The Buddha as a Chaplain

The Buddha as a Chaplain


Reading the Middle Length Discourses

as a resource for chaplains

by Gil Fronsdal

“A being not subject to delusion has appeared in the world for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.”                                                                                                              (MN 12.63)

For Buddhists, the Buddha represents the pre-eminent example of spiritual care. Motivated by compassion, he dedicated himself for more than 40 years teaching for “the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.” He did this by addressing both people’s inner, mental troubles and their outer, interpersonal conflicts. Representing all these troubles by the single concept of dukkha, most often rendered into English as ‘suffering,’ he unequivocally stated “I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering” (MN 22.38).

The bandit Anglulimala called the Buddha “The Sage of Great Compassion” (MN 86.6). Evoking powerful religious concepts of ancient India, the Buddha’s disciple Mahā-Kaccāna referred to his teacher in deeply religious terms by stating “he is vision, he is knowledge, he is the Dharma, he is Brahmā” (MN 18.12). At times the Buddha called himself a teacher (satthā) at other times he compares himself to a surgeon because he removes from people the poisonous arrow of craving (MN 105). By having the cure for existential ‘blindness’, elsewhere the Buddha compares himself to a doctor who cures visual blindness (MN 75).

In our own times we might refer to the Buddha more as a ‘chaplain’ than a doctor. Rather than curing people’s physical illnesses, he counseled people in matters of the heart (citta). As often is the case with chaplains, he addressed the great life issues of sickness, aging and death. He did this by offering an alternative to the religious concepts of his times through what we might call psychological guidance. He taught, counseled and guided people toward understanding the psychological roots of suffering and the way to uproot these roots. He pointed to the “liberation of heart through non-clinging.”

To understand how the Buddha functioned as a chaplain, it is useful to look at the list of five skills he stated that qualify a person to be a nurse to care for a patient. These are:

  1. Able to prepare medicine
  2. Knows the difference between what is beneficial and what is harmful
  3. Cares for the patient with a mind of loving-kindness
  4. Undisturbed by feces, urine, vomit, or spittle
  5. Able to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with talk about the Dharma

(The Numerical Discourses 5:124; p. 742)

The first quality is generally not the task of a chaplain, unless, of course, we consider that meeting with individuals and their suffering with them as a type of medicine. Items two to three describe some of the qualities of any good chaplain. The chaplain has a clear sense of how to talk and be with a patient in ways that are beneficial, and if that is not possible, how to avoid harm. The chaplain has the inner resources to maintain a mind of loving-kindness and compassion. The chaplain is able to stay equanimous and calm in the face of physical and psychological difficulties. The fifth item can also be understood as a quality of a good interfaith chaplain if the concept of “Dharma” is not limited the Buddhist Dharma. Perhaps if ‘spirituality’ or ‘truth’ were substituted for Dharma, this last skill could be applicable to the modern chaplaincy profession. For this purpose item five could be reworded as “Able to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient through conversation and words connected to a patient’s own spiritual and existential orientations.”

A number of stories survive of the Buddha and his disciples attending to people who were sick or dying. These stories show how one could talk about the Dharma in these circumstances. When the Buddha visited his sick monastic disciples he recited the seven factors of awakening, i.e., mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.[1] In doing this, he was helping experienced practitioners evoke healing mental states that they were well familiar with through their practice. The importance of evoking these states is highlighted when the Buddha, while ill, asked someone to recite these seven qualities to him.[2]

In one sutta,[3] when the Buddha learns that a monk is gravely ill he instructs Ven. Ananda to visit the monk out of compassion. The Buddha adds that the monk’s afflictions may subside if Ananda speaks to him about the “ten concepts,” ideas that were meant to help the sick monk loosen his attachments. These are:

  1. The impermanence of the five aggregates
  2. Not-self
  3. The non-appeal of the body
  4. The dangers in having a body
  5. Abandoning of unwholesome states
  6. The peace that comes from the fading of lust
  7. The peace of release, of nibbāna
  8. Non-delight clinging to anything in the world
  9. The impermanence of all conditioned things
  10. Practicing mindfulness of breathing

While some of these teachings may be most applicable to people who are already deeply familiar with the practices the Buddha taught, the story demonstrates one way in which the Buddha approached ministering to those who were sick.

Perhaps because different people are best instructed, encouraged, inspired and gladdened in different ways, the suttas depict a variety of ways to ‘minister’ to the sick. Also, at different times there may be different ways to support the same sick person.

The suttas contain three stories of Ven. Sāriputta visiting a very sick lay follower of the Buddha named Anāthapiṇḍika (literaly, “feeder of the poor”). In one visit Sāriputta reminded Anāthapiṇḍika of some of his good qualities, i.e., his confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as his practice of the Eightfold Path. With this reminder, Anāthapiṇḍika’s pains subsided.[4] At another time when Anāthapiṇḍika’s pain was great, Sāriputta told him that when one has great virtue as well as confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha one will not have fear of imminent death. Hearing this Anāthapiṇḍika reports that he has no fear.[5]

Visiting Anāthapiṇḍika just before his death, Sāriputta offers a profound guidance in non-clinging. Perhaps as a kind of guided meditation, Sāriputta recites a comprehensive list of what one can let go of. This seems to lead Anāthapiṇḍika to a deep level of liberation, soon after which he died.[6]

We see, therefore, that in a Buddhist context, in ministering to Buddhist practitioners, one of the important skills of a chaplain is knowledge of how to encourage, inspire, and gladden people with the Dharma. For this purpose, Buddhist chaplains should be deeply familiar with the many dimensions and aspects of the Dharma. One foundation for this familiarity is understanding the teachings of early Buddhism, for which the Middle Length Discourses provides a good introduction. In this text we find a great variety of perspectives on the Dharma, often presented in the context of particular situations and stories. Here we learn about spiritual care as offered by the Buddha and his disciples.

What you read in the Middle Length Discourses may not always be directly appropriate in many of situations a modern chaplain may encounter. Also, some of these Buddhist teachings may also not be in harmony with one’s own Buddhist teachings. Even so, the Middle Length Discourses is a window into how the founder of Buddhism approached spiritual care. I believe it is useful for a modern Buddhist chaplain to read this book and reflect on what ways these teachings can be applied in the service of spiritual caregiving. May this reflection lead to the welfare and happiness of all.

Quotes from the Middle Length Discourses

What should be done for his disciples out of compassion by a teacher who seeks their welfare and has compassion for them, that I have done for you, bhikkhus. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not delay or else you will regret it later. This is our instruction to you.

– The Buddha (MN19.27)


You should train thus: ‘My mind will be unaffected, and I shall utter no evil words; I shall abide compassionate for his welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.’

– The Buddha (MN 21.11)


You should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading that person with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, and starting with him, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’

– The Buddha (MN 21.11)

Abandoning ill will and hatred, he abides with a mind free from ill will, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings; he purifies his mind from ill will and hatred.

– The Buddha (MN 27.18)

Compassionate and seeking their welfare, the Teacher teaches the Dhamma to the disciples out of compassion: ‘This is for your welfare, this is for your happiness.’

– The Buddha (MN 122.25)

[1] The Connected Discourses 46:14-15; p. 1580-1581.

[2] The Connected Discourses 46:16; p. 1581-1582.

[3] The Numerical Discourses 10:60

[4] The Connected Discourses 55:26; pp. 1816-1819.

[5] The Connected Discourses 55:27; pp. 1819-1820.

[6] The Middle Length Discourses 143; pp. 1109-1113.