This is the fourth in a series of short interviews on end of life care that I’m conducting for Spirituality & Health. This week I’m speaking with Zen monk Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder with Robert Chodo Campbell of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care(NYZCCC), the first Buddhist organization to offer fully accredited chaplaincy training in America. NYZCCC delivers contemplative approaches to end of life care through education, direct service, and meditation practice. —Sam Mowe
How did you end up working with people at the end of their lives?
In 1997, my Grandma Mimi got to the point where she needed more support and care. One afternoon, sitting in her living room eating caramels, we made a pact that we would care for each other. We sealed it with an embrace and looked into each other’s eyes for a few minutes. This was the first time I had ever understood the power of commitment. We started out with shopping trips and visits to doctors, followed by late night trips to the hospital, and finally moving in together at the hospice residence for the last six weeks of her life.
One night she woke me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I spent all these 87 years thinking I knew what love was. I didn’t know anything. To love is to love everything about someone, even the parts I don’t understand or feel comfortable with. Part of me contracted from loving you because of this Zen thing of yours. I felt it was a betrayal of our Jewish heritage. Please forgive me.” “For what?” I asked her. “For not loving you completely, like I do now,” she said. “Now I see there is something so simple about the Zen practice that allows you to be with me. You and Chodo should start an organization that helps people learn about meditation and how to care for people.”
With this blessing, Chodo and I changed our lives and began our vision for the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, a non-profit organization that trains people to face life’s great challenges: old age, illness, and dying.