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Chaplaincy Course 2006

ASA Buddhist Chaplaincy Course

April 4th & 5th 2006

Phap Bao Vietnamese Temple in St. Johns Park

By the kind hospitality of the Abbot, Most Venerable Thich Bao Lac

Participants represented monks and nuns of all traditions: Theravadin, Vietnamese, Korean, Tibetan, and Chinese . There were between 30-40 Sangha on the two days. A number of lay members from different temples who are interested in assisting with Chaplaincy work also attended.

Day 1, Tuesday April 4

Tuesday’s program began with a welcome by Most Venerable Thich Bao Lac.

The second speaker was Graeme Lyall from the Buddhist Council of New South Wales Graeme discussed the work the Council has been doing with accrediting Buddhist prison chaplains for the New South Wales Corrective Services System. He discussed the involvement with the CCACF Civil Chaplains’ Advisory Committee, the interfaith group who works with the Department of Corrective Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and New South Wales Health.

Graeme said that currently there are chaplains in the major institutions local to Sydney, but that chaplains are needed for the country prisons. People wishing to undertake this work should contact the Buddhist Council of NSW to discussion the accreditation and clearance process. People with specific language groups are also needed, as are appropriate chaplains for the Juvenile Detention Centers. Graeme stressed the importance of consistency and reliability as the prisoners very much look forward to the support of the Chaplains.

Graeme talked about his own experience in working in the prisons for many years and how gratifying and satisfying that work has been. He related stories of particular inmates who had undergone significant character changes as a result of their involvement with Buddhist study and practice.

There was discussion that some kind of broad Buddhist correspondence course that could be used by chaplains for prison work would greatly contribute to the efficacy of the work in prisons.

Graeme also discussed that the current situation with Detention Centers is not good at present as the only situation allowed currently is 1 on 1 visitors in the visiting area. Graeme said the Council is attempting to work out a protocol with the administrative company G.S.L. to allow chaplains to visit the Detention centers.

The next speaker was Ven Choetso, a nun from the FPMT’s Prison Liberation Project. She described the highly successful work of Ven Robina Courtin who started the project, and whose work with prisoners was documented in the film “Chasing Buddha”. The Liberation Prison Project concentrates on corresponding with prisoners and arranging for people to assist in that work, and also with providing free publications and books through the Wisdom Publishing , another FPMT organization. It also can provide a correspondence course for prisons, specific to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

A beautiful lunch was offered to the Sangha by the lay devotees of the monastery and enjoyed by all.

Tuesday afternoon, Ven Pema Chodron, from Wat Buddha Dhamma presented an introduction to the nature of a Helping Relationship in a counseling situation. She discussed how it differs in dynamics with the traditional teaching role that Sangha are accustomed to. She suggested that when undertaking a counseling role one should put on a hat of being an equal to the person, providing empathy, total acceptance, and belief that the individual can be guided to find their own answers to their problems with the support of an effective counselor. Also identified was the importance of the counselor in being self aware of their own mental process and reactions as they are providing a counseling support, particularly in situations that challenge their own value system.

Lisa Fleming associated with KBI Tibetan Buddhist Centre is a trainer of counselors at College of Natural Therapies and also instructs in communication skills. She directed the group in understanding the importance of simply listening, without feeling the need to direct or fix the person. She stressed the importance of active listening, showing concern, interest, non-judgment, and attentiveness. She then led the group into an exercise where they practiced these listening skills on each other. Some of the participants reported that the experience of being listened to, even for five minutes was deeply moving.

Day Two, Wednesday April 5

Our first speaker was Dr. Eng Kong Tan from the Metta Clinic in Pymble. Dr. Eng Kong is a psychiatrist with a specialty in psychotherapy, and is well known for presenting seminars and workshops in the areas of psychotherapy, spirituality, meditation and Buddhism.

The participants unanimously agreed that mental health issues were prevalent in their centers, and that unquestionably they were untrained in how to deal with people undergoing such conditions. Dr. Eng Kong discussed very briefly how to recognize conditions of neuroses through the degree of anxiety. He briefly introduced us to the means for recognizing psychoses: reactive, drug induced conditions, and discussed his study of the efficacy of certain mindfulness based cognitive meditation programs for depressives. He cautioned on the use of meditation for people diagnosed with schizophrenia. He gave information on identifying risk in potential suicide cases, the risk factors, and the need to try to identify their history, and to refer them to be assessed by a psychiatrist.

The session with Dr. Eng Kong was extremely well received, and we realized that we need much more time with such training. Dr. Eng Kong is also involved in developing on-going dialogues between psychiatrists, psychologists and Buddhist teachers to develop more understanding of how Buddhist practices and approaches can be implemented into mental health programs.

Bhante Tejadhammo talked with about his work with the terminally ill. He advised that we need at all times to be very clear about our intention and motivation in undertaking such work. He also discussed how in his experience self consciousness about being a monk or nun could create a barrier with helping people at such a time, and that we need to be able to work in a completely transparent way to encourage transparency in them to assist them in their transition. He stressed that such awareness comes out of our own practice, and continuous assessment of our motivation.

He said he has observed in his work that many doctors cannot face death, it seems to as it is something they cannot stop. This is where the spiritual work begins. Someone who aspires to work with the dying, we must have first done our own work, been in touch with our own dukkha, our own strength and weaknesses and thus be able to be fully present at such a time to assist the person to overcome their own fears and anxieties. By being clear about our own abilities, avoiding superstition, we can help to bring clarity to the stressful environment through being alert, mindful and calm. Then we may be able to treat the person with the dignity they deserve as a human being, not an object. He encouraged us to give dharma by being present with genuine humility.

Working with the Dying and Funerals

From Bhante’s presentation on working with the dying we went into how the different traditions approach working with the dying and funerals. Bhante said that some people at the time of dying will like to take refuge, receive precepts, and make a confession. Some appreciate having images according to their faith in the room.

Some may choose to have friends and family for a Dharma talk, to offer dana, the placing of candles. All rituals should be at the instigation of the individual, not superimposed by what the person assisting or family feels is right.

Hay Jin Sunim discussed the Korean customs, of chanting something like Diamond Sutra or Amitabha Sutra. The period of 49 days is observed with family making donations to print sutras or conducting a big ceremony to create merit for the individual who has died.

Rev. Miao You from Nan Tien Temple discussed how, in their tradition, chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha is practiced if the individual is a Buddhist. According to the belief of Chinese Buddhist if the name of Amitabha or the Amitabha Sutra is changed with full concentration and focus, the person will be reborn in the Amitabha Pure Land. Other considerations for the dying person may include: taking refuge, confession, ensuring they are not fearful, but calm and contented. Try to turn around any bitterness and negativity prior to the moment of death. The Chinese also observe the 49 days of transition, with a ritual every 7 days anniversary. They also do not move the body for 8 hours if possible and the person has died at home. They will do another ceremony at 49 days and again at 1 year anniversary, where nuns are asked to participate.

Ven Thich Giac Anh, a nun from the Phap Bao Temple discussed how they are trained that their practice should be deep and profound so that they will be able to assist people at the time of death. She said the Vietnamese also observe the 49 days after death and that Sangha is offered food to create merit on behalf of the deceased.

Ven Pema Chodron discussed the approach of working with the dying and funeral from the Tibetan tradition.

She quoted the H.H. Dalai Lama as saying: there are three different levels of preparing for death, according to the understanding of the individual.

‘We can prepare for death so that we don’t experience a sense of fear.

We can consider the future life so that following death one can enjoy favourable circumstances in one’s rebirth.

A highly advanced preparation for death in which one prepares oneself through a particular spiritual practice in such a way that one can transform the clear light moment of death into an aspect of the spiritual path.’

Naturally the approach one takes depends on the belief and practice of the person dying. If one has been asked to be present for a person who is not a Buddhist by their family member who is, one would approach the situation only from the 1st level, giving respect and consideration to the person’s own beliefs and being careful not to superimpose anything Buddhist, which could in fact be very intrusive and disturbing to the person dying.

Experienced practitioners who have already undertaken initiation and practice of bardo and phowa would hope to have an accomplished teacher or practitioner at their side, or even at a distance to help guide their consciousness at the time of death, and to do particular rituals to help ensure positive rebirth.

In the case of an accidental or traumatic death, lamas or practitioners will pray for the person trying to guide their consciousness from a state of agitation or anger to a state of peace. Other family members or practitioners can help by chanting something such as Om Mani Padme Hum and visualizing the individual consciousness merging into the Buddha of Compassion. Burning dried food and talking to the individual when their consciousness is felt to be nearby can help to assuage their mental suffering. Friends and family can also offer charity on behalf of the individual to create positive merit.

At the conclusion of the 49 days, a ritual is held burning the name and articles of the deceased to help ensure that the transition takes place.