One Jewel in Indra’s Net: A Conversation with Buddhist Chaplain Jamie Kimmel
Gesshin Claire Greenwood | September 9, 2019
I sat down with IBS alumnus Jamie Kimmel to discuss practice, chaplaincy, and how Buddhism can inform pastoral care.
Tell us about yourself. How did you come to Buddhist chaplaincy?
Like many others, it was a series of events in my own life that pointed the way to Buddhist chaplaincy. When I was in my late 20’s, after going through many challenging events with people I loved and cared about, I became ill myself. Then I found sitting practice, which was healing. This eventually evolved into a Zen Buddhist practice. I was working in a warehouse at the time, playing lots of music, doing what I cared about, but I still felt something was missing. I wanted to be involved with people in a different way. I’d already worked in the medical field as an emergency medical technician, and had been doing social justice work for decades, so when I came across Buddhist chaplaincy it made sense. I began to see that my own healing and other’s healing was intimately connected, and that healing doesn’t necessarily mean getting better in a health sense – it’s more like coming back to yourself, your heart, knowing that your life is worth it, that you are cared about. I spent two years thinking about chaplaincy and then I dove straight in.
So you decided to become a chaplain. What was your IBS experience like?
My experience at IBS was the ultimate example of being held and cared for in community. There is a welcoming and engaging group of scholars and practitioners there, and this shows. My classes were not just intellectually stimulating, but also practical. I was encouraged to bring questions about chaplaincy to all my classes. My teachers challenged me and also trusted that I could be a chaplain. This was very important for me – I am a person who struggles with self-doubt. To be held in a space of trust and care like this exemplified what we as chaplains try to do for others. In a sense, this aspect of it was just as important as the classes.
Also, going to IBS allowed me to see my own practice and ideas about Buddhism within a wider context, which enabled me to become much more self reflexive (and humorous!) about what I thought I was doing. I became more grounded in Buddhist thought and practice, and began to have such an appreciation for different ways of being Buddhist. I graduated from IBS feeling confident that I could “hold my own” when it came to questions of Buddhism history, Buddhism in the west, and how Buddhist chaplaincy might look. My experience in CPE at UCSF and my work in hospice chaplaincy taught me that I was trained well at IBS to become a chaplain.
You mention becoming grounded in Buddhist thought and practice. What does being a “Buddhist chaplain” mean to you, then, and how does doctrine inform your work?
I think Buddhist doctrine is something to grapple with and question, while at the same time doing the practice and living your life. Chaplaincy gives me an opportunity to continually live these questions. As a hospice chaplain, the Buddhist concept of impermanence—what people think and feel about it, how it’s playing out for them and for me, the chaplain—is never far away. I know that impermanence is constant, happening all the time, moment after moment – but I feel it’s another thing to be confronted with death and dying, especially in a culture which minimizes death. Through Buddhist practice, we consciously place ourselves in a position to experience the truth of impermanence, and I think it helps me as a chaplain become more comfortable being in the sometimes uncomfortable situations chaplains exist within. Also, I think having a sitting practice helps to bring a non-anxious presence in the room. There is a direct correlation. I hesitate to call this letting go, as this makes it look easy. There is no doubt I am often anxious or have no idea what I am walking into, but to trust that the appropriate response will be given if I am able to just be there and pay attention – this is an ideal, and also something I try to do.
There is suffering in life, and this is something all of us face. I don’t think there is an easy way around it. I see my chaplaincy work as being in solidarity with those who suffer, because we are bound together in all this, not separate. When we stand with others in their suffering, we are also standing for ourselves and what we care about.
With IBS being a Shin Buddhist Institution, I have also developed a deep appreciation for Shinran, and the working of “other power” in my life. As a Zen practitioner in the US, I had never heard of this before, and now it has become something incorporated into my practice and work. I don’t do this work myself, or in a vacuum – if a chaplain thinks that, I believe they will burn out. I am here because of all the causes and conditions which have shaped my life. Nothing really is left out. There needs to be a space to rest and trust in this– a sense that we are held and cared for.
I love that image of Indra’s net as well as recognizing the necessity of an “other power.” You’re right, we don’t see that a lot in Zen practice. You make it sound really fulfilling and powerful to be a Buddhist chaplain! But I can imagine there are tricky dynamics about it as well. Can you tell us about the challenges you have faced as a Buddhist chaplain working in a hospital setting?
One challenge that Buddhist chaplains face is that we often exist as a religious minority in most of the contexts we work in the US (I know that there are exceptions to this, but I think they are rare). We have the double task of being a chaplain, and also being Buddhist. In some cases, we are “representative” of Buddhists because we might be the only one. That can present a challenge. People have romantic conceptions of Buddhism, or that it’s only “mindfulness,” or tied up with “wellness, or that we are “enlightened” (that’s the best one). Within chaplaincy, the task is not to change people’s conceptions about who we are, but to work with them in therapeutic ways. Sometimes, our perceived identity can be a help, or a hindrance, to the work of intimacy that chaplains engage in. There are those who consider themselves spiritual and not religious, those who want spiritual care but not in the Judeo Christian institutional sort. Yet there are also those who have been raised within the Judeo-Christian tradition who are open to us – I find this often. I find that in moments of spiritual crisis or need that people are sometimes more willing to let others in. And with the world being the way it is now, I think this is becoming more important to pay attention to. We relate on a human level. I think that if we forget our interrelatedness, we will become lost and isolated in our views about how we think things should be. This does not mean we are not totally unique people – we are, and we need to be. We need to be relational while at the same time standing our own ground. This is the truth of Indra’s web – that we are each a jewel in this interconnected reality. I think this is a wonderful metaphor, but it is also the challenge. Can we embody an interconnected reality within our own unique identity?
For example, I worked on a unit in a hospital where there were a number of emergencies one night when I was on call. In the morning, when I walked into the nurses’ station, I could sense that everyone was worn out. I felt a sense of solidarity with them – after all, I was there with them all night. I thought a ritual would be helpful here, so I had everyone stand in a circle and I briefly talked about how hard the night was, but also how important their work was, and how it takes place in a wider context than we are sometimes able to see. I then did a “blessing of the hands” as a reminder that it is these nurse’s hands that perform healing work. As people that work in hospitals all day (or all night), it can sometimes be hard for staff to appreciate that they help so many people. There are people living right now because of these nurses. In hospice, there are people who will always have a good memory of their loved one’s death because of the care they were shown by nurses (among many others).
Feeling supported gives us strength to do hard things. I see this as a Buddhist chaplain’s work – to be able to show others the ‘invisible threads’ that bind us, that tie us together, that we are living and sometimes struggling for. This is the real and true interconnected world, which we sometimes forget in our day to day lives. A chaplain’s presence, words, and acts can act as a reminder to this.
Now you’re making me cry and want to become a chaplain too! What advice would you give someone considering a career in chaplaincy?
I would say that if you are passionate about it do it! I think chaplaincy can be very difficult work, but for me it is very meaningful work to do. I think it is so important to pay attention to others and to ourselves. The world, at least to me, often seems fraught with disaster. I can get lost in it. But if I am able to pay attention to what is in front of me and go there with care, I feel that I am accomplishing something. I think about what James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is easy and sometimes necessary to be distracted, so to focus our attention can be like a labor of love. Chaplaincy is a calling, but it also requires training. Talk to people who are chaplains and see what they think about their work, and what they do. It is not just being with people (although hopefully this is the bulk of it) but also charting, assessments, paperwork – this is the context within which we provide our care. Also, chaplains often must think on their feet, be spontaneous, and juggle many different ways of being with others. I find this challenging and rewarding.
For more information about chaplaincy at IBS, check out our FAQ about the chaplaincy program.
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