When I attended the Jesuit Values Panel during New Student Orientation, the panel’s moderator claimed that Georgetown had “all major religious traditions represented.” However, the world’s fourth-largest tradition was missing: Buddhism.
As a Theravada Buddhist from Thailand, one of my greatest fears in coming to Georgetown University was its identity as a Catholic institution. The colonial history of Southeast Asia, where I grew up, made me associate Catholicism with evangelical proselytization, and I feared Georgetown would provide little room for religious diversity. Studying abroad doesn’t mean that I want to leave my faith behind.
I’ve come to realize, however, that Georgetown prides itself on its Jesuit values of community in diversity and interreligious understanding. However, the absence of a Buddhist chaplain at Georgetown is striking, given these values. To better achieve its commitment to interreligious understanding, Georgetown should expand its chaplaincy to include a Buddhist monk.
The creation of a Buddhist chaplaincy will greatly benefit Buddhist students at Georgetown. Currently, the Georgetown Buddhist Student Association, BuSA, is the only resource available to Buddhist students. The organization hosts weekly meditations at the John Main Center. Over the past year, BuSA has expanded with the creation of new board positions and higher turnout both at weekly meditations and more specialized programming such as Buddhist film screenings and mindful dinners. However, the club lacks robust spiritual support that is available to other student religious organizations through their respective chaplaincies: an authority on Buddhist teachings to provide comfort and advice to students in navigating their Georgetown experiences.
Currently, BuSA has to make temple visits in order to interact with Buddhist monks. These visits are not only hard to coordinate but also demand students to take extra time from their busy schedules to travel. An on-campus chaplaincy would be much more cost and time efficient.
This semester, BuSA was able to invite Venerable Atisukhuma Fang, a Bhikkuni — nun — from the U.S. Zen Institute in Maryland, a meditation center, for a Dhamma talk in February. This is the closest we have ever come to having a Buddhist chaplaincy. While this step shows signs of significant progress, the university still needs to move further towards a full-time chaplaincy like those available to other religious groups on campus.
A Buddhist chaplaincy would also benefit the greater Georgetown community. Many misconceptions and myths surround people’s perception of Buddhists due to the oftentimes “exotic” nature that my religion is prescribed. Buddha images are often insensitively appropriated for marketing schemes. The word “zen” is plastered over everything from cosmetics to frozen yogurt. Even on Georgetown’s own campus, I encountered a motivational poster with a quote misattributed to the Buddha. Incidences like these evidently show a lack of understanding of Buddhism in the United States.
While the Buddhist population in the United States may have started off as a marginal group of Asian immigrants on the west coast, it is projected to grow to 5.5 million by 2050, becoming the world’s 10th-largest Buddhist population. The United States virtually has representation of all the Buddhist traditions of Asia – from Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, China and Taiwan. In this increasingly religiously diverse society, it is becoming more likely that Georgetown students will interact with Buddhist practitioners in the future. As future global leaders, Georgetown students should be equipped with the cultural awareness to engage in effective interreligious dialogue.
While the theology department does offer courses on Buddhism, these courses are limited to Introduction to Buddhism and a few Problem of God sections. Moreover, most students also don’t have the opportunity to learn about Buddhism in a non-academic setting. While BuSA offers a non-academic platform for students to learn about Buddhism, BuSA members are practitioners who still have much to learn about Buddhism. A chaplain versed in the Buddhist tradition would be able to provide better insight for questions about Buddhism.
I have benefitted so much from Georgetown’s diverse chaplains. Conversing with them at Chaplains’ Tea and open houses has exposed me to different faiths. Before I came to the United States, I had no exposure to Judaism, but that changed after attending campus ministry events and Sabbath. Likewise, Georgetown should provide students the opportunity to learn about my faith.
Having a Buddhist chaplaincy at Georgetown would benefit not only Buddhist students, but also the Georgetown community. Chaplains can provide support for Buddhist students spiritually and nourish other students intellectually. To stay true to its commitment to interreligious understanding, Georgetown needs to consider welcoming a Buddhist chaplain.
Abhichana Naiyapatana is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. She is the Vice President of the Buddhist Student Association.