Buddhist Chaplains and the NHS

Is there a Buddhist chaplain in this hospital?

Keith Munnings reports on progress towards providing Buddhist chaplains throughout the NHS

For some years the NHS has provided chaplaincy services for patients, so the delivery of pastoral and spiritual care within healthcare settings is well established throughout the UK, as it is in other parts of Europe as well as in North America and Canada.

A new challenge arose a few years ago when the NHS asked that all major UK faiths provide faith-informed chaplaincy to hospital patients, their relatives and to staff working within healthcare settings.  Buddhism now has an opportunity to make its own unique contribution to the well-being of those who are ill and who care for them.

How is Buddhism meeting the NHS Challenge?

Many patients, relatives and staff today are still surprised that a Buddhist is available in hospital to talk to them, to meditate with them or to ask for specific Buddhist practices or rituals. Christian Chaplaincy in Europe has evolved through rigorous theological questioning and training. Do the Buddha’s teachings provide any guidance as to how such work is approached? Perhaps the Buddha was alluding to the benefits of offering succour and aid to one’s fellow beings in the comment ‘Whoever would tend to me should tend to the sick’ 1 – made while some monks are rebuked for neglecting a fellow bhikkhu who is sick with dysentery.

Individuals from a number of different Buddhist schools formed the Buddhist Healthcare Chaplaincy Group (BHCG) in 2004 and have collaborated on this project making it workable by the wider Buddhist community.

It needs all partners to be happy – the NHS, the faith community and, most of all, the human beings who are served?

The NHS needs an assurance that those serving as hospital chaplains are competent and capable of working for the benefit of others. BHCG has explored how best to provide support, encouragement and developmental opportunities for Buddhist chaplains within an acceptable and practical framework. It has met NHS criteria to function as an Endorsing Body for its faith community so that hospitals can seek assurance from the BHCG on the suitability of an individual who wishes to work as a Buddhist healthcare chaplain.

The BHCG document ‘Accreditation Proposals’ outlines an approach for the development of competencies and qualities. An individual may take this as a map showing what to aspire to and what to work towards to become a Registered Buddhist Healthcare Chaplain. Previously, individuals have worked alone, providing  extraordinary pastoral and spiritual care within the hospital community; this current opportunity gives UK Buddhism the possibility of being of greater benefit to an even larger number of people.  This highlights the importance of Buddhists working together, sharing good chaplaincy practice and developing a body of knowledge and expertise.

BHCG wishes to offer the fruits of its work in mapping a way forward to all those within and outside the Buddhist community who have been, who are or who will be in any way striving to regain health or to prepare well for dying.

How Buddhist hospital chaplaincy works

Most Buddhist Hospital chaplains are volunteers. Some are ‘on the books’ and called upon when a Buddhist chaplain is specifically requested. Others are fortunate to be members of a multi-faith chaplaincy team; they visit specific wards on a regular basis and thereby offer their kindness to anyone, including many from other faiths or of no particular faith.

There are parallels between meditation practice and the reflective practice used in different areas of healthcare work, offering the possibility of developing shared language and appropriate practices with non-Buddhist healthcare staff which can also help towards becoming more effective chaplains.

Two ‘reflective’ ways of enabling Buddhist faith to inform pastoral care are illustrated in the following example, where a chaplain is asked by staff on a ward to see a particular patient who is ‘not at all well’.

This patient is in a great deal of pain and cannot articulate very much, but appears desperate to be free from this pain. The Buddhist chaplain sits beside the patient and becomes calm and still, arouses loving kindness and makes the wish that the patient finds happiness and peace beyond the pain. The patient’s state of mind starts to change and they begin to pray but remain restless.

Reflecting on this experience as a meditation on the four immeasureables’ (or ‘four brahma viharas)’ may provide a clearer perspective on the depth of the experience and the degree to which inner strength is present. The strong basis of loving kindness (metta) established within the interaction brought the patient’s suffering into focus as an object of compassion (karuna). No firm point had been reached so far at which the chaplain could experience joy arising through the patient’s success at finding happiness (mudita) and likewise the restlessness meant equanimity (upekkha) had not yet been reached.

Reflecting on the same experience through the lens of the four noble truths throws a different light on the process.   The patient while working with pain (dukkha) is struggling to comprehend or accept that the pain has a cause (origin of dukkha) or that it is possible to be become free from that pain (cessation of dukkha). Knowing that it is possible to let go and find a ‘freedom’ and knowing how to do this (path leading to the cessation of suffering) would be a great reassurance to the patient.  The reflection may lead to a greater understanding by both patient and chaplain.


1)      Buddhist Monastic Code II, Chapter 5      http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc2/bmc2.ch05.html

Keith Munnings is Chairman of the Buddhist Healthcare Chaplaincy Group

keith@eskola.co.uk or 07931 532006


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