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Professors of social work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa are well accustomed to teaching their students about conflict resolution, the dynamics of family relationships, stress management, and the role of culture in well-being. Recently, Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health faculty shared their professional expertise with another group of people: Buddhist reverends.

“Buddhist reverends are spiritual care givers, and the training session helped us to learn more about interpersonal communication and intercultural communication so we could respond to the changing needs of our temple members in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Reverend Blayne Higa, who leads training sessions for all reverends at Hawaiʻi‘s Hongwanji Missions.

The training with UH Mānoa social work faculty took place over two days for about 25 Buddhist reverends from all over Hawaiʻi. Discussions focused on how to listen to people and determine their readiness for change, and emphasized the importance of intervening early when problems arise.

“Social workers, too, are trained to see the fluidity of situations,” said Mike DeMattos, PhD, an assistant specialist with the Thompson School who co-led the training sessions with retired associate professor Paula Morelli, PhD. “When we work on our cases, we have to recognize that people’s lives are continually moving, and they are the products of their experiences.”

Social work parallels in Buddhism

In between the lectures, the reverends participated in activities. In one exercise, they worked with a partner and applied their listening skills, with the goal of making the other person feel heard and understood. In another, the reverends identified a situation in which they felt stressed, and evaluated strategies that lowered their stress level. They participated in reflections on their own life crises.

The central teachings of Buddhism align well with the tenets of social work, according to Higa. For example, Buddhism recognizes the value of harmony, and holds the view that all living things are interdependent and in balance with each other. This parallels the social work “systems” approach, which views every individual as both a product and producer of their history, family and culture.

Another fundamental principle of Buddhism is impermanency, or the idea that all things change over time. The training session allowed the reverends to apply this idea to family struggles.

“If we are in a state of conflict, and we recognize impermanency, then we realize this conflict won’t last forever and we can skillfully transform the conflict into a harmonious system,” said Higa.

DeMattos said he was impressed by how inquisitive the ministers were, and how much work they did to develop their skills and knowledge. “They were so caring towards their communities, and they felt so concerned for their temple members.”

“The training from the social work professors showed us the larger context in which we operate,” Higa added. “We left with a rich, powerful sense of place that informs who we are and our work with our communities.”

“Most people think of professors as only working in classrooms, but we also work hard to reach beyond the walls of academia,” DeMattos said. “We want to be there for our communities.”

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