A Buddhist CPE Supervisor, Explores CPE From a Buddhist Perspective

by The Rev. Trudi Jinpu Hirsch

Note:  This article was published in the March, 20054 volume of “Plain Views:  The Publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy.”  Rev. Trudi Jinpu Hirsch is a Zen Buddhist ACPE chaplain/supervisor and Zen Priest for the Beth Israel Medical Center, Singer Division, a HealthCare Chaplaincy partner institution. She practices and teaches at the Village Zendo in New York City (White Plum Sangha), New York.


“Do not close your eyes before suffering–find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contacts and visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. “ Gautama Buddha

What does this mean… and what shape will it take for Buddhist Chaplaincy students at Beth Israel Medical Center?

As a Zen Buddhist priest/chaplain and Association of Clinical Pastoral Educators (ACPE) supervisor I needed a way to introduce my Buddhist community to the practice of chaplaincy, (mainly a Judeo-Christian discipline). Buddhism abides in impermanence and points to the interconnectedness of all things. Its teachings and practice guide one toward compassion for all beings and point to being aware and awake in every moment. By having an intimate connection with patients we learn about suffering as well as come to appreciate the miracle of life. Caring for patients directs us toward letting go of the places we are attached to that prevent us from sitting in their shoes. Patients touch our hearts and minds directly and we hear their cry, which is none other than our own.

The story of Buddhism begins with the famous journey Shakyamuni (Gautama) took as he entered the everyday world of “sickness, old-age and death.” In the hospital, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)  students come face to face with patient after patient. “Sickness, old age and death” will no longer be an idea that they contemplate in meditation, but the actual day-to-day reality of all beings as they visit various people in the hospital. Pain and suffering will take on new meaning as the students explore along with the patients the spiritual pain built around the desire to keep things the way they are/were, or the way we would like them to be. We reflect on our need to hold on to life and to push away death. The students become inwardly motivated to explore who they are and the meaning of life and death for themselves and for their patients.

“Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means…” is the inspiration for the creation of the quarter-unit Buddhist CPE group that I offer in addition to the multifaith units. This unit was begun as a way to offer the Buddhist community the opportunity to engage their practice with the patients in the hospital. We explored breathing, meditation, visualization, and relaxation as among the many tools chaplains can offer to particular patients. Students learned to listen with their whole body and mind and to explore with patients ways to use these alternative modalities to alleviate pain, worry, sleeplessness, and distress. After gaining confidence that these methods could work for some patients, I was able to integrate these teachings into my multifaith groups with good results. I began to speak more freely about meeting the energy level of the patient, expanded on the use of observation and mindfulness, and emphasized that students be aware of their own feelings and those of their patients moment to moment. CPE emphasizes the action-reflection-action model of education, which works very well with the training that Buddhist students practice in the Zendo (a space for meditation and services). Quite a few of these quarter-unit students have joined other full-time, multifaith units. Many have returned to their meditation sitting practice (a short form for meditation, usually 30-35 minute periods of silent meditation followed by 10 minutes of mindful slow walking) with new energy and vigor as a result of the work they have done with their patients. I feel very grateful to be able to offer other Buddhist practitioners a way to make their practice come alive.