BG 132: Buddhist Chaplaincy, Buddhist Youth

Episode Description:

This week we’re joined by Reverend Danny Fisher–a Buddhist Chaplain and author. Danny shares with us his reasons for becoming chaplain, where the notion of chaplaincy or service to others comes from in the Buddhist tradition, and what it’s like to undertake a Buddhist-based divinity program.

In the 2nd half of our conversation we ask him about his take on the challenges and opportunities that young Buddhists encounter. Being an emerging voice for young Buddhists, and a popular Buddhist blogger, Danny shares with us some of his thoughts on what it’s like being a young Buddhist today.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello, Buddhist geeks. We’re back again. We just finished recording a Geeks of the Round Table discussion with our guest today Reverend Danny Fisher.

Danny: How you doing, Vince?

Vince: Hey Danny (laughs). Good to have you here again.

Danny:(laughs) Thank you!

Vince: Well we’ve wanted to talk to you for a while. We’ve been kind of informal internet buddies, I’d say.

Danny: That’s right.

Vince: In fact, our ships crossed when you were finishing up your M.Div. at Naropa and I was finishing up my undergrad there. We saw each other on campus a lot….

Danny: Yeah…

Vince: … but we never got to actually talk.

Danny: But I remembered you, you know it’s when Buddhist Geeks first started, I was like, “Oh thanks!” Because you know, you were just always good for a nod and a smile. And I just.. you know I thought you seemed like a nice guy so… and I got to know your wife who worked on the staff and…

Vince: Yeah…

Danny: … but had the patience of a saint, I would like to add. So…

Vince: That’s very true. I can attest to that!

Vince and Danny: (Both Laugh)

Vince: So yeah, I just wanted to share a little bit of your history or your background just to contextualize this conversation for the listeners and just to say that first you got your masters of divinity at Naropa, and that program is focused primarily on Buddhist Chaplaincy, yeah?

Danny: Yes.

Vince: And then you went on to become an Ordained Buddhist Chaplain.

Danny: Mm-hmm.

Vince: And recently you took on this position at University of the West, which is one of the few Buddhist-inspired universities here in the west. It’s probably one of the handful, I guess.

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: And you’re now the coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy program there.

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: Which basically means you’re doing both administrative type stuff and you’re also teaching quite a few classes, yeah?

Danny: Yeah, since I’ve started working in April, my responsibilities have been mostly administrative and obviously, those will continue. But, once the fall starts, I’ll be teaching the sort of chaplaincy specific courses to our first cohort, and obviously when we take on a second, third, and so forth cohort we’ll need more adjuncts, more people. But right now I’m sort of kind of the lone guy. But, obviously our religious studies faculty are teaching the religious studies courses that our students need for the program as well. So I’m certainly not alone exactly but in the just chaplaincy specific pieces, it’s just me right now.

Vince: And is the M.Div. Program new there?

Danny: The M.Div. Program is new. We got approval for it last spring and they began sort of the search for this coordinator position in the winter this past year. And then I was hired and I started in April. So yeah, it’s a new program. This’ll be our first cohort this fall.

Vince: Very cool. Sounds exciting.

Danny: Yeah, and we’ve met the students who are coming in and they’ve been to campus for interviews and things and I’m very excited. It’s a really eclectic group and they show a lot of promise, this group. So I’m very excited, yeah.

Vince: Very cool.

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: And because most people I’m not sure are familiar with Buddhist chaplaincy programs, like I mean people have heard about certainly Christian chaplaincy programs and usually when you hear the term Master of Divinity you think of particularly a Christian-based education program. But, I was wondering if you could say a little bit what is it like being a student in a Masters of Divinity program that’s Buddhist-based?

Danny: In a lot of other places you’ve had Master of Divinity students who might go a number of different directions. You know, they might be interested in pastoral theology, they might in becoming parish priests and ministers, things like that. I think the reason that there has been an emphasis on chaplaincy kind of starts with what I think is a very intelligent decision by Naropa when they started their program, realizing that chaplaincy is a path for Buddhist practitioners to actually have a career at the moment. That there are jobs here, things to do… there’s not… maybe an infrastructure in a place to support, you know like, for example, Methodist ministers could have a career as a Methodist minister. It’s not so clear that that’s as true with Buddhist clergy or lay-teachers and things like that. Your last interview with Norman Fisher, you know, that came up a little bit. So I think that really begins with Naropa… kind of having the foresight to see if we’re going to start a program like this we need to think very carefully about it… about where are we directing these people in terms of work. And obviously they also had a lot of students who were interested in this kind of work so that was very directive for them having a body of students who said, “We’re very interested in this work and we’d like the university to sort of think about it.”

But, as you said, yes, for the most part Master of Divinity programs have been very oriented around the Judeo-Christian religious traditions in this country. So one of the values of having programs like US and Naropa’s and the one at the Institute for Buddhist studies. And also, Harvard has sort of an unofficial tract right now in their M.Div. program for Buddhists at the Harvard Divinity School.

One of the values of having programs like that is that it allows the students to learn in a milieu that’s more comfortable for them, that’s going to kind of honor their practice more directly than one that’s maybe, ecumenical area you have to kind of carve out a niche like the medical area, you kind of have to carve out a niche or a community in those areas. So, it’s really a wonderful thing that these universities have started to do this. It’s so the responsibilities of Chaplaincy are the same whether you’re Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, nonreligious, whatever. But it’s nice to have the training that has a special eye on where you’re coming from.

Vince: I thought it’d be interesting to talk a little bit about where this notion of being of aid to people, both in terms of helping for instance with a hospice. There’s a lot of Buddhist chaplains, I understand, that go into the death and dying work. And then other areas like you mentioned being a minister, being a community leader, or a dharma leader.

I’m wondering where the emphasis on taking care of people comes from or where we could trace it back in the Buddhist tradition because in the Christian tradition it’s really obvious, that focus on serving your fellow man or fellow human. It’s really pretty clear, but in the Buddhist tradition it’s maybe a little less clear and I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about the history of where Chaplaincy in the Buddhist tradition comes from.

Danny: Yeah, I mean, I think it sort of depends on the tradition you’re coming from in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of interesting literature across the spectrum that’s useful to people. You know, I’ve spent some time looking at a few specific tactics. One is the Girimananda Sutta, which is in the Pali Canon, and involves Ananda coming to the Buddha and saying, “There’s someone who’s sick. What should I do in visiting them? What should I say? What should I be?”

So, that’s a really interesting text to look at. I’m not sure how useful it is for maybe responsibilities for professional Chaplaincy, which are a little different. I think the presumption in something like that is that you would be tending to another Buddhist whereas professional Chaplaincy has an attention placed on the spiritual, religious, cultural, and psychological values of the people you’re working with.

Vince: No matter what their background is.

Danny: No matter what their background is. So, you sort of start there with that frame of reference as opposed to imposing your own. Also, you know, you see things like the Vimalakirti Sutra is used by Judith Simmer-Brown and Naropa, for sort of thinking about engaging Buddhism and also the chaplaincy program.

So, I mean, I think that’s a great text, it has some kind of, starts with this whole story of wanting to go in to visit this very wise sick bodhisattva and you know you see a lot of literature in the Tibetan tradition, most famously the “Tibetan book of the Dead” about how to sort of guide someone who’s going through the experience of dying.

So, there’s a lot of literature across the spectrum of traditions and in terms of more contemporary literature, a lot of Shin Buddhist practitioners have been very prolific in terms of writing about this stuff and very carefully and, you know, so they find a lot in their theology that’s helpful in terms of doing this work. Buddhist studies, Buddhism in general is very text oriented and so, you know, there’s a lot of literature out there.

Vince: What brought you personally into the Masters Divinity track and becoming a Buddhist chaplain? It’s hard to imagine someone growing up and thinking I want to be a Buddhist chaplain. [laughing]

Danny: Yeah, I started in college studying film, but was not a very happy person, I think in terms of just at a very basic level I was terrified of things like impermanence and death and had a very hard time even thinking about them without getting very anxious and sort of nervous.

So, at 19, I decided, you know, this is too old to have this trouble and so I started doing a lot of reading and research, which eventually led to Buddhism. And, so I got very, very interested in Buddhism and these questions that I was asking myself and I realized I was a little bit more interested in that then film.

So, I started studying religion, but I think I had more of a personal interest in it. So, the work that I wanted to do was more of a normative nature and I was very lucky at Denison University where I went to school to study with a man named John Chord who realized this and wanted to kind of help me in my learning that way.

So he did independent study on Engaged Buddhism and I went to India for a semester and studied in a Buddhist monastery. So he was wonderful about sort of not trying to make me something I wasn’t. He knew that my interest in it was not as an academic, but as a practitioner.

So, when I left college, you know, I had a lot of thinking to do about where to go and what to do and I felt a very strong urge to do something to benefit other beings, but at the same time I knew I didn’t want to do something like a social work program or counseling psychology program because there wouldn’t be enough Buddhism in it.

But, at the same time I knew I didn’t want to do a Buddhist studies program because it is not necessarily gearing practitioners to go into service professions or things like that. You know, certainly, education is a service. The Yenda Ropa [sp], I think, started the year I graduated from college. So, I was aware of it, but there were a lot of complicating factors and I sort of didn’t go right away.

So, I taught school for a couple years and kind of discerned this, what I want to do, what I want to try and in the… You know, I did some reading about chaplaincies that I really understood what it was before I dove into it. At the end of two years I thought yeah, I’m going to do this. Then I went to the Naropa and fell in love. I met Victoria Howard and Judith Simmer-Brown when I came out and I was really impressed by both of them.

Vince: Nice.

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: Outside of being a chaplain you are also, I would say you are something of an emerging voice in a young Buddhist world?

Danny: If you say so Vince.

Vince: I do. If I say so, its so! (both laugh)

Vince: You have a blog that’s well read and people mention it a lot. You are one of the more popular Buddhist bloggers out there. Actually if people want to check it out it’s at

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: Given this kind of unique position you are in, one of the younger Buddhists, who has their stuff going out there in different ways, I thought it would be interesting to talk about being a young Buddhist and what kinds of issues young Buddhists contend with these days. If you had any things to offer in that regard, then we can just talk about it a little bit. I presume there are a lot of younger Buddhists listening

Danny: There is something about the Buddhists community widely in America. It feels like there are people, whether they’re convert Buddhists or people who have come to Buddhism as part of their culture that they have been raised in. They don’t communicate very well together. That seems very important to me especially as all of these different groups and communities try to find their way.

It seems like we have to be better at doing this together. By and large, the Buddhist media, I think, doesn’t get enough credit for their efforts and how much they’re doing. At the same time, there is a sense of dissatisfaction from different communities.

I’ve been very interested in a lot of feedback from people about feeling like whether it’s “My Buddhists community is not being represented” or “Convert Buddhists are over represented and Asian Buddhists not represented enough” or “Asian American Buddhists not represented enough.” These things strike me as interesting and there may be things to look at more closely or iron out but it seems to me there is some dissatisfaction in some camps with different things.

It would be very helpful if we just figure out ways to talk. I think we need to do more in terms of getting off the cushions in a lot of ways. My friend, Jennifer Block who is on the Hospice Project, talks about engaged Buddhism that way. It being very important to get off the cushion and out of the Temple or Dharma Center.

I think engagement is important obviously, but also engagement with one another. These intrafaith meetings are very important because it’s distressing to me to hear people feeling like they’re not being heard or represented or worse, demeaned or things like that.

As I said it may be that there are things that aren’t being seen or aren’t being heard or not being understood properly but I see some of that in my life. I have friends who are involved in communities and maybe look down their nose at other communities. This is just hypothetical but Tibetan practitioners looking down their nose at Theravada practitioners.

Vince: Hypothetical.

Danny: Or vice versa, you know. (laughs) You hear little things like that. When I was ordained it was through the Buddhist Sangha council southern California who did it. They’re an ecumenical Buddhist group. Part of the charge to us, as ministers, was to be good neighbors and wherever we find ourselves living, find out what we can do to help Buddhist communities that are there.

Obviously, it is important to build our own communities but if there is a temple that needs help rebuilding, help them. If there is a community that needs something from the outside, do what u can to help them. I take that very seriously as part of the charge. I’d like to see more thinking, outside of our own individual communities and traditions, and more working together.

So, that’s along answer to the question but that strikes me as a very big thing right now. I think we have a responsibility to nip some of these problems in the bud before it gets too far down the line and I think we can do it. Here I am on a podcast about geeky issues and Buddhism. That’s pretty cool. There is a lot of stuff happening right now that I think gives us opportunity to think about nuance and a detail and differences among communities and areas for growth together and talking with another.

Vince: Do you think as young Buddhism… I mean one of the things I’ve noticed with myself, friends, people that I’ve gone to school with or practiced with, one of the strange tensions that I’ve noticed is its not really clear what you do with months or years of training and study. You kind of touched on this when you talked about your reasons for doing the M.Div Program why you chose not to do professional Buddhist training? But I’m wondering if one of the issues I’ve noticed as a young Buddhist is, is it’s not really clear how that training and meditation and study, or even an engagement with the community translates into how to live in the West, in terms of career and in terms of livelihood—there seems to be a weird gap there that I’m noticing and I’m wondering if you’ve noticed the same.

Danny: Yeah, I mean and I think this occurred to me when we were working on the Ad that you very kindly put on your show for our program, that it strikes me that that can be a selling point for these chaplaincy programs, that it’s a way into a career. But of course, not everyone wants to take on that career, and not everyone may be suited for that career.

So, it becomes important to think about other ways of making a living. And I’m not sure about it either. Because, I see people doing things that I think represent great success in terms of being a teacher or being clergy, in Buddhism in the United States and I see also that there are struggles with, I think, a livelihood and, putting food on the table and the rent, and all that, and I’m not sure if it’s an organizational problem, or if it’s just pointing to the fact that we’re a very small community still in the United States.

Convert and cultural Buddhists together, represent one percent of the religious population of this country according to the Pew Forum. There’s some issues in their research methodology—they only ask questions in English and Spanish, so that leaves out a lot of Asian Americans who might only be able to have the interview in their native language. But at the same time I think we’re not looking at a number that’s much higher, even if we had a perfect sampling. So it’s not a very large market. There’s not a lot of room for people to have the level of success of some people, and as we were saying in the last podcast, even some of the more famous, busy and well-respected Buddhist teachers, there’s signs it’s not still not easy.

My dear friend Kabutso Malone, who is the head of the Engaged Zen Foundation has been at Sing Sing thousands of times, in his life, visiting with prisoners and all this, and when I first encountered his work and his writing, I presumed he must have figured this out, that he must know how to do this professionally. And at the same time he was making a living as an engineer. I don’t know how he did it all, but he did, and those are the kinds of things that I think are a little scary and disconcerting when we know these things, that even the great teachers, the ones who are doing a lot of work often have to augment that work with something, that’s not so much…

Vince: Related?

Danny: …A dharmic thing.

Vince: Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting. I mean, we’ve talked to numerous teachers and people about this very issue, and the question I always have is if someone’s really passionate, like they really want to make Buddhist training and practice a huge part of their life—their profession, you could say—there aren’t that many avenues they have. And I think this represents a minority, maybe, of people into Buddhism in general, but still, it’s an important minority because those are the people that then are able to offer the gifts they receive from the training back to others.

Seems like there are lots of people doing cool things that we talk to, Norman Fisher and this is something we discussed with the Geeks of the Round Table, you mentioned, seems like there are people doing certain things, like he’s offering secular Buddhist teachings to organizations and companies and groups of people, and that seems like one possible avenue. And at the same time, I guess I have a question, if there’s a young Buddhist that really wants to, say, do a year retreat, training, something like that, there’s just not that many ways to do it right now, without being independently wealthy. It’s tricky.

Danny: And, we live in a society that has maybe difficulty understanding that, why someone would need to take three months off to go… “Can’t you break it up, and do it on the weekends?” Or, whatever. So it’s very difficult that way in terms of, if you want to have this very robust meditation practice. It can be very difficult to hold a real job and do it, in a lot of ways.

Vince: Yup.

Danny: So you already have problems like that to begin with, and then even trying to think about trying to make a career out of things, it’s interesting. Even things like spiritual writing, there are people who have trouble making a living out of doing that, even if they publish regularly.

Vince: Sure, sure.

Danny: And I don’t mean to make it all sound dour. I mean, you know there are a few who make a good living, but they’re fewer and farther between.

Vince: And there are people who are finding ways to do intensive retreat. I mean, I certainly partake in the generosity of the retreat centers that offer scholarships to younger people and there are a lot of people doing a lot of things to make these sorts of things accessible, even given the conditions that we have here in our culture which are not, like you were saying, the nicest for people that want to live a robust interior life…

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: …because it doesn’t necessarily have immediate, obvious benefits in the exterior world. I mean its not contributing necessarily to any company’s bottom line or… I mean my meditation practice certainly hasn’t produced any huge profits for the companies I’ve worked for.

Danny: Not yet… (laughs)

Vince: Not yet, man. It’s coming, it’s coming! (laughs)

Danny: Yeah.

Vince: Yeah. I guess I wanted to talk about the corollary of this too. Young Buddhists have obviously these issues they have to face, especially if they want to be very serious about Buddhist practice. But, there also seem to be a lot of opportunities that we have as young Buddhists and I wonder if you have any insights in terms what the opportunities you see are maybe even that are different from what we might have if we lived in Asia, for instance?

Danny: Yeah, well I think Buddhism has been a phenomenon in the United States since as long as we’ve had Asian immigrants here. People often speak of the boom at the turn of the century, and then sort of in the middle of the century with Zen, then later Tibetan Buddhism coming to the United States. So we’re at a point where it’s very young. And I think that’s on the one hand we have trouble like we’ve been discussing. But on the other hand, it’s really exciting to be on the ground floor of things. And often communities are small enough that even the youngest among them have a great voice in thinking about organization and how to do things. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be part of the development of American Buddhism.

I mean, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over ten years and I would say it was quickly in my getting interested and involved in things that I started to feel like “I have a vote here.” It’s possible for me to participate in things like writing for Tricycle, or coming on the Buddhist Geeks show now, and things like that. So it’s often very surprising once you get involved, how quickly you become part of the phenomenon.

So I think that’s an exciting thing. There’s a kind of access and opportunity for sharing that is maybe is difficult in other traditions that have had a chance to get a foothold here a lot longer, things like that. So that’s very exciting.

And I think young people in particular… I’ve been very heartened by a lot of interest in politics and activism that’s we’ve with in the last couple of years with young people so I think they can be great advocates and allies for certain kinds of changes that I think would benefit Buddhists everywhere; thinking more about the role of women in Buddhism, thinking more about being inclusive of all kinds of diversity, people of different sexual orientations and thinking about what I said before about better communication between communities. So I think, I’m expecting… I don’t think, I expect that young people who are involved in Buddhism will be of a great service this way in terms of seeing that things become a little bit better in terms of including a wide range of voices, and opinions, and backgrounds, and experiences, and things like that. Yeah. I’m looking forward to seeing that work done.


Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. Prior to his appointment at UWest, he served on the adjunct faculty for Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India program. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Religion from Denison University and Master of Divinity from Naropa University, and is currently finishing his doctorate in Buddhist Studies at UWest. A blogger for Shambhala Sun and elephant journal, he has also written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Religion Dispatches, The Journal of Buddhist Ethics, The Journal of Religion & Film, Eastern Horizon, New York Spirit, Alternet’s Wiretap Magazine, and other publications. In addition, he has commented on Buddhism in America for the BBC, the Associated Press, E! Entertainment Television, the Religion News Service, Buddhist Geeks, and The New York Times. Website: