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Roshi’s direct style can get her into trouble. Over the years, several people have left Upaya because of conflicts. “Roshi Joan trusts her own judgment,” says Marty Peale, one of Upaya’s earliest residents. “But you don’t have to agree with her, and you don’t have to stay.” Peale had a falling out with Roshi Joan in 1999 and left the community. After six years, however, the death of a mutual friend brought them together again. Now Peale is a winter caretaker at Prajna and a mentor in the Chaplaincy Program. She says that even while their relationship was strained, she knew that Roshi’s love for her was still strong, and she acknowledges that such challenges are very human. “We have to know that we do cause suffering—she does cause suffering—and not be discouraged by that,” says Peale. “Such ups and downs can serve us; they are part of the path.”
When asked about Roshi’s difficult side, Natalie Goldberg says, “Once or twice, she has been confrontational with me in a way that wasn’t so skillful. But we talked about it, and it was fine.” She adds, “I’m not afraid of her power. I’m proud of her as a woman. I root for her. She stands up and believes in herself. Women don’t know how to support women in success, and that’s hard for her.”
“My approach to things is quite direct,” Roshi agrees, “which isn’t always a comfortable thing for anybody. And moreover, I’m not always right.” She laughs. “You can be direct and off two degrees, and you can really make quite a mess of things. Or you can be direct and be really accurate, but your timing could be really wrong. Or the person can’t sustain what you’re reflecting. It’s tough.
“People don’t like that in a woman. If I had been born into a man’s body, I’d be looked on as a gentle person. But I ended up in a woman’s body. I’m glad I was born into a woman’s body and that at times people find it very difficult to digest how I am. That’s been good to live with because it has precipitated a lot of examination of my own behaviors.”
Noting that students often project their own issues onto teachers, Roshi describes three stages of the student-teacher relationship: “Idealization, demonization, and if you’re lucky, normalization. If somebody’s idealizing me, I send that energy back to them. One way is to recognize their own basic goodness, to really feel it within yourself. Another is to show them what a doofus you are.
“I don’t walk around my Zen center like Cardinal Richelieu,” she says. “I’m constantly making fun of myself, showing my worst side to everybody, and talking about my failures.”
She describes her hospital room in Toronto, where three students sat at her bedside. “The back of my hospital gown was wide open, so when I had to get out of bed, my ass was hanging out. And I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to sit in front of these students in a month in full dokusan robes.’ They really got to see Roshi’s feet of clay. That’s why I feel such aversion to the term ‘death with dignity.’ It’s hype. Who should be dignified? Sickness is a very undignified process.”
Even as she was speeding in the back of the ambulance on the way to the Toronto hospital, a paramedic poured his heart out to her about his dying wife. “I realized this wasn’t about me,” she says. “This was always about others.”
While she waited for surgery for three days, Roshi Joan practiced tonglen, a kind of compassion meditation for the “numberless beings” streaming through the ER and taking priority with their more dramatic wounds. She says her mudra in the hospital was “victory over fear,” demonstrating the mudra to me by holding two fingers in a “V” like a sixties peace sign. She says she wasn’t afraid, and because of the intense pain, she welcomed surgery. But during the operation to insert a metal plate and five screws into her upper leg, she lost too much blood and needed a transfusion. “I could literally feel my heart ebbing,” she says.
Roshi Joan is a universal donor, a rare blood type that can donate to everyone but can only accept blood from its own kind—an apt metaphor for a caregiver. “I was in an extremely fragile state,” she says. “Kind of an in-between state. It was so simple. There was so much ease. I felt kindness and gratitude.”
However, she relates, “When I came out of surgery, somebody wrote to the Upaya residents, ‘Roshi came through surgery wonderfully.’ That was a way of turning the prayers off.” She hadn’t come through wonderfully; her condition was still extremely delicate. “Never say somebody is better off than they are,” she says. “Give the picture accurately.”
Roshi sent an e-mail to the extended sangha, asking for prayers and for help in slowing down. Her entreaty was met with a flood of cards and e-mail. “Since the accident, I’ve gotten e-mails from people I thought hated me,” she says, shaking her head in wonder. “E-mails that say, ‘I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what I’ve learned from you.’”
Roshi Joan rarely says no to requests for her time, crowding her calendar with travel, retreats, board meetings, and interviews with Buddhist journalists. Since the accident she has canceled some commitments, but I thought her week’s schedule still sounded demanding even for a fully mobile person. “I have phenomenal drive,” she says, “and a lot of psychophysical energy. So I’ve been able to push myself over the Himalayas, across the Tibetan plateau, and other kinds of mountain ranges, be they metaphorical or literal. I have to shift that drive into a more balanced perspective.”