What is a Buddhist Chaplain in the First Place?
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is about my new job/identity as a Buddhist chaplain trainee. What is it, and why did I decide to do this?
The traditional definition of a chaplain is: a minister who cares for people in crisis who are displaced from their preferred place of living. This can range from people suffering from illness (hospital), death (hospice), incarceration (prisons).
It’s like being an ER doctor for spiritual care, composed of Judeo-Christian traditions.
The modern definition of a chaplain broadens the traditional definition: it now encompasses those who are experiencing a mental displacement, people in existential crisis. *Waves hands all around.*
It’s like being a primary care doctor, taking care of spiritual health within the context of everyday life.
Our program director, who happens to be my meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal, created this chaplaincy program in response to the tragedies of 9/11, to provide spiritual care to serve all. He calls it his pyramid scheme for joy and compassion.
But why did I want to be part of his “pyramid scheme”?
Why did I choose this path?
I’ll answer why in more detail.
Even those of us who spent weeks working on the application, sitting in retreats to meet requirements, getting letters of recommendation…wonder what exactly we applied for.
It’s a calling, you know?
When I practiced more in the Christian leaning, I used to imagine that Jesus would call me up once in a while and tell me something, but I let it go to voicemail. Or more realistically, me begging Jesus for something I want to happen.
Even now, when something scary happens, I ask Jesus AND the Buddha for help.
Did you know there is a Japanese manga/anime series about Jesus and the Buddha as best bros? Of course they thought of that.
The closest thing I can use to describe a “calling” in both traditions…in Christianity, it’s like the Holy Spirit visits and I have to answer. In Buddhism, the causes and conditions, like soil tilled, have allowed the sprout to start growing.
In our first chaplaincy class, we spent the entire day talking about what a chaplain is and how we can serve the community. We all had the same story—although we can tell each other scenarios where we feel inspired, the true reason is nebulous to us beyond a vague sense of calling.
A Hero’s Journey, Backwards and Inwards
Nonetheless, here are my inflections that led to the chaplaincy path. For brevity I skip over many important points of juncture:
- Immigrant family story, going from extreme poverty to relative prosperity in one generation
- Dad got very sick, mom had to look after dad
- Extreme poverty, escaped from civil unrest
- Managed to get ahead in school, left home and went to college in the US, dabbled in Buddhism
- Studied neuroscience PhD and did a postdoc, got really into Buddhism
- Left academia and went into corporate America
- Felt joyless at job, decided to strike it out on my own
- Discovered Write of Passage and passion for writing about incorporating spirituality in everyday life
- Decided to become a Buddhist chaplain
It might seem like some kind of hero’s journey (bad stuff, really bad stuff, then good stuff!) But it never felt that way. I started doing things…but I didn’t know why. And if I look back, then it starts to make some kind of narrative thread.
But a hero’s journey isn’t neat and tidy. What I didn’t mention above was…
- How my mom didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I was her only companion through all the pains our family experienced. Endless one-sided conversations about how tragic our entire family’s lives are, with no coping skills taught to me as a child. If I can give my child-self a huge hug and get her out of there, I would. This is the primary reason why I wanted to pursue the chaplaincy training—I had/have emotionally shut down just to survive, and I would like to regain this capacity for myself, for my family, for everyone around the world.
- How I got into Buddhism because I was clinically depressed. Graduate school was grinding me down and I felt like a complete failure who didn’t deserve to live.
- How my writing friends and the act of writing saved me from the pits of despair and cognitive deficits I experienced from a hormonal disorder.
- How I had wanted to become a Buddhist chaplain and train under Gil over 5 years ago, but never committed because I didn’t think I was good enough. Brave enough. Nor did my job allow me the flexibility to attend the program at the time, so this wasn’t possible until I started working for myself.
Steve Jobs said in a graduation speech…we can only connect the dots in our lives, backwards.
If this is so, then are we not pressuring ourselves needlessly by contorting life into a hero’s journey framework? What if we can instead, look backwards and inwards? Towards our heart, our desire to be loved and to be kind to ourselves. In fact, our search for a “personal monopoly” may be this desire in disguise.
I can see now how every life decision I make…has to do with this desire to overcome self-hatred and unease about my past.
In chaplaincy training, we learn to serve others and ourselves through kindness and compassion. I have had the opportunity to support my friends in their creator journey, pointing out ways in which our minds trick us into being unkind or unforgiving. It was like seeing a reflection of how my own mind works, and in helping others I bring joy to myself too. Yet I sense that love and compassion likely share the same neural pathways regardless of its intended subject. Therefore, I train to be kind and compassionate to myself, so I can wholeheartedly serve the world.
I’m grateful for thoughtful feedback from Hiral Patel, Christopher Coffman, Karena De Souza, and Neilda Gagne.
For Version 3:
- Hiral, Chris, and Karena all raised a fantastic point: I touch upon the dual-faith (Christianity/Buddhism) perspective but don’t really explain it in the piece. What I can expand in the future include: My Christian faith, my friend who is a Christian pastor, my grad school advisor’s father who was a minister (and how I admired him in a way more than my grad school advisor, oops)
- Chris further elaborated such a fantastic comment that I had to save it all: “I find this dual tradition you're integrating in your life a truly fascinating subject. You've made several references to why Buddhism is ultimately more satisfying, or more of a solace, or more congruent with your understanding of reality, but you seem to be suggesting almost a sense of betrayal at not being "met" by the various manifestations of the Christian God (you reference Jesus and the Holy Spirit). There are subtle hints in your essay of the predicament Gerard Manley Hopkins presents in his brilliant poem "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord"--do you know it? https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44404/thou-art-indeed-just-lord-if-i-contend
- Candidly, just as powerful is the original passage from Jeremiah: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+12%3A1-2&version=KJV
- We all know the many syntheses of Buddhism with other traditions: the "Jewdists" and so on. But of course Christianity has this awful crucifixion at its center, and the Resurrection still requires us to die, and it's understandably viewed as cold comfort even by many of those who don't dismiss it outright as a fairy tale. But even in the bullet points and brief comments you disclose, you, your mother, and your father could all plausibly be considered to have undergone your own crucifixion sufferings, and be entitled to cry out "My god, my god why have you forsaken me?" This is embedded in the content you've presented, but you don't make it a clear part of your journey. Of course, I may be over-determining the few clues you offer and therefore I may be way off base--but at least for now I sense there's a super powerful, very intense story you've chosen to conceal behind the veil of silence. I can assure you--I'd eagerly read it!”
- My journey bullet points can be their own essays:
- Chris wrote:
- Now, I want to reiterate that this is a great essay that already works perfectly as a kind of brochure or something for potential candidates for being a Buddhist chaplain themselves, or perhaps even your patients--or whatever a chaplain's clients might be called--as a kind of orientation. And that's fine, and it works really well as Hiral keeps saying--and I agree with him. But this is really intense, juicy, painful, and potentially illuminating content here, and I feel you've made a very big call by choosing to be clinical and distancing yourself by reducing these super-intense and difficult experiences to bullet points, not to mention framing them coolly as "important points of juncture" that you've included, as opposed to the ones you've skipped. Again, this is a brief essay and you have a huge amount of material you want to share, so this is an efficient way to do it.
- I guess I'm imagining an essay that begins with you as an overwhelmed girl listening to your mother ask unanswerable questions, and then in your own voice, not the cool, competent, professional voice of a care giver, a trained (Buddhist) Chaplain, but a suffering soul like me--and like most if not all your readers, showing us how you've found techniques and practices and a role that have transcended the misery and fear and despair in which you started--a predicament most of us can relate to.
- Again--it's a perfectly legitimate decision--but you're presenting yourself structurally and rhetorically as a competent trained professional who is ready and willing to help your reader--but there is a pervading sense (I called it an "aroma" earlier) that you're willing to share your journey and your human suffering with us and connect with us at that level of helpless floundering--calling to Jesus and having his answer go to voicemail, calling to the Holy Spirit and finding that another model for intimacy with a loving reality resonates better with you. That's powerful, fascinating stuff, and it's relegated to the interstices.
- If you wanted to write another kind of essay, one that was grippingly personal and powerfully emotional and kept your readers compelled to read the next sentence, I'd consider starting with this incredible, tragic, and poignant predicament <this is the part about my mom>. The widest and deepest existential questions about life, the fundamental challenge of the apparent injustice of the universe--and all pouring onto the head of an overwhelmed daughter unequipped to handle her mother's despair, and sucked down herself into the abyss. This is powerful Christin--super powerful!
- Hiral wrote re: Buddhism/depression: this would have made a great personal experience worth sharing?! I would have loved to read more on it
- Hero’s journey can be its own essay:
- Chris said: I think the Hero's Journey (and I know Campbell's work, and the work of his mentor and the source of his IP Heinrich Zimmer well) is a big subject that should be contextualised with some kind of framework for how you came across it in your spiritual journey, what it meant to you, and why you rejected it as inadequate or in fact misleading. It might be another essay all to itself. This essay is just packed with ideas that you don't have room in 1,000 word essay to really explore.
- Hiral said: This resonates so well! .. If you want to know someone better, ask them to rewind their story starting today. This is best para of the essay, to me.
- Title change from “WTF is a Buddhist Chaplain” to “Why Did I Become A Buddhist Chaplain?”
- Incorporated word choice recommendations
Changes From Version 1: