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Reviewed by:
  • The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work ed. by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller
  • Richard Seager and Sid Brown
THE ARTS OF CONTEMPLATIVE CARE: PIONEERING VOICES IN BUDDHIST CHAPLAINCY AND PASTORAL WORK. Edited by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2012. 345 pp.

The Arts of Contemplative Care documents the work of the first cohort of Buddhists to accommodate dharma practice to the pastoral norms and ideals of the mainstream ministerial professions in the United States. Comprising some thirty mostly first-person accounts, the collection is largely organized in terms of the challenges encountered by Buddhist caregivers in discrete realms of pastoral work such as academic [End Page 211] institutions, hospitals, hospices, and prisons. Running through all, however, is a variety of overarching themes, three of which suggest the character of the book and its potential value to different sorts of readership.

A first theme is the challenge Buddhist practitioners face in striking the appropriate tone—theological, rhetorical, emotional, and so on—to be effective caregivers in institutions that are secular but religiously diverse and shaped by long-standing traditions of Christian and Jewish ministry. In this regard, the volume will be of interest to all professionals in pastoral fields but particularly to dharma practitioners entering the caring professions, who will find these narrative accounts both helpful and inspirational. The array of questions thoughtfully considered is impressive. How can one use the idiosyncrasies of Buddhist practice—meditation, koan study, sutra chanting, visualizations, and the like—in nonsectarian programs of caregiving? What impact does a credentialing process largely forged in dialogue with theistic divinity schools have on the shape of Buddhist professional education? How can dharma-centered caregivers address the existential concerns of staunch Catholics, conservative evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others, any of whom may or may not be favorably predisposed to Buddhism?

These important and engaging issues are not systematically addressed as in a textbook or academic argument. Rather, authors take them up in short, sometimes impressionistic reflection essays based on their personal experiences working in different settings within the field of pastoral care. In general, the editors and authors recognize the necessity of soft-pedaling Buddhist content when engaging with many clients in caregiving situations. At the same time, Buddhist values expressed in familiar catchphrases such as impermanence, openness, and non-attachment are shown to be critical to the mindset of an effective practitioner-caregiver. One of the pleasures in reading these accounts is to learn how Buddhist hallmarks such as bodhicitta, emptiness, Dōgen, or the Avatamsaksa sutra can help caregivers to cultivate the kind of right-mindedness that makes for effective pastoral work in situations from counseling in a suburban campus ministry to directing hospice death vigils and teaching meditation as a means to address the solitariness of prison.

A second theme is more generally concerned with claims about the practical utility and spiritual efficacy of contemplative care as socially engaged practice. In her preface, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, veteran Soto Zen practitioner, priest, and teacher, orients the collection to two simultaneous developments—a disenchantment with secular and commercial modes of caregiving and a realization within Buddhist communities that the dharma has a unique capacity to address that situation. In this regard, the volume will be of interest to those who follow the literature on socially engaged Buddhism, which has played a highly significant role in the formation of American Buddhist communities for many decades. With varying degrees of explicitness, the authors discuss meditation (and to a much lesser extent other contemplative arts) as the foundation for effective caregiving. They are disciplines that foster the kind of critical and compassionate insight into self and other that are essential to navigating the complex cognitive, psycho-emotional landscape of pastoral work. At the same time, however, cultivating wisdom and insight to become an effective caregiver in the [End Page 212] challenging settings found in secular and religiously diverse institutions can become itself a kind of dharma practice and discipline.

While The Arts of Contemplative Care is about Buddhism, it central message deeply resonates with the burgeoning literature emerging from related sectors of contemporary...