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.