If you’ve ever puttered around the Buddhist blogosphere, you know the Reverend Danny Fisher. He’s the author of the Patheos blog Off the Cushion, maintains an official website, and writes for Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and elephantjournal.com. No wonder he’s known around the Trike offices as “The Ultimate Buddhist Blogger.” Perhaps the first—and only—American Buddhist pundit, Rev. Fisher’s commentary on Buddhism in the United States has been featured on CNN, the Religion News Service, E! Entertainment Television, and others.
Aside from these many media credentials, Rev. Fisher earned his Master of Divinity from Naropa University and his Doctorate in Buddhist Studies from University of the West. He is also a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008 and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. He also serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program, and in 2009 became the first-ever Buddhist member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.
You are very active on the Internet. From your website, your published writing, and your interviews, we can learn a lot about you. But what’s something about you that we can’t glean from all of your online activity? Actually, I suppose one thing would be that I have such a love-hate relationship with the Internet and being wired and connected. For a very long time—it seems like ages ago now—I lived without a computer and resisted a cell phone. Even when I first started blogging, I didn’t own a computer simply because I chose not to. At the time, it all felt detrimental to being a practitioner; I couldn’t reconcile a spiritual, contemplative life with being so plugged in. Then one day, while I was a student at Naropa, I came home to several answering machine messages from my professor and friend Roger Dorris. He had been trying to reach me about a chaplaincy situation we were working on together, but since I had neither a laptop or a cell phone, I’d been impossible to get in touch with. In his last message, he was clearly frustrated with me, and he said, “Darn it, Danny, how are you going to benefit beings if they can’t find you?!”
That phone message had a really profound effect on me. Before then, I think I had only really seen the problems of phones and computers and so on and none of the possibilities. Roger reminded me that as someone who was supposedly dedicated to working for the benefit of other sentient beings, I was failing to use some rather helpful tools. I went out the next morning and bought my first cell phone. The rest, in terms of my “connectivity,” is history!
To be honest, though, I’m still trying to find the middle path here. When I finally finish my dissertation this month, my poor computer (which is on its last legs) is probably going to fall apart like the Blues Brothers’ car. I’m very seriously considering seeing how long I can get away with not replacing it. I’ve got a computer at work, and pretty much all of my activity on the Internet is part of my work…so why do I need one at home?
What was the Reverend Danny Fisher like at age 16? Well, he’d be very surprised to see what I’m doing with myself these days, I can tell you that.
He was an arty kid. Not an especially strong student, but great at the things he liked. He lived for making movies and drawing and writing stories. He was one of the “freaks and geeks,” and, fortunately, he saw what a wonderful crowd that really was: his friends had good hearts, and were really passionate about their work, their art.
I think he was definitely more carefree—probably more fun—but only because he didn’t realize how lucky he was. He was born to kind parents, but didn’t really know that that wasn’t true for everyone. He took for granted that there would always be a roof over his head and enough to eat. He didn’t have much awareness of the world around him; he wasn’t particularly informed. He had only a developing sense of his white/male/heterosexual/middle-class privilege. He didn’t really think about others in a very meaningful way. He hadn’t seen poverty yet. He hadn’t had his heart broken yet. He hadn’t lost anyone close to him yet.
You’re about to defend your dissertation, Benefit Beings!: The Buddhist Guide to Professional Chaplaincy. Can you tell us a bit about it? Yes, I defend July 20th. (I’m feeling lucky, though, since the university allowed me to walk at this past May’s commencement.) My degree is like a Doctorate of Ministry, so it’s more a doctoral project than a dissertation. It’s a sourcebook for Buddhists who want to work as professional chaplains. It has chapters about the various realms of professional chaplaincy—healthcare, the military, corrections, university, police, and so on—and goes through the history of each, then outlines what Buddhists have historically done in these respective areas, and helps aspiring Buddhist chaplains understand what things they need to do to be trained and certified to work professionally in these particular settings. I also have a section of interviews with all kinds Buddhist chaplains and an extensive “recommending reading” portion. So if you want an attempt at a comprehensive list of resources about, say, “Buddhism, healthcare ethics, and end-of-life care,” I’ve got you covered with a litany of works from scholars and Buddhist practitioners. I’ve described it as kind of a mix between Naomi K. Paget and Janet R. McCormack’s The Work of the Chaplain and Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake. I’ve tried to create something that would be helpful to aspiring Buddhist chaplains—something I would have liked to had ten years ago. Readers will have to tell me if it’s helpful or not, though.
Your Pali ordination name, Dhammayasa, translates into “Gains Fame Through the Dharma.” It seems like this is exactly what is happening! What do you think is going on here? What came first, the fame or the name? Oh, gosh. Well, first of all, I don’t know about the fame thing. In a lot of ways I still feel like a fan. To answer your question, though, the name came before I had any bit of professional success. When I ordained, I was unemployed, living with my parents, and the future was very uncertain. Then, within the next six months, things really took off for me: I got the job at UWest, started getting more involved in writing and teaching and so on.
At the time, I just thought my teacher, Bhante Chao Chu, was being funny when he gave me that name. He knew I would do what I did, which was to say, “No! No! It should be the other way around—I should bring fame to the Dharma!” The name made me uncomfortable. But that’s often the idea, I think. The name can challenge us to see and work with parts of ourself that might need a certain attention.
What social cause do you think isn’t getting enough attention, especially from American Buddhists? I spent the past spring break finally getting around to reading Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky. I even did a big dharma talk about it. Every human being should read this book. It thoroughly convinced me that the oppression of women and girls worldwide is, as they say, “the central moral challenge of our time” and most urgent problem facing us all. If we can address this issue meaningfully, it will have a powerful effect on other large-scale issues as well, such as poverty and violence. Religion is not necessarily the cause of the oppression of women and girls, but it obviously emboldens it. I think, as Buddhists, the time has come for us to devote ourselves entirely to the dismantling of institutional sexism within Buddhism, which is as alive here as any other religion. As my friend Roshi Joan Halifax says, when sex scandals come to light, we need to be talking as much about misogynistic attitudes as we talk about responsibilites for teachers and the power differential. We need to continually point out that denying women the opportunity for full monastic ordination and treating them like second-class citizens clearly contributes to a global culture in which one-in-three women are a victim of sexual violence.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your chaplaincy—both in training and in your experiences afterward—about how to best help other people? I went to Naropa to do my Master of Divinity and much of my chaplaincy training, so the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have played a huge role in shaping me as a chaplain. I think that nowhere was he more brilliant than we he spoke about working with others. Trying to be as objective as possible, I’m really very hard-pressed to come up with thinkers who come close to that level of insight and profundity in that area. For instance, one of the things he says in the book Great Eastern Sun is:
In order to help somebody…the main point is definitely not to get them to join your organization. That is the least of the points. The main point is to help others be good human beings in their own way. We are not into converting people. They may convert themselves, but we just keep in touch with them. Usually, in any organization, people cannot keep themselves from drawing others into their scene or their trip, so to speak. That is not our plan. Our plan is to make sure that individuals, whoever we meet, have a good life. At the same time, you should keep in contact with people, in whatever way you can. That’s very important, not because we’re into converting others, but because we are into communicating.
That’s Chaplaincy 101 right there. If you can practice that, you’re going to be a great chaplain, and/or just a helpful person in general. It’s harder than it seems, though: we may find it easy to give up certain aspects of an agenda, but not others. For example, we may be OK with not trying to convert people to Buddhism, but we still really want to teach everybody meditation. But that may not be what’s especially meaningful or particularly helpful for everyone we encounter, though. They call chaplaincy “the ministry of listening,” and that’s because of what Rinpoche illustrates here: it’s all about helping others to be good human beings in their own way, and we can’t do that if we don’t listen to and try to understand them just as they are.
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