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Dharma Care

Pastoral Care and Counseling from Buddhist Perspectives

     As a teacher or leader, you may encounter someone in your community who wants your attention and company and wants to hear words of wisdom and comfort from you while they are going through a difficult time. There will be other people who want to reveal themselves to you as they seek your attention and company and comforting and wise words. Knowing whether a dear one wants to reveal themselves is a hint into whether care or counseling is needed, and it is not always clear whether it is either one or both.

     It is said that The Buddha said there are at least four kinds of people: the ordinary, the disciple, the arahant, and the Tathagata. The ordinary person is one who doesn't understand and respect disciples, arahants and the Tathagata and understands conventional reality as the only reality. The disciple aspires to liberation and has some experiences of reality as it is. The arahant is said to be completely liberated of lust, hate, and delusion through practice, understanding reality as it is and the Tathagata knows the ultimate truth and has completely destructed cravings therefore is supremely enlightened. (MN 1)

     Reflecting on this sutta excerpt, remembering that some people want to reveal themselves and some do not, the belief that some people have attained more spiritual "success" than others is relevant to how you might care for them and give them counsel if they want to reveal themselves to you. In my experience, it is not necessary that one reveal much of themselves to avail themselves of pastoral care. If you find that you require such information, examine whether the power dynamic between you as a teacher or leader and the dear one as care receiver is overriding your compassion.

     As a compassionate listener, listen very carefully. What are they revealing verbally? By their actions? Is there intensity? Flatness? Ask, when the time is right, what it means to the dear one to reveal what they are revealing? Refrain from judging them as bad if they are "ordinary" or good if they are a "disciple". The risk in assessing and especially asserting another's spiritual abilities is the creation of delusion -- deluding yourself into thinking that you have the ability to intimately know the personhood of the dear one and consequently potentially missing out on opportunities for healing.

     In situations where pastoral caregiving is appropriate, use this sutta as guidance into a dear one's experience in transforming their suffering on a Buddhist path (remembering there may be other ways the dear one has transformed suffering). In pastoral counseling (where self-revelation is apparent), use this sutta as guidance into information gathering about the dear one's spiritual journey.

For more information about how to assess a counselee, read Where to Start and What to Ask: An Assessment Handbook by Susan Lukas