the dharma of each other

As a buddhist teacher, author and founder of the upaya zen centre, roshi joan halifax has dedicated her life to service.

meridel rubenstein

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I am sitting with Roshi Joan Halifax. She is propped up on pillows, her eyes steady and deep despite the pain in her body. She has slipped on a wet bathroom floor and broken her hip in four different places. She emerged from surgery with a certain equanimity, coming back to do her work in the world with the new addition of a steel plate and screws in her hip.

It’s been close to two years since we’ve seen each other, and we are happy and easy in each other’s presence. I have brought her a picture of her dog, Dominga, which she raised to her forehead like a picture of a saint before placing it on the table beside her. After spending thirty hours strapped to a gurney in an emergency room, she was moved to a private room, where we are sitting when she tells me this story:

“Imagine you’re flying in an airplane, with the wide, shimmering expanse of the sea below you. You rest comfortably in your seat, watching sunlight glint off the waves.

“Out the window you see a smaller plane come into view, flying parallel to yours and just below. There is a moment’s pause, and then the smaller plane begins to throttle back and forth, dipping and diving. And then suddenly, from the side of the plane hidden from your view,
a man falls out and starts hurtling, end over end, toward the sea.

“You gasp, pressing your face closer to the glass, feeling a flash of fear course through your body. Entering into the man’s fall with him, you feel it from his body, see the ocean rushing toward you through his terrified eyes. Then with a violent splash the man plunges headfirst into the water.

“And you are still strapped in your seat, hundreds of feet above him, hardly able to breathe.”

I lean forward in my chair toward her. Where is this story going? It’s shocking and strange to me to imagine a man falling to his death, but then Roshi Joan reveals one vital detail.

“Right there, in the sharing of the free fall, in the gasp, the shock and the plunge, lies the natural arising of empathy. In those crucial seconds, there was no separation between you and him; you shared the same fate, the same heart.

“There is no island nearby, no shore that he can swim to,” she continues. “The situation is hopeless. The natural arising of empathy that happens here is what our hearts are designed for.”

From here, she took me one step further, through the gateway of compassion.

“You look down and see the man struggling. But close by there is a fog bank, and you can see peaks sticking out of it. You realize that the man is actually close to an island. There is a chance that he will survive. And you really wish, with everything that you have, that he will reach the shore.”

With everything we already are, with everything we already have, there are the ingredients that Roshi Joan uses to bridge the gap between self and other, helper and helped. This simple recognition, that we already have everything we need to benefit others, is the root of Roshi Joan Halifax’s life in service.

I first met Roshi Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher, social activist and author of the newly published Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, several years ago when I lived at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the residential training and retreat centre that she founded in 1990.

As her jisha, assistant, I had walked with her in the crispy, clear desert morning from her adobe house through the grassy brush path to the zendo for the morning zazen period. I had sat for hours with her and the rest of the sangha during sesshins, for days on end, in a silence that was so total it felt like an empty bell jar had clamped down around the zendo walls. I had received messages from her with the rest of the community from the high mountains of Tibet, as she trekked with a team of medical professionals setting up temporary medical clinics for nomads. I had heard stories of her walking through jungles in South and Central America, during her thirty years of anthropological study of indigenous people around the globe.

She was determined, almost unstoppable in her day-to-day activities. Yet today, in this Toronto hospital, she asks me to leave the room so she can relieve herself into a contraption that looks like a cross between a bedpan and a wheelchair beside her bed. When I return to the room, we laugh over an email that a “naughty” friend had sent her that day that said something like as long as you are being fucked, you might as well enjoy it.

One minute Roshi Joan embraces a kind of wild humour, the next sombre and still, the next strong and fluid and always ready to tell you something you don’t even know you need to hear.

She describes every day to me as being “an Everest,” and she is right.
At this moment, Roshi Joan is at the beginning of another journey, one of her own healing and recovery, one on which she will have to turn around, receiving care and love from those around her whom she has vowed to serve.

As a dedicated spiritual practitioner for more than three decades, Roshi Joan Halifax has studied and practised with Korean Zen Master Sung Sahn, Thich Nhat Hanh, and most recently Roshi Bernie Glassman, from whom she received inka, or seal of approval as a Zen Master, in 1999. At the Upaya Zen Center, where she is abbot and head teacher, fellow practitioners and pilgrims can practise, serve and, as in my case, live.

Upaya is also now the home of the chaplaincy training program that Roshi Joan launched in the beginning of 2008. As a culmination of her life’s work and vision, this unique program is the first of its kind in the world. Two years in length, it is designed to be the equivalent of a master’s of divinity in its theoretical and practical orientation. Chaplains coming out of the Upaya program are being prepared to provide spiritual care-giving and guidance to individuals and also to become agents of change in social systems and institutions that are in great need of healing.

The faculty that Roshi Joan gathered together for the training includes the leading thinkers on neuroscience research on meditation and the brain, systems theory, environmental stewardship, prison outreach, compassionate care for the dying, and interfaith ministry. The thematic origin of the program is yet another story, this one from centuries ago and a completely different spiritual tradition.

Roshi Joan tells me, “The word chaplain comes from a French word that means cloak, from a story about our program’s patron saint, St. Martin. He was walking along in terrible weather, and he came across a shivering beggar standing in the freezing rain. St. Martin took his cloak and tore it in half, giving half of it to the beggar and keeping half of it for himself. So he protected himself but he also took care of the man. So you’re not sacrificing yourself to benefit others. There’s no separation. To harm yourself is to harm all beings.”

Talking about it now, even in this challenging and painful state, Roshi Joan’s voice fills with energy and verve, and it’s totally contagious. This is Roshi Joan’s characteristic style. Spend a few minutes with her in this state and you are ready to open your arms to the entire world, including yourself.

“Service by its nature implies a self and an other. By its nature, it is dualistic. I’m more drawn to another perspective which is reflected in systems theory, which we’re using as a base for our training in the chaplaincy training program. It is clear in the exploration of all systems that you cannot control outcomes. You really are in a process of not-knowing and groundlessness. And that maturation only happens through breakdown, a breakdown that either ends you, or redefines your life in different terms.”

This is her voice that I carry inside of me no matter how far away from each other we are. Take any good that comes from your time in the zendo and offer it to others. Use your discernment. Use your creative intelligence. Decide what is the best course to take to transform suffering in everything you encounter. Each situation has a different call to action. These actions are also called upayas, or skillful means — this Sanskrit word provided the name for her practice community. It is a container for not only Roshi Joan’s teachings, but for each and every individual to awaken to their own inborn potential, or Buddha nature, and to do it, most importantly, together.

“I think our work is all about community,” Roshi Joan says. “It’s all about relationship. It’s the dharma of each other. This includes the trees and the sky and the fields, and understanding we only exist by virtue of the fact that we are deeply interconnected. It comes out of the vision of deep ecology, which is at the roots of Buddhism.”

She starts to tell me another story, this one from her last Buddhist teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman. This one is smaller and easier to penetrate, because no doubt we have all been there. Maybe we even have the scars to tell the story ourselves.

“Let’s say you’re cooking and you burn your hand. Before a single thought arises, your body responds to the pain. Your other hand may gently grasp the wounded one, maybe bringing it under a stream of cool water to ease the burn. The essence of service lies in these simple acts. It’s just natural. It’s compassion. You see suffering, you take care of it. It’s nothing special.”

Nothing special. Roshi Joan calls this point of view “plain rice.” Keep it simple, keep it simple, is what she is always reminding us. But I can’t tell you how many times I have been walloped by the fact that simple doesn’t mean easy. The simplest thing might even be the most difficult. Take zazen, or the practice of zen meditation, which has been the core of Roshi Joan’s practice for more than forty years. Sitting down, taking a relaxed and alert posture, breathing in and out, focusing your mind, finding your centre. What could be easier than sitting still and breathing? Anyone who has ever tried just this probably shares my opinion that riding a unicycle while juggling flaming bowling pins is a lot easier.

Eating plain rice is simple and direct, natural and profound. It is nourishing without the additives and adornments and definitely an acquired taste. How many sauces and spices do we pour over the present moment to make it tastier and easier to digest instead of dipping into the natural masterpiece that is right here, right now? How much time do we spend glossing things over, wishing things were different, instead of tasting the real thing and responding to it?

During my time at Upaya, I spent a lot of time observing Roshi Joan, trying to find traces of the enlightenment I had read about in the books that were stacked knee high in my room. I looked everywhere for this special enlightenment, especially toward her. Needless to say, I never found it. All I found was her sitting there, with her shiny shaved head, eating a bowl of plain brown rice at lunchtime, making the short walk to the zendo in a light misty rain without an umbrella, walking at a slow, meditative pace.

“This is the path of the human being,” says Roshi Joan, “who does the best that they can without being attached to outcome, because, after all, one can never exactly know what the outcome will be. There is no good karma to be gained, no bad karma to be burned away. There is only the simple, direct and difficult act itself, the act of one hand taking care of the other.”

I see her now, in the hospital, at the beginning of a long, hard road of recovery. For Roshi Joan, getting up to pee with a broken hip is the gate of opportunity. She will walk through this gate and encounter pain, discomfort and frustration, and she will roll it all into her practice. And now, looking at her, I know we are all filled with screws and metal plates that make the simple movements hard, like making some food to nourish ourselves, or reaching out to touch another, or giving, listening, thanking, serving.

I imagine that I’m back in the airplane again, and looking down I see the fallen man start to swim for the island. Every time I see a large wave overtake him, forcing him underwater, I feel my heart gasp for air as he does, struggle as he does, and I gather every ounce of my being to wish that he reaches the shore.
I fall with him, swim with him in the same water, even as the airplane passes over his head.

When Roshi Joan told me that our hearts are designed for empathy and compassion, I think this is what she meant. Even with all the difficulty of our learning process, we must tear our cloaks in half in an offering to another.

It is hard to leave Roshi Joan behind in her hospital bed. We don’t know when or if we will see each other again. When I reach back to wave, questions hang in the air. If we are lucky enough to cross paths, which parts of us will be freshly broken? What new limps will we have? What burns and gashes on our hands will be in need of healing? How will we reach out to the other and help?

Just as I walk out the door, Roshi Joan reminds me that all of our hearts rest in the space between us. I know this is true, no matter how much distance appears to separate us from those we love. But this truth only comes home to me in silence, when I get real quiet and settled and can feel it there, beating. \

Christopher McCann lives, works and writes in Toronto, Ontario

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