Page 3 of 5
She practiced with Thich Nhat Hanh and his sangha until 1995, when she asked Roshi Bernie Glassman, known for leading “street retreats” in New York City, to be her primary teacher. She explains, “Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] is just an extraordinary force for good and for Buddhism in the world. And I was deeply enriched by his dharma. But the style of his sangha wasn’t congruent with my style. Thay is too nice. I am not a ‘nice’ Buddhist. I’m much more interested in a kind of plain rice, get-down-in-the-street-and-get-dirty Buddhism. That’s what Glassman Roshi manifests.”
Halifax cut her long, thick hair and became a priest in the order of Zen Peacemakers, Roshi Bernie’s organization of socially engaged Buddhists within the White Plum Asanga lineage. Although celibacy is not required of priests in this lineage, she took a vow of celibacy before the Upaya sangha. “When I decided to really devote myself to practice and community development, I realized I couldn’t be in a primary relationship and do that effectively,” she says.
As abbot of Upaya, Roshi Joan merges the dharma of compassionate care with the cross-cultural and political elements of her work, inviting guest teachers as diverse as tribal leaders, former prisoners, environmental activists, Catholic priests, Jane Fonda. An admitted “addict” of Internet news, Roshi often weaves current events into her dharma talks and speaks against the Iraq war. November 4 through 6, she co-led the “Politics and Compassion Election Retreat,” where on the night of the U.S. presidential election, participants sat in the zendo, breathing and watching their minds as they watched the results pour in on a big-screen TV. “Many people wept as it was clear Obama would win,” Roshi says. “There were profound expressions of wonder, relief, and optimism.”
“By bringing all the elements of her rich background into Zen, she makes the practice very current and alive,” says writer Natalie Goldberg, a longtime friend. Roshi’s teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman, says that what makes Roshi Joan exceptional is “her ability to create new upayas, new forms of practice that are needed for this time and place.”
Now, her career is coming to a new level of fruition through the 2008 launch of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. This innovative two-year course, based on systems theory, teaches participants how to understand the causes of suffering and how to intervene on a systemic level as well as an individual level. For example, while helping a dying patient, a chaplain might also work with the family, hospice workers, and doctors, ultimately facilitating change in the health care institution. Roshi calls the program, which encompasses end-of-life care, peacemaking, prison ministry, and environmental activism, “a synthesizing domain for my life’s work.”
Another such synthesizing domain is her book, Being with Dying, which includes personal stories, advice, and guided meditations. One of the book’s core messages is “strong back, soft front,” which, she explains, “is about the relationship between equanimity and compassion. ‘Strong back’ is equanimity and your capacity to really uphold yourself. ‘Soft front’ is opening to things as they are.”
Equanimity and compassion: fearlessness and vulnerability. “The only way one can actualize compassion is through the medium of fearlessness,” she says, “because to really let yourself feel the suffering of another person—and then to allow the awakened heart to resolve to serve and transform the field of suffering—takes a lot of courage.” She says that over the years, losing friends and patients has gotten easier for her to handle. “I just look at death as part of life. For people who are very close or special to me, I grieve, but I don’t reject the grieving at all. I wouldn’t take away one minute of sorrow away from me.”
Roshi Joan deconstructs the myth of the “good death,” pointing out that some people depart in denial, defiance, even misery. “I think the term ‘good death’ is an insult to our vocation. Every death has its own narrative.”
While giving a recent lecture at Santa Fe’s Lensic theater, Roshi Joan quoted Annie Dillard in measured tones. “There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end… and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.” Her voice rose, fierce.
“I… won’t… HAVE IT!” The last word echoed in the concert hall as the audience drew a collective shivered gasp. She made the audience repeat the words back to her en masse, forcefully: “I won’t HAVE IT!” It was inspiring and kind of scary, a refusal to stay asleep any longer, a vow to do something about a world in crisis. She continued in a more controlled voice, “The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.”
Some audience members seemed surprised to see an older woman—and a monastic with a shaved head and priest’s robes at that—speak with such untamed ardor. They may have expected a demure nun, someone more tender and tranquil.
Says Roshi’s assistant Peg Reishin Murray, “I found her really scary when I first met her. There’s a tremendous amount of fire in her. People don’t expect that. Because she’s a woman, people expect her to lecture on loving-kindness and to be in a soft place all the time. She does have that side, but she can be undiplomatic, and some see that as a fault. She doesn’t sugarcoat things. She has said strong things to people and freaked them out. But to me, that’s the point. I want a teacher who can kick my butt and show me to my edge.”