Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

What Is Buddhist Ministry?

The question of Buddhist ministry has been on my mind almost constantly since attending a friend’s ordination to the Unitarian-Universalist ministry earlier this month. Traditional Buddhist societies had monastics and teachers—with the exception of Japan and Tibet, which also had non-celibate ordination lineages. Now five schools in the United States are offering graduate-level programs for people interested in professional Buddhist ministry: Naropa Univeristy, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, University of the West, Harvard Divinity School, and Maitripa College.*

Something like the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program at Harvard—of which I am a graduate—obviously isn’t training students to be roshis, lamas, or any other sort of teacher in a Buddhist lineage. Neither is it giving them a traditional monastic education. While several Buddhist monastics and teachers have gone through Harvard’s MDiv program and probably found it quite helpful, such a program couldn’t have qualified them for these roles on its own. So, what roles are these Buddhist ministry programs training people for?

There seems to be an increasing need in American society for a third category of Buddhist religious professional—not a monastic or a teacher, but a minister or chaplain. Unlike both monastics and teachers, whose primary role is to preserve and transmit the dharma, such ministers would primarily officiate ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, provide pastoral care, and give basic religious instruction.

This represents a shift away from convert Buddhism’s almost exclusive focus on individual meditation practice. It doesn’t seek to do away with meditation practice, of course, but rather to incorporate it alongside communal life: ceremonies to mark various life-passages, programs for families and children, visits to the sick and infirm, service to those in need, and comfort in times of crises. It does not abandon the ideal of liberation from suffering, but incorporates it alongside the very real needs and concerns of worldly life.

For me, this rubber meets the road when I think about getting married someday, or consider what would happen if I died suddenly. It would be impossible for my primary lamas to fly all over the country—indeed, all over the world—every time one of their students gets married or winds up in the hospital. Still, I would want something to mark these passages with my friends and family, and I would want something specifically Buddhist. If I ever had children, I also would want them to have some sort of basic moral and religious education that met them on their level. To my mind, it is these sorts of questions—among others—to which Buddhist ministers are the answer.

There are several settings where I imagine Buddhist ministers will be located. Indeed, there are already highly-qualified Buddhist ministers working in each of them, many of whom are graduates of one of the four programs that I mention above:

  • Dharma centers and temples. Buddhist ministers might work in dharma centers, temples, or other Buddhist organizations, where they would provide basic instruction and organization in between visits by teachers or monastics. They would be less a resident teacher than a senior student who helps to run the center and lead group practices, along with both providing pastoral care to and officiating ceremonies for their congregants.
  • Interfaith chaplaincy. Buddhist ministers might work as interfaith chaplains in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, prisons, private colleges and universities, private secondary schools, airports, corporations, etc. They would obviously be available for people in these organizations who identify as Buddhist, but their primary purpose would be to serve anyone who comes to them, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. In this sense, they would be like any other interfaith chaplain, though they could serve a dual role as both an interfaith and a Buddhist chaplain.
  • Buddhist chaplaincy. Buddhist ministers might also work as specifically Buddhist chaplains, especially in healthcare and education settings where there is a significant Buddhist or Buddhism-sympathetic population. Of course, these chaplains would have to be willing and able to serve a diverse range of Buddhists from various traditions and ethnic backgrounds. The downside here is funding. While the army pays its Buddhist chaplain, most colleges and universities have a core staff of one or two payed, full-time interfaith chaplains supported by ministers from specific religious traditions who are payed by either their local congregations or some national body like their denominations. Many hospitals are going in that direction, as well.
  • Community ministry. Buddhist ministers might also work at large, serving both local Buddhist communities and the local community in general. They might do everything from performing an interfaith or gay wedding in an area where few other ministers are willing to do so, to visiting a sick Buddhist who doesn’t have a local teacher or temple, to helping organize a gathering of local Buddhist groups on a major Buddhist holiday. The people whom they serve need not be Buddhist, either; I was recently asked to officiating the wedding of two friends who are atheist and Christian, respectively, because a Buddhist minister seemed, no doubt, like a nice compromise. (The Christian side of the family got someone called reverend wearing minister’s robes and the atheist side didn’t have to worry about being prayed at or witnessed to.) Again, the problem here is funding; most community ministers either make their living doing weddings and funerals or have an outside job.

These thoughts are more scattered and disorganized than I would like, but I hope that putting them into writing and sharing them with others will both clarify my own thinking and open up some fruitful dialog about the future and direction of Buddhism in the United States, and especially about the future of Buddhist ministry. I am especially concerned for those like myself who have trained or are training as Buddhist ministers and find themselves anxious for some sense of direction, purpose, and even basic livelihood. It is my hope that these scattered thoughts will spark conversations and innovations that can perhaps lead to less scattered lives for aspiring Buddhist ministers.

*Correction, 14 June 2011: This article originally omitted the Buddhist Master of Divinity program at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon; many thanks to Andy Francis for the correction.


  1. secundra beasley

    June 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I appreciate that you continue to address the Master of Div. program and it’s role in buddhism. I have struggled with obtaining one for some time. Partily because where I live, to my knowledge, no practising buddhist has attempted to become a chaplain. Also, it is seem to be a threat to those who are trained in the traditional manner ex: monks, nuns and see chapliancy as an infringement on their hard won perimeter. But there is another problem that comes up that I rarely see addressed. For those who cannot move to attend a true Master of Div. program with a buddhist focus and have to move away from their root teacher to obtain this degree. How would the buddhist community accept our deepening knowledge of other religions while proving that we are heavily invested in our root teaching? Thanks for the post.

  2. Harry Rokai Brickman

    June 11, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    An interesting idea, since many distressed people seek contact/intervention with the divine and could undoubtedly benefit from Buddhist ministers and chaplains. But developing such academic programs might well be in the service of washing away what is unique about Buddhism: no binary notion of God as distinguished from man, the one who prays as not distinguished from the divine object of prayer, the necessity for internalizing the principle of co-dependent origination. Succession of meditators (lineage) would be de-emphasized, and with no intended disrespect, the \\\\\\\”right here, right now\\\\\\\” emphasis would fade away in favor of a more family-oriented outlook–holy father/mother and pleading child. (Not that many folks do not benefit from that sort of religious framework) While unitary and binary religions both practice compassion, my view is that the universality of Buddha-nature as practiced outside of divinity education is more sincere and effective.

    • I’m afraid I don’t understand why academic programs to train Buddhist ministers would effect some Buddhist schools’ non-dual philosophy. (Not all schools of Buddhism assert that reality is non-dual.) Could you please explain?

  3. Take a look at the M.Div. equivalent (a non-degree educational option) via the Association of Professional Chaplains.

  4. Maitripa College in Portland, OR, also has an MDiv program:

  5. It is wonderful to see this type of conversation taking root in American society. More and more we see the need for Buddhist Chaplains, ministers, and hospice workers. The more that Buddhism develops and grows in the West the more need and publicity arises. Thank you for this great article!

  6. i am sincerely interested in buddha-nature. this is new to me. i was raised as a pentecostal. for some reason, i cannot grasp that religion, however, i am interested in this particular spirituality. thanks.

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