Buddhist Chaplain at
Home and Hospice Care
of Rhode Island
What brought you to Buddhist practice?
Ever since I was a teen-ager, I knew wanted to do some kind of ministry. I was brought up as a Protestant. In college, I majored in Religious Studies. It seemed the more I studied Christianity, the less I understood. I felt discouraged and terrified. As part of the curriculum, I was required to take a course in non-Western religions. When I read about Buddhism, I had an “Ah-ha!” moment. I felt like I had found my home. I pursued my Buddhism intellectually, doing an independent studies course in the Theravada traditions.
When I finished college, I went to Japan to teach English and I spent time at The International Zen Center of Japan which at that time was near Hiroshima, but now no longer is in existence. They were open to lay people and international practitioners. There I had a taste of serious practice—I’ve not experienced as strict discipline since then, actually. The Zendo had no heat, the forms were strict but the teacher was very kind and helpful. I found that I was comfortable with temple life: the routine, the simplicity, the community, and, of course, practice.
I was primarily interested in Buddhism’s technical aspects of practice and investigation as a means to realize the ideals that all the major religious traditions extol. For example, Jesus says love your enemies. OK, but how do you do that? Buddhism gives us the tools of practice, tools which are transformative, through which I was able to experience those ideals I had aspired to intellectually but never understood how to embody: compassion and peace. I also loved the logic of Buddhism as demonstrated by the Buddha’s often repeated phrase “Ehi Passika”, which means “come and see for yourself.” Even when he was dying and the Bhikkhus were standing around him weeping and saying, “But how can we live without you? You have to stay and show us.” The Buddha said, “No, you have to find out for yourself.”
In Buddhism you don’t have to try to believe something. If it’s worth believing, you’ll know it.
After I left Japan, I lived in Thailand and practiced in several monasteries. One was the Garden of Liberation, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s monastery in southern Thailand, where I was doing an independent study on the Thai Sangha’s response to modernization. I visited many temples and spent time with monks who were involved in social action efforts: saving orphans, helping girls get out of prostitution, teaching farmers practice sustainable agriculture, etc. I was looking into how religion manifests in the world. This has always been a measuring stick I’ve used to determine the genuineness of a faith: : How useful is your faith in your life? This is another reason that Buddhism fits me so well.
When I came back from Asia in 1995, I practiced with the Diamond Sangha in Tucson, AZ for two years as I worked as a preschool teacher and volunteered with hospice. Eventually, I found Naropa University in Boulder, CO and embarked on their Engaged Buddhism Master’s Program, which involved pastoral care and social action. The contemplative focus of the Naropa education was probably more beneficial to my pastoral development than any standard academic training could have been. It also made me feel like I had a jump on CPE because CPE stresses similar aspects such as knowing your mind, body, and spirit and how you affect others etc. I can’t say enough about my experience at Naropa. I miss it.
What was your chaplaincy training?
I have five units of CPE. Here’s how it happened. In association with my studies at Naropa, I took one unit of CPE in a Denver hospital. I had never spent time in a hospital and it was very hard to see the suffering. My personal challenge was when patients and their families were continually asking me, “What’s your religion?” Answering Buddhism didn’t go over too well. It wasn’t acceptable to be a Buddhist, so initially I said I was Protestant, since I had been raised in that tradition. But after a while, saying that became too uncomfortable, so I said I was an Interfaith chaplain. People really wanted me to be Christian, and I had real difficulty in being accepted as a chaplain.
Where I now live in New England, people are much more Live and Let Live and probably assume I am Catholic anyway. On the rare occasions when patients or family members insist that I talk about my faith, I say, “Well, how about if I talk to you about what the Buddha taught about suffering and death?” This way we don’t get caught up in a theological didactic and I can skillfully address the issue at hand.
When I graduated from Naropa, I did a one year residency and completed four CPE units in Fall River, Massachusetts at St. Anne’s Hospital. All the resident chaplains were either Catholic nuns or priests; I was not only the non-Christian in the group, but also the only non-celibate. It was fantastic. They were such a mature group. At first it was hard, I was this weird religion and also a vegetarian. They kept harping on how different I was. I finally told them, “I’m not choosing this way just to be different, you know, I’m not trying to prove a point. We can’t help who we are. Just because I eat different food, and pray in a different way, doesn’t mean I’m really different from you. Please respect my beliefs, just as I respect yours.” At the end of the year, one of the priests told me that a friend of his gave him feedback that my friend kept saying to him, my Buddhist friend says this, and my Buddhist friend says that. It was a very difficult and exciting time and I learned a lot about Catholicism which has helped in work since then. About 80% of Rhode Islanders are at least nominally Roman Catholic.
What led you to want to offer spiritual care to others?
Ever since I can remember, everyone would always come to me, I guess because I seemed so solid, down to earth, easy to talk to and strong. The quality of strength and trustworthiness is my gift, and it compels me to do this work. I’m not a “wounded healer,” not because I don’t know what it’s like to be hurt. We all have suffering, but I haven’t had any great loss in my life. I didn’t have a difficult childhood that led me to this. People have always just naturally assumed that I knew what was happening, that my shoulders were big enough to lean on, so I think I feel like I owe this. I think it’s what I’m supposed to do; payback for my good karma.
And I didn’t want to become a therapist, because I knew very early on that whatever I did had to include God, the spiritual aspects of life. Nowadays the field of psychotherapy can include spirituality, but at the time I was looking, there was no way to include my faith as part of my care giving, so I knew I had to do it pastorally.
I would still not want to be a therapist because I thrive on the BIG questions of life and death and have a hard time having patience listening to concerns about other comparatively minor issues.
Did you consider being a minister?
When I was a Protestant high school student, yes. As a Buddhist, no. Fortunately, when I came back from Asia and was living in Arizona, a friend of mine suggested that I do hospice volunteer work. Right away I loved the work, and the staff encouraged me pursue service in hospice. The work felt natural to me, knowing how to be in the presence of suffering and death. My meditation practice was so valuable.
Where have you worked as a chaplain? Would you share some of your experiences?
After completing my CPE residency in Fall River, MA, I looked for work as a hospice chaplain. Fortunately there was a job opening as a hospice chaplain in Rhode Island. Amazingly enough they were looking for a non-Christian chaplain here at Home and Hospice Care of Rhode Island. Our CEO really wants to us to be an interfaith organization. I’m still working here 5 1/2 years later.
Let me think about a story to share. We had a woman who was Jewish; she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you are familiar with this disease, it often results in significant personality change; people become anxious and very controlling due to being short of breath. She was a very proactive intelligent woman. She wanted some relief from her situation, so she agreed to learn meditation; she really wanted to do it. She was very determined. We practiced together whenever I visited her; I believe she even practiced on her own.
Whenever I was with her, I’d say, Take a snapshot of your life right this moment: What is the color? What does the light look like? Notice your life now. Pay attention, pay attention. When she started to actively die, she said, “This is it. I’m dying. This is what’s happening.” She comforted her family greatly in her final hours. She knew that her practice would sustain her at the end of her life.
I really learned from her: first that meditation works. Second, people have to want to do it. You can’t make it happen. Lots of the people I have seen thought it would be a good idea but didn’t follow through. If someone wants to do it, it can really work for them As a hospice chaplain, I can hold people in the light of compassion, but that’s about all I can do. But if they are ready—Fabulous. After she died, her husband gave me a trinket of hers which is on my altar. It helps me remember when things are difficult, that if meditation helps someone at the time of death, it must be worthwhile. Also, there are days of work where I wonder if my service matters and I remember her and her family’s gratitude when I look at that gift on my altar.
Where are you in the certification process?
Don’t get me started. It is such a frustrating process. I sent in my application three years ago and after a nearly a year, they got back to me saying I was short just 4.8 graduate credits from the 72 required by APC. (So really, keep track of every little seminar you go to, every in-service, every CEU. You can use all those hours, though it takes 100 hours of Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to equal one graduate credit.)
The application is active for three years. So in order to get these units, I had to take two more courses, while I was working full time. When I asked what kind of courses they thought I needed, the APC people said they couldn’t advise me, that they’d have to look at my application when it was complete. They said they couldn’t guarantee that they’d accept the courses I took.
It took them a year to respond to my initial application, and they are still holding it now, three years later. I applied in the Fall of 2004, and they didn’t look at it again until Jan 2006. In January, they said the file is complete. The Regional Convener said he was setting up the Certification Committee and it was supposed to be next Friday, March 17. But then another letter had to arrive from APC that the Regional Convener had to sign and send back to them before they would release my application to him. Once he receives it, the Committee’s Presenter has to look at the application and write a synopsis of it for the Committee. The Convener coordinates the committee of other chaplains. It’s all volunteer work for them so they try to get local people. Three weeks ago, they told me I needed to submit two more verbatims, because they need to be from my current employment, and my application is three years old now. It is very frustrating because, at the time, I was about to go for wrist surgery and wouldn’t be able to type well for several weeks. I could have written one a long time ago if I had known. I don’t have a new date yet for the committee.
The Certification Committee consists of four or five people. The APC contact person told me I should know the 20 competencies very well, and that it was up to me to make sure that those competencies are addressed in the meeting. If they aren’t addressed, then I might not get certified. They told me if the Committee recommends me for certification, I’ll pass. The Committee meeting is one hour and no cheat sheets. I don’t know how I can cover all 20 competencies in one hour, plus whatever else they might ask me.
I hope it’s worth my while. I am moving to Maine soon, my husband has a good job there. I believe the certification should help me in my job search. I would like to continue to do hospice chaplaincy, but I’m
open to working in a hospital, too. I understand that they have a very good support for veterans in Maine, a very active VA.
JAHCO may soon require certification to work as a hospice and hospital chaplain. Plus I think it is good having a professional organization behind you. The certification lets people know I’m a professional. I’m not just myself or my church. I’m not ordained yet; I’m a Dharma Teacher-in-training in the Kwan Um School of Zen. When I become a full Dharma Teacher, I will be considered ordained in my tradition. I understand that Joan Halifax Roshi at Upaya in Santa Fe ordains people into the Peacemaker Order.
Is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish, Jennifer?
Do not neglect practice or sangha. These are very important to sustain a spiritual caregiver. Always practice. And don’t give up. If this path is calling you and others are encouraging you, do not give up. If it is meant to happen, it will happen.
Thank you for this opportunity to share with others. May the Dharma continue to flourish in us and through us all, and may all beings have peace.
CERTIFICATION COMMITTEE EXPERIENCE
Update May 4, 2006
My committee met on Friday April 21, 2006 at Maine Medical Center in Portland, ME. I had envisioned the worst-case scenario and was relieved to see that we would be sitting in a circle (as opposed to a line of people facing me). My committee consisted of three men and two women. One of the ladies was also a hospice chaplain. The committee is supposed to reflect your discipline as well as possible. There are no other Buddhist chaplains in Maine so all my committee members were Christian. They were affable and I felt comfortable in their presence.
They asked questions to help clarify points from my spiritual autobiography, verbatims, and my essay on the competencies. Pastoral identity and function seemed to be key points. Examples of questions are as follows: What is your method of spiritual assessment? How do you assert pastoral authority? How does working with the dying affect you emotionally/spiritually? How would you minister to people of different faiths or people who profess no faith? What do your interfaith memorial services look like? How has your family of origin affected your ministry positively and/or negatively? What are your greatest challenges for future growth?
Fortunately, I had had a practice run with my fellow chaplains at my hospice in the weeks before my official committee. My manager has sat on certification committees before and so was very helpful. I would suggest that type of preparation for anyone.
As you may recall, I had been told that I would be responsible to make sure that all the competencies were discussed in the committee regardless of whether they brought them up. As I got closer to my date, that point was causing me too much anxiety. It didn’t make sense that I should be tested on my ability to memorize the competencies so I called APC’s headquarters to clarify this. I was told that it was the committee’s responsibility to ascertain what needed to be brought up at our meeting. If a competency had been sufficiently addressed in my essay, it was not necessary to be discussed. The committee was to make that judgment and I was only to answer whatever questions were put to me as thoroughly as possible. APC called my committee’s convener in Maine to confirm that this was the correct procedure. I was relieved but, of course, had some concern that there might be backlash from that phone call. Fortunately, this was not the case.
At the end of my one-hour meeting, I was asked to step out for a maximum of thirty minutes. I had to wait for 29. They invited me back in, informed me that they would be recommending me for certification, and then gave me some feedback. They have to cite areas for growth and write it up for APC to consider. Actual certification does not become official until APC convenes at the conference in May and they consider the committee’s recommendation. Barring any major concerns (ie. applicant hasn’t paid their dues to APC), I should receive their seal of approval. However, I won’t receive my plaque until NEXT May at the next annual APC conference.
After waiting so long, it all feels so anticlimactic. My friends and family have forgotten all the work I’ve put into this process and the whole “congratulations” feeling is pretty weak. I am happy to finally have the certification but it’s more of a relief than a sense of accomplishment at this point. I wish I had been told earlier that my M.Div. equivalency wasn’t acceptable so that I could’ve taken my courses earlier. I wish APC would’ve advised me on whether certain more convenient courses would’ve been acceptable because, in my case, taking theology courses while working full time here in southern RI ended up being very time and money consuming. It seems that this profession is in its infancy and I hope that more buddhadharma practitioners become involved so that it grows in its interfaith spirit and in wisdom and compassion.