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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2009 60 as abbot of upaya, roshi joan merges the dharma of compas- sionate 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 glass- man, 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 insti- tution. 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 med- itations. 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 me- dium 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 one minute of sorrow away from me.” roshi joan deconstructs the myth of the “good death,” point- ing 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 the- ater, 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 had 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 undiplo- matic. She doesn’t sugarcoat things. She has said strong things to Upaya Zen Center, outside santa Fe. PhoTo©2009WendYMceahernPhoToBYloriorSon