Zen Hospital Chaplains


ROB BUNDY (Buddhist Chaplain Trainee, speaking to patient): Instead of pushing that pain away, just let it be. You are not the pain. That pain is something that doesn’t have to be who you are. Just let your breath take that pain away from you. Beautiful.

BETTY ROLLIN, correspondent: Rob Bundy is one of 24 Buddhist chaplains-in-training at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

BUNDY: Just breathe down into that pain.

ROLLIN: Audrey Alasia has multiple diseases of the spinal cord and is in constant pain. Rob uses the Buddhist techniques of meditation, visualization, and a focus on breathing to help ease Audrey’s suffering.

BUNDY: The pain comes and goes, right?


post02-zenchaplainsROBERT CHODO JUSSEI CAMPBELL: In our practice as contemplatives, as Buddhists, as many other contemplatives do, it’s to come back to the moment. What’s happening right now? Come back to your breath. Can you breathe right now? Everything else is going on, but can you come back to the breath? Can we slow it down a little? Can we start to relax?

KOSHIN PALEY ELLISON: I think one of the most important things you can do for someone is to hear their pain and how miserable they are.

CHODO CAMPBELL: Rather than “You’re going to be fine, Mom. You will be home in a couple of days, the operation was a success, bought some flowers, you know, you are going to be great. You will be back on your feet again soon.” That’s not addressing what’s happening to me right now.

ROLLIN: Chodo Campbell and Koshin Ellison, both Buddhist monks, are co-founders and directors of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which runs Beth Israel’s Buddhist chaplaincy program, the only accredited clinical program of its kind. Chodo and Koshin minister to patients themselves and train others, who are both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Chaplains may also provide their special kind of care to patients’ families and staff. Part of the chaplain’s training consists of learning about other faith traditions. Sister Maureen Mitchell is there to answer questions about Catholicism.

BUNDY (speaking during training seminar): Is it inappropriate for me as a Buddhist to make the sign of the cross as I am helping a Catholic or praying with a Catholic?

post04-zenchaplainsSISTER MAUREEN MITCHELL (Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, Veterans Affairs Hospital): No, it’s not inappropriate. For you to join with the person may give them great joy. They also might think they are converting you.

ROLLIN: Rabbi Jeffrey Silberman is one of the Jewish instructors.

RABBI JEFFREY SILBERMAN (Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, Norwalk Hospital): When do you offer direct prayer to people that you are working with?

ANNE REIGELUTH (Buddhist Chaplain Trainee): Most patients you can ask them just would you like prayer, and they will tell you.

(Praying at patient’s bedside): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may Anne be at ease. May she be free of all pain and suffering.

ROLLIN: As part of the medical team, chaplains often provide insight about the spiritual needs of patients. Buddhists relate to patients in a non-theistic way.

CHODO CAMPBELL: Many chaplains coming into a hospital, they are coming from a theology, and they are coming from a doctrine, that this is what you do, this is how you tend to the sick. You give them the sacraments; you give them the last rites, whatever it is. For us, we are coming in from a place of just being present to whatever is arising in the moment.

post05-zenchaplainsKOSHIN PALEY ELLISON: I was training with other seminarians of Christian or Jewish tradition and sometimes their theologies would be an obstacle in connecting to a patient, because they had ideas about, and moralistic views from their tradition.

ROLLIN: Patients usually request chaplains of their own religion, but Buddhists tend to go everywhere, although Chodo has found that not every patient welcomes him at the start.

CHODO CAMPBELL: I knocked on the door, and I said, “Hi, Mr …. I’m the chaplain on the floor.” And then, “Are you a Jew?” I said, “No.” He said, “Get out!” And I said, “Okay.” He said, “Where are you going?” “I’m leaving. You told me to get out.” “He said, “Get back in here,” and I sat down and he said, “So what are you?” And I said, “I’m a Buddhist,” and he said, “Really? Tell me,” and this was the beginning of the most wonderful relationship I had with many patients in this hospital.

BETTY ROLLIN: Chaplain services of any kind are not covered by insurance. Hospitals usually pay for them, but they do not pay for Buddhist chaplains, who are privately funded. Buddhist interns are not paid at all. Paid or not, the Buddhist chaplains get a lot of appreciation not only from patients, but from staff.

SHIRLEY ESCALA, RN (Patient Care Services, Oncology, Beth Israel Medical Center): When you have nurses who are so busy and who are taking care of cancer patients, or even in the CCU, patients who have just had heart attacks or are in hypertensive crisis, and sometimes you have a patient who just wants to sit and talk, and my nurses do the best they can, but they don’t always have the time. So this is another way to support a patient that’s just incredibly valuable, and they’re able to make them look at things in a contemplative way, being present in the moment, and that helps calm, relax. It brings peace.

ELAINE MESZAROS, RN (Clinical Nurse Specialist, Oncology, Beth Israel Medical Center): If they are calm as we are trying to treat them, they actually get better sooner in terms of their outlook.

CHODO CAMPBELL (praying with patient): I pray that you watch over him…

ROLLIN: Hospitals don’t need Buddhists, but they provide something that more and more hospitals are unable to give to patients—time and loving attention.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Betty Rollin in New York.

  • Freda Marie

    The method being used by the Buddhist chaplains is not new and something I have been using as a contemplative Christian chaplain for sometime now. In the article, there seemed to be an implication that Christian theology was somehow mutually exclusive to contemplative practice, but this is not the case. Christianity has a long tradition of contemplative prayer practice and I have consistently used such practice as a part of my pastoral care for many years. It is nice to see and read of the expansion of this practice, but Christians don’t have to be Buddhists in order to use or enjoy the contemplative dimensions of pastoral care.
    Thank you for this article.
    Freda Marie +

  • anne moses

    Thank you for this inspiring segment. I work at Beth Israel and you have captured the essence of the program.

  • Channah

    The whole concept of Buddhism fits in with any and all religions. It, itself, if not a religion, but a concept of love, acceptance, and a peaceful path of accepting the world, in all it’s good and bad.

    I think this idea of Buddhist chaplains is fabulous.

  • Anne B.

    Again, I enjoyed watching your program.

    What a wonderful way to “do chaplaincy!” As a seminarian I took a chaplaincy course at a local hospital where I learned how to visit. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was being called to chaplaincy. I volunteered at the hospital before I graduated seminary. I have always felt comfortable visiting and sitting with patients in their pain or while dying. At first I thought I was “odd”, but soon after friends at my church told me that I have a special ministry.

    I have worked in the nursing home industry since 2000 and love it! Because of this, my church commissioned me for ministry to older persons. Although I am in activities, I minister to patients, families and staff. My supervisor knows this and approves of the spiritual aspect I bring to my job. I never impose my way on anyone but respect the individual’s preference. I always ask the person if he/she would like a prayer and if they respond in the affirmative I pray following the individual faith tradition. When led to, I ask, “Do you mind if I remember you in my prayers?” In all these years only one person responded “no.” I respected that person and said, “okay.” And yes, I include those who asked me to pray for them, those for whom I promised to pray, and those in my prayer bundle in daily prayer. My prayer bundle includes those unnamed persons (strangers) such as those who do a kind deed, cut me off in traffic, those who are inconsiderate. I try to recognize that perhaps it is God’s way of bringing people who need prayer to my attention.

    Thank you so much for your program and for this segment. It was most gratifying to watch and to learn to enrich my ministry to those in need, in the Buddhist tradition.

    I would like to learn more about how to minister to those in nursing homes, the sick and to their families. I am a New Yorker now living in Maine and am 75 years of age.

    You have my prayers. Please remember me also.

    God bless you and I bless you

  • Cate O’Meara

    Buddhist Chaplains have gifts to offer to the mix; however, all certified chaplains have been trained to minister to patients of all/no faith groups, and any can be as dogmatic or open-hearted as the next. There’s nothing inherently “better” about any chaplain’s background and many of those I work with (and I) offer guided meditation, breath and energy work. None impose a religious framework on the meaning of a patient’s suffering or hope for healing; these are created by the patient and the exploration of how the pt’s belief system aids or inhibits coping is invited and tended by a chaplain…presence is practiced by all chaplains to the degree they are self-aware. When I was a CPE resident I received a small stipend for my 80-hour weeks; the interns received nothing and, in fact, paid for their internships. All Chaplaincy SHOULD be funded. We are clinically trained and integral to the pt’s healing, meaning-making, and body-mind-spirit experience and how it is served, and on whatever level it may occur; we also provide emotional and spiritual presence and support for staff and families. Older individuals, often with great and deep life/loss/grief experience, other careers, and wonderful educational depth often come to chaplaincy as a way to yield their life wisdom and serve others; this also enriches their work and benefits those served.

  • David C. Johnson

    As president of the Association of Professional Chaplains, the largest multifaith chaplaincy organization in the United States, I would like to point out that our more than 3,000 board certified and associate chaplains come from hundreds of different faith groups, including Buddhism. As professional chaplains, they minister to those of all faiths or no faith. Professional chaplains abide by a Code of Professional Ethics, which includes affirming the religious and spiritual freedom of all persons and refraining from imposing their own doctrinal positions or practices on persons whom they encounter in their professional role as a chaplain.

    The spiritual practices described in this article are not unique to Buddhist chaplains. These and many other spiritual practices are used to compliment the care provided by chaplains, as appropriate and welcomed by those they serve.

    Rev. David C. Johnson DMin BCC, APC President

    Association of Professional Chaplains
    1701 E. Woodfield Rd., Suite 400
    Schaumburg, IL 60173
    P 847.240.1014
    F 847.240.1015

  • Ute Schmidt

    Thank you for the program on Buddhist Chaplaincy in New York City.

    As a certified Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor and Board Certified Chaplain, I have had the privilege of training students in chaplaincy for many years. Currently, I am supervising a group of six chaplain interns at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont, comprising of different religious traditions such as Buddhism, Catholic, Jewish, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Non-denominational. It is in the interfaith teaching environment in which the chaplain interns learn from one another to become more accpeting of difference, to develop compasisonate listening skills, and they learn with the patients to be present to the here and now, to listen to pains, fears, joys and hopes, to attend to the human needs for companionship, compassion and meaning. Well trained professional chaplains of all religious backgrounds provide this kind of care in many medical centers and hospitals throughout the United States and else where. I think it is important to note that chaplaincy is a specialty within professional ministry. And I also like to point out that it would be important to include in your program the credentialing organization that provides the chaplaincy training program to Beth Israel Medical Center.

    Thank you,
    Ute Schmidt, M.ED. BCC, ACPE Supervisor
    Fletcher Allen Health Care
    Burlington, Vermont.