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The Heart of My Ministry

Namo Amida Butsu is our endless conversation with Amida. It is our simultaneous cry for help and Amida calling us home to compassion.

Over the Summer, I had the privilege of participating as faculty for the Interprofessional Spiritual Care Education Curriculum (ISPEC) Conference which was held in Honolulu and hosted by the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health, Pacific Health Ministry, and City of Hope. ISPEC brought together over 60 individuals from all over the world to learn about integrating spiritual care into healthcare. In attendance were doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other healthcare professionals. The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii was well represented by having six ministers and two laypersons in attendance including Bishop Eric Matsumoto. We even hosted a pre-conference event at Hawaii Betsuin which included a short service in the Hondo which featured the chanting of Juseige and a simultaneous recitation and reading of the Letter on White Ashes in both Japanese and English. This was followed by a public lecture by Dr. Christina Puchalski from George Washington University who is a leader in this movement and a panel discussion on the role of spirituality and healthcare in which I was asked to participate.

The conference had the goals of building cross-professional relationships and learning how to train others in our respective organizations on how to address spiritual distress faced by those we care for. I was a co-presenter with Dr. Puchalski and Rev. Anke Flohr from Pacific Health Ministry for the module on Compassionate Presence. It was an honor to be able to offer a Buddhists perspective in this training. Integrating pastoral care more fully into ministry has direct implications for how we care for members of our Sangha and was the focus of my studies in seminary. I believe the application of Dharma through pastoral care and counseling is an essential part of Buddhist ministry here in America. It is the practical application of Dharma to everyday challenges which can help to address spiritual suffering.

Based upon Shinran’s thought, we can understand Shin Buddhist pastoral care as a ministry of compassionate listening in which we bear witness to the complexity of the human experience within the embrace of wisdom and compassion. Ministry here goes beyond being a teacher of doctrine or ritual and asks a minister to become a spiritual companion in life’s journey. At the heart of Shin Buddhist spiritual care is a conversation which affirms our connection to each other and to Amida Buddha. I believe the conversation between a minister and a care seeker is the simultaneous hearing and voicing of nembutsu. The cry of suffering is met by the call of compassion within the activity of pastoral care as we are both held in the embrace of the Buddha’s Vow. When we allow Amida’s calling voice to lead us to the heart of our suffering and entrust in the Buddha’s compassionate Vow we are transformed.

As I walk this Pure Land Path as a minister, I need to constantly reflect on the quality of my hearing. Can I honestly hear Amida’s call to realize the truth of myself and in doing so can I faithfully hear the truth of another? Can I can discern the voice of Amida speaking to me through the stories of those I care for? We can consider deep listening as a sacred moment which reveals the truth of what is and what can be. Deep hearing or listening is fundamental to the practice of pastoral care and counseling. The pastoral care encounter is an opportunity for a minister to offer the gift of compassionate presence. Listening is a profoundly healing activity because it is the experience of not being alone. Our being heard by Amida Buddha is profoundly healing within our tradition. As Shinran experienced throughout his life, Amida’s call to “come as you are” and the radical acceptance of his brokenness was the act of constantly being heard and affirmed by the Buddha. The activity of listening within Shin Buddhism and in pastoral care is a sacred process of being in relationship with Amida. In the Shin Buddhist tradition, being heard and affirmed by another is ultimately the activity of the Buddha’s Vow which is manifested through an individual’s thoughts, words, and deeds. When we listen and are heard we are awakened to the Buddha’s great mind of compassion which lights our way in the darkness.

During my time in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Queen’s Medical Center, I would often spend time in the chapel between patient visits. There, I discovered a lovely statue of Amida Buddha which was hidden behind stained-glass doors in the altar area. It reminded me that wisdom and compassion embrace all who seek refuge from suffering and sorrow regardless of whether we perceive it. Amida suffers with us and is our constant companion throughout life’s journey. In my ministry, Amida is my constant companion reminding me that I do not and cannot do this work alone. Every patient I encountered in the hospital I did not visit alone. Amida was always present in the dynamic conversation of Namo Amida Butsu. That even in times of feeling isolated and alone, I was always in the care of the Buddha. In the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Shinran shares his appreciation and gratitude for the working of Amida in his life,

My eyes being hindered by blind passions,

I cannot perceive the light that grasps me;

Yet the great compassion, without tiring,

Illumines me always.

That even in our darkest moments, there is a light which warms, comforts, and gives us hope.

It is in moments of suffering and uncertainty where a minister becomes an imperfect companion helping those we care for face the ever-changing cycles of life with a greater sense of courage and peace. It is a privilege to companion those needing care in times of difficulty. I am grateful for these encounters that teach me about myself and how the Dharma can facilitate wholeness and healing. Within the embrace of Amida Buddha, the caregiver and care seeker are mutually transformed by awakening to the compassion that has always been there. This is the heart of Buddhist spiritual care. My goal as a Shin Buddhist minister is simply to hear and to help others hear the ever-present calling voice of Amida Buddha.

It is this deep hearing which attunes our lives and all our actions towards the working of the Vow. Namo Amida Butsu is our endless conversation with Amida. It is our simultaneous cry for help and Amida calling us home to compassion. The pastoral care encounter is the activity of Namo Amida Butsu. It is a conversation between the caregiver, care seeker, and Amida Buddha. The Name which embodies the Vow of compassion is what grounds the work of Shin Buddhist ministry and enables ministers to become facilitators of transformation and healing. My training at the Institute of Buddhist Studies challenged me to think critically and deeply about the Dharma and how I can be of service to others. This is to hear, to reflect, and to respond to the call of compassion which is always trying to expand our limited awareness. This is living in gratitude for the Buddha’s Vow. Providing a compassionate presence through spiritual care is the heart of my ministry. Namo Amida Butsu.


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