A Conversation with Chenxing Han and Rev. Liên Shutt

Posted by – May 18, 2023
Categories: General

Earlier this year, authors Chenxing Han and Rev. Liên Shutt came together for a profound and poetic dialogue on Buddhism, grief and loss, Asian American identity, and much more. Read the transcript of their conversation below.

Rev. Liên Shutt: Hi Chenxing.

Chenxing Han: Hi Reverend Liên.

L: Really, I actually asked you to take the lead. So go ahead.

C: Can you talk a bit about who you are? That seems like a good place to start.

L: I’m Vietnamese American, born in Vietnam. I was adopted. I lived in American settings, including overseas. Actually, this February was 50 years since my adoption.

C: Wow.

L: That’s kind of big. It kind of just came to my sister and I. My adoptive parents have been dead for a long time. I’ve been in the Bay Area, gosh, since ’95. That’s counting the time I was a little bit south of here at the monastery, of course.

I got Dharma transmission in 2013 from Zenkei Blanche Hartman in the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi lineage. I teach around the San Francisco Bay Area mainly. I have a meditation group, a sangha called Access to Zen which meets weekly on Monday nights. I do have a background in activism and social work, of course. Though I will say, I pretty much focus on what student needs are, which doesn’t exclude the other stuff as I bring in the systemic view more because of my social work background. 

C: You’ve lived many livesand all those lives are beautifully integrated in the way you’re living now. You write about this in your forthcoming book Home is Here, but for those who haven’t had a chance to read it, could you speak on your relationship to Buddhism, as both a student and a teacher of Buddhism?

L: Like many in convert Buddhism, I thought to be a “practitioner of Buddhism” was to meditate, so I went to Dog Eared Books on Valencia and got some cassette tapes on how to meditate. Not long after that, I was involved with the Women of Color sitting group at first but just as a group to go to. There, I really connected with Jessica Tan and we, along with Lauren Leslie, became Caretakers of the Buddhists of Color, one of just three POC regular sitting groups in the SF Bay Area in the mid-to-late 1990s. As it became part of the emerging people-of-color voice in the Bay Area convert Buddhist scene. I realized that I was born a Buddhist because, while we didn’t meditate in my birth family, I remember going to temples with my mother, lighting incense and bowing

So part of understanding that mental formation of things can get mixed up—what is true and what is not. Like many Asian Americans, we have that sense in our body of Buddhism. And we may not have the instructional knowledge or the language—in my case, Vietnamese—to access that. I read tons of English books on it from mostly convert teachers. I go to the reading for the explanation and the instructions, and yet it feels… it’s very much like coming home. I didn’t necessarily have the word for it at the time. At your reading at Green Apple Books, you talked about the difference when you went to Taiwan to do a Buddhist spiritual practice, right? And how that’s different than your American chaplaincy training. That thing about karma, like I never understood convert Buddhism, all the dissing and discussion of karma because it’s just one of those things—on one level as a Buddhist, I don’t want to say I just have a belief on that because the convert Buddhism I learned is that, “hmm… you need to investigate, intellectually understand.” But to me, it’s just kind of like, “yeah, it’s a given,” you know? Which doesn’t mean I understand it intellectually necessary, but as visceral as a worldview. 

I really have an understanding that my life is part of a continuum of experiences and that what I do matters. That’s my sense of karma and its impacts. As I’ve studied ethnic studies, and then been around other Asian Americans in different ways, there’s a sense that as a second- or third-generation Asian American, 1.5, in my case, we start to question the old tradition. Another way to answer your question is that it’s kind of a meld between what is true from what I learned as a Vietnamese American and what is true as I learned from convert Buddhism. Well, that’s a lot. I’d love to hear more from your side.

C: That is such a rich and multi-stranded answer. The experience of reading Home is Here is like that as well. I love the way that you evoke, so honestly, some really racially charged moments throughout your life—while also sharing spiritually profound moments. Your book is a map for us. It’s also a curriculum written by a teacher with her students’ best interests in mind. 

I wanted to go back to what you were saying about being 1.5 generation. I came to the U.S. when I was four. I, too, don’t have clear memories of living in Shanghai. But there’s this visceral sense when I hear Shanghainese, the way I feel at home in that auditory landscape. And later, exploring Buddhism as a young adult, I felt in my bones a visceral connection to Buddhist teachings on karma and relationality. That connection is very much informed by growing up in America but it’s also shaped by the cultures I inherited, the country and family that I left. And then there are these Asian American cultures that we’re still defining—that we’re playing with and co-creating. 

L: Tell me—just to set this up here—how you came to define yourself as a Buddhist.

C: I was born in Shanghai and moved to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area when I was four. In fifth grade, I moved to the Seattle, Washington area. I’m an only child. I grew up with both parents, but they lived in separately because of their jobs for a long time. I grew up with an awareness that this country is predominantly Christian: that dominance was in the stories people told and the metaphors they used; in the daily ritual of saying the Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation under God” in public school.

I never felt a total sense of understanding or affinity— curiosity about this dominant religion, yes; but never a very strong personal resonance with it. I spent a lot of time in the public library in Pittsburgh in early elementary school. I practiced English by reading children’s books; I remember there were some books on Hindu mythology. I was quite drawn to those—in retrospect, they were some of the breadcrumbs along the way that led me to Buddhism. 

A gap year between high school and college was quite transformative: spending time in Asia, in places like Thailand and Nepal and Tibet, and encountering Buddhism in different forms there. And then in college, exploring more, both at predominantly white convert Zen and Insight centers, but also at what people might call immigrant temples: Cambodian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Vietnamese. It feels very much like an ongoing journey, though unlike you, I don’t have students and don’t give teachings. I feel very much like a baby student on the path, but I learn a lot in conversation with other people. My relationship to Buddhism feels shaped by karmic  forces  that I cannot fully see or understand, but that I feel enormously grateful to.

I really appreciate you talking about karma and causes and conditions. I think I’ve always—I shouldn’t say always, but I’ve had an inclination for much of my life to think relationally and systemically. That can go against the grain if we want to think of the self as this very individuated self. I felt very at home in teachings on anatta, not-self. To me, these teachings aren’t nihilist. They are profoundly hopeful in recognizing the kind of impermanence and change that shapes all our lives. This porousness of self means that I’m Chinese American, but I can find so much resonance in a book by a Vietnamese American adoptee (yours!), and my spiritual life has also been shaped by time in Cambodia, which is something else we share in common.

L: How do we come to define ourselves as Asian American Buddhists? This may have been in Be the Refuge, but how did you come to Buddhism if your parents were atheists? How did you start—however you define “start”?

C: There are strands of it throughout—whether reading a Hindu myth and understanding that it speaks to the cultural milieu that Buddhism arose out of, or studying Siddhartha in high school… I think there were bits and pieces, but it was really during the gap year. I was burned out from high school, and I had this vague sense that I really wanted to grow spiritually and emotionally. I didn’t know what that meant, per se. But during that gap year I first lived in Shanghai, a very secularized city in many ways, and none of my family there was Buddhist.

Yet, even then, I had some inkling of affinity toward Buddhist spaces and teachings. Traveling to Buddhist countries, visiting temples, meeting people and witnessing their devotions, I was curious: “Wow, this tradition looks different in Thailand and Nepal and Tibet, but is full of so many people who I’m meeting who are so inspiring to me.” I wanted to learn more. So my entry into Buddhism has been through many things—beauty is one. Through art. And then especially through spiritual friendship: people who didn’t know me at all, but would take me under their wing in Tibet, serve me tea. You’re passing through a journey, but there’s this sense of being invited onto a path to walk together, to practice together. This word “practice,” in Chinese, is “行.” I love that a lot because it evokes a sense of walking or coursing through life. How do we course along this path? How do we move along this path together?

L: I think for me, one of the things about being Asian American Buddhists is: it’s the other stuff besides meditation. The spiritual friendship is such a huge thing. Part of that, to me, is connected to what you’re saying about relationality. It’s about connection. You know, in Home is Here, the Net of Indra is not the jewels, but the strands and the connection, right? And so it reminds me of when I was at Tassajara. I was working in the garden with another nun—I wasn’t ordained as a nun myself then. She came from Italy and had been at Tassajara for a while. In the summer, a lot of teachers come through and give talks during the guest season. One day she turned to me and said, “Why do teachers keep talking about interconnectedness? Because I feel really separate. Why? Why do they just keep talking about it?” And I said, “Well, I think teachers tell us or bring forth teachings that they think are important for us to hear.” Right?

And so on one level, that’s part of speaking to white or European Americans. I’ve been doing Lotus Rising from the Mud—actually, a group from there have continued with me for over a year now, and they’re going to study the precepts with me. Not necessarily to take the vows, but we’re doing it. I’m really curious about the precepts from Asian American experiences because, in a way, I learned the precepts or studied them from convert Buddhists, mostly white Jewish Buddhists. 

When I did ethnic studies, when I was coming into my sense of “what does it mean to be an Asian American,” in the 80s and 90s, I realized that for a lot of Asian Americans, we actually need to find the self or, put another way, remove ourselves from interconnectedness because it can be overwhelming. And so in some ways, I feel like part of my practice, or teaching, is to remind us to interrogate interconnectedness: how does it impact the self? What does the relationality of interconnectedness mean for us then?

I think that’s one different emphasis when I’m teaching to mostly white North Americans or to Asian Americans. It’s not an emphasis that I necessarily go to make a point, but the discussions come up that way. 

C: When did you know you wanted to teach?

L: Oh, no, I never wanted to teach. Seriously, I didn’t! I will say that I came to practice to calm myself, to be a calmer person. What pulled me in—I became a Caretaker of the Buddhist of Color almost right away in part because we formulated that, but it’s that thing, I think that’s very Asian where, you know, we show up. Showing up, setting up and being part of that is to—now, looking back, I say that’s “practice.” And now I sometimes watch my students: who are the ones that get up to put things away or set things up and who are the ones who just sit there and wait for things? Who is there just to get what they want out of it? I keep trying to bring in that we’re doing this together.

I first started because when I came back from Asia, practicing as a monastic, I went to the tenth anniversary of the people of color retreat at Spirit Rock. Some Vietnamese American friends and other Asian-heritage friends were like, “Oh, you should teach.” I was like, “Huh?” And they were like, “Well, you’re a nun, aren’t you? That’s your job, now. That’s your job!” I was like, “I haven’t been Shuso. I haven’t done this or that training position in Soto Zen to teach. They just kept saying, “That’s your job.” The Vietnamese American friends had long Buddhist histories, both in Vietnam and in the U.S. I had started chanting with them many years ago when I first started. And so that’s when I discussed it with Blanche because I wasn’t sure. So then we started having meditation meetings. I did not teach per se, but it was a response to people wanting… I feel like all my meditation groups and offerings have been as a response. The book was a response. 

C: I love this.

L: This is supposed to be a dialogue!

C: Dialogue, we will dialogue!

L: Ok well then say something! Let me see.

C: Yes. Yeah. Gosh.

First, can I just say that I find it so beautiful that you taught as a response to others asking. In a way, that’s the Buddha’s story, too.

L: I know. I just thought of that when I was telling this—I’ve never thought of that before. 

C: It’s interesting—my newest book, one long listening, also came about not because I was setting out to write this book. But there were seeds along the way, including a friend saying, “I don’t know what chaplaincy is—can you write about it?” 

L: How did that request come? How did you meet that request? Was there resistance at first?

C: Actually, I felt a lot of recognition in the request, because for most of my life, I did not know what a chaplain was. That was not in my vocabulary growing up. Then, over time, I encountered Buddhist chaplaincy and spiritual care, and understood the word “chaplain” has certain connotations for different people—but that the field is still a very Christian-dominated field, and in some settings, a white Christian-dominated field. And so I would read a few chaplaincy memoirs or books on chaplaincy, usually from a Christian perspective, and it made me curious: what would a memoir written from a Buddhist perspective look like? Then I read a few of those. As is the case with much of publishing on Buddhism, there were very few POC voices or Asian American voices. And so another question arose for me: “oh, what would a memoir written with an Asian American Buddhist sensibility look like?” But I still wasn’t really trying to write a book. It just kind of emerged from the seed of one friend’s question, and then sprouted in a big way after the death of a close friend.

I worked in an oncology unit for a year as a chaplain and then I went to a Buddhist college and monastery in Taiwan. Not long after, a very close friend of mine died in Oregon at the age of 29. Amy was a spiritual sister to me. I started writing letters to her—to continue this conversation that we’d had since we were freshmen in college, and also to honor her life, her spirit. Both Be the Refuge and one long listening were written in celebration of friendship. Be the Refuge would not have been possible without my friendship with Aaron Lee, the Angry Asian Buddhist. My friend Amy Frohnmayer Winn was a bodhisattva in my life, and so one long listening, which is dedicated to her, kind of came… effortlessly? That’s not entirely true. The memoir is a cousin to Be the Refuge. They are very different at first glance, but they come from similar family roots. They both took nine years, but writing one long listening was a very off-and-on kind of riverine journey. I still find it hard to talk about, but it’s something that kind of came together. I didn’t quite know how to end it. But eventually, I thought, “Okay, I think it’s ready to go out in the world.”

L: Here’s a question that you don’t have to answer. When you said you still find it hard to talk about—are you just talking about the process? Or do you think some of it is a process of grief?

C: Oh, I think what I mean is: I find the book hard to encapsulate into words, because it’s very multi-stranded. Through the long process of writing this book, the book itself became a kind of companion through grief, of getting intimate with grief and not knowing. I’m interested in grief as an emotion because it’s so often suppressed, ignored, and individualized. You take care of your own grief and cry. You do that behind closed doors. You just take care of it—check it off the list and move on to happiness.

For me, grief is a much more complex and generative emotion. In some ways we’re born into it and we die with it, because there’s always loss throughout life. The more intimate I get with that emotion, the more joyful it can feel. Amy was such an exemplar of this. She had a rare genetic illness, Fanconi anemia, that two of her sisters had already died of. Pretty much all her life, she knew that her life would be short—and in a way, that’s the truth of all of our lives, right? There’s truth in death and impermanence—we don’t know when our lives will end, we know nothing lasts forever. Amy was able to live with these truths with profound beauty and joy and meaning. Her illness was integrated into her life and her way of being. In some ways, I feel like I first learned the art of listening, and the art of friendship and chaplaincy, from her..

L: It’s interesting that your attraction to Buddhism in that gap year was through beauty and art. It feels like in this book, you created this beautiful art piece about your friendship and meeting that, comes together as a profession. 

C: Thank you. It makes me think of your description of oryoki, a ritualized and meditative form of eating that is a form of collectively created beauty. To mix traditions, it feels like creating a Pure Land in the ways that we’re choosing to relate to each other in that moment through all the senses. Writing this book put me back into the hospital rooms I visited. There are so many senses being engaged there. And in Zen communities, there’s the smell of incense, the sound of the bells and chanting, the feeling of our feet as we walk—all these sensory ways of engaging. If we’re only reading about Buddhism, it can be hard to fully engage the senses. We lose something if we only relate in that way. 

What you said is moving to me because my friend Amy was a gifted writer and a very gifted collagist. She would sometimes spend years making a collage for someone, because that’s the amount of time it would take her to find the right images for that person. And all the while, that person would be changing, and she would be changing too, all in relation with the changing image. She would create these small, layered artwork collages. This book is a collage for her, but also for a broader community of people. She and I had many conversations about metta in particular, and that that was one of her aspirations in life: to address the suffering of people in the world. This book also hopes to continue her aspiration and legacy of lovingkindness.

L: I’m curious when you talk about the difference between being a chaplain and a spiritual carer. I hear the echo in kalyanamitra, which is a spiritual friend. How might those work? What is the difference between being a spiritual friend of someone dying, or in pain, or hurting, and a spiritual carer for someone in suffering?

C: In this very specific instance, when I was at the bedside of my dying friend, I wasn’t her chaplain. I was her friend. But to your question of the difference between a spiritual friend and a spiritual caregiver: it’s hard to divorce my answer from the professional field that we call chaplaincy. I think different chaplains would probably answer this question differently. I’m not a badge-wearing chaplain; I’m not employed at any institution in that official capacity. Yet my training in chaplaincy informs all that I do. Whether it’s writing, or teaching high school students in the Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard project, or planning the 2024 May We Gather Buddhist pilgrimage for Asian American ancestors, a lot of my work is to feel into the teaching that spiritual friendship is the whole of the holy path. For me, being a chaplain felt like apprenticing in spiritual friendship—with the awareness, of course, of the power differentials in the room, like the fact that as the spiritual caregiver, I have the privilege and choice of walking out of the hospital room at any point.

L: Now, I have a question. Being a social worker and all that, it’s one that I think I should know, but it’s almost like a koan. There’s a part of me that has a hard time meeting it. What’s the difference between loss and grief?

C: I suppose the way I see it, loss is part of the truth of things. If we have something that we hold dear and it’s taken from us. Grief is one possible emotional response of many, and it’s hard to say grief is a singular thing, since it takes so many forms.

My favorite Buddhist depiction of grief is at the scene of the Buddha’s parinirvana. When I see these murals depicting the Buddha’s passing away, I always look for Ananda. Other monks and nuns are sitting there, looking calm and collected, and then there’s Ananda, covering his face. I always found him to be the most relatable person, the one who was really going to miss the Buddha. So loss and grief are interconnected. Within Ananda’s grief, I also see so much care and ove and admiration for his teacher, his cousin, these bonds of kinship, discipleship, and also friendship. 

What about for yourself, how would you answer this question?

L: Oh, gosh, grief is a process. Loss in some way, to me—and maybe it’s because of my life’s karmic arisings—is, in a way, our practice is all about loss. Impermanence is here, continuously, continuously. And so we’re practicing the process of grieving. How do we grieve? Even how do we know that there’s joy in grieving?

When my adoptive mother was dying, you know, she wanted to die at home, but then she ended up in the hospital. And I remember, you know, the first three days we were all crying that she was dying. And then in the last three days, we were all crying that she wasn’t dying. We were trying to help her to let go, you know? And so it’s this weird thing where in grief and in death and in loss, we were happy when she died, you know, because her suffering would end, right? And so there’s this—this real complexity around grief and around loss, and death and dying for sure. 

I feel just to go briefly—we’ve already talked a long time. But you know, that’s the thing, I think.  Lately I’ve been thinking about mindfulness, defining it in my own way as “attending.” And I feel like so much of Asian-ness about care, spiritual care, and relationality, is about attending, you know, just being with each other.  For instance, like our shared experience with Brahmavihara, Rev. Beth Goldring’s chaplaincy organization in Cambodia, yes, we chanted and we massaged people’s feet, but it was really just about being with them. Whereas, I have felt like so much of the experience here in the U.S. is about how-to. I haven’t gone through chaplaincy training, but in general, there’s just so much a sense of getting the right information and making sure that family knows what to do with the body and blah, blah, blah, blah and and isn’t so much about, again—I think so much of it is about how are we with people; whatever they’re going through. 

And in terms of teaching, to me, it’s mostly to encourage people to stay connected to whatever’s going on. And, to help them remember if they’re clinging to one side that, “no, getting through the other side is not the point!” Even if that’s a view to hold that is supportive to you, in this moment, it’s the letting go, that’s the point of practice. And the coursing between, to use your word, is where life is. I like to say it’s not black and white—life is gray, right? We live mostly in the gray area. And so how can we be okay with that when we’re taught, oh, no, this one’s better, or that one’s better. And if you don’t have this one, you should have that one or get that one. Or even you need that one

C: This really resonates. I think I was also a recovering perfectionist. For me, the training of chaplaincy, in Cambodia and beyond, was a constant confrontation with this conviction of being not enough. But living in the gray, it teaches us the enoughness of ourselves and others. To have many narratives in my head that say I’m inadequate for this, that, and the other reason… and then something about those acts of attending to each other, Ananda attending to the Buddha, you and your siblings attending to your mom—that is profoundly enough. Just being with, even when nothing is being said, nothing seems to be being done. The moments from chaplaincy that moved me most were with people who had completely different life histories than me—just sitting together in companionable silence, being attentive to our time together. The encounter calling forth the deep enoughness of everyone in that moment.

L: We’ve been talking for a while. I will say part of me wants to say okay, it’s AAPI month. Who are we talking to? What would we say to the AAPI diaspora? I’ve been trying out AA+ as a term that’s inclusive of our many Asianesses.

C: At this point in the pandemic, this point where it feels like it’s over, but it’s not over—there’s still a lot of grief and trauma and loss. I don’t have anything to say so much as an aspiration. And I think that aspiration is just more about being with our enoughness—and being with our individual enoughness, our families’ enoughness—even in all the ways those families can feel fractured or broken or in pain or suffering. Our communities’ enoughness. I hope we are able to grieve together and—in that intimacy with the grief—find joy. I’d like to find that meaning that we’ve been talking about. To attend to each other. Just to be together. That’s my ongoing wish.

L: Was that for the Asian American community?

C: I think in particular, yeah. And for you?

L: For me, I would start out by quoting Katagiri Roshi, “To settle the self on the self and let the flower of your lifeforce bloom.”

I think there’s a real force. They define who we are, to say: who we should be, both internally, and externally, karmically. And so, to really attend to ourselves, is so important. In fact, while there’s a truth that we are interconnected, and that we’re part of more, I think for many of us, tending to others first or most is overemphasized in our family’s culture or other systems. And so part of our healing, I think, is to attend to ourselves; to care for ourselves, to value ourselves as Asian Americans/AA+, both as individual and as collective selves.

Because we are being isolated. We are being threatened, and it’s not just from white supremacy culture. It starts from the messages of white supremacy culture. I feel like those messages are so pervasive that others have taken them on, and so we, in a way, have become this scapegoat from all sides: that we’re not enough, we’re too much. Or we’re too little, or we’re too quiet, or we’re too whatever. The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t be those things. The issue is that how we are needs to be more valued and appreciated and uplifted instead of as just comparative or as not enough to others.

So, I wish for us all both self and collective love, and when we face divisiveness, that we know interconnectedness is present.