Chenxing Han joins the IMS Book Club on Thursday, May 18, 2023
7:00 pm – 8:15 pm ET
Register for this free offering here.
Chenxing Han has been drawn to questions of life, death, and meaning from a young age. Her empathy for the suffering of others led her on a path of chaplaincy that began in Cambodia with a Buddhist nonprofit and continued in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she completed a year-long chaplaincy residency on an oncology ward at a community hospital.
Chenxing also holds a BA from Stanford University and an MA in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union. She is the author of two books, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, and her latest, one long listening: a memoir of grief, friendship, and spiritual care.
Here, Chenxing speaks with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about her experience as a Buddhist chaplain, her motivation for writing one long listening, and the relationship between grief and the creative process.
What drew you to becoming a Buddhist chaplain?
There’s a photo of me when I was young in Pittsburgh—the first place I immigrated to with my parents in the early 90s. In the picture, I’m hugging a crying friend. When I look at that picture now, I smile at the threads of continuity between then and now. As an introverted only child, I always felt pained to witness other people suffering or feeling left out.
Several years into my explorations of Buddhism, I found out about the chaplaincy training program at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood, California. I discovered that there are people who attend to the dimensions of life that are not reducible to the physical or the psychological. That intrigued me.
My first encounter with Buddhist chaplaincy was right after college. I spent a summer in Cambodia. I was involved with Brahmavihara, a nonprofit based in Phnom Penh that offered Buddhist spiritual care through multiple modalities. Apprenticing with their remarkable staff was a humbling experience. Nothing I’d learned in my undergraduate degree had prepared me to be with people who are dying or very ill. Even then, I didn’t think I was cut out to be a full-time professional chaplain. But I knew the training would be invaluable, no matter where life took me.
How were you received as a Buddhist chaplain in the hospital where you worked?
I was fortunate in doing my clinical pastoral education (CPE) training in Oakland, California. The Bay Area is religiously diverse and, in general, I was well received. The obstacles were mostly in my own mind. For example, I would be afraid that someone might have certain misperceptions about me or not be open to a visit from someone like me. That was something I had to work through over time: what does it mean to be both a religious and racial minority? Serving in a pluralistic setting, I began to relate to these differences as sources of connection rather than sites of potential conflict.
It’s a question that chaplains of any (or no) faith background have to grapple with. Each of us is rooted in our own tradition or traditions, and we encounter people across what sometimes feels like great gulfs of difference. That’s the wonderful thing about working at hospitals with an interfaith care model. I was assigned to two units rather than people who shared my racial background. If someone specifically requested a Catholic or Jewish or Christian chaplain, I could refer them to a colleague. I think that’s a wise way to structure spiritual care. Demographics are not determinative—just because someone’s of a certain demographic hardly means they need to get along with everyone in that same demographic.
What was your motivation for writing this book?
After I graduated from CPE, my very dear friend, Amy, passed away. In the final days of her life, on an oncology unit in Portland, I was there along with her family and friends. I wasn’t her chaplain; I was her friend. But I thought about how being on an oncology unit for a year during my CPE residency had made me feel a sense of ease and comfort in that Portland hospital. If that year had given me nothing else but the ability to have a little more presence of mind to be with my friend while she was dying, that was already more than enough. The book is my love letter to my friend Amy, but also a love letter to the patients and their families, and the staff at the hospital where I worked.
It took me about nine years from the beginning of my CPE to the book’s upcoming publication, so it’s been a slow, years-long journey. It’s a multi-stranded memoir. A big strand is what I wanted to say to Amy: writing became a way to process my grief and express my boundless gratitude for her. I also started to realize how interconnected she was with my spiritual journey, with Buddhism. From there, I started to think more about my family, my ancestors, language, immigration, and the different forms of grief or loss we experience in our everyday lives. In the midst of loss, there’s also friendship, connection, joy, and celebration. All of these are beautifully intertwined.
How did grief influence your creative process?
My friend Amy was very gifted at making collages. She would spend years making a collage for a loved one. I think grief is that way: it doesn’t follow predictable timelines. Grief interrupts life as usual. It disrupts our desire to control time with quantifiable benchmarks of efficiency and productivity. Sometimes grief feels like a punch to the gut. There is something about being confronted with the truth of loss that invites us into different rhythms of time and relationship.
This book emerged in a similar way to how Amy created her collages—a lot of fragments, sometimes just a sentence or two. I realized I was putting together this word collage for her over time. I didn’t think, “I’m going to be creative in my grief.” It was just that my feelings felt so intense and overwhelming. I often wanted to push it all away. But in having to be intimate with those feelings, it felt like my grief was a force pushing on me. To be in relationship to that emotion of grief, it called forth—or pressed out of me—some kind of response.
The loss of a loved one shows us the truth of impermanence, yet grief can feel like it will never change. What are your thoughts on this?
Grief can feel so permanent, like we’re going to be stuck with this emotion forever. But then, being with it, one realizes the feeling is constantly changing.
Amy once wrote: “For me, always one of the most comforting parts of grieving was redefining who I was in absence of the person of whom I was letting go.” She had lost her two beloved sisters and many dear friends to Fanconi anemia, the rare genetic disease that she lived with for twenty-nine years.
Her death was a painful reminder of impermanence. But then there was a different, almost invitational impermanence: just as her life indelibly changed who I am, her death also changed me and continues to change me, including in ways that open me up to greater connection and creativity. I hadn’t been brave enough to believe I could publish a book before I did CPE. It was my chaplaincy supervisors, and friends like Amy, who encouraged me to write, who reminded me that my words mattered.
That question of “Who are you becoming?” is a beautiful reminder that we are always changing. That’s where I find hopeful and joyous elements of impermanence. We’re never stuck any one way. The lows don’t last forever. Fortunately, neither do the highs—it would get really boring after a while if we were stuck in a permanent state of ecstasy!
Is there anything you learned from writing the book?
A group of my friends from college buried a time capsule when we were graduating. We all put letters in, including Amy. A decade later, they opened it. At that time, I was still living in Thailand. I asked another friend of mine to send me a photo of Amy’s letter, but my request must have gotten buried in her text messages. When I returned to America in early March 2020, the day I landed, my friend sent me the letter. In it, Amy reflects on her complicated emotions during the major transition of graduating from college with a life-limiting illness. When I read it, I broke down and wept. Her words spoke directly to the fear and grief of that moment, when both COVID-19 and anti-Asian violence were on the rise.
These circular moments of time, these encounters with past selves, have many gifts to offer us. Even in the most difficult of times, there are countless karmic circumstances that support and hold us. Weeping on the floor, I was held by bonds of friendship and prayers of well wishing, of mettā. There are always people who care; we’re never alone. This message is a throughline in much of my work.
What are your hopes for the book?
I hope it can be an invitation to slow down and notice what grief looks like in our lives, to befriend the other emotions accompanying it. In keeping with the title, one long listening, I hope readers feel heard in some way. Maybe they find some moment of delight or rest or release while reading it. I cried a lot writing this book. I also laughed a lot. So, I hope it’s a book where people can experience a range of emotions and feel that anything is welcome: shame, rage, joy—nothing is too big or too small for this space.