Hospice Work and the Art of Meditation - An Interview with Arthur Jennings

Interviewed by Anne-Marie Keppel

Arthur Jennings is a registered nurse and hospice worker and has been helping families, friends and patients with end of life transition for more than twenty years.  For more than 35 years, he has been a part of the Shambhala Buddhist community. In a recent interview with Karmê Chöling, Arthur offers his experiences assisting the dying, as well as how death has influenced his Buddhist practice and career.

* For italicized terms, please refer to 'Key Terms' below.


Karmê Chöling:  What were your impressions and feelings surrounding the first death you were present for?

Jennings:  The first time I saw someone die it blew me away and affected me for weeks. It really put things into perspective.  We can go any day and it really drives home the preciousness of life.  That has been really good for my [Buddhist] practice.

One thing about death I had not realized until I saw it – most people die after being in a coma-like state for at least a day or two.  They are pretty unresponsive, and at the very end the breaths become slower and slower - maybe even a minute or more between breaths. You think, “That’s it!” -- and then there’s another breath.  There is definitely a bardo period.

Karmê Chöling:  What do the family and friends of hospice patients expect or need from you?

Jennings:  Often, my job is to be a rock in the house and just let them fall apart.  Most of the families have not seen death up close and they are looking for someone who knows what he or she is doing. I help patients, who, oftentimes, are in pain or have wounds that need to be tended.  I help tidy the space and uplift the room a little or put on soft music . . . if there are people in another room talking or working, I invite them in to be with their loved one. There often is a lot of confusion in these situations, so I reassure everyone, “This is normal.”

Part of my job is to soak up blame.  It’s a perfect time to practice “Drive All Blames into One."  Sometimes people think that, if Hospice is involved, death should be painless and a lovely spiritual experience.  But often it is not so pretty.  Even with good care, the person dying may be throwing up, in pain and questioning whey he or she is still alive.

“For me, it’s an honor to be there at a time when families are in such need and to get to know them so quickly in their rawness.”

Karmê Chöling:  How does your Buddhist practice influence you hospice work and vice versa?

Jennings: Buddhist practice affects my work because mindfulness affects my work.  Buddhism is all about working with speed and distraction and cutting through to be present, even amidst chaos. The medical world is so speedy - this is getting worse all the time. So if you can go into the situation being present and efficient, but slowed-down, people really notice.

I do Tonglen, as well as mindfulness awareness practice to remain a steady presence. Sometimes families and friends, or the patient, are really struggling and I just want to do something. Tonglen helps in these situations . . . it really would be helpful for any medical practitioner.  Also, sometimes I do Phowa in my mind. Most families are not Buddhist. If the person dying is Christian, I visualize Jesus above his or her head and I visualize him or her moving towards Jesus.

Karmê Chöling:  Is there anything special or unique you have noticed being present with the dying?

Jennings:  More often than not, the dying see Jesus, or their grandmother or a childhood friend, and I try to warn the families about this.  I bring it up because a lot of time the patient does not want to be the first to talk about it. I’ll ask patients,  “Have you seen any angels?” -- and their faces will light up. They start using a lot of symbolic communication and they are confused.  They’ll say things like, “I need the key,” or “I have to go home, do you know the way home?”  I tell the families and friends to say empowering things, like “You know the way home,” or “Go the usual way,” or, “You have the key.” 

Karmê Chöling:  You were present for a death at Karmê Chöling, would you like to tell the story?

Jennings:  At Karmê Chöling, Ruthie Aster was head of practice and study and she also was my meditation instructor.  She was living at Ashoka Bavhan and I became her visiting nurse. Today, the Aster Suite is named after her. Towards the end of her life, I moved into the house, taking time off from work.

It was a perfect hospice situation- it’s the kind of situation you would want for everyone.  The Karmê Chöling community really rallied around her.  People would come to clean her up and take her to appointments and bring her lunch.  We had a scrabble day once a week and, even when she couldn’t play anymore, people would come and she would be there in the middle of this little, weekly party.

When she passed we already had talked to her doctor about performing a Sukhāvatī.  Lady Kunchok (the mother of Sakyong Mipham Rinphoche) was living on the property at the time and guided everyone through the three-day period. As Ruthie was dying, Lady Kunchok encouraged us to whisper in her ear and remind her about her practice and to remember Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

The unusual thing was that Ruthie was in samadhi after death. Lady Kunchok advised us to leave her body totally undisturbed until this was over. Lady Kunchok felt Ruthie’s heart every day - she was really happy, because samadhi is a sign a person is a very good practitioner. Most people do not go through a samadhi state and heat leaves the heart center more quickly. Lady Kunchok showed a few of us where to put our hands at Ruthie’s heart center, to feel the heat. On the third day the heat was finally gone and we bathed the body and moved it into a casket.

The casket was made simply of plywood by a local community member, who installed a dry ice compartment underneath. Ruthie’s body was washed, lotioned and perfumed and it stayed at Ashoka Bavhan, in a shrine room for people to come to sit until we held the Sukhāvatī ceremony. There is nothing like meditating next to a corpse to drive home the reality of death, impermanence and precious human life.


Key Terms

Ashoka Bavhan - a house for practitioners near Karmê Chöling.

Bardo period - a state of transition.

Drive All Blames into One - a Buddhist practice for working with blame to reduce harm to self and others.

Phowa - a practice to help another attain enlightenment.

Sukhāvatī - traditional Buddhist death ceremony which involves cremating the body three days after death.

Tonglen - a practice of sending compassion and love to others and taking in their suffering.

To learn more about Hospice, please visit: http://www.hospicenet.org/index.html


Rebirth in the Garden: Composting at Karmê Chöling

By Aaron Delong

Why Do We Compost?

Managing fertility is a key component of long-term success in any garden. At Karmê Chöling, we rely on our compost as a primary source of achieving this goal. Compost acts as both a slow release fertilizer in our beds, as well as an organic matter builder in our soil. It also helps to reduce the waste stream produced by the center.

What Do We Compost?

The answer is: what have we got? Our compost is primarily composed of kitchen scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and some cooked foods), garden residues (plant debris), and cow manure (supplied by the farmer who hays our fields). Kitchen scraps and fresh plant debris are considered 'green' materials: materials rich in nitrogen. Older garden residues, such as woodier plant debris, straw and leaves, are considered 'brown' materials. Brown materials are rich in carbon. By striking the proper balance between brown materials and greens (about 20:1, carbon to nitrogen), we can create a compost pile that is both nutrient-rich and structurally sound. Cow manure is a vital component for us, intrinsically providing nearly the ideal balance of carbon and nitrogen, as well as being a good microbial activator in the pile.

Often, we chop up our compost ingredients before putting them in the pile. Sometimes we use a machete, sometimes we use a chipper-shredder machine. Chopping up materials reduces particle size and gives microbes and bacteria more access to their food source, speeding up the composting process.

How Do We Compost?

We build our piles in a layering method: a layer of brown materials is followed by a layer of greens, followed by a layer of manure. The sequence is then repeated. Our piles, when finished, are about ten feet by five feet by three. It is important for any pile being made to be sufficiently large enough to create an internal environment where bacteria and microbes can thrive. Three feet by three feet by three is considered a minimum requirement for this goal. At Karmê Chöling, we build bigger, hoping to attain internal temperatures between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This ensures weed seeds will be killed and any potential diseases will be sterilized. Over 160 F, however, and harmful bacteria can enter the pile; bacteria that might negatively affect plants were the compost to be applied to a garden bed.

Turning the Pile

Compost happens, whether we tend the pile or not, but how fast the process occurs depends in large part on how much effort we put in to facilitating the decomposition process. Probably the hardest part of making compost is turning compost, but this action is critical towards speeding the breakdown of the organic materials in a pile. Turning introduces oxygen into the pile, allowing the bacteria inside to breathe and helping to elevate temperature. It also keeps the pile from turning towards anaerobic respiration in the absence of oxygen, a development that can slow down decomposition and lead to the buildup of toxic components in a pile. Often, when a pile 'stinks,’ it stinks of anaerobic respiration.

To turn our piles, we simply move the contents with a pitchfork from one place to another, hopefully nearby! We try and put the parts that were on the outside of the pile to the inside, and the parts that were on the bottom on top. This maintains an even rate of decomposition throughout the pile.


In addition to size, oxygen, and carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, water is a crucial factor in the composting process. Too little water slows everything down, too much cuts off oxygen flow. The general guideline is that a compost pile should have the moisture content of a wrung out sponge. Occasionally, we will add water to a pile if it seems to dry. Often, we will cover our piles with cloths or tarps to prevent them from becoming too wet in the rain. We build our piles on old pallets, as well, to aid with drainage and aeration. Excessive moisture is one of our principal composting challenges at Karmê Chöling.

The Finished Product

The length of time it takes to create finished compost depends on time of year, time spent managing the pile, and quality of materials used. Generally, in peak season, we manage a finished pile in eight weeks. The original pile can be expected to diminish to half its original volume during the composting process. The finished compost itself should be a black, crumbly soil with a slightly greasy texture, high in organic matter content, holding a good supply of nutrients that will be gradually released over a long period of time.

We apply finished compost at a rate of about one wheelbarrow to every eighty square feet, lightly working the fertilizer into our garden beds with a rake. We can plant immediately thereafter.

Composting can be a lot of fun. There is an art to the process, a mixture of chemistry, alchemy, and common sense that changes with each pile we build. There is also a satisfaction in taking our 'waste' materials and using them as a foundation for future growth. In that sense, composting is a metaphor any meditator can relate with.


Buying Local and Organic with Vermont Fresh Network

By Greg Garner, Director of Planning and Major Projects, Karmê Chöling

Since its inception, Karmê Chöling has paid a great deal of attention to how food is prepared and eaten. For years, our meditation retreat center has offered month-long retreats where oryoki, a Japanese monastic way of eating and appreciating food, is practiced.

Our kitchen staff practices mindfulness and awareness when it prepares and offers food to practitioners, teachers, staff and guests. Food is made from scratch using local and/or organic ingredients.

For the last several years, we have taken a fresh look at what we serve and where it comes from. Being in Vermont, we are fortunate to have many local growers and producers. Karmê Chöling has made a heartfelt effort to purchase more ingredients from local sources, in addition to our own organic garden.

Currently, we use more than fifty percent organic and/or local products!  Our leadership and kitchen staff are committed to increasing this percentage and sourcing directly from farmers and producers whenever possible.

One key way we have been able to buy local ingredients and eat healthy organic produce is through our partnership with Vermont Fresh Network (VFN).

Since 2007, VFN has opened doors for us, helping us meet local growers and producers. It has been a joy getting to know more folks that really care about the local food scene and how and what we feed ourselves. We look forward to making more relationships as we continue our goal of creating a sane, enlightened environment where wholesome, nutritious, local and minimally processed food can be offered to staff and guests.


Vermont Fresh Network (VFN), founded in 1995, is a statewide organization that encourages farmers, food producers and chefs to work directly with each other to build partnerships. Building strong regional connections contributes to stronger local communities and their economies.

VFN is dedicated to promoting and publicizing Vermont chefs and restaurants that use Vermont grown and produced foods. Chefs that purchase the products of Vermont's working landscape help maintain her agricultural heritage and contribute to the future of Vermont's farm economy.

VFN also educates consumers. Through its website and links VFN hopes to educate the dining public of the wholesomeness, nutritional value, freshness, and safety of Vermont-grown foods, as well as the economic impact of supporting local businesses. 


It Is My Home

Practitioner, John Godwin, writes about his connection to Karmê Chöling:

It is my Home. 

I really have no other home, even though, physically, I am rarely at Karmê Chöling. So the idea of home for me is, that place, where I have the most genuine experiences of my life, both of myself, and of others, whether it is joy, sadness, anger, humor or anything else. 

Having had these experiences, I go out into the world and try to extend this truth of genuineness to everybody I meet, usually with just a look, a gesture, or a tone of voice. What often comes back to me is genuineness, from 'total strangers.' People are genuine right off the bat, or they are not genuine, and the pain of that is obvious in their faces. 

So everybody naturally understands genuineness, and in his or her heart wants to express it. 

Genuineness is home. It becomes a matter of creating a container, an atmosphere, an environment, which promotes that inherent openness, which leads to expressions of genuineness. 

Karmê Chöling is, of course, such a place, and, in some sense, we are all such a place.

Vermont Maple Ginger Tofu

This recipe is easy to make and delicious.  It is even well received by meat eaters!

You will need: 

 - tofu or *tempe 
 - Vermont maple syrup 
   (or raw Vermont honey)
 - diced fresh ginger
   (or diced fresh garlic)

Dice the tofu into cubes and put into a skillet (be sure to drain the tofu first). 

Thin out the maple syrup, or honey, with enough warm water to cover the tofu or tempe in the pan while still retaining the flavor of the syrup or honey. This is a very thin watery sauce.   

Add garlic or ginger to taste, and simmer for 1/2  hour. Be sure not to boil. Serve warm over rice with your favorite vegetables.  

So simple but so good!
*Tempe can be substituted for the tofu as long as you steam it until tender to remove some of the "footy" taste and odor.  Then, follow the recipe as above.


Succotash - just in time for Thanksgiving!

Submitted by Robert P. Stuart Jr.

This recipe is an adapted Succotash:

Succotash originally comes from the Naragansett Indian word msickquatash.  Basically, it comprises the three sisters: corn, beans and pumpkin. The three were grown together in one mound, corn to provide a pole for the beans to grow up and pumpkin to provide shade at the base of both the corn and beans. The three combined hold all the necessary nutrients for survival while symbiotically helping each other. The most common bean used is Lima beans, however, we use regular green beans.

- *one pumpkin diced and roasted with olive oil salt and pepper
- garden corn cut from the ear
- beans snapped
How to cook: (use equal parts of pumpkin, corn and beans)

- in a 350 degree oven, roast pumpkin until slight browning occurs on edges
- mix in both corn and beans with the pumpkin
- cook slowly at low temperature in a pot while slowly adding enough water to keep the ingredients moist
- add cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice to taste

*Sweet potato is a great alternative to pumpkin in this dish.

AHH AHH CHOOO! a tincture to boost your health for cold/flu season

Submitted by Gardener Anemone Fresh

A tincture is a solution to extract the medicinal properties from an herb.  

During cold and flu season you may want to try a fresh astragulas or echinacea root tincture to ease the symptoms and encourage healing. 

First, harvest and clean well the root of the desired plant.  Then chop the root into small pieces and put it in a glass jar.  Pour 100 proof vodka* or grain alcohol into the jar so it completely covers the herb.  Cover the jar and leave it in a cool, dark place and shake it daily.  

In 6-8 weeks, strain the root from the liquid and you have an herbal tincture!  For cold or flu, use up to 1 tsp. of astragulas or echinacea tincture in hot tea 3 times daily.
*High proof alcohol is best, but vinegar can also be used though it is less effective in extracting the full potency from the herb.


Radiating Our Best Intentions to the World - 100,000 Aspirations at a Time

Today, The Sakyong Foundation, in collaboration with Karmê Chöling, is launching ‘100,000 Aspirations,’ an online community (website and Facebook) to support the Stupa that Conquers All Directions.

Currently being built at Karmê Chöling, at the request of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the stupa embodies wisdom and compassion in the world.

The goal of 100,000 Aspirations is to energize the stupa with the best intentions of 100,000 people and to enable a large community – within and beyond the boundaries of Shambhala – to engage in its construction. (The stupa is architecture that promotes peace – for people of all cultures, religions and backgrounds to enjoy.)

In support of this effort, Acharya Pema Chödron has provided a brief video teaching about the power of aspiration. She has auspiciously offered the first aspiration, followed by other great teachers and members of our community.

We’re counting on you and our Shambhala community to help us create the momentum to magnetize 100,000 aspirants! Offer an aspiration and share this project with your friends and networks. Your aspiration will be placed in the stupa!

Making an aspiration does not require a donation, but we hope that you will choose to deepen your connection with this project by making a financial contribution. You can make a donation at www.100000aspirations.org.

The most important way you can help us reach our goal is to make an aspiration and share the vision of manifesting peace and creating a better world with your family, friends and colleagues!

Building the stupa is the beginning of an expansion project at Karmê Chöling – to reach more people and practitioners with deep meditation programs and trainings.

Please join us by offering an aspiration at: www.100000aspirations.org


Garden Contemplation

If we were to treat our bodies as if we were caring for a precious life form that we would like to thrive and grow and be flavorful, colorful and nutrient-rich, how might that look?  

Would you take a moment to consider its source of energy and quality of food?  Would you do your best to shield it from storms, yet have the wisdom to let it stand against an occasional strong wind to grow strong? Would you be able to lovingly tend to it, even though it may not be growing as quickly as you wish? Could you accept its changing appearance and eventual collapse and decay knowing it is just beginning another journey into the formless?

Delicious Brussel Sprouts

A new spin on the otherwise mushy sprouts you never liked!
- Wash a solid bunch of brussles sprouts, just enough to get the garden soil off.  (Don't remove the outside leaves, since they will become crunchy and a tasty treat in the end.)

- In a big bowl toss the sprouts in a good olive oil and add coarse salt and pepper.  It's nice to add a fair amount of salt so they become salty like french fries.  

- Pour your sprouts onto a baking sheet and broil at 450 degrees for 15 minutes 

- Shake the sheet a couple of times half way through. 

- Remove from oven et voila!  Brussles sprouts so good you will be eyeing your neighbors plate...


From Karmê Chöling’s Garden Gate

Many people ponder how humanity can continue its proliferation on planet earth with its limited material resources and a rapidly widening ecological footprint.
I am just a small-scale organic gardener who has been cultivating his plot of land, first in Holland for ten years, and then in Barnet, Vermont for the last twenty years.
The question I ask myself is how can we (all humanity) grow our food sustainably so that future generations will still be supported by the elements, the microorganisms and the plants and animals of our embattled planet? How can I help foster an interest and appreciation, also among hardened skeptics, for the magnificent, dazzling interconnectedness of life on earth?
Though the challenges ahead are clearly daunting, there is a growing enthusiasm around the world, from China to Vermont, to eat organically grown food and shrink our carbon footprint. For example, the United Nations just came out with a study, called ‘The Right To Food,’ in strong support for agro-ecology: ‘agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are environmentally sustainable and socially just.’
The purpose of this blog is twofold:
  • To share with you my stories and experiences with cultivating a beautiful bio-diverse one acre organic garden in Vermont,
  • And, secondly, how my involvement with the Shambhala and Buddhist wisdom traditions have helped (guided) me to stay positive and inspired.
In this first blog entry I want to take you to our Karmê Chöling garden gate.
I have developed a ritual where before entering the garden I consciously unload all my psychological baggage: preoccupations, expectations and judgements of all kind, so I can enter with an uncluttered mind.
Just as trees drop their leaves every fall, quite elegantly, if I may say, you, too, can let go of your busy, scheming mind (for a moment). You might feel naked and exposed, at first, but it will create a very fresh atmosphere, full of creative possibilities. This way, you step into the garden with your doors of perception (and your senses) wide open.
Instead of being weighed down by feelings of responsibility or fear that a superbug descended on your garden overnight, you allow yourself to be surprised, whether painful or pleasant. (You ‘take it as it comes,’ as Jim Morrison sang.)
Even when an old familiar voice whispers in your ear to speed-up and not loosen your edge of cleverness and productivity, you can train your mind to ‘hold its horses.’ If fact, you might discover that, if you allow yourself to relax for a second in this open space with no agenda, the garden starts to communicate with you in much more intimate and subtle ways.
Not only do the flowers appear more vibrant, you also smell the earth with subtle distinctions, you feel the breeze against your skin, you become more receptive to your co-workers’ needs and you feel ready to relate with whatever challenge pops up.
This easy trick, or method, of ‘stop, drop and meet the world of the senses free from commentary’ can be repeated many times through day. In the middle of harvesting a long bed of spinach, for instance, you remind yourself to stand up for a moment, look at the skyline and feel the richness of the space around you. There are many variations on this theme. See what works for you.
Jan Enthoven, Master Gardener
Slogan of the week: Stop, Drop and Touch the Speechless Sky
p.s. I will happily share this blogspace with with my two garden teammates; Aaron DeLong and Anemone Fresh.

Garden Pictures by Anemone Fresh