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Dharma Care

Pastoral Care and Counseling from Buddhist Perspectives

Professional Development

     On the path of becoming a trained pastoral caregiver, we are challenged to examine our beliefs and allegiances. Trainees and professionals who engage in supervision are continuously invited to explore when we take comfort and refuge in dogma as well as the reasons why we refute broadly accepted teachings. When we fail to engage in such exercises we remain blind to what blinds us and create situations where we unknowingly prefer to care for certain kinds of people over others. This is true when it comes to uncritically adhering to teachings on the inferiority of women and the superiority of men.

Teachings on Gender and Spiritual Attainment

     In MN 9, Sariputta explained to the bhikkhus what he meant when he said that one is a noble disciple of right view. He talked about right view as understanding many factors including:

•            Mentality-materiality

     Sariputta said that feeling, perception, volition, contact, and attention are called mentality. Materiality are the four elements. The combination of mentality and materiality gives rise to the eye-base, ear-base, nose-base, tongue-base, body-base and the mind-base. This is the sixfold base. When one understands the origin of mentality-materiality, the cessation of mentality-materiality, and the way leading to the cessation of mentality-materiality, through the Eightfold Path, one is of right view.

     According to this sutta, when we come into contact with anything, suffering happens, but it is not just because there is contact, it is because human beings, by our biological nature, experience life and the things in life, as if we are it. Prying our selves away from that which we experience, after we understand the nature of suffering at its deepest levels, is the practice. This teaching gives me deeper insight into the Buddha’s teachings on self (we are made of the materiality stuff of the elements) and because materiality is a link in the chain of suffering, we should recognize our essential material nature and not be deluded into thinking we are that and that we are not that.

     As I read the Majjhima Nikaya, I see that the Buddha’s teachings are not consistent when it comes to mentality-materiality regarding women and men. It seems that the materiality of men is endowed with something greater than the materiality of women, though we are all made of the same elemental stuff. The privileging of men over women, as the Buddha’s teachings clearly indicate, would be wrong view and wrong practice, in my humble opinion, for a chaplain or counselor.

     Throughout the suttas, the Buddha, and other religious leaders, are referred to as “Great Men” possessing 32 marks. One of those marks is a large penis covered in a sheath. I read somewhere that the deeper meaning of this mark had to do with the belief that these men would have many sons (having daughters was not something to celebrate), but given the Buddha’s teachings on celibacy, his privileging monastics over householders, and the suggestion that he had only one son, it is unlikely that the significance of this mark was just about giving birth to boys. I have yet to read anything in the suttas about women having marks of greatness. On the contrary in MN 115 it is stated that “It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One – there is no such possibility…It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened one – there is such a possibility.” The suggestion is that women's mentality is inferior when it comes to spiritual practice. In my experience as a chaplain and counselor, I have not come to the conclusion that men are more equipped to attain spiritual fulfillment than women.

     MN 33 (as referenced in the Dharma Care Handbook) gives good guidance on what skills a pastoral caregiver should cultivate. These skills should be cultivated irrespective of the caregiver's gender and should be utilized not based on one's gender, but on one's willingness to submit to the relationship and the practice.

Be Curious about Sensations and Feelings

     Sariputta explained to the bhikkhus what he meant when he said that one is a noble disciple of right view whose view is straight, who has perfect confidence in the Dhamma, and has arrived at this true Dhamma. The bhikkhus wanted him to expound on this thought. He talked about right view as understanding:

  • Feeling

Sariputta said that there are six classes of feeling: “feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact.” When contact arises, feelings arise and with the cessation of contact there is the cessation of feeling. The Eightfold Path is the way leading to the cessation of feeling. The cessation of feeling is the end of suffering. (MN 9)

     In the context of pastoral counseling, Buddhist or otherwise, the acknowledgment and investigation of sensations and feelings is critical to any possible positive outcomes for developing, cultivating or rehabilitating one's capacity for insight and change. Counselors would do well to practice patience and curiosity as a counselee unfolds her or his story and notice any tendency to push the counselee to abandon feelings before investigating them, in the service of liberation from suffering.

     It is said that The Buddha said there are six classes of feeling and proceeds to identity the sense doors that lead to feelings. This is a very intriguing teaching. Can a sensation feel different in the body if it is first perceived through sight rather than sound? What if it was first perceived through smell or touch? And how do sensations get interpreted and assigned meanings? How do habitual reactions and responses form?

     It makes sense that when there is no feeling, there is no suffering. It also makes sense that when there is no feeling, there is no joy, not even the “pleasure” that comes from dwelling in the jhanas. What would not make sense is adopting an aspiration to be alive and devoid of feeling. How can a person exist and thrive in a world of relationships without sensations and feelings? On the spiritual path to cessation, in the context of pastoral counseling, it is wise view to help counselees see where their feelings are out of balance (through mindfulness) and help them with an equanimity practice. Let's be careful not to jump to cessation without investigation.