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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2009 62 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 out his heart 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 prac- ticed tonglen, a kind of compassion meditation for the “number- less 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 dur- ing 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 ac- cept 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 sur- gery, 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 deli- cate. “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, shak- ing 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 jour- nalists. Since the accident she has canceled some commitments, but i thought her week’s schedule still sounded demanding. “i have phenomenal drive,” she says, “and a lot of psychophysical en- ergy. 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.” 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 com- mitments, yet that drive has exacted 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.” death with dignity—it’s hype. Who should be dignified? Sickness is a very undignified process. PhoToBYYuShinheilMann