What is Pastoral?
Buddhism, in the Insight tradition, is a set of practices including meditation, a religion, a philosophy and or a psychology depending on how you see it and utilize it. It is said that The Buddha, after his enlightenment, was tempted to keep what he had learned to himself, but after a visit from Brahma, he decided to share what he had learned out of compassion for the suffering of others. Sharing is a Buddhist pastoral tradition that has existed more than 2,500 years.
The term "pastoral" is a loaded one for many people who believe the term belongs to the Christian tradition. In Buddhism we are taught to avoid confusing the word with the reality. If "pastoral" means being mindful of the pasture and the wellbeing of the beings that inhabit the pasture, then we can understand the word in a broader context because pastures exist throughout the world and a variety of beings inhabit various pastures. In The Buddha's day and time, cows inhabited pastures and the person responsible for the wellbeing for the cows was the cowherd. (In Christianity, the shepherd who cared for the sheep is a metaphor for Jesus.) Therefore, Buddhism's pastoral metaphor is the cowherd. (MN 33) So how do cowherds, as a metaphor for teachers and leaders, tend to the herd (a metaphor for practitioners) beyond teaching?
Teacher/Leader and Sangha Member Dynamic
When a teacher or leader leads the sangha gathering, a member (student) of the gathering may learn something, may choose to ask a question, and may get an answer, but unless they meet with the teacher or leader, they will not know what the teacher or leader intended. They will not get a nuanced version particular to their situation and because they are without that nuance, the teaching my come off as dogma or converted into dogma.
From Dogma to Pastoral
Teachers and leaders can step through the curtain of dogma to pastorally attend to the individual needs of a member or student. Why do that? Though there are virtually no examples in the suttas of The Buddha reaching out to the same student over and over again, going deeper and deeper into the student's past developmental history, various counseling traditions have established the efficacy of counseling for increasing insight, cultivating love and compassion, improving relationships, calming anxiety and treating depression. One of the first ways to prepare yourself for the pastoral journey is to cultivate the wise intention of deep listening to yourself and others, actually practice listening to yourself and others and through mindful reflection pre- and post-sessions with students, practice equanimity. Why equanimity? It has been shown that counselees tend to commit to the counseling relationship if they trust their counselor will provide an equnimous presence, able to hear everything they have to say, and accept them as the person they are, even if a counselor deems a challenge is necessary.
Why Long-Term Counseling?
Buddhism places an emphasis on understanding suffering. The causes for suffering are countless, the impact of various kinds of suffering is often immeasurable and the consequences of the various causes and levels of impact can be unpredictable in intensity, can become latent, conscious and latent again. The cause and impact can have minimal consequences in one relationship, but can be manifested in severe ways in other relationships. Buddhism's prescription comes from practices experienced in adulthood, after a person has been formed. The way a person was formed has a lot to do with how they are today and to uncover that formative process takes time, often a long time.
Dharma Care exists to offer Buddhist leaders things to think about as they offer care and counseling and also offers practitioners a Buddhist pastoral counselor. If you seek counseling, need a resource for counseling or want guidance in how to offer short-term counseling, please let us know.