Trudi Jinpu Hirsch is a Zen priest and a chaplain. For many years she was a professional ballet dancer, and she holds the grace of her training in the ease and animation of her movements. Yet there is an inchoate tension to her presence, a feeling of opposites pulling apart or trying to come together, a dancer’s yearning for flight tempered by a sobering gravity. Hirsch’s life, through dance and spiritual practice, has been a struggle to balance these two apparent extremes.

Trudi Hirsch in 1975 at Les Grandes Ballet Canadien in Montreal, Canada. Courtesy of Trudi Jinpu Hirsch.
Trudi Hirsch in 1975 at Les Grandes Ballet Canadien in Montreal, Canada. Courtesy of Trudi Jinpu Hirsch

“When I first heard about Zen, I wanted nothing to do with it. For years I’d been practicing meditation four hours a day, and doing intense breath work. I’d read that in Zen you climb the mountain and then return to the marketplace. Forget it. Climb the mountain, yes but then I wanted to keep going to the moon. I wanted transcendence; I wanted out of this painful world. I realize now that life is about relationship and contact, not transcendence, and l owe much of that realization to the work I’ve done in chaplaincy.”

Chaplains are spiritual caretakers who tend to the sick and dying, or anyone in need, and who are placed in hospitals, convalescent homes, hospices, and so on. There are Jewish chaplains, Catholic chaplains, Muslim chaplains, Buddhist chaplains, and then there are just chaplains-those who are trained in the multifaith discipline. Hirsch is a multifaith chaplain working for Healthcare Chaplaincy, a charity organization that is the largest and most comprehensive center for pastoral care, education, and research in the world. Though she offers chaplaincy training for Buddhists through the Healthcare Chaplaincy program, she puts a limit on the amount of training she will give along the singular Buddhist track, encouraging her students to pursue the multifaith program. “Because,” as Hirsch told me, “if you’re attached to your religion, if you don’t have another religion to relate to, you’re never going to know where you’re stuck and where you hesitate to go.

“Chaplaincy comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition; they don’t know it, but they created a wonderful program for Buddhists. It’s so perfectly in line with Buddhism: it’s about being present, about authenticity. I was very excited to be a Buddhist in the chaplaincy program because I can embrace everything. I’m not here to convert anyone. Can I pray a Catholic prayer? sure I can; do I believe in Jesus: sure I do; Moses, Mohammed, yes. I believe all of it or none of it. The work of chaplaincy is to become aurthentic in the moment. This is simple but very difficult. You can deny your teacher and your religion, but you cannot deny the patient looking at you and saying, ‘Why me? Why is this happening? Why is my child dying?’ What are you going to do with those questions? You either stay or leave; it’s that clear,” she told me.

There’s not just one answer to a patient’s vital questions; there is authenticity and sincerity but no static template to use, no religious dogma to rely on. Hirsch makes it clear to her students that doubt (one of the “three pillars” of Zen, along with faith and determination) is not a negative. Perhaps Buddhism’s unique contribution to chaplaincy is its embrace of doubt, of not knowing, of continually questioning the subtlest forms of conditioning, be they cultural or religious.

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