June 16 2024

Buddhist Theological Education: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Namdrol Miranda Adams

In Spring of 2023, the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion hosted a webinar with Dr. José Cabezón and Chenxing Han. The theme of the webinar was a query into Buddhist theological education – asking what is it, whom does serve, and in what contexts does it thrive? The framing of the webinar was rooted in early inquiries into this field, particularly in Roger Jackson and John Makransky’s groundbreaking book, Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. This volume is a collection of essays by scholars of Buddhism who are themselves Buddhist. The authors attempt to explore and demonstrate a specific manifestation of Buddhist theology by applying various academic methods and tools to the Buddhist tradition. It is also worthy to note that Dr. José Cabezón was a significant contributor to this volume and a former president of the AAR.

During the webinar, Cabezón and Han provided a unique framing to the contemporary analysis of Buddhist theological education. The notable themes that emerged from their discussion included the influence of the Christian framing on Buddhist theological education inside and outside of the academy, the unique role of contemplation in this field of practice and study, and the care that should be taken to ensure that the Buddhist theologian and Buddhist theological education both encompass and speak to a broad base of Buddhist voices in multiple locations.

To begin, it is clear that the Christian theological sphere serves as both an anchor and a springboard for thinking about Buddhist theology and theological education. This is most easily seen in the sometimes problematic, always provocative, long-standing argument about the use of the word “theology” in the context of a tradition that does not recognize a godlike figure in the same way as monotheistic Abrahamic traditions. Regardless, it is undeniable that Buddhist theology and Buddhist theological education have been shaped by Christian norms dominant in American society and the academy.

Cabezón suggested that one function of theological education in general is the training of “specialists” to serve specific communities who are both educated in the foundational doctrines and histories of the tradition, and educated in the practical elements of serving their communities. This practical training includes skills such as homiletics and counseling. This model is inspired directly by those prevalent in Christian seminary training. Han also pointed out that Christian influence demonstrated through the model of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a contemporary form of theological education that serves Buddhists. CPE evolved from the research and practice of Anton Boisen and it is most closely aligned with professional service in hospitals and the healthcare system.

Different than CPE and Christian theological education, Cabezón and Han both noted that one of the unique characteristics of Buddhist theological education is the role of contemplation. The way of the contemplative mind is formative in many Buddhist traditions, yet, care must be taken to note that “meditation,” in the strictest sense of the word, is not common to all the living Buddhisms. Hence, the “contemplative” way of knowing should be understood broadly to include such activities as chanting, mantra recitation, analytical meditation, and debate. This contemplative method emphasizes a threefold model for learning: hearing, critical contemplation, and meditation. These three “wisdoms” may be viewed as contributing to a novel understanding of epistemologies in theological education.

Throughout this conversation, as well as in the public, academic, and personal scholarship on Buddhist Studies, there is a rising call to ensure that the scholar, the theologian, and the educator all speak to a broad base of voices. We should begin with the voice of the theologian herself, who need not write with a voice that self-consciously asserts her “objectivity” and distance from the subject matter, but openly accounts for her varied locations and perspectives as she engages the material of her scholarship.

It is also important to remember that the webinar was reflective of the time, place, and culture we find ourselves including the influence of modern educational institutions. Some of the places that Buddhist theological education is actually happening include graduate education programs of secular universities including Maitripa College, Naropa University, the Institute of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkely, and Harvard Divinity School. There are also Buddhist chaplaincy programs at institutions including the Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program at Upaya Zen Center and the Buddhist Churches of America. There are also a variety of heritage Buddhist communities – Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and others – which promote a broad and diverse definition of Buddhist theological education. Each of these different communities and institutions transmit the doctrines, values, and practices of the Buddhist traditions from one generation to the next. It is important to note the diversity in space and location – social, physical, and otherwise – which promote the reality of many “Buddhisms” instead of viewing the religion as a monolith. 

In a similar manner, Cabezón reminds that Buddhist theological education has been taking place in Asian communities for the past 2,500 years and there is a great deal to learn by looking at that history. Cabezón also asserts that the question arises: how do we maintain the rhetorical voice of Buddhists, the analytical methodology of the academy, and operate in these spaces to transmit the doctrines, values, and practices of Buddhist traditions from one generation to the next?  Buddhist theological education must also be reflective of the broad base of Buddhist theology in the world today and seek permeability within those confines. At its best, Buddhist theological education will demonstrate a similar diversity in space, time, content, and method representative of Buddhism in general.

If we accept this premise of Buddhist theological education, and we accept the diversity of places where Buddhist theological education is actually occurring, we must also begin to question the seeming impenetrability of “Buddhist Theological Education” as a static field with sole allegiance to any single group. In doing so, Han encourages us to consider the following proposition: “Buddhist theological education is happening everywhere all at once, if we know where to look, if we listen very carefully.”