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Endorsement for Buddhist Chaplains

Buddhist Ministry Working Group Meeting, March 23–26, 2017, Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe NM


Professional Endorsement for Buddhist Chaplains

By Elaine Yuen, PhD


In March 2017, the Buddhist Ministry Working Group convened at Upaya Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for three days of conversation, collaboration, and contemplative practice. This meeting was part of a series of meetings hosted by Harvard Divinity School—as a conference at Harvard in 2015, a meeting at Naropa in 2016, and in 2017 as a residential retreat at Upaya. This year we met at Upaya Zen Center, and enjoyed time to dine, practice, and converse together. Next year Harvard Divinity School will be convening a larger conference on April 26–28, 2018.

The common theme for these gatherings has been the training Buddhist ministers, or chaplains. As Buddhist ministry or chaplaincy is relatively new in the west, our conversations have centered around topics such as paths of Buddhist training and how they might (or might not) appropriately meet the professional standards for service which are often rooted in Western paradigms.


Over our three days together, we contemplated and dialogued around questions such as:

  • What is right livelihood?
  • What are our Buddhist theological foundations?
  • Is there a particular Buddhist epistemology—or way of knowing?
  • What are our different paths as Buddhists, and how are they articulated?
  • What is the common ground we share as institutions and faculty?


As a follow-on to this meeting, Elaine Yuen with Daijaku Kinst, Jitsujo Gauthier, and Leigh Miller have completed a white paper on endorsement for Buddhist chaplain candidates and students. Buddhist students and caregivers who aspire to become interfaith chaplains and employed in medical settings increasingly consider board certification through a professional organizations such as the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Part of this process with APC involves endorsement of the chaplain by their faith group (this is true for all chaplains who seek board certification not just Buddhists.) This white paper discusses issues regarding endorsement of Buddhist chaplains (link to article).


As the gathering drew to a close, we agreed that for the next year there would be four primary directions: 1) advocating for and developing partnerships for Buddhist chaplaincy with professional chaplaincy accrediting bodies such as APC; 2) developing a clearinghouse (potentially web-based) among participating Buddhist institutions that would provide information and sample syllabi / activities; 3) hosting a larger conference at Harvard Divinity School in April, 2017 that would invite participation from a larger group of faculty and students; 4) continuing to seek funding that would support longer-term goals and activities.


Participants included faculty from

Harvard Divinity School (Cheryl Giles, Julie Gillette, Chris Berlin, Emily Click)

Naropa University (Elaine Yuen, Judith Simmer-Brown, Phil Stanley)

University of the West (Jitsujo Gauthier, Victor Gabriel, Monica Sanford)

Institute of Buddhist Studies (Daijaku Kinst)

Maitripa College (Namdrol Adams, Leigh Miller)

University of Toronto (Ciulan Liu, Pam McCarroll)

Rigpa Spiritual Care Program (Kirsten DeLeo)

Upaya Zen Center (Joshin Byrnes)

Won Institute of Graduate Studies (Gloria Nouel)



Professional Endorsement for Buddhist Chaplains


Elaine Yuen, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Wisdom Traditions, Naropa University


Gena Cline, MDiv, Naropa University


Jitsujo Gauthier, PhD, Faculty of Buddhist Chaplaincy

University of the West


Daijaku Kinst, PhD, Director of Buddhist Chaplaincy Graduate Program

Graduate Theological Union


Leigh Miller, Director of Programs

Maitripa University




Buddhist students and caregivers who aspire to become interfaith chaplains and employed in medical settings increasingly consider board certification through a professional organization such as the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Part of this process with APC involves endorsement of the chaplain by their faith group (this is true for all chaplains who seek board certification not just Buddhists.) In this article, we discuss some of the issues to consider regarding endorsement of Buddhist chaplains.


What is endorsement?


Plummer in his article on endorsement[i] notes that “endorsement is not a letter or recommendation” but rather is a document that assures that the candidate is “spiritually, doctrinally, educationally and professionally qualified to represent his/ community in a specialized setting.” Key aspects of endorsement include an acknowledgement certifying that the endorsee has the theological knowledge as well as pastoral ability to represent his/her faith while spiritually caring for others in times of illness, trauma, and death.   The endorser could be person or role within an institution.


The relationship between the endorser and endorsee is viewed as a personal moral contract, and includes an assumption of an ongoing relationship between endorsee and his/her teacher and/or community for spiritual support and development. Accountability is held by both parties, and acknowledgement that the endorsee’s ethics, values, and behavior, either in the clinical setting or in one’s sangha/community, are authentic, genuine, and congruent with pastoral caregiving.


Western Historical Context


Acknowledging that professional chaplaincy has been established as a profession only within the last 100 years, it might be useful to consider its historical context before discussing how Buddhists may be endorsed as professional chaplains in the West.


Within a modern Western historical context, endorsement is viewed as a legal as well as moral contract. As such, the endorser must be identified as a valid “endorsing body” which is organized legally and theologically to serve a lay community on a regular basis, as well as have tax exemption as a non-profit religious organization.


Many Christian religious denominations are able to fulfill these requirements, as well as document ordination of their endorsees as ministers/priests. Currently, APC has developed a “Faith Group Recognition Form” that requests any endorsing body to articulate how they are institutionally and legally organized, as well as how they mentor and assess ministers seeking endorsement to become board certified through APC.[ii] The current form is being revised to reflect Buddhist language and understandings (see “Where We are Now” below).


Issues for Buddhist chaplains


Over the last 100 years, Buddhist practices and communities have become established in the West[iii]. There are many different traditions and sects of Buddhism, often coming with their own structures and organization that articulate leadership, community participation (both lay and monastic) as well as practices, liturgy ad ritual.

The development of Buddhist communities in the west varies by degrees of organization, as well as by tradition and lineage. Buddhism in Western sanghas has adapted to Western cultural and organizational norms over time, while at the same time bringing traditions (and hierarchies) for sangha organization found in Asian countries such as Japan and Tibet. In this regard, Buddhist communities and sanghas may not initially be as organized along lines that mirror Western legal procedures and guidelines. For the purposes of this paper, I would like to mention two aspects of how this may affect endorsement for Buddhist chaplains: 1) who endorses the candidate; and 2) the developmental path of preparation for chaplaincy within Buddhist traditions.


Who endorses? A key issue regarding is endorsement is how and by whom an individual’s spiritual maturity is recognized (i.e. who is doing the endorsing). For most religious communities, this is determined by how leadership is articulated within that community. Many Buddhist lineages are historically based on the principle of Dharma transmission, where individuals are authorized with titles such as meditation instructors, priests, abbots, Dharma teachers. While the title and scope of responsibility may vary from role to role, and tradition to tradition, in all of these instances it is indicated that the individual with that title (and acknowledgement) is a worthy vessel or container through which the wisdom of the spoken and unspoken Buddhist lineage is passed through.


To be endorsed by a leader in the sangha, whether they be a meditation instructor or Dharma teacher, assumes that there is an ongoing relationship between the endorser and endorsee. However, in some situations, individuals may lack clear and trustworthy relationships with sangha leaders / endorses. Others may not be part of a large sangha with a local community – and may interact with their community online. In other cases, individuals seeking to be Buddhist chaplains may be solitary practitioners, or affiliate with multiple Buddhist traditions and/or faiths, not having one designated sangha they strongly associate with.  


One model of endorsement for Buddhist chaplains by their faith community could “mirror” that of other developing organizations (i.e. Hindus / evangelical Christians / Jewish). In this model, and “umbrella” organization takes responsibility as the endorsing organization. Typically, there are agreed upon general procedures and beliefs that would apply across the board, so that the umbrella endorsing body is able to communicate with individuals seeking endorsement, and if necessary, hold them accountable.[iv]  


Developmental path and spiritual maturity within Buddhist traditions.


Key supports to the Buddhist developmental path may be articulated as the Three Refuges: The Buddha as example, the Dharma as what is taught and experienced, and the Sangha as the community of practitioners. Known as the Triple Gem, or treasure, these supports guide one’s understanding and development of Buddhist understanding and praxis. The Sangha or community as one of the three treasures holds accountable one’s practice, realization, and service within the context of community.


In this social context, there is a moral “contract” or agreement that is an expression of the commitment and devotion a Buddhist practitioner to a practice path, lineage and/or teacher. Endorsement is understood to be a recognition by a community or Sangha of a member’s spiritual maturity to represent their faith tradition in applied contexts that may be “outside” of the community’s specific faith traditions and beliefs.


Buddhist chaplain candidates may encounter formative, developmental challenges while engaging their Sangha in the endorsement process and the support needed to provide spiritual care to others. Buddhist sanghas and communities often have guidelines for spiritual training and practice. Systems and procedures may be provided to support and guide the endorsee in their path to chaplaincy. More variation may be found within are whether sanghas and communities regarding clear procedures that would support a chaplain candidate (or chaplain) in navigating spiritual care and ethical issues that may arise during their chaplaincy service.


As Buddhist sanghas develop in the West, these agreements, or contracts are often developed to meet the needs and contexts of the cultures where they are operative. And, for purposes of endorsement for service as a chaplain within an organization such as the Association of Professional Chaplains, dialogue with the APC is often helpful to clarify language and terminology.  


As chaplaincy has increasingly become a vehicle for modern Buddhists to provide spiritual care to those within their communities as well as to those in the general public in the West, recognition by established organizations such as APC have become important. Within the context of chaplaincy endorsement, these explicitly stated guidelines are often helpful to establish procedures for accountability between the chaplain and his or her sangha.


Where we are now


Currently, a working group comprised of Buddhist organizations and sanghas has been collaborating with the Association of Professional chaplains to revise the “Faith Group Recognition Form,” so that it is more congruent with Buddhist language and concepts of community / accountability / roles.[v] An aim of the group is to have the form available on APC’s website along with instructions and procedures for review of this form by APC review committees. The role of these review committees within APC is to assess the ability of each faith group to serve as an endorsing body for individuals applying to be board-certified chaplains, supported by APC staff. In reviewing Buddhist faith groups, at least one member of review committee will be a Buddhist practitioner.


It is equally important to consider how to disseminate these procedures to assist/support Buddhist groups to be recognized by APC as potential endorsing bodies. An issue to consider is that many Buddhist sanghas have not yet recognized the role of lay practitioners as chaplains, and may not support lay practitioners with processes and accountability structures for endorsement. Sanghas may still operate under the structures of their Asian origins, which have no culturally analogous role of chaplain, and which authorize only ordained monastics to provide spiritual care.


These guidelines may include some samples of what endorsement or endorsement criteria looks like in various Buddhist contexts, e.g. 'ongoing spiritual support' can mean in practice maintaining a role in a sangha or annual private consultation or retreat with teacher, etc. This might be a place to include what various educators and lineages have identified as definitions for roles for lay Buddhist leaders (ministers, priests, etc.) as potential helpful models for new prospective endorsing bodies to review in constructing their own organizational standards and processes.


The field of chaplaincy is evolving, but for now, Buddhist divinity students and chaplains could be encouraged to affiliate with a Buddhist community that provides a path to endorsement. In order to facilitate that affiliation, two supports would be helpful: 1) a list of the Buddhist communities that have been the most supportive of chaplains along with descriptions of their paths to endorsement, and 2) articulation of a path and accountability guidelines for traditional Asian Buddhist communities that might be open to developing a path to endorsement for their community members.




[i] Plummer, David B. The Challenges of Endorsers and Endorsements, PlainViews 7(22), HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, 2010. 

[ii] The current Faith Group Recognition form is available through communication with Carol Pape at

[iii] Prebish, Charles S ; Baumann, Martin, eds. (2002). Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press

[iv] Examples of this model are most developed within endorsement guidelines for military chaplains within the Department of Defense. One example is InFaith ( which provides non-denominational endorsement for military and hospital chaplains.

[v] Members of this group include administrative and advisory members of the Association of Professional Chaplains, as well as faculty and teachers in Buddhist Master of Divinity and chaplaincy programs.