issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 25 | 26 | current

Alive to Death

Activist and teacher Joan Halifax Roshi reaches those on the edge. she talks with Vajrasara about her pioneering work in contemplative care for dying people and prisoners

Joan Halifax Roshi looks good for a warrior. With her shaved head, delicate bones and charming smile, she appears younger than her 62 years. Yet she has been striving for the good for decades - long before she became a Zen abbot.

As a young activist in the 1960s, she was involved in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. She has been an anthropologist, academic, author, campaigner, counsellor to prisoners and Dharma teacher. She has supported individuals with life-threatening illnesses for 35 years, and is the founder of the Project in Being with Dying. She has worked with indigenous peoples in Asia and the Americas on environmental and health issues, and with native approaches to healing. In 1990 she founded Upaya Zen Center, where she teaches Buddhism and trains those caring for the dying.

Roshi Joan's interest in Buddhism began in the mid 1960s, at a time when young westerners were questioning many aspects of the human mind and society. 'I wasn't originally magnetised to Zen per se, it was just what I encountered. I read Alan Watts and DT Suzuki and felt intuitively that I was a Buddhist.' I was at Columbia University at the same time as Thich Nhat Hanh: I admired his approach to non-violence. So from 1965 I became a 'book Buddhist' - I had no teacher and taught myself to meditate from a book.'

In 1975 she met her first teacher, a Korean Zen master called Seung Sahn. 'He was energetic, brilliant and radical. I studied under him for 10 years and learnt so much.' Gradually she felt she needed more of an Engaged approach; so she spent 10 years as a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and became a member of the Order of Interbeing. 'After another decade I wanted an American teacher and Bernie Glassman's views were more congruent with my own. So for the past 10 years Glassman Roshi has been my teacher.' Under Glassman Roshi she became a roshi and a founding teacher in the Zen Peacemaker Order. 'I've benefited from all three teachers tremendously.'

A vision of discipline and elegance, Roshi Joan wears a brown Zen kesa over a Chinese-style black robe, beneath which is a white Japanese kimono. There is a fastidiousness about her; she regularly adjusts the hang of her kesa, the fold of her robes - perhaps due to the Zen emphasis on precision and ritual form.

'In one way my priest's robes are very symbolic, part of a lineage going back two and a half thousand years. And, being a woman, it's also a profound political statement - given that women have a growing role in the spread of Buddhism today. On the other hand we must not get too caught up in the identity of being a teacher.' She picks up the fabric and shrugs. 'It's only 11 yards.'

It was her grandmother who first inspired Roshi Joan to work with dying people. 'Familiarity with sickness and death was part of my upbringing, as my grandmother cared for the dying in her neighbourhood in Georgia. So it seemed a natural path for me.' She began working with the dying in 1970 as a medical anthropologist in the Miami School of Medicine. Buddhism definitely influenced this work from the start. 'For example, the teachings on impermanence, selflessness, and the importance of contemplating one's own mortality. Also Buddhist meditation practices have increasingly given me more stability in terms of offering care and presence to dying people.'

As an anthropologist she studied indigenous religions, particularly shamanism. She focused on the psycho-spiritual crisis of death and rebirth through which the shaman passes, and the approach of shaman as healer. She has also written several books on the subject. 'This all fed into a life that has been influenced by my father's compassion and my mother's service. My mother was a volunteer her whole life. Right up to the day she died she was still delivering magazines and books to dying people in hospital.'

When Joan married the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, she began to work in his project with people dying of cancer. 'That work gave me a tremendous impetus. I saw that dying people were the most marginalised in the American hospital system. And I wanted to respond.' Their research led to them writing a book: The Human Encounter with Death.

'After Stan and I divorced I just continued my work. I was researching all religions, looking for the 'methodology', instructions that could support dying people, and help us all to prepare for death. As my Buddhist commitment deepened, I discovered that Buddhism has so much to offer in this regard.'

Since then she has been offering care and presence to the dying, especially those with Aids, and training others in contemplative care. She also worked in a New Mexico jail with maximum-security prisoners and men on death row. 'I've always been drawn to people in catastrophic situations. It makes me more vigilant, more patient. Something about the acuteness of their situation encourages transparency. However, I wouldn't have predicted this would become my life's work, nor that I'd be one of the pioneers in this field.'

Roshi Joan asserts that being with people who are close to death or in prison is life-saving. How so? 'On a superficial level it makes me grateful for my own life and health; it helps me to get my priorities straight. On a deeper level I get to practise presence in the face of old age, sickness and death more immediately than in any context I can imagine.'

Her advice to everybody is to spend time with those who are dying, and to step inside a prison - and find out who you are in those situations. 'You see how you, too, are dying, and how you, too, are in your own prison. How you're perhaps only one thought away from being in a physical prison.'

After years of experience, is she better able to cope in the face of death and dying? 'When a close friend dies I'm more likely to allow myself to feel the loss deeply now; I can let go into the experience, knowing that it's impermanent. So in one sense I'm much more emotionally resilient. Those who see me with dying people think I'm very strong, and maybe it's true. But I'm also more sensitive around death, less numb, and in that way less resilient. I've seen so much suffering and haven't always been able to let go of it. So it cuts both ways. I'm pretty human in all of this.'

One example she gave was a long-standing friend whom she had promised to be with at death. But when he developed cancer he was raging against the prospect of dying. 'Lying in hospital, he was furious and fired everyone. He told us all to fuck off. A small part of me was heartbroken, but mainly I didn't take it personally. I realised I couldn't help him, but I could help his family who were very traumatised by it. If one can stand steady and kindly, and not take the abuse personally, one may be a real help. I also managed to support the nurses - I bore witness to their disgruntlement - and made a few jokes to help them release. So I did the best I could.'

Roshi Joan is keen that dying people are allowed to be fully themselves, 'not overly arranged' by those around them. She also warns against the myth of a spiritual death: 'I find the notion of a 'good death' problematic. We mustn't coerce someone into dying in the way we hope. Death is not dignified. It hardly ever turns out how we anticipate or wish. Just before my father died he started flailing about, so we had him medicated. Partly because he was injuring himself in his agitation, and partly for us, his family. I could barely stand it, and wanted to do anything to make him peaceful.'

Until 1994 Roshi Joan was running individual programmes with the dying across North America and abroad; then she realised she needed to consolidate and share her expertise. So she established the Project in Being with Dying, teaching professional care-givers how to be with the dying process.

This training programme - for doctors, nurses, hospice workers, pastoral carers and so on - is drawn from Roshi Joan's research, experience and spiritual practice. 'The knowledge in Buddhism that has arisen from the determined and intelligent exploration on the part of meditation adepts over the centuries has yielded a treasury of practices. These are accessible to us and can really transform our experience of living and dying.'

When setting up this project, she asked the Dalai Lama which qualities he felt she would most need. He replied: 'A big heart, great determination and,' he paused, 'probably hardest for you - a lot of patience.' She roars with laughter: 'But I'd only just met him! Am I so easy to read?'

The Tibetan tradition is rich in practices that can assist the dying and those caring for dying people. For example, the Nine Contemplations of Atisha, Tonglen, Phowa, dream yoga, reflection on the Dissolution of the body, and of course the teachings of the Bardo, are all used in training. 'Actually it'd be good for everyone to practise these - before they reach that critical stage!' Many of these meditations and reflections require a stable meditation practice and a certain amount of purifying one's own issues. However, most carers have never meditated, so more esoteric practices are not introduced on the initial training.

A range of people undertake the training, coming from as far as the Middle East and Europe, as well as Canada and Mexico. The majority are not Buddhist, but they aren't alienated by the programme - and many take up meditation afterwards. 'I've taken teachings from the whole Buddhist tradition and rewritten them to be less sectarian, more approachable - though still challenging - for westerners.' These are published in small books for anyone interested in the dying process.

'The course is deep and demanding. It's extremely well received, and many people repeat it.' With the publication of the curriculum and enough people being trained, Roshi Joan hopes she can 'leave this earth feeling a little better'. She'd like to see more physicians and nurses from the UK and Europe come over and do the training. There's so much enthusiasm for contemplative care in Europe, that she'd like to establish a training group there.

One of the issues addressed in the training is that all carers (professionals and family) believe they haven't done enough. So they are encouraged to recall compassionate phrases, such as: 'May I be forgiven for not meeting my loved one's needs'. Care-givers clearly need to take care of themselves - keeping socially and spiritually alive. They also need strong boundaries: learning how to respond so they're not wiped-out, and not fixed on how things will turn out.

'When offering care, exploration of a person's world-view is essential. As well as being a kindly presence, we try and heal that person's perceptions that they're separate and isolated. Do patients have a sense of impermanence? Or do they feel shame or guilt at having developed cancer?'

When sitting with a dying person, Roshi Joan believes it's helpful for the carer's quality of presence to be complete. 'We want to give our best, be fully there. Compassion may move us - it can draw out the best in us - but it doesn't always! We must be unattached to the outcome. Either way, it's always edifying.'

It also calls for humility. 'I can't just walk into a hospital with my spiritual stuff, and assume I'll be a help. We need to engender compassion and equanimity, and take these out to the world. But we can only do that by facing our own complexes. Are we sitting with someone who's dying, or with ourself? We don't turn away from our own issues, just as we don't turn away from a dying person. It's tough. But that's where the rubber meets the road!'

For all her broad-mindedness, Joan Halifax had a narrow upbringing. She was raised in the American South into a sheltered Protestant community, which excluded Jews and Catholics, and blacks were only permitted as staff. Hers was a virtuous, loving family and she was sent to an Episcopal girls' boarding school, so her experience of life was very limited.

Having been brought up virtuous, Joan learnt to be 'unvirtuous' in the 1960s. 'I enjoyed that era of sex, drugs and revolution - and had my share of wild times. Even contact with Zen didn't immediately change that because in those early days the Zen teachers I met were more iconoclastic; ethics weren't emphasised. Only later did I realise the important foundation that an ethical life provides. Since then I've been relearning virtue!'

She propounds what she calls Compassionate Zen. A student once suggested that Compassionate Zen was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. She laughs. If so, Roshi Joan is a living, breathing oxymoron. Active compassion has always been central to her life, and in the zendo, a statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Kuan Yin has a prominent place. She is strongly inspired by the Bodhisattva spirit.

Her teaching is peppered with political comments and references to current events as well as tales of her travels and amusing anecdotes. Sitting opposite her, I have a strong sense of the urgency she feels for us all to wake up - and respond to human suffering and environmental degradation. She encourages students to develop the ability to sit with their own and another's pain. Not to shrink from doing difficult things but to work on deepening their character. 'Give life to life', she urges repeatedly.

Outspoken and passionate, Roshi Joan has created a few waves over the years. When discussing loss of reputation, she smiles, 'Been there, done that'. Have there been any major incidents? 'Nothing particular. I've attracted my share of criticism - perhaps inevitably, being unconventional, a woman, and as vocal and determined as I am. I've received lots of advice and taken very little of it. I've been unmarried most of my life and, when I was younger, not as ethical as I might have been. I've made many mistakes - and suffered and learnt from them all.'

True to her pioneering spirit, Joan Halifax is one of few women to become a Roshi. 'Ordination of women was unusual in the Zen tradition but that's finally changing: a number of western women are becoming acknowledged Roshis, which I think is tremendous.'

'I took my celibacy vows having lived a full life, my priorities were clear and I wanted to serve the Dharma wholly. A sexual relationship takes care and time. So for me it didn't feel like renunciation - more a liberation. I'm having more joy and fun now than I ever did when breaking precepts at a much graver level. But I don't follow the Vinaya: it's too restrictive for the life I lead.'

She is, however, convinced of the value of a teacher. 'I've been meditating for 40 years but you could discount the first 10 years as I didn't have a teacher. I feel you really need a living teacher and clear spiritual guidance if you're serious about Dharma practice. I recommend finding a teacher who's been through the fires and made more mistakes than you - they'll have developed compassion as a result. Teachers are just human; they fall off the wagon sometimes. With Bernie Glassman, I've got a lot of bang for my buck. He's rough, demanding and straight up.'

Although she has consistently followed the thread of Zen with three different teachers, Roshi Joan has explored many forms of the Dharma. She has been especially influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, with its emphasis on Bodhichitta, and has benefited from contact with various Rinpoches in Asia and the West. She has also felt supported in her Zen practice by friendships with key American Vipassana teachers in the western Vipassana approach.

'In my practice I emphasise the teachings of the Buddha, which was unusual in Zen (though it's becoming more common in the West now). I value the systematic approach to meditation of the Theravadins. For example, I think the detailed meditation instructions in the Anapanasati Sutta are very helpful for western practitioners. And I love the directness and rigour of Zen. So my Zen approach appreciates and draws on all major schools of Buddhism. I don't think it's too mongrelised, not so eclectic that it loses the point. The different traditions that I've explored have each strengthened my own Zen practice. It's given me greater perspective.'

Roshi Joan travels widely and juggles numerous campaigns and projects. For example, she is one of the founders of Mind and Life, the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and western scientists. This group first met in 1983, and it was Mind and Life research which, among other things, revealed last year that Buddhist meditation makes people happier. 'It's an important initiative; it has also been a wonderful opportunity to be in His Holiness's presence.'

Yet for an activist she has a great capacity to turn inward, and has spent 40 years developing her inner resources. The path of meditation suits her temperament. When she did a character analysis test, to everyone's surprise but her own, she proved to be an introvert. 'I know how much I value solitude. I guess I'm an introvert with a personality!'

Her friends often advise her to do less, to lead a quieter life. 'But that's not my style. I'm here to help as many beings as I can in this life.' With her irrepressible energy and capacity to serve, she expresses altruism in numerous ways - not least as Abbot of Upaya Zen Center, New Mexico, founded in 1990.

Upaya is set amid the beautiful foothills and glorious clear air around Santa Fe. There Roshi Joan meditates three or four hours each day. 'I set up a monastery in order to make myself practise - and not avoid things through overwork. My students keep me at it. I'm always in the zendo for every meditation session.' Upaya has 15 full-time residents, and a number of Zen students come to practise for shorter periods. The resident students help to run the monastery: 'They're so kind and dedicated; we couldn't do anything unless we worked as a team'.

Her vision for Upaya was to establish a Zen training centre that emphasises social service and social action. It was named Upaya because skilful means is a key concern. 'As Buddhists we practise with the attitude: so you have pain, no big deal; it happens. Because it's important that we develop equanimity in the face of suffering. But if you're with a bereaved relative after their loved one's died, you do not suggest it's no big deal. No way. Learning skilful means, being appropriate, is vital.'

According to one of her students: 'Roshi Joan is always bringing a radical edge to Buddhism that keeps Upaya vibrant and full of good works.' One of these good works is the Metta Refuge programme, which makes it possible for people with catastrophic illnesses to come to Upaya for up to three weeks as a guest. 'It's a wonderfully supportive opportunity, and has been inspiring for our residents.'

At Upaya the Heart Sutra that is chanted is a translation by Roshi Joan. In this version the word sunyata is rendered as 'boundlessness', rather than the usual word 'emptiness'. This was because she found it hard to talk to dying people about emptiness - it had the wrong feel. Boundlessness implies both wide open and expansive, as well as non-dual and unfettered. 'Boundlessness suggests the process-oriented idea of discovering one's own boundless mind. I feel it's a much better word for westerners, especially those close to death.'

After meeting Roshi Joan, I was left with a lasting impression of her wholeheartedness. With a beaming smile, she's always urging people to give their all, give 100% energy to their Dharma training. 'As my Korean teacher used to say: 'It's like dynamite: 99% - no pow! With 100% - pow!' Roshi Joan certainly has pow!

For more information see: www.upaya.org