Four years ago, I considered applying to the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies’ Chaplaincy Training program. I was doing hospice volunteering at the time and thought it would be fantastic to hang around with old and/or dying people full time, which I still think, except that I now think it would be equally fantastic to hang around with homeless people. I decided that the job title most closely matching that ambition was “chaplain,” but was discouraged when I learned that to be an accredited chaplain, you need a master’s degree in theology (or equivalent thereof), which is the last thing on earth I want. There do happen to be two or three places in the country where you can get this degree in a Buddhist context. One of them is right in Berkeley, and it has a program that focuses on chaplaincy. Every person who graduates from that program gets a job in the Bay Area right away, according to the person who runs it.
Besides being a course of study I have zero interest in, the school in Berkeley is expensive and, while it claims to encompass the various strains of Buddhism, it appears to be slanted toward Japan and Zen, so I’m probably not going to do that particular program, anyway. There might be a low-residency degree program that would be a better choice if I decide I must be a professional chaplain. But you can also be a volunteer chaplain, and you can think of yourself as a chaplain whether you work as one or not.
The Sati Center program does not fulfill all of the requirements for becoming an accredited chaplain, but can potentially afford a handful of units toward the master’s in theology, and sounded like a wonderful thing in its own right. It is taught by Jennifer Block, who is a former chaplain and now teaches other chaplains; Gil Fronsdal, a vipassana teacher and also a Zen monk; and Paul Haller, a Zen priest who started out as a Theravadan monk. The latter is also my absolute favorite teacher from the Zen Center. Virtually every talk I ever heard there was utterly incomprehensible, except for his, which were clear, charming, and inspiring.
I started the application but the program requires ten hours a month of volunteering, which I concluded was not really feasible to add to my schedule. Earlier this year, I got an email about a day on chaplaincy at the Sati Center, which is in Redwood City, 30 minutes or so from here by City CarShare car. I attended, and got to thinking again about the Sati Center’s program. A woman who had done it spoke and said she had loved it so much, she wished she could do it a second time.
I brought home several pages of notes and pamphlets and then forgot about it, except that when requesting days off from work, I made sure to retain enough days to do the program, just in case. Somehow or other, before the deadline had arrived, I decided to apply. Probably something to do with the soup kitchen, wanting to make sure I am bringing everything I can to that service.
I sent in all my stuff, including a letter of recommendation from Howie, and got an email back about arranging a phone interview. I called Jennifer at the appointed hour and she said, “I can see from your application that you would be a good fit for this program, and we’d like to invite you to enroll.” I thanked her and said, “That wasn’t very much suspense,” and she said she doesn’t like to keep people in suspense, for her own sake or theirs. She was delightful to talk to, down to earth and very calm and thoughtful.
She sent an email listing the four main books the course will use, and one of them was How Can I Help?, by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, which was published in 1985. At that time, I was attending San Francisco State University, where I took a class called, if I recall correctly, Leisure Lifestyle Development. A certain relative of mine who studied economics at the University of Chicago found that risible, ditto another who studied naval architecture, but it was one of the most important classes I ever took. It was an examination of values: what is important to me? How do I want to spend my time? How will I balance self-care and care for others? How will I handle stress? I remember we watched a movie about a speeded-up world, with everything rushing by. Some of the readings were from the newly published How Can I Help? It was nice to bump into that book again, and be reminded of that wonderful class.