Intersections with Mainstream Healthcare

Film: Buddhist Healthcare in Philadelphia, produced by C. Pierce Salguero & Lan A. Li

This film showcases the intersections of three Buddhist organizations with mainstream healthcare services and institutions in Philadelphia. We interview leaders of Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Philadelphia Service Center  (the Philly chapter of a transnational NGO based in Taiwan) and Won Community Services Center (a local non-profit run out out of the basement of the Won Temple), in order to find out how these organizations are bringing healthcare services to their communities. We also hear from a monk at Wat Mongkoltepmunee about how members of the temple’s lay community help to keep the monks healthy.


Buddhist organizations of all kinds intersect with the mainstream healthcare system in the Philadelphia area. In many cases, monastic residents of temples receive care from members of the community who are professional doctors, nurses, or other medical professionals.

In addition, temple institutions often offer healthcare to their members and communities. Institutions serving immigrant communities are often involved in helping newly arrived members to acquire medical insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as to connect with recommended hospitals or doctors. They may additionally organize transportation and translation services to accompany members who do not speak English to medical appointments. 

In addition to such efforts on behalf of individual members, Buddhist organizations sometimes collaborate with mainstream healthcare institutions of various sorts to organize community projects. For example, temples might serve as locations for periodic health clinics or health fairs. These are usually organized by individual members of the community who work in the healthcare sector, who act as liaisons between the temple and the hospital, nursing school, or other participating healthcare institution. These events—such as, for example, Wat Phouthathammram‘s “Healthy Monks” Project—typically allow members of the community and neighborhood the opportunity to receive flu shots, diabetes screening, blood pressure check-ups, and other routine procedures.  

Connections cultivated between Buddhist organizations and hospitals also include the work of Buddhist interfaith chaplains. We interviewed two chaplains at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who were affiliated with Philadelphia Buddhist Association, a local meditation group. These individuals reported that their interfaith chaplaincy work is grounded in and informed by Buddhist practices, such as meditation, sūtra chanting, and mantras. In another, more ambitious type of collaboration with hospitals, the Won Institute of Graduate Studies briefly operated the Won Center for East West Medicine, an acupuncture clinic inside of the Hahnemann University Hospital in Center City Philadelphia. (The unit was unsuccessful and has been closed for a few years.) 

Aside from collaborations with mainstream medical institutions, there are several local Buddhist community service organizations that autonomously exist to serve the healthcare needs of new immigrants and refugees. Though non-profits legally independent of any temple, these organizations are typically headquartered within temples, are staffed by temple members, and/or explicitly embody Buddhist values in their missions and operations. Two examples include the Won Community Services Center (operated out of the Won Buddhist Temple) and Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Philadelphia Service Center (a local branch of a Taiwanese Buddhist organization). Both of these organizations have been active in serving the medical needs of recent immigrants in the area, among other kinds of charitable activities. 

Study questions for this film:
  • Discuss some ways that Buddhist charitable activities promote good health.
  • Discuss why it might be that the Won Community Services Center transitioned from helping Koreans to helping refugees and immigrants from other parts of the world. What does this say about the goals of the organization?
  • Why are Buddhist temples getting involved with mainstream healthcare or heath education? What gaps in social services exist that make this necessary?
Explore more Buddhist intersections with mainstream healthcare:
Further reading:
  • Vincanne Adams, Mona Schrempf, and Sienna R. Craig (eds.). 2011. Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds. New York: Berghahn Books. — A series of essays studying the intersections between Buddhism and biomedicine in Tibetan cultures.
  • Pinit Ratanakul. 1999. “Buddhism, Health, Disease, and Thai Culture.” In Harold G. Coward and Pinit Ratanakul (eds.), A Crosscultural Dialogue on Health Care Ethics. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, pp. 17–33. — An overview of the connections between Buddhism and medicine in modern Thailand.
  • C. Pierce Salguero. 2019. Buddhism & Medicine: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Sources. New York: Columbia University Press. — A selection of essays introducing and translating texts about Buddhism and biomedicine globally.