People ask, what does a chaplain do? And sometimes they are more particular: what does a Buddhist chaplain do? To one person I wrote: “Chaplain = being a mirror to others’ experience so they (and often me) can transform it, if they want to.”
To another person I just wrote: “Presence.”
My job as a hospital chaplain had been to embody curiosity. And for sure many other things: make up prayers on the spot, recite traditional prayers, hold hands, get some olive oil from the cafeteria when a real priest wasn’t around to bless someone with oil. Sometimes, call people out on their bullshit. Create a crucible for intimacy. (“What role has truth played in your marriage?” I once asked a man who wouldn’t tell his wife what his oncologist had said to him).
(summer of 1963, I'm listening for something; Louis' Beach, Shelter Island, NY)
Mostly: listen. And watch.
This applies too as I realize I have been a chaplain to the twelve or so men with whom I’ve been in close touch for nearly a year because of the abuse experiences at our elementary school. (I'm also interested in being a street chaplain, a police chaplain, and so on: a chaplain to those who are really in the shit and give them a mirror for a little while).
Seven years ago, over nine months, I took an extraordinary course called “Foundations of Contemplative Care” with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. It birthed something in me.
A year ago, and since then, it was as if the universe was conspiring to make me listen to what I needed (and didn’t want) to hear, which was essentially the (annoying) concept of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
There was an 84-year-old woman with perfectly coiffed swirly gray-blonde hair, sitting upright in her bed. She had grown up in Lowell, one of ten children with a single mother who had worked in the mills, and she was dying.
She smiled at me and almost immediately told me she was happy and content. She called me “Father.” I told her I wasn’t a priest but was a father, and she kept calling me “father.” It’s like I was wearing a magic suit that made people project all kinds of roles on me, and so I smiled and dressed the part(s).
“I’m happy enough because there’s nothing I can do about this,” she said to me.
“How are you able to think or feel like that?” I asked, genuinely wondering. Me, I had been railing against all the shit happening in my life. A couple of months earlier, my Zen teacher had reminded me that no one was exempt from suffering.
She thought about it for a second, gazing out the tall smoky hospital windows to the August sunlight. “Even though my mother was alone and working all the time to support us, she loved us unconditionally,” she said. “I think that is what enables me to feel a kind of peace and calm now. And, the doctors say there is nothing to be done about it. If there is nothing to be done, then I can relax into just being happy.”
I heard this more than once, some months ago. Of course, I also heard the opposite: various versions of the Job-like “Why is God punishing me?” (The online gurus all around us, as well as Buddhists galore and various folks whose names end in “ji”, would call this “Believing our storylines.”)
And then there were moments, especially during the winter, when everything was crashing down on me (and I do kind of mean EVERYTHING bad that one could imagine), when I had these little windows of, “Hey, I’m in the middle of the shit AND my life is wonderful.”
By “wonderful,” I specifically mean that there were new people in my life for whom I deeply cared, and who cared about me, and that I was doing absorbing, heartbreaking/heartfelt work that was directly benefiting others.
I don’t mean that I was making lemonade from lemons. Not. At. All.
I told my Zen teacher about this – that the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly were happening all at once, and that I was OK with that – and he said, “That’s the dharma love.”
I can’t say I’ve been able to hold on to that. After all, life is constantly moving and changing, we are always at sea, and in astrological terms, since I’m a Pisces, I’m mutable. And things like chronic pain can, as a fellow chaplain once told me, make you not feel like yourself (irritability: check). Unless they make you feel more like yourself? Shinzan Young says to try to make one’s pain a point of meditation, “make a temple” of it, and admits how hard this is to do.
My Zen teacher took me on as a student and specifically said to me, “I will disappoint you.” He was right. I’m currently grappling with that. And I’m trying to find that dharma love here: that I love him even as he disappoints me. Both.
I think there is a big difference between being OK with the mish-mash, and turning the “bad” into something good. I think it is very difficult to turn bad experiences, and their consequences, into something good.
Rape, for example. Cancer. The sudden death of a child. An old friend's son was born without one hand. My friend was so irritated with placating remarks like "Everything happens for a reason." (Tell me the reason my son was born without a left hand, he hissed at me once. At the same time, this young man went on to be a successful film-maker. I'm not saying that's the "reason" for not having a hand. It just happens to be so.)
As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse:
Comedian Chuck Nice Reads Billy Collins’s
Ode to the Quiet Wellspring of Gratitude
There is so much talk about being grateful now, probably because none of us are very thankful for the distance, illness, and fear that COVID has created.
But I think that gratitude has to be taken in context. Like the man says in that video.
I am so impatient with the insistence that we “should” feel gratitude. Some people say to start small with gratitude practices, for example – like Pema Chodron who remarks that we can feel grateful for things like the warmth an old sweater brings. I’ve tried that on, but I can’t say I feel gratitude for the Carhart hoodie I’m now wearing. I like it and I feel warm in it, but I can’t say I experience a feeling of gratitude. I paid money for this thing. I’m imaging the manufacturer and the Salvation Army store where I bought it feel gratitude. I just like it.
I received a photo from a friend recently which rubbed me the wrong way. Specifically, the phrase, “Shift your perspective and have gratitude for that past and how it happened [no matter how good or bad it was] ... it’s made you who you are today.”
I get it, what the writer is saying: reframe your experiences, and look at the present as the accumulation of all the past (no matter how shitty).
But what if the present still sucks? And who gets to TELL me how to feel, when I don’t?
tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
Any religion or person or philosophy that’s composed of “should” statements is increasingly bothersome to me. Even Zen precepts, with some of its imposing language, needs revision. Like this one: Being generous: this is the practice of Not Being Stingy. I will not foster a mind of poverty in others or myself, and I will use all the ingredients of my life, giving my best effort and accepting the result.
Some folks reduce this to: “Don’t be stingy.”
Let’s drop that and just remember generosity. Turn the negative connotations and directional tone to one that recognizes how fallible we are. (I love and try to live the rest of that precept: please note).
Some Zen can be like that, forgetful of compassion. A friend wrote recently, “Identifying as the victim is one classic way to elevate oneself and blame others ... giving us an excuse not to relate to others as equals.” I’m all about noting and embracing our connections to others. That’s what it’s all about, right? And yet. And yet. The remark rubbed me the wrong way for two reasons.
(1) I know plenty of victims, actual people who have been assaulted and gravely hurt. It’s almost impossible to not “identify” as a victim. I like to turn that language around and call us survivors though. And I also know people who like to complain a lot, to play like a victim, to somehow attract me to them. I think I’ve done that too – “crying wolf” maybe.
(2) It seems to me that if a person does identify as a victim, why criticize them for trying to “elevate” themselves? How about saying to that person: “Hey – something sucks for you, right? Tell me about it.”
It’s ALL contextual. It’s all happening at the same time.
So when I look at the photo of me and my mother above, here’s the context: Look at that little boy! Look at that beautiful woman! Imagine the love of the photographer! That little boy became this man. Not because of. But with.
That’s the gratitude we want. The real gratitude. The one that’s thankful for certain specific things at certain specific times, AND the one that’s OK with Buddha’s Five Remembrances, because yeah, if we don’t accept our, our lovers’, our friends’, our children’ impermanence, our injuries and losses, along with the joys, then we do set ourselves up to be miserable.
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.
It's hard to explain isn't it? One could say that if I hadn't had cancer, and been through various events the past seven years, then I wouldn't be sitting in this particular coffee shop where I'm writing and observing how closely Mount Tremper resembles Cerro Pedernal, the mesa that Georgia O'Keefe painted all her life, and that, yes, right ... it sits next to Santa Fe, where .. ummm ... I took jukai (Zen precepts) in 2019 ... and I'm sitting in this town right now very specifically because of that Foundations course, which in the end was about how to be intimate with all things and people.
I'm not thankful for those shitty things that have happened, that continue to happen as consequences, side-effects.
But at this point, at this point, as Chuck Nice says, I'm grateful for being right here right now.
This precept is about liberating self and others from self-concern. It is precisely about not using anything to improve anybody, and using everything to help everybody. This precept is about dropping all self-concern and appreciating all beings just as they are. (Reb Anderson)