This summer I journeyed to Upaya Zen Center in northern New Mexico to participate in training 50 Buddhist chaplains enrolled in a two-year program of engaged ministry. My role was to provide a practical one-day introduction to ecological chaplaincy designed to address the call for compassionate service in times of global climate crisis, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity.

One of the oldest derivations of the word “chaplain” harkens back to 4th-century France when Saint Martin of Torres, upon encountering a freezing cold man at the winter gates of his city, immediately removed his cloak, cutting it in half to clothe the suffering citizen. Saint Martin is now considered the founder of Christian chaplaincy. What I particularly appreciate about this story is that after sharing his cloak, he kept one half of the garment for himself so that he could continue to serve. Chaplains in the fold of Saint Martin are people of faith performing religious duties in a secular situation, creating chapels of refuge in the heart of the world.

The Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program at Upaya Zen Center was founded about a decade ago by Abbot Roshi Joan Halifax, who is also one of the early members of the Zen Peacemaker Order. Around the time that the chaplaincy program began, a small cohort and I planted an organic garden at the eastern edge of the meditation hall, selecting only food crops that have been a staple for Native Pueblo people since antiquity. The garden has been growing there ever since, providing a bounty of nutrient-dense food for the Zen community.

These two foundational programs—Buddhist chaplaincy and organic gardening—continue to thrive side-by-side, and likewise have remained inextricably linked in a common ecology of the heart.

Chaplain candidates are vigorously trained in altruistic service, steeped in the applied teachings of systems theory and grounded in daily meditation. While at Upaya, they are nourished by the traditional crops of persistent agriculture until they graduate and enter into a full range of chaplaincy service including contemplative end-of-life care, prison ministry, environmental chaplaincy, and active peacemaking.

The field of ecological chaplaincy is both ancient terrain and new ground. In his article “Principles of Spiritual Leadership,” psychologist and physicist William Keepin observes that modern chaplains must train to serve both as hospice workers ministering to a dying culture as well as midwives helping to give birth to an emerging one. Both of these tasks arise seamlessly and simultaneously.

Buddhist chaplaincy training at Upaya is anchored in the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: Not Knowing, or the radical practice of letting go of fixed ideas, Bearing Witness, or being present for all that arises, and Compassionate Action, which germinates out of discernment and a settled heart and mind. These core teachings—which were formulated by the late Roshi Bernie Glassman, who founded the order— are fundamental to training chaplains in view, meditation, and action.

Our ecological chaplaincy intensive began outdoors. Following morning meditation, we gathered at the threshold of the garden with Tewa blue corn, heirloom beans and squash, amaranth, quinoa, and Hopi sunflowers as our witness. At the edge of the wild and cultivated world we oriented ourselves anew to the cardinal directions. Consulting our physical and moral compass, we set our intention for service, protected by the circle of high desert mountains holding and sustaining our practice.

Gardening at the Upaya Zen Center in 2016. Photo by Molly Watson |

After this orientation ceremony, we spent the morning in the meditation hall investigating the nature of applied ecology and the science of environmental systems and cycles. Particularly useful was the teaching of preeminent systems thinker Donella Meadows and her assurance that all living systems are inherently messy, nonlinear, and rooted in patterns and relationships that are turbulent, dynamic, and ever-changing. In this spiritual and intellectual context, the chaplains learned to celebrate complexity while holding fast to the goal of goodness.

Mid-training one chaplain called out a terse 13th-century Sufi prayer: “Oh Lord, increase my bewilderment!” For the remainder of our session, participants immersed themselves in the joys and challenges of their particular service. Some chaplains were engaged in working with refugees and orphans from Nepal, Syria, Afghanistan, and Greece. Some of the chaplains were themselves refugees and orphans, like one participant estranged since childhood from his native Cyprus who offers spiritual care and art therapy to the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. Another participant worked as a physician for 40 years in Santa Fe, and was now volunteering in a wildlife center ministering to wounded raptors and engaging local children in conversation about climate change.

When our morning session came to a close, we sat together in deep silence. Summer wind rose and fell in rhythm with our quiet breathing. In the presence of these dedicated chaplains, I remembered a primary teaching from Zen monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we most need to do is hear within us the sound of the earth crying.”

By midafternoon when we reconvened the eager chaplains were itching for further engagement. Together we hauled barrels full of organic kitchen waste generated from ten days of training to the compost yard adjacent to the garden and gathered a giant pile of fresh weeds, a mound of steaming manure, drifts of dry straw, and wheelbarrows of raked leaves—all fresh fodder for the fire of decay. Some chaplains showed up with written statements for precisely this purpose, compositions designed for decomposition. Others sat briefly in the shade fashioning figurines of red clay to offer to the heat of the compost pile. With raucous intention we assembled all of this discarded wealth from our time together, singing and chanting, praying and dancing while we built a towering mountain of fecund compost. As the pile rose, so did testimonials of gratitude for all that is broken, forgotten, and combined into sweet fertility.

Just before evening meditation, chaplains placed their clay figurines and written offerings on the crest of the compost pile. I imagined these secret ingredients decomposing into mature, well-decayed compost. Radical disorder is the key to well-decayed organic matter. In the decomposition of life into death into life, no two molecules are ever the same. Similarity is rampant; identity—non-existent. (This line, originally drawn from William Bryant Logan’s Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, has become a mantra of decomposition for organic farmers.)

We capped our day of ecological training by adding a thick cloak of sweet blond straw to protect the new compost pile. “Saint Martin’s robe of chaplaincy,” I irreverently mused. Modern chaplains stood together at the edge of time and place, dedicating the merit of our practice to bewilderment, to the Great Mystery, and to finding freedom where fear and courage meet.