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INTERVIEW: Lori Hefner

Lori Hefner is a Buddhist chaplain. She completed the Sati Center for Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program under the leadership of Gil Fronsdal, Paul Haller, Diana Lion, and Jennifer Block. Ms. Hefner has also received training from the Rev. Jurgen Schwing, B.C.C., at Kaiser Permanente-Walnut Creek, CA, and is currently completing her C.P.E. units through Vitas Hospice.

She holds a B.S. in Political Science, an M.A. in American Religious History, an M.B.A., and has completed additional graduate work in Public Adminstration. She has served on the faculty of the Graduate School of Information Studies at the University of California-Berkeley and at San Jose State University. In addition, she has been active in public policy and litigation for almost thirty years.

Ms. Hefner also maintains the Buddhist Chaplains Network website, which is where I first encountered her. I recently asked if I could interview her about the organization and what it’s up to. She graciously obliged my request and answered my questions via e-mail.



DANNY FISHER: Lori, what can you tell us about the origins of the Buddhist Chaplains Network? How did it start? How did you become so involved?

LORI HEFNER: In July, 2005, I attended my last session of the Sati Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. Our teachers, Gil Fronsdal, Paul Haller, Diana Lion, and Jennifer Block opened the discussion of where do we as Buddhist chaplains go from this point. What does the future look like? We were the Sati Center’s third graduating class and it was clear to the teachers and the students that a powerful wheel of the Dharma was turning here in Western society.

A colleague and I were so enthralled with the questions raised that we took Paul Haller aside to discuss possibilities and details. My own extensive search for two years to make the puzzle pieces for Buddhist chaplaincy fit were keenly on my mind. I knew we had some difficult structural issues to address. The brainstorming and envisioning the possibilities were an epiphany. I walked over to Kinko’s, two blocks away, and registered the domain name. From that point I have been working with countless individuals to try to build community, offer resources and make it clear as to how one might become a Buddhist chaplain. In October, 2005 the same Dharma teachers sponsored a symposium entitled, “Defining Buddhist Chaplaincy.” It too, was a very inspiring event for me to hear the stories and interests of about 55 Buddhist chaplains. That day, a Steering Committee was formed, I volunteered for it, and that is how the Buddhist_Chaplaincy Yahoo! Group group was formed to further build community, identify Buddhist chaplains and give them easy access to communicate with each other. Chaplain Bill Hart brought us that online discussion group. He, Janet Keyes and I are the volunteer Steering Committee. The next symposium is October 7, 2006 at the Sati Center in Redwood City, CA. All Buddhist chaplains are invited and encouraged to attend.

D.F.: In addition to your work with the Buddhist Chaplains Network online, you’ve been very involved with a couple of conferences for and meetings of Buddhist chaplains. What are some of the most common interests and/or concerns that you’re hearing about from other Buddhist chaplains? Why do these issues stand out, do you think?

L.H.: We live in a wonderful, rich macro environment for chaplaincy in this country with organizations such as the Association of Professional Chaplains (A.P.C.), [the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc.] (A.C.P.E.), the Association of Theological Schools (A.T.S.), and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (N.H.P.C.O.). I am most pleased to say that the N.H.P.C.O. Chaplains Section is headed by Carlyle Coash, B.C.C., and Buddhist Chaplain.

I have made it a point to reach out to the leadership of these respective bodies and to have meaningful dialogues with them about our common ground. I wanted to meet the leaders to share with them that there are many Buddhist chaplains who are volunteering and working in the field, and that we wish to be full participants in chaplaincy in this country. I also do not believe in re-creating the wheel, so to speak, so I have also sought their guidance, standards, codes of ethics, training opportunities and requirements to make sure our Buddhist chaplaincy community has these contacts and resources as they might need. These organizations have their strategic plans and at the heart of those plans are visions to make themselves more diverse like American society. I am confident we with our Eastern Religious chaplains are a part of the solution on that matter. I also discovered that many non-Buddhist chaplains are hungry for teachings about Buddhism.

For example, there were three sessions offered by Buddhist Chaplains at [the A.P.C. national conference] in May, 2006. The sessions quickly filled as soon as the registration opportunities were made available. At the sessions, the audiences were so intent on understanding Buddhist chaplaincy that they kept asking questions and the presenters had a difficult time covering their materials. This also tells us that we need to be sponsoring workshops for a one or two-day Introductions to Buddhist Chaplaincy for non-Buddhist and separate workshops for Buddhist Chaplains at each of the meetings. As for A.P.C. and N.H.P.C.O., their workshop proposals are being called for now and they will have a joint meeting in 2007 that will be held in South San Francisco.

Lastly, we need to leverage our meager resources with these groups so we are systematically building and encouraging Buddhist chaplaincy to assure our Buddhist chaplains are as highly qualified as other professional chaplains in America or Canada.

This brings me to what the professional Buddhist chaplains are generally concerned about. They know that there have been path breakers and that it has been very difficult and that they have dug many wells for the rest of us to drink from. In many respects they have carried the burden of giving Buddhist chaplaincy its first footholds in American and Canada. They worry that those of us behind them won’t carry the load and discipline ourselves to meet the high rigor to become Board Certified Chaplains that the health care environment demands. Several say they are most concerned about how bitterly some Buddhist chaplains have complained that, “They don’t need no stinkin’ M.Div. or professional training and education to be a chaplain.”

At the same time, we have many lay Buddhist chaplains who are mature and ripened in the Dharma and wish to provide more spiritual care. Many long to make this their vocation but at ages of 40, 50, 60, or 70 they aren’t prepared to leave home and complete a three year full time Master of Divinity with the tuition at $60,000 to $100,000, particularly for a career that if you are fortunate enough to get a position you might earn $35,000. This has been a very tall hurdle for scores of Buddhist chaplains. It also appears that these difficulties open the door for disappointments and grievances of some Buddhist chaplains against their former Christian experiences. Again, as always all of this shows us immediately where we are with our practices and just how far we can extend abiding loving kindness.

I think is it also important to point out the amazing work some of our Buddhist Chaplains are doing. For example Tom Kilts, B.C.C., is encouraging more Buddhist chaplains to become A.C.P.E. Supervisors. Chaplain Helen Holbart from the Sacramento, CA has in addition to her service in prison chaplaincy also worked with the California State Prison Chaplains Association and with the appropriate State of California administrative bodies in their rule making process which will now or soon allow Buddhist chaplains to be recognized and hired for the first time through all the reaches of State juvenile detention centers, hospitals, prisons and the like. Beth Goldring is sharing her presence in an AIDS facility in Cambodia the past few years. Mikel Ryuho Monnett, B.C.C., has in addition to his full time hospital chaplaincy position also served the Red Cross in disasters such as 9/11 ground zero and Hurricane Katrina. I have mentioned elsewhere that Carlyle Coash is the Chair of the Chaplains Section of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, plus he has completed his Red Cross national disaster training. Danny, you yourself are headed to India shortly to be on the faculty for [a Buddhist Studies program]. In truth, this is a very small report of what I know to be occurring among our Buddhist Chaplains. We genuinely need to let all Buddhist Chaplains know these important breakthroughs are happening and continue to encourage the rest of us to continue to pursue our bliss in Buddhist Chaplaincy.

D.F.: What are the long-term goals of the Buddhist Chaplains Network?

L.H.: Here is what I would like to see materialize over the next stretch of time.

    A. That every Buddhist chaplain can look at the Buddhist Chaplains Network website and see that:

    1. There is a community of us, working in the discipline and are inspired and strengthen in our devotion to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and that we actively live and seek to assist all sentient beings as they cope with suffering.
    2. There are extensive world wide resources that have been identified to help Buddhist chaplains in their formation and growth as Buddhist chaplains.
    3. That there are those who have gone before us and have succeeded at lay and professional chaplaincy. No one is alone on this path. All of us can know that we are not isolated, alone, and unsupported by other Buddhist chaplains.
    4. That all Buddhist chaplains know and understand that we honor, support Buddhist chaplains regardless if they are lay or professional Buddhist Chaplains. We all have Buddha nature and seek to assist those who are in need. I am sure the cosmos does not favor one over the other.

    B. We need a multi-Buddhist faith university or institute that will allow Buddhist chaplains to stay with their families, and in their communities as they obtain high quality online Buddhist Studies and Chaplaincy Training for two thirds of the seventy two semester hours, and provide one third of its education face to face, in intensive one and two week modules, at a reasonable cost, say under $14,000 total. This is the permitted A.T.S. model. Only [Earlham School of Religion] meets such a criteria at this point. Somehow we must band together and make this a reality. We desperately need the Buddhist equivalent of Earlham. The University of the West, which is a C.H.E.A. accredited school has claimed its interest in providing such a program and I have been working with them on the extensive details, but only time will tell as to whether UWest executes its plans for a Doctor of Buddhist Studies with Chaplaincy Training Emphasis.

    C. We need to make a “big tent” for all Buddhist chaplains. Where we have “fixed mind” we need “open mind and open heart” to continue building a sangha among ourselves to determine how Buddhist chaplaincy can and should be expressed in Western society. I have enormous confidence that given Buddhism’s twenty five hundred year history and interaction with complex and sophisticated cultures over the millennia Buddhist chaplaincy will adapt and acculturate itself to this society. We truly have nothing to fear on this point and we must make sure each of us is open and flexible to how things might rise in the next 100 years and more.

    D. Lastly I hope the Buddhist Chaplains Network message is heard very clearly. We have a very positive macro environment to work with. If the UWest goal does not materialize we can shift our efforts to meet the A.P.C. White Paper Equivalency criteria, set up needed course work, and guided study so Buddhist Chaplains can meet the challenges of the documented 7,200 hours under the guidance of appropriately prepared teachers. In this method we would encourage Buddhist Chaplains to take applicable local graduate work, combine it with online courses, complete the seminary/shedra requirements of their respective traditions and lineages seminaries and shedras, and work with them as they complete their minimum four units of Clinical Pastoral Education. If we constructed this carefully we can see many more Buddhist Board Certified Chaplains come forward. We know how to do this. This is not that difficult and each participate will be benefit immeasurably. Some of the individuals I have been discussing this possibility with have genuine hopes that we might offer such teachings and guidance for free or for a very small administrative fee.

    Sometimes, I have moments where I think A.P.C. and the Buddhist Chaplains who helped [Doug Vardell] write the White Paper Equivalencies appreciate the fact that we are a teacher led tradition even more than most of us Buddhist chaplains do. I invite any and all of those willing to take a part of this opportunity to carefully study the A.P.C. White Paper Equivalency for Buddhists posted on the Buddhist Chaplains Network website and send me a proposal for their contribution which should be the equivalent of a three semester hour graduate level course. Individuals are also welcome to call me about this possibility. The program will also be augmented by all reputable and relevant distance learning courses now being offered throughout Canada and the United States.

D.F.: In a brilliant article that he wrote for The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Mikel Ryuho Monnett writes that “the role of the professional chaplain is not to proselytize a particular dogma but stand with the patient where they are and to help the patient utilize their own spiritual views and beliefs as a resource for their own healing…[at the same time,] a chaplain’s personal beliefs do influence how he or she views their ministry and the style of pastoral care.” How does your Buddhist practice affect the way you view your role as a professional chaplain and the individual style of the spiritual care you offer?

L.H.: I agree with Chaplain Ryuho very much. My senior teacher is Acharya Pema Chödrön and, yes, Tibetan Shambhala Buddhism is at the core of my formation as a chaplain. Ani Pema’s teachings have been a catalyst for me to become a chaplain. Yes, it has been a challenge over many years to show loving-kindness to myself and then extend that out to every sentient being, even to those who have physically harmed me. Maturity in this practice has enveloped me in loving kindness, peace, equanimity, and a desire to help all sentient beings who are suffering.

I absolutely agree that it is our charge to stand with that individual, his or her family and loved ones, and even those who are suffering nearby due to concern for that person. That might include the physicians, nurses, social workers, and other health care technicians.

A patient ill enough to be in a hospital is in a health crisis, very vulnerable, possibly facing the end of mortality, and often in existential, spiritual turmoil. It is our charge to be there with them, as a witness to their not-knowing. I have learned to ask the patients I visit with, “How are you holding this experience?” or some version of that single question. Past that I am the listener, the witness, the person who stands with them and supports them as they painfully seek out meaning to what is happening with them. I hold the mirror to them hopefully showing them their pure good essence or Buddha nature. If they wish I might pray with them, letting them decide if they wish to be the voice or if they would like me to be the mouthpiece. If they wish I will bless them, discuss their heart felt worries and concerns, read certain scriptural passages to them, or possibly invite a favorite Rabbi, or spiritual practitioner to come to tend to them. Each person I have worked with has left me deeply touched, and when I walk out of the hospital or hospice visit I always know, somehow some way I have received so much more than I possibly could have given. What profound work has crossed our karmic paths.

It is imperative that I not proselytize among those who are defenseless. How tragic to prey upon the fears and vulnerabilities of others at such volatile times. May I always keep my heart open, listen intently and honor them for their years of amazing positive intentions over decades.

D.F.: Lori, what would you like non-Buddhists to know about Buddhist chaplains and the work of the Buddhist Chaplains Network? Do you have a message or anything you would like to say to chaplains of other faiths who becoming aware of or acquainted with us?

L.H.: Among all the chaplains I have met throughout the U.S. I thank you for your selfless work and tenderness to those in need. To our dear chaplains who live in New Orleans in particular thank you for the amazing ways you have lived your chaplaincy for the past year now. I pray for health, strength and happiness for you. To the emergency Red Cross chaplains who so selflessly entered into the maelstrom, my deep bows with hands clasped for your presence.

To A.P.C. leadership and membership, I want them to know of my profound gratitude at the planning and forethought they have developed along for welcoming us into your midst. Whether by a Master of Divinity track or the White Paper 72 Semester Hour Equivalency, we are most blessed to have them as our respectful colleagues. They ‘get it.’ We Buddhists have a teacher led tradition, not a M.Div. tradition. They have provided us a way to assure that we are properly trained and maintain our teacher led traditions. Buddhist Chaplains were warmly welcomed at the May Conference.

To A.T.S., I urge you to open your doors to the world as it is constructed today. They describe themselves as a Judeo-Christian organization and as the President of the organization “They strongly wish to remain one.” All ritual and ceremonies are in Jesus’ name, so I don’t think our Jewish brothers and sisters would that comfortable either. Ecumenism to this group means a Catholic talks to a Mennonite. They talk a great line about diversity and then they forget that two-thirds of the world’s population is left out of their bylaws.

I urge the Council of Higher Education and Accreditation (C.H.E.A.), under the U.S. Department of Education to insist that A.T.S. update its bylaws and extend their accreditation to schools other than Christian who meet the standards. C.H.E.A. wishes to maintain its independence however, they continue to fail to understand that Congress repeatedly corrects them when they make policies that are not in concert with the Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights. Senator Charles Grassley and others periodically hold Congressional hearings with C.H.E.A. and scold them for not assuring their actions are in line with the diverse pluralistic American society.

This is not a simple academic issue with no consequences for Buddhist Chaplains. While there are a few seminaries like Harvard where we might be allowed to study Buddhism within a Christian seminary, there are not that many. The result is sanctioned discrimination based on faith. Remember, North Carolina recently ruled that only chaplains from A.T.S. accredited schools could serve in their state prisons, as one Buddhist Chaplain recently reported to us. Additionally the political climate is not one that is likely to institute changes.

To the Alliance of Baptists that has done some of our bidding for us before A.T.S., thank you. It is indeed moving to see others take up the pure teachings of Jesus and who also know the hard cuts of discrimination.

Thank you for this opportunity, Danny. I look forward to working with you and all of our Buddhist Chaplain colleagues as we move forward for the benefit of all sentient beings.

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  1. Pingback: A Photographic Recap of Recent Adventures « Rev. Danny Fisher

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