitchen.

“Oh?” He gets up from his desk to join me.

“A student walked into my office at six practically having a panic attack. I took two hours to calm them down and talk through it.” I pop a frozen meal in the microwave. I’m emotionally exhausted, but my stomach doesn’t care.

“What was wrong?” Colin asks.

“I can’t tell you.”

It was very hard to say those words the first time. I contemplated just not mentioning anything about the incident that had sent me home spiritually depleted. Then I wouldn’t have to tell him I couldn’t tell him about it. I wouldn’t have to worry that he might feel hurt by that. But to leave him with no explanation for my emotional state is not fair. He worries and it’s sweet in a I-wish-he-didn’t-but-like-that-he-cares sort of way. It’s become easier to say over time.

It is not about trust and it is entirely about trust.

I trust him. And my careseekers trust me. The latter entails that I can’t tell him, despite my trust, because I made promises (implicit or explicit) to keep the confidences of the people who come to me as a chaplain. If I break their confidences, I am no good to them. I share their stories only* with my chaplaincy supervisor, who is bound by the same professional ethics. Their confidences stay within a circle of trust.

Mostly, though, it is for me. This is my integrity. In a way, this is how I honor their trust. They have given me something very precious. This is what I give in return. This exchange is the basis of healing that takes place within the chaplaincy relationship.

I could tell Colin and feel secure that no harm would come to the careseeker. He wouldn’t tell anyone. I trust him.

But, in an odd way, I feel like it would harm me. My feeling of integrity would be damaged, my promise broken.

In an odd way, it feels good not to tell him. First, because I am sparing him the vicarious trauma that comes from other people’s suffering. Second, because I am living up to my own ethical and spiritual expectations. I am being the kind of chaplain I would want, the kind of person I would trust.

Spiritual care works in an “odd way,” a way we can’t quite define. Some people call it God or miracle or the Holy Spirit. I think of it more like the evolutionary magic of a species naturally selected for social living. It might be genetic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magic. We can heal each other just by being together.

“Okay,” Colin says. He hugs me and kisses my neck as my tika masala turns in circles in the microwave. He goes back to his desk and I sit on the couch and queue up The Daily Show and blow on my scalding Indian food.

I don’t have to tell him and that makes it better. Trust runs through.

*In rare cases, law requires me to disclose to the proper authorities immanent threats of harm to self or others or the abuse or neglect of a child or dependent adult. I try to ensure all my careseekers are aware of this legal and ethical obligation to disclose and its limits.

Person to Person Aid for Nepal

May 6, 2015
Deepak's house in Nepal, or what is left of it. Photo from Khim Berling's Facebook feed.

Deepak’s house in Nepal, or what is left of it. Photo from Khim Berling’s Facebook feed.

On April 25, 2015, the isolated Himalayan country of Nepal was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by over 100 aftershocks, some above 6.0 in magnitude. As you can imagine, the people of Nepal are devastated. Thousands are dead. Thousands more are homeless and already suffering from disease and deprivation. Buildings have been reduced to piles of rubble. Children have lost their families. Dysentery and other diseases are already spreading. And monsoon season is coming.

There are many ways you can help, but I want to talk about just one: Nepal Earthquake Crisis GoFundMe campaign of Dr. Khim Berling in support of her many friends in Nepal. What is significant about this campaign and others like it, is that they use the internet to support person to person aid. Dr. Berling is not an NGO or non-profit. She is my friend and a Buddhist studies scholar who has spent time in Nepal. The money she is raising isn’t going into a charity bank account, but rather directly to several Nepali citizens on the ground trying to save the lives of their families and neighbors. What you donate today could buy antibiotics tomorrow. This is the kind of person to person aid the internet has once again made possible.

Let me share a little bit about what is happening from Dr. Berling’s updates:

Nabin Tamang in Hardiwar: There are un-cremated deceased people and animals decaying in the rubble. Many people are in tents outside this rubble. Nabin says the smell of death is quite intense. The RedCross is requiring a signature from local authorities for more tents. All the homes are uninhabitable and there is a VERY serious lack of clean food and water. Many people are already having diarrhea which is one of the leading causes of death in Nepal. There is a place that Nabin can travel to and get some supplies. Your donation could make a big difference in the life of this wonderful man and his family.

Raju Deepak Shrestha in Chitwan: Their houses only have medium damage. They have some access to basic necessities, but their supplies are inconsistent. Raju has FOUND a GROUP of HOMELESS CHILDREN. They have NO HOME or FAMILIES ANYMORE. Raju is going to try to get them to an ngo (a nonprofit) in Nepal.

These are just two of the four families that Dr. Berling is helping with her GoFundMe campaign. She has already distributed most of the money that has come in and is trying to raise another $1000 (to reach $3000 total) by Sunday in order to purchase antibiotics and clean drinking water. If you feel moved, please consider donating a few dollars.

If you prefer to donate to a registered non-profit charity or NGO, Buddhist Global Relief, while not on the ground in Nepal, has created a list of reputable organizations that are already providing relief there. They are all good people.

Dr. Berling (center back with shaved head) with her friends in Nepal before the earthquake.

Dr. Berling (center back with shaved head) with her friends in Nepal before the earthquake.

You don’t know Dr. Berling. You don’t even really know me. I have no idea what the tax benefits are (probably none) of donating to such a campaign. However, I do know that every penny I donate goes directly to good people in desperate need in Nepal with a matter of hours or days. Help us help our brothers and sisters in Nepal. Please.

Introverts’ Guide to Conference Survival

April 24, 2015

If you are an introvert, you know that conferences are hell. They are also wonderful, fascinating, and stimulating – which is why they are hell. Introverts tend to become over-stimulated more easily than extroverts, especially in constantly churning crowds of strangers. Yet conferences are very rewarding, which is why we still attend them. We learn new things, stay updated about our discipline, present and teach others, and make important personal and professional connections at conferences. And, if you’re an introvert like me, you also find quiet corners, take naps, and, at any given moment, may leave the convention center and walk as far away as possible, or at least feel the urge to. So, if you’re an introvert, here are my conference survival tips.

1. Stay in the conference hotel. While cheaper accommodations can often be found and they may only be a few blocks away, nothing beats the ability to zip up the elevators back to one’s (hopefully, private) hotel room. Even a ten minute escape can sooth frazzled nerves. A forty-minute nap can re-energize me for hours. Just the quiet and stillness is a relief. So, if you can, book early and stay in the conference hotel.

2. Plan you days before you arrive. Trying to figure out where to go next when surrounded by a swirling crowd is a stressor you don’t need. Read the conference program before you travel and plug all of your seminars and workshops into your phone, including their locations. This reduces decision paralysis and frees up your brain to just enjoy the ride and absorb the information. When you plan your days, identify necessary breaks. I like to take an hour or two in the early afternoon to recharge before late afternoon or evening sessions. This is important to my wellbeing so I put it on my calendar just like a meeting.

3. Leave time around travel. Airports can be even more stressful than conferences, so don’t rush from one to the other. Fly in the night before, if you can. Leave several hours between the last session and your departing flight. If you have time to kill, find a quiet coffee shop or a park to reduce your blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) before you tackle that next hurdle – airport security.

4. Limit your poisons. Find a dependable source of caffeine, but don’t overdo it, and limit alcohol intake. For myself, I’m allowed to breach my daily two-cup limit in order to savor that third cup of coffee in the early afternoon. I cut off caffeine at 4 o’clock. By the same token, I impose a one drink limit and usually pair alcohol with dinner. Drinking without food or too late in the evening tends to lead to poor sleep and I need all the good sleep I can get. If you can, do continue your regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or whatever routine to help counteract the poisons and stay in good physical and mental health.

'Conference Time' by Christian Senger via

‘Conference Time’ by Christian Senger via

5. Stay connected with your loved ones. These people are part of your social support system. A daily ‘good morning’ text message or nightly call or video chat helps release oxytocin, which is an anti-stress hormone. You may be away and busy, but that doesn’t mean your connections are absent. Thank you, modern technology. Likewise, if colleagues or friends are attending the conference, make time to meet up with them socially, over lunch or dinner. You can help each other unwind and reflect on the contents of the conference.

6. Spend at least some time outdoors each day. Our bodies respond to natural light (even when it’s cloudy) and greenery. A terrace, patio, or park are ideal places to check email or just sit and watch the sky change. Walking out to lunch rather than eating in the hotel (or the conference provided meal) is another good strategy.

7. Most importantly, DO talk to strangers, but know how to socialize like an introvert. You have social skills, they’re just a little different.

For example, when I’m conferencing, I like to eat dinner at the bar in local restaurants. It is not hard to strike up a conversation with other solo diners doing likewise. While at first this might seem counter-intuitive (“I’m an introvert! People are stressful and you want me to seek them out?”) it is actually a good way to have a short, but meaningful, one-on-one interaction.

Introverts are actually just as social as extroverts, we just do social differently. We like face-to-face interactions with a small number of people, often just one other person on whom we can focus. Large crowds are draining because they send our focus in a dozen different directions. By chatting with just one or two other people over the space of lunch, we remind ourselves of the value of human connection – which is why we come to conferences at all! Then we can dive back into that exhibit hall or seminar with less trepidation.

Small talk is a meaningful skill, but most people at a conference will also share a strong bond over the topic of the conference. Those deeper discussions are what introverts prefer and they’re also much easier to find at a conference than, say, a random party. Learn the right questions to ask to get people talking about what they love. This will change based on the topic of the conference. As an introvert, these conversations tend to be more meaningful to me and often energizing.

When in doubt, fake extroversion. It can be done. At this point, I am so adaptively extroverted that only those who know me well suspect I am by nature and personal preference an extreme introvert. Fake extroversion is a skill that becomes easier over time.

8. Finally, know your limits. I can manage about four days. Then I need to run away and recharge in the comfort, quiet, and solitude of my own home. I don’t feel too bad about that. It’s just me. I can absorb a lot in four days, enough to fuel my thinking for months. Afterward, don’t assume you’ll be okay to go straight back to work and dive into a busy meeting schedule. If it’s the weekend, great, but if you return on a workday plan to be a little less productive. Leave space to work from home, if you can, or don’t plan any meetings on the day you return from the conference. Take time to make notes and send emails from the comfort, and quiet, of your office. Your body and brain with thank you for it. It also helps you get the most out of the conference by planning how you’ll use what you’ve gained, rather than loosing it in a hectic work schedule.

I hope you find these tips helpful. For any extroverts reading this post, it may better help you understand and support your introverted colleagues. If anyone would like to write a counter-post for the extroverts out there, that would be lovely. For any extroverts who plan conferences, I know it’s tempting to pack every single second, but remember that a good portion of your audience just can’t be “on” for every single second. They’re going to skip out, so if you leave space in the schedule, you’ll have more control over when that happens.

Good luck at your next conference!

Why I Stopped Writing

April 19, 2015
'Writing' by OuadiO via

‘Writing’ by OuadiO via

I stopped writing here. I never intended to do that. It just sort of happened. I didn’t even know why.

When I began bloggin in 2006 at Buddhist in Nebraska, it was a personal journal and a means for me to connect with other Buddhists who were geographically distant. I wrote from my direct experience and reflected on the teachings as I encountered them in daily life. This was very fulfilling and for four years I filled the internet with over 500 posts.

Then I moved to California to pursue Buddhism with even more intensity. I migrated and renamed my blog to its curent incarnation, Dharma Cowgirl. I also upped the ante. Although I still included personal reflection, I also began to write more scholarly articles on Buddhsim. I wanted to write less about me and more about things I believed my audience would value. This blog should be more of a teaching platform, I thought, less personal, less egocentric.

I am not certain if the quality of the posts improved, but over time their frequency dwindled. It was always the need to personally reflect, to think “out loud” in words on paper, that had motivated my writing. That motivation was slipping away, despite the fact that my teachers encourage the act of reflective journalling. They see it as both personally fulfilling and as an academically valid practice for a scholar and theologian.

Yet, I wrote less and less….and less and less I knew why. There is another thread here that must be pulled.

I have never been private. In person, I am often reserved. It is the ethic with which I was raised. One does not inflict one’s negative emotions on others. One does not even necessarily talk about them, so my emotional vocabulary is, in some ways, deficient, although it is growing. However, there is not much point in trying to hide what is happening from others. They will find out and then it will be the worse for having been secret. There is a certain ethic to living your life in a way that you needn’t keep anything private. Never act in a way you will regret and there will be nothing to hide, even when mistakes are made, as they inevitably will be. There are many things I do not tell because I feel it would make the listener uncomfortable, but there is no question I would not answer if you really wanted to know.

This has always been my ethic. It made blogging easy, natural.

However, this is not everyone’s ethic. Others need privacy to feel safe, secure. Others express their emotions freely, but trust those around them to maintain their confidentiality. Others see the world differently than I do. I can sometimes only guess why they do as they do, feel as they feel, think as they think, and I am constantly aware that my suppositions may be wrong, flawed, biased by my own lenses.

In the past few years, my life has become intertwined with the lives of others as it never has before. I gained a wonderful partner, whom I now live with. So much of my emotional process is now bound up with his. How do I write about attachment without writing about him and sounding like a sentimental sap? How do I write about aversion without writing about some annoying thing he did that I did not like and making him into the fool? How do I write about delusion without writing about the things I have learned in this relationship, often the hard way?

I do not know how to do this, so I stopped writing.

On top of the belief that my writing needed to be more academic, less personal, more “useful,” whatever that is, there was the need to respect his privacy in a way I never needed for myself. In addition, there is a third factor: I began my work as a chaplain.

I cannot tell you how much I have learned through the process of clinical pastoral education, the internship most chaplains go through. I have learned about others, about myself, and about the Dharma. I want to share so much what I have learned, but I must also respect as a binding vow that which makes it all possible: confidentiality. People share their stories with me because they know I will honor them with confidentiality. Aside from my chaplain supervisor and cohort, who are bound by the same confidentiality, I keep their secrets safe. I literally cannot tell you.

Yet there are lessons embedded in my experience of CPE over the past two years that I can share without details of the people involved. Just as there are lessons from my relationship that I can reflect upon while maintaining the trust of my partner. And perhaps, just perhaps, the need to write in a “scholarly” way is just an excuse for not talking about the things that really matter because I’m afraid I don’t have the words anymore.

Other people have found ways to blog in relationship, to blog with a caregiving practice, to reflect personally as academics and theologians. I also want to find a way.

I miss writing. I don’t want to stop.

To Judge or Not to Judge

January 31, 2015
'Elephants' by Dominik via

‘Elephants’ by Dominik via

Snap judgments. Judgmental. Judge not. The act of judging gets a bad rep.

At the same time, good judgment is synonymous with prudence and wisdom. What’s the deal?

Judgment is human and mostly instantaneous and subconscious. It evolved to help us see the tiger in the bush and decide what to do. If our judgment was quick and correct, we lived. If our judgment was slow or wrong, we died. But if our judgment was quick and wrong…we also lived. Good job, Mother Nature.

In spiritual care, we are told not to judge, but the truth is that we judge all the time. We can’t help it. Our subconscious judgments form our emotional reactions, thoughts, words, and deeds. The Canki Sutta (MN 95) describes judgment as a precursor to action, in this case, good judgment leads to right action and right understanding and wrong judgment to wrong action and wrong understanding. Yet this is not merely a theological or philosophical position. It is part of our basic human psychology, now reinforced by a host of modern psychological research. What is not apparent on first reading of the sutta, however, is that we are not aware of most of these judgments. They are largely subconscious and affective (emotional) rather than conscious and rational.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2007 book is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, but it might just as easily been called ‘Snap: The Power of Quick Judgment.’ In it, Gladwell describes the “adaptive unconscious” as a part of our brain that makes “very quick judgments based on very little information.” He illustrates how it works with an experiment at the University of Iowa in which subjects played a card game with two decks. The red deck was rigged to deal out a few big wins and a steady stream of losses, leading to a net loss. The blue deck was rigged to deal out only moderate wins, but fewer losses, leading to a net gain. After eighty cards, on average, subjects could explain what was happening, yet their behavior actually began to change after only fifty cards. They began favoring the blue deck, although they often seemed unaware of this. Even more dramatic, the machines to which each subject was connected began to record a physiological stress response as early as ten cards – but only to the red deck. Ten cards in, their adaptive unconscious had figured out the game. By fifty cards, they had a hunch they couldn’t explain. It wasn’t until eighty cards had been dealt that their reasoning brains could describe exactly what was happening; something they had unconsciously discovered seventy cards ago.

Unfortunately, this form of judgment isn’t conscious, rational, or even verbal. It comes more in the form of feelings and emotions, two in particular: attachment and aversion. Before the subjects could explain what was going on with the red deck, they had a feeling about it, a specific aversion they weren’t even aware of but was already influencing their behavior. Jonathan Haidt calls this our ‘elephant.’ First in The Happiness Hypothesis and then further in The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes a two-part mind made up of a rational rider (based in our more recently evolved hominid cortex and pre-frontal cortex) and emotional elephant (based in our older mammalian and reptilian brain). The key to understanding this mind is accepting that the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant ‘leans’ in response to aversion or attachment towards stimuli, and the rider immediately goes to work trying to figure out how to smooth the elephant’s path and get it what it wants. Sometimes it can correct the elephant, but only when the elephant is motivated. It is literally, the five ton beast. Mostly, we are ignorant to the movement of the elephant or that it is really the one calling the shots. To complicate matters, we delude ourselves into believe the rider is in control, when really the rider mostly reasons in response to (rather than to decide upon) a felt reaction. The rider exists primarily as a rhetoritican to explain our leaning to others, or even ourselves.

Of course, we are already familiar with attachment, aversion, and ignorance (or greed, anger, and delusion, if you prefer) in another paradigm. They are often called the Three Unwholesome Roots or the Three Poisons.

Gladwell’s point isn’t that this is good or bad, but that it is adaptive. Remember the tiger in the bush? This rapid functioning of the human brain helps us survive. But, as Gladwell points out, when our snap judgments “go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood,” which is also what Buddhism tells us. Not only can we learn to be more conscious of our instantaneous judgments, but even our unconscious mind can learn to make better judgments. When necessary, we can even interrupt the process.

Many meditation practices are designed to do precisely this. Samatha, or calm abiding, watches the movements of the mind so that we can become accustomed to them and less swayed by them. Our elephant becomes steadier. Vipassana, or insight meditation, helps us develop wise discrimination, to see clearly the causal chains between events and the nature of reality. The rider becomes a better lookout and subtly cues the elephant onto a smoother path. They work together. We become experts of our own minds.

Gladwell calls the ability “to have a much better understanding of what goes on behind the locked door of their unconscious,” the “gift” of expertise. This is because experts  are better able “to reliably account for their reactions,” even when those reactions are somehow flawed. In the non-expert, the process of explaining a preference, decision, action, or feeling can actually alter the content of that initial mental event. Gladwell calls this the loss of “the ability to know our own mind,” and it has been verified and replicated through countless studies and experiments. He likens the development of expertise – whether in food tasting, war games, art appraisal, or meditative wisdom – to psychotherapy, in which the client effectively becomes an expert on their own mind through years of inner work.

Buddhism, in this way, can offer a certain kind of expertise, a psychological system and the language to describe interior experiences and their effects on our behavior and the world around us. Judgments become dangerous when we are unable to pinpoint and deal with the roots of our feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American-born Buddhist monk, highlights a tension between the idea of non-judgmental “openness” and Buddhist teaching that may shed light on this paradox.

It should be noted at once that whereas the school of openness bids us to drop our discriminations, judgments and restraints in order to immerse ourselves in the dynamic flow of immediate experience, the Buddha prescribes an attitude toward experience that arises from carefully wrought judgments, employs precise discriminations, and issues in detachment and restraint. This attitude, the classical Buddhist counterfoil to the modern program of openness, might be summed up by one word found everywhere in the ancient texts. That word is heedfulness (appamada).

He goes on to describe heedfulness as a defense against harm caused by negligence (pamada). Bodhi recognizes that “all willed actions, even our fleeting thoughts and impulses, are seeds with roots buried deep in the mind’s beginningless past and with the potency to generate results in the distant horizons of the future.” A heedful person is one who is both aware of the mind’s capacity for delusion and yet practices careful judgment in order to overcome these very delusions. In this sense, Buddhist teaching is aligned with modern research, such as that explored in Gladwell’s book.

Of course, Buddhism also recognizes the power to harm others through labeling (a form of snap judgment). American-born, Tibetan nun Pema Chödrön, has written extensively on the dehumanizing effect of labels reminding us that they can lead to “prejudice, cruelty, and violence.” When we think “This person has a fixed identity, and they are not like me” then “We can kill someone or we can be indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated on them because ‘they’re just hajis,’ or ‘they’re just women,’” etc. Staying open and curious about others by letting go of our fixed ideas or judgments about them is one way to defend against such harm. Buddhism offers practices to do just that, starting with mindfulness meditation.

But spiritual good can also come from wise judgment. The admonishment to avoid judgment altogether precludes this possibility. American-born, Thai Forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu says we need the “clear powers of judgment” from others because “you can’t really trust yourself to see through your delusion on your own. When you’re deluded, you don’t know you’re deluded. You need some trustworthy outside help to point it out to you.”

We can judge mindlessly according to our unknown aversions and attachments, lost in the delusion that we are doing no such thing – or we can acknowledge that we are doing it, always judging all the time (sans enlightenment) and try to do so with greater heedfulness.

The Buddha’s Practical Theology

January 29, 2015
'Sleeping Buddha' by Matt Westgate via

‘Sleeping Buddha’ by Matt Westgate via

A while back, I wrote a literature review about “Buddhist Practical Theology?” with the question mark in the title. This paper summarized and critiqued the very scant number of articles and books on the topic, only two explicitly so and a few other tangentially related. I followed it up here with a discussion of Buddhist theology, which is a tricky enough topic on its own. I’ve continued to muse on the idea of Buddhist practical theology and come to the conclusion that such a theology is inherent to Buddhism, we simply know it by another name: The Four Noble Truths. Let me explain.

When the Buddha first uttered the Four Noble Truths in the deer park at Varanasi, he laid down an eminently practical theology. Of course, he did not call it that, least of all because Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak English. As Buddhists attempting to remain true to his teachings twenty-five hundred years later, we may find the term ‘practical theology,’ a very odd fit. Adoption of this term is not terribly important, but it does offer methods for analytical reflection to align our thoughts, words, and deeds more fully with the Dharma.

So what is ‘practical’ about Buddhist theology? Within Christianity, practical theology is a recognized as “a general way of doing theology concerned with the embodiment of religious belief in the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities,” according to Bonnie Miller-McLemore. As an academic subject and theological method, it can easily be applied to Buddhism (for it is already within Buddhism). Much of the existing Christian scholarship can be adapted, especially as most of the methods employed are drawn from secular social sciences.

Practical Buddhist theology can be tentatively defined (from my earlier paper) as a theological discipline within Buddhism that uses empirical description and normative construction in a dialogical relationship with lived experience to study, understand, and beneficially transform human activity. In other words, when we study the Dharma, it changes how we live our everyday lives. And the way we live our everyday lives changes our understanding of the Dharma. Practical Buddhist theology is concerned with this relationship.

The simplest possible practical theological framework is that of action-reflection-action. One does something, observes and reflects upon the outcomes, and adjusts one’s actions accordingly. In the Sona Sutta (AN6.55) the Buddha likens practice to the strings of a musical instrument, a vina, asking if the instrument was playable if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just as a musician tunes his instrument by tightening a string, listening for the sound, then loosening it again, we employ action-reflection-action to bring ourselves more in tune with the Dharma. In the case of certain forms of meditation, this framework may be slightly reversed and described as reflection-action-reflection, but the basic formula remains and can be applied on a moment-to-moment daily basis.

A more formal method for practical theology is described best by Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology: An Introduction. This method has been widely adopted by practical theologians because of its very pragmatism. Osmer admits he did not ‘invent’ the method, but he does an outstanding job of explaining and applying it. Osmer’s four-part method, or the Four Noble Truths method, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, can be employed for more deliberate reflection. Osmer describes his method thus:

Over the course of this book we explore four questions that can guide our interpretation and response to situations [within our religious communities]:

What is going on?

Why is this going on?

What ought to be going on?

How might we respond?

Answering each of these questions is the focus of one of the four core tasks of practical theological interpretation:

– The descriptive-empirical task. Gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.

– The interpretive task. Drawing on theories of the arts and sciences [or Buddhist psychology or philosophy] to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.

– The normative task. Using theological concepts to interpret particular episodes, situations, or contexts, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “good practice.”

– The pragmatic task. Determining strategies of action that will influence situations in ways that are desirable and entering into a reflective conversation with the “talk back” emerging when they are enacted.

Osmer’s book is well worth a read in its entirety by any Buddhist teacher or clergy involved in caring for a sangha or counseling fellow Buddhists. It is relatively short and easily accessible, even for those relatively unfamiliar with its Christian applications.

An example of practical Buddhist theology in action is provided by Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, an American Buddhist nun and doctoral candidate at Claremont School of Theology in California.

A Buddhist meditation teacher is teaching her students how to generate a meditative state of altruistic compassion. She conducts a guided meditation session on the topic according to typical traditional theological guidelines. After the session, she reviews the session using Osmer’s [practical theology] framework:

Descriptive: from student feedback, she learns that many students found the meditation difficult to follow;

Interpretative: the meditation guidance was perhaps too long for the students to digest fully in one sitting;

Normative: more time should be given for students to learn and understand the meditation procedure;

Pragmatic: next class, she will read through an explanation of the meditation with students before conducting the guided meditation

Bhikshuni demonstrates the application of Osmer’s four-part method for practical theology in a Buddhist context. Osmer is a Christian theologian and, until now, practical theology has largely been a Christian discipline. However, this framework also happens to exactly parallel the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. This is not coincidental, but rather further evidence of with wisdom of the Buddha in providing a universal path.

According to Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, Buddhism needs a practical theology “…because Buddhist congregations, clergy, religion teachers, etc., have the right to benefit from critical, normative, and pragmatic reflection on praxis.” Thus far, English-language academic literature on Buddhism has largely lacked such a dialogue due to the dominance of Buddhist studies over Buddhist theology in the academy. In her papers, Bhikshuni applies methods developed by several Christian theologians, who do not suffer such a lack, in various Buddhist contexts and concludes that practical theological methods are entirely suitable to Buddhism. In fact, Osmer’s framework is precisely the same framework provided by the Buddha in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.

We need only return to the Four Noble Truths to find that the Buddha himself was an eminently practical theologian (in the broad sense). The First Noble Truth is that of suffering. It describes our everyday experience. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It interprets experience to get at the heart of the problem. The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. This is a normative judgment about the best possible outcome. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way out of suffering. It is a pragmatic prescription for what we can do to realize the outcome we seek, liberation from suffering. The Four Noble Truths and the meditation example above follow the same pattern as Richard Osmer’s methodological framework for doing practical theology, described below. This reflection-action framework can and should be explicitly adopted by Buddhist teachers and leaders who seek to apply the Dharma in ever-changing modern contexts.

[NOTE: This post is adapted from a forthcoming chapter on Buddhist practical theology in a book edited by Nathan Michon and Danny Fisher. For more about how to apply Buddhist practical theology in various contexts, please look forward to the upcoming volume. I will post an update when it is released.]

New Year’s Gratitudes

January 12, 2015

I’ve written before about how I don’t do resolutions based on the arbitrary mathematics of the calendar year. My four standard resolutions continue. Sometimes I fail (okay, most of the time) and sometimes I succeed. The tactics change a little. I’ve been listening to audio books about psychology, will power, and habit formation lately. I’ve had a modicum of success as a result.

However, since the New Year has just come and gone and as I haven’t been blogging much lately, I thought I’d return to my lately forlorn habit with one of my favorite exercises: gratitude. Here’s what I’m grateful for during 2014.

'Gratitude and rust' by Shannon Kringen via

‘Gratitude and rust’ by Shannon Kringen via

I am grateful to my teachers, particularly my professors at Claremont School of Theology. This historically Christian seminary didn’t bat an eye at enrolling a Buddhist Chaplain in their Practical Theology program. My advisor, Dr. Duane Bidwell, has been a real resource. Not only do I feel welcomed in my classrooms, but valued as a source of new knowledge into a different religious tradition. Sometimes, this can be daunting. “So, Monica, what do all Buddhists everywhere think about this issue?” Okay, they don’t say that, but I occasionally feel that’s what I’m representing and I go out of my way to name the particular Buddhist viewpoint from which I’m speaking and discuss how other Buddhist traditions may handle things differently. Nor do they expect me to learn all things Christian by default just for being enrolled. They’re helping me learn about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and certainly my beloved Buddhism and giving me the space and support to study what is truly important to me.

I am grateful to my coworkers at University of the West where in June I became the full-time Institutional Effectiveness and Planning Officer. I feel like my work is valued. I’m able to contribute to projects I enjoy and frequently given the opportunity to learn new things and try what I’ve never done before (also daunting). I enjoy the challenge and the community feeling I have working here. The university has come a long way since I showed up on it’s doorstep in 2010 and I am proud of what we accomplished, but by no means fooled about the work we have yet to do. They also let me teach, which I enjoy immensely.

I am grateful that I was able to spend time with my family this year, first when they came out to California in May and then when I went home to help my parents move into a new house in August. I have always been close to my family and living so far away has been challenging. I am grateful that we are all in good health, of sound mind (mostly) and body (also mostly), financially secure, and able to travel and see each other regularly.

I am grateful for my new family here in California, particularly my partner, Colin. He put up with a particularly hectic schedule on my part this fall and supported me through some stressful work, conferences, and final papers. I am particularly grateful that he is always willing to hang in there for the difficult conversations when I feel like a lot of other people would either check out or freak out. He and his family have done everything to welcome and integrate me into their extended California clan and include me in their many celebrations and travels. Together, Colin, Archer (dog), Isis (cat), and I make a fun little DINK nuclear family that enriches my life.

Thank you. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!


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