Death Is Here Now: Koshin Paley Ellison & Robert Chodo Campbell

Profiled by Lindsay Kate for Lion’s Roar magazine.

I didn’t know what to do. I was at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care to talk with Koshin Paley Ellison and Robert Chodo Campbell about their Buddhist approach to end-of-life care. But they were dealing with death right in front of me. “One of my dear friends is dying right now,” Koshin had just informed me, with tears in his eyes.

“Oh… I’m so sorry. We can reschedule if this is a bad time?” I offered, wishing I knew the right words to say. This made them both smile, and Chodo reached for my hand.

“Lindsay, isn’t this story on death and dying?” he said gently. “Yes,” I replied, terrified of the emotion so present in that moment. “Well, welcome to it,” Chodo stated. “Here it is, right now, in this room.”

Death is the most important spiritual teaching.

Their beloved friend, the Buddhist teacher Michael Stone, was in a coma and was expected to die, which he would three days later. The two Zen priests, along with many others in the Buddhist world, were in deep sorrow about losing him. Yet as I spent the day with Koshin and Chodo, we went through many states of being. We cried. Chodo sang show tunes. They showed me their “bling”—new rings from their wedding in June. We sat in silence after they told the stories behind the photographs on their altar. We ate excellent dumplings. Yet during each experience, Koshin’s phone would ding with a text about Michael, and we were reminded that death was in the room with us.

“Death is the most important spiritual teaching,” said Chodo. “It wakes us up. If we are truly present in our lives, then death doesn’t come as such a shock. You’re here, you’re at a retreat, you’re grocery shopping—and suddenly you’re not. What is more important than understanding how quickly it can end—that there’s no rhyme or reason—and having some kind of spiritual foundation that can hold you in that?”

Chodo and Koshin met as Buddhist chaplains, and became both romantic partners and partners in end-of-life care. Their idea to start a small hospice house developed into the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care in Manhattan. In addition to Zen Buddhist practice and study, NYZCCC offers training in end-of-life care for medical professionals, caregivers, loved ones, and those who are themselves dying.

“99.9% of people we care for are not Buddhists. These are people who are looking for an extra layer of support,” says Koshin. “But all the work we do is grounded in the Zen precepts. One of the things we continually try to address is the equality of everyone who is on the care team as well as the dying person.”

“What Zen Buddhist practice allows for is the idea that there’s no receiver and there’s no giver of care,” says Eishin Schapiro, a current chaplaincy student and a Zen student at the Zen Center. “Care is found in relationship. I find that very powerful in theory and in action. So much of my Buddhist practice didn’t make sense until I was doing this caregiving work.”

Compassion means allowing death to look different ways, says Koshin. He tells the story of being called to deal with someone people described as difficult and violent. “I had to drop all ideas, even what I heard about this woman—because that’s not who she is, that’s who she was to those people.”

The woman started throwing things when Koshin arrived. “She was yelling ‘GET OUT!’, her face contorted with rage. I was lightly ducking and just looking at her. When she didn’t have anything more to throw, she said, ‘What are you still doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m really curious about what makes you so enraged.’ She paused, then said, ‘You want to take a seat?’”

Koshin discovered the woman had spent her life taking care of her parents. After they died, she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and her husband left her. “Of course she was angry!” says Koshin. “We got to explore that she had never really been able to be angry. It was actually enlivening to her, the feeling of anger. It felt good.

“At the end, she sat up in her bed with fists to the sky and was like, “AUGHHH!!’ And then she died. It was magnificent. Sometimes that is a beautiful death. It’s important to realize the range of what a good death can be, because it’s not always lace pillows and very peaceful.”

It is Buddhist practice that prepares Koshin to be open to such moments. “One of the things I love about Zen in particular, and why it’s so well-suited for this work, is that it’s a completely experience-based practice, not belief-based.” As a graduate of the chaplaincy training and a current Zen student, Gary Dojun O’Connor agrees: “Now I know experientially that the possibility for loving action is always present, under even the most horrendous circumstances. We may not know how to do it, but the possibility is always present.”

Knowing yourself and being present can also mean knowing when you must step back, Chodo says. “For example, I’ve had a lot of experience with chaotic environments. But someone who hasn’t had that much experience with chaos may say, ‘This is too chaotic for me, or, there’s too much anger in this room.’ Skillful means and loving attention can mean realizing that I’m not the right person for this. It’s not always about how to stay there.”

When facing situations around death, adds Koshin, “You don’t know how things are going to unfold. It’s the one thing that’s totally true.”