A zen conversation with new Buddhist Chaplain Ji Hyang Padma

Ji Hyang Padma, Ph.D., Buddhist Chaplain at Tufts, is pictured. (Courtesy Ji Hyang Padma)

A sedan intersects with a Trans Am car. Fiberglass flies everywhere. At 14 years old, Ji Hyang Padma, now the Buddhist Chaplain at Tufts University, witnessed a car crash that altered the course of her life. Though she was a naturally restless teenager, this car crash left her frozen.

“That feeling of limbic overwhelm had nearly prevented me from helping these people in a critical moment,” Padma wrote in an email to the Daily. “I recognized the need to get training, to be able to respond in a way that would truly be of help.”

By 17 years old, Padma was working on a volunteer ambulance where she intervened in various medical crises. She noted that most of the calls they got were not such crises, giving an example of a senior at a nursing home pulling out their feeding tube and needing to be transported to the hospital to get it reinserted.

“I found my ability to be of service limited by the sphere of an EMT’s work,” she said. “I felt a strong calling to look into the roots of these issues: what is suffering, and how do we alleviate it?”

One experience left a deep impression on her perception of the miraculousness of life: an emergency childbirth. In the call she served on, the mother was a teenager giving birth at a local high school and hesitant towards motherhood. With this miracle, Padma also gained an awareness and acceptance of singular moments in time. 

What lay ahead for this tiny family over the next week — or over the intervening years — we don’t know,” Padma said. “While it is the nature of mind to resist that fundamental insecurity — that we cannot grasp the future — EMT work is good training in letting go. We have just this moment.”

These continuous realizations and questions continued during her time at Wellesley College, where she majored in English. There, she took up aikido, the Japanese martial art of bringing energies into harmony. Aikido provided ways of alleviating suffering by reconciling opposing energies through movement and interacting with the body as a sacred space in dialogue with the environment.

“This kinesthetic, dynamic, tangible experience of my own spirit when I was a young Wellesley student turned my world around,” Padma said. “I felt the energies of heaven and earth blend through my movements, and became aware of this embodied knowing as a source of creativity, self-awareness, and instantaneous wisdom.”

In addition to creativity, self-awareness and instantaneous wisdom, aikido also served as a gateway to Zen shiatsu, a traditional Japanese acupressure-based bodywork that, for Padma, amalgamates mind, body and spirit. According to Zen shiatsu philosophy, the body and mind as one possesses a natural ability to heal itself. Practitioners sense clients’ imbalances by feeling for subtle movement along the abdomen, spine and parasympathetic nervous system.

From there, it seemed natural for Padma to enter the practice of Zen meditation.

Meditation would help me to move from my core (in aikido, called the hara) to respond from a place of centeredness, ki (vital energy), and personal power,” Padma said.

As she approached her college graduation, she faced shared uncertainties of future career and life paths.  

I began Zen practice in this goal-oriented way: to reduce stress and strengthen my aikido practice,” Padma said. “In Zen training, we practice unconditional awareness of the moment, just as it is. From that perspective, this goal-orientation is a mistake.”

Padma credits meditation with bringing her through many transformations, starting with meeting herself right where she was. Her meditation ranged from spacious and light to painful, but the feeling was always one of homecoming. This shifted her perspective of meditation from being goal-oriented to being focused on self-insight. In other words, Padma would ask herself: “What am I?”

After graduating from Wellesley in 1991, she moved into a Zen center, where she could translate her compassionate action into daily life. There, she helped with community-building and managing an acupuncture clinic for people with AIDS. While acupuncture helped the side effects of AIDS treatments, it did not provide a cure and she continued to witness the deaths of young patients she had befriended. Just as with the car accident, the same questions resurfaced: what is suffering, and how do we alleviate it?

Padma knew she needed to cultivate her practice to be compassionate and clear, and teach meditation to inspire patients’ own compassion, clarity, and calming of their inner fears.

At the same time, working with these AIDS patients, I became aware that life is short,” Padma said. “The direction to be of service felt quite urgent in the face of their suffering.”

With an urge to be of service at the forefront, Padma traveled to a temple on Kye Ryong San, a sacred mountain in South Korea, for a 90-day intensive retreat. Each day, she would wake at 3 a.m. to begin practice with 108 prostrations at 3:20 a.m., then chant and sit throughout the day until 9 p.m. During the second half of the retreat, she added a midnight practice of waking at 11:30 p.m. and practicing until 1:30 a.m.

“One’s dedication is tested by the rigors of practice, culture shock, and the tightness of [the] body that accrues with long sitting,” Padma said. “The testing was profoundly useful, as it revealed the places where my practice lagged. On an intensive retreat, there is no escape from the practice: the only possible response is to heat up the heart.”

In 2014, Padma obtained her Ph.D. in psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University. There, she researched the effect of arts-based programming on students’ psycho-spiritual development, as well as the relationship between consciousness and healing. In 2013, Padma published her book on Zen, “Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times.” 

Padma served as Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University, Babson College and Wellesley College, taught Zen through the Physical Education department at Boston University and guest lectured at Wesleyan University and Boston College. Before coming to Tufts, Padma served as a chaplain resident for the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. Padma now finds herself as the Buddhist Chaplain at Tufts this fall.

“It reminded me of all that I had loved about chaplaincy at Wellesley College, and I applied,” she said.

As a chaplain, she listens to people’s stories, and sometimes shares guidance or spiritual practices.

“Through meditation we can see the patterns of our psyche, and of our lives, more clearly — that gives us freedom, to consciously and creatively choose how to engage these patterns, so as to live the fullness of our destiny,” she said.

In her newest book, “Field of Blessings: Ritual & Consciousness in the Work of Buddhist Healers” (2020), Padma continues to explore the connection between personal health and societal health in an increasingly technological world. So, how can we work to build connections in an increasingly technology-based and stimulus-ridden world?

On building connections without attachment — reach out,” Padma said. “As we open to mindful awareness, we begin to see through the illusion of separateness to the truth of our connection.”

According to Padma, humans are social animals, depending on each other from the moment we are born. By seeing our connection and taking action, we become empowered. Our narratives, or contact with spirituality by creating meaning, mediate the inner world and outer world, giving shape to our experience.

Our perception and interpretation of the outer and inner environment determines our response — both at the cellular level as well as at the level of the whole individual,” she said.

In acknowledging suffering, think about how our narratives can be spoken, written and embodied. Rituals of healing, according to Padma, are a powerful vehicle for spiritual transformation and for reuniting people with an infinite wholeness.


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