I began working as a healthcare chaplain in 2005, the same year I was ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh into the Order of Interbeing (OI.) For those unfamiliar with the role, healthcare chaplains help patients cope with their changing lives using the patient’s own language of meaning, whether that language is religious, scientific, philosophical or based upon their life experiences. This requires the chaplain to listen with compassion and respond appropriately, without proselytizing the chaplain’s own beliefs. My chaplaincy and OI practices have grown and supported each other over the years and I’d like to share some insights into how they work together to help me serve the ill and dying.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetic and deep rendering of the Order’s 14 Mindfulness Trainings have been a constant source of inspiration, support, correction for my chaplaincy practice. I’ve recited the precepts every other week since becoming an aspirant, and with each recitation the precepts reveal something new, guiding me back when I’ve strayed or reminding me that, contrary to self-judgements, I’m doing ok.
While all the precepts have at one point or another enlivened my chaplaincy, I’d like to mention a few that come up again and again.
Community and Communication: The hospital, cancer care center and hospice where I’ve worked are staffed by good people working under tough conditions. Most healthcare workers hope to make a difference, yet their good intentions are sometimes overwhelmed by productivity goals, administrative tasks and interpersonal conflicts. I’ve witnessed and experienced the compounding grief felt by care providers as patient after patient arrives, declines and dies. When these care providers are not given the skills and time to cope with their accumulating losses they sometimes create toxic work environments by lashing out at each other.
Our 8th precept reminds us to resolve all conflicts, however small. This has challenged me, particularly when I’m overwhelmed by my own grief and have trouble seeing my contribution to the problem. When I’m able to stop and listen to my coworkers, we can resolve problems together. But there have been times when I’ve not done this, when my pride has prevented me from listening to someone I ‘know’ is wrong, and so I create suffering. This precept frequently invites me to look at the views I hold, to question my openness, to see my own suffering and to be honest with myself about my own unrecognized feelings.
Reverence for Life: A hospital patient once asked if our conversation was confidential, to which I replied ‘Yes.’ He then told me that he planned to kill himself after leaving the hospital. Despite our 12th precept reminding me not to kill or let others kill, the confidentiality I’d promised this patient seemed to be pulling me into collusion with suicide. What to do? In another example, people with a terminal condition in the State where I live can legally end their lives with prescribed medication. I’ve supported and been present with many people who’ve made this choice. Does this violate my precepts?
Buddhists are increasingly becoming healthcare chaplains because our practice invites us to face death squarely. As a society, we deny death by professionalizing its care and hiding its reality behind institutional doors. Those who are able to transform their own relationship to death become valued caregivers, and since our practice fosters this transformation, Buddhists are increasingly important members of the caring professions.
But this also brings us disproportionately into contact with dying and asks us to counsel patients from diverse backgrounds and belief systems. Whereas most people face a few deaths over their lives, healthcare chaplains face many deaths each week. The 12th precept invites me to remember that birth and death are two sides of a coin, inseparable realities that inter-are. By witnessing this interbeing, I can provide a calm presence to ground patients and families during the turbulence of dying, one that isn’t swept away by a grief that sees only loss. And in those situations where I risk being accessory to death (such as in the examples above) I return to the spirit of the precept, which is to refrain from killing in order to foster understanding and compassion. By grounding myself there, rather than in fear or loss or legalistic interpretation, I trust that I will know what to do when difficult situations arise.
Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment: Being present for loss is hard work. Yet healthcare institutions often dehumanize, demoralize and exhaust workers, leading to burnout and cynicism. In this environment, dwelling happily in the present moment isn’t a platitude, it’s a necessity.
When I worked at a hospital, I asked my physical surroundings to help me dwell happily in the here and now. I asked the carpet outside my office to remind me that, even when I’ve just jumped up to respond to a high-adrenaline ER page, I can simply walk: One foot; another foot; slowly receiving the carpet’s calm energy. I asked the shining nickel plated handles on patients doors to remind me to stop, breathe and feel their cool stillness before entering, which helped me remember to look deeply into who I was visiting and why.
But when I began working at hospice, I lost the companionship of my hospital surroundings and instead spent my days driving from house to nursing home to trailer park visiting people where they lived. It took some time to find new mindfulness companions willing to invite me back to my breath. And in that time of forgetfulness, I suffered. I felt more overwhelmed, more exhausted, less able to offer care from the Self that is beyond self. I learned that dwelling happily in the present moment not only helps me, it helps those I serve.
Days of Mindfulness
Chaplaincy training is built upon an action/reflection model. We engage with patients and then set aside time to reflect on that engagement, often with the help of peers who wake us up to nuances we may have overlooked. Thay set up a similar model when he created the Order of Interbeing. To support Order members who spent their days serving in the war-ravaged villages and countryside, Thay asked them to return home for a weekly Day of Mindfulness. He knew that without this day of rest they could not sustain their work.
Order members agree to spend at least 60 days a year in mindfulness. This is sometimes a barrier for those considering ordination. We live in a busy, efficient society and some wonder how this ‘indulgent impractical down time’ could ever fit into their lives. I remember wondering how I could ever justify ‘days off’ to my wife and family given their commitments to working 50 hard long weeks a year. Now, after practicing this way for many years, I can’t imagine living sustainably without it.
My weekly sabbath has to come first. I work at most 4 days a week (more recently 3) and consider my Day of Mindfulness off-limits to other commitments. It requires good boundary setting as request after request arrives from people who’ve learned I have a ‘free day’ that I could use to benefit their important causes. I carefully consider which of the day’s activities water seeds of renewal and which drain limited stores. I ensure that the day nurtures my mind, body and spirit. I’ve felt strong societal habits working to undermine my weekly mindfulness day, but as with all our Order’s practices, this feels vital and so I continue.
The Buddha once told Ananda that admirable friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. That certainly accords with my experience, both with chaplaincy and with the Order. We can’t do this alone. We are not separate selves. Despite our cultural emphasis on individuality, we are one with others in a deep and profound way.
Order members build Sanghas both to help others and to make our own practice possible. When we create and sustain Sanghas, we make practice available for new and old alike and create brotherhood and sisterhood throughout the Fourfold expressions of practice. But Buddhist organizations are not the only places to build Sangha. The wider society can benefit from secular Sanghas that support transformation and service. Sangha is very important to my chaplaincy practice. I’m part of several groups that meet regularly to offer mutual support. We practice deep listening, share our clarity and confusion, learn new skills, and marvel at the creativity called forth from diverse chaplains serving myriad settings. These chaplaincy Sanghas offer concrete support in a way that theories or books cannot, and mirror the way Order members make the practice real for those we lead by speaking from our experience rather than our ideas.
These are just a few of the Plum Village practices that support my chaplaincy. Long retreats, Touching the Earth, Beginning Anew, chanting, sutra study, mentoring aspirants and other practices also play vital roles. If I look deeply, I can’t separate my OI practices from chaplaincy: They arose together and continue to support and express each other. OI practice gives rise to chaplaincy and chaplaincy gives OI practice a concrete expression. In Thay’s familiar words, these paths inter-are.
The 14 Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, I am determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help me learn to look deeply and to develop my understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.
2. Non-attachment to Views
Aware of suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, I am determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. I will learn and practise non-attachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. I am aware that the knowledge I presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life and I will observe life within and around me in every moment, ready to learn throughout my life.
3. Freedom of Thought
Aware of the suffering brought about when I impose my views on others, I am committed not to force others, even my children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda or indoctrination – to adopt my views. I will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. I will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.
4. Awareness of Suffering
Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy.
5. Simple, Healthy Living
Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, I am determined not to take as the aim of my life fame, profit, wealth or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. I am committed to living simply and sharing my time, energy and material resources with those in real need. I will practise mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs or any other products that bring toxins into my own and the collective body and consciousness.
6. Dealing with Anger
Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, I am determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognise and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in my consciousness. When anger comes up, I am determined not to do or say anything, but to practise mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace and look deeply into my anger. I will learn to look with the eyes of compassion on those I think are the cause of my anger.
7. Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, I am committed to training myself to live deeply each moment of daily life. I will try not to lose myself in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger or jealousy in the present. I will practise mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. I am determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing and healing elements that are inside and around me, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love and understanding in myself, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in my consciousness.
8. Community and Communication
Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, I am committed to training myself in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. I will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. I will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
9. Truthful and Loving Speech
Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, I am committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. I am determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain nor criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will do my best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten my safety.
10. Protecting the Sangha
Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practise of understanding and compassion, I am determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
11. Right Livelihood
Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to the environment and society, I am committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. I will do my best to select a livelihood that helps realize my ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, I will behave responsibly as a consumer and as a citizen, not investing in companies that deprive others of their chance to live.
12. Reverence for Life
Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, I am determined to cultivate non-violence, understanding and compassion in my daily life, to promote peace education, mindful mediation and reconciliation, within families, communities, nations and in the world. I am determined not to kill and not to let others kill. I will diligently practice deep looking with my Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.
14. Right Conduct
For lay members: Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness, but will create more suffering, frustration and isolation, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, I must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. I know that to preserve the happiness of myself and others, I must respect the rights and commitments of myself and others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. I will treat my body with respect and preserve my vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of my bodhisattva ideal. I will be fully aware of the responsibility for bringing new lives in the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.
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