“Let’s have a prayer,” Faye said. I’d been visiting Faye and her husband, Harry, since Harry’s heart transplant a few weeks back. His recovery had been lengthier and rockier than expected, but he was finally getting ready to go home. Faye was Catholic; Harry had promised her that he’d convert if he recovered. We joined hands and offered prayers of thanks to God the Father, Christ his Son, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. We vowed to do our best to benefit those less fortunate than ourselves. “You’re my rock, Chaplain Pamela,” Faye said. “Your faith has carried us through. I’ll miss you.”
As usual, I vacillated between gratitude that I could be of any help at all to people facing such trials, and the sense that I was pulling one over on good, unsuspecting folk who assumed I was as Christian as they. Could I—a JewBu chaplain-in-training unversed in Christianity—get away with praying out loud to Judeo-Christian gods while envisioning soothing waves of lovingkindness pouring forth from Avalokiteshvara? I didn’t know any of the standard prayers by heart and was ever pulling out my dog-eared prayer booklet. Was I an interfaith chaplain or a Buddhist chaplain? Would I ever feel qualified to be a chaplain at all? Three intense months of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in Philadelphia some summers ago left most questions dangling.
An increasing number of Americans who identify as Buddhist are becoming involved in chaplaincy, notably (but not exclusively) in hospitals, hospices, and prisons. Many inspiring spiritual leaders and practitioners have translated their commitment to dharma into palliative and end-of-life care for patients and their loved ones, or applied it to the experience of incarceration. The mindfulness movement is also very present in modern chaplaincy.
As it happens, dharma and chaplaincy are a great fit. So what do chaplains do? We bear witness, we breathe in, we breathe out, and sometimes we pray. We accompany patients, families, hospital personnel. We bless police officers and criminals. We teach prisoners to meditate. We conduct christenings and funerals and weddings. Above all, we listen. Incredible, isn’t it, that one might actually make a living doing this?
Typically, however, the geist and language of chaplaincy are patently theistic, even when there’s an effort to be inclusive. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a chaplain as “a priest or other Christian religious leader who performs religious services for a military roup (such as the army) or for a prison, hospital, etc.” Ciao-ciao rabbis, imams, roshis, and the rest of us.
My first interview in Philly was conducted by three white Christian clergymen. Earnest, kind, and intrigued by my candidacy, they said, “We haven’t had many Buddhist applicants, and we’re not too clear on Buddhist doctrine.” “Well,” I began, “there are probably as many forms of Buddhist doctrine as there are of Christian doctrine . . .” “And in all of them there’s no God?” “You could probably say that the different forms of Buddhism agree that there’s no omnipotent creator God. But there’s not nothing, either.”
They looked at me quizzically before the youngest finally voiced the question. “Then who,” he asked, arms wide, embracing the world, “created all this?” “Ignorance,” I let slip. Seeing their faces, I laughed and adjusted my answer: “That is, our minds create all this through habits and tendencies. But that’s another story.”
Later, when one of our chaplaincy externs, a white-haired gentleman named Isaiah who had once been a Catholic priest, told me he was a Buddhist too, I happily imagined I’d found a kindred spirit. But when I also heard him tell Jews that Judaism grabbed him, Muslims that he was interested in Islam, and Pentecostals that he was born-again, it nettled. Isaiah was gentle, erudite, and uncommonly protean. In the same way that identical twins throw me off because it can be difficult to tell them apart or identify them, I couldn’t place him. If you’re a Buddhist, you’re a Buddhist, right?
It’s no secret that identification is designed to pigeonhole rather than to foster an open mind; I like to think that definitions and beliefs are secondary to experience. But on the floors, I belatedly began paying closer attention to just how deeply embedded my own belief system is. Why do I automatically circle clockwise, notice the number 108, hold my rosary in my left hand? Why do I sing for rebirth in the Pure Realm, scoff at the notion that mind is a by-product of matter, avoid touching the lower parts of a dying person’s body, and presume that there is continuity beyond physical death?
During my last overnight on-call in Philadelphia, there were three requests for a Buddhist chaplain. Two Buddhists, Laotian and Western, were dying; a Korean woman had just learned that her cancer had returned. During debriefing the following morning, the august head of the chaplaincy department said that in all his years at the hospital, calls for Buddhist chaplains had been few and far between; it was providential indeed that a Buddhist was attending during this atypical night.
Having recently begun a yearlong chaplain residency, I’m giving myself space to unravel the identity question. These days, I tend to think that Isaiah got it right. As bodhisattvas in training, what if we simply tried to follow Shantideva’s lead?
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
(The Way of the Bodhisattva 3.18)
A chaplain might add:
May I be a Jew for those who keep the covenant,
A Christian for those who follow in His footsteps,
A Muslim for those who love and heed the Prophet,
A Hindu, a shaman, a Buddhist, a Jain.
May I be scripture for those inspired by words:
A koan, a rhapsody, a proverb, a psalm.
For those who question, an unbiased ear;
For those who believe, a holder of the faith.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.