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Shambhala Sun | May 2009

Kristin Barendsen, co-author of Photography: New Mexico, writes about Buddhism, yoga, travel, and the arts for international magazines and newspapers. She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

Joan Halifax: Fearless and Fragile

After a life time of contemplating death and caring for the dying, Zen teacher Joan Halifax reflects on her life's work and the breaking of her own bones. Kristin Barendsen reports.

by Kristin Barendsen

The road to Prajna Mountain Center can be impassable after a rainstorm—replete with massive potholes and slippery ruts. As our SUV lurched and heaved, I wondered again why Roshi Joan Halifax, who runs a Zen center just five minutes from my home in Santa Fe, would request that I interview her at “the refuge,” as its known, two hours away in one of the wildest parts of New Mexico. It seemed a kind of trial, a koan about a treacherous path to the master’s mountain cave.

It did make sense, though, that a woman who once drove a VW van by herself across Algeria would ask me to make this trek. A woman who just last winter, at age sixty-five, snowshoed through a blizzard in the dark for four hours to reach the refuge. A woman who in March hiked around China and Japan, in the footsteps of Dogen Zenji, on a foot she didn’t realize was broken.

“She’s the most fearless person I’ve ever met,” says Peg Reishin Murray, Roshi Joan’s assistant, who graciously offered to shuttle me up the road in Roshi’s Toyota 4Runner. Navigating the deep ruts with ease, Murray told me about the first time she’d made the drive. Roshi Joan was her passenger and the spring melt had dissolved the road to slippery clay muck. Deprived of traction, the SUV’s wheels slid across the surface as if it were ice. Every time Roshi got out to assess their predicament, she sank up to mid-shin in mud. “I wanted to turn back,” Murray says. “But Roshi wouldn’t let me. She just kept saying, ‘You can do this!’ She even offered to take the wheel.”

Known for embracing challenging, even risky situations, Roshi explains, “Inside me there’s this incredible optimist.”

Roshi’s longtime student and colleague Maia Duerr, however, has a somewhat different take. “I think the key to understanding Roshi Joan is seeing her fragility as well as her fearlessness,” Duerr says. “She is literally fragile right now, her bones breaking. Her mind is brilliant and her heart is huge, but her body is at the breaking point. She has pushed herself to exhaustion.”

Last June, Roshi Joan slipped and fell on a hard bathroom floor, breaking her greater trochanter in four places. She spent thirty hours strapped to a gurney in a Toronto emergency room, then another two days waiting for surgery. When I met with her two months later, she was still walking gingerly with crutches. Prajna Mountain Center was her escape, where she grabbed a few hours or a few days of convalescence whenever she could.

Fearlessness and fragility: two core aspects of a woman who is also an academic and an activist, a wild child of the sixties, and a Zen priest, Who is funny, irreverent, bold, mercurial, sometimes difficult, driven by aspiration, and tamed by discipline. Who is without her BlackBerry and MacBook Air—tools of building institutions—only on mountain trails and in the meditation hall. But she is best known for sitting at the bedside of terminally ill patients and pioneering a form of contemplative care. Her new book, Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, synthesizes lessons from her nearly four decades as a leader in the field. Now, this longtime caregiver must learn how to be, as she says, “a better care receiver.” She must also, by necessity and doctors’ orders, slow down and reconsider her commitments, including her role at Upaya, her Zen center in Santa Fe.

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