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Finding Refuge, Making Refuge

October 21, 2016
The author alone on the ridge in Holcolb Valley, California. Photo by Colin McIllece.

The author alone on the ridge in Holcolb Valley, California. Photo by Colin McIllece.

The other day, Edward Ng posted a beautiful piece about making refuge over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Within he redefined refuge in a way new to me. (He also included a critique of the over-focus on “mindfulness” and “happiness” as goals of Buddhist and secularized quasi-Buddhist practices.) He wrote:

As professed Buddhists, we take refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha as exemplar, the Dharma as path, the Sangha as community. By taking refuge we give wisdom and compassion a chance to flower from the groundless ground of our mortality. Refuge welcomes vulnerability and entangles the self with others and the world. Hospitality towards what is not-self is necessary; otherwise how do we repair broken worlds, heal the harms we suffer and inflict on one another, or invite shared hopes and aspirations for a more promising future? The taking of refuge is hosted by an act of promising.

The making of refuge for one another is a ceaseless task, precarious work. Refuge places a universal demand on us to take response-ability for the conditions of safety shared by humans and nonhumans in this precarious world; but this promise of refuge for whomever and whatever can only be fulfilled by giving ourselves over to the contingencies of the particular.

The promise of response-ability attends first to grief and loss and harm, not happiness.

When we become responsive to grief and loss and harm, we begin to heal damaged lives and repair broken worlds; we hold the door open for justice.

[Emphasis in the original.] Read his entire article here; it is well worth it.

Refuge has been on my mind recently. Refuge where? Refuge in what or who? Refuge how?

Buddhism has traditionally offered three sources of refuge: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or the teacher, teaching, and community. I have struggled to find refuge in a living teacher and in a Buddhist community, but I have always found comfort in the beauty and truth of the Dharma, which also means truth or natural law.

This idea of refuge is affirmed in the Pali canon:

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“And how, Ananda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?

“When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.” (DN16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta)

In the Pali canon, the historical Buddha extols both the Three Refuges (or Triple Gem, as in Khp 1, Dhp 188-192, SN 55.1) and the practice of being a refuge unto oneself, relying on neither the Buddha nor Sangha, but only the Dharma. The second instruction is repeated in several places within the suttas (DN 16, SN 47.13, SN 47.14).

Yet, in my experience, the Three Refuges are emphasized more. They are the vow that ‘makes one’ a Buddhist and are repeated daily in chants and rituals throughout the Buddhist world.

Is this a contradiction? If so, how are we to reconcile it?

One of the most common tools in Buddhist hermeneutics (or the interpretations of meanings) is the teaching of upaya or skillful means. Donald Lopez points out,

The Buddha is said to have taught different things to different people based on their interests, dispositions, capacities, and levels of intelligence. Furthermore, the tradition maintained that as a Buddha, an enlightened being, his teachings must be free of error and contradiction. (p. 3 of Buddhist Hermeneutics, “Introduction”)

Therefore, upaya, although rarely mentioned in the Pali canon itself, was adopted as a principle for interpretation of the sutras by Theravadin exegetes and later expanded upon greatly in Mahayana and Vajrayana literature. Lopez cites Peter Gregory, who points out that later Chinese understandings added a layer of context to the hermeneutics of upaya, (p. 5) which is necessary as the buddhadharma crossed cultural borders. And,

As George Bond shows, the Theravadin exegetes based their hermeneutical strategy on the idea of a gradual path to enlightenment. Hence, they delineated a typology of persons, based on factors such as level of spiritual development and temperament, to whom the Buddha addressed his teachings.

In other words, they placed the different teachings within a hierarchy from lowest or most relative, provisional, and contextual to highest or most ultimate, universal, and non-contextual. Theravada traditions were not alone in this strategy. It can be found in Kukai’s ten stages and the various bhumis of the Bodhisattvas. Different schools chose different texts as their representation of that highest, ultimate meaning. (p. 6)

So how does that help me? How does that help folks like me, who struggle to find a teacher and and a sangha in which they can ‘be vulnerable and entangle themselves,’ as Ed Ng puts it?

I have not yet found a sangha in which I felt I could be myself, could be that vulnerable, could be welcomed for my griefs and failings. I always felt like I had to be someone else, according to their expectations of how a Buddhist ‘should’ act or be.

Perhaps that’s actually okay. Shouldn’t our teachers and communities also encourage us to be better, to grow and change in beneficial ways?

When the Buddha applied upaya, which is sometimes also translated as “teaching aids,” he did so with full knowledge of that person’s or community’s starting point. He understood and accepted where they were now. Then he offered a teaching that could draw them into a better place, a better understanding, a better life. They chose to follow that teaching or not.

This is not the sense I get from the Buddhist communities I visit today. I do not believe they understand where I am now, nor do they want to accept me as I am today. To be clear, they’re under no obligation to do so. Different sanghas serve very different populations and cannot be all things to all people, nor should they try.

Much of what they attempt to teach me is not for the purpose of enlightenment, but for the purpose of “fitting in” so that they feel more comfortable with my presence, rather than the other way around. This is harmony through conformity and it is practiced equally by western, progressive, mostly-white sanghas and more traditional, mostly Asian and Asian-American sanghas.

The tension and anxiety I feel in such environments creates an unnecessary barrier between the audience (myself) and the Dharma.

'Introverts Unite!' from Joe Wolf via

‘Introverts Unite!’ from Joe Wolf via

I take the greater share of responsibility for this. As a highly sensitive introvert, it is literally how I am wired. More relaxed or extroverted persons may experience the exact same context very differently than I do. This does not mean I am powerless. A 5’8″ tall person can become a great basketball player, but they don’t do it by getting taller. I also believe that meditation has at least some ability to rewire the brain, but not to rewrite the genetic code. This body, and it’s temperament, are my karma; they’re what I have to work with.

Which is why I find the two ways of understanding refuge to be outstandingly good news. The genetics that lend me my temperament and contribute to who I am today came from somewhere. Which means there were probably highly sensitive introverts during the Buddha’s time. I can only imagine he met them. Perhaps this teaching is for us?

Yet, why was the teaching of the Triple Gem the one that was passed down and emphasized so strongly? Well, that’s what communities do, right? They perpetuate themselves and the things they value. That’s what they’re for. And our tendency to create hierarchies may have contributed to the promotion of the Triple Gem over the Refuge Unto Yourselves idea. Lone hermits, on the other hand, rarely have heirs and are rarely interested in promoting hierarchies of any kind.

Luckily, we can all be a little bit of both. Being introverted doesn’t mean I hate people. In fact, I love people, especially one-on-one or small group interaction about important things. That’s why I enjoy being a chaplain. Intimate talks are where its at for introverts. And I can still visit temples and Dharma centers and sanghas from time to time. In fact, I can visit many different ones and get a broad understanding of the flavors of Buddhism. I can also learn from many teachers – all the inner buddhas of the world, in fact.

So it’s not entirely a case of either/or, just both/and in different measures. I may not have felt refuge from others the way Ed Ng describes, but I still take up his sacred challenge. I want be that kind of refuge for others – and for myself.

On Not Having Children

October 15, 2016

‘Free at last’ by Simon via

I have a sneaking suspicion that I should want a child more than I want my next travel adventure. As I have never wanted to be pregnant, give birth, change diapers, or go to school plays more than I have wanted my next trip to London, Tokyo, or even just Denver, I think not having children was probably the right decision for me.

“But you can do both!” parents and parents-to-be will cry. “I’m a parent and I still have a life!”

Yes, that’s true. But it’s hard. I learned that from observation. I knew that by the time I was five. (I was that pain-in-the-ass kid.)

I actually have good role models in my parents. They were married five years before they had their first child. We were both planned. They’ve now been married 40+ years and have spent more of their married life child-free than child-rearing. (Although, yes, they’re still parents after my brother and I moved out.) They both worked full-time while raising two kids and my mother even finished her bachelor’s degree by going to night school while we were in elementary. They have passions and hobbies and full, complete lives outside of us and that was deliberate on their part, from what they’ve told me.

Nevertheless, somehow, both my brother and I decided not to have kids and found stable, long-term partners who feel the same. I actually feel worse for my parents than for myself, because I think they would be wonderful grandparents. But with my brother and I now in our late thirties, I think they understand that’s unlikely.

For many years, I wondered if I would ever have children. I left the possibility open. The answer was always “not right now, but maybe someday.” I know people change; I know I change. I always wondered if I might have a child for the sake of a partner who deeply wanted one, especially if that person had an excess of those nurturing instincts I don’t find much in myself.

As I get older, I grow more thankful of my decision and more resolved not to have any children at all. And, yes, I do look around at people my age (or younger) with kids and think “I’m so glad that’s not me.” I’d lay down my life to protect a child, any child, but I don’t want one of my own.

They’re lovely parents and lovely children. I can see how enriching it’s been for that person to have a child, what a good job they’re doing raising their baby, and how wonderful that child is as a tiny person. But people who run marathons also find it personally fulfilling and I don’t want to do that either.

The decision not to have kids, however, is a little more loaded than the decision about whether or not to run marathons. Society feels like it has a right to weigh in and judge my character based on that decision. This has always baffled me completely.

I feel like it’s simple. If you don’t want kids and take the necessary steps to not have kids, then good on you. No social intervention (or even any commentary) needed.

If you don’t want kids and end up with one (or more) or if you do want them and can’t have them – then that’s where society may get involved. Adoptions agencies and fertility clinics exist for these reasons and they do a fairly good job of trying to help people get what they want one way or the other, despite the stress of either situation.

To me, kids are like small alien creatures that don’t make much sense. They’re fascinating and baffling and frustrating all in turns. I understand my dog better than the average tiny (or adult) human.

What it really comes down to is that I don’t want to reorient my life around being a parent, not even for the decade or two of primary child care. I love my life just the way it is. I watch parents sometimes in public places and they have their mind on their child all the time. Even when said child is sitting quietly and the parent is reading a magazine, their eyes regularly dart to check on their kid. That’s what a parent should do, but it’s just not something I want to do.

And I’ve heard all the accusations of selfishness, but don’t people also have kids because they want to? Aren’t both decisions ultimately about what I/we want?* Children conceived accidentally are joys to people who ultimately want to be parents in the long run. Even ‘accidents’ never considered have a way of turning into gems and I often wondered if this would happen to me, all the while doing everything I could to prevent it.

Once the child arrives, a certain amount of altruism is necessary to keep them alive, healthy, and happy, it’s true. The same could be said of keeping a company running or volunteering for a local charity or any form of social advocacy. With monastics as the Buddhist ideal of an altruistic life, I have many living role models of both paths, both ways to be selfless in the service of others. I try to be selfless everyday (and fail everyday) through a career that helps others.

There are lots of socially compelling reasons not to have children: climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, growing inequality, etc. For those compelled by such reasons, adoption becomes even more attractive. That’s not why I made my decision, however. I simply don’t want to be a parent.

Siddhartha Gautama named his newborn son “Rahula,” which is translated as “fetter.” He then ran away from home to become the Buddha. Many people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, have rightly questioned this.** Are children really fetters? Was Siddhartha being cruel? Did he ever regret his action, either before or after his awakening as the Buddha?

I think Siddhartha maybe just saw a simple truth of parenthood – that life as a parent has a tendency to revolve around your child(ren), at least for many years. Who can meditated on the interdependence of all phenomena when the baby needs changing or the screaming toddler is throwing spaghetti?

Many modern Buddhists do just this, in fact. But it’s hard, I’ve hear them say. Many have incorporated parenthood into their practice and achieved greater wisdom as a result. Rather than being incompatible, parenthood and practice can be complementary. This is praiseworthy, but if it were the only way to wisdom, those monastics I know would be out of luck and that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There are great things about being a parent that make the diapers and the spaghetti stains worth it (to others). Those wonderful times (one hopes) also draw the full attention of the parents, but it’s an attention I’d just rather spend on other things. Being an astronaut is also awesome, I hear, and I don’t want to do that either.

I’m now 36. I’ve felt this way since I was 16. I’ve taken the steps I needed to not have children. I’ve used every hormonal method of birth control out there (some of which have since been recalled) and they all come with bad side effects for me (though I know they can work better for other women). I’ve used every other form of birth control as I should and it’s worked so far, but not without a good share of anxiety and fussing I could happily live without.

Now that I am 36, however, my doctor didn’t question me when I raised the topic of tubal ligation, that is, permanent sterilization. Moreover, the procedure is now far less invasive than when I was 16 or even 26. It can even be done laparoscopically, just like my dad’s knee surgery, as an outpatient procedure. And, it’s finally covered by my insurance. This was a crucial step since for many years it either wasn’t covered at all or I just didn’t have insurance.

I am interested to hear from women who’ve had the procedure so I know what to expect and so I can weigh the pros and cons of my two options (essure or clips). For those of you who’ve read this far and are still thinking “How horrible!” or “She’s so selfish!” or “She’s sure to change her mind!” I don’t need to hear from you. You’re welcome to your opinions, but please share them elsewhere. I’m good.

*For folks living in developed countries with some level of female empowerment, access to reproductive health care, and bodily integrity. Without these, having children is often not much of a choice at all, especially for women.

**Siddhartha, the prince, did not leave his child in poverty without care. As the Buddha, he eventually returned and Rahula and his mother became disciples who, purportedly, obtained enlightenment themselves.

Gamifying the Path

September 30, 2016

‘The First Move’ by Antti Kyllonen via


Purpose: To break down the Eightfold Path into concrete steps that can be implemented in an eight-month cycle with three rounds, which totals two years. Dedicate each month to making a deliberate effort to improve in a particular aspect of the path, starting with Right Action. Progress on the path in a spiral motion, returning to Right Action every eight months, but expanding the circle of concern in that aspect from self to close others to far others. After two years, return to the beginning, but formulate new actions based on present circumstances.

Theory: This project is similar to practices for character formation embedded in various world religions (i.e. Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim liturgical calendars) and personal philosophies (i.e. Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues). In each instance, rather than focusing on always doing right in all areas, which can feel overwhelming, distinct times, places, and activities are designated to focus one’s energies on a particular area of development in a recurrent cycle.

Problem: Many of the focusing techniques of past eras are embedded within specific regional, ethnic, or religious cultures. Some people, myself included, feel cast adrift from those cultures, having left our childhood religions behind (or never having had one). Taking up Asian Buddhist rituals at this stage of my life feels superficial (for reasons I have written about elsewhere), even when they have been ‘Americanized,’ which has its own problems. Therefore, I prefer to forge my own system and to keep it simple, something I can follow as an individual.

Sharing: I share this here not in hope that anyone else will adopt it, but for two reasons. First, I hope it will keep me accountable. When I know I have to report on my progress to others (even if those others haven’t demanded such a report), I am more diligent. I have found this psychological mechanism useful in other areas of my life. Second, perhaps it will serve as an example of what is possible – that is, the development of our own systems for spiritual and personal growth. Perhaps someone else will be inspired to come up with their own system and share it and, perhaps, as a result we will see several such systems develop and be able to compare their relative efficacy for different people. The researcher in me would be fascinated by such a project.

The Noble Eightfold Path

  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Place in the Cycle

October: Right Action

Right Action is defined in several ways. First, according the precepts to abstain from violence, stealing, sexual misconduct, and use of intoxicants. Second, to abandon all evil actions and undertake all good actions, which includes cultivating a general awareness of which actions do and do not contribute to suffering. Third, the cultivation of virtues, especially those concerned with how we treat ourselves and others, such as kindness, compassion, and a general sense of care (or carefulness) for ourselves, others, objects, and the environment.

I have chosen to implement Right Action this month by showing care for my body and mind, taking actions that I know to alleviate suffering in the long run, abstaining from actions that I know to perpetuate suffering in the long run, and by cultivating a general virtue of kindness towards myself. When I take care of myself, I reduce my own stress and become more available to others. When I am compassionate and kind towards myself, I am also more likely to respond compassionately and kindly towards others. Kindness is not indulgent; in fact, true kindness requires a particular sort of diligence that only becomes easier when it is habitualized.

Round 1: Actions to care for the body and mind.

  • Eat a healthy breakfast each work day before leaving the house.
  • Drink 1 cup of coffee per day or less; green tea in the afternoon is okay.
  • Do not drink soda or other sugary drinks; fruit juice is okay in moderation.
  • Eat vegetarian at least five days a week.
  • Exercise five days a week by walking/jogging with the dog at the park; intersperse with push-ups and pull-ups on the park exercise stations.
  • Meditate at least five days a week.
  • Do no work on Saturday; spend time with my partner, friends, and pets.
  • Thank my body and mind for what it has done at least once a week through guided meditation or writing exercises.

Round 2: Actions to care for the home and family.

Round 3: Actions to care for the community and world.

November: Right Livelihood


Goal: Establish these actions as self-sustaining habits embedded into a fairly stable daily routine.

Accountability: Use a habit tracker to monitor progress and a journal to record positive or negative outcomes at the end of each week.

Transition: On the last day of each month, formulate the goals for the next month based on the next aspect in the Eightfold Path and the current round. Also, formulate the rounds for that aspect of the path as this system is being developed. Refine as necessary.

Fierce Compassion

August 29, 2016
Rhonda Magee at CMind Summer Session 2016

Photo courtesy of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

“Compassion is fierce. It’s not soft at all. So we resist because we’re afraid of what it will call on us to do.” – Prof. Rhonda V. Magee (paraphrased) August 8, 2016

Compassion is in the act to alleviate suffering. As we become aware of or empathize with suffering, either in ourselves or others, we naturally want relief – but neither the feeling nor the desire for relief by themselves constitute compassion. Compassion is in the act.

At the recent Summer Session on Contemplative Higher Education, Professor Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco law faculty almost perfectly echoed a point I made at the Global Chaplains conference in Australia last month. The definition of karuna in the Buddhist literature is the will and action to relieve suffering of oneself and others. If we note suffering in passing without acting to alleviate it, this is not compassion.

Contemplative practice is only contemplative so long as it is in service to “a more just and compassionate society,” according to the definition of provided by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, founded by Mirabai Bush and Daniel Barbezat, which sponsored the summer session. Contemplative practice helps us wake up, according to Professor Magee. I think the Buddha would agree.

Some prefer to present contemplation is a value neutral tool, lacking inherent spiritual or ethical content, perhaps in fear that yoga or meditation will accidentally convert them to some new religion. Some folks even use mindfulness techniques to improve their concentration on tasks that actually create more suffering, such as when stockbrokers host MBSR seminars and then make trades that bankrupt companies.

On the one hand, mindfulness does alleviate personal stress, and is that not also suffering? Yet, it can also become an opiate to numb us from the systemic sources of suffering, such as injustice. It can reduce our stress just enough that we can go back to work tomorrow and price gouge impoverished customers. Focus on your breathing, not on that crying woman over there. This is not what our contemplative gurus were hoping for.

Injustice can only flourish when we are trained to miss interconnection. We don’t notice that injustice for one is injustice for all. We focus on handling our stress and our response to stress and developing our mind. Which is a valuable exercise, but perpetuates the false notion that we have a solid self disconnected from others.

In reality, we each exist in a net of relationships and those relationships do matter. They affect our suffering and freedom from suffering, but the philosophy du jour says we can’t control other people, so we should only focus on controlling our own mind. This is a shallow truth, especially if we carry some form of privilege that allows us to overlook the suffering of entire groups of people, such as women and people of color.

I am guilty. I have long relied on my white privilege to shield me from the suffering of people of color. It’s scares me. It’s too horrible and too big and I feel far too powerless. I can’t look at all the suffering in the world, I tell myself, I’ll break down. I have to choose what suffering I devote my time and energy to or I’ll spread myself too thin and burn out. This is also a shallow truth.

Professor Magee and Dr. Rose Sackey-Milligan helped me finally look deeply at what I’d long known only intellectually. They introduced contemplative practices that got to the root of the suffering of black and brown bodies and at my own white privilege looking away. Accessing my privilege emotionally or intuitively is important, because privlege, by it’s nature is difficult to see by the person who has it. We practiced contemplatively to bring privilege into the forefront of our awareness in a non-threatening way (as much as any privilege-work can be).

Shortly after I returned from the summer session, a POC friend asked about my neighborhood. Another POC friend had warned her it was a racist area, which had never occurred to me. I have been shielded from that by my privilege. When I considered it, I realized I’ve never seen anyone of her race in my neighborhood. She worries about racism every day and may therefore miss out on having a good place to live or an affordable rent. I feel sad for her and chagrined at myself for never having noticed this before.

Everyone suffers form injustice in different ways. Some suffer oppression and terror, others suffer fear of the oppressed, many suffer both. Racism, sexism, ablism, and other forms of discrimination create systems of injustice within the very social structures we depend on for survival. They are in our police systems that keep us “safe” and our law systems that provide “justice” and our education systems that offer “opportunity.” But some people remain safer than others, some more likely to receive justice, and some have more opportunities than others. Those with privilege may perceive equality as economically and socially threatening because it is change, but the groups without privilege know that the status quo is a literal threat to their physical lives and the lives of their children.

We must remember that anti-discrimination laws were enacted in a systemic social structure that continues to profit from racism, sexism, etc. Professor Magee reiterates a truth that I’ve also heard from Dr. Najeeba Syeed, of Claremont School of Theology, where I study. Judges have received kickbacks from private prisons to incarcerate predominantly minority kids. The entire concept of prisons “for profit” is reprehensible, especially in a society that disproportionately arrests, convicts, and incarcerates people of color. And where people can be held in jails indefinitely for inability to pay a simple fine or make bail due to poverty. Our justice system is just one area in which inequality creates opportunities for the unscrupulous to profit from a broken system – which means they have an investment in maintaining that system.

When we teach contemplative pedagogy, is it inflected by social identity? Is there such a thing as “black” mindfulness? Professor Magee asks a crowd of educators, mostly white, but with a noticeable number of black folks, a few of East Asian descent, and an equally noticeable dearth of South Asians, Latinos, or Native Americans. I don’t know what I think of this question at first.

Inasmuch as we’re born with characteristics we didn’t choose and (mostly) can’t change that a preexisting social structure attach meaning to … she goes on, but my mind rewinds because I’ve never thought of it that way. What meaning do we as a society attach to these outward characteristics of people? What meaning do I attach to being a women? What meaning do other people attach to my gender when they see me? Most meanings exist in a hierarchy of meaning, a subconsciously constructed worldview. Where does the meaning of my gender, race, age, or appearance fall into my own worldview or those of others?

We can use mindfulness to wake up to our worldviews of unconscious meaning, learn them, and then choose to accept, contest, or modify these meanings. We can do it without spiritually bypassing using an “it’s all one” argument or “contemplation is contemplation.” Instead, we can actually honor, respect, and value different lived experiences while also seeing the blind spots they engender and using mindfulness to become further aware of and overcome those blind spots. Through contemplation I can look deeply into racism and my own white privilege to become a better ally.

Waking up NECESSITATES waking up to injustice and finding ways to overcome it. Waking up makes us fiercely compassionate. Meditate and wake up!

Kinds of Campus Chaplains

August 4, 2016

Closing panel. Photo credit: Steph Robinson

The final panel of the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education 2016 was called “Pulling Apart a Platypus,” which was a metaphor for a panel that looked critically at the differences between chaplaincies at various institutions. The panel and the metaphor were the brainchild of chaplain Robert Lingard from Southern Cross University in Australia. He recruited four panelists:

  • Jay Robinson of Monash University in Australia
  • Gunther Sturms of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands
  • Mary Hudson of Syracuse University in the USA
  • Myself (Monica Sanford) of University of the West in the USA

No platypi were harmed in the course of this session.

From Rev. Jay Robinson of the Uniting Church of Australia, I learned that universities employ only a few chaplains on their own payroll and mostly to function as coordinators relying on the volunteer services of numerous chaplains to meet the needs of students. With the exception of two church-based institutions, all universities in Australia are public. They are also large; I heard no populations below five digits among all the Australia chaplains I spoke to. They seem to recognize the value of chaplains as they recruit numerous volunteers, but have very little interest in paying for that value. Like America, there is some controversy over church-state separation and the use of tax funding. Nevertheless, Jay and her fellow Aussie chaplains work hard to look after the students on their campuses. An innovation I particularly enjoyed was a jacket she wears that says ‘chaplain’ on it. She replicated this for the conference, which she worked tirelessly to organize, in the form of vests that said “Chaplain at Work – Please Bother.” I see a T-shirt order in my future.

From Gunther Sturms of the Netherlands, a Catholic, chaplaincy has a more secular and entrepreneurial face in the form of Motiv. This non-profit, attached to a technical school, provides team training, coaching, and events to help students wrestle with their calling – in this case to be engineers – and build their people skills. Gunther’s model appears more like corporate consulting than chaplaincy, including fees for service. Some audience members questioned what might be lost in relying so much on secular language and a secular model. Gunther believes nothing is lost, only that he and his team allow students (who are largely secular in the Netherlands) to raise the topic or religion rather than using religion as the starting point.

In an earlier in-person conversation, I learned from Gunther that he does not perform one-on-one counseling (no ‘open door’) or ministry of presence, which are two staples of chaplaincy practice I regularly use. For myself, I agree with Gunther regarding the relationship between religious and secular language, but I am uneasy about the loss of these specific practices. What sets chaplains apart from consultants or therapists, to me, is that we go where the suffering is and make ourselves available without waiting to be called (some counselors and social workers also do this, but in different ways). While students can make appointments with me, they don’t have to. Crisis, trauma, and panic do not adhere to any datebook. To my knowledge, Gunther and his team do not provide crisis services, which I find regrettable.

The third chaplain to speak was Mary Hudson, the Pagan chaplain at Syracuse University in New York. Mary represents the completely volunteer chaplain, endorsed by her faith tradition and carefully scrutinized by the university before being authorized to work on campus. Once approved, Mary became of ten chaplaincies who all commit to serving the campus twenty hours a week for no pay and in addition to whatever ‘day jobs’ they may hold. Mary manages this by being at the campus Starbucks early in the morning and holding events in the evenings and on weekends. When asked how she serves Christian students, by far the majority on American college campuses, Mary answered quite well. Like any chaplain, she is interfaith, but there is also a subset of Christian and quasi-Christian students who would rather discuss Christianity with her than with a Christian chaplain due to fear of judgment. I personally believe this fear is largely unfounded, but not entirely, in my experience. Our faith traditions imbue us with certain worldviews and assumptions that, even in the most well meaning chaplain can become judgmental. As a profession, we rely on a reputation as ‘safe’ people for difficult discussions (regardless of our own beliefs) in order for students to approach us to ask for help. Mary and my fellow chaplains at the conference were well aware of that, but still struggling to overcome outdated notions of what religious professionals are.

I presented last. I explained my paid position on campus that, in addition to, I am allowed to serve as a chaplain on a volunteer basis. By becoming a familiar and valuable member of the paid staff, I have gained the trust of a large part of the campus community, who as a result, support my work as a chaplain. Probably, like Mary, I will never find a full-time paid position as a campus chaplain in our largely Christian nation. However, if I can make myself valuable in other ways, either as administration or faculty, I may continue to serve my calling wherever I go, which is to be a chaplain. I may even occasionally bring that viewpoint to the fore in executive or committee meetings when discussing a topic that impacts student suffering, my primary concern as a Buddhist chaplain, in spite of other strategic or fiscal objectives.

We then opened the panel to questions, the most touching of which came from a Christian chaplain from New Zealand. She was dismayed to the point of tears about the lengths to which Mary and I go to serve students. We need to make the profession more inclusive and welcoming to chaplains from all traditions, she stated. Afterward, she sought me out for more conversation and a hug, despite my froggish voice as I spoke earlier (a bad head cold). I was in turn, heartened by her support, especially because I know that even Christian chaplains are struggling to prove their value to rapidly secularizing universities.

The panel was a great opportunity to meet other chaplains and share our common goals and struggles. I may even recommend something similar, though on a smaller geographic scale and wider professional scope (beyond campus chaplains), at my own university this year for the benefit of students in our chaplaincy program.

Accounting for Australia

July 27, 2016

Great Stupa of Universal Compassion and future home of the Jade Buddha under construction near Bendigo, Australia. Photo by the author.

As readers know, my attendance at the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education was crowdfunded through a GoFundMe campaign that raised $3000 over a few months. I could never have attended this conference without all of you who donated and who shared my campaign. Thank you and sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

Below, please find a complete financial accounting of the donations and how they were spent. The campaign is now closed, but it has proved to me that people still believe scholarship matters, chaplains matter, and they are willing to support both!

$3,000.00 Total Donations
$(375.00) Scholarship from Organizers (no cash received)
$2,280.00 Online donations (subject to fees)
$(185.00) Fees (~8%)
$2,095.00 Funds received from GoFundMe
$345.00 Offline donations (no fees)

$1,268.00 Flights
$545.89 Hotel in Bendigo
$15.00 Electronic Travel Authorization
$- Conference Registration (free due to scholarship)
$290.50 Food & Medicine
$141.17 Transportation in Australia
$139.98 Hotel in Melbourne

$39.46 REMAINDER (donated)

My estimated costs were very close. I spent a little more than I wanted to on medicine and transportation due to the illness I acquired about midway through the conference week. Thankfully, Australian pharmacists are very helpful. I splurged on an Uber back to the Melbourne airport rather than wait at a cold bus stop so early in the morning on my last day.

The remaining funds were donated to my friend, Venerable Sumitta, who is raising funds to rebuild the homes of three single mothers in Sri Lanka who were affected by the floods earlier this year. Please consider supporting or sharing his campaign.

Chaplains Conferences are the Best Conferences

July 22, 2016

Closing Panel; photo credit: Steph Robinson

I attended the 2016 Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education in Bendigo, Australia, from July 11-15. This is my second time at this conference, which is held every four years, the last one being in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2012. There were clear differences between the two, but one thing stayed the same: chaplains conferences are the best conferences.

Here is a group of people professionally trained to be kind, supportive, open minded, and to care for strangers at the drop of a hat. I made friends starting on the shuttle ride from the airport, which I shared with a Catholic chaplain from Canberra and a Mormon chaplain from Utah. I met the Australian organizer, with whom I’d corresponded for months, with a hug, although we’d never seen each other in person before. One of the New Zealand chaplains cried when she listened to how difficult it is fro the Pagan chaplain from Syracuse, New York, and I (a Buddhist chaplain in California) to find a full-time campus chaplain position in a dominantly Christian country and the lengths to which we’ll go to stay chaplains despite that. Questions during workshops and paper sessions were open, curious, respectful, and affirming. I had a great lunch with a male chaplain from South Carolina discussing the difficulty of Title IX (dealing with campus sexual assault and harassment) and the role chaplains play.

Overall, this conference was smaller then the previous one at Yale, with just over 100 attendees (compared to 400), but many more from Australia and New Zealand for obvious reasons. I presented my paper to about 15 people on Tuesday and we had a good discussion. On Thursday, 8 attended my workshop. The entire group was present for the closing panel I participated in on Friday and several came up to me afterward with positive comments. La Trobe University in Bendigo did a wonderful job hosting us.

Despite the proximity to Asia, only one chaplain from Hong Kong joined us. I was truly hoping that some of the new Buddhist chaplains from Japan or other Asian countries might attend, but perhaps the barriers (language, cost, awareness, etc.) were still too high this time around. The location of the 2020 conference has yet to be announced, but when it is, you can be sure I will be reaching out to my colleagues across the Pacific.

If you are interested in campus chaplaincy or just chaplaincy in general, I highly recommend this conference. Overall, it was a wonderful experience, despite the horrifically long airplane flight.


Kangaroos at La Trobe University, photo by author