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INTERVIEW: Robert Chodo Campbell & Koshin Paley Ellison

Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison are co-founders and co-executive directors of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. In addition, they are on the core faculty of its Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.

Chodo began formal Zen training in 1994, and currently serves as a Buddhist Chaplain Priest with Village Zendo in New York City. A board certified Holistic Health Counselor (H.H.C.), he has a private practice offering counseling for individuals, groups and families using a flexible, multi-disciplinary, psycho-spiritual approach. He has completed Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) units at Lenox Hill Hospital, serves as a pastoral counselor for adolescents at Good Shepherd Services, and is a founder of the Buddhist Psychotherapy Collective. Chodo also facilitates meditation practice at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Robert Mapplethorpe Treatment Facility. He specializes in working with anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and recovery from sexual abuse and trauma.

Koshin began his Zen practice over twenty years ago, and is today a senior student and novice Soto Zen Buddhist priest under Village Zendo’s Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. A Licensed Master Social Worker (L.M.S.W.) in New York State, he also holds a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Like Chodo, Koshin is a founder of the Buddhist Psychotherapy Collective, and has a private practice, where he sees individuals, couples, and groups. He has served as a chaplain at Cabrini Medical Center and Hospice, as well as Beth Israel Medical Center, where he has led the weekly meditation practice at their Continuum Center for Health and Healing since 2002. In addition, he frequently teaches workshops on meditation, contemplative care, and addiction and spirituality in a variety of settings–from public school classrooms to corporations. Koshin is also currently a Jungian Analyst Candidate at the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association.

Chodo, Koshin, and I first connected on the social-networking site Facebook. (Though I had the distinct pleasure of meeting them recently at the Buddhist Council of New York’s 23rd Annual Vesak Day Celebration, which I blogged about here.) Long curious about the Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program at the Zen Center, I asked them if they would be willing to be interviewed for the blog and they very kindly agreed. We “spoke” via email.



DANNY FISHER: What can you tell us about the history of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care? What led to its founding? Who was involved? How did it develop?

ROBERT CHODO CAMPBELL: Six years ago, we were doing hospice volunteer work, and we each shared a vision to create a Buddhist hospice here in New York–inspired by Roshi Issan Dorsey’s work and practice in San Francisco. Our journey into the world of chaplaincy began there. Our own chaplaincy training was invaluable and fuelled our dreams of creating a similar program devoted exclusively to Dharma practitioners.

In the fall of 2006, Koshin met with Jennifer Block, chaplain and public education director for the Zen Hospice Project, to discuss our plans for creating a Buddhist hospice in New York City.

KOSHIN PALEY ELLISON: During our discussion, I told her about my partner. She asked, “Is your partner Robert Chodo Campbell?” I was surprised. “Yes,” I said. It turns out that she had seen his photo in National Geographic Magazine; the issue was featuring the rise of Buddhism in the west and how the practice is being engaged in the contemporary Western society, including the workplace. One image they used was of Chodo, working with a hospice patient.

R.C.C.: By the end of his meeting with Jennifer, it was clear that not only would it be possible to create a Buddhist hospice here in New York, but that that we could create a chaplaincy training program–an integral and obvious first step in realizing that dream. We flew out a few months later to meet with Jennifer; Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen teacher and abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center; and Gil Fronsdal, Insight meditation teacher. Their program [the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program] inspired us to create our own program.

When we returned to New York, we created a program of our own using our C.P.E. training. We created our faculty with two other priests from the Village Zendo: Rev. Trudi Jinpu Hirsch, who is a Buddhist a certified C.P.E. supervisor, and Catherine Anraku Hondorp. Roshi Enkyo O’Hara serves as guiding spiritual teacher. Throughout the first year of the training, the students helped to tweak the program to meet their various needs. We love working collaboratively with both our fellow students and teachers. We also got lots of support and encouragement from our visiting teachers and our advisory board, especially Jennifer, Frank Ostaseski, and Sharon Salzberg have been helpful.

D.F.: What “Buddhist principles and practices relevant to spiritual care-giving” do each of you find most useful in your approach to chaplaincy?

K.P.E.: “Not Knowing,” “Bearing Witness” and “Loving Action.” These are the tenets/precepts of the Zen Peacemaker Order, and the interpretation of the three Pure Precepts: “Doing Good,” “Doing Good for Others,” and “Ceasing from Evil.” I find these three tenets/precepts to be invaluable both in my own care giving as well as in teaching our chaplaincy students.

R.C.C.: We are not separate, by taking care of others I take care of myself.

K.P.E.: For most of us, we see suffering and we feel the impulse to do something. A core of the teaching in our training program is learning that just being is enough. For me, this is an aspect of the teaching of “Not Knowing.” Can we just return to the breath and let go of our ideas, reactions and stories about what is happening and rest in not knowing? This is a continuous practice that we return to throughout the training. This is done through the practice of meditation in the moment.

D.F.: Part of the purpose of the Chaplaincy Training Program is to introduce “psychological, social, and ethical issues related to chaplaincy” to students. I think this question might be instructive for those of us training, writing for, or otherwise working with budding Buddhist chaplains: Generally speaking, what psychological, social, and ethical issues related to chaplaincy are “new” to your students? In other words, what kinds of issues tend be the things your students have maybe not considered before beginning your program? Conversely, what sorts of issues are typically “old hat” for your students? Which ones are they already fairly clear about coming into the program?

K.P.E.: In this work, I have found both in myself and others that it is crucial to be aware of what one pushes away in one’s personality and culture. I think it is an ethical mandate for us to know deeply and be looking for what we may be acting out. This can look like issues around power and being sweet and kind. We encourage the students to look at these issues often. Before we begin the program, we have the students read a number of books; one of the best is Power in the Helping Professions by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig. I like to reread that book each year. Of course, shadows are not all dark. We often also shadow some of our best qualities. Bring it all out to take a look!

Your question also makes me think about how diversity is held in our program. Before we talk about the levels of psychological, social, and ethical issues, I feel it is important for us to recognize who is in the training, and how this impacts the levels of learning. First of all, we were very interested in gathering Dharma practioners from all traditions. We have various Tibetan, Vipassana, and Zen traditions together in the training. One of the striking and compelling aspects of our program is the diversity of experience (life, care giving, age, race, sexuality, and Dharma practice) too. We have a students in their 20’s with lots of Dharma practice and who are new to care giving, and we have students in their 70’s who are new to Dharma practice and have been nurses and psychotherapists for decades. It is a delight as well as a wonderful challenge to hold the integrated diversity in the room.

D.F.: At the program’s website, you delineate two specific ways the program can meet the needs of students: (1) it can help them begin in their path towards professional chaplaincy, and (2) it offers basic training in spiritual care for Buddhist clergy and lay practitioners. As you make clear here, though they are closely linked, professional chaplaincy and what we might call “Buddhist pastoral ministry” are two different things. If you are able to say, about what percentage of students are interested in professional chaplaincy? What percentage are clergy or lay practitioners interested in developing spiritual care-giving skills? Do you feel that these numbers are significant in terms of telling us something about where instructors and teachers could focus more time and energy?

K.P.E.: Of our 34 students graduating in the first year, 16 have expressed interest in continuing to C.P.E, which we plan to begin offering in September. So, we will be offering a larger introduction class and a smaller C.P.E. program running in tandem. My understanding is that many of these students wish to deepen their integration of their Buddhist practice into their lives through the practice of chaplaincy, and some may actually become professional chaplains. The whole first year class wished for a Contemplative Care Retreat, which is open to all, and we will be holding one in January 2009 at the Garrison Institute for Buddhist chaplains and caregivers. This is a synchronistic time. It feels like a ripening of the Dharma in that people want to get off their cushions and engage the world and be of use. I would like to see the growing number of Buddhist chaplaincy programs working together and offering professional credentials. Our time and energy is being spent in creating a professional-quality chaplaincy training that is deep in practice and experience.

D.F.: In what kinds of settings do your students complete their 100 volunteer hours? Do any work in nontraditional settings? If so, what kinds?

R.C.C.: Our two main placements are Beth Israel Medical Center’s Integrative Medicine Department and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice. Both these institutions have been very welcoming and pleased to have our students. We also have students doing chaplaincy in nursing homes, hospice and hospitals, five prisons, and a juvenile detention center. One student serves as a chaplain to a joint Police and Fire Department in New Jersey.

D.F.: Koshin, you’re working towards being certified as a Jungian analyst. Obviously, your work as a chaplain is distinctive from your work as a therapist, but I’m curious: Has Jung influenced you in your approach to chaplaincy? If so, how?

K.P.E.: Jung’s work with shadow, persona, the collective unconscious and, particularly, working symbolically have influenced my chaplaincy work and my life in general. I think one of the beauties of Dharma practice and chaplaincy is that we bring our whole selves to the moment. So, yes, it influences my work. Jung said that, “An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” So, yes this warmth and some psychological depth understanding is key. He also said that the most damaging thing for development is the unlived life of your mentors. This being said, I attempt to live my life fully. This is not just something nice to do, but it changes the world. It has an echo of Dogen when he says, “One moment of zazen changes the world.” It is not a casual thing, but it is a call.

D.F.: Chodo, you have done a significant amount of work with adolescents and young people. In fact, you wrote a very affecting piece for PlainViews about your work with one young man. Can you say a bit about working with young people? What interests and strikes you about it? What advice would you offer to those who might like to work with young people as chaplains, counselors, or caregivers?

R.C.C.: Remember, not everyone who is sick and dying has reached old age or even adulthood. Working on a pediatrics unit was the most profound challenge of my training.

Ministering to the parents can be the most difficult in these situations. I have often seen a sense of “deep knowing” in the child–it’s as if they understand and are ready to leave. Of course, for a parent, the situation is beyond rationality. It’s at these times that even the most religious of parents can find their theology being called in to question. And in Zen we talk about having great doubt along with great determination we can find great faith.

I work with a number of young adults living with, and dying from the related complications of AIDS. This provides a great opportunity to work very openly and fiercely with one’s spirituality and religious beliefs. For the most part, the men and women I work with have lived a life devoid of any religion, having left it behind for a life of drugs and alcohol. Some of them see the AIDS diagnosis as an opportunity to connect or reconnect with the God of their understanding. Some of them are not interested in any religion, but are able to work on finding a “spiritual path.” One lady in particular, who had been incarcerated for murdering her mother and was infected with HIV whilst in prison, was able to find peace with her God after many, many long discussions around forgiveness of self as well as the other. I think being a Buddhist can be a great asset when the patient understands that we are “neutral” when it comes down to this “church,” that church, this religion, that religion. One of the first things we teach in our training is that when we walk into a room, we are there to hold everything the patient is. Hold it without judgment, and then, most importantly, let it go.

D.F.: Finally, what would you most like to share with others about the Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program and your work with it?

K.P.E.: I would like to say that it is a wonderful thing to find a practice that is meaningful for us. For me, it is the natural fundamental truth that, once we go deep into our practice, it is the natural thing to help and care for others and the world.

R.C.C.: The Chaplaincy Training gives each of us, teachers and students alike, the opportunity to grow, to understand and to appreciate in a brand new way.



The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is currently accepting applications for their 2008/2009 Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. For more information, visit http://www.zencare.org/chaplaincy/.

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8 Comments

  1. today is the present

    Hi I am very interested in the effect of family therapy in your setting. Can you let me know how you have found the effectiveness of the family therapy especially for the children?

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