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Peale interprets this drive not as personal ambition, but rather as Roshi’s aspiration “to live to her fullest potential.” Roshi says it stems from her love of challenges and her respect for excellence and commitments, yet that drive has extracted a physical toll.
“I have not directed adequate mercy into my own life,” she says. “I haven’t taken care of my body that well.”
But the osteoporosis she inherited from her mother is beyond Roshi’s control. One thing is certain, she says, “I can’t fall again. I want to keep that fear active. Because that’s where I think fear can be extremely useful. That’s got to be kept in my foreground: being mindful.”
Roshi Joan has hiked all over the world and circumnavigated Tibet’s Mount Kailash five times. Gesturing to the hills outside the window, she says, “From this distance the mountains are a beautiful artifact. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to walk again, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk as I used to. Now every day is an Everest.”
Since Roshi’s accident, community members have volunteered their help in small ways—carrying her glass of water or serving her at mealtimes—and in larger ways, by taking on new responsibilities. “Many people have stepped forward in a brilliant way to take over things that I couldn’t do, and they’re doing it better than I could,” she says. She is delegating more to others with an eye toward retiring from her position as abbot, “the sooner the better, so that I can enjoy more teaching.”
She recently promoted Beate Seishin Stolte from vice abbot to co-abbot, and will give dharma transmission to Stolte in November. “I’m very happy Beate is there,” says Roshi Joan. “She’s so motherly—kind, but also very solid.” Earth to Roshi’s fire, a combination that works.
Peale notes that today Upaya is a strong center for women, with several women in leadership roles. But, she says, “We’re all realizing that someday, and it might be twenty years from now, we’ll have to go on without Roshi. We are thinking about how to keep her legacy alive. No one of us can do what she has done. It will take a team.”
As Roshi Joan told me in our interview at Prajna, most suffering is rooted in fear, but part of her life’s work is to try to be “a kind of role model of what it’s like to be free of fear.”
When asked whether she feels fragile, Roshi explains, “At times I do feel rather fragile. No surprise—my life has been challenging in many ways. And, for the most part, the difficulties have strengthened my back and tenderized me. As we say at Upaya, ‘Strong back, soft front.’ And yet, most of us suffer from bouts of ‘strong front, soft back.’ That includes me, when I am tired or feel as though I have not been quite right in my speech or actions.”
As Natalie Goldberg puts it, “She’s fearless, yes, but I also know her underbelly. She’s vulnerable and tender and also scared like everybody else. That’s what makes her fearless. She’s not fearless like a brick; hers is a fearlessness that comes out of tenderness for the world.”
From the May 2009 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
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